Alternate Universes: In The Year and The Legend Chronicles
Main Characters: Vin, Chris, Buck
Beta – Kathy M & Rosalee, thanks to all who caught things I missed
Just borrowed the guys for the story.
JD Dunne collected the mail from Mrs. Potter and turned to the jail where he was on duty for the next eight hours.
He thumbed through a technical magazine and couldn’t wait until he had time to really look through it and read it. There was a packet for the peacekeepers and he wondered what it was this time. The last packet he’d picked up contained several wanted and warning posters. He’d been surprised over the posters, but as far spread out as the towns were, he could see a need for some way to catch the people, or be forewarned of something happening or someone coming their way, if that was needed. One poster had been an ad looking for a lost family that relatives had lost contact with. Another for a husband who’d run off leaving his family destitute, another for a family group heading to the Western Coastal Region, and one was a wanted poster for a gang of robbers who were heading northwest . There had been a reward for information leading to the arrest of the five men. The last one had been a heads-up for a con artist who was conning land owners out of their land.
JD smiled, he wondered if they’d ever get a poster on a woman looking for a husband. With a chuckle he entered the jail and grinned at Buck Wilmington who was rising from the chair behind the desk.
“About time you got here boy, I thought I’d have to come looking for you.” He grinned, blue eyes twinkling.
“Picked up the mail, bus just got in.”
“Any new people?”
“A family. Why are you asking? You saw them.”
“I know, was testing you. What’s in the mail?” Buck said with a large grin.
“Got my tech book and a packet for us,” JD answered as he opened the packet and pulled the papers from it. He thumbed through the sheets as he talked. “Looks like some flyers for missing husbands, a missing wife and daughter, and . . . Oh my God!”
“What?” Buck stepped to his friend’s side.
“No . . . What the hell?”
“Someone wants information on his whereabouts,” JD said, reading the flyer, “and a reward of $2,000 if they could deliver him to Dallas.” JD looked up at Buck who was still staring at the rough drawing of Vin, but it was definitely their friend.
“What do we do?”
“Well,” Buck ran a hand through his dark hair. “First, I think this needs to disappear. Wait. First we let Chris and Vin know, then it’s gone. When are they due back?”
“After delivering the prisoners they were going to the ranch for a few days. I think they should be there now. They have the rest of the week off. We can give them a call,” JD looked at the small calendar he had on the desk, then at Buck.
“I’ll call them. Damn, wonder how many of these were put out, and who wants Vin that much … Hell, that Phillips guy! After that mess awhile back with the mistaken letter, I was hoping we’d never hear that name ever again. Now here’s a flyer that could only have been sent by him.” Buck moved to the corner of the room where a powerful radio sat on a heavy desk. As he and JD talked he powered the radio up and called Chris.
While Buck made the call JD paced, his agile mind raced over things they could do to protect Vin Tanner from whoever wanted him. He needed to know how many flyers were out, but he was afraid there were too many already circulating. Judge Travis was due later in the week, and he decided he would ask him how they could protect Vin and get the flyers stopped. Hearing Buck’s voice he turned back to his friend and the radio.
“Chris can you hear me? Where are you?”
Static sounded for several seconds before Chris Larabee’s voice broke through. “Home … ranch … working horses … stormy … blowing … What’s wrong?”
“Is Vin with you?”
“Vin?” Static crackled.
“Yes. Where is he?” Buck called almost yelling.
“Left several … ago … Saturday …”
Buck looked at JD a moment. JD nodded, “Go.”
“I’m coming out, stay there Chris.”
“Yes! Stay there.”
“I’ll wait … you …” They heard Chris say before static erupted noisily and blocked everything out.
“Will you be all right here JD?” Buck asked as he moved to the cabinet that held their extra blasters and guns.
“Ezra’s here and so is Josiah. I’ll be fine. Just find Vin and get word to him. Call if you need us.”
“Depends on what that storm’s doing, but I’ll let you know somehow,” Buck buckled a blaster gun belt around his hips above his revolver already snuggled there. He checked to be sure that the blaster was fully charged and then stuck it into the holster on his left hip. He tucked another one under his belt, grabbed his hat and walked out the door. “Let the others know what’s going on and we’ll be back, or in touch with you, as soon as possible. Watch out for strangers, and don’t show that flyer to anyone but the guys. Later, be careful.”
“I will Buck. We’ll be careful.” JD said as Buck gave him a wide smile then jogged towards the huge livery where his grey horned horse was stabled.
Several minutes later JD waved as Buck cantered past the jail headed out of town and to Chris’.
Halfway to Chris’ valley ranch, Buck and Beauty, his mount, were engulfed in the late winter storm. Wind blew hard against them driving icy rain and frozen rain pellets hard into their sides. Buck pulled his warm coat closer against him and cursed the weather. He knew some moisture was needed, but fumed that it could have waited until he’d gotten to the ranch. As he rode, urging Beauty to keep up her fast pace though she grumbled and shook her head, he wondered where Vin was. Vin liked to go off on his own now and then especially when things pressed down on him, he needed time alone, and he usually didn’t say where he’d gone. Buck understood the young man had been alone for years with no family or friends, other than a short time with Nettie Wells. Lately though he had noticed that Chris usually knew where their friend was, he figured the strange connection or bond the two had helped a lot. He snickered as he rode; the bond between the two was very strong and right now they needed that to get to Vin before someone else did. Vin probably wouldn’t appreciate their help, he was good about facing his problems head on, but Buck wasn’t sure this time he could do this without help.
The trail up to Chris’s hidden valley ranch was slick with ice and Buck let Beauty pick her way to the top, then down the other side. He could barely make out the valley below as the sleet seemed to intensify. Beauty let out a roar when she reached the bottom of the trail and ran across to the barn. Several horses inside answered her roar as Buck swung off and opened the door, leading her into the warmer interior.
He’d seen smoke coming from the chimneys of the house when they’d passed it and he breathed a sigh of relief seeing Peso in a stall. Quickly he untacked Beauty and using a piece of old blanket he wiped her down. With deft movements he dried her off, tossed a blanket over her, and then dumped an armload of hay into the manger for her. Making sure she had water he headed for the door and looked through the storm at the house. Buck pulled his hat down tighter, gripped his coat together and stepped through the door. Making sure the door latched closed he ran through the icy yard to the house. Shaking himself off he knocked once on the door and entered the warm house calling out “Chris” as he went in.
Chris Larabee stepped from the kitchen, his blond hair wet and messed, his shirt open showing his sculptured chest and abs. He had a smile on his lips and large mugs of coffee were held in his hands.
“Chris, where’s Vin?” Buck’s gaze flashed around the room looking for the young man as he accepted the cup after pulling off his coat and hat.
“He’s not here; he wanted to get away for a few days, those prisoners were a pain in the ass, and he wanted time alone for a little while. Left two days ago.” Chris looked closely at Buck, “What’s wrong?”
“We got a flyer; someone wants him, umm paying for any information as to where he is, and more if they bring him to them. Have you heard from him?”
A feeling of dread went through Chris, “Yesterday afternoon. He was fine.”
“Peso’s in the barn.”
“Yes. Vin’s riding a horse he’s been working with. Thought it’d be good experience for it. What’s wrong?”
Buck looked at Chris and knew his friend was trying to contact Vin, but the look on his face spoke volumes. He couldn’t reach Vin. Before Chris could say anything he told him all about the flyer. When he finished he said, “I was hoping he was here and we could just keep him here while we checked this out. I wanted him to lay low for awhile, or, well, knowing him, help track this down, find who put out the flyer and all.”
“We can’t do anything ‘til this storm passes. He said he was headed to the mountains northwest of here and would be back in plenty of time for our shift in town. I expect him home tomorrow afternoon, or the next morning at the latest.”
“How long do you think this storm will last?” Buck gazed out the window nearest him. The rain that had changed to sleet was now intermixed with snow that was blowing past the deep porch.
“I don’t know. Vin mentioned there was a late storm coming, but he felt it wouldn’t be this bad, just either a little rain or snow. No idea how long this will last. It’s almost spring, so hopefully not too long.” Chris stood looking out the window for a moment then with a sigh he turned towards the kitchen. “Come on. I haven’t had breakfast yet, let’s get something to eat. I was just putting something together when you came in.”
“You’re late today,” grinned Buck.
“Yeah, took longer to get the chores done this morning. Had to break ice in some of the troughs and a few of the mares were restless and needing more attention. Seems the weather has gotten to them today. What do you want? Sausage omelet?”
M7 M7 M7 M7 M7 M7 M7
2 Days Previous
Vin led the young brown horned horse through the high north gate at the back of the ranch. He had dismounted and opened the eight foot tall gate and once the horse was through he carefully closed it, making sure it was well latched before he remounted. He turned the horse’s head towards the dim trail that snaked around rocks and past some cliffs. After ten minutes they were climbing up a steep trail that looked like it had been carved into the rocks by water.
