Disclaimer: As always, the guys belong to TPTB (but if I ever win the lottery, look out!). Thanks to them for bringing the Seven together, but it was far too brief. And thanks to Mog, who created the ATF universe we all play in.
My special thanks to all the folks that helped me on this: First my Betas, Mitzi for her encouragement and advice the first time around, and Phyllis for helping me dot the Ts and cross the Is and keep the story rolling along; Katy for her suggestions and kind words; and a big thank-you to Beth for her wonderful Medical Advice. And now Linda, who was kind enough to Beta it one last time.
Credit goes to Cassie Smith, who wrote the original story several years ago. Heres the link to Cassies story, the inspiration for mine. I hope she doesnt mind, I really did try to be patient. Ive emailed her several times for permission, but I guess RL or fear of Viruses have prevented her from answering me. If and when she posts her own conclusion, I will be happy to withdraw mine.
For those who dont want to read it, a brief review of Part 1 (But you really should, its a good story) By Cassies own admission, its a re-do of a Silk Stalkings episode, not to mention they probably stole it from a Magnum PI episode, and they probably stole it from an older TV show.
While Chris and JD are out of town, the rest of the Team thinks Bucks been killed when somebody is murdered in the apartment. When Buck turns up safe and sound from an errand out of town, it turns out to be a neighbor that was killed. Before they can get to Chris and JD at the ranch, a grief-stricken JD has taken his and Bucks horse out for a ride in the middle of an approaching snowstorm.
"Hang on a minute - Somebody has to wait here for Nathan and Josiah. Theyre already on the way out here," Vin pointed out, turning to Chris. "I guess thats you, cowboy. I need to go with Buck, just in case JD took a side trip. And youre the only other one that knows the way out there. It probably wouldnt hurt to bring Nathan along, just in case." He didnt for a minute believe JD would do anything deliberately to hurt himself, but in the kind of weather it had turned out to be, things happened out of control of even the most experienced rider.
Chris frowned, but knew Vin was right. He nodded, watching Buck charge through the barn to saddle Peso. Chris clasped Vins forearm. "Well be right behind you. Be careful," he said. Then he went up to Ezra and put a hand on his arm. "Look Ezra, I know you want to go too, but I really need you to stay here."
Ezra looked back at Chris from where he was still saddling his horse. "I assure you, Mr. Larabee, I am just as willing and capable as the rest of you to make the journey, cold and miserable as it is."
"I really appreciate it." Chris smiled at Ezras last remark and explained, "We might need Nathan with us, cause I dont know if the kid even took a coat with him. And were going to need somebody here who at least knows where were going, cause it sure looks like this storm is going to get worse."
"But Ive never been out there myself," Ezra reminded him.
"Tell you what, while were waiting for Nathan and Josiah, Ill draw you a map." Chris replied. "And you do have an idea of the general direction. But to be honest, I need somebody here who might have favors they can call in, just in case. I figure between you and Josiah, that should just about cover it."
Ezra started to open his mouth to protest, then nodded in agreement. "If you insist, Mr. Larabee."
Chris shot him a quick smile. Once Ezra had removed the tack from Chaucer and turned him loose in his stall, they headed to the house together. "I really appreciate it, Ezra. I need somebody to keep Josiah company. Hell, the last time I left him alone, he rearranged almost every room in the house."
Ezra looked back at their leader and smiled. "Ah yes, his current obsession with Fung Shei." Chris knew Ezra was trying to lighten the mood, but could see the worry in Ezras eyes and hear it in his voice.
Ezras smile faded as he contemplated the ramifications of the past twenty-four hours. It just didnt seem fair to lose a brother, get him back safe and sound, just to watch him ride off into a snowstorm. They should have had more time together before being forced apart again. Ezra knew he should be used to it by now, especially considering the job they did, but he still didnt like it. At the steps, he turned and looked back at the barn, where he could still barely hear Buck and Vins muffled voices as they saddled the horses and gathered the necessary supplies.
"JDll be just fine, Ezra," Chris offered. Chris was worried too, but refused to dwell on the negatives. All they had to do was find the kid and bring him home then theyd be Seven again. God, that sounds good, Chris thought to himself.
