With a start, JD opened his eyes. It was still pitch-black out and Vin was shaking him.
"Roll out and get the horses grained, JD. Rusty done pulled out on us while we was asleep!" Vin shifted away from him, and started to quickly roll up his bedding.
Beside them, Buck rose up to a sitting position, cussed loudly, and groped around for his boots, "Damn it all to hell I knew I shoulda just tied him up to a big tree last night! Now we gotta waste valuable time tracking the old goat down!"
"Dont get your knickers all twisted up, Buck!" JD hissed at his friend as he pushed his blankets off. Exposed to the elements he shivered as he felt the cold draft of winter mountain air mixed with big falling snowflakes brush against his skin. "He cant have gotten very far in this weather."
"JDs right this time, Buck. Aint nobody going to travel far in this weather," Vin injected as he finished with his own bedding and started to roll up the others. "Rustys footprints are filling in real fast with all this fresh snow, so we gotta get out there and find him quick, but he cant have gone very far. JD, first thing is you best check if Mud is still with the our horses."
JD pulled his coat on and ducked out from under the rock overhang. He was glad he had his chaps on over his boots to keep the freshly fallen snow from filling them up. A foot or more of fresh snow had come down since they had chased the would-be thievin cowboys off and crawled back into their bedrolls to sleep. JD felt a jolt of concern for the frail, old cowboy as a gust of wind hit him and nearly knocked him off his feet. Fighting through the snowdrifts, JD stumbled over to the horses. All were there with their tails to the wind, even old Mud, and their gear lay untouched under a tree right where they had left it. That meant Rusty was out there on foot, alone and without any supplies.
Vin rolled up the last bedroll, while Buck went to throw a pot of coffee on the fire. The fire sputtered and hissed as Buck tried to keep the wet snow-covered wood burning. Buck was in no mood to start this day without his coffee; bad enough he was starting this day without really finishing up yesterday.
"How much sleep you figure we got?" Buck asked Vin as he rubbed the fatigue from his eyes.
"Two, maybe three hours tops," Vin answered while he tied his bedroll to the back of his saddle. "But heck, any more than that Bucklin, and youre just sleeping your life away."
"Theres worse ways to spend your life than in bed, especially if you got someone sweet and soft lying beside ya!" Buck grinned as he handed Vin a mug of hot brew. Both turned and watched JD emerge through the falling snow, squat down by the fire, and stick his cold hands in front of the sputtering flames.
"He didnt take nothing with him Muds still tied to the tether, and aint none of our gear missing that I can see. But we gotta hurry and find him. He wont last more than a few hours out there in this storm by himself."
"Well find him, JD. Not because he wont last; that old buzzard will probably outlive all of us, but because I dont want to be the one to tell Chris we let a senior citizen just get up and walk away from our camp with not a one of us noticing." Buck reached over and gave his young friend a reassuring pat on the arm.
Their three heads swivelled around as Rusty made his way out of the blinding snow and over to the fire to sit down beside JD.
"Rusty where were you?" JDs face lit up at the sight of the old man.
"What the hell you thinking about, walking off like that!" Buck blustered and stood up to tower over the cowboy. "You want us to start tying you up, is that what you want? Cause I have no problem doing just that!"
"Whoa there, son. I was just answering natures call, is all!"
"You had us all worried, Rusty!" JD said seriously.
"Not all of us, boy! Why didnt ya wake one of us up, or just go stand right where we could see ya?" Buck shouted at him. "Why did ya go sneaking off into the woods?"
"You was all sleeping; I figured I would be gone and back long before any of yous woke up, and besides, I like to take my morning constitution in the privacy of just myself. For the last ten years I had to do my business in a room full of others, it aint something a man gets a liking to do!"
"Well from now on you best let us know where you are heading, or one of us might mistake you for trying to escape and you could just end up wearing a bullet!" Buck angrily swallowed back the last of his coffee and then tossed his mug into his saddlebag. "Drink up boys, Vins got our bedrolls packed up already, so we might as well hit the trail."
+ + + + + + +
Dawn found them a few hours, and several miles away from their last campsite. The snow lightened up a bit as the morning wore on, but it still fell in big flakes and the horses ploughed through places where it was well past their knees.
With all the trails buried under the deep snow, Vin just kept them moving to the northwest, finding the best possible routes that he could. All around them the whole world gleamed under a brilliant fresh blanket of sparkling white, and the cold, crisp mountain air felt sharp in their lungs.
Vin rubbed his chapped hands together and tied his red scarf tighter over his hat and across his ears. Peso blew puffs of steam from his nostrils as he laboured through the snow. Buck took turns breaking trail where he could, but for most of the morning the task had fallen on Vins bald-faced gelding. And now the game horse was covered with sweat and tiring quickly.
"Hey Vin!" JD suddenly called out from where he and Rusty were bringing up the rear. "Whats that white stuff over there?"
"White stuff!" Buck pulled up Polecat and turned around in his saddle to look at the young man riding up behind him. Then as JD got close, Buck reached above his head and pulled back a branch and let it go to shower snow all over the kid. "You bonehead, JD! You telling me youre just now noticing all this white stuff that weve been fighting our way through all morning! Its called snow!"
"Not the snow, Buck," JD gave Buck a dirty look as he brushed the snow off his coat, and then he pointed across the meadow that they were riding along the edge of to a swirling mass of rising white steam. "Is that smoke? I aint never seen nothing like that!"
Vin followed his eyes over to where JD was pointing, and a grin broke out on his handsome face. "That aint smoke, JD! Come on, my horse is needing a rest; thatll be a good place to pull up, and you can have a gander at it!"
"Gander at what? What is it?" JD asked, but neither Buck nor Vin bothered to answer him as they rode on, so he looked over his shoulder at Rusty. "Do you know what it is?"
"Yep." Was all the cowboy said.
"Yep what?" JD asked.
"Just yep!" Rusty answered nodding his head, but saying no more.