The brown’s hooves slipped more than once as they climbed higher and higher. At a wide spot Vin halted the horse and let him rest a few minutes before moving on. Far below he had a glimpse of the ranch house and part of the barn. He could make out some horses in the pasture near the barn and he could see part of the trail that ended near the sprawling ranch house. He breathed deeply of the clean air, enjoying the little cold tang in it. It was great to be free of the closed feeling he had gotten over the last week. He chuckled; if he could fly he’d be soaring over the mountain tops and free of civilization.
With a glance at the grey sky Vin urged the horse onward, time was wasting, he wanted to be closer to the mountains by the end of the day. After an hour they were moving slowly down the other side of the high rim that surrounded the valley and ranch. He had been this way once and knew where he would come out, from there it was almost a day’s ride to the area that he wanted to be at. The mountains to the north were beckoning to him; he felt he needed to check them out, thought he knew he didn’t have that much time to spend looking them over. It was still cold enough that he figured bears wouldn’t be out of their dens yet. He wasn’t worried about the wolves; he carried enough fire-power that he should be safe, unless he met a large pack. But he hoped that they were still farther south enjoying the warmer weather there.
A last steep switchback was carefully maneuvered and they were at last on flat ground. Vin estimated it had taken them five hours to get to this point. He let the horse rest for a short time before mounting and heading northwest.
It was almost dark when Vin found a place to camp for the night near a tiny creek that ran through a small green area. There was enough old grass that would feed the horse, and enough low trees that would protect them from the cold of night somewhat. With the ease of setting up a camp from years of experience, Vin had a snug camp in no time. He knew the horse would warn him of anything that approached during the dark hours as he settled down for the night. With the fire banked he lay down close to it, wrapped up in his warm blankets he was asleep in no time.
The next day dawned with heavy rolling grey clouds under a steel grey sky above that. By the time Vin broke camp and headed out, the wind had come up and the temperature had dropped. It was cold and he knew it would be raining or snowing before long. He had a feeling that it wouldn’t be bad, so he’d keep going, enjoying his freedom. Nudging the horse along they continued to head north.
Late afternoon found Vin riding along the foot of the mountains looking for a place to camp for the night. The wind had been relentless starting late in the morning and then rain mixed with icy sleet had started to fall an hour earlier. The brown horse was fighting him and grumbling, shaking his head in displeasure. All of a sudden its head came up and with a roar he began to fight harder for his head. Cursing at how wrong he had been about the weather, Vin pulled the horse around in a small circle trying to get him to settle down so he could see to find them a protected place to wait out the storm.
Talking to his angry mount, Vin was trying to calm him when a loud crash overhead brought the brown to its rear legs.
With a huge lunge the horse leapt forward, pulling the reins through Vin’s half frozen fingers. The brown took
off at a run, racing to the east, directly into the storm almost sightless.
Vin was blinded when the horse abruptly changed directions. The sleet and rain hit him in the face and froze on his eyelashes instantly. He lifted a cold hand to wipe the ice away so he could see and get his bearings. He felt the horse change directions again and the wind and rain stopped suddenly. He got one eye opened just as the horse hit something solid and scrambled hard to stay on his feet.
One foot slipping out of the stirrup, Vin was almost thrown from the horse. He reacted immediately to right himself and the panicked animal. Before he could get the staggering horse straightened out and stopped, something slammed into the side of them and the brown horse went down on the slick ground, with Vin still half in the saddle.
Vin glanced up as he suddenly heard several roars over the bellow of his horse. A glancing blow from a descending hoof slammed into his left leg, just above his knee where it was exposed on the upper side of his mount. His right leg was caught under the horse against the frozen ground. Vin yelled in pain as the brown struggled to rise with him clinging onto the saddle.
With a roar of pain the brown gelding finally rose, carrying Vin up with him. Groaning in pain, Vin pulled his blaster, thinking to ward off the wild horse that had attacked them. Before he could fire pain lanced through his left shoulder and he lost the slick reins in his hand. A fiery pain crossed his leg where the hoof had struck him and with another cry of pain he dropped his blaster from the sudden nerveless hand. He grabbed the horse’s long mane as it whirled around with a roar, and its head suddenly dropped in submission.
A heavy blow struck Vin on the side of his head and blackness enveloped him. He crumbled unconscious off the back of the horse, who stepped sideways to get away from the downed man.
Vin didn’t see his horse caught or feel the hands that rolled him onto his back.
“Get him over there, take care of his horse,” a big, tall, rough looking grey haired man said. “Get the horses settled. Fern, you and Ana take care of him, but don’t waste all of our supplies; we might need them for us later. He’s staying here when we leave.”
A tall thin woman with red hair shot with grey followed the burly man who dragged Vin towards a tarped area under the trees. Another tall woman that could have been the twin of the first, waited near a campfire, her hands pushed into her dirty, insulated jeans pockets. A warm wool coat and scarf was wrapped around her upper body.
The man dumped Vin near the back of the covered area and stomped away. Fern dropped to her knees beside the unconscious man while Ana gathered bandages and a bucket of hot water and joined her sister. Whispering together they stripped Vin of his bloody clothes and covered him with a blanket.
Being careful not to overuse their supplies, the two women cleaned then stitched the shoulder wound, after making sure it was clean. Ana held Vin on his side while Fern sewed the exit hole closed. Covering the wound with some thick salve they then wrapped a bandage around him. For a minute they debated, before they cleaned the wound across the side of Vin’s head and stopped the bleeding. Fern placed a couple of tiny stitches to hold the wider part closed, before putting the salve on it and then a light bandage around his head. She’d noticed a lump was already forming, but couldn’t find anything to indicated that his skull was fractured.
They began to work on his left leg, cleaning the gash made by the horse’s hoof. Once it was clean, they packed the salve into the wound and wrapped it. While Fern worked on the wounds, Ana rubbed the bruises that were beginning to appear on the stranger’s legs in hopes to keep blood clots from forming. As the women finished they noted that the young man was shivering and they wrapped him in a couple more blankets.
“I’ll get his bedroll, you clean his clothes. We can put them back on him once they’re dry,” Fern said as she rose. She left Ana and went to find Vin’s saddlebags. Several men around the campfire asked how the stranger was as she looked for his saddle.
Fern looked at the men huddled around the fire, a frown on her face. “As if you really want to know. He might have a chance with care but I don’t think he’ll survive on his own right now. Where’d you put his saddle?”
One of the men pointed at a saddle that was barely under the large tarp and with a disgusted look Fern went to it, pulled it farther under the tarp then worked the saddlebags and bedroll off. With the saddlebags over her shoulder she went back to Ana and the young man. They dug through the bags and found some medical supplies, a warm shirt, bullets and some food.
Working together they quickly got the shirt on him and then wrapped him in his bedroll. Ana went back to cleaning his bloody clothes while Fern, with one eye on her patient, began putting dinner together for the eight men, Ana, and herself.
While the men were eating, Fern checked on the unconscious man and found he was feverish. With a sigh, she got a pot with cold water in it, her plate of food, and sat down beside Vin. With a piece of clean bandage, she began to wipe his face and neck down with the cold water as she ate.
Ana took over for her sister when she finished getting the clothes as clean as she could and had eaten. Fern made two men move and lay the wet clothes over the rocks they’d been sitting on by the fire. She hoped they’d dry before she turned in. With one of the men’s help she did the dishes up then returned to her sister’s side.
The freezing rain had turned to snow and it was coming down heavily. Wind swirled it around the campsite, reaching into and covering the ground almost a foot under the tarp. Ana and Fern discussed moving the injured man closer to the fire, because where they were now the snow was blowing in on them. With a shiver, Fern rose and walked over to where the older, grey haired man was rolling out his bedroll near the fire.
“Alex, we need to be closer to the fire. I want some help moving the young man. It’s too cold over there.”
The big man looked up at the thin woman. He hadn’t wanted to bring his sisters on this trip, but they had nothing left at home. He’d grudgingly allowed them to come; the land they were going to offered little hope also, just a lot of hard work for a few years. He wanted to spare his sisters the settling in and building, but that had changed and in a way he was glad they were along, he wouldn’t have to send for them later, it was cheaper this way. He shot a glance over the camp to where he could see Ana with snow on her back, bundled up and sitting beside the stranger.
“Why do you care? We’re leaving him when we leave,” Alex said, not wanting the responsibility of another person, he had more than enough already.
“I’m human Alex, not an animal. He’s hurt, and though we’re leaving him, we can at least care for him while he’s here. I don’t want to freeze anymore than Ana or you or the others.”
“All right, all right woman! You’d try a saint. Harley, move that guy closer to the fire. There, are you satisfied Fern?” Alex growled, as the big man named Harley got up from where he was sitting by the fire.
“You’re not dragging him over here Harley. Pick him up carefully. I’ll show you where I want him placed,” Fern told the man as they stepped over to where Ana and Vin were.
Ana rose, picking up the pot and bandage rag, and moved out of the way as Fern directed Harley how to pick up the unconscious man. With a disgusted look at the woman, Harley bent and easily picked Vin up, blankets and all. With a nod, Fern grabbed Vin’s bedroll, led the man back to the fire, and laid it out. Harley carefully laid his burden down, a little surprised how light the man was. He moved back to his place at the fire and with a look at the women complained, “We have to share our fire with a dead man. There’s not that much room left for all of us to sleep here.”
