Denver, late April
Spring was in her full glory, the land green, trees and flowers in bloom, new leaves a tender green that would soon give way to the darker emerald of summer. Three weeks of mild, warm weather had erased the last traces of snow from the hillsides, and the creeks and rivers were swollen with melt from the mountains. The breeze coming over the still snow-capped peaks was warm, but with an underlying crispness that made the air smell and taste fresh, and the sky was bright and clear, shading from turquoise along the horizon to endless azure blue directly overhead.
And, as a result, spring fever had infected each and every member of Denver's Team Seven big time.
Chris Larabee, leader of the unorthodox collection of federal agents, decided that what he and the other ATF agents needed was a little time off to constructively channel the pent-up energy that they all seemed to be humming with. So, just before lunchtime that Friday afternoon, he wandered out of his office, hands in his pockets, trying to look nonchalant.
The others all looked up from their work, waiting to see what he was going to say. He strung them along, walking over to the window and glancing out at the city below. Denver was buzzing with the same energy that filled the room, and both felt like they were ready to burst with chaotic elation, if given a little push.
He turned back and faced his team, enjoying the curious expectation on their faces. "Well," he said, then smiled a small, conspiratorial grin and stretched, finishing, "I think it's time to call it a day, boys." He waited for a moment, and when no one moved he glared at them and half-growled, "I'm tellin' you to get out of here. Go home. Go someplace, just get the hell out of here."
"Really?" JD asked him, bouncing in his chair.
"Yes, really," Chris said and rolled his eyes. "I'll see all of you on Monday."
"Whoo-hoo!" Buck crowed, tipping back in his chair, his feet coming up off the floor as he slapped his knee. "Hot damn!" His feet hit the floor and he was up and heading for the door, calling back to the others, "I'm gonna go pick Miss Willow up and take her on a picnic in Washington Park! That's what I'm going to do! What happens after that well, you'll just have to use your imaginations!" He wagged his eyebrows at them and was gone.
The rest of them watched him go, smiling. Carmen Willow was the handsome ladies' man's current obsession, and they each hoped she had a very understanding boss.
JD and Nathan both grabbed their phones, calling their girlfriends and making plans themselves.
Josiah stood and stretched before he smiled and said, "Think I'll drive up to Boulder. Naropa's hosting a lecture this evening I wanted to attend." He flashed Chris a toothy grin. "Just didn't think I could make it with the usual rush hour traffic."
"Well, you shouldn't have to worry about that now," Chris said, waving the man out of the office.
Josiah nodded, grabbed his coat and headed out, whistling a soft tune. JD and Nathan were almost right behind him.
"Thanks!" JD called.
Nathan nodded his thanks as well just before he disappeared out the door.
Ezra rose from his chair and pulled on his suit coat before sauntering toward the door, saying, "An excellent idea, Mr. Larabee. And one I shall endeavor to take full advantage of, I assure you."
"I'm sure you will," Chris told him, shaking his head. What Ezra did with his off time probably wasn't something Larabee wanted, or needed, to know about. In fact, he was absolutely sure of it.
When Standish was gone, Chris glanced over at the last remaining member of his team. Vin Tanner was still sitting hunched over his computer, hunt-and-pecking his way through a report.
"Hey, Vin, didn't you hear me? Get out of here. Go have some fun."
"Give me a sec," the man replied in his soft, panhandle drawl. "Don't want this damned thing hangin' over me all weekend."
Larabee sighed, listening to the man muttering under his breath. Tanner hated paperwork, more than most, although Chris suspected it was probably due more to the man's dyslexia than anything else. "Come on, Tanner, enough already. Get your butt out of here."
Vin looked over at him. "Ain't got nothin' better t' do anyway. Might as well stay here 'n' get this bitch done. Y' go on; I'll turn the lights off when I leave."
Chris sighed softly and shook his head. "Fine, you don't have anything better to do, I'll give you something better to do," he said. "I've been wanting to ride out and check my western fence line; it's the last section I need to get done before I move that small herd of yearlings into the spring pastures. You can help me do that."
Vin met his gaze, blue eyes looking hopeful. "We got 'nough time b'fore it's dark?"
"We won't if we don't get going."
Vin grinned and turned back to save his work and log off his computer. Chris watched him, once again amazed by the younger man's enthusiasm for anything done outdoors. They probably didn't have time to ride the fence line today, but they could reach the western boundary of his property with time to spare. If they spent the night at the small cabin there, they could check the fence on Saturday. And Sunday they could ride back to the ranch, barbeque a couple of steaks and watch a game. A perfect weekend.
Tanner bounced to his feet and followed Larabee out of the office, flipping off the lights as he passed the switch.
"Got your duffle out in the Jeep?" Chris asked when they reached the parking lot.
"Yep," Vin replied, veering off to grab his smallish gym bag before jogging back to join Chris in his truck.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The drive out to the ranch was made in almost complete silence, both men comfortable enough with each other to enjoy companionship that didn't require conversation. And, for what must be the millionth time, Chris marveled at how the former bounty hunter had slipped into his life like some silent predator sneaking up on its prey. But, to be fair, they had all wormed their way into his life and his heart. They were his team, his boys, hell, his friends and family.
But Tanner was different.
Chris felt like he'd known Buck forever, and the ladies' man was his oldest, dearest friend. The others he'd met later, but he'd quickly come to like and respect each and every one of them, even Ezra, who occasionally tested his limits. But Tanner Yes, Tanner was different. Friend, brother, sometimes conscience There really wasn't a good word to describe the relationship they shared. All Chris knew for sure was that he felt more complete when Vin was beside him.
Tanner had filled the emptiness that had taken root in his soul after he'd lost Sarah and Adam, something even Buck hadn't been able to accomplish. Whatever it was, however he'd managed it, Chris didn't care. He was just grateful for it, and determined not to take it for granted ever. Life was too short, too fickle, for that.
"Hope you didn't already have plans for the weekend," Larabee said, breaking the silence.
"Nope," Vin replied, his gaze sweeping the traffic ahead of them on the freeway.
"So you don't mind spending it out at the ranch?"
Vin jerked his head, indicating the back of the truck they rode in. "Grabbed m' bag so I got m' clothes 'n' shit in there; 'm good t' go, pard."
Chris grinned and nodded. They fell back into the familiar silence. That silence was one of the things he liked and respected most about Tanner. It wasn't easy to be silent for long periods of time. Josiah could do it, and Nathan, although to a lesser extent. But with Sanchez the silence had a contemplative feel to it. With Tanner it was different. The silence just was. It hummed. It was more than silence. It was like he knew what Tanner was thinking, feeling, and Vin knew the same about him. It was just shared being. And "being" wasn't something Chris Larabee had been doing a very good job of until he'd met the former bounty hunter until he'd been given Team Seven.
The miles rolled past as they left the city and headed into more rural environs. They stopped at a mom and pop diner just off the highway leading to Larabee's small ranch and grabbed lunch, exchanging ideas on the case they were currently working on while they ate their burgers and fries.
Once they reached the ranch they both changed clothes, then grabbed gear and food, Chris loading most of it up into packs that Charlie, a pack mule, would carry. Then they saddled their horses and headed out, Chris leading Charlie, briefly discussing how well they thought Buck's picnic might be going before lapsing back into the familiar silence, both men taking in the spectacle of spring.
They reached the small cabin in late afternoon, Chris telling Vin his plans for them to spend the night there so they could check the fence line the following day.
Tanner nodded, saying, "Hope y' brought somethin' fer supper. Don't know 'bout you, but 'm starved."
Chris grinned. "Got everything we need in the packs."
Vin nodded and volunteered to take care of the horses and Charlie while Chris unloaded the packs and got the meal started.
Larabee headed inside with the packs, muttering under his breath that if he was going to get stuck doing the cooking, Tanner was going to get stuck doing the dishes.
About an hour later, Vin slipped inside, saying, "Man, it sure is nice out there."
