JD felt horrible. Everything hurt, his back, his arms and his buttocks, those hurt most of all. He'd been on the trail lots of times since joining the Seven, but never in such a relentless pace and with such little rest. Not that he minded. He was making real good time to Four Corners. Only he was hungry, really hungry and thirsty as well. Not as thirsty as he was hungry. Early that morning, he had reached the Boulder waterhole and he and Milagro had drank their fill.
Next time he would be sure to take two canteens with him, just to be on the safe side.
He laughed a little after thinking that. If he'd had two canteens he would've left them both with Chris and he would still be thirsty. But Chris would have more water now, two canteens wasn't that much considering how long it would take to get help back.
Yes, next time he would take two canteens!
Milagro snorted behind him and he turned around to pet the soft, velvet nose. You up to some speed again? I don't mind walking a bit, I got real stiff. But it's too slow and we need to be fast. I know it's hard on you, Milagro and I promise to make it up to you, really. It's just that we need to make good time. Stopping the lean horse, he kneeled down and started to feel the legs. Milagro whuffed and nuzzled his owner's hair affectionately. The thin horse liked speed, but the relentless going that he had been pushed to was heavy on him. JD knew it. Buck sometimes teased him about his horse, but JD wasn't going to exchange him for another one ever. Truth was, he loved the speed Milagro could develop, loved racing with him. On the trail, Milagro managed quite well, because he wasn't big or heavy himself. So he always told Buck that he only teased him about Milagro because he was way too heavy for a real fine horse like this one.
Only this time, he wished Milagro was stronger. He wished they could have galloped a bit longer, a bit more.
The legs felt fine and JD jumped into the saddle again to see if Milagro was up to an easy trot. He was, which was good. Another half hour of this and he would be able to go fast again.
Pony would have made a difference. Why had that stupid horse bolted and taken off like that? What had he been thinking? He hadn't taken the route to Four Corners. Stupid beast had turned back to
Suddenly JD was real sure. Pony must have gone back to Chris. Thank God if he had! It would have been so hard to explain losing that horse to Chris. He never said anything, but every one of them knew how special that horse was to him. It was in the way Chris took care of him and never, ever wanted to ride another horse when going somewhere. It was something JD could fully understand, he felt the same about Milagro. He absolutely loved his horse. And where Milagro was a bit, well, scrawny, but who cared with a horse that fast and agile, Pony was downright beautiful, a real great horse.
His mind was wandering again. Somehow it kept doing that, no matter how hard he tried to keep it focused on the trail and on getting to Four Corners as soon as possible. Where was he now anyway? Was he starting to recognize things? Hey, wasn't that Bear copse? Not that anyone had ever seen a bear around here. He didn't think there had ever been one, this just wasn't bear country. So how did the copse get that name? Would anyone know? Maybe Miss Nettie would know, or Mary.
He was doing it again, thinking all kinds of stupid, unimportant things. God, how he would've loved to have Miss Nettie here to talk to! That would just have been great! Or Casey. Casey was real good on a horse too. He would make just as good a time with her, because she knew riding!
He was making a reasonable good time, he knew, but he would have made such a better time with Pony around as well. Yep, it was Bears copse! That meant he was still three hours from town at the best of speeds! But with Milagro so tired it would take at least four...
He knew he couldn't ride Milagro into the ground though, just couldn't. Luckily Chris would feel the same and would never forgive him for it if he did. To Chris, taking good care of your horse was as important as not shooting someone in the back.
Although if it came to choosing between a horse and a friend...
Sorry Milagro, he whispered and coaxed the horse into a gallop again. Milagro did it, for him, no matter how it must hurt. He was wheezing pitifully for a moment. It made JD feel even worse then he had already felt ever since leaving Chris.
A speck grew into the distance, coming closer, real fast. A horse in full gallop. JD slowed Milagro down again, one hand on his Colt. He didn't budge from the trail though. He wouldn't let anyone and anything stop him from getting help for Chris.
God, just don't let it be someone bad, someone who wanted to rob him or something, who would try and keep him from what he so desperately needed to do.
He looked again. The horse was a lot closer now and looked kind of familiar. So did the figure on it, clad in buckskin... Vin! It was Vin! Oh my God, Vin! He wasn't alone anymore. Vin would take over now, would tell him what to do and would get the others, get them to move!
VIN! he hollered, waving one arm. VIN! Urging Milagro to go into a gallop again he hastened towards the approaching rider.
JD. Vin was real tense when they finally reached each other. Chris?
Oh Vin! Chris... Chris got stuck under this real big tree. They were the biggest, most beautiful trees I've ever seen, but one of them fell and Chris pushed me away or I would've been dead and then he got caught and now he's stuck, he's really stuck! I tried to get the tree off him, Vin, I tried, but it's so big, so very, very big and he said he thought he was bleeding and I had to get help and I had to... had to... l... leave him... leave him there, al a... alone!
JD, calm down, calm down!
For a moment JD thought Vin was going to slap him to get him to calm down. He swallowed his fears and anxiety down forcefully. That was something he wouldn't live down, getting slapped for hysterics like a stupid girl! He wasn't hysterical, not even close. He was in a hurry and just awfully glad to see Vin, because Milagro really was at his end.
Vin looked at him and nodded when he saw the young man visibly calm himself.
Y... yeah! How did you know?
Only place 'tween here and Glasstown with real big trees. Chris likes them. Showed them to me once. He got anything with him?
Of course! I left all the canteens with him, full, and the food we had left as well. And he wanted his rifle and all his bullets. Left blankets too.
Yes, of course! He told me not to, but he needed it more then me, so I left it with him anyway, under the blanket. Must've found it by now.
Vin? What's wrong?
Chris wouldn't want it near. Could attract predators.
JD turned white as a sheet. Oh hell, Vin. I didn't think of that, I didn't. Just thought how long it would take to get help back and that he'd need some food Oh Vin, he told me not to leave it with him, told me! What've I done?