Fern straightened to her full height of six feet and with her hands on her hips, looked at each of the eight men who were watching her. “Build another fire over there. We have two tarps up, there’s plenty of room for another fire. You’re the ones who shot him without giving him a chance to get his horse righted.”
“Aw Fern, he came barreling in and ran smack into our horses. They were on the fight until his horse stopped. What were we supposed to do? Let him shoot our horses?”
“You could have called them off Charles. Build another fire, there’s plenty of firewood,” she snapped back at the man who was talking and turned back to Ana and Vin.
Charles looked after the woman, a frown on his bearded face, before he looked to their leader, Alex, who had watched the exchange in silence.
”Who’s in charge here? Fern or you?”
Alex’s grim face became harsher as he stared at the younger man, his lips thinned and his eyes narrowed. “I am. And you best not ask that ever again, or you can leave. But no man needs to freeze when we have all we need. Build another fire, there’s plenty of cover and wood. Once the storm passes we’re leaving. Don’t make me any madder Charles,” he hissed.
Charles nodded and with a quick glance at the other men rose and moved to where the firewood was stacked. Two other men got up to help and before long another fire was crackling to life. Once the fire was burning, the three moved their bedrolls and settled for the night. Two more men moved to the second fire, leaving room for the two women and wounded man to get closer to the warmth of the first fire.
Before long everyone had settled down for the night. The night guards would keep the fires going as the storm raged over them.
Fern sat wrapped in her coat and blankets beside Vin, wiping his face off and on with a cool rag as his fever built. She wondered who the youngster was, where he’d come from, why he was out in this storm. She didn’t think he was more than twenty years old, if even that, but she’d seen the scars on him from not only bullets and other weapons, but also what looked like wolves teeth. He was too young for those scars she thought as she hoped that he would wake so she could get some liquid into him, and see if his head was alright.
Fern jerked to wakefulness several hours later, head snapping up from where it had fallen to rest on her chest. Blinking her eyes she glanced around wondering what had awakened her. Movement to the right drew her gaze and she watched as one of the men placed wood on the fire before leaving to check the horses. She watched him disappear into the darkness then looked around again. She jumped when a raspy cough sounded next to her and her gaze flashed to the patient lying nearby.
Dazed, glassy blue eyes were looking up, and a smile of relief crossed Fern’s lips as she looked at the young man.
“Just a minute and I’ll get you a drink of water,” she told him as she reached for the canteen beside her.
Vin felt pain pulsing all through him, but his head was the worst. He could barely breathe without it feeling as if his head was exploding. He couldn’t hold onto a thought as he looked around and when he tried to think of where he was or why, pain flashed through his head more so. He moaned in pain when the woman lifted his head and pressed the canteen to his lips. Closing his eyes tight, Vin drank a little water before the pain got worse and he tried to turn his head away. Water went down his jaw and into the blanket before it was taken away. He shivered as the woman laid his head back down and pulled the blankets close around him again.
For several minutes Vin fought the blinding pain in his head and the nausea in his stomach. He gagged and felt the water coming back up but was unable to do anything to stop it. He felt hands on him, rolling him onto his right side as the water made its reappearance in an explosive cough. Pain crashed over his head and shoulder and he relaxed into the beckoning blackness once again.
Ana looked at her sister over the shoulder of the injured man, “He isn’t good Fern. I think he needs a doctor, and soon.”
Fern wiped the water off Vin’s lips and glanced at her sister before looking down again. “I know. But there’s nothing we can do about it. Alex won’t stay any longer than the end of the storm.” She began to ease Vin onto his back with Ana’s help. “And you know there’s no way he’ll take him with us, even as far as the next town, if there’s one within a day’s riding. It’s not looking too good for this young man. Maybe his horse will protect him until he is able to ride.” Fern glanced towards where the horses were tied under another cluster of trees. Unable to see them in the dark, she looked back at Ana, “All we can do is help him now, until we leave. Now go back to sleep. I’ll wake you in an hour or so.”
Fern saw Ana nod her head in the semidarkness before she disappeared behind their patient, lying back down on the other side of the injured man. She was worried, she’d doctored men before, and knew this man had a bad concussion. She’d carefully checked his skull over, but hadn’t felt any cracks or breaks and no soft spots, so she thought between the wounds, the shock of the fall and the hit to his head, that it had just jarred his head hard. Given some time he would heal fine. She knew time wasn’t on her side for helping him, Alex was already impatient over having to wait out the storm, but the trail had gotten so bad they had to stop. There was land waiting for them in the Western Region and all of them were anxious to get settled and begin the farming. She hoped the seed packs they carried didn’t get any moisture in them; it would be disastrous for the group.
Vin muttered then opened his eyes again, and Fern smiled down at him. She picked up a piece of clean bandage and soaked it with fresh water. “Let’s try it this way this time, maybe you will be able to keep it down.” Fern placed the cloth against his lips and Vin sucked a little water from it, his gaze locked on her.
“There, that’s better isn’t it?” Fern said a few minutes later after wetting the cloth several times for Vin.
“Y …yes,” Vin muttered.
“I’m Fern. What is your name?”
Vin frowned as words flashed through his head, but he couldn’t think of what his name was and looked helplessly at the woman.
“It’s all right. It’ll come to you later. Your head got a little banged up, but it should be fine in a couple days, along with your other injuries. Would you like a little more water?”
“Ple …please …” Vin answered and watched as she dipped the cloth into the cup of water before bringing it to his lips. He felt as if he was drying out in a desert, not freezing in a snow storm. Again he sucked on the cloth feeling embarrassed and wishing he could leave, or at least sit up, but he barely could move without something hurting. The pain in his head and shoulder hurt even when he breathed.
When Fern took the cloth away Vin let his eyes slide closed as he tried to think of his name and where he’d come from. After several minutes he gave up, all he was getting was a worse headache. For a moment he opened his eyes and saw the dark figure beside him in the dim firelight. “Chris?” He asked then fell asleep.
Fern was watching the young man closely and when his eyes opened she wondered if he remembered something. She heard the quietly whispered, “Chris” and thought he’d remembered his name.
Ana was sitting beside Vin several hours later when the camp began to stir. She replaced the warm cloth with a cool one on the young man’s forehead as she watched her brother stand, stretch then move towards where the horses were. Another man rose and placed more wood on the fires as another sat pans next to the closest fire, his gaze on her. With a nod he moved to the side and sat down.
“Fern, wake up. Time to cook. Come on,” Ana said to her sister sleeping on the other side of Vin.
Fern sat up suddenly and brushed her hair out of her face, with a glance she saw that it was still snowing, and piling up, then swung her gaze to the man beside her.
“Has he been awake?” She asked as she got up and rolled her blankets together.
“Once he mumbled something but never really was awake. He’s still pretty warm too.” Ana told Fern.
“We’ll check his wounds as soon as breakfast is over. Let’s get it done,” Fern stepped over Vin and grabbed Ana’s arm helping her to her feet. Together they moved to the fire and began preparing the meal from the supplies stacked nearby.
It was almost two hours later before the women were able to attend to Vin’s wounds. The men had all been fed and everything cleaned up. Alex thought they would be able to leave by the afternoon. The wind had died and it was just snowing now, a good six inches of snow was already covering the frozen ground.
Fern set out the bandages they’d found in the young man’s saddlebags. With Ana’s help they took off his shirt, and cut the soiled bandage away from the shoulder wound. The exit wound seemed to be all right, but the chest wound had some puss in it. With heated water, Fern cleaned it over and over to get rid of all the yellow puss. It finally looked like they had the infection under control; the wound was bleeding clear. Fern liberally covered the wound with salve and then wrapped his shoulder in a clean bandage. They quickly replaced the man’s shirts and covered the shivering body with the blankets.
Uncovering his legs, they saw that his good leg had more bruises on it. Ana rubbed it while Fern removed the bandage from his other leg and again washed the gash to clean out the infection that had begun to set in. When it was bleeding clear, Fern placed a few stitches in the widest part, and then packed it with the healing salve and bandaged it, satisfied that it was clean and should now begin to heal. As Ana continued to rub the bruised legs, Fern got Vin’s dried pants. When Ana finished they put them on Vin, pulling the heavy pants up his long legs and over his stocking clad feet.
They ignored the low moans of pain coming from Vin as they worked. They knew if Alex really wanted to move out that day, they had to leave the young man as well off as they could. It worried them that he hadn’t been totally awake yet. Opening his eyes for a few minutes hadn’t been long enough and Fern hoped he would awaken so she could talk to him.
Fern and Ana finally finished getting Vin dressed and into his heavy coat, and then covered him with his bedroll and an extra blanket. Ana left to pack their bedrolls, while Fern sat down beside Vin, pulling her coat tighter around her. She fiddled with the blanket a moment then looked up and paused in surprise. Bright, pain filled blue eyes were gazing at her in confusion.
“Well hello there. I’m glad to see you awake. Would you like some water Chris?” She watched the sweat covered face frown as his head nodded.