Ezra turned with a small sigh and followed Chris into the house.
* * * * * * *
It had started snowing even harder when Buck and Vin rode out, and the blowing snow made it slow going. A trip that should have taken less than an hour was taking considerably longer. There was a full moon, but the light barely penetrated the cloud cover from the storm. Buck and Vin huddled into their coats and carefully picked their way down the trail in the dark. Halfway to the cabin, Vin lost JDs tracks in the snow. As they came to a dry riverbed, Buck gently pulled Peso to a stop.
Vin turned to him. "What is it?"
Buck bit the end of his mustache and frowned. "This is a shortcut we took last time," he explained. "JD could have gone either way from here."
Vin blew a breath out between his teeth. "I hate to split up in this," he said.
"No choice. If he decides to head back one way and we take the other, we could pass each other and not even know it. I gotta find him first, let him know Im not dead," Buck answered. "You keep on the trail, Ill take the arroyo. Ive been down it before."
Vin nodded as he reined his horse around toward the barely visible trail. He knew it was important enough to Buck that he didnt want to wait for JD to make his way back to the ranch, but he just didnt like it.
"Take care, Bucklin." He called out over the wind.
"You too," Buck replied as he turned and urged Peso down the steep embankment.
As Vin watched the other man turn toward the snow-covered edge, he felt a momentary sense of dread. But he shook it off and went back to picking his way along the trail in the dark. Vin knew Buck was right JD needed to see Buck for himself. He knew how bad JD was hurting. So the sooner they found JD, the sooner they could get back to the ranch and they could all show Buck how much they appreciated having him back.
* * * * * * *
It was slow going, but finally Bounty trudged into the clearing surrounding the small cabin. It had stopped snowing for the moment, but it was still bitter cold. He looked over in the direction of the small shelter, where he saw Peso standing near the two horses JD had brought with him.
As he dismounted, he realized that Buck probably hadnt been there long, since Peso was still saddled. I imagine Bucklin probably had something else on his mind, Vin thought to himself with a wry smile, also thinking how glad he was that he wasnt on the receiving end of the riot act he knew Buck would be reading to JD. Vin couldnt help but smile and wonder if either of them had their guns handy. He gathered Pesos reins to unsaddle and take care of him as well, not wanting to interrupt the brothers reunion just yet. The only light he could see coming from the cabin was a dim glow that was probably from the fireplace and everything was quiet
Vin began working on unsaddling the horses, first Bounty then he moved over to Peso. In the dim moonlight, something caught Vins eye. He reached out and touched the saddle horn with his fingertips. When he drew them back, they were sticky with a dark substance. Blood? Looking carefully, Vin found more blood on the legging just above the stirrup. "Damn, Bucklin," he whispered. Maybe Ezras right, he thought, Maybe we are cursed. Then his mind went back to the moment when they split up at the arroyo, and he wished he had followed his instincts and hadnt let Buck go alone.
Vin looked up at the sound of snow crunching under the weight of approaching horses. He was both relieved and disappointed to see Chris and Nathan coming into view.
"I see Buck beat you here," Chris called out in greeting, seeing Peso. "Who took the shortcut down the arroyo?"
"Buck did," Vin replied quietly.
"Im surprised he got here before you," Chris was talking as he dismounted and shook the snow off his duster. He was finally close enough to get a look at the pained expression on the other mans face. "What?" he demanded.
"Looks like Peso got here without Buck," he answered quietly. Chris was trying to read Vins expression, knowing it wasnt good. "I found Peso here, still saddled. And it looks like blood on the saddle," Vin replied.
"What the hell could have happened?" Chris asked, moving forward to take a look at the saddle for himself.
Nathan climbed down, shaking the snow off the shoulders of his coat. "Have you talked to JD yet? Maybe Bucks already inside."
Vin shook his head. "I just barely got here. How did yall get here so fast?"
Nathan smiled. "Josiah and I got there just a couple minutes after you left. And you left a trail in the snow a blind man could follow."