Vin sniffed the air. "Smells good. What is it?"
"Heating up a pot roast I cooked a couple of nights back. I'm baking a couple of potatoes and heating up some beans, too."
"Damn, Cowboy, that's a friggin' feast."
Chris smiled. "It'll be a long day tomorrow. I figured I'd better feed you up tonight."
"Good plan," Vin said with a grin, heading into the small living area off the kitchen. Above that was an open loft almost completely taken up by a double bed, above which, in bunk-bed fashion, was a twin bed above the head of the double. Chris and Sarah had used the cabin as a weekend getaway for the first couple of years of their marriage and, once Adam had gotten a little bigger, they had added the twin bed for him.
For almost two years after their deaths Chris hadn't even bothered to visit the cabin, but after being assigned to Team Seven and, he admitted to himself, after meeting the former bounty hunter, it hadn't seemed so full of painful memories as it once had. So he'd gone back to using it again, making use of the place several times over the past several months for weekend getaways. He hoped he and Vin could use it more often this year, maybe even come out and do some hunting.
Chris heard the TV come on, the sound of Larry Green's voice describing the five-day forecast rolling back to him. At least the low that forecasters had been worried might bring rain to Denver seemed to have stalled over Nevada and Utah. That would give them more beautiful weather tomorrow. He shook his head, though, worrying a little about what the fire season might bring if they didn't get more snow or rain before summer arrived. The last thing they needed was a repeat of the wildfires they'd had the past summer and fall.
Walking to the fridge, he opened it, happy to see that he'd been right about it still being "well-stocked." He pulled out two bottles of beer from a local microbrewery he liked and carried them into the living room. He handed one to Vin, then dropped into the overstuffed recliner and rocked as he opened his own bottle and took a long draw.
Vin tried his, then sighed and nodded. "That's good."
Chris grinned. "Friend of mine owns the microbrewery. Once a year he comes out here to go elk hunting and leaves the fridge crammed full of the stuff."
Vin grinned and chuckled. "Sounds like a fair trade t' me."
Chris glanced over casually and asked, "Be interested in doing a little hunting this year?"
"Sure," Vin agreed eagerly. "Haven't had some good venison in a long while."
"Given the size of the deer herds, we could probably go out a couple of times. I'd like to freeze at least one maybe one and a half for the winter, and jerk the other half. We can invite the rest of the guys out for one of the trips. Buck enjoys it. I'd guess JD would like it, too."
"Not sure Ezra will," Vin offered, chucking softly, "'specially the dressin' out part."
Chris grinned evilly. "You're probably right about that."
"Sounds good t' me."
The two men fell silent, watching the rest of the local and national news before the potatoes were ready and Chris went in to fix plates for the two of them. They agreed on a program, one Vin found on the History Channel Gunfighters of the Old West and dug into their dinners while they watched.
After they finished, Vin took the plates in and did the dishes, then made coffee and carried two full cups out, handing one to Chris.
"Thanks," Larabee said, turning off the television. They settled back and enjoyed the coffee, talking about this and that until they decided to call it a night.
"Flip y' fer the top bunk," Vin said.
Chris shook his head. "Nope, it's all yours."
Vin's eyes twinkled with humor. "What, y' gettin' t' old t' make the climb?"
"In your dreams, Tanner," he growled.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The following morning Chris and Vin grabbed a quick breakfast, then went out to groom and saddle their horses. The crisp morning air made both black geldings frisky, and Vin finally had to grab Peso's ear, yanking the horse's head over and glaring into one of his large dark eyes, growling," Settle, y' damned mule. I'll let y' run later." He released the horse and waited for a moment. When the gelding just stood, passively waiting for him to get on with it, Tanner kneed Peso in the belly and tightened the cinch another couple of inches. "Ain't stupid, y' know," he told the horse.
Peso snorted and tossed his head.
Chris watched the exchange and chuckled softly. "That horse is almost as stubborn as you are."
"Needs t' get out 'n' run some. He's got a bad case 'a spring fever."
"Why don't you take the north section, then," Chris suggested. "If you give him his head part of the way, you might just get done in time to meet me back here for dinner."
Vin snorted. "Hell, could do that on foot, Larabee."
Chris laughed. "Yeah, well, I'll tell y' what, the last one back cooks and washes dishes tonight."
Tanner thought for a moment, then nodded. "You're on, Cowboy."
The two men climbed into their saddles and headed out, Vin letting Peso have his head, the big black gelding snorting and lunging into a fast gallop. Larabee shook his head, watching the pair race off. He laughed, wishing he had just half that wild abandon any more.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin kept his attention on the fence line as he and Peso loped past. It looked in good repair, so far. He figured he had another hour and a half, maybe two before he reached the edge of Chris's property and could turn back. A brisk wind had blown up and it whipped through Peso's mane, blowing the coarse hair back over Tanner's hands. It was cooler than he expected too, and Vin pulled the gelding to a stop, glancing up into the sky. A few grey-edged cumulus clouds were cresting over the tops of the mountains.
Tanner frowned, remembering the weather report he'd heard the night before. There had been no mention of rain or snow, not until Monday or Tuesday, anyway, when the high pressure that had stalled over the Continental Divide finally broke down and shifted over into Kansas and Nebraska. That would let the storms currently in Nevada and Utah slide into the state and, hopefully, give them some much-needed springtime precipitation. And, with luck, it also meant he'd be snowboarding next weekend on newly-packed snow up at Eudora.
Turning his attention back to the fence, he urged Peso back to a slower lope, the big horse's long legs still eating up the distance at a good clip. He planned to beat Chris back to the cabin so he could sit back and watch Larabee cook and clean while he enjoyed that microbrew and the TV.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris reached the end of his section of the fence line and turned his gelding for home, planning to beat Vin back so he could spend the evening watching television while Tanner cooked and cleaned. He grinned. It would serve the cocky Texan right. He'd looked far too confident about beating him back. Well, he'd just see about that.
As he enjoyed the comfortable ride through the greening fields, he inhaled deeply. The air out here was so much cleaner than in the city, and touched with an earthy, almost sweet tang. But it was also colder than he'd expected.
When a breeze kicked up, raising dust and bits of dried grass, he shivered and urged the black to give him more speed. The frisky gelding was only too happy to oblige, and Chris gave the horse some head, letting him thunder across the flat plains, racing for home.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
It was a little less than an hour later when Chris reached the cabin. And there was no sign of Vin or Peso.
"Yes," he hissed in triumph, patting his gelding's neck. "Good job, boy. I owe you an extra can of oats for that one."
The first order of business was to cool the gelding out, which he did, then rode him into the small corral where he dismounted. He removed saddle and bridle, carrying them into the small tack shed and putting them up. He returned to the corral, pulled an old, well-worn hackamore onto the gelding's head, then set about brushing the black until he gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight.
As he worked he noticed the clouds passing by overhead, one after another obscuring the sun for brief moments and making it cold. He hurried to finish his work, then checked the horse's hooves, tossed some feed into an old tire for him and Charlie, added oats into two waiting buckets, and then headed quickly inside.
He rubbed his hands to together to warm them as he walked to the kitchen counter to make some coffee. He glanced at the clock and frowned, surprised that Vin hadn't returned yet.
He glanced outside again. The building bank of threatening grey clouds that filled the western sky made it look later than it really was. But the wind was growing steadily stronger, and colder, if the way the temperature was dropping inside the cabin was any indication. Then a few large splats of rain began to strike the windows.
"Damn," he sighed, wishing his friend would hurry. He didn't want him caught out in a cold rain. "Come on, Vin, get your butt back here."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin reached the far end of the fence line and pulled Peso up. He glanced around, enjoying the beauty and the quiet of the spot. Not silence, though. Birds called, crickets chirped, and the increasing wind hung up in the trees, creating a symphony of sounds. But it was quiet, the city sounds far away, just the way he liked it. He inhaled deeply, and checked the sky. It was still early. With a little luck, he might just beat Chris back to the cabin.