You did the best ya could, JD. Never think otherwise. And b'sides, bleeding he'd draw them anyway. Gotta go now. You git Nate and ever'thing ya need ta help git him home.
I, you.. Vin! Vin, where you going?
He was yelling at a buckskin back. Vin was already galloping away at a breakneck speed.
Stupid question, you know where he's going! Come Milagro. Vin won't be able ta get Chris outta there. We still gotta get help.
JD pushed Milagro into a trot again, but his spirit had lifted. Vin was on his way and would be with Chris that much sooner. He would help Chris until they all came and got the tree away. Shit, they'd better not forget axes, lots of axes!
The rest of his way to Four Corners, the young sheriff was no longer thinking about loneliness and hopelessness. He was planning how they could get Chris out. Because one thing was for sure, Vin would never ever let Chris die!
+ + + + + + +
Chris was shivering despite the blanket around him. He was briefly considering taking the second blanket from under his head now that he'd taken care of himself, but he felt better sitting up a bit more. It made it easier to keep an eye on his surroundings.
He wasn't so sure the cougar wouldn't return at some point. He had wounded it, at least twice, which meant the beast would have difficulty getting prey. This in turn meant that he was the best chance for a meal the beast had. Not that he was planning to end that way, in a cougar's stomach!
If only he could stay conscious. The shivering had grown worse the past few hours and it seemed that he was developing a nice fever. Stupid cat! As if he hadn't been in trouble enough as it was.
Chris looked up at the sky, trying to estimate what time it was. Seemed to be approaching mid-morning. Where would that leave JD? How far from Four Corners? He should be getting there in the afternoon, maybe sooner with two horses. Getting everyone organized to come and get him would take time though and even if he got in Four Corners to get help on the way today, they still would have to camp for the night.
No one would be here for him until tomorrow. Probably no sooner than tomorrow afternoon or evening
God, he hurt! And he was tired, so tired
Chris slipped into a feverish dream, no longer able to hold onto consciousness.
A soft laugh, a warm breath tickling his ear. I have to tell you something Chris, a surprise, a beautiful surprise.
Really Sarah? What is it?
Oh no, not now. When you get back.
Is that your way to get me back sooner? Or stop me from going at all?
He turned around and took her in his arms. He buried his nose in her beautiful auburn tresses. Well, Mistress Larabee? What are you playing at?
She laughed and swatted him on his arm. I know you have to sell these horses, Mister Larabee. I'll miss you, but Adam and I'll survive a day without you. I'll see you tonight or tomorrow and when I do, I have a surprise for you.
A nasty one, or one I'll like?
She tilted her head and her bright, beautiful eyes were shining when she looked into his. It's a surprise you will love, Chris. Her delicate hand cupped his cheek and she smiled a beautiful small smile, just for him. You will love it.
They kissed and he let her go reluctantly. Something crashed through the bushes around the ranch, something heavy.
Bushes? They didn't have bushes this close to the house, at least not so many that it would make such a noise when something walked through them. Frowning he looked around him. Buck was standing by the horses, Adam was patting Pony, his big friend. He didn't see anything and looked back at Sarah, confused. She had tears in her eyes now. I love you, she whispered and then she started to disappear.
Sarah? Again he heard the noise and he knew he had to do something, confront it. But the grief of seeing Sarah disappear right from his arms hit him bad. Sarah, he whispered.
Again the crashing noise and now he knew what he had to do. He left his beautiful wife and son to fulfill a promise he made, that he would fight to stay alive. His eyes flew open.
Something was crashing through the bushes alright. Chris wasn't instantly alert like he usually was. The fever was making him nauseas and light headed, pain immediately warred for his attention. Not good, this kind of slow response could kill him. He looked around, trying to see what was going on.
The sounds continued, there was splashing into the water of the nearby creek and drinking noises. By the time whatever it was came walking towards him, Chris had his gun out and ready.
He tried to be as still as possible, tried not to let the pain and fever take over. He needed to be alert, desperately. The cougar, was it the damn cougar? Lots of noise for a cougar, but he had wounded it, probably badly. It did sound more like a deer, but Chris wasn't going to take any chances.
The sun was playing over the wood in front of him. No shape, no shadow was there on that huge trunk. It sounded like whatever was coming was trying to get around the trunk, and would come from his right side.
All Chris saw was more huge trunks towering into the air and the dark shadows between them. The sun managed to get through the leafy roof the giants made high above, sending golden rays through those darks shadows and dappling some of the underground with bright green and warm brown colors.
The noise intensified for a while then seemed to go away. Before Chris could breathe a sigh of relief, whatever was causing it came closer again. Something moved in those shadows, something huge.
Chris gripped his gun even harder and brought it up. He tried to keep his sick, pain-filled body from trembling. Tried to focus solely on what was coming towards him. The shape started to come out of the darkness and a huge head swivelled his way.
Pony? Chris whispered incredulously. The horse gave one happy snort and trotted over to him.
Pony? Chris didn't know what to think. His first reaction had been one of enormous relief. God, but he had missed the beautiful horse. After the death of Sarah and Adam all he had left from his time with his family had been Pony. Everything else had disappeared in the fire. Pony was all that remained, and in the dark years after his families death Pony had been his one constant companion. But even Pony had been gone this past night and day.
Not anymore. His faithful companion was happily pushing his big head against Chris' own and nuzzled his hair affectionately. He snorted and butted against his owner again. Chris laughed. He knew exactly what Pony wanted.
Come here, you big oaf, he whispered affectionately and managed to get his right hand between the ears where he started scratching the big black horse. Pony sighed contentedly, standing in bliss with his head hanging low. He was definitely happy to be back with the one man he had been with all his life. JD was completely out of his mind.
JD was very much in Chris' mind though. I hope you didn't throw him, Pony, he told the horse. I hope he's alright. He IS my only hope you know. Although you bring some hope as well. You brought my saddlebags! With a bottle of whiskey in it and the bandages Nate always insists we take along. Come, come Pony, down, down. Yes, good boy, down, come down.
