Author's Note:I've been told this needs a "no food or drink" warning! Inspired by the crawdads my cousin used to chase me with when we were camping at the creek, LOL.
The seven peacekeepers from Four Corners were riding along in a straggling line, most slumped in their saddles. They had left the town in the hands of Tiny and some of the other residents while they delivered a gang of bank robbers to the Judge for trial. Unfortunately Travis was currently located several days' ride away and it was the middle of August. They were now on their way home, but the sun seemed to beat down unmercifully and the men were beginning to wonder if their brains were cooking under their hats as the sweat dripped down into their eyes, and ran off of their noses and chins.
Tanner was making use of every bit of shade he could find for them, but the tracker could do nothing about the stretches that went for miles without a tree in sight. They had taken to riding in the early morning and into the evening hours, stopping for a little while in the middle of the day if there was any shelter from the sun available at all. They were moving at a leisurely pace to save the horses, but that very fact meant that the men themselves had to spend even more time in the oven that their surroundings seemed to become by ten o'clock every day.
Larabee led the small cavalcade as Vin scouted ahead. The lean blond had his dark jacket tied behind his saddle, and had unfastened the top buttons of his white shirt and rolled the sleeves up a couple of turns to be as comfortable as possible. The light cotton and ebony pants were damp with sweat and plastered to his body and he figured that he could wring water out of his socks when he took his boots off. While the sight of the attractive figure in his clinging, moist clothing might have made any females around swoon or drool, the handsome leader himself was damned uncomfortable.
The rest of the peacekeepers had their coats wrapped in their bedrolls and their collars undone as well. Most had their sleeves pushed to their elbows and their hats pulled as low as was possible. Even Standish had divested himself of his scarlet jacket and brocade vest and was now doing the unthinkable and riding in just his ruffled shirt and gray britches. His feet felt all wrinkled where they rested in what he felt sure had to be inches of liquid in his boots, and his normally well-coifed hair was drooping and stuck to his head under the riverboat hat.
He'd given up complaining about the miserable conditions a day and a half ago, when he realized two things . . . one, that it was doing nothing to improve his state, and two, that his compatriots were about to make him even more uncomfortable by shooting him if he persisted in stating the obvious every ten minutes! He rather expected that response from the taciturn leader, but the others appeared quite willing to join in this time and while they might go for non-lethal spots, Larabee's icy gaze implied that the gunfighter probably wouldn't be so thoughtful. Of course the fact that he almost appreciated the blond's cool stare, since it was the only thing remotely chilly in evidence was a sign of how truly hellish this trek was becoming. The wilted gambler brought up the rear of the line of riders, not because he enjoyed the dust of the others, but because he and Chaucer were simply too limp to bother moving ahead.
Nathan and Josiah rode a few yards in front of the uncharacteristically quiet Standish. Neither the healer nor the former priest had anything to say either, however. It simply took too much effort to speak, plus they were having enough trouble keeping their mouths moist enough to swallow, much less talk. Both men were repeatedly using their wet sleeves to wipe their dripping faces, and Jackson kept checking on his companions to make sure they hadn't stopped sweating, which was an even worse sign.
Buck and JD rode behind Chris. Wilmington had left off his faded red union suit when he dressed that morning, now au natural under his cream colored shirt and tan pants. He wasn't sure, but had an idea that he wasn't the only one to dispense with the long underwear either. The men had taken to stripping down to their undergarments at night so that they could sleep more comfortably, but he'd noticed that most of them didn't have the necks of their undershirts visible in their open collars when they all gathered to have breakfast early that morning. Of course, that meant there was a little extra friction in certain sensitive spots, but it was worth it for the added coolness that the missing layers provided.
What he wouldn't give to have his whole body immersed in a tub of refreshing water, thought the lanky brunet with a longing sigh. Especially if that pretty lil' dark-haired filly that had gone to work at the bath house was bringin' the buckets . . .
His reverie was interrupted at a crucial part by JD beside him.
"Man, it's hot as a burnt boot," commented Dunne as he mopped his face with his sleeve for what felt like the hundredth time.
"Hot enough to fry an egg without usin' the skillet," agreed Buck as his attention focused back on his surroundings.
"So hot that if a man got sent from hell to here, he'd write home for a blanket," said JD with a grin in spite of the sweat dripping off of his nose. Casey had liked that one when the two of them were trading 'hot' descriptions one day at the fishing hole.
The ladies' man however just shook his head. "Where do ya come up with this stuff, Kid?"
