Mission of Mercy by The Neon Gang

Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the multi-media zine, A Small Circle of Friends #13, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of our zines that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace, Michelle Fortado and Erica Micahels are the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 6-13-2008. Art by Shiloh

Authors' Note: a slash version of story was a 2007 birthday fic for Wolvie, one of the December birthdays. Happy Birthday, Wolvie! We hope you enjoy it. The story is based on the Seven Brides fro Seven Brother episode "Rescue" – one we have been hoping to recycle into a Mag 7 story for quite a while now. Blame Sierra Chaves and Dana Ely for this one. Thank you for your help, ladies!

Monday, Four Corners

Early afternoon
Chris Larabee was sitting in the saloon, nursing the same drink he'd poured himself almost two hours before. Outside, snow was falling, a rare but not unheard of phenomena in this part of the Territory. In fact, the past few winters had all been colder than usual, and the settlers had experienced a few snow storms that stretched as far south as the Mexican border, a couple of them even becoming blizzards, something many thought might just happen again this year.

Across the table from the gunslinger, Vin Tanner sat slumped in his chair, his slouch hat pulled low over his eyes. Larabee wasn't sure, but he'd be willing to wager the tracker hadn't actually moved in over an hour.

"Vin," he called softly.

The man still didn't move, but he did reply. "Yeah?"

The blond flashed the tracker a grin, something most folks around the small community of Four Corners would say was rarer than the early snowfall. "Just makin' sure you were still breathin'…"

Tanner's chin rose just far enough for him to make eye contact with the gunslinger. He was glaring, but there was no heat behind the expression and the look only prompted Larabee to grin a second time.

"Y' got some reason t' be proddin' me, Cowboy?"

"Nope," Chris replied, trying and failing to look innocent. Hell, he could always blame the weather, the persistent cold and snow had chased all the bad elements out of town, leaving the seven peacekeepers protecting nothing with which to amuse themselves. "Was thinkin' about askin' Inez for something to eat," he added. "You want to join me?"

Tanner considered the question for a moment, then nodded. "Could eat."

An understatement, Larabee knew. The tracker could always eat. But before he could lift his hand to get the woman's attention, Mary Travis swept into the bar, her gaze immediately going to Chris. He frowned, seeing the worry in her blue eyes. "Mary?" he questioned, already rising from his chair before she reached him.

She came straight over and handed him a telegram, then folded her arms over her chest as she waited for him to read it.

Ezra Standish, who had been playing poker with a couple of the locals, excused himself and came over to join them. And Buck Wilmington, who had been talking softly with the eldest daughter of a new resident in Four Corners, tipped his absent hat to the young lady and came over as well.

They both knew trouble when they saw it.

Larabee read the telegram silently, then sighed and shook his head. Looking around at the others, he said, "Buck, get JD and Josiah, meet us over at the clinic."

"Something wrong, stud?"

Chris nodded. "Best this is said just once," he replied, his voice dropping so only those gathered around him could hear it.

The ladies' man nodded and left, knowing he would have his answers soon enough.

Vin pushed himself to his feet, he and Ezra following Chris and Mary over to Nathan Jackson's clinic.

Climbing the stairs, they were met at the door by the healer. "Somebody hurt?" the former slave asked, looking decidedly worried by the sudden appearance of so many people at one time.

"Not like you're thinkin'," Chris assured him, leading the way into the small space where Jackson lived and treated those who came to him for healing.

Nathan waited for the four to enter, then pulled the door shut against the cold. "What's goin' on?" he asked as he turned to face them.

"The others will be here shortly," Chris said, but he handed the Black man the telegram.

Jackson frowned, just like Larabee had, as he silently read the message.

Vin shifted his weight from one foot to the other, wondering what had gotten Mary, Chris and Nathan so worried, but he knew there was no reason to ask to see the telegram; he couldn't read it. He'd just have to wait for Larabee to get around to filling in the others, and him at the same time.

The sound of heavy footfalls on the stairs a few minutes later told him the three men had finally arrived.

A moment later Buck hurried in, followed quickly by JD and Josiah.

"What's goin' on?" the young sheriff asked, glancing around at the others.

Chris huffed out a breath, his hands coming up to rest on his hips as he said, "Seems there's been an outbreak of fever up in Winslow. Army thinks it might be something catching. They don't want anybody going up there from town. They've dispatched a wagon with a doctor and some medicine. It should be here later today. A detachment will follow that, maybe put the town under quarantine, if it's as bad as they think."

"And this is a concern for us, why?" Ezra asked, confused. Winslow was at least two day's ride away.

"They want at least two of us to escort the wagon up there," Larabee stated.

"What? Why?" the gambler demanded.

"The unit on its way to escort the doctor and the medicine to Winslow was ambushed by renegade Apaches up from Mexico," Mary explained. "They need someone to get that medicine to those people before it's too late, someone who knows that area of the Territory." She glanced at Nathan as she added, "They also want anyone who has any knowledge of medicine or healing to accompany the doctor and the supplies – to lend a hand."

"Unless there's a break in this storm, no one's getting up there," Josiah said, shaking his head sadly as he thought about how many might die without help.

Chris turned to Vin, asking, "You know a better way to get to Winslow other than through McFadden Pass?"

The tracker shook his head. "That's the fastest way I know, but I ain't spent much time up in those parts," he said apologetically.

Larabee sighed. He had. Back when Sarah and Adam were still alive he'd ridden all over that section of the Territory, looking for mustangs he could use to expand his growing herd. He glanced around at the others to see if any of them had a suggestion for him, but no one did.

"All right, once that wagon gets here, me and Nathan will go with them to Winslow."

"If y' get a break in the weather," Vin told him, looking a little worried. "Y' won't get as far as Eagle Bend in this."

Chris nodded, knowing the tracker was right. Hell, the medicine still had to reach them and, with this storm, that might not even happen.

"I'll ponder on the route," Vin said, heading for the door.

Chris watched him go, knowing if there was a better way up to the small mountain community, the tracker would remember it. He thought he remembered something himself, but what, specifically, wasn't coming immediately to mind, and he knew it might be nothing more than wishful thinking. He didn't relish the idea of making the trip in this kind of unpredictable weather, but there was nothing to be done about it. The fever was there, and it was up to them to try and get help to the people who were suffering. And, he hoped, do it so no one panicked over the outbreak.

Wednesday, Four Corners


The peacekeepers were gathered around the Army wagon as extra supplies were carefully loaded and tied down. How the doctor and the three soldiers accompanying him had managed to make their way through the storm to Four Corners by sunset the day before was a mystery to the residents of the small community, and to the peacekeepers, but they all suspected the team of six hearty mules, and the older sergeant who was driving them, had a lot to do with it.

Thankfully, the storm had broken overnight and a weak winter sun now climbed into the eastern sky. More clouds were visible, however, slowly building again out of the northwest, promising more snow before the end of the day.

Vin stepped up next to Larabee, who was shrugging on a thick winter coat Mary had loaned him. It had belonged to her dead husband, and she'd been a little embarrassed when she'd offered it to him. Still, the fleece-lined hide coat would go a long way to ensuring the blond stayed warm on the long trip, and he was grateful for the loan. Nathan was wearing a coat very similar to it, one that had once belonged to Mr. Potter.

"Been thinkin' on the route," Tanner said, squinting as a cold wind began to pick up.

"And?" Chris prompted, pulling on a pair of thick gloves, compliments of Mrs. Potter.

"Seems I recall a trail 'bout two-thirds 'a the way t' McFadden Pass, takes y' up int' the mountains 'n' runs along a protected ridge. Ends up in… Adamsville, I think it was. Y' remember anythin' like that?"

The gunslinger thought for a moment, then he nodded. "Yeah, now that you mention it…" The Anderson trail, he thought it might be called.

"Y' take that way, the snow won't be as deep along that ridge trail. The mountains'll protect y' on that side, 'n' the road from Adamsville t' Winslow ought t' be pretty flat."

"It'll add an extra day to the trip," Chris said, frowning slightly.

The tracker nodded as he looked out at the building cloudbank. "This break ain't gonna last, Chris. Y' get caught in that pass 'n' the drifts get too high…"

Larabee nodded. He knew if they got caught in the pass they could very well end up frozen to death when the next storm hit. "We'll see how fast this one comes in; maybe it'll be over by the time we get to Eagle Bend." He paused, his head cocking slightly to the right. "You know, now that you mention it, seems I recall there's another trail up there, too… veers off to the east, just below the top of the pass…"

Vin shrugged and shook his head, unfamiliar with it, but he had no reason to doubt Larabee.

"Yeah, I remember now. It's an old supply trail for a mine that tapped out years ago…" Larabee continued, the memory becoming clearer. He'd chased a handsome buckskin mare up that trail once. "That mine's somewhere east of Winslow," he added, frowning slightly. He'd forgotten a lot of what he'd once known about that area, much of it washed out of his mind by all the whiskey he'd consumed, trying to escape the memories of his family's destruction. "I'm thinkin' if we can find that mine trail, we could move the medicine onto the mules at the mine and walk or ride the rest of the way into Winslow. Would get us there half a day sooner than if we go straight over the top of the pass."

Vin still didn't recall such a trail, but then he hadn't spent as much time around there as Larabee had. "Gonna have t' make good time t' Eagle Bend if yer gonna get that far up before the storm behind this next one makes it impossible to get through."

"I plan on it," the blond replied.

The doctor, who had been listening to their conversation, stepped up to join them. "Sir, the path we need to take is the one that will ensure we reach Winslow. There are a lot of people depending on this medicine."

"Thought you wanted to reach those people as quick as you could," Larabee challenged him.

"I do, Mr. Larabee, but it's imperative that we do arrive. Any course that puts our lives at greater risk also puts the residents of Winslow at greater risk."

Larabee considered that for a moment, then shrugged. "All right, we'll take the Anderson Trail, but I might change my mind when we get there and see what things look like." He trusted Vin, and if the tracker said the snow would be less along the Anderson Trail, then it would be.

The doctor nodded and climbed into the wagon.

Tanner reached inside his hide coat and pulled out a hand-knitted scarf that he held out to Larabee.

Chris shot the tracker a grin. "Who'd knit you one of these?" he teased, knowing exactly who had made it for the suddenly-blushing man.

Tanner's eyes narrowed and he glowered at the gunslinger. "Y' want t' use it or not, y' ungrateful bastard."

"Yeah, I want to use it," Chris replied, reaching out and taking it. He wrapped it around his neck, tucking the ends inside his borrowed coat. It was soft and warm, and he knew he'd appreciate having it.

"We're ready ta go, Sergeant," one of the soldiers called.

"Mr. Larabee?" Sgt. Daniels asked.

Chris nodded and looked back at Vin, saying, "Keep an eye on things here."

Tanner nodded and stuck out his hand. Larabee took it, their gloved fingers closing around each other's forearms. Then the blond stepped out into the street and climbed onto his horse. Nathan did the same and, moments later, they were all on their way out of town.

Vin and the other peacekeepers stood, watching until men and wagon were out of sight, swallowed up by the falling snow.

"Think they can make it all the way up there in this weather?" JD asked when Vin turned to head back into the saloon.

"If they're lucky," Tanner replied, but the expression on his face was worry.