"Buck, you really know what it is?" JD asked giving up on the old man.
"Yep!" Buck answered and grinned at Vin.
"Yeah right!" JD said looking at Buck in annoyance. "I bet you dont have a clue neither!"
"There ya go again, kid. You aint learning nothing while your mouth is busy a twitchin. Just ride on over there and have yourself a peek!"
His face lit up with suspicion, JD looked first at Buck, then Vin and then Rusty. The old cowboy just shrugged his shoulders, while keeping his expression a blank mask.
"Fine!" JD said, as he took a tighter grip on Muds lead rope and booted the two horses past Vin and Buck. "But youre all coming with me!"
"I just said we would, JD," Vin shook his head in wonder at JDs retreating back. "Boy never listens to a word we say."
Buck and Vin grinned at each other and settled into JDs tracks. With his curiosity getting the better of him, JD headed determinedly across the meadow.
"Can always count on JD to jump in when challenged," Buck said grinning as he watched his young friend ride away, fighting through the deep snow, with Mud tagging along at the end of a lead shank. "You really believe what that old rooster told us this morning?"
"Told us about what?" Vin asked, riding up alongside of Buck.
"That he wasnt trying to run for it. It didnt cross your mind even a little bit that maybe he come back because he found the conditions were worse than he expected! Maybe hes waiting for a safer opportunity to run," Buck answered, watching the back of the old cowboy that JD was leading away. "And how do we know if them boys from last night didnt ride into our camp to help the old coot escape?"
"I dont think Rusty would have wrapped his chains around that guys wrist last night if he knew they were planning to break him out." Vin slowly opened his stiff fingers, put his reins in his other hand, and then stuck his cold hand under his armpit to thaw out. "Man said he had to use Mother natures outhouse. Maybe he did, maybe he didnt but whatever he was doing, he came back under his own steam, so I aint worrying about him none."
Buck leaned over and rode along with his hand resting on Vins saddlehorn so he would not have to speak in a loud voice to be heard, "I can understand how JD could get fooled by someone like him, but I figured you to be a smit more guarded with your trusting, Vin. I guess itll be up to me to figure out which is his true face, since he has you both buffaloed."
"You get right on it, Buck! You being so impartial where Rusty is concerned, and all." Grinning, Vin checked Peso back, and let his tired horse settle on the path Bucks horse made through the deep snow.
"Well, all Im saying is, Im still not sure if were dealing with an angel or a devil!" Buck said over his shoulder, getting in the last word on the subject.
Far ahead of them, JD and Rusty had reached the other side of the meadow and now sat amongst the trees on their heaving horses and waited for the other two men to catch up.
Buck had just about caught up to them when suddenly the men heard the ominous sound of cracking ice.
Buck instantly pulled Polecat up and swung around in his saddle to look at Vin.
Vin had also pulled his horse up and was searching the ground under Pesos hoofs.
"Damn, Vin!" Buck shouted. "This aint dirt under us. Dont move!"
"Buck " JD hollered out to his friend as he swung off Seven and started back across the meadow. "Whats happening?"
"JD stay where youre at! We must be on top of a muskeg or swamp!" Buck yelled back, and then he slowly looked back over his shoulder at the tracker who was still a good hundred feet from the tree line. All around them ice crackled and popped under the cover of snow, and none of the men could tell what exactly they were standing on. "Vin, you best get down from your horse and wiggle on your belly towards JD!"
"Youre closer, you get off this ice first, then Ill catch up with ya," Vin hollered back over the snapping ice. "Dont need both of us caught out here!"
"I aint leaving ! "Buck started to say when there was another sharp crack and Buck had to boot Polecat ahead as the ice began to break up and the greys hindquarters sank down into the water.
Ice water splashed up onto Buck as his horse lunged across the shattering ice to the shore. Once he hit solid footing, Buck swung his horse around urgently to search for Vin.
Vin grabbed a hand full of mane and was about to slide off the side of his saddle when the ice again cracked loudly under Pesos hooves. Vin made a desperate attempt to remount Peso, but the terrorized horse reared up and smashed Vin in the face with his neck. With a thud, Vin landed on his back under the thrashing animal. Water bubbled up from between the cracks in the ice and saturated his sheepskin coat and breeches before Vin could roll out from under the flailing hooves. On his hands and knees, Vin scooted away from his horse just as the ice gave out and the black gelding disappeared with a big whoosh of water.
The three men on the shore than watched in horror as the ice Vin was scrambling across gave way, and the young tracker also sank from their view.
"There!" Rusty yelled out a second later as both man and horse broke out from under the ice. The bald-faced gelding swam towards the shore, breaking up the ice at each lunge with his powerful chest until at last he was able to touch the bottom and scramble up to dry ground.
Vin was not as lucky. His sheepskin coat was now completely water logged and kept dragging him down under the surface. The ice-cold water pierced through Vins skin to his very soul. Kicking for all he was worth, he again broke the surface, and managed to hook his arm over a solid piece of ice. From the shore he could hear his friends yelling at him, but he didnt have the power to holler back as the frigid water stole his voice.
"VIN !" JD screamed out his friends name, but he got no answering call back. Throwing Sevens reins to the ground, JD started running towards Vin.
"JD no!" Buck bellowed and tried to block the youth with his horse, but JD swerved around the big grey and made his way out onto the ice before Buck could bring his horse around again.
"JD damn it!" Buck swung Polecat around and slowly moved back out onto the ice. "JD stop!"
Water started to splash up from JDs feet as he ran across the ice, so he dropped onto his belly to spread his weight out and slithered towards Vin on his belly. Behind him he could hear a very angry Buck telling him to come back, and then when he didnt, calling him every bad name he knew.
"Hang on, Vin! Im coming!" JD yelled out, ignoring Buck, and the freezing water that was now soaking into his clothes and the sounds of ice breaking up around him. He focused all his attention on his friend in the water who was already starting to turn a greyish shade of blue.