He turned the gelding and set out at the same ground-eating lope he'd used to get them most the way to the end of the property.
About halfway back to the cabin he heard it a high-pitched squeal. He pulled Peso up, twisting in the saddle, trying to hear something more that would tell him which direction the original sound had come from.
"Jill!" came a distant, masculine voice.
Vin fixed the direction, which lay on the far side of Larabee's fence. He rode to the barbed wire and used the cutters he had in his saddlebags to take out a single section between two posts.
He returned the cutters to his saddlebags, rolled into the saddle and urged Peso to hurry. The gelding was more than happy to oblige.
About fifteen minutes later he rounded the bottom of a hill and saw a newish forest green Land Rover parked not far away.
Another squeal rent the air and he gigged Peso closer to the vehicle. There was no sign of anyone inside, so Vin headed into the pines, following the sound of voices until he found a young man trying to support a young woman while she hopped along on one foot, the other held up so it didn't touch the ground.
They both looked up when Vin rode into view.
"Heard someone yell," Tanner told them. "Y' all right?"
The girl shook his head, tears making her eyes bright. "I think I broke my ankle."
"I'm parked just over there," the boy added, nodding in the direction of the Land Rover. "Maybe you can give her a lift? It really hurts her if she puts any weight on it at all."
Vin nodded, reining Peso up next to them and reaching out a hand. She took it and he pulled her up behind him, the boy giving her a push to help her along.
They returned slowly to the Land Rover, Vin finding out along the way that they were both students from the University of Denver, out for a hike. Jill had slipped and fallen, and Jeffrey had done his best to get her back to the car, but it had been getting harder and harder for them both.
Once they reached the Land Rover, Vin took a few minutes to check the girl's ankle, which was broken. He made sure she was comfortable in the back seat, then draped the mylar blanket he was carrying in his saddlebags over her and added Jeffrey's jacket over that. He told the boy to run the heater so she wouldn't get cold and shocky on the way to the hospital.
Once he was sure they were safely on their way, he turned his attention back to getting home himself. In the distance, he heard the first low rumbles of thunder from behind the mountains. "Great," he muttered, shaking his head.
He rode back to the fence and climbed off Peso to patch the opening he'd created. He had just finished with that when a brilliant flash of light nearly blinded him, followed by a crashing boom that he could feel pass through his body even as it nearly deafened him. He flinched and instinctively dropped into a crouch, his arms coming up to cover his head. He heard Peso squeal, and when he looked, the gelding was thundering away, tail up and twitching, mane flying.
"Peso!" he yelled, then whistled, but the gelding continued away at top speed.
"Goddamn, stupid, pain-in-the-ass mule!" Vin fumed as he kicked a dirt clod, sending it sailing away.
He glanced up, frowning at the thickening clouds and the bite the wind now carried. When the first of the large raindrops struck him, he pulled his hat down lower and muttered, "Freakin' wonderful," as he started walking, shaking his head and cursing lightning and horses with every step.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris sipped on his coffee and watched the rain shift over to snow, the huge, wet flakes making it impossible to see more than a few feet past the window glass. He walked to the television and turned it on. Breaking news had taken the place of regular programming, the grey-haired weather man explaining how the commute home from Denver was being affected by the sudden and unexpected snowstorm hitting the Front Range from Castle Rock to Longmont.
Chris listened to the report, growing more and more worried. "Come on, Vin," he said softly. "Where are you, pard?"
He couldn't imagine any reason Tanner should be this late, unless something had happened to Peso, or to Vin himself.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Soaked to the skin by the rain and snow, Vin gave up trying to find his way back to the cabin in the semi-darkness after he slipped and hit his head hard on the ground, a section of earth giving way under his foot. Besides, he knew the general direction he needed to take, but with the accumulating snow hiding the landmarks he'd normally use to guide him, there was a good chance he might get lost if he tried.
He wished again that he had his jacket, still tied behind his saddle, or his saddlebags and the thin mylar blanket packed inside. Then he remembered the college students and knew it wouldn't have mattered anyway. He'd given the blanket away.
"No good deed goes unpunished," he muttered to himself. "Ain't fair."
He began to shiver and forced himself to his feet, reaching up to gently examine the small lump on his head gingerly. He needed to keep moving until he found someplace to hole up, someplace where he could get in out of the wet and the wind or he was going to be in trouble big trouble.
He made a careful search, working his way out in increasing circles until he found a crevasse in a gulch that could shelter him. Before he crawled in, he built up a wall of snow in front of the opening, then wrung out his flannel shirt as best he could, wishing he had a good, thick wool sweater instead, and then pulled it back on and crawled into the small space. It was cramped, but at least it kept most of the wind and snow off of him, and it would be easier to warm up with body heat than something larger.
He shifted and twisted, trying to find a comfortable position in the irregularly shaped shelter, but it was impossible. He sighed and settled on the least annoying, knowing he was facing a long, cold night ahead of him. And there he sat, wet and miserable, contemplating what he'd do to his horse when he finally got back to the cabin.
He knew Chris was going to be worried too, but there was nothing he could do about that. Hopefully the man would be smart enough to stay put until morning. The last thing Vin wanted was for Chris to get hurt looking for him.
I'll be fine 'til mornin', he thought. So y' just stay put and wait this out.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris tried to read while the television droned on, the massive springtime storm keeping the local news anchors on the air long after they would have otherwise disappeared, replaced by the mindless sitcoms that seemed to dominate the airwaves these days. The system had obviously taken the weathermen by surprise, their models giving them no warning of its stealthy approach until it was too late.
With every odd noise outside, he rose and walked to the door, opening it and peering out into the night, looking for Vin. But there was never anything there, just the muffled silence of the snow-filled night, broken only by the wind that sometimes gusted through the trees, blowing the fat, wet snowflakes against the windows where they built up until, warmed by the heat from inside, they finally slid down to collect in small drifts on the sills.
He called the Search and Rescue again, checking to see if they had any idea when they might be able to get people into the field, and was told again that they were grounded until the major portion of the front passed over them, which, they had been told by the experts, wouldn't be until after daybreak the following morning.
Chris sighed and called the rest of the team, but no one was home. Not surprising. Josiah was probably stranded in Boulder, Nathan up in Longmont with Rain and JD and Casey in Golden, where he'd heard the youngest agent telling her he'd seen a horse for sale she just had to see. He wasn't sure where Miss Willow lived, but it was a good bet Buck was with her, wherever that might be. And he had no idea where to try and find Ezra. He left messages on all of their machines, asking them to call him before leaving them the number for the cabin, and his cell phone, in case he lost electrical power.
By midnight he was pacing nervously, a cup of cold coffee in his hands. The temperature had dropped and the wind was blowing harder, the snow falling at the rate of two inches every hour. The newscasters were starting to use the word "blizzard."
Every shift in the wind sounded like an approaching horse and rider to Larabee's ears, but it never was, and Chris was scared. Each passing hour lessened Vin's chances of survival if he was caught out in the storm, and Larabee knew he must be.
Then he heard a sharp jingle and rushed to the door, pulling it open. Light flooded into the front yard of the cabin, illuminating Peso, who stood, wet and dripping. The gelding shook his head again, jingling his bit a second time.
Chris quickly pulled on his jacket and hurried out, grabbing the gelding's reins and leading him to the small corral and the covered lean-to where his own gelding and Charlie stood out of the snowfall. He removed Peso's tack and carried it to the shed, taking care of it quickly before heading out to rub Peso down and give him some feed.
At least he found no blood on either horse or tack, which, he hoped, was a good sign.
Once Peso was tended to, he hurried back inside and pulled his jacket off, hanging it up to dry. "Damn," he hissed. "Where the hell are you, Vin?" he asked softly. "What happened out there?"