"For the sake of those poor souls in Winslow, we'd better pray they're lucky," Josiah said.

The others nodded as they trailed after Vin, returning to the relative warmth of the saloon for another round or two of Inez's hot coffee.

Wednesday, Four Corners


JD brushed past the bat-wing doors and hurried over to the table where the remaining four peacekeepers sat. He stopped before he sat down, stomping his feet on the wooden floor to knock the clumps of snow off his boots, his hands still tucked up under his arms in a futile attempt to keep his fingers warm.

The others looked up at the younger man, curious as to what had him moving so swiftly in the bitterly cold weather.

"Telegram came from Eagle Bend," JD said without prompting. "Chris and the rest made it there, and they're on their way to Winslow; storm broke pretty good up that way it seems. Said they weren't gonna stop for the night, and they'll send us a wire when they get to either Adamsville or Winslow."

"Made good time," Josiah commented, nodding thoughtfully to himself. "Luck must be holding."

Buck glanced out the windows of the saloon, noting the flashes of lightning in clouds in the far distance – out near Eagle Bend. His eyes cut back to Vin, his question clear but unspoken.

The tracker saw it and shrugged one shoulder. "Not lookin' too good from here," he replied honestly. "Might be better there, but… Hell, Larabee probably didn't want t' push his luck, that's why they're goin' on 'n' not spendin' the night in Eagle Bend."

"What do you mean?" JD asked, glancing between Buck and Vin.

"It means we've just spent the last hour watching Mr. Tanner watch the weather… and frown," Ezra supplied.

JD turned and looked out the window as well. "You mean it might be snowing up there again already?"

"Yep," Tanner replied, the word spoken quietly, his concern obvious.

"But if they get caught out in it—"

"Ain't gonna happen, JD," Buck interrupted him. "Chris knows that land. If he sees it's gonna storm too bad, he'll find a place to hole up until it passes. Lots 'a old mines up there in those mountains. Few ghost towns, too. Or they can go back to Eagle Bend if it gets too ugly. They'll be fine." But they all knew the ladies' man wasn't any less worried than the tracker.

Vin leaned back in his chair and sighed softly, his gaze fixed on the distant storm. He'd had a bad feeling about this trip from the beginning, and it wasn't getting any better. In fact, it was getting worse.

Unfortunately, he couldn't just up and leave and go looking for Larabee. The man had asked him to look after the town, and he'd said he would. When he gave his word, he didn't break it, still…

Tomorrow was another day, and if the feeling of foreboding hadn't lifted by then… Well, he'd just have to do whatever he felt was necessary. And that meant he'd be going after Larabee and the others, whether or not the gunslinger would be happy about it or not.

Thursday, Four Corners


The five peacekeepers were back at their usual table, each of them nursing a cup of fresh coffee that Inez had poured for them after she had cleared away their breakfast dishes.

Ezra pulled a deck of cards from his pocket and shuffled them, setting up a game of solitaire to play.

"If they pushed on straight through the night, they should've wired us by now," Buck said to no one in particular.

"I'll go check," JD said and started to stand, but the ladies' man reached out and grabbed his arm, pulling him back down into his seat. "Don't you think they'd let us know if Chris—"

A young boy burst past the bat-wing doors and charged into the room. Spotting JD, the child hurried over and held out a piece of paper to him. "Telegram come for ya, JD."

"Thank you, Nathaniel," JD replied, shooting Buck an I-told-you-so look as he accepted the telegram.

Josiah fished into his pocket and tipped the child a penny.

He grinned. "Thank ya, Mr. Sanchez!" he said, then turned and ran out of the saloon, heading straight across the street to Potter's Store to get himself some peppermint sticks.

The others turned their attention to JD, except for Vin, who was staring out the windows at the dark skies in the distance. He still had a bad feeling about the rescue mission, and he had learned a long time ago to trust his feelings.

"What's it say?" Buck asked, crowding in close to JD so he could read the telegram over the younger man's shoulder.

"It's from Winslow…" JD said, frowning worriedly. "They're asking if the Army wagon has left Four Corners yet…" he finished, trailing off and frowning more.

"They didn't get there," Vin said quietly.

The implications hit the others almost simultaneously. "JD, send a wire to Adamsville, see if they made it there," Josiah instructed.

Vin shook his head. "If they'd got there, they would've sent a wire."

"The snow might've taken down the telegraph wires somewhere between here and there," Josiah reasoned. "But if we get through, we'll know for certain they didn't make it and there's a problem."

Tanner stood, looking a little annoyed. "Know that much already, J'siah." And with that he headed out of the saloon.

Vin didn't get more than two steps beyond the bat-wing doors before he heard the telltale jingle of cavalry tack heading toward him. He turned, watching as a small detachment of soldiers, lead by a lieutenant, emerged from the snow and made their way down the main street of town. The men looked cold and tired, and it was obvious that they had seen battle recently.

The tracker guessed they must have been the unit that had been detached to accompany the wagon before the Indians drew them off.

A few moments later the other peacekeepers stepped out onto the boardwalk, waiting with Vin as the soldiers approached them.

The lieutenant called for a halt when they reached the five men and swung down off his horse. Stepping up under the overhang he asked, "Can one of you tell me where I might find a Mr. Chris Larabee?"

"Ain't here," Tanner replied.

"And the men who protect this town?" the officer asked.

"Lookin' at five of them right here," Buck supplied.

"Gentlemen, I'm Lt. Brian Crane. Has the wagon reached Winslow?"

"No," Buck said, holding the telegram out for the man.

Lt. Crane took it and read it, then sighed tiredly. "I knew they should have waited for the weather to really break… This snow is just too much for the animals, the wagon– I told Major Evans there was no way they'd get through McFadden Pass in this."

"Y' gonna go find 'em?" Vin asked, blue eyes full of challenge for the Army officer.

"No, sir, I am not. I'm going to send a wire, ask that another wagon be sent from Ford's Run. Perhaps they'll have an easier time of it, coming from the northeast."

"Yer gonna leave those men out there?" Vin demanded.

"There's nothing we can do for those men right now," Crane replied sadly, looking off in the direction of the mountains.

"Fine," Tanner hissed, then looked back at his companions. "We'll go get 'em."

"No, sir, you will not. That fever up there is spreading. All the towns around here are going to be quarantined. Another detachment is an hour or two behind me to do just that here in Four Corners. My men and I are heading to Eagle Bend. This is an Army matter now, and the Army will take care of it. Our first priority is stopping the spread of this fever. So, to that end, no one is to leave town. Is that understood?"

"Lieutenant, two of our friends went with that wagon to help those people up there," Buck told him.

"I'm aware of that, sir. Sergeant Daniels left a message for us in Guthrie before they headed out saying a Mr. Larabee and a Mr. Jackson had gone along. Given the weather, I expected to find all of them still here. Now, if we need your help, we'll ask for it, but, right now, I don't want you men adding to our problems. Stay here, stay warm. We'll find them – just as soon as we get the people in Winslow and the other hard-hit communities taken care of."

And with that Lt. Crane returned to his horse, mounted, and rode away, his men trailing along behind him. The five peacekeepers watched them go, the light snow beginning to fall again.

Buck shook his head. "Damn fool…"

"We gonna do what he said?" JD asked, looking at the other men.

"What do you think?" Ezra asked the younger man, his gaze fixed firmly on the tracker.

JD shot Tanner a look. "I say we don't pay the Army any mind, we go find Chris and Nathan."

Vin turned to look at the four men. "JD, go send that wire t' Adamsville."

"Oh… all right," Dunne replied, his bravado swept aside by the tracker. He started down the boardwalk at a brisk pace.

Vin drew a deep breath, held it a moment, then let it out. His gaze moved from Ezra to Josiah to Buck. "Reckon once we hear back from Adamsville three 'a us will be headin' out before that other detachment gets here."

"Which three?" Buck asked suspiciously.

Vin didn't hesitate. "You, me 'n' JD."

"Just a moment, Mr. Tanner," Ezra quickly put in. "Why are Mr. Sanchez and I being left behind to face quarantine – not to mention the ire of the Army?"

"Can't leave the town t' fend fer itself, 'n'—"

"We have before," Josiah interrupted to remind him.

Tanner nodded once and huffed out a small breath, the muscles in his jaw jumping slightly. "J'siah, y' think yer up t' climbin' through McFadden Pass on foot?" His gaze shifted to Ezra before the big man had a chance to reply. "And you, Ezra, how much time y' spent on foot recently?"

Both of the men looked a little angry, and a little chagrined. It was Josiah who spoke first. "You've made your point, Vin. But I can't say I cotton to just sittin' here and doin' nothing – especially with the Army in town."

Tanner nodded. "One 'a y' needs t' stay here, the other'll ride with us 'til we have t' leave the horses behind, then go back t' Eagle Bend 'n' wait. If Chris and them get through t' Adamsville, or Winslow, they're gonna wire here. Whoever's here c'n pass the message along t' whoever's in Eagle Bend. Y' get word they's safe, y' ride out t' where we started out on foot 'n' fire yer gun three times. Ain't a place in that pass where we won't hear it 'n' we c'n start back."

The three men thought for a moment, then they all nodded.

"When do we leave?" Buck asked him.

"Soon as we c'n," was the tracker's reply. "Best we not take on a whole detachment 'a soldiers. Meet me at the livery when y' got yer supplies t'gether. An' Buck, make sure JD's dresses warm enough."

The ladies' man nodded, then turned and headed for the telegraph office to get JD.

Josiah and Ezra went back inside the saloon.

"Well, you want to go, or stay?" Josiah asked the gambler.

"Why don't we do the equitable thing and flip a coin?" Ezra replied, already fishing into his pocket. He pulled out a five dollar gold piece and asked, "Your preference?"

"Tails," Josiah replied.

Standish flipped the coin into the air, then caught it and slapped it onto the back of his free hand. Pulling his hand back to reveal the coin, he found the former priest had called it correctly. "It appears you have won, Mr. Sanchez," he said on a sigh. "I'll go find my heaviest coat…"

"Nope," Josiah replied, flashing the gambler a toothy grin. "I'll be goin' with 'em."

Erza was stunned. "But you won."

The big man grinned. "Yep, I sure did."

Ezra sighed and watched Josiah as he left, knowing he would have done exactly the same thing if their situations had been reversed. He just didn't expect any of the others to believe that. And he certainly didn't have a clue why he would have done the same.

Thursday, in the mountains

Early afternoon

"Over here! I found it!" Nathan yelled, gesturing for the others to hurry up. A few moments later, the two remaining soldiers carried Chris through the snow and into the mine shaft the healer had finally located. Right behind them was Dr. Richard Dean Hanna, who was leading the four remaining mules, two of them laden with the supplies they had been able to salvage from the wrecked wagon.

Once everyone was inside the mine shaft, including the mules, Nathan and the doctor turned their attention to Chris, who lay silent and still where the soldiers had put him.

Kneeling down on either side of the gunman, they began to check him over for injuries. Dr. Hanna looked at Nathan. "I meant to ask earlier, are you a physician?"

Jackson shook his head. "No, sir, just a healer, but I been takin' care 'a Chris and the others for more 'n a year now."

"A healer?" the man questioned.

Nathan felt himself bristle slightly. "Ya know what's wrong with him?"

