The distinctive sound reverberated and bounced off the mountain tops in the early morning crisp air and made his heart skip a beat. Reining his black around with his left hand he grabbed hold of his rope with his right. Quickly making a loop, he twirled the lariat a few times over his head and let the circle fly, lassoing his partner just seconds before the ice broke and horse and rider plunged into the icy water.
+ + + + + + +
"What do ya think?"
"Horse apiece I reckon, but with the weather bein' so warm as of late, either way could be our one way ticket ta hell."
"You suggestin we wait til Spring?"
"Might be safer." The face under the slouch hat turned and a raised eyebrow sought a decision.
"Hell, I'm always open for a little adventure. Let's do this. Could be nothin' will happen."
Twin grins split the handsome faces.
With a quick nod, the buckskinned-clad man spurred his horse forward, his friend following along behind him.
+ + + + + + +
Damn that's cold! was the gunslingers first thought when he and Pony hit the water. Hed just had enough time to put the lasso under his arms when theyd gone through the ice. Throwing himself off to his left, he tried to get away from his horses frantic thrashing as the gelding broke ice in desperation to get to shore. It wasnt easy to move with the weight of his wet clothes pulling at him and it wasnt easy for his horse either when the animal wasnt touching bottom, there wasnt anything to give him purchase to get his hooves up over the ice and break it.
It wasnt long, although it seemed like forever, before he felt himself being pulled through the water, breaking some ice as he went. Finally closer to shore the ice was thicker and he was pulled out of the freezing water. He tried to get up, but the ice was slippery and he was weak, the frigid water leaving him shaking uncontrollably and heavy laden. He felt himself helped up by a pair of strong arms and he stumbled the few steps it took to get completely away from the pond and lay down in a patch of snow. He felt his duster being taken off and a blanket was wrapped around him. He was like a block of ice, his wet clothes freezing up on him and he was powerless to help his friend who was frantically working at getting him warmed up.
He watched his boots being taken off and the water poured from them and then his socks came off. He tried to say something as he saw his friend strip off his hide jacket and use it to wrap his feet in, but his teeth were chattering too much and then the warmth engulfed him as body heat from Vins jacket gave him some comfort.
A stuttering Damn came from his mouth finally and he locked eyes with his best friend. Shifting his gaze to his horse and then back at the tracker, he hoped the man understood what he wanted.
Lie still, Ill do what I can, Vin told him with a nod of his head.
He watched as the sharpshooter lassoed Pony, mounted Peso and then tried to pull the struggling horse though the ice and water. His gelding was tiring, he could see that and he tried to will his horse to keep fighting. The black had finally gotten its feet on the pond bottom but was losing the battle of getting his front legs up in order to break the ice. He was sure the frigid water was probably sapping its strength. He didnt want to lose his horse, not this way, not in any way. Pony was one of the few things he had left from his time together with his wife and son. He and Sarah had taken many rides together on the personable horse and when Adam came along, he too, was taken for rides.
He heard Vin curse, and saw that Pony had stopped struggling, too tired to go on, his neck outstretched as far as it could go being held taunt by the rope tied around Pesos saddle horn. Watching as the tracker pulled his rifle from the scabbard, he felt a sickness in his gut and a sting of tears in his eyes. He laid his head back not wanting to watch and waited for the inevitable shot.
+ + + + + + +
A few seconds ticked by and realizing he hadnt heard a shot, he brought his head up.
Vin? he called quietly, watching as the man finished putting the leather sling on his rifle.
Can ya move? he was asked as the tracker came over by him, sat down and began removing his boots.
Yeah, but . . ., damn, he wished his teeth would stop chattering.
"Here, put my boots on and watch for when the rope goes slack, then go over and use Peso to keep the rope tight.
Whatre you gonna do? he asked as Vin stood up and began disrobing. Vin? His mind might be a tad frozen yet, but he didnt like what he was seeing.
This aint gonna take long Larabee, just be ready ta move Peso.
No Vin. Whatever it is your planin, dont, it aint worth it, he stuttered out the words, but it was far from what his heart felt and damned if Vin didnt know that.