Depression settled in as he heard the wind pick up, growing strong enough to rattle the windows. He walked to the door again and opened it just a little, the icy breeze whipping inside. It was cold and he shivered as he stared out into the driving snow, trying to imagine what it might be like for Vin, caught out without any more protection than Tanner could find for himself.
What had the man been wearing? Boots, jeans, T-shirt with a long-sleeve flannel shirt over that, and a jean jacket, but that had been tied to the back of his saddle. Not much protection in a storm like this.
Tension knotted his stomach and Chris silently cursed himself for the challenge he'd issued earlier. If Vin had gotten himself hurt trying to beat him back to the cabin He shook his head. There was no use borrowing trouble. Not yet.
But his heart felt like it was being squeezed by a huge fist inside his chest. Sometimes my mouth's a damned weapon, he thought. But I never thought anything like this would happen.
He took one last look out at the snow, seeing the weather as his enemy now, one that was out to hurt him, very personally. It was trying to take away his best friend his brother.
The urge to pace returned, but he refused to give into it. Instead, he stood at the window, his breath condensing on the glass. Then, finally, when he could stand there no longer, he stalked back to the television, watching more of the continuing storm coverage. There was nothing in the reports to ease the fear that was threatening to overwhelm him.
His imagination created scenarios, each more dire than the last, until he growled and cursed himself out loud. His stupid contest might just have cost his friend his life.
Feeling like a spring someone had wound too tight, Chris knew he was going to explode if he didn't do something.
Turning on his heel, Chris stormed to the door and pulled it open, stepping defiantly out into the storm. The snow didn't feel cold at first, although it quickly soaked through his own flannel shirt and T-shirt. The wind whistled through the pine needles, creating a high-pitched cry that sounded impossibly lonely to his ears. And, driven by the wind, the flakes stung his skin and made his eyes burn and blur as he started out into the darkness, willing Tanner to appear now. Frustration welled up inside him when the man didn't obey and his fingers curled into fists. If he could have, he would have fought the storm for Vin.
"You damn well better be all right, Vin," he said, the words puffing white into the wind. "Damn you, Tanner, you have to be all right. You hear me? You better hear me Damn it Shit I'm sorry, Vin. I'm so damned sorry."
More than anything he wanted to saddle up and head out looking for the man. But that was suicide in this storm. And, with the blowing snow, he could ride right past Tanner and not even see him.
You have to live, Vin. Fight. Do whatever the hell you have to do, just stay alive. I'll be out there as soon as I can, I promise you that. So just hang on. Please.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Inside his meager shelter, Vin shivered, his eyes closed. For a moment he thought he'd heard Chris calling for him, but that wasn't possible.
Damn, Cowboy, it's getting' a mite lonely out here Not t' mention colder 'n a witch's tit Wish y' could come get me, but that ain't goin' t' happen. It damn well better not. You'd be a damned fool to come lookin' fer me in this.
But, he admitted, he was slowly getting scared. The storm didn't seem to be letting up. If anything, it seemed to be getting worse. If he wasn't careful, it might just bury him right where he sat. He poked a new hole into the snow wall in front of the entrance, making sure he could get fresh air.
"Damn, Larabee, where the hell did y' find this? Piss poor way t' thank a man for checkin' on your damned fences," he whispered into the night.
But it could be much worse. At least he was protected from the wind, and the small space was a little warmer than it was outside. He could make it until morning. He had to. No way in hell he was going to saddle Larabee with the burden of his death.
I won't let y' down, Cowboy, he promised silently. 'M gonna get though this. I know I've got t'. I ain't goin' t' hurt ya by gettin' m'self killed out here. But I sure hope y' find me quick in the mornin'.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The snow that pelted Chris turned even more icy as the wind picked up and he started to really feel the cold. There was nothing in the darkness no sounds, no signs of the missing man, but he knew Vin was out there, alive; he could feel him. But there was no way he could fight the elements.
Vin Tanner was a man comfortable in nature, more so than the rest of them, although Chris came close. He had to trust that Vin could find or build himself a shelter. He knew how. And that realization made Larabee feel a little calmer. He'd just have to wait until first light and see if he could get out and find the man himself then.
He took a few deep breaths, silently praying Vin would appear, and then turned and walked back inside when he didn't.
Leaving a trail of wet footprints behind him, Chris headed to the bathroom where he pulled off his wet clothes, toweled himself dry and then dressed in warmer clothes he found in the old chest of drawers sitting just outside the bathroom in the hallway. He knew if he opened the top drawers he'd find more of Sarah's things, but he couldn't bring himself to do that. Not now.
He made it back to the kitchen before he realized that he'd picked a sweater Sarah had given him for Christmas the first Christmas after Adam was born. He shook his head, his chest going tight again. He'd already lost his wife and child, he would be damned if he was going to lose his friend as well.
You hear that, Vin? he silently asked the missing man. I won't lose you too. So you damn well better have found some shelter out there. You damn well better keep your sorry ass alive.
He made more coffee and wandered back to the television again. The news coverage continued. The airport was still open, although the drive out to the new terminal along Pina Boulevard was impassable due to the drifting snow. And, according the weather team, the storm was picking up speed, moving east at almost forty miles an hour. If that continued, they promised, the worst would be past the Denver area in a few more hours, by dawn, at least.
If it didn't stall.
If the storm didn't slow down.
If the high in Kansas didn't shift west, creating an upslope condition.
If, if, if.
He walked to the overstuffed chair and sank down, watching the satellite images of the storm as his thoughts drifted and he remembered an afternoon a few months earlier. He and Vin had been sitting in his living room at the ranch, watching a football game, eating pizza and drinking beer. The rest of Team Seven trickled in over the next couple of hours, joining in the fun and ongoing conversations. And, in the middle of it all, Chris had looked up, casually meeting the former bounty hunter's eyes. What he saw there that day had surprised him happiness, and contentment. Tanner was relaxed, having fun, and Chris realized that the same could be said of him. The grief and sadness that had dogged his every waking moment since Sarah and Adam had died seemed farther away than it ever had, the bite no longer as strong.
At first he'd felt guilty about getting back to living again not just existing but that too had passed. He had been resurrected within the loving embrace of friendship. And the friendship he'd found with Vin Tanner was the brightest part of his life right now. He couldn't lose that. Not again.
Not and survive as a whole, functioning human being.
He couldn't. He just couldn't.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
It was cold and dark in the small shelter and Vin shivered as the wind picked up, the snow falling harder still outside.
The wind raced over the wall of snow he'd built up, crumbing some of it and striking into his shelter. "Damn," he grumbled, working with numbed fingers to rebuild the barrier.
Outside the shelter, the wind whistled through the trees, the pitch climbing steadily. When he was done, Vin laid back down and curled up, his eyes closed as he listened to the mournful sound. He was still shivering, but it was slowly lessening and he hoped that was because the small space was warming up from his body heat, but somehow he doubted it. He concentrated on making lists, moving from one to another in an effort to stay awake, but that got tedious.
He mentally listed his regrets and celebrated his accomplishments.
He picked the happiest moment of his life, the saddest. The moment he'd been the most frightened, most in love, most happy. He grinned at the memory of the best sex he'd ever had, and wondered briefly what kind of father he might have made.
He counted to a hundred. Then two, three and finally 437 before he lost count.
His eyelids drooped, but a hard shiver forced them open again.
Damn, Chris, he thought, don't know if 'm goin' t' make it, Cowboy. This storm's a mother. But he knew he had to try. He couldn't give up. He couldn't be responsible for that kind of pain, and he knew Larabee would be hurt if he died out here. Hurt in a way Vin didn't want to think about. He had to stay awake and stay alive. He had to hold on until Chris found him.
'm tryin', Cowboy. I swear 'm tryin'. Y' got t' know that.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris split his attention between the television coverage of the storm and putting his gear together. The snow was finally letting up. The best guess the weathermen could offer was that it would probably start to break up by 7 a.m., and by then it would be light outside, light enough, anyway. And Larabee planned to be out there, looking for Vin as soon as he could.