That shifted Dr. Hanna's attention back to the unconscious man. Given the earlier incident, there were any number of things that might possibly be wrong with the man, and he wasn't at all sure he really wanted to venture a diagnosis.

They had been making steady progress toward reaching the summit of McFadden Pass when Larabee had suddenly called for a halt. The gunman had then taken one of the mules and had ridden off for a short time, then returned and told Sergeant Daniels to unhitch his team, that they would be making the remainder of the trip on mule-back, or on foot.

The physician had immediately balked. They were so close to the summit, there was no reason to take an alternative route now, not as far as he could see.

The two soldiers didn't seem inclined to go along with the gunslinger either, but Sergeant Daniels did, and he'd ordered the others to unhitch the mules and move the supplies onto their backs.

In hindsight, it was fortunate that they had followed the blond's advice. The tail end of a snow slide caught them just after they had started out on the old mine trail, sweeping up the abandoned wagon as well as one of the soldiers and the mule he had been riding. If they had been on the main trail, they would have all been caught directly in it.

They had found both man and beast later, dead, some of their bones snapped like twigs. Another one of the mules had shied away when the rush of snow had swept past them, bolting and unseating the doctor, who had fallen harmlessly into the snow. The mule, however, had not been so fortunate and the sergeant had been forced to kill the animal when they had found it a short time later, one of its legs severely broken.

Larabee himself had ended up half-buried in the snow, pressed up against a rock face and trapped there by the largest intact section of the wagon, which was pressed against his chest.

They had dug him out as quickly as they could, but he had been unconscious, and remained that way as all the supplies that could be salvaged were shifted onto two of the remaining four mules. Sergeant Daniels and the soldier had carried Larabee while Jackson lead the way, knowing that, somewhere along the trail, they would find an old mineshaft – if what Chris had told him about the area was true, and he had no reason to doubt the man. Dr. Hanna had followed them, leading the surviving mules with their precious cargo.

Making their way through the deep snow on foot had been slow and laborious, but they had managed it. And Jackson had found the old mine for them to hole up in, although it was cold and damp and about as uncomfortable as one could imagine, but at least they were in out of the falling snow and the blowing wind.

"Doctor?" Nathan called, scattering the man's thoughts.

"Huh?" Dr. Hanna blinked and shook his head. Then his chin came up and he frowned as he looked toward the entrance of the mine. "I thought I just heard a wolf howling out there."

"Probably just the wind," Sgt. Daniels said as he walked past them carrying an armload of wood.

"Sergeant," the soldier called.

Nathan looked over at the private, noting the worried look on his face as he conversed with the sergeant in soft tones. Rising to his feet, he walked over to join the two men.

"Something wrong?" he asked them.

Daniels spat out a stream of tobacco juice and wiped the back of his hand over his mouth before he said, "Snow's comin' down harder. Ain't gonna be able t' travel in this, and Dean here tells me the shafts have all been closed off 'bout thirty feet in."

Nathan sighed. So they were stuck here now, at least until the weather lifted, or until they ran out of wood to burn and froze to death. He looked back at Chris, wishing the man would wake up so they would know how he was faring, and find out where, exactly, they were – neither he, Dr. Hanna, nor either of the soldiers knew this area as well as Larabee did. And he had to admit he was worried about the bruising on Larabee's chest, although he didn't think the man had broken any ribs. Still, they might be cracked, and God alone knew what was happening inside the man's body. It was impossible to know if something had been crushed when that section of wagon had struck him and pinned him to the rocks.

"Think they'll come looking for us?" the private asked.

Nathan responded without conscious thought. "They'll come," he stated.

"I doubt it," Sgt. Daniels countered. "Army'll prob'ly dispatch 'nother wagon from someplace else, take care 'a the outbreaks before they come lookin' for us."

Nathan shrugged. "Don't know about the Army, Sergeant, but my friends'll come for us. Find us, too, you just wait and see." And with that he turned back to Chris and the doctor.

Thursday, Eagle Bend

Late night

Vin lay in his room at the hotel, a concession to the weather. He was cold, too, colder than he'd expected, so he rose and took a spare quilt from the trunk in the room and placed it on the bed, then climbed back into the warmth and closed his eyes.

He didn't think he was going to be able to sleep, but he must have dropped off, because, the next thing he knew, it was daylight again and he was standing outside, next to Larabee.

"Chris?" he called, confused.

The blond looked up, green eyes meeting his. It was clear Larabee was in pain, and that was no surprise, given his situation.

"What happened?" Vin asked.

"Snow slide," Larabee replied, his voice weak and airy. The man was trapped between a rock face and a section of the supply wagon. Some of the wood was pressing up against the man's chest, pinning him where he was. Nathan and the soldiers were trying to dig what was left of the wagon out of the snow so they could shift it off Larabee, but it was slow going.

"Y' hurt?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded. "My chest," the man wheezed. "Hurts… Hard to breathe."

Vin nodded. "Looks like they'll have y' free real soon," he said to encourage the man. He took a step forward, somehow knowing he was dreaming, but it didn't matter. Chris was hurt and he wanted to do whatever he could to help him.

"You coming after us?" Chris asked.

Vin nodded. "Y' ought t' know we would."

Larabee flashed him a weak smile. "I know, just… needed to hear it from you."

"Y' need me, 'm goin' t' come, Cowboy – every time."

Chris smiled, then he reached up and fingered the knitted scarf that was wrapped around his neck.

"That keepin' y' warm?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded.

"Well, y' just hold on t' it 'til I get there, y'hear?"

"I'll do that," Chris promised.

Friday, Eagle Bend


The three peacekeepers had ridden straight through to Eagle Bend on Thursday, but the weather had forced them to stop there for the remainder of the night. The light snow that had accompanied them from Four Corners to just outside Eagle Bend, had picked up and the wind had started to blow, making it nearly impossible for them, or their horses, to see the trail. So they had stopped, taking rooms at the cheapest hotel in town. Now, with daybreak, they sat in a restaurant, wolfing down a hot breakfast and working on their second cup of coffee while a light snow continued to fall outside.

JD stared out the window, his eyes rounding slightly as the flakes began to fall harder, growing in size, too. "You're gonna be able to find them in this?" he asked the tracker.

Vin looked up from his plate, glancing briefly outside before turning his gaze to JD. "Won't last long."

That sent Buck's eyebrows climbing. "Ya sure about that?"

Tanner nodded, then wiped his mouth with his napkin and tossed it onto the table. He fished his money for the meal out of his pocket and left it on the table. "Meet me in the livery soon as y' c'n. Heard the clerk at the hotel sayin' the Army's due in here this mornin' t' enforce the quarantine." And, after draining the last of the coffee from his cup, the tracker was gone.

The waitress stopped at their table, asking, "More coffee, boys?"

"I'd love some, but I'm afraid we have to go," Josiah told her a little wistfully.

She smiled indulgently and moved on to her other customers as Buck and JD hurried to finish their food and coffee.

As the three men exited the restaurant a few minutes later, JD pulled his collar up, asking Buck, "You really think we can ride in this?"

"Don't see we have a choice, JD," Wilmington replied, but he was at least as worried as the kid was about the conditions.

Knowing he wouldn't be facing the same dangers as the others, Josiah kept his own thoughts to himself. He had every confidence in Vin's tracking skills, and the man's ability to survive in the wilderness, but it was his connection to Chris that would have to see him though this one, because there was no way anyone, not even Vin Tanner, could find a mountain in this weather, let alone a man lost on one.

At the livery the men saddled their horses, double-checked their supplies, and then headed out in silence.

Friday, on the trail


A little over an hour later, the four men reached the split in the trail that would take them to Adamsville. Vin signaled for a halt and sat, staring up at the mountains that were almost entirely hidden by low-hanging, dark clouds. After several minutes had passed, he shifted Peso and stared up the trail that led over McFadden Pass.

When several more minutes passed and Tanner still hadn't moved, Buck cleared his throat and said, "Chris said he was takin' the trail to Adamsville, Vin."

"I know what the man said," Vin replied a little sharply, his gaze still on the trail leading up over the pass. Chris was somewhere out there, hurt, and he was counting on Vin to find him. The tracker didn't want to let him down.

"Then, uh, don't you think we should get going?" JD asked, brushing off the snow that had accumulated on his shoulders.

"Vin?" Josiah asked when the tracker didn't respond.

Tanner huffed out a breath that immediately condensed into a thick, white cloud in front of his face. He shook his head. "He didn't take the trail t' Adamsville."

"Vin, he said he was—"

"They didn't go that way," Tanner snapped at the ladies' man. "Come on, we got t' get movin'," he added, frowning slightly as he turned away and started straight up the trail leading over McFadden Pass.

Buck watched him go, then looked to Josiah. "Chris said—"

"Ya better hurry, brother," the older man said, nodding after Tanner.

With a frustrated sigh, Buck started after the tracker, JD reining in beside him.


"I know, I know," the ladies' man snapped, interrupting JD's comment before it got started. "But you know how Vin and Chris are…"

The younger man nodded. The two men did seem to share some strange connection the rest of them could only marvel at. And, while he might still be a bit of a greenhorn, he knew enough to realize that, if Vin was wrong, Chris, Nathan and the others would probably be dead before they found them anyway.

Friday, on the trail

An hour later

Vin drew Peso up, the big black snorting and shaking his head, perhaps anticipating what his human planned to do next.

"This is as far as the horses c'n go in this," Tanner told them, handing Josiah his reins and climbing off the gelding's back.

Buck and JD climbed down from their horses as well.

"It must be close to twenty miles to the summit from here," the ladies' man said, frowning.

"That'll take us days, won't it?" JD asked, already sounding defeated.

"Y' see that canyon?" Vin asked the two men and Buck and JD nodded. "We're gonna stay right on the rim. It follows the same path as the trail, but it cuts the distance. We ought t' get to 'em in twenty-four hours or so."

"We gonna last that long?" Buck asked him. "Can they?"

"Depends on where they are," Vin said. "But I reckon a day, maybe two, is 'bout all we've got."

Buck and JD exchanged looks, but they didn't argue.

"We better get goin'," the tracker stated, shrugging into the backpack he had made for his use. He reached up and untied the handmade snowshoes from his saddle and secured them to his feet. Buck and JD did the same.

In the back of his mind, Vin could still see Chris, pinned against that rock, fighting for breath. He reached up and absently rubbed at his chest. A day, that was all the time they had, a day and a half, at best…

A few minutes later, they were ready to go.

Having tied the horses' reins to his own saddle horn, Josiah was ready to head back to Eagle Bend, too, but he really would have preferred to go along with them. "Be careful," he told them.

"We will," JD promised.

Buck and Vin nodded, then the tracker turned and started off. The homemade snowshoes kept them walking on the surface of the snow, and the pace the tracker set was brisk.

Josiah watched them go, finally turning away when the snow began to fall heavier again, rendering them invisible. He wasn't looking forward to the ride back to town, and he really wasn't looking forward to meeting up with Lt. Crane again. He guessed the man ought to arrive today, if he'd stuck to the main road, and that was a good bet, since they hadn't caught up to the soldiers on the rougher trail they had used from Four Corners.

Lord, he prayed as he headed back to Eagle Bend, watch over 'em, and the others. Bring 'em all safely home… because we need 'em Lord, we need 'em all.

