RATINGS: PG-13, WARNINGS: A little skin (humorous), nothing graphic
NOTES/COMMENTS: Thanks to Kim for her help with the ending. Ronnie, thanks for letting me borrow Vin's tan. Kerry thanks for your wonderful editing.
"You sure you're up to this JD?"
Hell, no! thought the young sheriff, My head hurts. I throw up everything I eat and I'm running a dang fever.
"Sure Buck, I can do it."
Buck looked closely at JD. The kid was lying and he knew it, but there wasn't much choice. Vin and Chris were two days overdue. JD had to ride out to the Seminole Village and get Nathan and Josiah, while he and Ezra began searching for the missing pair. He thought about sending someone from the town, but if he told the kid to go back to bed, he'd just sneak out and follow them anyway. This way, at least he'd feel like he was contributing and he wouldn't slow them down.
JD had been sick for more than a week with a fever and nausea. He'd had a couple of really bad days, but the past three days he'd been improving. He seemed to be able to keep down soup and some bread, but nothing more. Nathan had told them before he left to help out with the epidemic at the Seminole Village that he wanted JD to rest, but Buck knew the kid wouldn't rest until Chris and Vin were found.
"I can do it, Buck," JD repeated.
"All right, Kid, get on up there," said Buck reluctantly.
JD mounted his horse. "I'll get 'em, Buck. We'll catch up to you."
"No, JD, you get back here "
"Buck, time's wastin'. I gotta go." JD turned his horse away from Buck and started down the street.
"Watch your back." He turned and mounted his own horse muttering, "Damn fool kid."
"Yes, well, he is correct. Time is wasting, Mr. Wilmington. Shall we?"
"Let's ride," said Buck to the Southerner.
The gambler and the ladies man rode side by side on the trail heading towards Eagle Bend. The going was slower than they hoped since they were checking for any sign, no matter how small, trying to find something that showed them where Chris and Vin had gone.The gunslinger and the tracker had been escorting the notorious Denny Noble to the jail in Eagle Bend where the Marshals were going to pick him up. Noble's gang had threatened to break him out of jail, killing any lawman who dared stand in their way. Under normal circumstances, Larabee would have had a couple more of the peacekeepers ride along. But, with JD sick and Nathan and Josiah at the Seminole Village, Chris had to leave Buck and Ezra behind to protect the town. So Chris and Vin had taken the prisoner alone.
Buck grimly shook his head, I should have gone with them.
He shot a frustrated glare over at Ezra who was trying to study some tracks they had come across. "What the hell is taking you so long?"
The gambler stiffened at the angry words. "I am not a tracker, Mr. Wilmington, nor have I ever claimed to be one. If you think you can do better " he bit back at Buck.
"Maybe I can," growled Buck.
"Fine!" snapped Ezra.
Buck realized that the gambler was just as worried as he was about the missing men. Wilmington turned his face away from the southerner in an effort to gain some control over his anger. He felt bad for biting Ezra's head off. He knew that it wasn't the con man's fault. He softened a little, "Let's go, Ez."
Ezra remounted Chaucer with a sigh. If only they had been able to get word from Eagle Bend. They had discovered that the telegraph was down when they had tried to send a wire earlier. It only added further fuel to the fear that Noble's gang had indeed followed through with their threats.
Because of the infuriatingly slow pace they were forced to keep, both men were growing more and more agitated as they rode. Since they knew where their friends had been headed, the search should have been easier. But knowing that the gang most likely would have hit the small group before they made Eagle Bend, Buck and Ezra couldn't take the chance of going too fast in fear of missing the pair, especially if they were lying out there somewhere injured.
+++++++Denny Noble was a cold-blooded killer. He and his gang had robbed numerous banks and stagecoaches, leaving a bloody trail of bodies from Denver to Houston. The gang had plundered homesteads all along the trail with the same results. They had gradually made their way into the New Mexico and Arizona territories continuing to wreak havoc, until they attempted to hit the bank in Four Corners, where their luck ran out.
Noble didn't bother to plan his attacks anymore. He didn't have to, because his gang had pulled off so many jobs, that they knew every move by heart. Protected by an old sheriff, maybe a couple of lazy or incompetent deputies, the towns were all the same in their eyes. With a dozen men in the gang, they easily overwhelmed most towns. Denny Noble's complacency turned out to be his downfall. When they hit Four Corners they didn't know they'd be facing seven able-bodied gunmen.