Pony obediently lay down beside the gunslinger. He snorted when he saw that the pocket of the long black duster was within reach. A big nose tried to get in, only to be pulled back almost in disgust. Two brown, reproachful eyes looked at Chris.
Chris had to chuckle. The pain and nausea was forgotten at the moment with this miracle of companionship. Sorry pard, nothing in there. We were supposed to get back to Four Corners today and I had no treats left. Be still, I'm going to get that saddle and those saddlebags off your back.
Chris tried to loosen the single with just his right hand, unable to turn over and use his left hand as well. An attempt to bring over his left hand after all made it very clear that even if he could have turned over, he would never have been able to use his other arm. The small movement made a horrible pain flare up in his arm and he couldn't stop the tears of pain spring up in his eyes.
It startled Pony and he made a move as if to get up. Chris clamped down the pain, trying to breathe deep and evenly.
Down, Pony, stay down.
He calmed himself as much as he could. He knew the animal would pick up his mood faultlessly. As usual it worked. Calming himself immediately calmed his steed as well.
Easy Pony, easy boy. It's alright.
A big lie, that one! Chris took out his pocket knife and pushed it between the saddle and the single. Painstakingly he began to saw through the tough leather, cursing that he didn't have Vin's big hunting knife. That would've made things a lot easier.
It took a long time. Sawing through the tough leather was painful and after a while Pony got restless. The single wasn't even halfway through, so Chris decided to take the risk and let Pony up for a while. He could use the rest himself. As soon as Pony was contentedly grazing from the small grass tufts growing all around him, Chris closed his eyes. His right arm was painful now as well from the exhausting sawing motion and his throat hurt from constantly swallowing the bile that rose from his stomach.
He took the canteen and carefully drank some. Not too much, the other canteen was already empty. Cleaning his wounds had used up a lot. He tried to ease his position somewhat , take some pressure off his back and shifted. Pain flared up in his legs and for a moment he felt himself sink into oblivion.
NO! CAN'T He forced his eyes open again. Can't Sarah, not yet. I want to know what you was going to tell me, but I can't come back just yet. Promised promised JD.
Suddenly it hit him that he thought about Sarah as if she would be waiting in his dreams, to tell him that secret, that surprise he had never heard after all. Whatever she had wanted to tell him had gone with her to her grave. It was a memory, those whispered words, that had swiftly connected with how she had looked when he rode away, so glowing, with her hand protectively on her abdomen. It had opened a possibility about what that surprise was, the surprise he would love. It had made him rage even more against what had happened and he had buried those memories deep, very deep, to never think about again. After all, he could never ever be sure
Chris shook and not only with pain. He wouldn't survive more of these memories. He just wouldn't be able to cope.
+ + + + + + +
It was late afternoon when JD finally entered Four Corners. He almost cried with relief. Milagro was wheezing almost constantly now and that scared him. He really didn't want to lose him. The thin, lean horse had given so much to get him to Four Corners as fast as he could. He slumped off wearily and took him to Yosemite's livery, very glad the horse would finally have rest, water, food and the best care possible. It rankled that he would have to ask Yosemite to do it, but he really had to set everything in motion for them to get to Chris.
Yosemite came immediately when he saw Milagro. JD! How could you? You asked too much of your horse! Way too much. Just look at him! Why did you do it? You know better than to treat a horse like that!
I know, Yosemite, I know, but I had no choice! I had to come as quickly as possible, to get help for Chris.
Chris? Yeah, you left together. He didn't come with you? What's wrong JD?
He Yosemite, he got stuck under a tree, a real big tree. He saved my life and got stuck and I had to leave him to get help. Would you look after Milagro please? I really have to organize the help.
Sure JD, I'll take good care of him. Milagro may not be the strongest of horses, but he's got courage that one! We'll make him alright again, just you see!
JD beamed at the older man. Yeah? Oh, thank you Yosemite! I think he's the best horse ever and I hated to ask so much of him. You really think he'll be alright?
As long as you'll let him rest fer a couple a days. Means you'll have to use another horse fer awhile.
I do? I don't have another horse! But I'll think about that later, I'm just happy he'll be alright! Now I have to get help for Chris! He took off towards the saloon. The biggest chance of finding Buck at this time was in the saloon and he really wanted to see Buck. Talk to him. Tell him everything that had happened.
It didn't take long for Buck to bellow for Nathan and Josiah and drag Ezra from behind the saloon table where he had been practicing with his card deck. Soon the four peace keepers were standing around JD and listened to his story.
Damn it, he heard Buck holler suddenly. Where's Vin? Why did he choose today not to come back from his patrol? Anyone have any idea where he is?
Buck, I met Vin on the trail and when he heard 'bout Chris, he took off ta be with 'm as soon as possible.
Ya met him on the trail? Buck asked. So he has what? An hour on us, probably less? What's the point in that? He'd better 've waited.
Hour? Oh, no Buck, I met him really far from Four Corners, like he was already on his way to to You know, that's weird, I didn't think 'bout that, but he was already on the trail to Glasstown. Like he knew something was wrong.
The others looked at him.
Where did ya meet 'im? Nathan asked.
Took me at least four hours ta get t' town after I met him, JD told them. Now the men looked at each other.
Spooky, was all Buck said.
Let's git goin'. We still gotta git Lar'bee from under that tree, Nathan answered.
Soon a big flurry of activity was happening around the livery. Nathan was putting his supplies on Weasel. Josiah was collecting some good, stout axes and a saw just to be on the safe side and Buck was organizing a wagon to follow them all. JD looked at it all and suddenly he felt insignificant. He'd left Chris. Left him all alone, and now the others were going to save him. He didn't know what to do now. It wasn't like the stage coach. That was all about doing. He didn't have to think, he had to act. Now it was all about planning and he felt superfluous, young, stupid. God, he was tired.
A hand suddenly came down on his shoulder. When he looked up, he was surprised to see Ezra standing there.