With gentle hands she lifted his head and tipped a cup with warmed water to his lips. She made sure he only sipped a few swallows before pulling the cup away. At the look on the handsome face she smiled, “Give it a minute to settle, then you can have some more.”
For several minutes Fern waited to see if the water would stay down. Ana stepped to her side and handed her a cup of broth, having seen that the patient was awake. Ana smiled down at Vin before she left again.
Vin lay unmoving, fighting the pain that centered on his left shoulder and legs. His gaze took in the activity around the camp and wondered where he was, who he was. He was on the verge of panicking; the feeling of not knowing anything was overpowering him. He couldn’t even remember how he’d gotten hurt, his breathing quickened.
Fern saw the man’s eyes grow larger in alarm, and laid her hand on his shoulder, drawing his eyes to her.
“What’s wrong? Do you feel all right?”
For a moment Vin gazed at the woman before looking around the camp again. “All right? I hurt? … Where am I? How’d I get hurt? … What happened? Why can’t I remember?” Raspy words tumbled out as Vin fought the panic that was rising in him.
Fern rubbed the uninjured shoulder, feeling it tight with tension under her hand. “It’s all right. You had a double blow to your head; it would scramble anyone’s brain. It’s only temporary. I couldn’t find anything wrong with your head other than the lump where it was hit. Everything will come back to you Chris. I’m sorry we don’t have anything to give to you for the pain, we haven’t had time to replenish our stock after one of the men was injured,” she could feel the tension in the shoulder begin to relax at her words and kept talking. “You were hurt by mistake when you came running into the camp. Your horse crashed into several of ours, and was attacked. The men didn’t know what was happening, but when you drew your blaster, they shot at you. So my sister and I’ve been taking care of you. But we have to leave soon. Would you like some broth, it should fill you a little and would be better than just water.”
Vin had relaxed a little as the woman talked letting her words flow over him. When she said ‘Chris’ he knew it was wrong, not his name, but he couldn’t figure out whose name it could be. The thought of some broth sounded good, he felt hungry and wondered when he’d last eaten.
“Broth please,” he rasped and set his mind for more pain when he was lifted a little.
Fern saw ‘Chris’ grit his teeth as she eased her hand behind his shoulders and gently lifted him. She pushed a blanket behind him and knowing she was hurting him let him lean against it, her other hand reached for the broth. With the cup pressed against Vin’s lips, she waited while he drank, sipping it slowly. It was almost empty when she felt him try to turn his head away, and she took the cup away. Carefully she eased him forward again and pulled the blanket free and eased him down.
“Thank you. It was good,” Vin said as his eyes slid closed.
For a minute Fern watched Vin struggle to fight the pain he was in, and wished she had something to give him for it. She wiped the sweat off his face and when the bright eyes opened a slit said, “Sleep, it will take away the pain for awhile. I’m sorry I can’t help you with it.”
“ ‘s okay. Not your fault …” Vin slurred before his eyes closed and he was lost in blackness.
Fern pulled the blankets tighter around Vin and at the call of her brother, rose and went to help pack the camp up.
It was early afternoon when they were ready to ride out. Horses were packed and the camp was empty, except for the lone figure wrapped in blankets beside a large tree. Fern and Ana had insisted Vin be moved and a sort of lean-to be constructed from interwoven branches for him with a fire and wood close by. They were as content as they could be with the situation. Their patient was out of the wind, had a simple lean-to around him and a fire where he could reach it with the firewood piled high behind him, within easy reach. A large tree was also at his back and stopped the wind and snow from blowing on him. The branches of the lean-to reached around part of the tree for more protection.
Vin had been awake for awhile and they had fed him more broth with bread soaked in it. He had eaten it and understood that they were leaving, though the confused look on his face had pulled at Fern, she didn’t want to leave him, but was relieved that his fever had dropped, and she hoped it would stay down. He didn’t understand why they were leaving him out there alone, with no one to help him. She had explained as best as she could that they must be on their way, that her brother had to be in a certain place in a few days, they would have to travel fast, and he wasn’t up to a such a hard fast trip yet. She tucked his saddlebags close beside him; inside she’d placed food for him to eat without much trouble. A large container of thick soup was by the fire, close enough to keep it warm. His canteen was filled and placed beside the saddlebags, though closer to the heat of the fire so it wouldn’t freeze, and his gun, blaster, ammo and knife were inches from his hands.
With a last look at the young man, Fern mounted her horse and rode away with her sister and the men. She hoped he’d be well enough to leave the next day or so, or a friend would be looking for him and find him. She prayed that he didn’t die out here alone and unprotected. Noticing his horse tied several feet from the lean-to, she hoped it wouldn’t get loose and leave him totally stranded.
The riders passed out of the trees and into the open, horses stepping quick and easy through the foot deep snow. Fern looked back one more time. The trail the ten riders and several pack horses had made lay out behind her in the snow, coming from around some rocks. In the distance, she could make out the light grey haze of smoke over the area they had left several minutes ago. It was barely visible as it mingled against the whiteness of the overhanging cliffs, mountains, snow covered evergreens and the grey sky. Shaking her head she turned around, the man’s life was in God’s hands now, and she prayed he would be safe.
Vin woke and glanced around. It was so quiet, except for the crackle of the fire. Then he remembered that Fern and Ana were gone, for a moment he felt panic trying to overcome him and his hand moved around under the blanket. Something hard was lying beside him and his fingers ran over it. He recognized his sawed off gun, then felt the blaster and breathed a sigh of relief. He next felt the canteen, and then the saddlebags against his hip; he carefully turned his head and spotted a container by the fire. For awhile he watched the fire, and when it seemed to be burning lower, he felt around and turning his head saw the firewood piled behind him. His chilly fingers scrabbled over the wood and finally latched on a piece on the top of the low stack. With a tug he got it off the pile and dragged it closer to the fire, then tossed it onto the low flames. Groaning from the effort, he reached for another piece and as soon as it was on the fire he shoved his hand under the blanket and closed his eyes for a few minutes.
A noise woke him early the next morning, and Vin gripped his blaster as he opened his eyes. Glancing around he didn’t see anything out of place, then the noise came again and his glance shot in that direction, blaster rising out of the blankets. For a moment he stared at the brown horned horse and thought, ‘Not right.’ The horse was tied several feet out from the fire and stomped his forefeet in displeasure. Vin could see it had eaten some of the lower tree branches clean of their needles and figured it was probably hungry. It needed to be moved to another area where it could dig through the snow for grass.
For a bit longer Vin lay still watching the horse, then realized he needed to get up too. He vaguely remembered the night, waking now and then to toss wood on the fire afterwards falling instantly asleep again.
“Guess I better try, need to feed the fire too,” he said to the horse that gazed at him and shook its head, as if to hurry him along.
Gritting his teeth, Vin threw the blankets back, and one handed pushed himself into a sitting position. Pain and blackness washed over him and he fought to stay upright and awake. Panting for breath, eyes closed, Vin waited. Finally the pain eased, his head cleared and he slowly opened his eyes, wondering how he was going to get up off the ground.
He looked around and spotted a sturdy stick lying beside his left leg. The women had thought of everything he realized. With a slow movement, Vin reached across his legs and grabbed the stick, it was over four feet long and thicker than his wrist. Holding onto the stick he used it to balance himself as he got to his knees. Once kneeling, he clung to it while pain shot through his shoulder. Knowing it wasn’t going to get any better, he gritted his teeth, pushed himself to his feet, and staggered to lean against the closest tree.
Vin wasn’t sure how long he stood slumped against the tree while black dots danced across his vision. The horse’s stomping had his eyes opening again.
“I’m coming Peso … You’re not Peso … Who’s Peso? God, my head hurts …” Vin stuttered as he straightened and then took a step towards the horned horse watching him.
Looking around Vin wondered where he could tie the horse that was nearby. Behind the lean-to was a small area he thought would hold the horse and moved to untie him.
The horse moved quickly and Vin stumbled, crying out in pain as he was pulled towards the new area. The stick fell from his hand as he pulled on the rope to stop the hungry animal. With a toss of its head the horned horse stopped and looked down at the man.
Vin leaned heavily against the brown’s shoulder for a few minutes before he could move again. Between the pain in his head and shoulder, his legs threatened to collapse from the ache in them, he wasn’t sure what he was doing. Taking a deep breath, Vin finally stepped away from the horse and led him to a new place under the trees. Half blinded by pain he tied the horse so he could eat, then staggered back towards the lean-to, but paused before he could lay down, he had to relieve himself and see what was in the container.
Moving several feet to the side of the lean-to, he fumbled his pants open and took care of pressing business. Sighing in relief a couple minutes later, he snagged snow off a tree limb to wash his hands and wiped his wet, cool fingers over his face as he made his way to the warmth of the fire. Shivering, he stood over the fire a of couple minutes before he carefully bent down and picked up the warm container. He opened the top and sniffed, then tasted it, it was soup with powdered potatoes and shredded beef in it. He took a grateful drink, savoring the taste and warmth of it. Feeling warmer and satisfied, he covered the container, thinking there was enough for another two days if he wasn’t too hungry. Sitting it beside the fire once again he carefully moved to his blankets, and lowered himself onto them. Before lying down he put more wood on the fire and stirred it with a smaller piece before placing that piece on top, then with a wide yawn, he laid down and pulled the blankets over him. All the pain had receded, and with the soup warming him he closed his eyes.