The gambler had been first to see them. His shouted warning cost him a bullet crease to the upper left arm. Ezra returned fire as the other peacekeepers came running out to see what was going on. Larabee and Tanner raced out of the saloon where they had been eating breakfast. Quickly assessing the situation, Vin headed for high ground and Chris moved to help Ezra who was pinned down by the rapid gunfire. Buck and JD had dashed out of the Sheriff's Office with their guns blazing. Buck took cover behind the water trough, ducking as a bullet sent splinters of wood into his cheek. Josiah and Nathan joined in from the opposite direction near the church. Seeing the odds shift from their favor, the gang began to break up and make a run for it.
The Noble gang had been defeated, but it had cost the town. A bank teller and a bystander on the street had been killed. Noble had lost four of his men, but he alone had been captured, leaving seven of the outlaws, still at large.
The trial had taken place swiftly due to the threat of the gang returning. Noble was easily convicted. After the trial, the lawmen were assigned the task of escorting Noble to Eagle Bend. Federal Marshals would meet them there with a prison wagon to take Denny Noble to Yuma.
+++++++JD rode hard towards the Seminole village. For a short while, he was able to forget his headache and queasy stomach, but the longer he rode, the worse he felt. After riding for over an hour, he was forced to bring his horse to a halt to take a moment to rest.
He swept his bowler hat off and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his faded bandana. The sheriff sighed. Why do I have to be sick now? The kid plopped his hat back on his head and pulled his coat collar up a little higher to try and fight off the chill he felt invading his tired body. This is not good. Shivering, he tried to burrow deeper into his woolen coat.
His head was throbbing and it hurt just to have his eyes open. He closed them momentarily hoping for a reprieve. When it didn't come, JD took a small sip of the lukewarm water from his canteen. He didn't want to risk bringing it back up. He had a job to do. "Come on, boy," he whispered, pointing his horse in the direction of the village.
+++++++Ezra had taken just about all he could take. Wilmington was riding him hard, criticizing his every move. The ladies man expected more results than Ezra could produce from his meager tracking abilities. It wasn't his fault. Vin had only shown him a few things. He could hear Buck griping and grousing about everything. He was riding too slow. Not reading signs fast enough. But, when he accused the con man of not caring, that was it. The Southerner bitterly swallowed his initial response. He was a gentleman after all and although he felt like shooting the ladies man, he would refrain for that was not something a gentleman would do. He knew Buck was extremely worried about Larabee and Tanner and that was where all the anger was coming from. Ezra retreated into his familiar silence, knowing that if he didn't, he would be likely to do something he would regret.
Buck had taken just about all he could take. Standish was dogging it. Lagging behind like he always did. He hadn't shown any concern at all for the missing pair. In fact, he hadn't even said a word for the last couple of miles. The man is infuriating, Buck scowled to himself.
Slumped over his saddlehorn, he looked over at Ezra who was now intently studying the ground by the trees and the creek. After several long minutes, the Southerner stood slowly, removed his hat and ran his hand through his hair. Buck could see his shoulders slump slightly. This was the first indication Buck had seen of Ezra's concern. The ladies man sighed as he realized he hadn't been fair to the con man. Ezra didn't show his feelings about anything. Why would this situation be any different?
"Did ya find something?"
Buck's brow creased when he actually saw Ezra stiffen at his question, but the gambler didn't respond verbally. He dismounted and quietly approached the smaller man, squatting down to look at the remains of a campfire. "They camp here?" It was more of a statement than a question.
Ezra looked up and, after seeing that Buck wasn't attacking him, he replied, "I believe so." He rubbed his hand across his tired eyes. How he wished Vin had taught him more about tracking. He had been spending more time with the Texan and had grown to appreciate the exchanges with the quiet man. "There doesn't appear to have been any trouble here."
Buck nodded and the two men mounted up and headed out again.
+++++++"Your young warrior comes." Josiah looked up at the brave who had just addressed him. Following his line of sight, he saw JD riding hard toward the village.
"Brother Nathan, we may have more trouble."
The two men had been at the Seminole village helping with an influenza epidemic that had thankfully been mild. They had lost only one elderly woman and things were pretty much in hand now.
"Josiah Nathan!" The pale and sweaty boy was out of breath. He swayed dangerously in the saddle as he brought his mount to an abrupt stop.
"Slow down, son," said Josiah. The ex-preacher moved quickly to support the young man as he slid off the spent horse. Nathan hovered over the two men, overseeing them as JD was eased down to lean against a boulder gratefully.
"Chris and Vin they aren't back "
Josiah and Nathan exchanged worried glances over the young sheriff's head. Both men knew that the pair had been expected back two days ago.
"I'll get the horses, brother," said Josiah.
The healer felt JD's forehead, fussing, "Why're ya out of bed? Why didn't Buck or Ezra come? Ya got a fever. You eatin' anything yet?"
"Buck and Ezra went on ahead to look for them. I told them I'd get you and we'd follow."
"You ain't goin' nowhere but to bed, JD."