He shoved items into his saddlebags, half-listening to the television, half-listening to the storm outside.
He wasn't sure where he should start, but decided his best bet was to head for the fence line and then ride north. It was the best he could do. He would find Vin. He had to.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin slowly progressed from violent shivering to a calm, painless numbness. He struggled to follow a series of disjointed thoughts, but finally gave up, the effort too frustrating. It was too bad, too. Whatever it was, it had felt important.
At least he wasn't so cold any more.
Sleep continued to tempt him into its sweet embrace. Clumsily checking his watch, he realized it would be daylight soon. Chris would be looking for him then.
Chris would find him.
He could rest until then, couldn't he?
Yeah, he'd just rest until Chris found him. He was so tired.
"No," he mumbled out loud, some part of him knowing that was the wrong thing to do, but he was so tired, so very, very tired. Why should he stay awake all night? It was almost morning. Chris would be there soon. It wouldn't be very long, just a short nap a nap, not really sleep he'd just take a short nap, just until Chris found him
He closed his eyes, drifting into unconsciousness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris took a moment to call Search and Rescue, telling him that he was going out to look for Vin. They were still grounded for another hour, at least, but if he called back after that, they would be able to begin a search. Chris thanked them and promised to call again as soon as he got back to the cabin.
Outside, he swung into his saddle and, taking Peso's reins, headed out as quickly as he could. It was slow going, the snow deep enough to make the horses uncomfortable, but he reached the spot at the fence line where they had split up the day before, then turned and headed north, calling out at regular intervals.
"Vin!... Vin!... Tanner!"
The snow stopped as he continued, the clouds beginning to break up overhead, sunlight occasionally falling on the snow. Chris used his field glasses to check the sun-bright landscape, but saw nothing moving.
"Vin!... Tanner!... Damn it," he said more softly. Where the hell are you? he wondered. "Vin!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Something roused him from the pleasant place he'd slipped into, and it took Vin a moment to remember where, exactly, he was.
The sound came again, but he wasn't sure what it was. It sounded familiar, though, and he knew he should recognize it. He wanted to recognize it, but the knowledge skittered just out of reach in his muddled consciousness.
He shifted sluggishly and tried to focus, force his mind to give him what he wanted to know, but it was hard.
Then he heard it again. Vin!
"Chris?" he mumbled. Was Chris there? He knew Chris would find him
He twisted around and inched his way from the shelter on his belly, slithering out into the snow, and then, slowly, struggled to his feet. He glanced around, but saw nothing. Had it been a dream? Had Chris left him out here to die alone?
Fear and desperation stole his breath away. His knees buckled and he collapsed into the snow.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Larabee swept the landscape with his field-glasses again. "Vin!" he called and a few moments later he spotted the man, climbing slowly to his feet. Then Tanner's knees gave out and he pitched forward into the snow.
Chris jerked his horse's head around and urged him to hurry. Peso snorted and tossed his head, but he followed along.
"Vin!" Larabee called again, cursing softly when the former bounty hunter didn't move.
When he finally reached the fallen man, Chris slid out of his saddle and hurried to Vin's side.
Tanner was lying perfectly still, his skin unnaturally pale, and it didn't look like he was breathing.
"Vin?" Chris barked, feeling his own panic begin to rise. "Damn you, Tanner, you better not die on me here!"
He pulled off his gloves and picked up Tanner's wrist, but couldn't immediately find a pulse. "Oh shit damn it, Vin, don't you Oh Christ Vin?" His voice broke and his head dipped in defeat. He was too late.
But he had to be sure. He wasn't thinking straight right now. He couldn't give up, not yet.
He reached out and carefully rolled Vin onto his back and reached for his neck, probing just under his jaw, desperately searching for a carotid pulse. And he found one. But it was weak, so weak that, for a moment, Chris thought he was only feeling his own heartbeat in his fingertips. "Damn it, Vin, don't you do this to me," he softly begged the man.
He pulled his hand back, rubbing his fingers against his palm to warm them, and tried again. Then he felt it, a pulse, weak, but most definitely there.
"Thank God," Chris breathed, shaking slightly with relief.
He tried to pull Vin upright, but the man's body was stiff. "Come on, Vin, wake up," he called loudly. "Come on, Tanner, open your eyes. Vin!"
The younger man moaned softly.
"Tanner, I said get your sorry ass up now, damn you! Move, mister!"
Vin frowned and moaned again, but his eyes cracked open. When he caught sight of Larabee, he tried to smile, but just didn't have the energy to carry it off. Chris had found him. Chris would always find him "Hey, Cowboy," he husked. "What took y' s' long?"
Chris smiled, feeling his eyes begin to sting. Now that sounded like Vin. "Can you stand up?" he asked him.
Vin looked confused and he glanced around as best he could before his eyes began to drop closed again.
"Oh no, you don't. Vin!" Chris snapped loudly, wanting to give the man a shake, but knowing that was the wrong thing to do. "Come on, Tanner, get on your feet, damn it. Get up!" he ordered emphatically, helping the man the best he could as Vin struggled clumsily to his feet. He started to help Tanner over to the waiting horses, but the former bounty hunter pulled back, jerking his arm free.
"Wha'r y' doin'?" he slurred suspiciously.
"We need to get back to the cabin," Chris said, frowning.
"Cabin?" Vin asked him.
"Come on, Vin, it's cold out here. Let's go get warmed up," Chris said, and then realized that Tanner's confusion was due to the hypothermia. "Doesn't that sound good? I've got some coffee on, and it's your turn to cook breakfast," he babbled, trying to sound as "normal" as possible.
"'M hungry," Tanner mumbled, starting to sit down before Chris stopped him and got him headed toward the horses, Vin moving like some bad imitation of Frankenstein.
Vin stopped again, trying to sit down as he said, "'m too tired. Y' go on."
"Nope. The others are waiting for us," he lied. "We're going hunting, remember? You don't want to let the guys down, do you?"
Vin frowned, then shook his head and allowed Larabee to guide him to the waiting horses. Once they reached the geldings Chris left Vin leaning against Peso, the big black softly snuffling Tanner's hair, while he pulled off the thick parka tied to Peso's saddle, and maneuvered Vin into it. Once he got it zipped up, he pulled up the hood so it covered the man's head and then helped him up into the saddle.
"You be okay up there?" Larabee asked, not at all happy about how unsteady Tanner looked in the saddle.
Vin nodded, but his eyes were already dropping closed.
Chris was frowning as he swung into his own saddle and started back to the cabin. After a few minutes, he stopped and took the reins from Vin, leading Peso himself after Tanner had allowed the animal to begin to wander.
That arrangement only lasted a few more minutes. Chris stopped the horses and climbed down. He removed Vin's foot from his stirrup and climbed up behind the man, taking up the reins and starting Peso for the cabin.
"Come on, Vin, wake up," he said loudly. "Hey, Tanner! I'm talking to you! Listen to me, damn it!"
Tanner grunted and jerked slightly. "Wha?"
"You have to stay awake, Vin. You hear me?"
"'M tired "
"I know you are, but you can't sleep yet. Soon."
He inched up as close as he could get to Tanner and wrapped his arms around him, surprised to realize just how cold the man really was. He tried to get Vin to lean back against him, but Tanner refused, leaning forward slightly, dozing even though he mumbled replies to Chris's constant chain of questions, but it was clear he wasn't really aware that Chris was there.
"Vin," Larabee called loudly, "lean back against me, it'll be warmer. Vin? Hey, you hear me?"
"'m sorry," Vin muttered softly, talking more to himself than to Chris now. "'M sorry, Chris I tried "
"You did good, Vin, real good," Larabee told him, wishing he had a third hand so he could snug Tanner back against his chest. As it was, he had to steady the man every few seconds with one hand while he guided Peso with the other.
"Stupid lightnin' spooked Peso started snowin' cold so damned cold where t' hell are ya?"