"I didnt like the idea of splitting up," Vin explained, "But Buck figured JD couldve gone one way or the other..."
" and Buck didnt want to take the chance missing JD if he headed back," Chris finished softly, knowing all too well just how Bucks mind worked, and knowing Vin was shouldering the responsibility of getting them there safely.
Nathan also couldnt help hearing the concern in his friends voice. "Its not your fault, Vin. And dont think the worst. Could be Buck just got down to look at something and that stubborn cuss you call a horse up and left him behind. He could be walking up this way any minute, fussin and cussin up a storm."
"Hes right," Chris quickly agreed. "He could be back at the ranch by now, too."
"What about the blood?" Vin asked.
But before either of the other men could reply, the cabin door flew open and an obviously just-awakened JD stepped out onto the porch with his firearm at arms length. "Whos there?" he demanded, peering out into the dark.
"JD, its us," Chris called out, moving toward the cabin. Vin followed, while Nathan stayed with the horses to finish the job Vin had started, bringing his and Chriss horses close to the half-unsaddled Peso.
"Chris? What are you doing here?" JD asked. He lowered the gun as the others came into view. "Vin? Is everybody here?" he asked. They could hear the anger rising in his voice.
"Just us and Nathan. Ezra and Josiah are waiting at the ranch," Vin replied with a lopsided grin.
"Jeez," JD blew a breath out through his teeth. "I just wanted a little time to myself. Is that too much to ask? Im not a kid and I dont need a bunch of babysitters!" With that, he turned and huffed as he went back into the cabin, but he left the door open so the others would know they were welcome to follow.
By the time Chris and Vin stomped through the snow and went inside, JD was lighting the kerosene lamp to illuminate the main room. He had laid the gun down on the small table next to the couch.
"Why did you follow me?" JD demanded. He was glaring at Chris with his arms folded across his chest. "I told you Id be back tomorrow afternoon.
"JD, you didnt say anything to me," Chris answered.
"I left you a note on the fridge," JD said, rolling his eyes. "You didnt find it?"
"We never got as far as the kitchen," Chris replied. Vin just smiled and shook his head.
"Course, I didnt know it was going to start snowing this bad," he said, most of the irritation leaving his voice and his facial expression. He had realized as soon as the weather turned bad his friends were going to be worried. "I did try to call, but my cell phone was dead. I kinda forgot to charge it."
Chris couldnt help but smile at the younger mans quick change in mood, then he took a deep breath and looked to Vin for support. The younger man returned his gaze and added a nod of encouragement. Chris turned back to JD. "JD, theres just no easy way to do this is Buck here?"
JD reeled back a step, going pale. Then he took a step towards Chris, his fists clenching. "Thats not even funny, Chris."
"JD," Vin said softly, stepping up beside the older man, drawing the others attention. "It was all some kind of stupid mistake. The guy that was killed at your apartment wasnt Buck. It was your neighbor, Harvey. But the way he was shot in the face like that, there just werent no way to know it then."
"Harvey Mullins?" he asked, watching Chris and Vin both nod. "What was he doing there?"
"Harveys apartment was being exterminated, so Buck let him stay at your place while he went to Springdale to get a part for the train set," Vin explained, knowing they hadnt had time to give Chris the whole story yet. Only he and Ezra knew Bucks side of the story. "Then the truck broke down and the storm slowed him down. And none of us got the messages he left cause we havent been home. Even the cell phones have been hit and miss cause of the storm. He just got back a little while ago."
"Buck! Where is he?" JD ran for the door, his expression changing from anger to elation.
Chris caught JDs arm on his way past. "Hold on, JD. We might have another problem if hes not here."
"What? Where is he, Chris?" JD was almost pleading.
"Peso made it here without him. He took the shortcut while the rest of us took the trail," Chris replied.
"What else?" JD asked, sensing they were trying to not tell him something.
"It looks like theres blood on the saddle, JD," Vin answered.
"Oh God --" he whispered. His voice broke as he stumbled back until he bumped into the couch. "Weve got to go find him, Vin," he whispered.
"We will," his friend promised. "Go get dressed, JD."
JD nodded, then dashed into the bedroom.