"I'm going "
Nathan handed him his canteen and watched as JD took it with trembling hands. He drank from it slowly and then promptly threw up.
JD nodded and slid further down on the ground, propping his tired body up against the rock. The coolness of the rock felt good against his hot flesh. Thankfully, the headache seemed to be letting up now that the horse wasn't jogging him around anymore.
"Ya done good JD. We'll find them," Nathan said trying to reassure JD, but he knew the young man would not be comforted until Chris and Vin were safely back among them.
Josiah returned, leading the saddled horses over to the other two men. Nathan smiled when he saw that Rain had accompanied his friend.
"Rain, JD here is sick. He needs to rest. Can ya see to him?" asked Nathan.
"Of course, Nathan," she smiled sweetly at the dark skinned healer. "I'd be happy to."
"I'm sorry but we gotta go," said Nathan. He wanted to say more to the beautiful woman before him, but there just wasn't time.
"Ride safely," said Rain.
Josiah squeezed JD's shoulder briefly, then he and Nathan mounted and headed towards Eagle Bend.
Less than ten minutes after Josiah and Nathan rode out, Rain left JD alone to retrieve a fresh cloth to use on his forehead. When she returned a few minutes later, she found the young man gone.
+++++++It was hard not to let their imaginations run away from them. This was a perfect place for an ambush. Ezra stopped, swallowing his fear. He didn't want to find them this way. It was obvious to him that something terrible had happened to Chris and Vin.
Buck pulled up alongside Ezra. "We have to check it out," he said with reluctance.
Ezra looked at him startled. He knew the tracker could sometimes tell what he was thinking, but Buck?
Buck gently nudged his horse forward, and Ezra followed silently.
At the sudden sound of hoofbeats rapidly approaching them, both men threw themselves from their horses, heading for cover. Guns were drawn as their hearts thudded with a burst of adrenaline.
"Whoa! Don't shoot! It's us!" called Nathan.
Two sighs of relief were heard as Buck and Ezra holstered their weapons and stepped out from behind the rocks.
"I take it you haven't found them yet?" asked Josiah.
"No. There hasn't been any sign of trouble along the trail," responded Buck.
"Well, they must have been hit between here and Eagle Bend."
"That's what I'm afraid of Nathan," said the ladies man.
Josiah glanced over at the silent Southerner, "Are you okay, brother?"
Ezra simply nodded and mounted Chaucer. He nudged the horse gently in the sides and headed further down the dusty trail towards Eagle Bend.
"He been like that long?" asked Josiah.
Buck gave a nod. "He's been getting quieter the further we go. At first I thought he didn't care, but now I think he's plain scared."
Josiah nodded. The three mounted and followed after Ezra.
JD struggled to stay focused so that he wouldn't fall off his horse. He had only gone a couple of miles when he had to pull up because of the nausea that kept cramping his stomach. This is really stupid, he thought, as he began retching again. There was nothing left to bring up, leaving him only to suffer the dry heaves.
"Gotta go. Gotta help Chris and Vin..." he muttered, spurring the horse forward towards Eagle Bend. Catching up with Josiah and Nathan was the furthest thing from his mind because he knew that they would just send him home. It would be better if he stayed behind them and was there to help when he was needed.
He grabbed the saddlehorn tightly, as he felt light headed and began to sway, threatening to fall off his horse. Dumb JD, real dumb...Buck's gonna kill me...
+++++++Just a little further. Vin reached up for a higher handhold and grimaced when his dry and cracked fingers brushed once again across the face of the rock in an effort to find a finger hold. He had managed to climb about 20 feet up the wall of the rocky ravine but he still had a ways to go. The rock beneath his foot broke loose and he began to fall. He drew in a sharp gasp and grabbed futilely at anything that might stop his rapid descent. He slid down about five feet scraping his arms and legs before he lost all contact with the wall. He twisted his body slightly hoping that he wouldn't land on his head. Pain ripped through his battered body as his left hip impacted with the rocky ground first, immediately followed by his shoulder. The last thought he had as his head bounced off a rock and he lost consciousness was, Sorry, Chris.
"Vin...Vin?" The desperate voice called out over and over but there was no answer from the tracker. Larabee laid back as the world spun around him. God, please, let him be all right. Chris struggled to remain conscious even as the pain that threatened to suck him down into a bottomless abyss continued to build.
Chris knew that he had made a grave error in choosing the ridge trail. He should have heeded the tracker's objection to his plan. Tanner was the one who knew the land like the back of his hand. Because Larabee was too stubborn and in too much of a hurry, he had not followed Vin's advice. Chris had paid the price for his foolishness and now laid there injured because of his choice. If it was just him in this precarious situation, he could handle whatever happened. But because of his hard headedness, his best friend was trapped and injured along with him. For all he knew, Vin could be dead. Chris shuddered at the thought. No! I won't believe that! He's fine. He's gotta be. He had to find a way to get the tracker out of this mess and back to town so Nathan could help him.