Get some sleep, JD, the gambler said softly. It would be a shame if we would mislay you on the trail due to your immense fatigue. I will personally take you to the saloon and make sure Inez will nourish you with the best of morsels, after which I will escort you to your room and see to it that you acquire some well deserved respite. This, his hand fluttered around for a moment, indicating all the activity going on, is best left to our venerated colleagues, who are the leading lights in any endeavour that requires vast quantities of organizing. I would never ever presuppose that I would be up to the standards of Josiah and Nathan if it comes to the organizing department and neither should you. Or Buck, he added with a big grin, looking at the ladies man who was running around trying to keep up with all Nathan and Josiah were calling out back and fourth. JD had to agree, Buck looked ragged and definitely out of his debt. He also looked very determined. Buck was not someone to take things easy when a friend was in need of him. It was one of the things JD loved about the man.
You got shovels yet? Nathan hollered to Josiah. His answer was a shake of the head.
Was going to get those next.
Sh shovels? JD suddenly started to panic. What shovels? Buck, they don't need shovels, he'll be alive! He promised he'll stay alive!
What? Oh, oh no JD. Not for that! Don't even think that! The ladies man quickly came over to his distraught and exhausted young friend. It's to see if we can't dig Chris from under that tree. You know, dig under his legs so we c'n git them free
Oh JD breathed. Oh Buck! I never thought about doing that! Never! I only tried to get the tree off him and it w was too big Buck, I'm so sorry, so sorry! I'm so stupid
Now look here kid, you ain't stupid, jist young! Josiah said sternly. You're from the city, and not that long in the west. You are doing great, despite the fact that you have much to learn, real great!
Yeah, except when I shoot an innocent woman, JD said bitterly.
Buck immediately put his arm around the young man. You did great saving that stage coach and that wasn't the only time you were a real help and saved people, don't you ever forget that! You fell and the bullet went wide. That wasn't the first gun fight an innocent bystander got killed and it won't be the last, I told you that! Now, you did what you could then and you did what you could now! You did good, you made record time getting here. Vin's already on his way over to Chris and everything will be alright, you'll see!
Nope, no but! Buck looked over at Josiah, Nathan and Ezra. Only thing that worries me is that Chris didn't suggest digging to JD. Must mean he didn't expect the kid could dig him out. Was the ground real rocky, JD?
I, I, eh I didn't look. It was a clearing and there were some boulders But I don't know, I didn't think t to look
Buck ruffled his hair. As Josiah said, you got a lot to learn and you're doing real good in spite o' that! You'll be a fine sheriff once, one that won't need ta be part of some group of misfits! Come on, we gotta move now. Josiah, you still want some shovels?
Just to be sure, but I'll get a third axe too. Seems to be going axe work. Josiah stumped off, Nathan went back to get more supplies out of his clinic and Buck was off as well.
Ezra took him firmly by the arm and pulled him along. As I said, do not alarm yourself with this, mister Dunne, our colleagues are more then adequate. Besides, you already accomplished a good many things by arriving with such speediness to our municipality, so we could depart today in order to save Mr. Larabee. Me, I have yet to make a contribution.
Yeah, JD mumbled, a bit glassy eyed. He was just too tired, thirsty and hungry to take in all that Ezra was saying. But he knew one thing, he had to get some food and some rest, or he would fall off his horse before they were a mile out of town.
Nathan looked up briefly from checking his medical kit. JD, REST! Or we'll leave ya behind! And I MEAN it!
The last thing JD wanted was being left behind. He really needed to see Chris, be there to get him safe again. After all, he was the reason the blond was laying there, stuck, all alone
He's all alone out there, Ezra, he whispered. All alone, hurting and helpless
Ezra couldn't help feeling a shudder at the idea. He didn't like being out in the open period, let alone being stuck all by himself under some huge tree. He shuddered again. One thing JD said got to him though.
JD, please, do not call Mr. Larabee helpless. I assure you he is not! That man just wouldn't know how to be helpless!
+ + + + + + +
Chris opened his eyes and looked up at the sun. Midday was starting to get on its way and he needed to do something, something important Sarah and Adam had been in his dreams and they had told him he really should hurry
Hurry home? he whispered. Had they asked him to hurry home? But he wasn't at a horse sale. He was in the woods, leaning against some rolled up blankets.
B Buck? God he hurt! Did he have a hangover? Had a fight he didn't remember? Sarah hated that! He'd been in lots of drunk fights though since she and Adam died.
Chris tried to sit up and instantly all the pain slammed home.
WHOA! FUCK! Oh Hell, the tree, JD! He fell back again and swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat. He still had a nagging feeling that there was something he had to do.
Suddenly he became very quiet. All that moved was his hand, trying to find his gun with the least possible movements. Something was walking up towards him. He opened his eyes and tried to see what was in store for him.
Whatever it was came from right behind him and was getting really close. The cougar? No, it sounded too big and heavy to be a cougar. Still His hand finally found his gun and locked around it.
Then whatever was behind him snorted. A cougar didn't snort, did it?
Suddenly it all connected again in his brain. Pony! Pony had come back and he had come back saddled. The saddlebags. He needed those saddlebags! Chris licked his dry lips and whistled. Pony was instantly at his side, butting him with that big black head and velvet nose. Chris smiled at his horse, this one remaining link with his past. He caressed the soft nose, reached over to scratch the animal between his ears and murmured softly to him. Finally he decided the pain and the feeling of being sick wouldn't diminish, so he could just as well get started.
Down, Pony, down. That's it boy, down, down, good, very good, come on, get down.
Soon Pony was lying next to him again, with the saddle girth in reach. He looked at the part he'd sawed through with his knife and sighed. No help for it but try again. It never occurred to him to try and take only the saddlebags off. Pony needed that saddle off and he was going to do it. So he took the small knife again and attacked, only using his right hand.
It took as long as the first half had done, but finally the girth snapped through. Pony was snorting and tossing his head by that time, the sawing motion by his side making him a bit nervous. Chris smiled, happy that he had managed to accomplish this. Now all he had to do was get into the saddlebags for what he needed. He wound the stirrup tight around his hand to be sure he had it and ordered Pony up. Pony willingly obeyed and stood up, taking the saddle and bags with him. Chris held on, the stirrup kept the saddle attached to his hand and wrist and he pulled it towards him. It all pulled back and he needed to put all of his strength behind it. But the saddle gave, it had no choice with Chris hanging on for dear life, so it finally came off on the right side and fell down from the rising backside of Pony, slamming straight onto Chris' chest.