"Hey, that was a good one!" protested the younger man. His follow-up comment was stifled before it ever got started by the sight of Vin loping up to Larabee however. The fact that the tracker had a big grin on his face captured everyone's attention.
"What'd you find, Tanner?" asked Chris, hoping to God it involved water or at least shade. Hell, he'd even be happy to see an irrigation ditch right now, not that there were any around.
"Found a creek up ahead that ain't dried up. It's even got a spot large enough to swim among some big ol' cottonwoods."
The rest of the group had pulled up around the two men as they talked, eager to hear what Vin had to say.
"Suddenly I do believe in heaven," murmured Ezra with an expression that combined suspicion with anticipation. Surely the joke-loving Tanner wouldn't tease them with the thought of water at a time like this.
"Sounds like a mirage right now . . . ," added Sanchez wistfully. Looking around them, it was hard to even picture a pool of water that deep.
"It's real, J'siah. Stuck my head in just to be sure," affirmed the raspy drawl. Removing his cavalry hat, the tracker shook his long, wet locks so that drops that looked like crystal flew around him, wetting some of the others.
Standish suddenly came to life as what Vin had said sunk in. "Well, what are we waitin' for?? Lead on, my dear Mr. Tanner."
"Yeah, let's go!" agreed JD. "It's so hot, I've been remembering the winters back east just to try to cool off."
Buck reached to clap the sharpshooter on the shoulder with so much force that he nearly knocked the smaller figure off of Peso.
"Hell Vin, if I had any money, I'd give ya half right now just for findin' that creek!"
Tanner snorted. "Reckon I ain't gonna be rich anytime soon then, Bucklin. Ya ain't had two bits since Ez cleaned us out at poker while we waited for the Judge to interview those prisoners."
"I said 'if'," reminded the tall form with a grin, mustache twitching in amusement.
"Can you two quit gabbin' and let's get on with it??" asked the healer with a bit of a fractious quality. Usually fairly even tempered unless he was annoyed with the gambler, Jackson was now picturing that stream in his head and imagining how good the water was gonna feel and it was making him impatient with the pair flappin' their gums instead of movin'.
"Yeah, you two can insult each other when we get there," stated Chris decisively. The leader was having the same visions as Nathan and was equally anxious to get going. Just the thought of peeling off the damp clothing that was plastered to him was reason enough to get a move on.
"Alright, alright! Don't get yer drawers in a wad. I'm goin'!" mumbled Tanner with a secret grin. The boys were gonna love the place he'd found, and he admitted that he was a bit perversely prolonging the anticipation a mite.
"Ain't got my drawers on, so let's go," answered Wilmington with a big grin. "I'm ready to jump in that creek."
"Geeze, Buck. Ya could'a gone all day without puttin' that image in my head . . . " said JD with a small grimace.
"Yeah, me too," added the slender form of the tracker as he turned his mount and headed back the way he'd come.
"Ah, both of ya can bite me," chortled the lanky brunet as he kneed his gray to a slightly faster pace.
"No way, pard. Ya ain't my type," called back the sharpshooter as he led the now suddenly energized men toward the watery paradise that awaited them.
The horses smelled the enticing aroma of water about the time the line of trees came into view beyond a rise. Willingly speeding up the pace, the seven mounts broke into an animated trot as they got nearer. Soon even the men could detect the scent of clear liquid and damp earth. The large Cottonwoods surrounding the slowly moving stream exerted their own siren call to the hot and sweaty seven. The last few yards seemed interminable, but eventually they were all enclosed in the welcome shade.
Getting down from their saddles, the men loosened the cinches and then led the eager horses to the edge of the creek.
Once the animals had drunk their fill, the peacemakers removed the saddles and replaced the bridals with halters. With all the shade, water, and grass nearby, it was unlikely that the horses would wander far so they put off picketing them. The first thing that Peso and Pony did was wade out into a shallow part of the stream and let out contented equine sighs as the water covered their hocks.
The men all smiled, then hurried to lay out their saddles and bedrolls since they planned to stay until the next morning to rest and recoup some of their energy.
Finished with the mundane chores, the figures eagerly began stripping off their damp clothes. Boots were tugged off with effort, sweat literally pouring out of the footwear when it was turned upside down. Wet socks got wrung out and hung over branches and soon after buttons began being undone with amazing haste.
Buck was already out of his shirt and reaching to unfasten his pants when he noticed that JD was hesitating, standing barefooted but no further undressed.
"What's the matter, Kid? I thought ya were rarin' to jump in?"
Dunne looked a bit uncomfortable. "Uh . . . I didn't put my long johns on this morning."