At the same time Larabee was silently berating himself, four anxious men had arrived in Eagle Bend, riding straight to the sheriff's office.
"What can I do for you gentlemen?" asked the sheriff, recognizing the peacekeepers from Four Corners.
"Your telegraph's down..."
"Yeah, Kyle's sick," agreed the old lawman. "No one else knows how to run it."
"You mean the wires weren't cut?" Buck asked.
"No. Why would you think that?"
Ezra ran his hand worriedly through his hair. "Sheriff, where is your illustrious prisoner, Mr. Noble?"
The sheriff looked at the gambler in surprise. "The Marshals picked him up yesterday. Is something wrong?"
The four men exchanged startled glances. If Noble had arrived here and the Marshals had already picked him up, then where were Larabee and Tanner?
"Saloon," finally said Buck, hoping that was where the missing pair was holed up. That's it. They must have just taken their time before coming back.
The big man didn't really believe it, even as he announced their next destination. Nope. The gnawing in his gut didn't believe it. He knew from past experience that when something gnawed at his gut like this was, then something was definitely wrong.
Josiah smiled briefly when he heard the single word. He hoped that Buck was right, but it just didn't ring true to him. Chris wouldn't have stayed any longer than he had to because he knew that they were short-handed. He would have headed straight back after concluding his business.
"I can not imagine Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner prolonging their stay without sending word," Ezra mummered quietly. "But since the telegraph is out..." His words were cut short by the sheriff.
"You talkin' about Larabee and his partner?"
Ezra nodded as the brief moment of hope was quickly replaced by a sudden surge of fear within him.
"They ain't in the saloon. They left two days ago."
"What?" gasped Buck. No, no, no! This can't be happening. Chris and Vin are fine.
"They dropped the prisoner off, got themselves a hot meal and left. Said something about needin' to git back cause y'all were short handed."
"We just came by the trail. Didn't see them," said Nathan.
The sheriff shrugged, "Maybe they took the stage route. It's fast and easy to travel."
The men considered this proposition. The pair would have taken the trail instead of the stage route on their way to Eagle Bend, because it was less likely to be used for an ambush. So it was feasible that they would take the stage route back on their return trip. For all they knew, they were probably sitting in the saloon at home right now wondering where everyone else was.
"Brother, is the telegraph working now?" asked Josiah.
"No, Kyle's still sick. Got the influenza."
"That's quite all right. If you be so kind as to allow me, I am familiar with the equipment," said Ezra.
The sheriff nodded and led the tired men to the closed telegraph office. Ezra wired Four Corners asking if Chris and Vin had returned. Ten minutes later he received the answer they did not want to hear. There had been no sign of the missing pair.
"Dammit, where the hell are they?" cursed Buck.
"Easy Brother. I think the best solution is that we should take the stage route back to town. They probably stopped to fish or something on the way," Josiah soothed, even though he knew none of the others believed them. Hell, he didn't believe it himself.
"Then let's go."
"Hold on there, Buck," Nathan called out. "It's almost dark and we're all done in. I think we should git something to eat, git some rest and head out at first light."
"Nate, if they're hurt..." Buck argued.
"Nathan's right, Brother Buck. We won't be of any help to them stumbling around in the dark."
Buck sighed in defeat. He knew that they were right. When he turned and caught sight of Ezra standing there with that damn blank face of his, all of the frustration and anger that had been building up inside of him spilled out. "Ain't you got nothin' to say? Doesn't it bother you at all that Chris and Vin may be hurt or dead?" he shouted.
Josiah and Nathan witnessed the slim flicker of hurt that flew across Ezra's face before the con man turned away from them. Josiah tipped his head toward the gambler and Nathan nodded in response as Josiah followed Buck out the door.
"You know he don't mean it, Ezra."
"Yes, Mr. Jackson, I am well aware of that fact. If I weren't, I'm afraid I would have already done something very ungentlemanly."
Nathan chuckled, "C'mon Ezra. Let's go get something to eat and get some sleep. We're gonna need it." The healer placed a tentative hand on the gambler's shoulder and, as soon as he realized it was not going to be shrugged off, he steered the smaller man down the street toward the hotel.
"Aw hell, Josiah. I know it ain't his fault. The whole situation just makes me so damn angry. I hate not knowin' what's going on. Where are they?" Buck asked, staring at the large man with pleading eyes.
"He's scared too, you know."
Buck looked hard at Josiah, "Is he?"