He screamed, making Pony bolt away. It was like fire erupted everywhere, not just in his chest. With the involuntary movement he made, the pain also flared up in his arm and legs. It made him move again, trying to escape it and once more he felt bones shift in his right leg. Another scream. Then he sucked it in, took a deep breath and tried to get himself under control.
He couldn't really stop the shaking of his body afterwards, but managed to get the saddle off himself anyway. Next was getting into the saddlebags. They were laying conveniently next to him and he had no problem getting the small bottle of whiskey and the med kit with the tea herbs and bandages out. No way that he could make tea, but it contained willow bark, he would chew on a piece to try and keep the fever down.
Before he put one of the small pieces of willow bark in his mouth, he would first take a long swig from the whiskey bottle, only one, the rest was needed for his wounds. He put the bottle within easy reach, the med kit as well and removed his duster and shirt from his chest wound.
This wound wasn't too terrible. It was a little red, but not badly inflamed. Not being bandaged might have been good for it. It did play havoc with his shirt and duster, both full of blood. Better clean it fast and move on to his arm.
He cursed when he realized his canteen with water was now under the saddle. Getting it made him almost pass out, but he managed. First he drank some, than he took one of the bandages and used that as a cleaning rag. It was hygienic at least. His bandana and shirt were in a state that he would bring only more dirt into his wound then take it out.
This time Chris used a very limited amount of water. He would need the rest as drinking water for the night and day that were still to come.
Wish you'd be able to fill a canteen for me, he told Pony, who had been sniffing with interest at the saddle and bags, and at Chris himself after the initial fright for the screams had passed. Pony snorted amiably back.
He continued the cleaning, but now with alcohol on the piece of cloth. It burned, burned a lot! He managed anyway and in the process did his best not to think about his arm.
His arm was going to be the problem. It throbbed and felt like major infection had set in. When he had eased his spare shirt out of the saddlebags and over his chest to work as a buffer between the wound and the filth of his shirt and duster, and had secured it all by closing some buttons. He closed his eyes, took in a lungful of air, and with the help of his right hand moved his left arm up on his belly. He managed not to scream and scare Pony again, but he couldn't stop from moaning. The improvised bandage was red with blood and he knew he would have to use some of his precious water to soak it off.
Taking the bandage off turned out to be as much hell as he'd imagined it to be. Looking at the clearly infected wounds, he knew things would even get worse.
To hell with it, he did need some alcohol inside himself before he could start on this!
The alcohol hit his empty stomach hard and for a moment he thought he was going to puke after all. Luckily it settled, followed by a pleasant buzz. He almost took another swig, but for a moment scared brown eyes looked into his.
Right, promises. He'd promised the kid he'd fight. Not that he wouldn't have anyway, just that it was easier to fight when an asshole was involved who made him so angry he couldn't give up till he got the son of a bitch. Like the warden in Jericho. It was a lot harder to feel that way about a God damn tree.
The tree sure as hell didn't care, and it was dead already.
Shit, time to do it!
Chris took his knife, pushed it in the ground a few times to get it as dirt-free as possible, then carefully put alcohol on a clean part of the bandage that had been demoted to cleaning rag and wiped the knife with it. It was the closest he could get to sterilizing without a fire. It would just have to do. He looked down at his left arm, at the red parts around the wounds and the pus he saw seeping here and there and firmly thought about the horror of having nothing else but a stump there.
He plunged in the knife and cut open the red areas, all of them. He screamed, refusing to pass out and started pushing on the wounds, getting as much corruption out as possible. He was too tired, too far gone to care about the tears anymore and let them stream freely while he cleaned the knife again and started cutting open the parts he couldn't get clean enough. For a moment, he just had to stop to puke. He managed to hold on long enough to grab some of the spare clothing out of his saddlebags and puked in that. He left it at his side for now, knowing he would probably need it again.
He was right. Between getting the wounds to the point that all that came out was bright red blood, getting them cleaned thoroughly with alcohol and getting a real bandage around it, he puked three more times. Finally he could lay back, rinse his mouth with water and rest. He took a moment, then rolled up the piece of thoroughly soiled cloth and what was on it and flung it as far with his right arm as he was able to. The bloodied bandage got rolled up, which was difficult to do with one hand but manageable and got tossed as well. For good measure the jerky followed. He couldn't eat a bite and he just didn't want it close to him anymore. Perhaps the sour stench of his puke would mask the sweeter smell of his blood and the dried meat, but he doubted it. He fully expected more visitors. At the moment he didn't care though. Didn't care about anything but the pain, the nausea and the dizziness from the fever.
Fever, willow bark. With his last strength he opened the tea satchel and got out one of the pieces of willow bark. With the bitter taste of the bark in his mouth Chris leaned back, pulled the blanket around himself and finally let himself pass out. He just didn't have the strength to fight oblivion for the moment.
It had been war between the five peace keepers, but finally things had sorted themselves out. Now Buck and Nathan were on their way to get to Chris as soon as possible. Buck's horse was packed with axes, shovels and a saw. Nathan's with every medical supply he could think of.
They had left the wagon far behind by the time it got too dark to ride and they were forced to stop for the night. Buck fretted about that until Nathan told him things weren't as bad as they seemed anymore. Vin was already on his way and would be there lots sooner than they could ever be.
He'll keep Chris safe, Buck. Ya know that!
Yeah, but he ain't you, Nate. He ain't a doctor!
I ain't a doctor either. Told ya that thousands a times b'fore Buck! Listen, 't was pretty plain what JD told us. Chris is stuck under that tree, which prob'bly means broken bones, but for the rest he was fine. Hadn't bumped his head or got any other serious wounds, so he'll jist have ta hold on till we're there and git him free. Vin 'll keep 'm safe till then. Ya know he will!