"What do you think, cowboy?" Vin asked of Chris.
"I dont know, Vin," he replied, running his hand through his hair, reverting back into full blown leader-mode. "Nathan could be right, Peso mightve left him on foot and he could be walking here or back to the ranch. But that doesnt explain the blood," he replied hopefully. "He mightve been thrown. But even then, I dont think he couldve gotten lost."
Chris took his cell phone out of his pocket and tried it again, the same way he had been trying to call JD all night. What he got was the out of service message again. "Damn Okay, you take JD and work your way back down the arroyo. If you find him before daylight, bring him back here. If youre not here by then, Ill take Nathan and well take the trail back to the ranch. You guys take Peso with you and well take Cleo. That way well each have a way to get Buck home."
"If he can ride," Vin pointed out.
"I cant even go there," Chris said softly, hearing JD coming out, dressed and ready to go.
"Ill go ahead and ride Peso, he looked like hes been here long enough to be rested. JD and I should be able to backtrack and find him," Vin stated, shaking his head. "Well just leave Bounty here for now. One of usll ride Buck double back here, then he can ride his own horse home. "
"Okay," Chris agreed, "but if youre not back by daylight, well come looking too." As Vin headed to the door, Chris clasped his forearm. "Find him, Vin," Chris charged. Vin gave a quick nod in reply.
"Lets go," JD called, putting his arm in his coat.
"Hang on a minute, JD," Chris said, putting a hand on the younger mans shoulder.
JD shrugged it off, but turned toward Chris. "Im going now," JD answered defiantly. "You wait if you want to. I know the way. I have the best chance of finding him."
Chris had leaned over and picked the gun up from the table. He handed JDs gun to him. "Three shots if " he swallowed hard and cut off the thought, "- when you find him."
JD took the gun and tucked it into his waistband. "Sorry, Chris," he said contritely. Then gave his leader a quick smile and he was out the door.
"Be careful," Chris called after him.
"Wish us luck," Vin said as stepped into the threshold.
"Were due some," Chris replied with a sad smile. "God, I cannot believe this is happening."
Vin just nodded and then turned and followed JD. "JD, wait up!" Vin called as he ran to catch up.
Nathan looked to Vin as JD ran past him and grabbed Sevens bridle. He had just finished unsaddling all three horses and worked them all into the shelter as best he could. It wasnt built for six horses, but the animals seemed to sense this was not the time to be fractious.
"Go on in and warm up. Ill go with JD. Chris wants yall to wait til daylight before you follow us," he explained.
"Hey, I am just as ready to go as you are," Nathan protested.
Vin nodded his appreciation to his friend. "I know, but JD knows the way and I should be able to backtrack Pesos trail."
"Alright," Nathan agreed reluctantly, "but well be right behind you."
"Im countin on it, Pard," Vin said before joining JD in the small shelter, picking up Pesos bridle as he did.
As they were saddling the horses, Vin looked over at his friend. He could see the worry on JDs face even in the dim light. "JD," he called. The younger man looked up from where he was cinching his saddle. Vin nodded his head in the direction of Bucks gray. "Why did you bring Cleo?"
JD ducked his head, then raised it up with a crooked grin. "Promise you wont laugh?" He waited for Vin to nod in reply. "Buck and I rode out here together last time I was here. Bringing Cleo was like still having part of him with me. I could look over at her and think Buckll be here in just a minute and get on her. I just wasnt ready to let go yet."
"Nobody expected you to be, JD. Itd only been one day," Vin assured him.
"I know, it sounds stupid now," he said quietly.
"No it doesnt. I wouldnt have wanted to be in your shoes for anything," Vin answered back. "If something ever happened to Chris " He shrugged and then shook his head, leaving the thought unfinished. "You ready?" he asked, leading Peso out in the open, followed closely by JD.
"Lets go," JD replied, swinging himself up into the saddle. "And Vin? Thanks."
Nathan trudged through the snow to the cabin, and entered the warm room with a gust of cold air following him in. Chris already had the propane stove going and a pot of coffee ready.
"Thanks," he said when Chris handed him a cup of the hot liquid. "Well?"