Vin had never been so cold in his life. Through frosty eyelids he could see the kid coming towards him on his stomach. Vin wondered if he was the only one who could hear the ice cracking all around them, but he didnt dare let go of his precarious grip to wave the young man back. Feeling the ice rocking under him, Vin tried to wiggle up out of the water, but the weight of his coat kept pulling him back down. Desperately he clung with a death-grip onto a chunk of ice by his fingertips, and just prayed he could hang on until his friends somehow got him out.
Shivering uncontrollably, Vin watched JD crawl closer through the white puffs of his breath. Knowing his last bit of strength was leaving him and help still far out of his reach, Vin tried to kick his way out of the water one more time, but only ended up sinking lower off the slick ice. His long, blond tentacles of hair now hung down, and framed the blue complexion of his face with icicles. Vins head rolled back on his neck and he moaned out a protest through quivering lips. Closing his eyes, Vin fought the urge to just let his spent body sink into the cold black abyss as numbness started to replace the intense pain in his freezing limbs.
Suddenly he heard a yell and a splash. Forcing his eyelids apart, he saw JD now struggling to get out of the frigid water too.
"BUCK!" JD managed to scream before the cold water took his breath away.
Vin kicked out and tried to heave his body up onto the ice as he heard the fear in JDs young voice. Inching his way up, he forced his hands to dig into the ice for a stronger grip, until at last he had his elbows out of the water and could wiggle his way out. Vin let out a cry of victory as his feet finally cleared the water, but as sudden as he was out of the water, the ice snapped and Vin sank under the surface again.
Buck spurred his reluctant mount back out onto the ice, but with a scream of frustration he had to leap to the shore as the ice again gave way under Polecats feet. Damn fool kid Buck thought. He dont listen to me, but as soon as the kid gets himself in trouble who does he call out for? Me!
Frantically, Buck searched around him for something that could reach his struggling friends.
"Give me your rope!" Rusty suddenly appeared beside Buck and started to yank on the lariat that hung off his saddle.
Buck pushed the old cowboy away with a booted foot, "You think I aint thought of that! I cant get close enough to them for the rope to reach!" He shouted out in desperate anger.
"Just give it to me, you stubborn pig-headed !" Rusty shouted back and started to untie the rope. Pulling it free from Bucks saddle, Rusty ran over to Peso and undid Vins rope from his saddle and in no time had the two ropes tied together.
Seeing what Rusty had in mind, Buck leaped off his horse and ran over to the old man. Grabbing the rope from the cowboys hands, he flung the rope out towards JD.
"JD grab hold of the rope!" Buck hollered, but already JD was so cold he couldnt reach up onto the ice for the rope.
"Would you just let me do it!" Rusty shoved Buck out of the way and hauled the rope back in. As fast as he could with chains on, Rusty coiled up the rope and swung it slowly over his head, letting the loop build with each twist of his wrist. He quickly glanced between the two young men in trouble, and knew instantly that Vin was in the most serious condition.
"Throw it, damn you!" Buck hollered as the cowboy continued to swing the rope.
"Back off!" Rusty snapped as Buck impatiently reached for the rope.
Out in the water, Vin broke the surface one more time, spitting and gasping with his arms flailing helplessly above his head, to gulp in a mouthful of air before his clothing dragged him back down. Suddenly he felt something slap on to his shoulder and tighten around him. With the last of his strength, Vin grasped the rope with his raw fingers and hung on as he was ripped from the waters artic grasp.
Vin screamed out in pain as he was dragged across the rough surface. Ice water flowed over him and he kept jamming up against frozen chunks of snow, but the two men at the other end of the rope kept hauling on him relentlessly until he finally lay on solid ground at their feet. Without any ceremony, Buck reached down and as quickly as he could, yanked the rope from Vins shivering body.
Vin curled up into a ball, wrapping as tightly into himself as he could. He knew JD was still in the water needing help, but he was helpless to do anything to help, even the ability to speak had eluded him. All he could do was lie there and shake uncontrollably.
"JD!" Buck shouted out across the snow-covered water again as he paced frantically back and forth at the waters edge. At his shout, a hand appeared out of the black pool of water and grasped the closest chunk of ice.
"Throw it throw it!" Buck yelled over his shoulder at the old man, as he ran out on to the ice as far as he dared.
"Hurry hes going under!" Buck screamed as JDs hand started to slide off the ice.
Rusty again swung the lariat over his head with his chained hands and concentrated on the black speck of water that the loop had to land over top of.
Buck looked back at the old cowboy. It was hard enough to throw a single rope, but he had to throw two ropes tied together in a knot with his wrists chained together. He had been lucky getting the lariat right on top of Vin; Buck just prayed he had enough skill and luck left to get JD out as well.
"Rusty !" Buck screamed at him again.
Rusty now saw the tip of a small hand as well. With a howl he let the rope sing through his fingers, and watched as the loop sailed out towards JD.
"Yes!" Buck hollered as the rope settled over the broken ice and around JD.
"Hang on, JD!" Buck shouted as he and Rusty started to haul on the rope.
"Yes!" Buck shouted again in triumph as JD immerged out of the water. "Pull hard, old man!"
Both Rusty and Buck strained against the rope and gave a great heave.
"NO!" Buck yelled as he and Rusty fell on to their backsides and the rope came zinging back at them empty.
"Buck help me!" Rusty and Buck stood up to see JD flailing in the water again and could hear his choking cries as the freezing water took its toll on his young body.
Buck scrambled to coil the lariat back up and quickly handed it off to Rusty.
"You can do it, old man," Buck gave the cowboys arm a gentle shake. "The kids counting on ya. He aint got another shot at this!"
Rusty drew in a deep breath. He knew how much effort it was taking for Buck not to grab the rope out of his hands again, but they both knew he was the kids best, and probably only chance at survival. Rusty swung the lariat over his head, built up speed with two quick snaps of his wrist, and then he let the loop fly.