Josiah frowned, "What do you think?"
"He don't show nobody nothin'! Always got to have that damn poker face on. Ya can't never tell what he's thinkin'!"
"Uh-huh, and?" Josiah prodded.
"Well...it's just...aw hell. He's just an easy target. I know that he's gotta be feelin' scared too. What, with him and Vin gittin' as close as they have been lately," Wilmington conceded with a sigh. "You're right Josiah. Let's get somethin' ta eat. We'll head out in the morning."
JD woke up and found himself lying on the hard ground. What happened? He blinked a couple of times, trying to clear the cobwebs. Last thing he remembered was that he was riding his horse towards Eagle Bend. Musta fell off my horse. Jeez, Buck'll give me a hard time if he finds out. The young sheriff winced when he tried to move his head. Reaching up an unsteady hand, he discovered a large knot on the back of his head and rubbed it, trying to ease the pain.
After several minutes, the young man slowly made his way to his feet. He swallowed hard as he fought back the sudden surge of nausea as the world around him began to spin. JD grabbed a hold of the saddle and leaned against the horse for a few moments until the dizziness calmed.
Knowing that he wouldn't get any further that night, he reached down and loosened the cinch. "Sorry, girl," he mumbled. He didn't want to take the saddle off, fearful that he wouldn't be able to put it back on. He reached up and pulled his bedroll off the saddle and, taking up the loose reins, he led the horse to a nearby grove of trees. It wasn't much of a camp, but he didn't have the energy to do more. This was really dumb, JD. You should have stayed put when Nathan told ya to. JD built a small fire, took a drink from his canteen, pulled his blanket over him and settled in for the night. He came to the conclusion the hard way that he couldn't help the guys. He was just too sick. With that realization, he decided that tomorrow he would head home.
Cold...I'm so cold, thought Vin. He opened his eyes and was startled to see that it was already dark. He started to move his arm and groaned as pain ripped through his shoulder.
"Vin? Can you hear me pard?"
"Chris?" the scratchy voice replied. Suddenly, it all came flooding back to him. Chris was hurt and they were stuck in the ravine with no way out. "Cold..." said Vin softly as shivers shook his body.
"Me too, pard," said Chris. He heard soft scuffing noises along with some panting and grunting coming from the direction he guessed Vin was laying. He jerked in surprise when Vin touched his arm.
"Sorry Cowboy. You got the only blanket," Vin whispered. "Figgered if we was next to each other, we'd be warmer."
"Yeah," Larabee agreed, lifting the blanket to cover his friend. "You ok, pard?"
"Don't know. I'll figger it out in the mornin'." The exhausted tracker snuggled closer to Chris and within minutes began to snore softly.
Chris smiled grimly in the darkness glad to know that his friend was alive. He didn't know how he'd get Vin out of this mess, but at least for now the tracker was alive.
Buck couldn't sleep. So the ladies man found himself wide-awake laying on some strange hotel room bed. Should've found myself a gal. At least then I wouldn't be a wastin' time. He had briefly considered doing just that but had refrained. He was too distracted and it would have been inconsiderate not to give a lovely lady his full attention. So here he was in bed alone staring at the ceiling and wishing for dawn to hurry.
Ezra had not fared any better than his worried friend. He had been playing poker in the saloon, but found it difficult to concentrate on the game. When the gambler realized his mind was wandering, he had plunged into the game with a renewed fervor. He had become ruthless in his wagering. It never crossed his mind that it would be best if he lost a hand or two just to keep his opponents playing, not to mention save his skin from unhappy losers. He was pulled back into the moment when Josiah had cleared his throat. Ezra looked up at him and the former preacher had simply shaken his head at the gambler in warning. Ezra finally took stock of the situation in a quick glance at the table. His eyes widened slightly when he realized that the majority of the money lay in front of him. After examining the tense faces that surrounded the table, Ezra very carefully lost the next two hands just so he could bow out of the game without further angering the players. As he left the table to retire for the evening, the southerner gave Josiah a nod of appreciation, thanking him for keeping him from getting in too deep.
Now he found himself sitting on the edge of the bed staring at his dusty boots. Groaning slightly, he pulled off the leather boots and tossed them on the floor. He had already removed his favorite red jacket, his derringer rigging, and his vest. He stretched wearily, wincing at the tightness in his arm. He removed his fine linen shirt to inspect the healing wound in his upper arm to find it was red and slightly puffy. Wonderful! This is just what I need. Mr. Jackson will not be pleased with me. He moved over to the bureau where a pitcher of water and wash basin sat. He frowned at his reflection in the looking glass. He sighed at the sight of the dark circles that currently resided under his eyes from lack of sleep. The con man washed his hands and face before using the wet cloth to gently bathe the slightly infected wound. With that complete, he made use of another cloth to give himself a 'spitbath'. He washed his sweaty torso as best as he could with the simple cloth and a bowl of water that was available. He craved the luxury of a real bath, but this would have to do for now. With his nightly rituals complete, he returned to the bed he and laid down, staring at the ceiling. Regardless to how tired he felt, he knew sleep would be a long time coming this night.