"I'm here. I'm right here, Vin," Chris said, his throat tightening. "I've got you now. You're going to be all right." You damned well better be.
"'M sorry "
"Don't be sorry," Chris snapped. "Fight, goddamn you. Don't you give up on me, Vin. Keep talking. You hear me? I said keep talking!"
"Can't too tired jus' sleep a lit'l you'll find me "
"I have found you, you damned fool," Chris argued. "But you're damned near frozen, and if you don't stay awake you're going to die right here in the saddle. You understand me? You sleep, you die! Now, talk, damn you!"
Vin mumbled something in reply, but it was unintelligible.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Once they reached the cabin, Chris helped Vin slide down off Peso, just barely keeping him from falling flat on his face when his numb feet hit the ground, then half-carried, half-dragged him toward the cabin. He glanced up at the sky, finding it dark and grey again, more snow just beginning to fall. He frowned.
Warm air rushed out when he opened the cabin door, and Vin's head came up just slightly.
Inside, Chris supported Vin, helping him over to the old wood stove he'd prepared before he'd left. Heat radiated from it and Vin inched closer as Chris carefully helped him out of the parka and then the rest of his clothes, all of which were wet.
Larabee had left several large towels on the kitchen table and he grabbed one now to dry the man's skin, checking for signs of frostbite as he did. Once Tanner was dry, Chris helped him into new, dry clothes, which he added in layers, finally draping him with a thick blanket before he headed over to the phone and called Search and Rescue to let them know he had found Tanner. He asked if they could help get the man to the hospital, but the storm had rolled back and they were still grounded. The woman he talked to gave him several instructions.
That task done, he led Vin to the loft stairs.
"Can't," Vin breathed, shaking his head slightly, his legs beginning to shake as he looked up the short flight.
Chris caught the smaller man as he collapsed, lifting him into his arms and carrying him up the steps and laying him down on the bottom bed. He'd left the electric blanket on, so it was already warm. It took a moment, but he got the man arranged under the covers and tucked him in. Then he hurried back outside and took care of the horses, running back to the cabin when he was done, taking the stairs three at a time.
In the minutes that had passed while he'd been outside, the warmth had finally penetrated Vin's numbness, bringing him back to semi-consciousness. He moaned, his body hurting as it began to warm. His eyelids cracked open and he gazed up at Larabee, eyes dull as he drifted in and out of awareness.
"Hey," Chris said, trying to capture the man's attention, but Vin didn't seem able to concentrate well enough to really hear him, or respond.
Then, suddenly, Tanner began to shiver violently.
Curling into a ball on his side, Vin moaned lowly. Larabee dropped down on the edge of the bed, holding the man's shoulder and saying softly, "Easy, Vin, easy. You're going t' be okay. You just need to get warmed up."
The shaking increased, Vin moaning louder, then yelping when his teeth began to chatter loudly and he bit his bottom lip.
Not sure what else he could do, Chris quickly striped out of his own damp clothes and stepped into thick sweatpants. He left the matching sweatshirt off, but pulled on a pair of fleece socks before climbing into bed with Vin.
"C-c-c-cold," Tanner managed through his chattering teeth. "H-h-h-h-hurts."
"Easy, pard," Chris said, not trusting his voice not to break if he tried to say more. He was scared, as scared as he could remember being in a long, long time. He curled himself around Vin's back and wrapped his arm around Tanner, who radiated a cold chill. He could feel the muscles fighting under the man's skin and silently prayed he hadn't found him too late. He laid his cheek against the back of Vin's icy neck, and hoped the additional body heat would be enough to raise the man's body temperature. But he just wasn't sure. He didn't know how cold Tanner had gotten out there. And, he realized, he hadn't checked him for any other injuries either.
He silently cursed his stupidity and asked, "Vin, are you hurt?"
"H-h-h-hurts," Tanner repeated.
"Yeah, I know it does, but you'll warm up soon, I promise. Just hang in there. Are you hurt anywhere?"
"C-C-Chris h-h-h-hurts "
"Easy," he said, throat going tight again. He'd just have to wait until the shivering stopped and then he could look him over, make sure he wasn't hurt anywhere else.
But the shivering bouts came closer and closer together until it seemed like Vin's body would never stop shaking and twitching uncontrollably. Chris pulled him closer, pressing his chest along the man's back and holding him tighter. Vin didn't seem to notice at first, then he moaned and whimpered, trying to press back into the warmth Chris offered, but he had no real control over his body.
"C-c-cold," he groaned, "C-C-C-Chris w-w-wwhere 'r ya?"
"I'm here, Vin. I'm right here," he replied, wishing he dared rub the man's back. "I've got you."
"'M s-s-o c-c-cold C-C-C-Chris "
"Shh, I'm right here, Vin. I've got you," he repeated, still holding the man as tightly as he dared. "Just hang in there, you hear me? It's going to be okay. Just stay with me. You can do it, I know you can."
Vin continued to call for Larabee, moaning, teeth chattering, whimpering softly, until, finally, he fell silent, although his body still worked to warm itself, shaking and shivering.
Chris worked one arm free and turned the heat up on the electric blanket, then repositioned himself, trying to cover as much of Vin's body with his own as he could. He quietly murmured words of assurance as he waited, hoping Tanner could hear him and was listening, fighting.
And, finally, the shivering tapered off and stopped. Vin lay quietly for a while and Chris held still, waiting to see if Vin had fallen asleep, but then the former bounty hunter rolled over onto his back and then his other side, snuggling up alongside Larabee, one arm snaking over Chris's chest, one leg entangling with the blond's. He sighed softly, clearly enjoying the heat source.
Chris smiled thinly, glad the chills seem to have been conquered at last. He closed his eyes, silently thanking God for that much. But, at the same time, fear still haunted his thoughts. It had been so close. He knew he'd almost lost Tanner to the unexpected storm, and he trembled slightly, his heart beating faster, but he carefully wrapped his arm around the sleeping man's shoulders and held him, glad that he couldn't feel the coldness seeping though the layers of clothing any longer.
"Damn, Vin, you scared the hell out of me," he said softly.
It was one thing, facing death on the job, but this? This was different. This was without meaning. And that he just couldn't bear.
Vin shivered slightly and burrowed closer still. Chris stroked the man's hair, worn shoulder length, giving him a scruffy look. "Easy," he said, "I've got you. You're safe now." And Tanner quieted.
Chris laid in the bed, eyes closed, his thoughts drifting back over some of the assignments he'd completed since taking the reins of Team Seven, and the times Vin had saved his life, or vice versa. He marveled over how he'd found life worth living again, due in large part to the man lying beside him.
"You know," he said softly, "I don't think I've ever thanked you for taking the job on the team for being my friend for being more than a friend "
"Hell, Larabee, I ain't dyin', am I?" Vin mumbled against Chris's chest.
Larabee smiled and snorted, his eyes still stinging with unshed tears. "Sure as hell hope not. Went to a helluva lot of trouble to get you this far Damn, Vin, you scared the hell out of me," he said, giving the man's shoulder a squeeze.
"Got too much hell in y' fer that," the Texan drawled, refusing to budge an inch from where he lay, starting to feel a little warm at last.
Chris chuckled. "Suppose you're right about that."
"Mmm," Vin replied.
"Get some sleep," Chris said softly. "I'll be here." Just like he knew Vin would have been there for him if the situation was reversed. Ever since he'd met the bounty hunter's gaze that day, he'd known Tanner would always be there, at his side, watching his back. And, once again, it looked like the stubborn Texan had walked away from what would have probably killed any other man. Maybe Buck was right, maybe Tanner did have nine lives. And every damned one of them must be charmed.
Larabee had never really thought about how well they understood each other, how well they worked together. It just was, like breathing. It felt perfectly natural to trust his life to Tanner, just like it felt natural to hold him now. And there was nothing he couldn't share with Vin. Nothing he couldn't talk to the man about. Nothing he couldn't count on Tanner understanding, or accepting. But saying so, admitting it out loud, well, that was a different matter.