Chris frowned before he replied. "Theres just no other reason I can think of why hes not here Bucks a good rider, and Peso can be a cuss, but hes a good horse. I cant help but think something might have spooked him enough in that arroyo to make him throw Buck. Its full of rocks and snags, but JD just loves it. Believe me, even in good weather its a pretty rough ride."
Nathan gave Chris a small grin. "And I imagine the reason JD loves it is because it makes him think hes really back in the Old West, out in the wilderness and all."
"You got it," Chris agreed. With a sigh, he sat down on the only chair in the living area, while Nathan took a seat on the small worn couch. "God, I hope hes okay. I dont know what Ill do this time. It was already bad enough, but to have to go through it again. How do I help JD this time when I couldnt do it right the first time? And Vin, hes blaming himself he already thinks its his fault."
"No use borrowing trouble, just like Vin. Youre beating yourself up over something that hasnt happened yet," Nathan admonished. "JD was going to be okay, it was just going to take a little time. Were all here to help. And he wasnt blaming you, Chris. You were just handy. Didnt you know thats what friends are for?"
"Youve been spending too much time with Josiah," Chris answered, looking up with a grateful smile.
Nathan smiled back and set his cup down as he stood up. "Theres a few things I can get ready while were waitin just in case."
"Just in case," Chris whispered, then sent a quick look skyward before getting up to help Nathan.
* * * * * * *
JD was having a hard time staying behind Vin. Seven kept dancing up to Peso in reaction to his riders anxiety. JD kept pulling his horse back, knowing that Vin had to have room to track. It was bad enough trying to see in the dark, but trying to find tracks to follow in the blowing snow was almost impossible. It should have been close to daylight, but the clouds from the storm were keeping it relatively dark. Luckily they did have a general idea of the direction Peso had come from, so it was mostly just backtracking.
They had been going slow and steady, when Peso came to a dead stop and wouldnt move, even after Vin urged him on. The more Vin tried to make Peso go, the more he danced around. Finally Vin got down and began looking for whatever the horse was balking at.
All of a sudden, JD felt a wave of panic. Something told him Buck was close by. "Vin?" he whispered.
"Over here, JD," Vin called to him. The Texan was squatting on his heels in front of a newly broken tree branch. As soon as he picked it up, Peso shied away. He was barely able to keep the horse from bolting. "Well, it looks like we know why Peso threw Buck. Mustve fallen just about the time they went past. Probably thought it was a snake or somethin." Vin stood and looked at the ground intently. He took a couple of steps toward a small rock formation on the arroyo floor. Brushing the snow lightly, he frowned when the beam from his flashlight illuminated several dark splotches on the rocks. He followed the almost invisible trail of blood to a spot not far away and noticed the way the snow and mud were scuffed up. "This looks like where Buck tried to get back on; thats where the blood on the saddle probably came from."
JD climbed off Seven and joined Vin. Leading his horse, he started back in the direction they had just come. Just about fifty yards away, a mound of snow caught JDs attention. Shining his own flashlight, the beam reflected off something dark against the snow. "Oh God, Buck," he whispered. He realized they had ridden right past him without seeing him!
He looped Sevens reins on a nearby mesquite bush and stumbled toward the dark form covered with snow. "Vin!" he called over his shoulder. "I found him." JD slid to the ground next to the man he considered his big brother, who was lying face down in the snow. "Buck," he called softly, reaching his hand out and gently touching the shoulder closest to him, "please be okay." As he carefully rolled the bigger man over, the snow fell off Bucks clothing. JD brushed the rest away from Bucks face and out of his hair. By the time Vin reached them, JD had was reaching a shaking hand towards Bucks neck, praying to feel a pulse. "I cant find it, Vin," JD cried, meeting Vins eyes.
Vin knelt beside his friends. "Jeez, Bucklin," he spoke softly to the still man. He placed his hand under Bucks mustache and waited. Just seconds later, his head bowed and he released the breath he had been holding. "Hes breathin, JD. Feel." He put JDs hand where his had been.