Josiah and Nathan fared no better than their two other friends. They were both too worried to sleep as well. All told, the four men combined to have slept no more than a total of eight hours. But, regardless of the lack of rest, the four men were saddled up and riding out of town before the sun had risen the next morning. They pointed their horses towards the stage road, heading in the direction of Four Corners.
Vin was awaked from his brief respite at the sound of Chris's groan. It took him a few moments to realize that the gunslinger was either delirious or in the middle of one hell of a nightmare. He tried to wake his friend without success but found him to be feverish. Chris's body was covered with sweat and Vin could feel the heat that was radiating off the gunslinger's body.
"Hey Vin. Let's take a shortcut. That ridge trail will get us back a lot sooner." How he had come to regret Chris's words. He had tried to warn the gunslinger that the trail was dangerous this time of year, but Chris had insisted on the taking it anyway. The tracker laid next to his suffering friend, trying to bury the unnecessary anger that was building up inside of him. If Larabee hadn't been so bull headed we wouldn't have gotten into this mess in the first place.
The trail was near the top of a ridge and the ground was very rocky and rugged. There were steep drop-offs in several places making the most experienced of riders cautious. It took a sure-footed mount to travel this trail in the best of conditions. Unfortunately, Larabee had been riding a nervous livery rental horse since his regular mount had thrown a shoe just as they were leaving Four Corners with Noble. Because of the timing, he had been forced to take the unfamiliar horse. The Bay had been anxious and stumbled several times while trying to pick its way along the hazardous trail.
"How ya doin' there, Cowboy?" Vin had asked him.
"Fine," Chris tersely insisted as the horse stumbled yet again.
They would have made it through just fine if it hadn't been for that damn snake. It had slithered out of nowhere and spooked the already nervous animal. The horse slipped the wrong way in its efforts to sidestep the snake and, in a blink of an eye, Vin watched as Chris and the horse had hurtled off into space.
Vin clamped his eyes shut as he remembered the overwhelming fear that squeezed his chest so tightly that he couldn't seem to breathe. Time stood still as he watched his best friend bounce off the protruding rocks. His vulnerable body cruelly impacting time after time on the sharp edges as he hurtled towards the floor of the ravine. The eerie quiet had been ripped by the scream of the terrified horse as it hit the rocks at the bottom. The tracker flinched as his mind's eye once again saw the lifeless animal roll over the unmoving gunslinger.
"I thought you was dead," he whispered to the unconscious man lying beside him. Vin tried to push aside the harrowing memories, but they wouldn't stay away. He gingerly moved his aching shoulder, trying to ease the pain that seemed to roll through his body. It was still hard for Vin to believe that one man's stubbornness had gotten them into so much trouble.
Again the events replayed in his mind. He remembered how he had carefully laid down on the rim of the ledge and called down to Larabee. "Hang on Chris, I'll get ya outta there!" But, without any warning the ledge had given way and he had found himself hurtling down the cliff, retracing the same painful journey down the rocky face that Chris had just made. He could still feel the sharp edges that had ripped his skin open. The sound of his tender flesh meeting the hard rock echoed in his mind. Tanner blew out a heavy breath as he remembered just how much it hurt when he finally hit the bottom.
Chris cried out again in his delirium, breaking into Vin's torturous thoughts. Vin had nothing with which he could soothe his injured friend. He couldn't even bathe Chris's fevered forehead with a cool wet cloth because he had to save what precious little water they did have for drinking. Frustrated and feeling completely helpless for the first time in a long time, he gave his friend the only comfort he could think of. Tenderly, the former bounty hunter took Chris's hand in his own and held it close to his chest.
The fevered gunslinger was caught up in the nightmare that kept repeating itself over and over.
He was falling again. First came the quick, painless feeling of flying into space, floating for just a single moment. That treasured moment of bliss was shattered as he crashed full force into the rocky side turning his world into blinding agony. The pain ripped through him as his shoulder impacted on the sharp edge of one of the rocks and then he was flying through the air once more. On the second meeting of body and rock, his breath was driven from him as he felt his ribs give way to the unmoving granite. Unable to stop the downward momentum, he rolled wildly over sharp rocks and through thick brush. Just as suddenly as his wild trip began, it ended with a harsh jolt. He had come to an abrupt halt against a large boulder. The knowledge that the fall was over was overshadowed as he heard the sound of the terrified horse as it screamed out one last time before its lifeless body rolled over his defenseless body, crushing him. Larabee heard a sickening snap and, it was only a moment later that the blinding pain of his now broken leg drove a gut wrenching scream from his bloodied lips. Finally, there was a blissful moment of peace as a wave of comforting blackness beckoned to him.