Yeah, yeah I know. But ya gotta agree it's better ta git 'm free as soon as possible!
I do, Buck, I do! But we need our strength ta do it, so I'm gonna sleep now. We'll git there tomorrow, right, and Vin 'll be there. He'll be fine Buck. It's Chris we're talking 'bout!
Buck grumbled, but he knew Nathan was right. It really was too dark to ride, the horses were tired and so were he and Nate. They would need their strength to get Chris from under that tree. Although Buck scoffed a bit at the exaggerated stories JD had told about the enormity of that tree. That kid!
They would be riding again by the first sign of light, however feeble, he was going to make sure of that!
+ + + + + + +
JD was the losing party in the war that had raged in Four Corners, just before they all left. He was angry as hell that they had put him on the wagon with Josiah, real angry. He needed to go back, to be with Chris as soon as he could. He needed Chris safe and grinning that crooked grin of his. The one that could make his face light up in a way you just had to grin yourself, or that could make every bad ass run like hell. Or take a shot at him, he thought with a tired grin of his own.
You okay, JD? Josiah asked.
No! he snapped. I should've been there, up front, riding with Buck and Nathan, to get back to Chris as soon as I can! It ain't fair I'm stuck here!
Josiah heaved a sigh. Do not presume you have more right to be with Chris than any of us, son. That's not right and you know it. Nathan has to go first and Buck is not only his eldest friend, but stronger with an axe than you. So am I. If Buck had been the one to stay behind and guard the town I would be the one up with Nate, and you and Ez would've been driving the wagon. You would still have been put on the wagon.
But I left him there!
Josiah stopped the wagon and turned his full attention on JD. You had no choice JD. What else could you've done?
I could've stayed with him, keep him safe, got him what he needed. But instead I left him there, all alone! Josiah, he couldn't move from under that tree and he was all alone! God, on the trail back, I've never been so alone in my entire life, it was awful! But I could move, could go on. Chris is stuck there, and he's been alone all this time now. I got back this afternoon, but how long before Vin is there? How long?
He looked in the direction of the Bear Pass and shuddered. He can never be there tonight, can he? I know Peso's stronger 'n faster than Milagro, least on the long distances, but he still couldn't be there before morning. And that's if he rides on tonight. You think he'll do that, J'siah?
Son, I know for a fact he'll do that!
Yeah, guess so
JD, why are you so upset about the fact Chris is all alone out there? I know it means he's in danger. It's a real dangerous situation to be in, but why do I sense there is more?
JD just shuddered.
Why we stopping, J'siah? It's not too dark to ride some more.
That's true. Josiah made the horses move again and the wagon creaked back into motion. We will ride as long as we can, and longer because I want to be there as fast as I can as well, on one condition. You will stretch out later on and get some sleep in the back of the wagon.
Aw, J'siah, I ain't a kid anymore!
No, but you had too little sleep last night. It's been exhausting what you've done. You did well, kid, now get your strength back. Promise? Or I will make camp for tonight!
Alright, promise, PROMISE! Gee, lighten up.
They rode on in silence for a while, then JD whispered I would die of loneliness out there J'siah! It was so awful on the trail with no one to talk to, to help me and tell me we were doing the right thing. So lonely I hated it!
Many people do, JD. There's no shame in that. Many people fear the loneliness. Chris ain't one of 'm, you know. He doesn't mind being on his own. He's still stuck and that's not a good position to meet trouble, but he won't suffer from the loneliness like you do.
That's right! That's what I figured out on my way back to Four Corners! JD interrupted him enthusiastically. I remembered how he's always on his own, unless one of us gets over to him! So he wouldn't mind so much, would he? Like like me
Not like you, Josiah agreed. He didn't put in words what he thought, that Chris might not mind being alone, but he might resent the demons from his past visiting him when he was down with nothing to occupy his fast and agile mind.
JD was suffering enough over this as it was.
+ + + + + + +
Peso was not in a good mood. His owner kept pushing him and pushing him on and the horse had had enough. So when he smelled water he decided to throw it all in the wind and headed towards it.
Vin still wasn't done cursing when his mount already stood half in the water, drinking his fill. It was a good place to take a break, he had to admit. His horse had always had sense.
Enjoy, he groused to his horse, we ain't gonna be long! Stalking towards a boulder at the side of the small creek he sat down, drew his hat low and closed his eyes. An hour later he was wide awake again and ready to go on. Peso wasn't as willing, but his stubbornness wasn't a match for Vin's. Vin was very determined to get to Chris as soon as possible and very serious about it all. Peso really had no choice. He gave in, not gracefully, but he gave in and Vin was on his way again.
Bear Pass was still hours away. He couldn't spare Chris another night alone in the woods. He could only hope that Chris would manage to take care of himself long enough for him to reach him. Somehow he didn't feel good about that, not good at all.
He spurred Peso on again.
+ + + + + + +
Pony screamed, a high scream that conveyed a deep fear. It reached through the black oblivion Chris had been resting in and hauled him up again. His eyes flew open.
It was almost night and colour was already leaking away from everything surrounding him. Pony screamed again, this time there was also defiance in the scream. A low growl answered the horse.
Shit, shit, shit, the cougar was back! Chris grabbed his gun and tried to orient himself. Pony was to the left of him, pawing towards something in front. He looked as far as he could, jarring his left arm. He bit on his lip, ignored it all and searched. Where? Where was the damn beast?
It was too much. Pony was one of the bravest horses he knew, but an attacking cougar was not something a horse waited for. He bolted and fled. The cougar came from out of the trees and bushes and it was clear that the short burst was all the beast was capable of. One leg wasn't working anymore because of a bullet right into the shoulder. Blood was dripping from one side. The big cat was hurt bad and judging by the look it gave the gunslinger it was hungry as well. It stood there at the edge of the trees, barely visible, but visible enough. Chris lifted his gun to shoot, but the cat slouched away again.