Buck held his breath as he watched as the rope sailed through the air in slow motion.
"Yes!" He shouted as the loop settled over the kid again. "Good shot, rooster!"
Buck bent down and picked the rope up off the snow. "Okay, lets do it slow this time!" He said as they started to haul together on the rope.
"Buc k!" JD yelled out to them in a stuttering voice. "Wait up a second."
With fumbling fingers, JD pulled the rope down so he could get an arm through the loop for a better grip.
Buck and Rusty again hauled on the lariat and slowly JD came out of the water and slid across the snow to them.
The two young men lay shivering beside one another, their lips a blue hue and the tips of their noses and ears were white, as were their cheeks.
"You boys are frosted up bad. We got to get ya frosted out quick. Rooster, get their blankets for me, and then start a fire," Buck snapped at Rusty as he bent over his two shaking friends.
"Buck, I think I got a better idea lets get them back on their horses!" Rusty pulled on Bucks arm.
"What are you talking about, you old fool!" Buck shook Rusty hand off. "Theyre freezing to death. We have to get them warm!"
"I know that." Rusty pulled Buck up and pointed to the white steam JD had been riding towards before they went into the water.
Buck paused for just a second, then nodding his understanding he reached down and slipped his arms under Vin and lifted him up off the snow. Buck could feel Vin shivering uncontrollably in his arms.
Buck shifted Vin in his arms for a stronger grip and then started towards Peso. Cold water soaked through Bucks coat and he could feel goosebumps break out down the length of his back. It made him even more scared for his two friends. He didnt know how they could survive being this wet and cold for much longer.
With Rustys help, Buck placed Vin back in the saddle.
"Sooo cold " Vin stuttered, hugging his arms around himself.
"I know Vin. Just hang on, well get you warm again in no time." Buck gave Vin a brisk rub on the back and was just turning to run back for JD when Rusty appeared at his side with a tarp.
"His bedroll got wet and they will both need dry blankets later, so they are going to have to make due sharing my blanket and tarp for now," Rusty said as he wrapped the tarp around Vins quaking shoulders.
"Good thinking," Buck said, handing Pesos reins to the old man, and reluctantly unchaining his wrists. "You get moving Ill grab JD and be right behind you."
Buck watched as Rusty threw a leg over Mud, and leading Peso, head towards the rising mist. Buck just hoped he was doing the right thing trusting Rusty to take care of Vin, but right now he didnt feel he had any other choice available to him.
"Bu c k!"
JDs stuttering voice brought Buck back around, and in four ground covering strides he was at his young friends side.
"Its so dang cold!" JD stammered through gasping breaths, but his big hazel eyes still gleamed with faith that Buck would soon make all well.
Buck felt his temperature start to rise. He was not sure who he felt the angriest with right this second. JD for rushing out at Vin without a moments thought of the consequences, or himself for somehow not recognizing they hadnt been riding across solid ground.
Rusty had already placed his blanket around JD, so without answering him, Buck just scooped the kid up and threw him onto his horse.
"You going to be able to ride by yourself?" Buck asked through gritted teeth. The young man was shaking so hard and his teeth were chattering so bad, Buck thought he was going to bounce himself right off the horse.
"Ye ah!" JD answered, letting Buck step up onto Polecat and the two started following Rustys tracks.
JD clasped the saddlehorn with both hands and let Seven settle in behind Bucks horse. He was so cold and his skin was stinging so bad that each step he had to ride was agony. And through it all, Buck hardly spoke but a few words to him.
"Buck?" JD lifted his chin out from under the blanket and called out to his friend.
"Keep riding, JD." came Bucks terse reply.
"You mad at me, Buck?" JD barely got the words formed, and was not sure if Buck had even been able to hear him.
"I heard you, JD!" Buck snapped over his shoulder. His insides were still shaking from both the adrenaline rush he had getting the two young men out of the water, and the anger he felt at JD for so foolishly risking his life. Part of Buck wanted to stop, get off his horse and rush back and give JD a huge hug for still being alive, but an even bigger part wanted to rush back and ring the kids bloody neck. Buck figured for both their sakes he was wise to keep the horses moving in Rustys tracks.
"I was just trying to help Vin," JD said after a moment of silence, when he realized Buck was not going to say any more to him.
Buck pulled Polecat up and angrily swung around in his saddle, "JD, you peckerhead! I wanted to help Vin too, but instead of helping you put him at greater risk. With your one stupid choice, we had to waste time rescuing you while Vin lay soaking wet in a snow bank! And now instead of helping us look after him, we have to take care of you, too!"
"Im sorry!" JD turned guilty eyes away from Bucks angry expression. "I guess I wasnt thinking."
"Sometimes you have to use your head for more than holding up that stupid hat, boy." Buck stopped himself from saying anything else, as JD seemed to sag even lower in the saddle.
"I know its just " JD lifted his chin back up to meet Bucks eyes, but he couldnt seem to get any more words out through his chattering teeth.
Mellowing for a second, followed by a curse, Buck swung his horse around again and started moving forward again, "JD just hang on, kid! Were almost there and well get you warm in no time!"
JD almost rolled off backwards as Seven took off in a lunging motion through the snow. With a gasp, he grabbed the saddlehorn with both numb hands, and then had to scramble to keep the blanket from falling off his shoulders. He couldnt help it if Buck was mad at him; he was going to freeze to death any minute now anyways.
+ + + + + + +
Rusty lead Vin over one last small rising and there below them in a fine white mist bubbled a natural hot spring.
Rusty turned to the young man he had been leading, "Were here, son. Youll be fine again in no time at all."
Rusty thought the tracker was still conscious, but he was not sure if he understood what was being said to him, or even where he was at this point. The water that had been flowing from Vins clothes at the start of the ride had slowed to a trickle and was now forming into long narrow icicles. And he was covered in a white frost so thick that Rusty could not tell anymore just what colour his clothes had been. Vins eyelids were covered in a thin sheet of ice, and his cheeks were a deep, sunken hollow of unearthly blue.