Wilmington looked confused. "Neither did I. Ain't nothin' wrong with skinny dippin' JD."
"No offense Buck, but if I'm gonna swim naked with someone, you ain't my first choice!"
One broad shoulder shrugged negligently. "Then go behind those bushes and put your drawers on. Whatever makes ya comfortable. Me, I'm divin' in just like nature made me. Had enough 'a wet clothes clingin' to me to last till this time next year."
The smaller form nodded absently and went to get his long handle bottoms and take them behind the chest-high brush Buck had pointed at.
The ladies' man followed through with his plans, stepping out of his pants and tossing them over with his other clothing. Taking a run across the soft grass, he dove neatly into the deepest part of the pool that lay in front of them.
Sighing in contentment, the tall form bobbed in place and grinned at the rest of them.
"Come on in boys! Water's fine!"
Not needing any other encouragement, the rest finished stripping off as well.
Chris was as naked as his old friend under his white shirt and dark pants. Muscles rippled in tan arms as the lean figure made a graceful dive into the cool water and then started swimming lazily toward the other side.
Vin easily shed his calico shirt and tan pants. Also bare under the garments, he walked unconcernedly to the edge of the pool and then waded in with a blissful sigh. Having lived with a couple of the tribes, he was used to occasionally being among men wearing little or no clothing and was totally comfortable with the situation.
Josiah had studied with the Cherokee and traveled to all sorts of exotic locales, so he too was uninhibited as he slipped off his shirt and trousers and followed Buck's example of a running leap into the deep part of the pool.
Nathan looked a little more concerned, but it wasn't about shedding his clothes. The healer had worked in his youth on plantations in the South, and hadn't had much chance to learn to swim. While he could tread water and float, as well as swim a bit, he wasn't comfortable enough to do like Buck, Chris, and Josiah and just jump in. Deciding to emulate Vin, the dark form waded carefully into the water, then when he reached mid-chest, he squatted and let the cool liquid wash over his shoulders with a sigh of pleasure.
Chris' blond head had disappeared under the water as he dove, and Vin was lazily swimming to where he'd last seen his best friend. A yelp of surprise quickly turned to a gurgle as the well-muscled form of the leader came up under him and then dunked him below the surface. The water roiled a bit as the two men wrestled good-naturedly, then they both bobbed to the top with big grins on their faces.
Ezra was the last besides JD to enter the water. The deceptively well-built gambler took the time to fold his clothes meticulously as he stripped. The shirt and pants went first, followed by the underwear he wore. After all, there was no reason to ruin perfectly good imported silk by swimming in it. The others had poked fun at him when they first found out about the undergarments, but the silk was lightweight and cool and a much better alternative to their cotton and wool in his humble opinion. In fact, Larabee and Tanner had both actually been wishing they had some of the light garments themselves the last few days, before they dispensed with their items altogether.
Now nude, the chestnut-haired form strolled toward the inviting water. He checked to see where the others were, then dove cleanly into an unoccupied section of the deep pool. Coming up, he uttered a sigh that echoed the rest and then gave a squawk of protest as Wilmington's long body nearly collided with him as the ladies' man propelled himself across the surface with long, powerful strokes.
JD had been watching the rest of the men, and was feeling a bit self-conscious as he padded across the grass to the pool's edge. The others appeared totally comfortable as they enjoyed the water, and JD felt a little silly for the need to keep his drawers on for modesty's sake. However he'd learned to swim at public beaches where clothing was a definite necessity. Deciding not to worry about it, he waded in and then took off toward where he saw Buck's dark head.
The rest showed no regard for how any of them were dressed or undressed as the case was, so Dunne forgot his self-consciousness and joined in on the fun. They were all respectful of Jackson's need not to get too deep and refrained from dunking or seriously splashing him, though they did occasionally flick water on his face or try to tickle him with sticks as they dove under. Enjoying the fact that he was included but not stressed, the healer relaxed and was soon floating around on his back in the company of Josiah.
Chris and Vin were also floating, though they were doing what was called the 'dead man's float' as they rested on their stomachs with their faces in the water. Both would raise their heads every couple of minutes to get air, then go back to peering into the clear pool. Fish of assorted sizes swam under them, some trying to get away from the splashing and laughter that occupied the space where Buck and JD were pushing and shoving each other under. Crawfish scuttled along the bottom, and a big catfish poked its bewhiskered face out of a hole near the bank.