Larabee's heart pounded harder as the vivid dream continued to replay itself in his fevered brain. He did not want to relive the next portion of this nightmare that refused to go away but that was not for him to decide.
He could still hear Vin calling out to him. He remembered looking up at the tracker who was lying on the ledge. He had tried to tell Vin that he was okay, but he just couldn't force the words out. Moving was not an option at the moment. It just hurt too damn much.
"No! Vin!" he mumbled in his delirium as he watched the ledge crumble once again. He remembered watching his friend as he fell down and bounced off rock after rock like an old rag doll. When the tracker had disappeared from his sight near the bottom of the cliff, Chris had called out to him repeatedly, fearful that his friend was dead. Several long, tense minutes had passed before he had forced his eyes open to find the tracker kneeling over him.
"You ok, pard?" Chris had asked.
Vin had grinned in response, "Been better, but I reckon nothin's broke. How 'bout you, Cowboy?"
"Don't know. Everything seems to hurt."
"Well, hell Cowboy, ya jest fell off a cliff and got rolled over by a horse."
Vin's sorry attempt at humor had made Chris chuckle. He had immediately regretted the moment of levity as the pain burst through his rib cage. Vin had accidentally brushed against his damaged leg, causing him to scream again. After he had regained some composure, he informed his friend, "I think my leg's busted. Prob'ly some ribs too. Can't move my arm."
Vin had managed to find a couple pieces of wood to use as splints. The gunslinger had watched his friend remove his bandana from around his neck and tear it into thin strips to hold the splints in place. The tracker didn't give the injured man any warning, causing Chris to scream in pain as the bones were moved back into place. The fiery pain from this maneuver had overwhelmed Chris, causing him to surrender to unconsciousness in a futile attempt to escape the pain.
When he had finally regained consciousness after Vin had set his leg, he found he was wrapped up in the tracker's beloved coat. Vin had found one of Chris's spare shirts in his saddlebag that he had removed from the dead horse. He had used it to wrap Larabee's ribs and had tied his arm to his chest to keep him from moving the injured shoulder. His blurry mind slowly figured out that he had his bedroll draped over him and the saddlebags were now his pillow.
"Hey, how ya doin'?" The tracker had asked him.
Chris had found that he was having a hard time focusing. His line of sight went beyond Vin as he took in the height of the cliff. "How're we going to get outta here?"
"I'm going to try and climb up," Vin answered. "Peso's still up there and I got a rope in my saddlebag. Reckon I can haul your sorry butt out of here with that."
Chris had looked at the wall again. Didn't look like Vin would be able to scale it, but it was their only chance. He had helplessly watched as Vin had begun to scale the rocky face. Despite his climbing skills, the tracker had only made it about ten feet before his boot had slipped off a rock and he was sent plummeting back down to the ravine floor.
Chris remembered desperately calling out to his friend. "Vin?"
"Aw hell," had been the annoyed reply.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Hang on a bit."
He remembered watching as Vin had pushed himself to his feet and struggled to maintain his balance. The tracker had added a few new scrapes and bruises to collection, thanks to Chris Larabee and his stubbornness.
THREEVin kept talking to Larabee in a quiet, low voice, hoping that his voice would soothe the fevered man. It was obvious that he was suffering through a nightmare that Vin wanted to guide him out of.
Restlessly, the tracker shifted his legs, feeling a sharp throbbing pain in his hip. The pain caused him to recall his second attempt up the wall. It had ended in much the same fashion as the first, forcing the tracker to begin to look for other options. He knew that they could wait and hope that someone would come along and save them. But the knowledge that the trail was rarely used forced him to admit to himself that any rescue was highly unlikely. The second option would be for them to try to walk out of the ravine. The journey that way was nearly a day's ride by horseback. To walk out, it would take a person in good shape much longer. But, with the shape that Chris was in, it was nearly impossible.
On the second morning of their unanticipated stay in the ravine, Vin had helped Chris to his feet and they had begun to walk. The gunslinger had been in agony but struggled to put one foot in front of the other, regardless to the pain. Vin had tried to support Chris's weight so he wouldn't put any pressure on his broken leg, but this had not worked. They discovered that the simple act of holding the injured man upright had caused pain to rip through Larabee's ribs and shoulders. The pair had only managed to cover a few hundred feet after expending an hour's worth of effort. Larabee and Tanner had both been done in from the exertion.