We ain't givin' up yet Chris, ain't done with our adventure." Then with a grin and a wink the tracker grabbed his bowie knife and headed onto the ice, the only thing adorning his body was the rifle slung over his head and shoulder.
Chris watched in awe as the tracker slid into the water next to Pony, the knife slipping between his teeth as the hands were used to calm the shivering and exhausted animal. Keeping one eye on Vin, he moved his frozen clad body enough to get his friends boots on and waited for the moment that hed be needed.
+ + + + + + +
Working quickly, mainly because the water was damn cold, Vin ran his hands along the horses neck and shoulders in a soothing motion. Grabbing Chriss rifle he scooted it gently on the ice in front of Pony, not far away, for it would be needed shortly. Then with two quick cuts, the bedroll was loose and tossed as close to the shore as possible. Next came the slicing of the girth and cinch straps and the saddle slid free. He turned and grunted as he heaved it as close as he could to some stable ice. One stirrup ended up in the water, but it was the best he could do. Tossing the knife up toward the pond's end, he took off his rifle and began using the stock as a battering ram to break the ice in front of Pony. He hoped this worked because he was beginning to shiver badly and was starting to lose feeling in his legs and thighs. If he went down, he didnt know if hed be able to get up and he knew Chris wasnt in any shape to save him--theyd probably both perish.
Reaching down deep, knowing he had to do this, his strength prevailed for a couple more hard hits, breaking ice as well as pieces of his rifle. But it was working, he could see in his peripheral vision that the rope was getting a slack in it before growing taunt again. Chris was up and doing his part, Pony was slowing getting closer to land. When his rifle could no longer be used, he grabbed Chriss, using a few precious seconds to empty it and then use it as a club to break more ice.
Ponys second wind and his animal instinct to survive kicked in when he knew he was getting closer to land and his front hooves lashed out at the ice breaking a pathway to the shore. Lunging though the now shallow ice caked water, he made it to land coming to a halt by his owner. Head bent, sides heaving, and body shuddering, he still had enough energy to give a mighty shake, shedding some water, spraying the already wet gunslinger.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was spent. He waded though the same pathway that the gelding had made, stumbling, not being able to feel a thing from his hips down. Then Chris was there, bundling him in a blanket and bedroll, helping him to lay down near his clothes.
"Damn," he said through chattering teeth. Looking at Chris who was squatted near him, he saw the concern in the hazel eyes.
"I'll be fine," he said, the words coming in stuttered spurts. "Need a few minutes 'fore I can git dressed though."
"Take your time Vin," Chris told him as he pulled the blanket tighter around his friend.
"Caves near here . . . make camp . . . fire . . . get warmed up."
"Alright Vin, just rest, I'll get things ready."
Keeping one eye on the tracker, Chris checked on his belongings. Retrieving his saddle from the ice, he put his damaged rifle in the scabbard and put Vin's busted rifle back on Peso. Then using the tracker's rope he tied his saddle onto Pony's back realizing he wouldn't be able to ride the horse anyway, the black's front forelegs scraped and bleeding from ice cuts, the animal no doubt sore.
He worked as quickly as he could, his movements hindered by the fact that his clothes were frozen and he was beginning to shake again. They needed to get to a cave and get warm before they caught their death of colds.
Coming back over to his friend and kneeling next to him, the man in black said, "Horses are ready, have to ride double though, Pony legs are scraped and he's limpin' pretty bad. How far to the caves?"
"Not far," came the answer in a groan as the tracker sat up and began to put his clothes back on. "Damn, that was way too refreshin'. You alright ta ride?" Vin asked, noticing his friend had begun to shiver again.
"Do I got a choice?"
"Not really," the answer came with a grin. "Lessin' ya want . . ."
"I know, wait 'til Spring. No thanks," came the answer with head shake. "Right now, I just want to get somewhere warm."
"Then we best get a move on," the tracker said as he slowly eased his frozen stumps called legs up with some help from his friend.