For awhile Vin lay there letting the blankets warm him as his thoughts turned to who he was. Opening his eyes he stared into the fire as his thoughts circled around in his head. He knew the name Chris, but was sure it wasn’t his name. Peso, another name he knew, but somehow knew it wasn’t the horned horse there with him. With his head clear and pain free for the moment he pushed himself trying to remember things. A flash of a man in black with blond hair went through his thoughts and he muttered, ‘Chris,’ then cried out when the headache hit him with what felt like claws trying to tear his head apart. His eyes slammed closed and he rubbed his head. His hand bumped the lightly covered wound on his head and pain shot through him with a vengeance, and with a moan he let the darkness take him.
Silence fell over the little camp except for the crackling of the campfire and harsh breathing from Vin. Vin coughed and unconsciously rolled onto his left side. With a cry of pain he rolled onto his back and stilled. His fever started rising again as snow began to fall around the lean-to. Light fluffy flakes floated to the ground and slowly began to cover the trail the ten riders had made hours ago.
**What are we going to do?**
**Protect him until the others get here.**
**We can do that. They need to get here now though, and he’s not going to be easy to find.**
**He’s not remembering. Their connection isn’t working right now, otherwise Chris would be here.** A ghostly figure formed beside the fire. An old cavalry slouch hat was on his head, long brown-gold hair curled out from under it and over his shoulders. A long buckskin coat covered a blue shirt and tan pants. A holstered Mare’s Leg graced his right thigh. Old sky blue eyes set in a youthful, scruffy face gazed around the small camp and settled on the unconscious figure.
**I think you’ve got to let Larabee know where he is Cowboy. He’s getting worse again, and with this weather, he’ll never be found.**
Another ghostly figure materialized beside the first. This man was dressed all in black with a warm woolen serape draped over his back and chest. A black hat covered blond hair and his sea-green gaze connected with the blue ones.
Cowboy shook his head. **Maybe we should give it a few more hours Tracker. I feel they are looking for him now.**
**Don’t care. This snow isn’t goin’ ta stop for another day or so. They won’t find him in time.**
With a sigh Cowboy looked down at the pale, young Vin Tanner lying wrapped in blankets and was startled to see blue eyes gazing up at them.
“Who … who are you?” Vin asked of the two men standing by the fire.
Cowboy and Tracker exchanged a glance. Tracker moved closer to Vin and asked, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Vin answered instantly and tried to push himself upright, only to fall back with a low moan of pain.
Tracker squatted next to the young man and placed his hand on his good shoulder, unsure if Vin could feel him.
“Take it easy Vin. You need to rest. Stay still and go back to sleep, I’m watching your back, but you are dreaming.”
“Vin … That’s my name … Need to … remember … Real …” Vin sighed and dropped back into a fevered sleep.
Tracker rose and faced Cowboy. **You have to go Cowboy, see if Chris is coming this way at least. I’ll stay and watch over him til you return.**
**It’s too soon for us to be here Vin. The time isn’t right yet for them.**
**I know. But if this Vin dies, the Legend ends …** Tracker looked at Cowboy.
**All right. I’m going. He can’t die, not now, the Legacy can’t stop.** With those last words Cowboy was gone. The snow silently continued falling over the little camp as Tracker sat down beside Vin’s legs to watch over him and hoped help would be there soon.
+ + + + + + +
Miles away Chris and Buck were pushing their horned horses through drifts of snow. They both were tired and the horses were grumbling their displeasure with every step.
“How much longer are we going to do this pard?” Buck asked as his big grey broke through the last drift into what seemed to be a trail.
“As long as it takes,” Chris replied as he pulled his black to a halt beside Buck. “We can’t stop until we find him. Something’s wrong.” Chris remembered the fleeting vision he had of a horned, yellowish horse rearing over him, knowing it was through Vin’s eyes he was seeing the horse, before pain and then blackness.
Buck looked at his friend and shook his head. Chris looked like hell. Dark circles were around his eyes, his face was drawn and pale with worry lines bracketing his eyes and mouth. Buck knew he hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours in the last two days, and had barely eaten enough to keep a bird alive. Even riding Chris wasn’t still, he could see the toll it was taking on the other man and he knew without a doubt that if they found Vin dead, Chris would not survive this time.
With a sigh Buck looked over the white landscape, he couldn’t believe how dreadful this late storm had turned out to be. As long as he’d been in the area, it had never been this bad. The snow was piling up; though they needed it, he figured there’d be some flooding if the weather changed too fast. He glanced at Chris again, he knew the connection between Chris and Vin had somehow been broken and was afraid the younger man was already dead. The connection between the two was powerful, so powerful they could ‘hear’ each other over miles and miles. Their connection had saved lives several times over the months they’d been together.
Chris changed from the first day he and Vin met, he’d come alive again. Smiles, interest and just back to his old self. Buck hadn’t been able to do that and had watched as the friend he knew disappeared after his wife and son had died.
With a shake, Buck brought himself back to now and gazed at Chris, waiting patiently for Chris to decide which way to go, while unconsciously praying that Vin was still alive. His gloved hand ran over his face as he watched his partner; he was sure if he looked into a mirror he’d see the same look on his face as was on Chris’. With another sigh he waited, hoping they would find Vin alive and soon, he was getting tired of riding, a warm fire and food was starting to sound good to him.
Chris sat on his black mount, trying to connect with Vin. Head down, fingers pressed against his forehead, eyes tightly closed he continued to mentally call Vin. With a last try he moved his hand down across his face. The fear that Vin was gone gripped the blond and he felt despair shoot through him. He fought it back; he wouldn’t let it take over, not until he knew for sure. Slowly he opened his eyes to the snowy vista, he wasn’t sure where to look for his soul brother, he had hoped they’d have found or met him before now. Against his thoughts depression was setting in, he knew something bad had happened, their connection was so good, this was not possible.
**Where are you brother?** Chris thought as the silent snow hit him in the face. Swallowing his fear again, Chris glanced around as he pulled warm gloves back over his hands, then urged his black forward, staying in the faint dip that looked like a trail. They headed a bit more north then west. ‘Vin has to be here somewhere,’ Chris thought again, he wasn’t about to go home without him.
A cold breeze began to blow the snow around thirty minutes later and the men hunched into their coats again, pulling the wool collars tighter around their necks and wrapping the warm neck scarves around their faces as well as their necks. They pulled their hats lower on their heads until only their eyes were visible between brim and scarf.
Chris shivered with cold and knew Buck was as miserable as he was. The horses were just as tired, having fought through snow drifts for hours. It was beginning to get darker too and he knew they had to find a protected place to camp. He didn’t want to stop, but they had to, and soon.
A snort from Pony made Chris raise his eyes from where he was watching the trail that had all but disappeared in the falling snow. Something seemed to shimmer barely five feet in front of his horse’s head. For a moment he thought it was a tree or rock, but it suddenly solidified into a man in black. Chris jerked back on the reins and with a grumble Pony stopped and turned his head to look at his rider. Chris stared at the figure that seemed to smile and wave him to come on.
“Chris, what’s wrong? This is no place to stop for the night,” Buck called from behind him.
“I know … I …” Chris stopped, the figure shook his head and backed away several feet, still signaling him to follow.
Not sure what was going on with the man, Chris nudged his black into a walk. The figure stayed in front of the horse for several minutes then turned right. When Chris hesitated to follow, the man stopped and looked at him.
Chris gazed into green eyes and a face that was his, though a little older and dressed in black from head to toe. A black belt with silver conchos held a holster on his right hip. As Chris looked the man over a brownish, taupe colored dark poncho seemed to appear from nowhere and was pulled over his head. The snow and wind didn’t seem to bother the apparition. Again the man signaled and pointed insistently to the right.
“Chris what are you doing? I’m freezing my ass off here. Can we try to find a place to camp?” Buck complained suddenly.
“Do you see anything around here Buck?”
“No! Would you just go somewhere?”
Chris saw the black-clad man smile then with a wave he started away again. With a curse Chris followed the blond, and as Pony stepped into the deeper snow again, Chris wondered if he was dreaming. He watched the figure and realized the man wasn’t sinking into the snow, he was leaving no trail, and now and then he faded to where Chris could barely see him.
Again the figure turned and Chris followed him through the darkening day. For awhile they moved against the blowing snow, barely able to see anything ahead of them. All of a sudden Chris felt a difference, the wind had almost died down and he could make out something ahead through the falling snow. All of a sudden Pony let out a roar and so did Beau and both horses broke into a trot.
A short time later Chris could smell wood smoke, and minutes later he spotted trees and then the flickering of a campfire. The ghostly figure was suddenly beside him though they were trotting through the trees. Chris nodded his thanks to the man who touched his hat and disappeared.