Friday, abandoned mine shaft

Just after noon

Inside the old mine, Nathan sat beside Chris, watching as the man's breathing slowly became more and more labored. He shook his head. It had been a day since Chris had been hurt and he wasn't exactly sure what was wrong with the blond, but he knew it had something to do with his lungs, and if it was what he thought it might be, Larabee was in trouble.

Looking over at the doctor, Jackson frowned. If he didn't know better, he'd swear the man was avoiding his patient. But that made no sense to the healer.

A soft moan drew his attention back to Chris and he looked down to find the man's eyes blinking open. "Nathan," Larabee wheezed, then frowned.

"Easy, Chris," the healer said. "Ain't sure how bad you're hurt. Best you don't move around too much."

"Hard… to breathe," Larabee said airily.

Jackson frowned. "You hurtin' anywhere?"

"Chest," the blond replied, grimacing as he tried to draw a deeper breath.

Nathan sighed softly, his mind racing with possibilities, all of them bad as far as he was concerned. Chris had been trapped up against that rock face for a couple of hours before they had found him, and then it had taken them another hour or more to dig him free.

At the time the man had been unconscious, so they hadn't had any idea if he was hurt or not. There was nothing obvious, but they couldn't risk removing the man's clothes out there in the cold. Now, though, with Larabee awake, maybe they should get a better look at the man's chest and back. But not before they built up a couple of fires, to ensure Larabee didn't catch a chill at the same time.

"Chris, I want ya to just lay still right there 'til I get a couple small fires started, then the doctor and me, we're goin' to take a look at you, okay?"

Larabee nodded, but the look in his eyes was one of worry. He couldn't breathe right and he didn't know why. He reached up, loosening the knitted scarf around his neck, but he didn't take it off.

"Doc," Jackson called as he went over to the pile of wood the soldiers had collected.

Dr. Hanna rose and walked over to join him. "Mr. Jackson?"

"Chris is havin' trouble breathin'," Nathan told the physician. "Says his chest hurts." He watched the man, trying to gauge his understanding. "I'm gonna build a couple of small fires, to keep him warm. You're gonna need to strip him down, check his chest and his back."

"We checked those earlier," the man replied, his gaze shifting around the old mine, looking everywhere but at Chris, or Nathan. "There were no broken ribs. He's probably just bruised from the weight of the wagon pressing up against him."

"Maybe," Jackson allowed, "and maybe not, too. You gonna come take a look?"

"I'm splinting the private's ankle at the moment. Nasty sprain," he said, trying to find some excuse to avoid dealing with the wounded man. "When I'm finished…"

"Yeah, when you're done," Nathan agreed, his forehead puckering with confusion at the man's reaction. Something was wrong, but he wasn't at all sure what it was. And he didn't really care, either. He just wanted to make sure Chris was all right, and for the doctor to take care of him if he wasn't. "Guess you better get back to that ankle then," he said, watching as Dr. Hanna nodded and returned to the soldier, who was sitting near the fire next to Sgt. Daniels.

Shaking his head, Jackson gathered the wood he needed and got the two small fires burning. Then, as carefully as he could, he helped Chris to sit up and got him out of his jacket, unwrapped the scarf from around his neck, and began to remove the various layers of clothing he was wearing until he finally had him stripped down to the waist.

There were several large bruises on the man's chest, sides and back, but another, more careful examination of the man's ribs didn't turn up any that were broken, although the healer was now convinced a few had been bruised by the impact of the wagon striking him.

Larabee remained silent throughout the examination, his breathing shallow and a little too rapid for the healer's comfort.

The blond's abdomen was also bruised, but there didn't seem to be any internal injuries there, either. His arms, shoulders and legs were all fine as well, except for a nasty scrape that ran up the man's left forearm. Nathan treated that, then asked, "Sounds like it's easier fo' ya to breathe sittin' up," he said, wanting to know if his observation was accurate.

"Some," Chris replied, nodding.

"All right, then," Jackson replied, "I'll get something arranged so you can lean back and rest, but you can still sit up."

Chris nodded again. "You know what's wrong?"

"Ain't sure," Nathan replied, not wanting to worry the man with his concerns. "Dr. Hanna is gonna come take a look at you when he gets done taking care of that soldier's ankle."

Larabee nodded, but he could hear the worry in the healer's voice. "You found… the old mine…"

Nathan nodded. "Damn miracle any of us is alive," the healer said. "That slide… Ain't sure anybody can find us here, though."

"Vin'll find us," Chris whispered, as sure of that as he was the fact the sun would rise the next day.

Nathan nodded, but he wasn't as sanguine as Chris. He glanced at the mouth of the mine, seeing that it was snowing again. He just couldn't imagine how anyone could come looking for them in this weather, and if they didn't…

And then there were those sick people in Winslow to worry about, too.

He forced the depressing thoughts away, trying to stay hopeful for Chris, and for the others, if nothing else. He was sure their friends would come, he just wasn't sure they would come in time.

The healer glanced over at the doctor, wishing he would hurry. There was something wrong with that man, but he wasn't sure what, and he really didn't want to have to deal with it right now, but he knew he had no choice.

He looked back down at Chris, but Larabee was sleeping or unconscious once more. "Doc?" he called.

Friday, Eagle Bend

Just after noon

Josiah rode back into Eagle Bend, leading the three horses. He took them straight to the livery and helped the stable boy rub them down and fed them. Then he walked down to the telegraph office and sent a wire to Ezra, letting him know the three men were on their way into the mountains. When he was done, he walked to the café and bought himself a hot lunch.

He was just finishing his second cup of coffee when he saw the Army detachment ride into town, heading straight for the sheriff's office.

With a sigh he rose, fished out some money to pay for his meal, and then headed across the street to see what the military had to say.

As soon as he stepped into the lawman's office, Josiah recognized the young officer standing there. "Lt. Crane," he greeted when the soldier turned to see who had come in.

Crane's eyes widened, then narrowed as he took in the former preacher. He turned back to the sheriff. "As I was saying, Sheriff, we're here to ensure that no one from the communities north of here comes into town. And," he added, "we're also here to keep anyone from Eagle Bend from heading up to those communities unless they're authorized to do so by the Army."

"Too late for that," the sheriff replied, shooting a look at Josiah. "Three of them peacekeepers from Four Corners, his friends," he added, jerking his chin in Josiah's direction, "are already out there somewhere."

Crane turned to look at Josiah, clearly upset. "Is that true?"

Sanchez nodded.

Crane was angry, but he held it in check. "I told you and your friends that the Army was taking care of this."

Josiah nodded. "You're takin' care of the fever, and I'm sure all those communities up there will appreciate it, Lieutenant, but we're takin' care of our friends."

"If your friends haven't reached Winslow or Adamsville by now, then they're already dead."

Josiah offered a small shrug. "Maybe… and maybe not," he said. "We just need to find out for sure; some of your men are out there with 'em, too."

"I'm aware of that, sir, but they knew the risks when they volunteered to escort that medical wagon."

"Ya want me to arrest him?" the sheriff asked, sounding hopeful, Josiah thought.

"No need for that, Sheriff," Lt. Crane said on a sigh. "Harm's already been done." He looked at Josiah again, saying, "You'll have to stay here."

"Planned on it," Josiah replied.

"Fine." The lieutenant turned and started for the door, then paused and looked back at Josiah. "For what it's worth, sir, I hope you find your friends."

"Appreciate that, Lieutenant," Josiah said with a thin smile.

Friday, abandoned mine


Nathan knelt down next to where Chris now rested, leaning back against a pallet the healer had built against the shaft wall. He was wrapped in blankets from the rescued supplies, and two small fires burned on either side of him, helping to hold back the cold and the dampness.

"You feelin' any worse?" the healer asked.

Chris thought for a moment, then shook his head.

Nathan nodded. "Better than feelin' worse," he said. "Want some coffee?"

A nod.

Nathan rose and got it for the injured man, bringing it back, along with a couple of warmed rocks in a sack. He placed the rocks near Larabee's feet before he handed him the coffee. "Stayin' warm?"

The blond nodded as he cradled the cup in both hands, blowing on the surface of the coffee before taking a sip.

Nathan glanced around. The soldiers and Dr. Hanna were sleeping, but the former slave couldn't seem to settle. He sat down next to Chris, leaning back against the pallet and Larabee lifted the blankets, swinging them over to cover Jackson's legs.

"Oh, I'm fine, Chris," Nathan said, but he was grateful for the gesture.

"Don't… tell me… you're not… cold," Chris managed.

"Some," Nathan admitted as he tucked the blankets under his thigh to hold the heat in.

The two men sat in silence for a few minutes, Chris working on his coffee. Then Nathan asked softly, "You really think they'll come lookin' for us?"

Chris nodded. "I know… Vin will… the others… too."

The healer smiled. "You think they'll get here in time? Even Vin can't track us in this weather."

Chris grinned slightly. "He'll find… a way."

"Well, I suppose if anybody can, it's Vin. There are times I think that man can track a fish through water."

Larabee smiled. "And tell ya… what kind… 'a fish… it was."

That made Nathan chuckle softly. "Wouldn't put it past him, that's fo' sure."

"They'll come," Chris said, reaching up to finger the knitted scarf wrapped around his neck again. "In time, too."

And Nathan silently prayed that the blond was right.

When Chris finished the coffee, Nathan took the cup from him and said, "You get some rest."

Larabee nodded. He was tired, more than he ought to be. But the blankets, fire and warmed rocks were keeping him warm and that made him sleepy. At least it hadn't gotten too much harder to breathe. He'd been coughing some, but it was a dry cough, and it didn't do anything to help him. He folded his arms over his chest and closed his eyes, thinking about Vin. He could imagine the tracker, making his way though the snow, following some invisible trail that would lead him to them…

Friday in the mountains


The three peacekeepers continued to push their way through the snow, their snowshoes still keeping them from sinking too far into the cold, wet accumulation, but it was slow going and they were all three huffing from the effort.

"Vin, hold up, we need a break," Buck called to the tracker, who was about ten yards in front of him.

"Two more miles," Vin called back.

"That's what you said two miles ago," Buck argued.

"Are we going the right way?" JD asked.

"Yep," Vin replied.

"How do you know?" JD asked, completely lost in the white wilderness.

"Just do," Vin told him.

"Vin, come on, we can't keep up this kind of pace," Buck called to the man, but the tracker ignored him, pushing on.

Buck and JD exchanged glances, both of them knowing that they would end up dead if they couldn't keep up with the man.

"All right, two more miles, but then we rest," the ladies' man called.

"Two more miles," Tanner agreed. He glanced to the side where Chris was walking along next to him, guiding him. It was more than a little disconcerting, but he didn't question the reality of it. To be honest, he was grateful for the guidance.

And Spirit-being looked just like Chris, was even wearing the same clothes the man had been wearing when he'd left Four Corners on Wednesday. In particular, though, it was the knitted scarf wrapped around his neck that stood out. And the fact that it looked like Chris gave him hope.

The Spirit-Chris ever said a word, but it walked along on the surface of the snow, leading Vin farther and farther up, into the mountains.