Spying a particularly large crawdad, Vin pointed to it and then to where Ezra was contentedly paddling around in lazy circles nearby. Larabee got a wicked grin on his face and nodded in understanding. Diving downward, the tracker came up with his chosen weapon. The crawdad snapped it's pincers in irritation at having been rudely interrupted in its quest for lunch. Giving a bob of his sandy brows that would have made any sane person worry, the slender figure made a shallow dive this time and started slowly working his way toward the unsuspecting gambler, whose legs were dangling under the water as he dog paddled serenely.
Vin only meant for the crawfish to lightly pinch Standish's leg, but the annoyed crustacean had other plans. Seeing an outlet for its frustration, the three inch or so creature clamped on to a wet calf muscle with surprising strength.
Letting out a yelp of anguish, the gambler kicked downward to try to propel himself out of the range of whatever behemoth river monster had him in its grip. His flailing leg smacked the underwater tracker in a sensitive place, causing Tanner to swallow a mouthful of the cool liquid as he instinctively opened his lips in a gasp of pain and surprise.
A bit stunned, the sharpshooter jerked the crawdad free from Ezra's leg as he started upward, giving it an unintentional fling as he moved his arms to propel himself to the surface. The crawfish arched through the water. Unfortunately for both, Chris happened to be in the angry creature's trajectory as the crustacean flew under a power not its own.
Larabee felt something hit him in the butt, and then a sharp pain that made his eyes go wide. Losing his concentration, his body slipped under the water as slender fingers tried to figure out what was biting him on the ass. Intent on removing whatever was attached to his tender flesh, the lean form sank almost to the bottom. Realizing how far down he was, he kicked out to send himself back to the surface. One foot rammed into the hole the catfish was calling his home.
Startled at the sudden appearance of five wriggling appendages that resembled food, the whiskered creature decided not to waste the proffered gift and opened his large mouth to take in a couple of the offerings.
Bubbles rose to the surface and a muffled yell was heard as Chris pushed with his other foot to dislodge the heavy object that was trying to eat him up to the ankle. Managing to accomplish the feat, the blond streaked to the surface of the pool to get air, spit out the water he'd swallowed, and get rid of the determined demon from hell that was hanging on to his butt. The hazel eyes were too occupied with his own problems to see the tracker doubled over in pain a few yards away and the gambler perched on a rock in the middle of the pool as blood trickled down his leg into the water.
Finally yanking the crawdad and a hunk of flesh off, the blond threw the dazed creature as far as he could and tried to find something to staunch the flow of red that was seeping down his buttocks.
The poor crawfish now went sailing through the air with amazing force. Buck had JD under the knees and was preparing to pitch the younger man backward when the dazed crustacean hit the side of his head. Deciding enough was enough, the powerful pincers grabbed at the nearest thing they could find to stop the sickening flight.
That happened to be Wilmington's ear. Letting out a howl, the ladies' man threw Dunne harder than he meant to and then one hand whipped to his lobe to see if someone had hooked him with a giant fishhook or something. Feeling the elongated shape of the crawdad, the big fingers jerked convulsively, pulling the dangling thing free and tossing it into the pool as a stream of blood followed.
JD's eyes opened wide at the sight of the odd brown earring Buck was suddenly sporting, then he was flying backward through the water, coming to rest close to the bank with a massive splash.
That happened to be the same space the traumatized catfish was occupying after the strong kick that had torn him away from the delectable morsels he'd been about to swallow a minute before. Being somewhat unhappy at the moment, the large whiskered form decided to take his frustration out on the pale dangling limb that suddenly smacked him on the head.
A squeal of surprise escaped Dunne as the fish sucked his whole hand into its mouth and then shook vigorously. The sturdy whiskers slapped his wrist repeatedly, feeling like tiny lashes as they stung his arm and the inwardly curved row of sharp teeth felt like needles piercing his skin as the angry creature tried to subdue its prey.
Letting out a terrified yelp, the kid slung his arm to try to dislodge the huge monster that was attempting to eat his hand. After about three tries, he managed to get free, the teeth ripping narrow furrows down his skin as the large fish went sailing. Cradling his throbbing appendage, the brunet made an effort to tread water as he checked out the damage.
A bellow came to his ears and the dark eyes turned to see what was going on. He swiveled his head just in time to see the massive black form of the catfish land next to the floating Josiah. The two surprised individuals stared at each other for a second, then the fish decided like the crawdad that he'd had enough of these intruders to his normally idyllic environment.
Raking its whiskers across the bewildered preacher's face, the large creature moved to suck the protuberance it encountered into its mouth. Sanchez let out another roar as the strong lips closed on his nose, the slender teeth raking the tender flesh.