Not wanting to take any longer getting Vin into the water, Rusty booted the horses into a trot to cover the last few feet to the springs. With a groan, Rusty swung his leg over the cantle and dropped to the ground. In a stiff, limping gait he rushed back to Vin and grabbing the tracker by the back of his coat, he pulled him out of the saddle. Unable to handle the younger mans weight, they both fell to a heap in the snow.
Rusty staggered to his feet, and looked over the rise to see if Buck was coming up behind him yet, but he saw nothing but snow. With a sigh of resignation, the old cowboy grabbed the back of Vins coat and started to drag him closer to the spring. He couldnt tell if Vins legs were so frozen he could not straighten them, or if it was the frozen clothes that made him look as though he were still sitting in the saddle.
In what felt like an eternity, Rusty finally got Vin to the edge of the pool, and with stiff fingers he started to fight the frozen buttons on the sheepskin coat. The coat crackled under Rustys hand as the ice on the frozen garment was knocked off.
Vin groaned when the coat was pulled from him and the wind now whistled through his blue chamois shirt. He fought to pull his eyelids apart when he felt a hand tugging on the waistband of his breeches.
"Can ya kick your boots off?" Vin looked up through slited eyes to see Rusty trying to get his pants pulled off, but they were clinging tightly to Vins wet skin. Shuddering with cold, Vin pushed the old mans hands away and closed his eyes again. He was so tired; he just wanted to be left alone so he could go to sleep.
A light kick to his ribs made him jump and yank apart his frozen eyelids.
Rusty stood above him with a determined glare on his weathered face, "I said, can ya get your boots off yourself, or do I have to take them off for ya?"
"Go away leave me alone!" Vin mouthed the words and then turned his head away and let his eyes shut one more time.
Suddenly he found his foot swinging in the air, and Rusty tugging hard on his boot. As soon as the one boot came off, his leg was dropped to the ground and his other leg was heaved into the air and the second boot was tugged from his foot. Next his breeches were hauled roughly from his legs in an angry gesture.
Vin groaned as he lay on top of his pile of wet clothes, totally exposed to the elements and for the entire world to see.
Breathing hard, Rusty sank down to his knees. Getting mad had helped him to get the trackers tight pants off, but now he didnt have any strength left, and Tanner was still not in the pool where he needed to be if he was going to have a ghost of chance at thawing out. Rusty wondered again what was taking Buck so long to get here. Hoping the tracker was the type of man Rusty thought he was, he forced himself back to his feet and then gave Vin another little kick.
"Willing to just lie here and give up, are ya!" Vin forced his eyes back open at Rustys condescending tone. "Big, tough, sharpshooting, mountain lawman that you are, just ready to curl up cause ya got a little water on ya. Hell, Ive seen skinny little sodbusters show me more gumption than what you got!"
"What do ya want from me, old man?" Vin sputtered out.
"Git off your darn backside, and slide into the water. Once youre in there, you can sleep the rest of the month for all I care. It aint like Im in a hurry to get to where you boys are taking me!"
Responding to the challenge like Rusty hoped he would, Vin mustered all the strength and determination he had left, spun his legs around on the edge of the rock basin, and slid into the steaming water.
But the scalding water against his frozen skin hit him like a rock. He frantically tried to leap out, but his feet slipped on the bottom of the smooth rock basin and sent him splashing down into the steaming, bubbling pool. Hot water poured into his mouth, choking him as he tried to scream. A calloused hand suddenly appeared under the water and grasped his arm, pulled him back up. Vin was sure the scorched skin on his arm was going to peel off in the cowboys grip. Breaking the surface, Vin felt the blast of cold air against his burnt skin and shuddered as the two temperature extremes impaled him. Letting his head roll back against Rustys chest, Vin opened his mouth as the intense pain washed over him.
+ + + + + + +
JDs head snapped up as a familiar sounding scream echoed through the woods.
Without a backward glance, Buck instantly legged his horse into a lope, and pulling Seven along with him, the two men rode to the top of a small rise, where they saw Vin and Rusty below them.
Rusty had his arms around the struggling young tracker, but from this distance Buck couldnt tell if he was being pushed in or pulled out of the hotspring. Buck glanced at JD as the kid fought to keep his precarious balance on Seven. Buck was torn between his duties to look after each of his two friends, but Vin seemed to be in the worst peril. Having made the decision, he needed to ride hard. He threw JD the reins to his horse, and then cued Polecat down the slope as fast as the big grey could travel.
Reaching the spring, Buck leaped from his horse and ran to the pool, "What are you doing?" he yelled accusingly at the cowboy.
"Dont just stand there, give me a hand!" Rusty grunted as he felt his grip slipping from around Vins wet chest. "Its too hot for em; we gotta let them slip in slow like. Would ya help me here I cant hang onto him much longer!"
Realizing he was just staring at them, Buck reached down and grasped Vin by his arm and pulled his weakened friend back onto the rock lip. With a grateful sigh, Rusty sagged down beside them.
"I made a mistake. It happened so fast; I didnt think to check how hot it was. I just told him to get in and he damn near fried his self!" Rusty started to explain to Buck.
"Ill stay with him, you go get JD and bring him here," Buck interrupted as he wrapped his arms around the softly moaning Vin. "Come on buddy, I know its a little hotter than you like your bathwater, but we gotta get you warmed up."
Rusty turned to see JD slowly weaving his way down the gradual slope towards them. The young man swayed dangerously from side to side with each step his horse took. Climbing to his feet, the cowboy hobbled up to them and with one hand leading the horse and the other holding onto JD, he led them down to the edge of the pool.
Rusty looked at Buck to help get the kid down from his horse, but Buck had his hands full dunking Vin in and out of the hot water. Every time the tracker was submerged he would howl in pain and fight the grip Buck had on him. But the cold wind wrapping around his wet body when coming out of the water was nearly as bad.