As they got closer to the fire Chris saw a crude branch made lean-to by a large tree then the figure in black standing in front of the shelter. Chris blinked in surprise when another figure joined him. He could have sworn it was Vin standing there. With a smile on the men’s faces they were gone. Chris shook his head, unsure if he’d seen something, for as tired as he was, it could have been his mother, but two men out there? He called out, “Hello the camp,” but was met with silence. He slowed the black who roared again and turned his head towards a stand of trees. A low roar came from the trees and Chris saw Buck head in that direction.
Chris halted Pony near the lean-to, and the horse stepped closer to the heat, his grumble sounded as he lowered his head and looked into the interior. Chris stepped to the side and front of the horse and looked in, his breath caught in his chest at what he saw. Stepping under the intertwined branches he dropped to his knees beside the blanketed, shivering figure.
“Vin! Vin, we’re here. Buck, bring the saddlebags, Vin’s hurt,” Chris yelled out as he touched the tousled head. “Oh God Vin what happened to you?” he asked. With a quick movement he grabbed several pieces of wood and placed them on the fire so he could see better, and to get more heat in the enclosure.
Buck was beside him a minute later, carrying his saddlebags and bedroll. He dropped them beside Chris and gathered Pony’s reins, “I’ll take care of Pony for you while you check Vin over.” Before he led the black away he pulled Chris’s bedroll and saddlebags off and added them to the pile. “Be back shortly. Vin’s horse is over there.”
While Buck was gone, darkness fell and the temperature dropped, the snow kept falling though. Chris pulled the blankets off Vin and quickly checked him over. He found the bandaged shoulder and felt a bandage on Vin’s thigh, but didn’t check it yet. The bandage on Vin’s head had some blood on it and he decided to start there.
Covering Vin again, Chris pulled a coffee pot from his saddlebag and poured water from the canteen beside Vin into it and sat it beside the fire to heat. They needed more room in the lean-to for the three of them and while the water was heating Chris called out to Buck, “Bring the hatchet, we need to enlarge this for us.”
“Already got it,” Buck answered from nearby, “got some branches too.” Stepping into the light, he dropped the branches and Chris saw the weariness on his friend’s face, but now a smile was on his lips.
“Good. I’ve got water heating and will get some food going too. There’s a container of soup here beside the fire.”
“Yeah, this looks like it was a camp for a group of people. There’s an area in the trees that looks like a bunch of horses had been corralled there. And looking around here, snow’s not that deep. They haven’t been gone more than a day or so, I’d guess.” Buck said as Chris quickly put together some dinner for them.
“My guess too. Someone cared for Vin, this container isn’t any I’ve seen before either. Let’s get some more branches while dinner cooks, then I’ll take care of Vin’s injuries.” Chris got up with a pat to Vin’s shoulder, he moved out from under the branches and joined Buck as he walked towards some trees.
By the time their dinner was ready the two men had enlarged the lean-to, adding sides in a V shape with the fire at the widest area in front of it. The covering branches had been added to, and unless the wind changed directions and got through the boulders and trees, it was all well protected, and though not a house it was warmer than it had been.
They quickly ate and while Buck cleaned the few dishes then went to gather more firewood, Chris went to work on his soul brother, using the heated snow. When needed Buck leaned Vin against him as Chris cleaned and re-bandaged Vin’s shoulder wound. Buck’s face revealing his joy of having found Vin alive.
With the lean-to warmer, they quickly worked Vin’s pants down and checked the wound in his leg. Neither man could believe the colors Vin’s legs were and wondered what had happened to him. As they redressed Vin, making sure his feet and legs were warmly covered, he moaned.
Chris tucked the blankets around Vin’s chest and up around his face. He saw long eyelashes flutter and moments later glazed blue eyes were staring at him. Relief pushed the despair away as the blue gaze landed on him.
“Hey Pard, you got yourself into a mess didn’t you? We’ve been looking for you for two days. ‘fraid I couldn’t find you … How do you feel?” Chris said softly not wanting to startle his soul brother.
Vin continued to stare at Chris without saying a word and Chris was aware he maybe couldn’t hear him.
**Vin, everything will be alright now. You’re safe,** he sent.
“I’m Vin,” Vin finally said out loud, his gaze on Chris. He was sure he knew this man. He tried to put a name to him but his head began to ache. “Know ya, m’ head hurts,” Vin gasped as his eyes slid closed and blackness took over, freeing him from his pain. Chris slumped and put down the canteen.
“Damn. His head injury seems to be the worst,” Buck commented as he dropped more firewood in the shelter.
“Concussion. I didn’t feel anything but a lump. Must have been hit hard. We won’t force him. Hopefully he’ll remember on his own.” Chris ran a hand over his face, relief had run through him followed quickly by exhaustion. He was sure he could sleep a week if he had time to.
Buck watched Chris and knew he was on his last legs. He turned and grabbed Chris’ bedroll and tossed it to the blond. “Bed down, I’ll take first watch, and if Vin wakes I’ll wake you.”
“I can …”
“No, you can sleep. I’m fine. You need sleep so you can take care of Vin when he wakes. Now …”
“All right, all right. I’ll sleep for awhile,” Chris snapped as he unrolled his blankets behind Vin, having moved the last of the firewood from behind the injured young man. He didn’t want to sleep, but Buck was right, there was no way he could stay awake much longer. “Wake me if you need me or if Vin …”
“I know, go to sleep.” Buck grinned as he unrolled his own blankets and pulled one over his shoulders, then sat down beside Vin. From his spot he could easily reach Vin, the firewood, and see out of the shelter. A canteen lay near the fire to keep the water from freezing, but close enough to easily reach it if Vin woke.
For hours Buck watched over Vin, bathing his face with a cool cloth to bring down his fever, knowing he’d do this for Chris no matter what. He wanted the youngster to survive as much as Chris did; he was a special young man to him too. He counted on Vin’s friendship as much as Chris’. The snow still fell silently around them and he kept the fire going, and a pot of coffee warm beside it. Now and then he’d doze off for a couple of minutes and jerk awake, no time yet for sleeping he’d remind himself.
After pouring himself a cup of coffee, Buck turned back to Vin and smiled when he saw Vin’s eyes locked on him. He sat his cup down and poured a cup of water offering it to Vin, who nodded.
Gently lifting the sweaty head, Buck held the cup to Vin’s lips. Vin sipped the water knowing not to drink it fast.
Vin turned his head from the water and the cup was taken away. His pain-filled blue gaze watched Buck closely after Buck laid him back down. The big man moved to the fire and picked up a pan with something in it. He added what looked like honey to it and stirred it. Moments later he poured it into the same cup he’d given Vin water in and came back to his side.
Buck smiled at the young man watching him so closely. “This will help get your fever down. Try to drink it all,” he stated as he lifted Vin’s head again.
Vin sipped the warm drink, his nose wrinkling at the bitter smell and was glad to taste the sweetness in it. He drank most of the liquid before turning his head away.
Buck lay the damp head down again and patted Vin’s good shoulder. He tossed the last little bit out and cleaned the cup, then returned to Vin’s side. He grinned at Vin seeing he was still awake.
“As soon as you’re feeling better we’ll head home Junior.”
Buck’s head snapped up from where he was tucking the blanket around Vin’s legs at the hoarse whisper.
“Hey Vin, yeah it’s me,” he watched as Vin’s blue gaze moved over him then the camp, frown lines formed on his forehead. “What’s wrong Junior?”
“Missing … C …riss … aaaahh …” Pain flashed through Vin’s head as he began to remember. He felt Buck’s hand on his good shoulder, rubbing it.
“Calm down Vin. Don’t force it; it will come when it’s ready.”
Vin looked up at Buck for a moment, but he had to know, something was pushing him and the name ‘Chris’ was rolling through his head. He couldn’t remember why, but he knew it was important and he rasped out the name in a whisper.
“C … Ch … riss …” Shaking from the effort he stilled as Buck squeezed his shoulder.
“He’s safe, right here. Calm down and you’ll see him.” Buck told him then eased him up a little bit. “Look to your right. Chris is sleeping beside you.”
Frantic eyes turned to the back of the lean-to and Vin saw a blond head barely a foot away. Buck held him up for a minute longer then laid him down. A thin hand and arm worked their way out of the blankets tucked around the injured young man and moved slowly towards Chris. Buck instantly knew that Vin needed to touch his soul brother and he grasped Vin’s wrist and placed it under Chris’ blanket where Vin could touch Chris’s arm and shoulder. He covered the exposed limb and watched when a smile crossed the gaunt face as Vin slipped into sleep.
For several minutes Buck sat beside Vin letting him settle, then went back to placing a cool cloth on his friend’s head. He was sure the youngster would be fine now, their connection was back. His tired gaze rested on Chris who had slept through the exchange, he’d forgotten he’d promised to wake Chris, but was happy he hadn’t, Chris couldn’t have done anything more. The dark circles around the closed eyes showed how exhausted the man was. He hoped they both would get enough sleep; he wanted to get home and back to his own warm house and bed.