"Sorry Chris, but I gotta put ya down for a bit," Vin had told him.
Chris had just groaned in response.
The weary tracker had laid Chris down as carefully as he could. As soon as he had seen Larabee safely to the ground, Vin had slumped down beside him, breathing hard. Every muscle in his body screamed in agony. He knew that he had not broken any bones, but his body was cut and bruised extensively. He had closed his eyes to rest just for a moment but discovered when he had opened them again that it was well past noon.
Vin had forced his protesting muscles back to work and stiffly moved to check on Larabee, who was still unconscious. He decided that it was time to try out his last idea. He had unrolled the bedroll and carefully rolled Larabee onto it, positioning him on the lower half of the blanket with his feet hanging off of it. He had hated the thought of banging him around, but it was all he could come up with. He grasped the top edge of the blanket with both hands and he had begun to drag the unconscious man along the ravine floor. Their progress had been slow, but Vin knew that it was better than staying put. He had forced himself to pull the dead weight of his friend behind him, ignoring his aching arms. Occasionally he had to turn and walk backwards, shifting his grip constantly as his fingers began to cramp up.
The gunslinger had regained consciousness during their slow trek and had evidently panicked at finding himself being dragged over rough ground. He had dug the heel of his good leg into the dirt and had grabbed a hold of a rock with his good arm, causing the exhausted tracker to lose his unsteady grip on the blanket. Tanner had stumbled at the unexpected resistance, causing him to land unceremoniously on his backside.
"Aw hell," he muttered.
"Yeah, I'm here Cowboy."
The tracker grumbled his response, "Ya knocked me on my butt, that's what."
"It don't matter none."
"What!?" Vin had winced as the response came out a lot angrier than he had intended. The man had been pushed beyond his endurance. He was tired, hurting and frustrated at the hopelessness of their situation.
"Can I have a drink?" Chris had asked meekly.
"Aw, hell." Vin had gotten up and moved slowly over to Chris. He had fumbled with the canteen as his cramped fingers had refused to cooperate. "Sorry, Chris..."
"What's wrong with your hands?"
"They're complainin' a mite from holdin' on ta that blanket."
"C'mere... give me your hand."
After a brief hesitation, Vin had offered him his swollen left hand. He had been grateful as Chris took it with his good hand and had begun to massage the stiff fingers. Vin had winced with the pain, but as the fingers had begun to relax, the cramping let up as well. After Chris had worked his magic on the other hand, he had told Vin, "Rest awhile. We'll try walkin' again tomorrow."
"Chris, you cain't..."
The glare from his friend had silenced Vin' words. It hadn't seemed worthwhile to waste his energy to argue with him. Come tomorrow, the tracker knew that he would have his own way anyway.
Chris continued to mumble something as he thrashed about, caught up in his nightmare. His elbow connected with Vin's sore shoulder causing the tracker to cry out in pain.
"Vin! Noooooo!" He was trapped in the never ending nightmare only this time he was watching Vin fall and he was helpless to do anything about it. The next image that invaded his mind was that of the buck skinned tracker trying to help him walk, but the pain was excruciating. Subconsciously, he registered the soothing sound of Vin's voice calling out to him. Trying to guide him out of the ordeal his mind was trapping him in. A brief smile crept across his face as he mentally tipped his hat in honor of Tanner's ingenuity. It was Vin's solid thinking that had led him to use the blanket as a sort of travois. Larabee knew that it had been hard work to pull him behind as he had tried to get out of the ravine, especially since he was injured also.
After the two men had rested, trying to hold onto whatever strength their bodies had left, they saw that the sun had reached the mid-point in the sky and they were still in the same spot. Chris knew that Vin was too tired to attempt to pull the blanket any further. Chris had watched the tracker search the ridgeline for the source of the noise he had just heard and saw a grin cross Tanner's face.
"Chris, Peso's up on the ridge. It ain't as high here. I'm gonna try to climb up again."
"It's too dangerous," Chris had weakly protested, knowing that Vin would do what he thought best, no matter how dangerous it was.
Vin had thrown a cocky grin in his direction before he moved closer to the face to choose the point where he would begin his climb. The tracker's third attempt to scale the wall had been the most frightening of all. He had actually made it almost twenty-five feet up the rocky face, just a few feet shy of the top of the cliff, when he had lost his grip and began to fall back into the ravine.
His heart was pounding as the nightmare finally left him. He felt someone slapping him in the face. "What?" Chris asked groggily.
"You were havin' a bad dream. I had ta wake ya up."
Vin. He was right here with him. He was alive. Larabee sighed with relief before the weight of responsibility settled back in his chest. If they got out of this mess, he would have to make up this fiasco to the tracker in any way possible.