"You aint making this any easier, Tanner!" Buck grunted as Vins elbow caught him above his nose. "Stop your wiggling youre already slippery as an eel. Im going to end up dropping you straight in instead of taking it nice and slow like."
"Youre trying to kill me, Bucklin!" Vin sputtered out as Buck splashed more warm water over his bare skin. "I wasnt planning on being made into nobodys soup."
Buck laughed at Vins attempt at humour. That meant the hot water must be helping some. Ignoring the hiss the tracker made through his clenched jaw, Buck again immerged the longhaired man into the water and this time let him settle up to his neck in the steaming pool.
The water still stung Vins skin, but now it also offered comfort to his frozen body. Vin gritted his teeth and let the hot water start to warm through the several layers of his skin. It quickly seeped into his chilled core, and with a sigh, Vin settled his head back against the rock basin, and finally let himself relax.
Feeling the younger man give way to the waters healing powers, Buck pulled his soaked arms out from behind Vin. He stood up as he felt a horses hot breath drift down his collar.
Seven stood over him, with a shivering JD still in the saddle and a panting old cowboy leaning against the horse for support. Reaching up, Buck grabbed JD by his coat lapels and easily hauled him out of the saddle.
JDs knees buckled as his feet hit the ground and he would have gone down if Buck hadnt shoved him up against Seven. JD cried out as his frozen feet felt like they were shattering in to a thousand pieces. Ignoring JDs sounds of pain, just as he had Vins, Buck held the kid up with one hand and started undressing him with the other.
When the buttons on the frozen coat didnt immediately slip out, Buck impatiently yanked on the material until the buttons started to fly off in different directions. A hand quickly appeared on his arm, stopping him.
"Hes going to need his coat later!" Rusty gently pulled Bucks hand away and started to struggle with the buttons himself. "You see to getting his boots off."
Buck looked like he was going to argue with the old cowboy for a second, but JDs chattering teeth and uncontrollable shaking made him drop to the ground and tug at JDs footwear. Soon the young mans shirts, chaps, pants and longjohns followed into a pile on the snow. Rusty threw the blanket back around his small shoulders, as JD gasped at the cold wind blowing over his wet, naked skin.
Rusty stood back uncertain of what he should do, as Buck grabbed the kid up and carried him over to the pools edge.
Even through the blanket, Buck could feel the cold that radiated off the youths smaller body. All the anger Buck had been feeling on the ride over came back with a vengeance. For a brief second, Buck couldnt tell the difference between JDs cold shaking body, and his own that was vibrating with shaken nerves. Fighting with his emotions, Buck stood by the pool and contemplated throwing JD straight in. Maybe by showing him no compassion in this circumstance, the young man would think a situation through next time, and not just leap in blindly and hope he landed on his feet.
Buck swivelled at his waist and brought his arms back a bit so he could get some momentum for his toss.
"Buck !" JD whispered as he felt Buck start to swing him. He instantly caught on to what Buck had planned for him. "Maybe I should you know get in by myself!"
Hearing the tentative voice, Buck froze, and then taking a deep breath he looked down until his blue eyes met a pair of wide hazel ones.
JD turned his head to look at the water beneath him. He could feel the hot steam rising up against his bare skin and from here it was starting to feel good, but he had heard how loud Vin had screamed going in, and Vin was not the type to holler, so JD know it must hurt like the dickens.
"Oh hell would you just promise me one thing?" Buck asked as JD clenched his eyes closed and gritted his teeth while waiting for Buck to drop him. "Would ya try not to get yourself killed again before we get back to Four Corners? You think you could handle that?"
JDs eyes sprang open and he answered in a soft, raspy voice. "I was only trying to help Vin,"
"I appreciate that, kid, but maybe next time ya could do it safely from a distance," Vin spoke out in a weary voice from the hot spring.
"Buck " Rusty placed a hesitant hand on his back, and nodded towards the shivering youth and then the steaming water.
"You need to get him in there!"
"Yeah, I know. Sorry, but this is going to hurt you more than it is me, kid," Buck said with a grimace on his face, and then he and Rusty lowered the youth slowly into the water.
Nearby a couple of white-tail does threw their heads up and then bolted into the woods, and a flock of song-sparrows flew startled from their tree as a screech followed by loud, pain-laden cussing reverberated across the hills.
+ + + + + + +
Under the early cover of darkness two fires hissed and popped as water from Vin and JDs clothes dripped down from a branch onto them. Increasing winds, howling through the trees were slowly drowning out the sound of the bubbling hotsprings, as the tired men huddled down against the cold in the small, secluded gully.
Rusty wearily moved about, gathering up more kindling from the forest floor and stock piling it near the two blazing campfires.
Buck sat crouched down on his knees by one of the fires, stirring the pot of beans he had cooking and making sure he kept the coffeepot filled up. They all needed to ingest as much of the hot liquid as they could handle.
The horses were tied to their tether again, munching on grain after Buck had dried them off and rubbed them down for the night.
Except for his head that was resting against his saddle, Vin lay completely buried under Bucks bedroll, staring at the dancing flames with tired eyes. His circulation had returned, but with it had come fierce pain that left him completely spent. His cheeks were still sunken, and his complexion though much better than it had been that afternoon, was still sallow. His body was darned in his only extra pair of longjohns, while the rest of his wardrobe was spread out between the two fires on a tether line to dry. He shivered instinctively, and curled his legs up tighter as a gust of wind blew across his head. Trying not to make a big opening in his blankets, Vin snuck a single finger out into the cold and pushed a strand of still damp hair away from his face.
On the other side of the campfire, JD sat hugging his knees tightly to his chest for warmth, with his bedroll wrapped snugly around his shoulders. He wanted to get up and help Buck and Rusty with the camp chores, but even if he had dry clothes to wear, he felt so plumb tuckered-out it was all he could do to keep his eyes open. He and Vin had spent over an hour in the hotsprings before feeling like they were finally thawed out. Both men had immerged bone-numbingly exhausted from their ordeal and had barely remained on their feet long enough for Buck to dry them off and pile them under warm blankets. JD shuddered and tugged his blanket tighter to his body as a cold blast of winter air lifted up a corner and blew across his skin.