The tracker knew he'd made the right decision about the path they were taking, but he wished they were making better time. The snow was too light, though, allowing them to sink farther into it than they would have if it had been a wet, thick snow. But as long as the Spirit-Chris was at his side, he knew they had time to find Larabee and Nathan. And that thought kept him pushing forward, even when his muscles begged for a break.

He wished the Spirit would talk to him, but he knew silence was all he would get.

Hang on, Chris, he said silently. We're comin'.

Friday, abandoned mine


Dr. Hanna stood and walked over to Sgt. Daniels, who was looking over his mules. "Why hasn't the Army come for us?" he asked the older man.

The sergeant looked up at the physician. "Well, sir, I reckon they got other priorities."

"Will they come for us?"

Daniels shrugged. "Don't rightly know, Doc. But once the snow stops, we c'n strike out for Winslow ourselves. Mr. Larabee's already given me the directions to get us there."

"Provided we don't freeze to death before that," Dr. Hanna grumbled, "or starve to death."

"Only been here a day and a half," Nathan said from where he sat. "Army's got fever outbreaks to deal with. Our—"

"Outbreaks?" Dr. Hanna demanded. "There is more than one?"

Sgt. Daniels dipped his head and sighed. "Yes, sir," he admitted, "at least three communities up here that I know about. I told Nathan earlier…"

"Good Lord, man, why didn't somebody say so! We don't have medicine for three or more communities!"

"The Army's sendin' supplies to all the towns that've been hit, Doc. They just didn't want a panic, folks runnin' all over the Territory if they're carrying somethin' catchin'."

"Our friends will come for us, but ya got to give 'em time to find us. Besides, Chris isn't in any condition to be moved just yet," the healer said as he stood and walked over to the doctor, adding quietly, "That man's got internal injuries, Doctor. You and me both know he's bleedin' inside. You've got to do something, or he's goin' to die before that help gets here."

"I can't do anything under these conditions," the physician argued.

"You can't just leave him to die, you're a doctor… Look, I'll help you as much as I can, but I'm no doctor. I've never done what needs to be done."

Dr. Hanna shook his head. "There's nothing I can do, I tell you."

"Leave him," Chris breathed out. "Man's lost… his nerve…"

Nathan looked from Chris to the doctor, then he frowned at the physician's flushed cheeks. "That right?"

"I'm telling you, there's nothing we can do for that man here."

"Like hell there ain't," Nathan hissed at Hanna. "I know as well as you do what needs to be done, but I ain't never done it, you have."

"You… do it, Nathan," Chris said.

The healer turned back to look down at Larabee. "I could kill ya, Chris."

"Better 'n layin' here… dyin' slow."

Nathan swung back to the doctor. He reached out and grabbed the man by the coat and pulled him up close. "You know what he needs. Go get ready. You're doin' it."

"I can't, I tell you."

"You will, Doc," Nathan said lowly, "one way or another. That man's my friend, and I ain't gonna let you kill him. Understand?"

Hanna nodded, but his hands were already beginning to sweat and his legs began to tremble. "I'll– I'll need your assistance."

"I'll do whatever ya tell me to," Nathan promised.

"Fine, but give me a while to gather myself and review the procedure in my medical book."

Nathan nodded.

Friday in the mountains


The three peacekeepers sat on a felled tree that they had scraped the snow off, still breathing hard as they rested.

"How're we doing?" Buck asked as he chewed on a piece of jerky.

"More 'n halfway there, I reckon," Vin replied, glancing around and looking for the Spirit-being, but there was no sign of it now. That worried the tracker. Had something happened to Chris? He didn't think so, it didn't feel like it in his heart, but there was no way to be sure.

"Will we reach them tomorrow?" JD asked.

Tanner nodded. "If we pick up the pace t'night."

"Tonight? Vin, we're not gettin' stronger," Buck said. "We're gettin' weaker. We should rest overnight, start again in the morning."

"Don't have that kind 'a time. Another storm's comin' in, I c'n feel it. We'll make it," Vin said, his tone revealing no doubts. He couldn't allow himself any.

Buck looked skeptical. He wasn't at all sure he could keep walking all night, and he really didn't think JD could. Hell, he wasn't even sure about Tanner, although he suspected the tracker would pull it off on pure cussedness alone.

Friday, Four Corners


Ezra was sitting in the saloon, playing his third game of solitaire that hour when he heard the arrival of the Army detachment. The wire he'd gotten from Josiah earlier in the day had warned him the Army was actually placing communities under quarantine, just like Lt. Crane had warned them.

Tossing down his cards, he stood and walked to the bat-wing doors, watching as the detachment made its way down the snow-covered main street.

Another lieutenant pulled up at the saloon and dismounted. Ezra met him as he stepped up onto the boardwalk. "I suppose it's too much to ask that you and your men are a rescue party, come to look for the men who left here with medical supplies for Winslow…"

"You'd be right," the man replied. "Lt. Murphy, and you are?"

"Ezra Standish, one of the peacekeepers in the employ of Judge Orin Travis."

The officer nodded. "Snow's still falling too hard for a rescue mission, Mr. Standish. And, yes, I'm aware some of your friends are out there," the man said, seeing the anger flash through the gambler's green eyes. "My men and I are here to ensure no one enters or leaves this town until the crisis is over, nothing more."

"You are correct, sir. Two of my friends were among the missing with the medical wagon, but three others have gone out to look for them."

"Yep, I know about them, too," Murphy said. "They're just another problem the Army's trying to deal with right now."

"At least they are trying to reach the men who did nothing but risk their lives to help others in need on this mission of mercy."

"Assuming they're alive. It's been snowing the whole time, and that's a damn long walk."

"Yes, well, I don't know about you, Lieutenant, but I'm grateful there's someone out there who's at least trying to help them."

"Best save your gratitude for the Army, sir – for when we stop this fever from spreadin' any farther than it already has."

"I'm sure many will thank you, Lieutenant," Ezra said. "But at what cost?"

"Folks up in Winslow are too far gone to help now. We sent a wagon. They didn't make it. Now we have to concentrate on keepin' the rest of you free of this sickness." And with that the man walked away, calling out orders to his men.

Mary, who had come up to listen to the exchange now stepped out of the shadows and hurried over to join Ezra. "Do you think Vin and the others can find them?"

Standish nodded. "I have every confidence in Mr. Tanner."

"Do you think they'll take the medicine on to Winslow when they do?"

"I don't know," Ezra said, "but I would assume so, yes. I cannot imagine Mr. Jackson abandoning a community in need."

She nodded. "I just wanted to let you know… we're all meeting over at the church in an hour – to pray for them, and the people in Winslow."

Ezra nodded. He rarely set foot inside the church, unless it was to speak to Josiah, but this time he thought he just might. A little prayer right now couldn't hurt, and it might help to calm his anxiousness.

He looked at Mary and asked, "Do you know what he means about the fever spreading?"

Mary nodded. "From what I've been able to determine, it's spread to several of the smaller communities up around Winslow, and some to the south west as well. The death toll is rising."

Friday, abandoned mine


"Chris, you awake?" Nathan called quietly.

Larabee's eyes blinked open. "Yeah… 'm awake," he wheezed.

"I need the truth," Nathan said, his tone serious. "Is it gettin' harder to breathe?"

Larabee nodded.

"You stay still, y'hear?" Nathan told him. "I'm gonna go get the doctor, we're gonna take care of this."

The healer rose and walked straight over to Dr. Hanna, who didn't look up at him, but continued to read his medical text by the light cast by the fire. Nathan waited for a moment, then squatted down and said quietly, "Ya need to put that down and come take care of this man – now – or he's goin' to be dead by morning."

Dr. Hanna's hands shook as he closed the book and put it aside. "I told you—"

"Come on," Nathan said, reaching out and taking the man's bag. When that didn't get the man moving, he stuck his hand out so he could help the doctor to his feet.

Hanna came reluctantly, but he knew he had no choice, and he'd delayed as long as the healer was going to let him. Nathan would ride him until he did what he'd sworn he'd never do again – operate on another human being. But he was going to do just that, because, if he didn't, the man would die, and he couldn't let that happen, either.

He was desperately afraid he might freeze up, however, just like he had before…

Reaching Larabee, the doctor waited anxiously while Nathan got the man uncovered and undressed again. He watched the man's chest, noting the decreased movement on one side. He sighed and sat down next to the man, listening to the man's chest with his stethoscope and finding diminished breath sounds on the same side. The presence of dullness to percussion over the fluid told him the healer had been right all along.

He looked over at Nathan, saying, "We'll need to do a thoracentesis."

"What's that?" Chris asked, then coughed. The dry cough had been picking up over the past several hours, and Hanna knew he probably should have acted sooner.

The doctor didn't look at Chris as he described the procedure while digging into his bag to find a trocar. Glancing up to catch Nathan's eye, he said, "I'll need you to boil everything."

Jackson nodded and got to work.

Chris watched the preparations, trying not to fidget anxiously. The doctor left for a few moments, then returned with a wad of snow which he wrapped in a cloth.

"Mr. Larabee, I'm going to press this against your side, to help make it numb," the doctor said and then proceeded to do just that. Chris gritted his teeth and tried not to pull away from the cold. "As I said, I'm going to insert a needle into your side and allow the fluids that are building up around your lung to drain away, that will make breathing much easier."

The blond wasn't at all sure he liked the sound of that, but he knew something had to be done. Without realizing it, he squeezed the knitted scarf he was holding in his hands.

After a while the cold became less noticeable as his side numbed.

The doctor and Nathan worked in silence for a while, then Dr. Hanna came over and squatted down next to Chris and said, "When we get started, I need you to breathe as deeply as you can, but do not cough. And, please, do not move."

"I'll do… my best," Chris told the man.

Dr. Hanna offered him a small smile. "I'm sure you will. It'll be painful, but hopefully not too much."

Larabee nodded.

"If you get short of breath—"

"Already am," Larabee interrupted.

The doctor smiled again. "Shorter of breath, then, or if you have chest pain, tell me immediately."

Another nod from the blond let the doctor know he had heard and understood.

When they were ready, they moved Chris over to sit on a large, flat rock Nathan had found. The doctor positioned him so he was leaning forward slightly, resting his arms on one of the packs of supplies. The doctor washed Larabee's side, his hands only shaking slightly.

Nathan knelt next to the doctor, watching.

Hanna picked up his trocar and said quietly, "You want to select a site that is dependent and safely away from important structures. The ideal interspace is the seventh, eighth or ninth, midway between the posterior axillary line and midline. That will avoid an accidental puncture of the liver, spleen, diaphragm or descending aorta."

Nathan nodded, glad that the doctor seemed to have settled down.

"I prefer the interspace just below the limit of dullness…" Hanna said, trailing off as he began.

Larabee grunted as he felt the hot sting of the penetration, but the numbness cut the worst of it. He ground his teeth together and concentrated on not moving as the pain increased, as well as a disconcerting sense of pressure inside his chest as he felt the instrument sink deeper into his body.

A moment later, the gunman yelped slightly as a sharp sting shot though his chest. And, a few seconds later, he could see the water in the cooking pot sitting next to him start to turn bloody. He realized that it was the blood from inside his chest, draining through the tube the doctor had inserted. It was a little frightening, but he could already tell it was getting easier for him to breathe. He looked at Nathan, who was looking pleased.