But then he knew he didn't really need to tell Vin how he felt, because he was certain Tanner already knew it; already understood what it was he wanted to say, and couldn't.
And that simple fact was both humbling and frightening.
"Still a lit'l cold," Vin mumbled, pressing a little closer.
Chris turned up the electric blanket another two settings. "Tell you what. I'll go get you some coffee," he said, knowing that would help warm the man from the inside.
"No," Vin grumbled like a small boy, holding him tighter. Then, after a pause he added sheepishly, "Give me a sec 'm feelin' a lit'l Hell, jus' don't want t' be alone, I guess."
Chris nodded, understanding. "All right, but I am going to go get that coffee for you in a few minutes. It'll help warm you up on the inside take away the chill."
There was another grumble, but it was too soft and faded off as Vin slipped into sleep for Larabee to understand what the man had said. Chris thought about sliding out of the bed and going to make that coffee while Tanner slept, but he wasn't ready to leave the man alone just yet either. Some part of himself was afraid that if he let Tanner go, he might still lose him. So he closed his eyes and, listening to the sounds of the steady, even breaths, allowed himself to drift off as well.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris woke when Vin pulled away from him and rolled over onto his back. "Hey, you awake?" he whispered quietly.
"Think so," Vin replied, then groaned as he tried to stretch. It felt like he'd been trampled by a herd of elephants. A very big herd.
"Vin?" Chris asked, pushing up onto one elbow so he could look down at the man. "Are you all right?"
"Sore. Just damned sore," Tanner replied with a grimace. "Really sore."
"I'm not surprised," Larabee replied with a small smile. "Muscles have to be hurting after all that shivering. Want to see if a hot shower will help?"
Vin forced his eyes open. They were rimmed with dark rings, and still a little dull. "Ain't sure I c'n stand up jus' yet," he admitted guiltily.
Chris smiled thinly. "That's all right. I'll help you." He slid out of the bed, grabbing the sweatshirt he hadn't put on earlier and pulling it on. That done, he helped Vin to sit up, his legs hanging over the edge of the bed. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be," was the tired reply.
Chris helped Vin to his feet, holding his shoulders as he swayed for a moment. "Dizzy?"
Chris waited until Vin took his first step, then another. When it was clear the man wasn't going to pitch over onto his face, Larabee guided him back down the stairs and into the bathroom. He turned on the water in the shower and, once it was ready, flipped the lever to send it out through the showerhead. "You be okay in there on your own?"
Vin nodded, starting to pull off the layers of clothing.
"All right," Chris said, "but if I hear a thud I'm coming in to check on you; modesty be damned."
Tanner grinned at that. "Hell, should've known y' was a peeper, Larabee."
"In your dreams. You haven't got anything worth seeing," the blond growled, heading out to make coffee and something for breakfast, even if it was after noon. He turned the television on, finding the weather men back again. The storm had rolled back, and it looked like they might get another several inches before it was over for good, but they weren't talking about a blizzard any more. Chris shook his head. They would be spending the day at the cabin. No way was he risking Vin on a ride back to the ranch on horseback in this.
After making the coffee, he went to the phone and called the others, letting them know all was well and that he'd see them at work on Tuesday, weather permitting.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Want that coffee now?" Chris asked Vin when he emerged from the bathroom several minutes later, dressed in the same layers as before.
"Yeah," Vin said, then added. "Got anythin' t' eat?"
Chris smiled. "I'm making something right now. There's a pair of spare mocks over by the fire. You go sit down and stay warm. I'll bring the food and coffee over in a minute."
Vin nodded and shuffled over to the fireplace, sitting down on the warm hearth and pulling the well-worn moccasins over his fleece socks. That done, he glanced over at Chris and asked, "Where the hell did that storm come from?"
"The weathermen are still asking themselves the same thing," Larabee replied. "It's rolled back again, too. They're saying we're going to get another six inches before it moves out for good tonight."
Vin shook his head. "Guess that means we won't be ridin' back t' the ranch today."
Chris carried over two plates stacked high with pancakes which were dripping with butter and syrup. He set them down and went back for the coffee, carrying two mugs over as well. He sat down on the floor close to Vin, asking, "How do you feel?"
"Still sore, but ain't as bad as b'fore," Tanner replied. "'m tired, too, but at least 'm not freezin' m' ass off any more."
"Well, after you eat, you can go back to bed and get some more sleep."
Chris frowned. That was way too easy. "You sure you're all right? What happened out there?"
Vin chewed his mouthful of pancakes, washing it down with the hot coffee before telling Chris about the two college students, cutting and fixing the fence, the lightning and Peso's reaction, and the snow, finding the shelter, waiting. He ended with the simple, "I knew y'd come find me."
Chris shook his head. "Yeah, but it was close; too damned close."
"Don't remember y' findin' me jus' knew y' would," Tanner admitted. "Jus' remember it bein' cold 'n' dark, and then bein' warm again."
Larabee nodded, his cheeks coloring slightly.
"Glad y' found me, Cowboy," Vin added softly. "Never wanted t' die alone, y' know?"
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Chris said, equally soft. "I was so scared I wouldn't find you in time."
"How'd y' know where t' look?" Vin asked around another huge bite.
Larabee thought for a moment, then shrugged and admitted, "Don't know. Just went where my gut took me."
Vin shoveled in a couple more bites of his breakfast, then added, "There was times I could've sworn y' was there with me I could hear y' talkin' t' me."
"You're probably remembering me talking to you after I found you."
Vin shook his head. "It was still dark. I was in that hidey hole."
Chris shivered and saw Vin do the same. "Hell, maybe you did," he said, just above a whisper. "God knows I was pacing the floor here, talking to you, to the television, hell, to God Himself."
The younger man shivered again, his face going a little pale.
"Vin?" Chris asked worriedly.
He glanced at the plate, which was empty. "Come on, let's get you back up to bed. Some more rest will help."
Vin drained his coffee before he nodded and let Chris escort him to the loft. He was glad Larabee was there; his legs weren't feeling particularly steady. At the bed he kicked off the moccasins and crawled under the blankets, snuggling down into the heat, curling up on his side, his back to Chris, who pulled the covers up around his neck and tucked them in.
"Thanks," Vin mumbled into the pillow, his eyes already dropping closed.
"Any time," Chris replied, watching as Tanner drifted right off. He started to turn and head downstairs, but then changed his mind. He climbed back into the bed and turned the electric blanket down a little. Vin immediately pressed back against him, sighing softly as he drifted deeper into the healing arms of sleep.
Chris closed his own eyes and silently prayed that there was nothing wrong with Tanner that sleep couldn't cure.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A cough woke Chris and he frowned. A second followed, a little wetter than the first, and he sat up. "Vin?"
Tanner lay on his back, his eyes closed. They opened. "Sorry. Didn't mean t' wake ya."
"It's all right," Chris assured him. "You all right?"
"Yeah, jus' feelin' a little congested."
Chris scowled. "Think we better see if we can get you in to see a doctor before it's dark."
Tanner sighed. "Ah hell, ain't that bad."
"And what if it's pneumonia?"
Vin thought for a moment, then replied, "Maybe you're right."
Chris grinned proudly. "That's a first."
Vin shot him a scowl. "Is not."
"Close enough," Chris shot back. "You stay here. I'll go see what the weather's doing and call CDOT to check on the condition of the roads."
Tanner nodded, his eyes closing again.
Chris crawled out of bed and headed downstairs, stopping at the bathroom before turning on the television. Regular programming was back on, so he pressed in the number for the Weather Channel, listening as he walked to the window and checked outside. It was later than he'd expected, and the snow was still falling. He frowned. The local forecast called for snow to continue until midnight before it finally began to clear.
Walking over to the phone he picked it up and called the Colorado Department of Transportation, listening to the recorded messages for his area. It wasn't good. Between the roads and the snow, they were better off staying put.