Another gust of wind whirled through the camp, and everyone looked up as Buck suddenly jumped back from the fire and started to pat out little sparks that had landed on his hair when the wind sent hot-ash flying out from under the pot in all directions.
Rusty came back in with another arm full of firewood and set it down by Buck, "Its getting mighty ugly out here. You best help me gather up more wood. I think were going to need all we can get our hands on before this night is through!"
Buck looked up at the old cowhand and in the firelight saw concern written across the weathered face, "Vin what do you make of this wind? Think were in for a bad one?"
Vin reluctantly pulled his head from his saddle and observed the increasing wind and felt the sudden plummeting temperatures. Vin shared a look of unease with Rusty.
The mercury had dipped well past freezing, and was free falling fast.
"I think Rustys right; we could be in for a long, hard night." Vin tossed his bedding off, grunting as a blast of artic air hit him. "Its going to take all of us working together. Are any of our clothes dry yet, Buck? If not, scrounge through all your stuff and see if you can find enough clothes for JD and me to wear till ours dry. JD you best help Rusty gather more wood, while Buck and me will make sure the horses are going to be alright!"
+ + + + + + +
It smelt real strong of campfire smoke, but JD was immensely grateful when his coat was finally dry enough to wear again. He dropped the blanket from around his shoulders and pulled up the long sleeves on Bucks borrowed shirt that kept falling down past his fingertips before slipping his chilled arms into his wool coat that was now toasty warm from the fire. He was also finally able to lace back on his leather chaps which had shrunk slightly after drying, and felt snug on his legs until he did a few knee-bends to stretch them back out. After getting all his own outerwear back on, JD pulled the rest of Vins dry gear down off the tether, and made his way through the snow to where the tracker was caring for their mounts.
He immediately missed the heat from the two fires and the small windbreak their camp was protected by. Hastily, he ducked his head deeper into his coat collar to ward off the fierce northwest wind that was picking up speed as it slid down the slopes of the high mountain rising above them.
Through the wind-whipped snow, JD found Vin standing between the horses, stomping his feet up and down and rubbing his hands vigorously against his arms to keep his blood flowing. The tracker nodded his gratitude as JD passed him his dry clothes.
"Its cold enough to drop the spots right off a fawns hide!" Vin said shivering, as he struggled to get back into his sheepskin coat and wrap his red scarf tight against his ears. "You and Rusty got enough wood in for the night?"
"We brought in all that we can find right around the camp, but I dont know if it will be enough to get us through." JD walked over to his horse and wrapped his arms around Seven neck to soak up some of his warmth. "Lord, but its cold out! You think we are going to get buried under in a storm, Vin?"
Vin exhaled a stream of white mist from his mouth, "Hard to say; its almost too cold to snow, JD."
Vin then handed the reins of Mud and Seven to him, "Were all going to freeze out here if we aint careful! Help me get the horses over closer to the fire, kid."
Heading back to camp the men and animals moved with short, cold-stiffened strides, and their feet made a brittle cracking sound on the crusted snow. Vin and JD were both walking slightly sideways with their faces tucked away from the blowing wind when all four horses unexpectedly threw their heads up, and nearly bolted as they tried to tear the reins from the mens stiffened fingers when they found themselves amongst a volley of explosions as the trees and earth burst and popped with sudden expansion from the dropping temperature.
"Whoa now ya knotheaded pieces of crowbait!" Vin spoke authoritatively while trying not to spook the animals any more than they already were. Slipping, he dug the heels of his boots into the snow and fought to keep his two horses from getting away. He almost had them under control when Muds hindquarters came swinging around and nearly knocked him right off his feet.
"JD !" Vin hissed at the younger man as he scrambled to stay upright and not relinquish his hold on Polecat and Peso.
"Sorry about that, Vin!" JD said in gulps while he too fought hard to get control of the spooked horses he was leading. He gave Muds nose a tug with the leadshank and pulled him away from Vin before finally being able to convince the big animals to settle enough to walk skittishly on.
Ahead them the two men could see Buck fight his way out of the brush and walk ahead of the two younger men into camp with his arms full of dried foliage for the horses that he had dug out from around the base of trees where the snow had not yet built up. "This is not the stomping grounds for a sane man!" He said through puffs of white breaths.
"You got that right!" Vin said letting his two horses grab a mouth of grass from Bucks arms. "Its going to be a long night, boys."
Rusty also appeared from the other side of the camp with another arm full of wood. In slow faltering steps, the old cowboy made his way over to the woodpile and dropped his load on top.
"Hey, old-timer Vin shouted over the howling wind, and held the reins to his two horses out. "Ill swap jobs with ya."
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Rusty slowly shuffled between the two fires, handwalking two of the horses each. The air was so cold it was hard to breathe. Bone-weary, their feet dragged in the snow as they kept the horses moving. Back and forth the horses moved from one pile of dry grass, snatching a mouthful, and then moving to the other pile Buck had set out. Their instinct telling them to keep moving so they didnt freeze up solid.
For nearly an hour the two men passed by one another without speaking a word until Rusty stumbled to his knees from fatigue. Buck placed both his horses lead ropes in one hand, and bent down to help pull the old cowboy back onto his feet. Wordlessly, the old cowboy nodded his thanks and slowly started to walk again, but Bucks voice stopped him.
"Rooster I guess I wouldnt be much of a man if I didnt say thanks for what you did today!" Buck struggled to get the words past his lips, his face still holding a grim expression. "For helping to save the boys, I mean. I still have lots of questions about your honesty and all, but today you did the right thing and I want you to know Im grateful!"
Rusty stood with his shoulders slumped in exhaustion, but his blue eyes still managed a bit of a twinkle as he met Bucks gaze, "I told ya I like them two boys, heck I probably would have even done the same if it had been you in the water."