"You're doing fine, Chris," the healer said.

"How long?" Larabee asked.

"Not too long," Nathan said.

And for that the gunman was grateful. The sense of pulling inside his chest was creepy, but he rode it out, his attention on remaining still, not coughing, and the slight lightheadedness that was beginning to haunt him. He felt a little discomfort around his shoulder blades, but it wasn't enough for him to mention it.

Larabee wasn't sure how long the procedure lasted, but eventually he was helped into his clothes and then back to lean against the pallet. Nathan offered him water and covered him with the blankets. He quickly drifted off, the scarf still in his hands, its presence giving him a sense of peace.

Friday, in the mountains


The sun had set hours ago, but the three men pressed on through the snow. It was cold, and the wind had picked up, making them all miserable and sapping their already fading strength.

"This wind keeps up, we're goin' to have to hole up someplace," Buck said.

"We keep goin'," Vin replied, once again following the Spirit-Chris. He was more than a little worried, too, the Spirit-being had what looked like a tight band of redness around his chest, and he looked like he was in pain.

"We can't keep goin' like this," Buck said, this time his voice low and soft. It was a plea, not a statement of fact.

"I'm so tired… I can't feel my legs anymore," JD panted.

That slowed Vin down and he finally stopped, waiting for the two men to reach him. "We'll stop when we get t' the top 'a this rise," he said, noting the Spirit-Chris had already gone on ahead and had stopped there.

"I appreciate that, Vin," Buck said. "I truly do."

They started off, JD almost immediately stepping into a loose section of snow and falling. "Damn it," he hissed, arms flailing as he tried to get back up on his snowshoes.

The other two men turned and came back to him, helping him up. They pushed on, Buck and JD both falling again before they had covered a hundred yards. Then Vin went down.

"Ain't no use, Vin," the ladies' man said. "We can't see out here, and we're too tired to think or walk straight."

Tanner cursed softly under his breath, but he nodded. The Spirit-being was still on the summit of the rise, still waiting. It pointed at a copse of nearby trees.

Collecting himself, Vin took them in the direction the Spirit-Chris had pointed. They marched the twenty-five yards or so, reaching the trees and, inside them, rocks that afforded them some protection from the falling snow, and the wind.

Finding relatively dry places to sit on the ground below the rock formations, they huddled into their coats, eating jerky and sipping on cold water. They remained silent, the effort needed to talk over the sound of the wind too much for any of them.

But, after they had rested for a half hour or so, JD ventured a question. "Are they still alive if they're out in this?"

"They ain't out in this," Vin replied, his voice sounding tired. "They're holed up in that old mine Chris remembered."

"How can you be so sure?" the youngest of the peacekeepers asked.

Vin thought about that for a moment, then shrugged and said, "Can't say, JD, just am."

"Ya sure they're all okay, too?"

Vin looked at the ladies' man and, for the first time, Wilmington saw fear in the tracker's eyes.

"Sure they ain't dead," was all Tanner said.

"Chris is hurt, ain't he?" Buck asked, his gaze locked on the tracker's, refusing to let the man look away until he had answered.

"Think so."

"But how—?"

"I don't know, JD," Tanner snapped, tearing his gaze away from Buck to glower at the younger man. "Just a feelin' I got, down deep in m' gut… Chris is hurt." He looked out at the landscape, realizing that the snow had nearly stopped falling. "We got t' find 'em, 'n' the sooner the better," he said tying on his snowshoes and then pushing to his feet and starting off again.

Without a word, Buck and JD followed him.

Friday, abandoned mine


Nathan watched as the doctor checked on Larabee. Chris was still sleeping. "How is he, Doc?"

"The lung is sounding better, and he's breathing easier, so I don't think the blood is collecting again," Dr. Hanna replied. "If we can keep him warm, and provide him water and food, I believe he'll recover."

"How 'bout you?" the healer asked.

Hanna offered him a rueful smile at the question. "I'm… adjusting."

Nathan grinned at that. "I made some fresh coffee, ya want some?"

The doctor nodded, then stood and followed the healer over to the larger fire that was burning not far away. They sat on the ground and sipped their coffee.

"I never thought I'd be doing something like that again," Hanna said quietly. "After the war…" He shook his head, trying to chase away the images that still haunted him. "I swore that I'd never operate, or do another invasive procedure on a human being as long as I lived."

"What happened?" Nathan asked. He'd seen his share of the horror of war, but it had only made his desire to learn medicine and healing stronger.

Dr. Hanna sighed and shook his head. "Nothing specific, really… It was just after years of seeing all the death and dying… the bloody and broken bodies… We'd get so tired, doing surgery after surgery… I saw men fall asleep leaning over their patients…"

Nathan nodded. "Saw my share 'a that, too."

"I'm sure you did, Mr. Jackson." Hanna finished his coffee and set his cup aside. "It was after I realized three of my patients had died… That I'd killed three of them because I was so tired I couldn't see what was right in front of my eyes… Three young men, one of them just two years older than my own son… I was exhausted, I made mistakes that killed each one of them, stupid mistakes. After that, my hands started to shake. I couldn't hold my instruments any longer. The Army discharged me and I returned home.

"I thought that, after some rest, I could return to my practice, pick up where I had left off, so to speak… But the first time I was faced with performing surgery, and it was nothing more than removing a bullet from a man's leg when he'd accidentally shot himself, certainly nothing life-threatening, I froze. When I forced myself, my hands trembled so badly I couldn't hold on to the instruments. I simply could not do it.

"I closed my practice and returned to the university. I taught and I studied infectious disease and its treatments, and then I went to work for the Army again."

"And that's how you ended up out here."

Dr. Hanna nodded. "I sincerely hope that we'll be able to help the residents of Winslow, if we're able to reach them in time." He glanced toward the entrance of the mine. "If this damnable snow will finally cease."

"My friends'll come," Nathan assured the man.

"Your faith in them is… inspiring."

Nathan grinned. "Reckon it is. But I can tell you this fo' a fact, Doctor. In the months I've known these men, they've saved my life more times than I can count, and they've never once let me down. And Chris over there? He and Vin have somethin' between 'em… I don't rightly understand it, but I know as well as I know my own name that if Chris gets hurt, Vin's gonna know about it, and he's gonna come fo' him."

Dr. Hanna's eyebrows rose with an unvoiced question.

"Oh, they'd come even if it was just me, but I swear, there's some kind 'a invisible connection between those two. Having Chris here just means they're gonna find us that much faster, 'cause Vin'll get on his trail and he won't quit until he's found 'im."

"Sounds almost… fantastical," Hanna replied, "like something out of a storybook."

Nathan shrugged. "Can't say, Doc, but I know they'll be along shortly."

Dr. Hanna nodded, somehow believing the man. "I'd better check on our patient again," he said, rising and going back to Chris.

Nathan watched him, silently urging his friends to hurry. He didn't think having Chris out in this weather was a good thing. The sooner they could get him back to town, the better.

Saturday, in the mountains


Daybreak passed unnoticed by the three peacekeepers. Each man's attention was taken up by the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, climbing the hill they were asending. Halfway up Buck slipped and fell, crashing into JD and taking him down as well.

Vin tried to catch them, but he was unable to. "Y' all right?" he called down to them.

"Yeah, I think so… just numb."

"Let's go," Vin said.

Buck looked up at him, dumbfounded. "Damn it, Vin, I can hardly stand up. We need to rest."

"We need t' keep movin'."

"You're gonna kill us," the ladies' man complained. "We need ta stop and rest, just for a little bit."

"No," Tanner said.

"I'm not takin' another step until I've sat here and caught my breath," Buck told him. "We're gonna get to 'em in time, but we have to rest."

Vin stared at the two men and finally nodded. He was as tired as they were, maybe more so, having had to forge ahead to scout their path. He dropped into the snow and waited, his mind almost as numb as his body.

It was Buck, this time, who got them up and moving again.

The ladies' man stood and held out his hand, pulling JD to his feet first and then Vin. "Which way?" he asked the tracker.

Vin pointed, too tired to speak.

"How long… before dark?" JD asked a few miles later.

"Nine hours," was Vin's taciturn reply.

When the tracker looked up, he saw the Spirit-Chris was back. There was a sense of urgency in the being's eyes and that gave Vin a surge of strength to start off again. He wouldn't let Chris down, not while there was life left in his body.

Saturday, Four Corners


In Four Corners, Ezra and Mary Travis sat in the restaurant, eating as they watched the snow fall.

"I take it there's been no news," the gambler said.

The newspaper woman shook her head. "The Army still says they're on their own until the weather breaks."

"Yes, Josiah received the same news in Eagle Bend. And the fever outbreak?"

Mary set her fork down and glanced around before she said quietly, "At last count the fatalities had climbed to seventy-one, from three separate communities – Winslow, Adamsville and Ford's Run. I'm sure there are more, but the wires are down farther east of those communities so I can't get any better information."

Ezra just shook his head. He was worried, but he tried hard not to let it show. The townspeople looked to him, and to the others, taking their cues from them. But now he was alone and they were all watching him… It was more than a little disconcerting, and it made the gambler feel downright respectable. A sentiment he was not at all comfortable with. He just hoped the others were able to return home, and soon.

Mary tilted her head slightly to the side and she asked, "Are you all right?"

He flashed her a quick smile and said, "Yes, quite well, thank you."

"You're worried about them, aren't you?"

He met her eyes. "Are you?"

"Of course," she said, but she kept her voice soft. The people in the community looked to her as well. "This whole quarantine has me… anxious," she admitted. "I saw the soldiers turn someone away from town earlier. I thought for a moment they might shoot them… They were cold and—"

"With any luck, it will all be over soon."

She nodded, but they both knew it wouldn't really be over until the rest of the peacekeepers had made it back to town.

Ezra glanced around, making sure no one was paying too close attention to them, then asked quietly, "And I assumed there has been no outbreak sickness here in our community?"

"Not that I'm aware of," she said. "Thank God."


But he knew it was a possibility, one that frightened him. He didn't like being at the mercy of something he could neither see nor fight.

Saturday, abandoned mine


"Don't reckon they're comin' for us," the private said as they all sat close to the large fire.

Nathan wasn't sure what to say. He'd expected someone to reach them by now, and he was worried about why they hadn't. He knew the weather was the most likely reason, the snow never really having stopped. And if there had been more slides…

He didn't want to think about that. Men on foot or on horseback could too easily be killed if they were caught in one, just like the other soldier and the two mules.

The healer stood and glanced over at Larabee, to see if he was still sleeping. Chris' eyes were closed and he seemed to be resting, so Nathan walked over to the mineshaft opening, watching the snow fall. It was lighter now, almost stopped.

He stepped outside to see just how deep the accumulation had gotten, and something caught his eye. He stopped and peered in the direction of the movement.

"Vin?" he called quietly, then he shouted, "Vin!"

They had been found!

Saturday, in the mountains


If it wasn't for the Spirit-Chris, Vin would have been convinced he and the others had been walking around in circles. But the specter seemed to know where it was going, and even when it got ahead of the tracker, Tanner could see the flash of color from the knitted scarf it wore well enough to keep it in sight.

Still, he knew they had to find the other men, and quickly, or he and Buck and JD would succumb to the cold. Buck and JD both trailed behind him now, their heads down as they used his snowshoe prints to follow him without really knowing where he was. He was doing much the same with the Spirit-being, he knew.