He punched in Nathan's number, hoping the man was home by now. Jackson picked up on the third ring. "Hello?"
"Nathan, it's Chris. Listen, Vin got caught out in that storm last night."
"What?" the man yelped. "Is he all right?"
"I think so. I've got him warmed up and he's eaten, but he's got this cough starting. It sounds pretty wet."
"Where are you? The ranch?"
"No, we're at the cabin out on the western edge of the property. We just have the horses. It's getting late, so I'm not sure I want to risk riding back to the ranch to get the truck and get him to a doctor tonight. You think he'll be okay if I wait until tomorrow morning? This is supposed to stop overnight."
There was a moment of silence and then Nathan said, "Yeah, that should be okay. Just keep him well hydrated, and watch for a fever. If he gets too congested, have him spend some time in a hot shower the steam'll help break it up. And get him in to a doctor as soon as you can tomorrow."
"Will do. And thanks, Nathan."
"Call me if things change."
"I will," Chris told him, then thanked him again and hung up. He headed into the kitchen and rummaged in the cabinets until he found what he knew would be there Sarah's tea and kettle. He pulled both out and put some water on to boil. Maybe something hot would help break up the congestion before it got any worse.
When the kettle began to whistle, he pulled it off the stove and filled a coffee mug, letting the tea bag steep while he went up to wake Vin. But Tanner was already awake, lying on his back, buried to his chin under the covers.
"I made some tea for you," Chris said. "Thought that might help your chest."
Vin rolled his head to the side and met the concerned green eyes. "Thanks, Pop."
Larabee scowled and rolled his eyes. "Come on, smart ass," he said. "I don't want you to keep me up all night tonight, hacking your lungs out."
"You're all heart, Larabee," Vin grumbled, but he climbed slowly out of bed and followed the man back downstairs.
"Stretch out on the couch, I'll get the tea."
"Toss in three or four spoonfuls of sugars, too," Vin said.
"Four? Why don't I just heat up the syrup for you?"
Tanner waved him off, lying back down. Chris came back with the tea, then went up and grabbed two blankets off the bed, bringing them down and spreading them over the younger man, who appreciated it more than he was willing to let on.
"Warm enough?" Chris asked him when he was done.
Vin nodded, blowing on his tea before trying a sip. "Tastes like a candy cane," he said, surprised.
"Peppermint tea," Chris explained.
"'S good," Vin said between more puffs. He took another sip.
Chris crossed the room and turned the television on, switching it over to CNN and turning the volume down so it wasn't so loud they couldn't talk over it easily. He returned to the overstuffed chair and sank down. "Tell me the truth. How do you feel?"
Vin shrugged. "All right, I guess." He took another couple of sips, then shook his head and sighed, saying, "Hell, Larabee, quit starin' holes in me. I ain't goin' t' disappear on ya."
"Sorry," Chris replied, glancing away, his cheeks red.
"'S all right," Vin said, his voice softer. It had been a long time since someone had worried about him like that, and it took a little getting used to. Especially coming from Chris Larabee, who was the most independent, contained man Vin had ever met. But "contained" wasn't the word for the blond right now. Worry and affection both spilled from the man's eyes and the emotions warmed Vin deeper than anything else ever could. "'Preciate y' comin' out there t' save m' ass, Cowboy," he said.
Chris grinned. "It's all right. Wanted to make sure I got a supper without having to do the dishes is all."
Larabee looked up, meeting his eyes, and added, "Haven't been that scared in a long time."
"Same here, Cowboy," Vin replied, his voice slightly husky.
The pair lapsed into a comfortable silence, watching CNN until five when Chris switched the television over to the local news. The freak springtime storm was already beginning to break down and move out, but it had left a lot of problems in its wake. They predicted that the highs would be back into the upper 60s for Sunday and the lower 70s for Monday back to the beautiful spring weather they had been having before the storm.
"Hungry?" Chris asked when they moved on to sports news.
Vin nodded. "But I guess it's my turn t' cook and clean," he added.
Larabee shook his head. "You can owe me," he said, standing. "What sounds good soup, stew, chili?"
Vin thought for a moment, then said almost shyly, "Well, t' be honest, I wouldn't mind havin' some more of them hotcakes you made earlier."
Chris grinned. "All right, but I'm going to fry some bacon up for you, too."
"Well, if y' insist," Vin replied as off-handedly as he could manage.
Larabee headed into the kitchen, shaking his head, and Vin turned his attention to the television, only half-listening while he catnapped. Before he knew it, there was food in front of him and he was eating again. Fresh, hot coffee sat on the coffee table, waiting for him, too. He coughed a few times, but not enough to lift the concern in the green eyes watching him to the level of panic and for that he was very grateful. He'd already put Chris through enough.
"'S good," he said. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Larabee replied. "Tomorrow we'll head back to the ranch and I'll drive you over to the hospital so a doctor can take a look at you."
Vin sighed. "Anybody ever tell y' what a pain in the ass y' can be?"
Chris ignored him.
Vin coughed again, catching the worry begin to increase in those sharp green eyes. "All right, I'll go see the doc t'morrow," he said, then wheedled, "Couldn't I jus' see Nate?"
Vin sighed heavily.
They finished their meal in silence, then Chris washed the dishes and cleaned up in the kitchen while Vin had more tea while he lay on the sofa. The hot liquid seemed to help his chest, making it a little easier to breathe.
"Here, I'll take that," Chris said softly.
"Huh?" Vin asked, his eyes cracking open.
"Your cup, it's empty. You want some more?"
Vin shook his head, handing it over. "'M too tired."
"Maybe you should head back to bed."
"I'll jus' sleep right here."
"Oh no, you don't," Chris said. "You're going to bed, where there's an electric blanket to keep you warm tonight."
"'M warm right here," Vin mumbled, his eyes closing.
Chris left him there, dozing while he washed out the mug and set it in the rack to dry. Then he drained the sink and wiped it down before stopping by the bathroom to get ready for bed himself. When he was done he went out and roused Vin, leaving him in the bathroom while he carried the blankets back upstairs and got the bed ready.
Before he was finished with the blankets Vin came up the stairs, one hand on the rail to steady himself. He crawled in under the covers and was out before Chris got his shoes off.
Shaking his head, Larabee climbed up into the twin bed and got comfortable.
"Night, Cowboy," Vin called softly.
Chris grinned. "Goodnight, John-Boy."
Tanner grunted and muttered something obscene, then rolled over and fell back to sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
At first Chris wasn't sure what had pulled him from his dream, but he heard a soft moan, followed by a choked whimper.
"Vin?" he called softly. He heard the former bounty hunter's breath catch. "Vin?"
When there was no reply, he climbed down and sat on the edge of the double bed. "Vin, are you all right?"
"Will be," was the reply, so soft that Chris wasn't sure he'd actually heard it.
"What's wrong?" Larabee asked, frowning in the darkness.
"Nothin' jus' a bad dream."
Chris felt the bed shake. "You cold again?"
"Jus' a chill From the dream I guess."
Chris stood and started to climb back into the twin bunk, but changed his mind, sliding in next to Tanner, asking, "You mind?"
"Nope," Vin replied.
They lay in silence for a moment, then Vin rolled over and inched closer, his arm snaking over Larabee's chest. "Y' mind?"
"Nope," Chris echoed. "You want to talk about the dream?"
"All right." Larabee waited for a few minutes, then heard Vin's breath shift as he fell back to sleep. He closed his own eyes, deciding that there was nothing wrong with seeking a little comfort in the arms of a friend. He was just glad he'd been there for Vin. And, when the time came and the tables were reversed, he knew Tanner would be there to do the same for him.
Friends. They made life worth living.
Author's Note: This story first appeared in the multi-media zine, Ouch! #15, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of the multi-media zines that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, and Lorin and Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 9-22-2005. Art by Shiloh (firstname.lastname@example.org).