A gentle sigh had Buck looking towards Chris, and he noticed that Chris was turning onto his side as his hand groped unconsciously for Vin’s touch. A moment later Chris’s hand connected with Vin’s forearm and gripped it. The thin hand gripped Chris’ arm and both men dropped deeper into sleep. Buck made sure both men were covered and sat back, pulling his blanket tighter around him, glad to see them both sleeping. Now he could relax some too.
Off and on through the next two hours Buck dozed, fed the fire and changed the cloth on Vin’s forehead. It was almost morning when Vin’s fever broke and the brunet breathed a sigh of relief. After placing more wood on the fire he lay down beside it and was asleep within minutes, unaware how exhausted he himself was.
Chris slowly woke feeling a warm weight pressed against him. For several minutes he wondered where he was, who was with him. A raspy cough sounded beside him and he realized where he was and tried to sit up. Vin was pressed against his chest half laying on his right side sound asleep. Chris touched the pale face and was glad to feel coolness, not heat. As he carefully worked away from Vin, he looked around the camp.
He saw Buck asleep stretched beside the fire. A flash of anger raced through him when he realized it was morning and Buck hadn’t woken him. Another cough drew his gaze to Vin and his anger left. He pulled his blankets over the younger man and stepped to the fire. He found a cup covered with a tin plate, holding warm water with herbs in it. Adding more wood to the fire he moved outside to check on the horses and take care of pressing business. His anger was gone; he’d taken a good look at Buck and knew the big man had needed this rest as much as he did. He was thankful that Buck was still beside him, no matter what he’d done to drive him away over the last years. A friend like that was hard to come by and he thanked God for their long friendship.
The blond raised his face to the lightening sky, the snow had almost totally stopped, a few wayward flakes drifted down. Chris made his way to where the horses were, walking through almost knee deep snow. He took care of business and moved the horses around a little so they could reach more grass under the snow. Shivering, he headed back to the shelter, they had to get out of here soon; he didn’t want to get trapped if the snow continued to fall. It would be a struggle as it was with the drifts and the deep snow to get through. He was thinking of the supplies they’d brought and how long they’d last, he figured it’d take them at least three days to reach the ranch, but it was closer than town.
Ducking into the lean-to, Chris quietly brushed the snow off his legs then stepped to where Buck had left the saddlebags. A short time later biscuits and gravy were cooking beside the fire. He felt someone watching him and turned with a smile, knowing it was Vin.
Bright blue eyes, in a pale thin face were watching his every move. Chris picked up the covered cup and sat down beside Vin.
“Hey Pard, how do you feel?”
Vin gazed up at Chris for a moment, then a slow smile crossed his lips. He still wasn’t sure what had happened to him, but he remembered the women and camp, and who he was. Buck and Chris were there, he was safe.
“Feel fine,” Vin rasped, then coughed for a moment, and fought the pain in his head that brought tears to his eyes.
Chris eased Vin’s head up and when his eyes opened again pressed the cup to his lips. “This will help some, come on, drink.”
Vin sipped the drink, thankful to taste the sweetness of the tea. He finished it, then thirstily drank from the canteen when Chris offered it.
Chris closed the canteen and slid Vin’s head back down. “Rest. Breakfast will be ready shortly.”
“You came. C … hris, I saw you here, but you were dressed in a serape. Earth colors ... Was so cold, you weren’t though …” Vin’s hand came and Chris gripped it, remembering the man in black he’d seen, had followed. “I was there too. Weren’t me though … Who were they? Where are they?” Vin asked as he turned looking around, trying to see all around the camp.
Chris placed his hand on Vin’s shoulder, “Calm down Vin. They aren’t here. Don’t know who they were. Stay still and I’ll tell you what I know. Have to check the food first.”
Vin stilled and nodded his shaggy head. Chris moved to the fire and checked the biscuits and stirred the gravy. About five minutes and they’d be done. With a glance at Buck, who was still asleep he put the pot of coffee closer to the heat and returned to Vin’s side.
With his hand on Vin’s shoulder Chris told him, “We didn’t know which way to go and this man appeared and waved me on. Buck didn’t see him. Yeah, he led us to you here. When I could see the lean-to and campfire, another man came out of the shelter then they just disappeared… It did look like ‘us’ though older. I don’t understand who they were or what happened, I’m just happy that they helped us find you.”
“Glad they did too. Have a feeling we’ll see them again sometime.”
“Not sure. Just a feeling, I guess. Can’t remember what they said. Is breakfast done yet?”
With a grin Chris rose and moved to the fire. He picked up a plate and forked a biscuit out of one pan then spooned gravy over it from the other. With a glance at Vin he broke the biscuit up in the gravy before moving to Vin’s side.
Chris helped Vin sit up, shoving some blankets behind him. When Vin was steady he placed the plate in his lap and moved to get them some coffee. As he poured coffee Buck stretched and pulled himself up.
Grinning, Chris passed a cup of coffee to Buck then dished them up some food, noticing that Buck looked better from the rest he’d gotten.
“Thanks Pard. Hey Junior, you’re awake,” Buck smiled at Vin who nodded his head at him as he put another forkful of food hungrily into his mouth. “How do you feel?”
Vin glanced up as he chewed, “Fine. Want to go home.”
Buck and Chris grinned at each other. “We will as soon as we check your wounds and rest a little. While you were sleeping here, we were fighting our way through snowdrifts, horses are tired.” Buck told him as he ate, watching Vin’s eyes close then snap open several times.
“Weren’t … sleeping here … hurt … tired.”
Chris grabbed Vin’s plate as it slid off his lap then caught him as he started to topple sideways. He eased Vin down and pulled the blankets over him. Sitting back he looked from Vin to Buck.
“Thanks Buck, for watching over Vin last night, I know you were as tired as I was, but ... Well, I appreciate all you did,” Chris stopped for a moment, grinning at the blush that covered his friend’s features, a little surprised that it was Buck blushing, Vin was the one who could blush at the drop of a word. Then he went on, “Think we’ll stay here today at least. He’s not quite ready to ride, and we both need more rest too. We’ll have to get out of here tomorrow though.”
Buck nodded. Getting the redness he could feel in his face under control he finished his last bite and held the plate out for more. “We got enough supplies for another couple of days. It’s going to take us a good two, if not three days to get home in this weather.”
“Vin’s still got quite a bit in his saddlebags. We should be alright food wise. We mainly need to hope this snow is done and it stays cold, we don’t need to muck through mud.”
Chris and Buck cleaned up the plates after finishing their meal and then checked the supplies, placing everything into one saddlebag for the time being. Finally they gathered the medical supplies and moved to Vin’s side.
“Hate to wake him,” Buck commented as he sat down.
“I’m awake. Need ta get up.” Vin’s eyes opened and he looked at his friends.
“Now Junior, just because we’re here to change your bandages …”
“Gotta go Bucklin.”
“Oh in that case… Go easy, we’ll help you.”
“I ‘kin go myself. Jest need help up.” **Dang mother hen, goin’ to be the death of me,** Vin thought as Buck carefully pulled the blankets off him and helped him to his feet.
**Just been worried about you.** Vin heard in his head as Chris helped him from the other side. He turned his head to Chris a smile breaking across his face.
**You can hear me again!**
**Finally can. Had me worried, my head was too quiet.**
Vin laughed out loud and gripped Chris’s forearm in their special brotherhood grip. **I couldn’t understand what was going on. Couldn’t remember even who I was. Scared me.**
“Hey boys, glad you can talk together again, but I thought you needed to go for a walk Junior.”
“Sorry Buck,” Vin looked at the tall man sheepishly, cheeks turning pink. “I was scared I’d lost everything. I couldn’t remember who I was or where I’d come from, I was lost …”
Buck wrapped the slight, shaking figure into his arms, and held him for a moment, “You’d never lose us no matter how lost you might get. We will be here for you. No matter what!” Buck felt the arm that went around his waist and held him to the shaking body. He was relieved that the younger man was alive, that they’d found him in time, no matter if it was premonition or ghosts that led Chris to him. He pulled back a little and looked down at the head that rested against his chest a moment, then his gaze met Chris’ over Vin’s bowed head.
Though they couldn’t talk to each other like he and Vin did through their thoughts, Chris knew Buck had heard them talking about the spirits who had guided them to Vin. He was grateful that his old friend was there and knew Buck would always be at his side, and now Vin’s. Their lives were intertwined forever, he’d tell Buck what he’d seen, how he’d found his soul mate.
Shortly, boots and coat on, Vin was out of the lean-to, and though shaky and weak, took care of pressing business breathing deeply of the fresh cold air. After several minutes Vin turned back to the shelter, the cold was making him shiver harder and he was once again tired. He stumbled and was caught before he fell. “Tired,” he mumbled as gentle hands helped him past the fire and back to his blankets. He was barely aware of his boots being slipped off or his coat taken off before he was asleep.
The two men quickly checked Vin’s wounds and put fresh bandages on his shoulder and leg, then they wrapped him in the blankets. Finished, they moved to the fire and the coffee pot. With a cup of coffee in hand and sitting beside each other, they soaked up the warmth of the fire.