He also knew in his heart Chris was alive, but he still wanted to reach the man and see for himself. But he was so tired… Every step felt like it might be his last. His legs had gone numb and sluggish, his knees weak.

He saw the Spirit-Chris stop, then point.

Vin looked in the direction the specter indicated, then blinked and reached up to rub at his eyes. Was it another Spirit-being?

He thought he heard the new specter call his name, but then he heard it more clearly: "Vin!"

That wasn't a Spirit.

"Nathan!" Tanner called in a raspy voice.

Behind him Buck and JD looked up, catching sight of the healer as he waved at them to join him.

"Whoo-hee!" the ladies' man hollered, breaking into a relieved smile.

The three peacekeepers struggled through the snow to the entrance of the old mine. Vin paused there, looking back at the Spirit-Chris, who was smiling at him now. Then it raised its finger to touch the brim of its hat, and the next instant, it was gone.

"Damn I'm glad to see you boys," Nathan said, giving each one of them a welcoming hug.

"How's Chris?" Vin asked.

Nathan looked slightly surprised as he said, "He's doin' fine, now. Dr. Hanna was able to fix him up. I'd just be happier if we got him back to town, and I don't mean Winslow. Shape he's in right now, he gets sick…" He shook his head and didn't finish the comment, but the others were able to guess what he meant on their own.

The healer grinned, then said, "Come on inside, it's not much, but it's warmer and drier than it is out here."

The three followed Nathan back inside, the soldiers and Dr. Hanna shooting to their feet as soon as they saw them. The two soldiers hooted and shook their hands, the doctor opting to just shake their hands.

And Chris continued to sleep through the entire ruckus.

Saturday, abandoned mine

Early evening

The men, except Chris, all sat around the fire, sharing coffee and the jerky the peacekeepers had totted in on their backs.

"I agree with Nathan," Dr. Hanna was saying. "Mr. Larabee is in no condition to be exposed to whatever this fever might be. It would be best for him if you could take him back to Eagle Bend, provided, of course, the fever hasn't reached there."

"Doubt it," Buck said, then explained what they had been told by Lt. Crane concerning the quarantine.

"Well, it's probably for the best," Dr. Hanna replied. "However, Mr. Jackson and I, and the soldiers will need to continue on to Winslow once the weather premits."

"Y' ought t' be able t' put all the medicine on a couple 'a mules 'n' make the trip on foot, if y' make yerselves some snowshoes," Vin told them. "Snow was gettin' lighter, and it looks like it's breakin' up in the west. If that's so, you'll have a clear day t'morrow t' get there."

"Finally!" Dr. Hanna cried.

"How far do ya think it is?" Sgt. Daniels asked.

Vin thought for a moment, then said with a shrug, "Reckon another five miles, but Larabee c'n tell y' better."

"Chris ain't gonna be able to walk back to Eagle Bend," Nathan said, glancing over at the still-sleeping man.

"Reckon we can lend ya one of the mules," Sgt. Daniels said.

"Would appreciate it," Vin told him, "but we're goin' t' have t' build a drag. Snow's too deep fer Chris t' ride."

"Me 'n' Private Tower c'n get started on that, and the snowshoes, after we eat," Sgt. Daniels said.

The two soldiers set off to go cut the wood they'd need, to start a meal, and to check over the rigs for the mules. Buck and JD offered to help, and their assistance was gratefully accepted.

Dr. Hanna and Nathan went over to the bundles of medicine, launching into a discussion of various fevers and their most efficacious treatments.

That left Vin sitting alone at the fire. He stood and walked over to sit back down closer to Chris, watching as the man continued to sleep. It was easy to see the man was hurting, and that he'd been hurting for a while now.

Nathan had told them what had happened, and Vin had felt a chill race down his back as he'd recalled how perfectly it had fit his dream.

As he watched, Larabee's eyes slowly fluttered open. Chris sucked in a soft gasp when he saw Vin, and his hand came up to touch the knifed scarf he had wound back around his neck sometime earlier. He blinked and peered at the tracker for a moment before he said, "Took ya long enough."

Vin couldn't stop the smile that lifted the corners of his mouth, but all he said was, "Weather slowed us down a mite."

That prompted a snort from the gunslinger. "Just bet it did. Who'd you bring?"

"Buck 'n' JD," Vin replied. "They's helpin' the soldiers rig up a drag fer ya."

"A drag?"

"Snow's too deep for y' t' ride back t' Eagle Bend."


"Doc says it's too dangerous for y' t' be 'round the fever, so we'll be takin' y' back t' Eagle Bend."

Larabee thought for a moment, but then he nodded. He looked at Vin, and then reached up to remove the scarf.

"Y' better hold ont' that 'til we get back home," Vin said quietly. "Y' know Nettie'll skin me alive if I let y' get sick 'cause y' gave it back t' me."

Chris held his friend's eyes, easily reading the worry and the affection in the blue depths. "Yeah, reckon she would," he said, tucking the ends back inside his coat. "Think maybe she likes me better?"

"Ain't likely," Tanner replied dryly.

Sunday, in the mountains


The peacekeepers made their way along the ridge trail Vin had told Chris about, the mule steadfast in his task of dragging the travois on which Larabee laid.

The gunman hadn't been at all happy about making the trip on his back, but he knew the mule would have a great deal more trouble if he was riding on the animal's back. Besides, the thought of riding a mule into town didn't thrill him all that much either. Not that lying on his back was all that much better…

Hell, maybe he'd ride in after all.

The way down proceeded much easier now that the snow had stopped falling. Above them, the skies were partly clear, and the sun climbed into the sky, raining down enough heat to melt the snow clinging to the branches of the trees and occasionally sending it falling onto the passing men.

They had started off from the mine as soon as the first light of dawn had made itself known, hoping the improved weather would allow them to reach Eagle Bend around nightfall.

A least being on the Anderson Trail, which, as Vin had predicted, was less snowy, meant they were making better time than they had coming straight up the trail to the pass. If they could keep up the pace, they would arrive back in town just about the same time as the sun set.

Chris tried to sleep as much as he could, but the uneven ground made it rather difficult. The wide, flat runners the sergeant had fashioned from a couple of the boards from the ruined wagon, helped a great deal. They were attached to the bottom of the travois, allowing it to slide over the surface of the snow without digging in far enough to slow the mule down much.

Buck, JD and Vin each took turns leading the mule, walking beside Chris, or scouting the tail ahead to make sure it was passable. There was little talking, the walk taking all their strength after their grueling hike up to the mine.

But whoever was walking beside Chris was able to exchange a few words with the wounded man when he was awake, although it was usually to ask how he was doing.

And the answer was always the same: "Fine." Which was a lie, of course, but Chris didn't seem to be getting any worse, so they each let the comment pass.

They stopped briefly at midday to eat a little of the remaining jerky, then set out again.

As they walked along, Buck asked his longtime friend what had happened, and Chris told him about the snow slide, the wagon pinning him, and how that had led to the blood making it hard for him to breathe. The ladies' man cringed when Larabee described what Dr. Hanna had done to fix the problem.

"Now that sounds like it'd hurt," Buck said with a shiver.

Larabee grinned. "You could say that."

"Bad, huh?"

"Let's just say I don't recommend it."

Buck nodded. "You doin' okay? Ya need anything?"

"I'm fine," Larabee replied, closing his eyes.

The ladies' man shook his head, but he didn't press the point.

Vin, who had been leading the mule, and listening to the exchange, thought back to the Spirit-being. He wondered if that band of redness he'd seen around the Spirit's chest had been the blood, building up inside Larabee's lung…

And how strange would that be?

He hadn't seen anything like that since his mother had died, and he hadn't expected to. But when he stopped and pondered on it for a while, he wasn't really all that surprised. He and Chris shared an interesting bond, one he was grateful for. He didn't plan to lose the man he considered his best friend and his brother anytime soon. And he'd take whatever help God or the Spirits wanted to give him. Because, God knew, with Larabee and the others, he needed all the help he could get.

He didn't stop to wonder if they might not all feel the same about him.

Sunday, Eagle Bend


Josiah had just crossed the street from the restaurant to the saloon when he heard the snort of what he thought was a horse, coming up the street. He turned to look, catching sight of Buck and JD, walking on either side of a mule. Vin was walking behind the animal.

His heart pounding, he hurried out to meet the men. And, as he approached the animal, he was able to see the travois on which Chris lay.

"Is he—?"

"He's doin' fine," Buck told him, "but if the doctor's here, he ought ta take a look at him."

Josiah shook his head. "Army sent him with another medical wagon up to Ford's Run yesterday morning."

Buck nodded and Josiah waited for the mule to pass, falling into step with Vin when it did. He looked down at Chris, who was awake. The former preacher grinned, but that expression quickly faded when three soldiers ran out into the street to stop them, their guns drawn.

"Halt!" one of the men said.

"Whoa, hang on there, Corporal," Buck replied.

"This community's under quarantine, mister," the man added. "How did you—?"

"If ya let me get a word in edgeways, I'll tell ya!" Buck snapped. "We showed the guards on the road this," he added, pulling a note from Dr. Hanna and Sgt. Daniels from his pocket and handing it over. One of the guards at the road had added his mark as well.

The corporal read the note, then handed it back. "Sorry, sir, but we're under orders to keep everyone out of town until told otherwise."

"And you're doin' a damn fine job, too, son," Buck told him. "But like the note says, we didn't get to any of the infected towns up there. In fact, we didn't see anybody but Sergeant Daniels and Private Tower." The ladies' man reached into his other coat pocket and handed the man another note. "The Sergeant asked if you'd see to it this gets sent to Major Evans."

The soldier opened the second note, which reported the death of Corporal Sykes in the snow slide, and nodded. "I'll do that. Thank you for bringing this, sir."

Buck nodded.

"We should get Chris in out of this cold," JD said. The wind had started to pick up and the clouds overheard were threatening more snow before sunrise.

The two soldiers stepped out of their way and Josiah led them to the hotel, helping Buck and Vin get Chris inside while JD took the mule on to the livery.

"You want something to eat?" the former priest asked Larabee, who nodded.

"The doc and Nathan said he needs to eat soft foods for a couple 'a days," Buck told the preacher.

Chris shot the man a deadly glare that had lost its usual impact, coming as it did from a man sitting up in bed.

Josiah nodded. "I'll go see what they have at the restaurant and bring something back – and some coffee, too."

"Appreciate that," Chris said, still looking like he might be pouting, although the very idea would sound ridiculous to anyone who knew the gunslinger.

When JD returned a short while later, he and Buck headed out to eat, promising to bring Vin back something, since he'd offered to stay with Chris. The ladies' man also promised to stop by the telegraph office and send a wire to Four Corners, letting them know everybody was all right.

When the others had gone, Vin walked over and took a seat on the only chair in the room. He and Chris would be sharing the room, and the single bed in it, but the tracker planned to wait for his supper before he tried to get some sleep.

Chris looked over at him, saying, "You look worse than I do."

The tracker grinned. "Ain't possible, Cowboy."

"You just call me a cowboy?"

Vin's smiled widened. "Y' heard me."