JD sighed when he felt the warmth against his hand, then his eyes went to Bucks chest and he watched the chest barely rise and fall. JD reached a hand out and touched Bucks forehead. "Buck, can you hear me?" he whispered. "Hes so cold," he said, then he tapped Bucks face lightly, trying to rouse him. "Buck? Can you hear me? Buck?" He looked up at Vin, his eyes wide with concern. "Oh God, Vin, I cant wake him up! He mustve really banged his head."
"Yeah," Vin replied standing up. "We gotta get him back to Nathan, pronto."
While Vin went over to gather the horses, JDs hands were checking Buck for injuries.
On the right side of his head, just above the ear, he found what he was looking for. A large lump had formed, and when JD pulled his hand away, his fingers were sticky with blood. "Damn," he breathed, as he tried to gently move Bucks hair to get a better look at the nasty gash. He quickly realized it was a futile effort in the almost dark, but even in the dim light, JD could see how pale he was and that his lips were a bluish tint. The injured man still hadnt moved and his breathing was barely noticeable. JD grabbed the bandanna from Bucks coat pocket where he knew hed find it and began to make a temporary bandage for his friends head injury.
"Hurry up, Vin," he urged, not taking his eyes off Buck. As JD took the other mans big right hand in both of his, he winced as he heard and felt the bones in the wrist grind together.
He carefully explored and found the break. Must have tried to break his fall, JD thought as he laid the hand down on Bucks chest. He then took hold of the left hand, and not finding any injury there, he held it tightly and whispered to the man on the ground. "You hang on, Buck. You hear me? Were going to get you to Nathan and youre going to be just fine." He choked off the last word as the emotional roller coaster of the last twenty-four hours began to overwhelm him. It just wasnt right, JD thought, he just found out Buck was alive, now this. Tears filled his eyes and one slowly spilled down his cheek. He rubbed it off on his shoulder as he heard Vin approaching.
"What can I do to help?" Vin asked as he noticed the bandage on Bucks head.
"I need another bandanna to make a quick splint. I think his wrist is broke, but I cant find anything else," JD replied. "We need to get him to Nathan. I just dont know what else to look for."
Vin quickly handed JD his own bandanna and gathered a few sturdy mesquite limbs from the ground. "Here," he said as he passed them to JD. "Lets make it quick, looks like its fixin to start snowin again." Vin held Bucks right arm just above his body as JD gently moved the mesquite limbs into place and tied them tight with Vins bandanna. Then he undid the middle buttons on Bucks coat and tucked the injured arm inside.
"Thanks, thats about all we can do for now," JD said, looking up to Vin.
"Help me get Buck on Peso, and Ill take him," Vin said, putting his hand on JDs shoulder and squeezing it gently in comfort.
JD shook his head. "No, you take Seven and Ill take Buck on Peso."
"Are you sure?" Vin asked.
"Yeah," JD replied firmly looking up at his friend. "If were riding double, Im lighter. Besides, we need you to lead so we can get back faster."
"Okay, if you think you can handle him," Vin said. "It aint gonna be easy, JD."
"I can do it, Vin. I have to." JD insisted.
Vin nodded and helped his younger friend to his feet. Together they raised Buck up between them, trying to be careful of his injuries. He never once flinched or showed any signs of consciousness. They wrestled his dead weight onto the bigger horse, then Vin held him up while JD climbed on behind. JD got his feet securely in the stirrups, then circled both arms around Bucks waist, carefully avoiding the injured arm and grabbed onto the saddle horn.
Then JD remembered the gun in his waistband. He steadied Buck with one hand while he took hold of the gun with the other and handed it over to Vin. He kept one arm wrapped around the bigger man while he used the other hand to hold on.
Vin held on to Pesos reins as he climbed onto Seven. He turned both horses back the way they had come. It was still closer to the cabin than the ranch, and Nathan was waiting at the cabin. Vin knew the first order of business had to be getting Buck out of the cold. He looked up at the sky and frowned. While it was just past dawn, more clouds were rolling in and it looked to Vin like it might get worse any minute. "Just hold off a little while longer," he whispered, his eyes turned skyward, "Please."
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