“I don’t trust this weather; we have to get out of here tomorrow. We’ll have to go slow for Vin’s sake, even though it’s going to take two, maybe three days.” Chris told Buck.
Nodding Buck replied, “Weather is odd. If it’s longer than that, we’ll run out of food, and I didn’t see any sign of any kind of wildlife we could take for food. Besides that, Vin needs Nathan. We can ride double, that’ll keep him warm and safe.” Buck nailed Chris with a blue-eyed glare, “Now tell me about this ghost or whatever it was that guided you here.”
Chris sighed and then grinned as he began to fill Buck in on what he’d seen and followed including what Vin had told him of the men he’d seen. “Vin thinks we’ll see them again sometime, not sure why though. Let’s see about getting some firewood, seems to have gotten colder in the last hour.”
Making sure Vin was well covered, the two men left the shelter and went looking for more firewood to hold them for the rest of the day and through the long night.
It took them a while to gather enough firewood and they found additional evidence that someone had camped there for more than just a couple of days. A large area under the trees showed evidence it had held many horses; the trees were scarred with branches stripped off many of them. They had to venture a long ways to find firewood, and after several trips through the deep snow Chris and Buck were exhausted. On their excursion, they’d found a tiny stream that wasn’t totally frozen; the narrow watercourse was no wider than 18 inches but was almost three feet deep. They took time to take the horses to the water, though they barely drank anything. Tying them back in the protective trees the two men picked up the wood again and headed to the shelter.
Reaching the lean-to, they dropped their last loads of wood and poured themselves a cup of coffee. Chris checked Vin. Finding he was sleeping peacefully before he moved back to the fire.
Working together, within a short time a stew was prepared and was sitting in a pot on hot rocks close to the fire to cook. With a glance at each other, Buck moved to his blankets as Chris stepped over Vin and sank tiredly onto his. Chris pulled the blankets around Vin again, then he settled in and minutes later was asleep. Buck was already bundled up and snoring softly.
It was almost dark when Buck arose; he put wood on the fire and then checked and found dinner was done. He took a quick walk to check on the horses, then hurried back to the shelter. It was bitter cold and the snow had a crust on it.
Chris was spooning stew onto a plate when Buck returned. Vin was sitting up, blankets over his shoulders. Both men smiled at Buck as he ducked into the lean-to.
“Colder than a witch’s teat out there. Snow is crusting. It must have warmed while we slept, not any more coming down though.” Buck reported.
“Noticed that. Don’t know what this weather is up to, it’s been very unusual lately. We have to leave in the morning,” Chris stated as he handed Vin the loaded plate. He watched Vin a moment before he turned to dish up food for Buck and himself. He was glad to see that Vin had begun to eat more, his appetite was coming back quickly.
“I’ll be ready in the morning. I’m already feeling better.” Vin commented, then grinned when he heard twin chuckles.
While Buck cleaned everything up, Chris helped Vin out of the shelter to take care of his needs. Back inside he checked bandages before allowing Vin to lay back into his nest of blankets. For awhile the men talked before Buck added more wood to the fire and they settled down for the night, knowing the next few days were going to be long ones.
Morning came, but the sky stayed grey, with no sign that the sun would be coming out. After a quick, hardy breakfast the men rolled up bedrolls, cleaned up the campsite and prepared to head home. Vin was moving around slowly, and while Buck and Chris saddled the horses he put out the fire. With the fire dead, he stepped over to the stacked saddlebags and bedrolls and saw Chris coming.
Chris led Pony to the shelter and told Vin to come. Balking, Vin wouldn’t step beyond the saddlebags for several minutes. Vin let Chris know in no uncertain terms that he did not need to ride Pony; he could ride his own horse.
Chris cocked his head and just looked at the younger man. Vin’s shoulders slumped and he limped to Pony’s side, patting the inquisitive nose that nuzzled his hair as he moved beside him. “You agree with Chris too I guess, don’t you Pony?” The horned horse snorted as if he agreed and nudged Vin’s shoulder.
“All right, all right I’m coming,” Vin grumbled as he stepped to Pony’s side and lifted his leg for the stirrup. With a groan, his leg dropped down, the pain that shot through his thigh made him grit his teeth. Chris was beside him in an instant, and Buck moved to his other side.
“Easy Junior, let us lift you, that’s a high step to get up,” Buck joked as he and Chris lifted him so he could slide his injured leg’s foot into the stirrup, his good leg moved easily over the horses back.
Vin settled into the saddle and realized that Chris was right, he would have had trouble staying on his horse if it decided to do something crazy. A blanket was tossed to him and he wrapped it across his legs and waist. A second one was handed to him and he put it around his shoulders and arms. He smiled his thanks as Buck tucked the first one around his legs, being careful of his left one.
The saddlebags and bedrolls were tied onto Vin’s horse, then Buck mounted his grey and took the reins of the horse. Chris swung up behind Vin when Vin pulled his foot out of the stirrup, and settled himself with an arm around Vin’s waist to anchor him in the saddle. With a nudge Pony turned and they headed away from the camp. Thoughts of home ran through their heads as the horses tossed their horned heads and stepped through the crusty snow.
As the riders moved out of the trees and into the open, leaving the lean-to that Vin had been found in, two figures materialized and watched the three riders ride away.
**He’ll be fine and in a few years, we’ll be meeting him, all of them, again.** The black clad blond in the woolen serape said.
**Yeah. It’s not time yet. Wonder if they’ll remember when they see us then.** Blue eyes of the buckskin clad man met the green ones of the blond.
The two men looked in the direction where the riders were about to disappear around a rocky outcrop. A long-haired head and a blond one were turned in their direction, blue and green gazes met across the distance for a moment before two disappeared around the rocky corner. The two apparitions vanished into the cold air. Their promises delivered and met.
The three men returned to the ranch without incident, having spent one night on the trail. Snow and ice had begun to thaw the day they left the camp, and by evening there was only a few inches left on the frozen ground. Camping a little earlier than they planned; they were on the way home early the next morning. Vin insisted he ride his own horse; he felt a lot better after a filling breakfast. Chris let him set the pace for them, which turned out to be faster than he would have liked. He kept an eye on Vin as the day wore on, knowing that the wounds were really bothering him in the afternoon hours.
Darkness had fallen when the horses snorted and began to move faster. Vin grinned tightly at Chris and Buck as they moved alongside him.
“We’ll be home soon, know where ya are?”
“Looks like the trail to the ranch,” Buck answered as he squinted, trying to see through the dark grey that had settled over them.
“Yep. Just up and over that ridge now.” Vin answered and urged his mount faster.
Chris’s black overtook Vin and his horse as it sensed home a little ways ahead, the powerful black lunged ahead and cantered up the wide trail that led up then down into the valley where home was located. The others followed on his heels and within minutes reached the rim and plunged down into the valley. In the grey darkness, Chris pulled the stallion into a slower pace; the trail was a murky grey and hard to see if there were any obstacles. At one point he could see his long ranch house and was surprised to see lights coming from several windows. He hoped there weren’t any problems.
A short time later they had arrived; Buck and Chris insisted Vin remain at the house while they cared for the horses. Nathan met them on the porch, followed by Josiah, Ezra, and JD who moved to take Vin’s horse when he almost fell as he dismounted. Nathan and Josiah helped Vin inside, Vin protesting that he was fine all the way.
JD was bursting with news, but contained it until they were all together in the house. Vin had been checked over by Nathan and bandages changed, coffee laced with a mild pain killer was in Vin’s hand when the three came in. He sat near the fire, his injured leg resting on a low footstool.
JD looked at Chris then Buck, “Travis took care of that wanted advertisement. He made a few calls and found there was just a few of the ads out, and he got the rest pulled before they hit the other papers. He couldn’t find out who posted it, so, we still have to keep an eye out in the event some stranger comes looking for Vin. The Judge didn’t think there would be any problems because it came out of his region; he would be the one to issue a summons if Vin was taken somewhere. He’ll put a total stop to it if he hears anything else. So I guess we can relax now.”
“Good work JD, I knew we could count on you to do something about this,” Buck slapped the youngster on his back almost knocking him over.
“Enough! Thanks JD,” Chris said before the two got into a wrestling match. “Thanks guys for coming out to tell us too. It’s nice to come home to a warm house and some good food, if what I’m smelling is dinner, we could use some.” Chris smiled as Josiah and Ezra moved quickly into the large kitchen to dish out dinner for all of them.
He leaned back in the chair and let his gaze move around the room, his eyes taking in his friends, and for a split second Chris thought he saw a shadow of another man beside each of his friends, all dressed differently, and smiling. He blinked in surprise and looked again, but the shadows were gone, his green glance landed on a blue one and Vin smiled, he’d seen it too.
**Going to be interesting when we meet them again.**
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"The quest for justice and the seven men ordained to uphold it is legendary. Through the annals of time, those before you have followed the teachings of the tome, and brought peace, justice, and honor to their lands. Fate brought the seventh man to you, and the winds are whispering your names across the portals of time. Soon you will become magnificent, and your journey to fulfill your destiny will begin."