Larabee shook his head. "Gonna end up shootin' you myself… collect that reward…"

Tanner snorted. "Y' do 'n' I'll just haunt y' the rest 'a yer sorry life."

"Yeah, you probably would," Chris said, studying the younger man. Vin did look tired, but it wasn't anything that couldn't be fixed with a few good nights' sleep, and some decent food.

Larabee reached up and pulled the knitted scarf off his neck, holding it in his hands as he said, "Appreciated the loan."

Vin cocked his head to the side. "Y' ain't home, yet. Y' better keep that."

"You sure?"

"Yep," Tanner replied. "Like I told y', I let y' get sick on the trip home, Miss Nettie'll skin me fer sure."

"I doubt that," Chris replied. "That ol' biddy thinks on you like a son."

"Y' watch what y' say 'bout Miss Nettie," Vin warned him, "sick or no, I'll have t' flatten ya."

Chris grinned, seeing the way Vin's cheeks had gone red. "Just repeating what I've heard her say."

"Don't matter," the tracker grumbled.

"I might have to ask her to make me one of these, for next winter."

"Ain't sure yer worth her effort."

Chris looked up, meeting Tanner's eyes. "You seemed to think so."

Vin's blush deepened. "Ah hell, just 'cause I can't let a friend freeze his balls off—"

The door opened, cutting the comment short, but Chris already had what he'd wanted. He enjoyed that half-embarrassed, half-sincere look the tracker sometimes got.

Josiah entered carrying a tray, and the smells coming from it were heavenly. He set it down on a small table, Vin jumping up to remove the wash basin and pitcher so there was room for it.

His mouth watering, Vin watched as Josiah removed the cloth from the top. Under it was a plate with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and canned fruit. There was a second plate with biscuits with butter and jam. There was also coffee.

And it looked like Chris would be enjoying a big bowl of… oatmeal. But at least it had some kind of spice on top. He grinned at Larabee. "Mmm, sure looks good."

Chris knew the tracker was talking about his supper, not Larabee's. "What the hell did I end up with?"

"Oatmeal, brother," Josiah said.


"Had it myself this morning, it's delicious," Josiah said, carrying the bowl over and handing it to Larabee.

The gunman looked from his oatmeal to the chicken Vin was enjoying and his eyes narrowed.

"Now, Chris, you heard what the doctor said," Josiah scolded the blond.

"Mmm," Tanner said, chewing on a big bite of a biscuit. A small amount of butter and jam was running down his chin.

Larabee's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Josiah, hand me my gun…"

Monday, Four Corners

Late afternoon

It was a group of tired, cold men who rode into town an hour before sunset. The townspeople all called greetings once they had passed the Army guards, who read their letter from Dr. Hanna and Sgt. Daniels and allowed them to return home.

As they dismounted and led their horses into the livery, Ezra hurried across the street to join them. "Well, well, the prodigals have returned, I see," he greeted them, looking them over. "Except, it appears, for Mr. Jackson…"

"Nathan decided to go on with the doc to Winslow," Buck said.

"Everything all right here?" Josiah asked the gambler.

"Yes, well, except for the quarantine wearing a little thin… How much—?"

"Don't know," JD interrupted him. "Haven't you heard from Nathan yet?"

Ezra shook his head. "But Lt. Murphy did say yesterday that the wires are apparently down northeast of Eagle Bend now."

"Reckon they had some more snow slides," Vin replied and the others nodded.

"Mr. Larabee, you appear to be… injured?" the gambler commented.

Chris met his eyes. "I'm fine," he said.

"Yep," Buck said, draping his arm over Larabee's shoulders, "ol' Chris here got caught in a snow slide, crushed by a wagon, and nearly drowned in his own blood, but he's just fine."

The blond sighed, wondering if he could convince Judge Travis the deaths of five men were justifiable homicides…

"Ah, I see," Standish replied, nodding. "Well, since you're fine, I'm sure Mrs. Travis would like to speak to you concerning the… ordeal."

Chris paled slightly at the thought.

"Might be fine, but he ain't that fine," Tanner drawled. "Reckon we better take him out the back 'n' hide him up in Nathan's clinic fer a day or two – let him build up some strength before she gets hold 'a him."

The others grinned when Chris actually nodded.

And that's exactly what they did. In less than an hour Larabee was in bed in the clinic, and sound asleep.

"I'll go tell Mary he's doing well," Ezra volunteered. "Any idea when Mr. Jackson might be returning?"

"It'll depend on how bad things are up there, and if the medicines the doctor took help," Buck told him.

Standish nodded and left. Buck and JD soon followed, both men headed for their own beds.

Josiah glanced over at Vin, who was slouched down in a chair near Larabee's bed and asked, "I get you anything, brother?"

"Nope," Tanner replied. "Best y' get some sleep, J'siah."

The big man nodded. "I'll come by first thing in the morning. But you fire off a shot if you need anything tonight."

Vin grinned at that, knowing the older man was tired enough he'd probably sleep right through it if he did. "I'll do that," he said anyway.

Monday, Four Corners

Early morning

Chris Larabee lay in bed. Outside, it was snowing again.

Nearby, Vin Tanner sat slumped in his chair, his slouch hat pulled low over his eyes. Larabee wasn't sure, but he'd be willing to wager the tracker hadn't actually moved so much as a muscle in over an hour.

"Vin," he called softly.

The man still didn't move, but he did reply. "Yeah?"

The blond flashed the tracker a grin. "Just makin' sure you were still breathin'…"

Tanner's chin rose just far enough for him to make eye contact with the gunslinger. He was glaring, but there was no heat behind the expression and the look only prompted Larabee to grin a second time. "Y' got some reason t' be proddin' me again, Cowboy?"

"Nope," Chris replied, trying and failing to look innocent. "Was just thinkin' I was hungry," he said. "You want to join me for breakfast?"

Tanner considered the question for a moment, then shook his head. "Could eat, but I don't reckon y' need t' be paradin' 'round out there in the snow… What sounds good, I'll go fetch it fer ya."

The blond thought for a moment. "Some of Inez's scrambled eggs sounds good… and a thick, thick piece of ham to go with it… Oh, and some of her biscuits, too… with butter and honey… mmm, that sounds good… And coffee, of course."

Vin blinked, momentarily stunned by the length and specificity of the list.

"You get all that?" Chris asked innocently.

That prodded Tanner out of his shock. "Yeah, I got it all right," he said, pushing himself to his feet, already beginning to mutter under his breath about uppity gunslingers who thought folks were there to slave for them.

Chris' grin turned into a full fledged smile when Vin marched out the door, pulling it shut behind him with a bang. A moment later there was a loud yelp, then a string of curses Larabee thought had to be in at least four different languages.

No doubt some of the snow on the roof had fallen down on the man, just like he'd planned.

"Ya need your scarf?" Larabee called loudly enough for the tracker to hear him.

"Yes, goddamn it!" Tanner replied, pulling open the door and stomping back inside. His hat was soaked and snow was dripping onto the shoulders of his hide coat. "Give me m' damn scarf!" he snarled at the injured man.

Chris handed it to the tracker just as Nettie Wells walked into the clinic.

"Vin Tanner, you give that back to Mr. Larabee this very instant. He's in more need of it than you are, boy."

Vin's face turned a brilliant shade of red and Chris had to fight to keep from laughing or smiling.

"How are you feeling?" she asked Chris.

"Fine, Mrs. Wells, thank you for asking. I'm just hungry."

She looked surprised and she turned to Vin again. "Well, you heard the man, he's hungry, down't just stand there, go and fetch him something to eat."

Vin huffed out a sigh, turned and stomped out of the clinic. He pulled the door shut again, but with considerably less force this time.

Chris chuckled and Nettie gave him a discerning once over. "Mr. Larabee, you been riling that boy?"

"Yes, ma'am, I have," he replied honestly.

She smiled. "Well, it can be amusing…"

"It sure can," Chris replied, relaxing back against his pillows and wondering how long it would take Vin to round up the breakfast he'd asked for…

Four Corners, a week later

Chris and Vin sat together out on the boardwalk. The snow and ice were finally gone, the mud had dried up, and a mild sun shone down on the small community the peacekeepers protected. The two friends passed their time in comfortable silence, an occasional look or grunt the sum total of their conversation.

Nathan had been back in town four days, and the Army gone for three. The fever had passed, the quarantine lifted and life had returned to normal once more, but the inhabitants knew that they had been lucky.

Six small towns up in the mountains had lost half or more of their residents. And Winslow, the hardest hit, had buried closer to two-thirds. But that was better than anyone had expected.

Dr. Hanna and Nathan had pulled off a miracle as far as the survivors were concerned, and the former Amy surgeon had decided to remain in the small town to help the people there, and in the neighboring communities, get back on their feet again.

The healer was glad he'd have a friend so close by, and he promised to visit Dr. Hanna on a regular basis. The doctor, in return, promised to show Nathan how to perform some of the procedures the former slave had seen done during the war, but had never had to do himself – procedures like the one that had saved Chris' life.

Buck was back to sparking that eldest daughter of a new settler, and JD was back to avoiding or courting Casey Wells, depending on the day and his mood.

Josiah was working on the church again, the extended snows having revealed more than four leaks in his roof.

And Ezra was back at the poker tables, folks coming and going again, providing him with ample opportunities to add to his growing savings.

All in all, life was good, and the seven peacekeepers were enjoying the peace and quiet, which, they knew, wouldn't last now that the weather had improved.

Chris healed up and was almost back to his usual self, although Nathan was still keeping an eye on him. But Vin and the others had stopped asking him how he felt, or how he was doing, for which Larabee was grateful.

Glancing over at the tracker, Chris asked him, "This weather goin' to hold?"

Vin pondered the question for a moment as he studied the skies. "Yep, reckon so."

Larabee nodded.

"What y' thinkin'?" Tanner asked.

"That I might head out to the cabin for a couple of days; see how it came through the weather…"

Vin nodded. It was a reasonable thing to do. After all, Chris had been cooped up with people for nearly a month what with the weather, the trip into the mountains, and his recovery.

Seeing the slightly wistful expression on the tracker's face, Chris asked, "Got anything holdin' you in town?"

Vin thought for a moment, then shook his head.

"You want to come along?"

"Reckon that depends on if yer wantin' company."

"Wouldn't ask if I didn't want ya along."

Tanner thought a little more. "Wouldn't mind…"

Another Tanner understatement, Chris knew. There were two constants when it came to Vin Tanner… well, three. The man could always eat, would always prefer to be as far away from town as he could get, and there wasn't a more loyal friend to be found.

"Why don't we leave in the morning?" Chris suggested. "In case this weather decides to change…"

The hint of a smile played at the corners of the tracker's mouth as he asked, "What, y' worried y' might get snowed in with me?"

Larabee shrugged. "Naw… ain't worried, but I reckon I need the time to get some supplies together. We do get snowed in, I don't think I could stomach your leathery Texas hide and stringy muscles."

Tanner snorted. "What makes y' think you'd be makin' supper out 'a me, Cowboy?"

"Well, I am faster than you…"

Amusement danced in Vin's eyes. "Yep, y' are, but I'll bet y' I got better recipes 'n you do."

Larabee laughed. "You probably do at that."

The two men looked back out at the town, both grinning. Yep, life was good…