Wondering what spawn of Satan had him, Josiah started flailing at the huge form that seemed to be trying to swallow his face. Startling the catfish with the unholy noise and sudden frantic splashing, the former priest gave a sigh of relief as the dark figure abruptly released him. Putting his fingers to his bleeding nose, the big man let his legs drop and tried to stand.
Putting one foot down, he felt something bite or pinch his sole. Kicking to dislodge whatever it was, he was too occupied with his battered face to notice where the item he'd sent flying landed.
The poor crawdad had thought it had finally escaped the menacing forms that had invaded its home, until a huge something landed on top of it, pressing it into the sand. Aggravated and bewildered, it snapped with its claws until the massive whatever it was lifted. Then it found itself flying through the pool again.
This time it landed on something dark floating on the top of the water. Even more unhappy than before, the crustacean looked for a way off of whatever it'd landed on. Trundling toward what appeared to be the end of its improvised raft, the creature snapped its pincers in front of it in warning.
Nathan's dark eyes widened in shock as he took in the large crawfish that was scurrying along his chest. Thank God the thing was at least headed toward his face instead of the other direction, he thought wildly. There were things down there that he'd prefer not to have those claws attached to, thank you very much!
The three inch form made for his face as the healer floated in shock, then he suddenly realized that the thing was clicking its pincers near his mouth. Reaching up with one hand, he grabbed the crawdad around the middle, even as his buoyancy failed and his lower body started sinking into the water.
Unfortunately he got distracted as he tried to find his footing, and the crawfish took advantage of the loose grip. Scuttling up his arm, the creature grabbed at the soft flesh behind his ear.
Letting out a yell that rivaled Josiah's, Nathan smacked hard at the thing pinching his skin. Dazed, the crawdad let go, falling into the clear water at the tall figure's side. The dark gaze darted down to see where the menace had gone.
Seeing that the crawfish was moving rapidly toward the relatively safe far side of the pool, the healer waded gingerly toward the near edge, holding the bloody spots on his neck. Josiah followed him, one hand trying to stop the red oozing from his nose. Each looked carefully down to make sure they didn't step on anything on the bottom of the pool.
JD had made his way to Buck, the taller brunet now towing his surrogate little brother who couldn't use his stinging hand very well to swim. Wilmington's ear burned as he reached shallower water and put his arm around Dunne to help the kid to shore.
Ezra was limping to the bank as well, a grimace on his face at the throbbing of his calf. Chris was supporting a still slightly doubled tracker, even as his own butt throbbed in both insult and injury. Reaching the edge of the pool about the same time, all seven gingerly worked their way to where they'd set up camp.
Nathan tended the others, then let Josiah clean his neck with carbolic like the healer had done to the rest. None of the injuries could really be bandaged, so the group carefully dressed and then sat around drinking coffee and nibbling on jerky while they decided what to do about something to eat.
"I got some line and hooks in my saddlebags. We could go catch some fish," suggested Buck warily.
"NO!!" yelled six other voices vehemently. Chris added for extra measure "Not just no, but hell no!"
"I may not eat fish for a year," mumbled JD as he shook his hand to try to get some feeling back into it.
"I am certainly never havin' crawfish again, no matter how good the Etouffee in New Orleans is," averred Standish as he lightly rubbed his still aching leg.
Vin got up carefully and reached for his rifle. "Reckon I'll go see if I can get us a couple'a rabbits or somethin' then."
Chris eyed him seriously. "Watch yourself. The wildlife around here is dangerous!"
Vin started to ask how much trouble a hare could cause, but remembering that a three-inch crawdad caused at least half of the injuries his companions were sporting, he decided to keep his mouth shut. Hell, with their luck, the rabbit might cause him to break his neck, so he better not jinx himself.
Later that afternoon, after their meal . . .
Seven figures lined the creek as the sun dropped its blistering rays toward the west. Each had on their pants and had rolled the legs up. Bare feet and calves rested in the shallow edge of the water, blue, hazel, green, and brown eyes peering intently at the clear liquid to make sure nothing moved anywhere near them. Uncovered chests caught the sun, skin turning a bit tan or pink even as low as the orb was.
Vin reached out and lazily dribbled a handful of the cool drops on his reclined torso. All was quiet for the moment, then the tracker turned toward the others with a bob of his eyebrows.
"So . . . ;anybody wanna go for a swim?" queried the soft Texas tone innocently.
An assortment of small sticks, pebbles, and some clumps of moss pelted the recumbent form in response.
Six voices then gave a resounding answer in a variety of accents.
"Not just no, but hell no!"
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