He closed his eyes for a moment. The movements and the aiming had made him dizzy. Fever, he knew. It would be real difficult to stay awake and alert. The cat could wait till he was out again and that filled him with dread. Even if he would wake up to an attack in time to shoot the beast again, it would be too close and probably mean more wounds. He could do without more wounds.
Movement to his right. He looked over and there it was again, going through the pile of dirty and blood-soaked cloth and the dried beef. It was too hungry and too much in pain to pay attention to a prey that could still move a little. It had found food. Chris took aim. He didn't like doing it this way, but he couldn't afford to let the cougar live. Still
Hey, he yelled. The big cat looked up, green eyes locking on his. Chris cocked his gun and suddenly the cougar seemed to sense it was in danger. It rose up, growling. Chris shot it right between the eyes.
Not so dark now, he whispered. Still, should'a had ya the first time, when ya came down from that damn tree trunk.
Now he had another attraction for predators laying close by. How could this all get worse and worse? Pony would probably stay away now, with the smell of the cougar all around. He would miss him. All through the late afternoon, when he came too for a while, Pony had been there, like an anchor to reality. He had needed that and he had needed the added security. Pony would react when something dangerous would come and that meant he could sleep a bit.
Chris took the water canteen and sipped some water. With the fever getting worse, he needed to drink more, but it was all he had till his friends came. He blinked his eyes in the hope it would stop the spinning, licked his lips and then he whistled. After awhile he whistled again. And again.
Pony didn't come.
He was totally alone again.
Aw, hell, he'd survived worse, hadn't he? Yes, he had. He'd survived the loss of his family.
Chris decided it could all go to hell as far as he was concerned and grabbed the bottle of whiskey for a long, long pull. He looked up to the first stars that arrived and toasted them. Perhaps the whiskey would keep the memories at bay. It wasn't like he'd have the strength to clean his wounds again, so he could just as well drain the whole bottle.
He felt unconsciousness begging and hastily recapped the bottle. No need to spill any of it. It was all he had left. That was his last coherent thought before all the pain dragged him under again.
Peso was a smart horse and Vin a determined man. So he rode on through the night, only stopping long enough to give Peso the rest he needed. Barely long enough. Vin felt sorry for his horse and had every intention of making it up to his steed later on. Right now he knew Chris needed him, bad. And that took priority over everything else.
From time to time, he looked up towards the starry sky above. The night was bright and chilly. The stars looked really near.
Seems like the dead are close by watching us tonight, Peso, he told the white blazed gelding. His only answer was an angry snort. Vin sighed. It would take some doing before Peso was going to forgive him this. Ah well, he could live with that. He couldn't live with the death of one willful, ornery, bad assed, no good gunslinger. He couldn't stand the idea of losing his best friend. If that happened, he didn't think he'd stay in Four Corners. The other five peace keepers had become close friends as well. Men he trusted, family almost, but it was Chris he had let into his soul.
He just couldn't lose that, couldn't loose that private man, the most private person he'd ever met. Except with him It would mean he'd be all alone again and he didn't know if he could stand going back to that.
Hold on Chris, please hold on!
+ + + + + + +Chris was hot, so unbearably hot.
Daddy, daddy, look, those deer, they are thirsty, just like the horses.
I know Adam, I know. It's hard for the wild life too that it hasn't rained so long.
Can't we give them some water?
I'm sorry Adam, I wouldn't know how. We still have some in the creek near the house, but they're afraid to come there.
He felt the sun hot on his head, on his body, everywhere. How could Adam stay so cheerful when it was so horribly, horribly hot?
Chris, Chris? Are you alright? You don't look so good.
I'm fine Sarah, I'm fine. It's the heat.
It is hot. I wish it would rain. What if even our creek loses its water?
Don't worry about that Sarah. It's fed by its own spring, remember? But soon there won't be any grass left! The horses already have trouble finding enough food and we don't have the money to start buying food for them.
We'll manage Chris. We'll always manage no matter what. We have each other.
They kissed, but the kiss dried on his lips and she seemed to dissolve in flames.
Chris's eyes flew open. He had already worked his blanket off, now he tried to get rid of his duster as well. Pain flared up when he tried to get up enough to get his arms out. He fell back with a moan. God, he hurt
Feverish eyes looked around. Sarah? Adam? Pony .?
No one? Where had they gone? Where was his home, where were the horses? His eyes fell on the canteen laying beside him and he grabbed it eagerly. It took an effort to open it with just one hand, but he did. A splash of the water fell over him and he loved the coolness. He needed a drink more though, so he tipped it to his mouth and drank the lovely, cool, moist bliss.
The canteen was empty before he'd had enough.
Something surfaced then, something about making the water last. I'm in trouble, he thought, looking at the empty canteen and then at the dark forest around him. I'm really in trouble. The fever was winning.
Fever. There was something about fever Chris' eye fell on the sachet with tea herbs and something stirred in him, something he knew Tea, willow bark tea He took the sachet and opened it. In it he saw the small pieces of willow bark between the other herbs. Willow bark helped against fever, he remembered. He had to fight the fever
But he was tired of fighting, so tired. He wanted his family.Chris closed his eyes, willing himself to be with Sarah and Adam again. Sarah was there, looking worried at him.
Sarah, wh what's wrong?
Chris, are you alright? You don't look alright!
I'm fine Sarah, really I am, just hot. Just hoping for some rain.
Chris, where is Adam? Wasn't he with you?
Yes, yes he was. We saw some deer who were thirsty and it upset him. Oh, look, there he is, at the creek.
He has a bucket, what's he going to do with that bucket Chris?
Chris smiled. He remembered this so well, little Adam, barely five, trying to get water to the deer he'd seen. He had ended up helping him bring some water to a stony basin a bit farther from the house, a place the deer could get to without the horses being in the way and scaring them off. And far enough from the house that they dared go to it. It had meant so much for his son. He needed so much to help the animals he saw suffering.
Adam was a really special boy. Chris looked around. Where was he now? And why was it even hotter? He turned around. Flames heated his face and body, flames engulfing his house. He heard the screams from his wife and son in the flames and desperately he flung himself into the flames. The flames were around him, consuming him, but he couldn't reach them, couldn't reach the screams.