"Im touched by your generosity," Buck answered, walking his horses past the older man. "I just wanted you to know Im grateful for what ya did."
Away from camp, Vin and JD fumbled through the crisp, knee-deep snow collecting kindling and windfalls to drag in beside the fires even though their feet and hands were again frozen in the unbearable cold.
Vin was trying to figure out what on gods-green-earth he had been thinking of when he swapped jobs with Rusty. Puffing hard from exertion, Vin stopped for a momentary rest and tried not to gulp the cold air into his aching lungs. Through the trees he could see Buck and the old cowboy standing by one of the fires, with the horses acting as a wind break. He had willingly traded chores with Rusty, but out here tromping around in the woods, fighting deep snow and blistering winds, Vin had to fight down a sliver of resentment. With a sigh, he took another grip on the log he carried in his cold stiffened glove, and resumed his way back to camp. It wasnt like him to begrudge another person an easier job, so he knew he still must be feeling the after-affects from his ice water swim this afternoon.
Along the path they had made from their campsite, Vin found JD tugging on a deadfall with all the strength he could muster, but it had become tangled up with another tree that would not relinquish its hold. The kid had dragged it fifty feet through the snow and trees, only to get hung up within sight of the camp. Frustrated at his failure, JD kicked the tree. Pain shot up to his ankle, and he had a sudden image of his frozen foot swelling so bad that it split his boot right off his foot.
Vin was so tired he hardly took notice of JD jumping up and down on one foot while he clutched his other foot in both hands, "JD what in the hecks come over you? Would ya stop leaping around? Im having a hard enough time focusing on ya, when youre standing still!"
"I stubbed my foot on this dang tree!" JD growled through clenched teeth. "I cant get it to let go!"
Wearily, Vin dropped the end of the small log he was carrying to camp and grabbed hold of the one JD was struggling with. Taking a deep breath, the two worn out men put their weight into it and between the two of them, managed to separate the deadfalls apart. Barely able to stay on his feet and keep his body functioning, the young tracker reached down with a soaked glove-clad hand to grab a single branch that protruded from his log, and drag it into camp. Exhausted, and froze to the core again, he sank to his knees in front of one of the fires and let his chin slump down to his chest.
With a moan and a start, he opened his eyes back up to see Buck hunkered down beside him, "We got us enough wood to get through the night now, Vin. The old rooster and me will watch over the fires and livestock tonight. Your face is frosted near white and youre so cold again youre stuttering. You get any more tired, youll be asleep on your feet!"
"I gotta make sure we got enough wood for the night," Vin sputtered.
"Hell we got us enough firewood for a whole bunch of nights," Buck said, pulling Vin to his feet and slowly leading him by an arm towards his bedroll. "Besides if we run out which we wont theres three of us who can get more. I know you kinda have the unanimous title of trailboss out here, but we can manage to do for ourselves when needed. And what you need right now, is to get some sleep!"
Buck leaned the tracker down on to his bedroll and pulled off his wet gloves, scarf and coat. Before the younger man could protest, he was lying down and Buck was tucking his blankets up around his chin.
Vin felt by some silent, unspoken law, that he was responsible for looking after them all while trekking through the wilderness, so his automatic response was to get up and argue the point with Buck, but it felt so good to be laying down snugly bound in his bedroll. Buck removing his boots and wrapping his frozen feet in a fire-warmed piece of cloth, made the decision easier for the young tracker. With a sigh, he gave in and laid his head down against his saddle blanket. Buck barely had time to stand back up before Vin was snoring softly.
Looking down on Vin, Buck could see the lines of responsibility, exhaustion, and cold slowly fall from the trackers handsome face, helping to make him appear young again.
Buck wished he could follow suite, and fall into his bedroll too. Rubbing his cold hands together he looked over to where the old-timer stood hanging on to all four horses as they munched on the last of the dry grass. But before he went back to help with the horses, he searched the darkness for JD. He could hear grunting and the sounds of someone dragging something through the crusty snow, so he knew the kid was near and at least for now, not in trouble.
From the woods JD could see Buck standing by the fire looking out towards him. He knew Buck was checking to make sure he was not in any peril and still alive. Normally, it really bugged him when Buck behaved this way, but after this afternoon he was grateful Buck still cared enough about him to keep an eye out.
Turning back to the job at hand, JD heaved on the heavy deadfall and moved it another foot. He really wished he had found a smaller one to try dragging back to camp. At this rate he figured spring thaw should just be starting by the time he got it to the fire pit. JD shivered as the sweat he had worked up had turned the inside of his longjohns damp and clammy, and a cold chill worked its way down his spine. But standing here was not getting him any warmer, or any closer to camp, so with another grunt he heaved on the wood until he finally dragged it to the edge of the camp and let it slip from his stiff fingers to fall to the ground.
"That aint where the firewood goes, JD," Buck said, as he watched the youth struggle out of the trees and drop the log several feet away from where the rest of the firewood was stacked.
"I know that Buck, but it aint going anywhere." JDs wet gloves turned inside out as he tugged them from his fingers, and laid them on a rock at the edge of the fire pit to dry. "Sides, if we need it, its right there. Not like you have to go scouting for it."
"You hear that, old rooster? More lip coming from our youngster here; I swear every year they get less respectful of their elders." Buck good-naturedly ribbed JD. "We got enough firewood to last the night, so why dont you come grab a horse and keep us company with some of your excitin tales of the wild, wild west?"
JD thought his froze-up face was going to crack when he smiled back at his closest friend, glad that Buck was treating him normal again after being so mad at him this afternoon. Pulling back from the fire, he crisscrossed his arms and pounded them back and forth across his chest to keep his blooding flowing before gladly joined the other two men.
"Did I ever tell you guys about the time " JD started in happily.
"Oh lordy!" Buck said looking skyward for help. "I was just foolin!"
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