+ + + + + + +
Less than an hour later the two friends had found a cave suitable for themselves and the horses. It was big enough in the opening that the animals could be kept in out of the cold air. Farther back inside was where the men had made their camp, a warm fire going and clothes and blankets laying around to dry out.
Chris had taken care of Pony's cuts and scrapes, putting some salve on them. They were nothing serious, but he was sore and so it meant that they'd be getting back to Four Corners later than they planned on, but that was okay, wouldn't hurt to rest up some.
Wrapping his blanket tighter around himself the gunslinger came back to the fire squatting across the flames from the tracker.
You gonna be alright? he asked softly, watching as his friend rubbed a lotion or liniment on his reddened legs.
Nodding, Vin answered, Once we get back ta town, Nathans got some stuff I can mix together, will help us both out with the itchy skin well be gettin. Then with a critical look over at his friend he asked, Howre you doin?
I'm fine. Hell, I just had a dip compared to you. Dont know how you could take it so long Vin, but I owe you for savin Pony. You're an amazing man Tanner. Don't know many that would risk their lives like that for a horse. It means a lot ta me," he added, softly, tossing a few more twigs into the fire, not trusting himself to say any more.
With a shrug of his shoulders Vin explained, When Is livin with the people, every spring the young bucks would wait till the ice just broke offn the river. And then wed go and jump in and see how long we could last. Test of manhood kinda like. Hell, even some of the old men would do it, he added, with a grin at Larabee.
Old? came the question with a raised eyebrow.
Twice as old as you cowboy, Vin said, laughing. Those old warriors said it invigorated em, made em feel alive, got em ready for other things.
'Other things'? This time his curiosity was really peaked. Like . . .? the question hanging in the air.
Vin just grinned at him. Good thing Buck dont believe in an icy dip now and then, or wed never get him ta do any work.
Chris snorted at that. Somehow, I dont think Buck and ice water would be a good mix. Im sure he has his own ideas about that kind of thing," he said, giving Vin a big grin. Glad it was you that was with me."
"If'n it woulda been Buck, chances are you'd a gone back to that town and hunkered down till Spring. Woulda played it safe and all this," he said, waving his hand around, "wouldn't a happened."
Chris knew Vin was berating himself for choosing the way they'd gone, but he'd been just as game since neither one relished the thought of being away from their own town for a couple more weeks, they'd already been gone six days and wanted to get back.
"Yeah well, I think we made the right decision, 'sides, this ain't so bad is it?" he said as he looked around, focusing in on his clothes which were sending up steam vapors as the fire dried them out, and then raised a questioning eyebrow to his companion.
Vin ducked his head and grinned, "Well, at least maybe we shoulda went the other way."
"Yeah and with the luck we have, that whole mountain of snow would have come down on us and they'd a never found our bodies for a couple of decades. You picked the right way Vin . . . never convince me any other way."
Vin listened to Chris's words. Sometimes it astounded him how much his friends took him at his word, followed him, listened to him and Larabee was no exception. Chris was their leader, a natural. He was smart, fast and had a moral code an elephant could stand on . . . and the gunslinger had an unerring trust in him and he reveled in that, the man always ready to back him and watch his back. He nodded his head to himself knowing he'd been given a great gift the day he and Larabee had met.
"Hmmm?" came the answer as the man in black poured two cups of coffee, handing one off to his friend.
"Reckon you could make me a new stock fer my rifle?" Vin asked, as he took the offered cup.
"Was hopin' you'd ask. I was gonna offer if you hadn't. I'd be glad ta do it Vin. Least I can do."
"Alrighty then," Vin said with a nod of his head. "I'd like that. A Larabee original," he added with a grin.
"Just for you Vin, just for you. A reminder of our ah . . . our little adventure," he said, raising his cup to the tracker for a toast.
"To our little adventure," Vin repeated, clanking his cup with Larabee's. "And ta many more?" he asked with a raised eyebrow and a lopsided grin.
"Hell, I hope so," Chris answered with a laugh of his own.
Me too, thought Vin, me too.