NOOOOOO! SARAAAAAH! ADAAAAM!
//No, no, don't leave me, don't leave me alone! I don't want to be alone!//
He tried to get in farther in the flames, but suddenly something jerked him back. Chris fought the grip. He turned around to see what was holding him and the sorrowful brown eyes of Buck stared into his.
It's too late Chris. There is nothing you can do. Stay! Stay with us, we need you now!
Chris screamed and kicked at him. Let me go, Buck, let me go! I have to save them!
Chris, Chris, please, don't! Don't die, please don't die! Another pair of brown eyes looked into his.
Please Chris, you promised! You promised you'd keep on fighting! If you die I can't! It 'll be because of me. You'll die because of me!
No, no JD, not your fault
But JD was sitting on the street of Four Corners, looking like he had just died himself while Annie was carried out of the bank.
The brown eyes, full of horror over what had just happened, turned to him. Please Chris, please. Don't do that to me, to Buck, to the others. Please, you promised
JD, I c can't. I'm burning
And then Vin was there. Blue eyes looked into his like a cool rain. Arms held him and carried him out of the flames. //Hold on, Chris, hold on!//
Suddenly the lonely feeling he had carried around for so long as a hole inside his soul was filled. Vin was there.
//Ya hold on, Cowboy. Don't ya dare leave me alone! I ain't takin' it! Don't ya dare give up now and leave me.//
Chris opened his eyes and looked up at the starry sky. Somewhere under these stars his friends were trying their damnedest to come and save him, he knew. Vin's eyes filled his vision again. Eyes that had somehow managed to ease the gaping hole inside him that had been there ever since the deaths of his wife and son.//Yer not alone Cowboy, don't ya know that? Don't leave me.//
//I'll try, Vin, I'll try.//
Something moved when he tried to shift. He looked down and saw the small sachet with tea herbs. The willow bark! With a grimace Chris took out some of the pieces and put them in his mouth. It was all he had to battle the fever with, that and his indomitable stubbornness.
+ + + + + + +
//Ya hold on, Cowboy. Don't ya dare leave me alone! I ain't taking it! Don't ya dare give up now and leave me.//
Vin rode on the whole night, his thoughts on Chris. Everything in him focused on sending his strength, his will towards Chris.
It was bad, he felt it. But all he could do was try to hold on to his feeling of Chris and keep on travelling.
//Ye'r not alone Cowboy, don't ya know that? Don't leave me.//
//I'll try, Vin, I'll try.//
Good, you better, he whispered to the night sky full of stars. So many stars! He hoped Chris would find comfort in them, some strength to keep fighting. It would still be a couple of hours at least before he reached him and Peso needed to rest again.
Cursing Vin stopped, only to be immediately contrite towards his horse. Sorry Peso, yer doin' incredible, really y' are! Don't know any other horse could a done what yer doin' tonight. It's jist, well, I think I feel 'm slippin'. I can't let 'm go, Peso, not without a fight. Never had someone I b'long to before, 'cept you, and my ma a long time ago. Can't lose that again, jist can't!
Peso butted his head against his owner and friend, having forgiven the man for the harsh ride. He felt the seriousness of the situation and wasn't being willful anymore, just determined to do what Vin was asking of him. He dropped his weary head and started cropping the grass around him.
Vin petted him. Ya take a good rest, Peso, ya earned it. And we ain't there yet.
Looking up again at the stars, he willed his thoughts again towards his friend.
//Jist hang on Chris, jist hang on. Not long now and I'm with ya. Not long //
//Alright Vin, I'll really try ta be here.//
The gunslinger opened his eyes in an attempt to avoid the nightmares. He no longer saw his wife and son when he closed them. He only saw the fire consuming them, heard their cries for him to come and rescue them.
He wiped his right hand over his face, trying to get rid of the last one. Blue eyes had come and rescued him from it. Vin, clasping his arm in that unique gesture they had, and dragging him out of the fire into the nightmare of wakefulness.
Being awake wasn't as bad as the nightmares of the death of his family, but it was its own kind of hell. He hurt, he hurt so much. He'd tried to take a look at his arm, but hadn't been able to stop a shriek when the whole arm made itself felt. His chest was on fire and his legs hurt at least as much. With every little shift he made, he felt bones grind against each other.
The fever seemed to lessen a bit though. He looked into the sachet again. Maybe it was the willow bark, maybe the chill in the air. Where was his blanket, he was getting a bit cold.
Chris pulled the blanket over himself and took another piece of willow bark. He just hoped it wasn't poisonous when you took too much of it. He did know that his fever was dangerous, especially now that he no longer had any water, and that it would take his friends at least the whole next day to get here. The willow bark was the only thing he had to fight back.
Another bitter piece went into his mouth. Suddenly he decided to keep it in his mouth instead of chewing and swallowing it. Something Nathan once had said, about some medicines working the best by keeping them long in the mouth, because the stomach was full of stuff to digest food and could make some medicines useless. But through the very thin skin in the mouth some medicines could be easily absorbed, directly into the bloodstream. He decided to try if willow bark was better absorbed through the mouth then the stomach as well. He would eventually swallow it all anyway.
Something big crashed through the brushes and wearily Chris grabbed his gun. He didn't even know if he had reloaded his weapon at all at any time and he didn't have the strength to check it. Hell, he didn't have the strength to lift it anymore.
A big shadow ambled easily towards him.
P Pony? You're back?
A soft muzzle pressed against his neck and warm breath tickled him. Eew! Pony, don't! He caressed the satin nose, obliged the happy horse by scratching between his ears and suddenly felt a lot better. Pony was back. Despite the dead cougar laying a bit further on, the black gelding had come back to him. It made him believe that he would see his friends here as well. Maybe he would make it out of here after all.
The last thing he took in before the fever dragged him under again was Pony lowering his body and laying down next to him. His hand was resting on his horse's neck when he lost consciousness once more.