+ + + + + + +
When Chris woke up again, it was light and he was cold, real cold, except where Buck was lying against him.
Carefully he took his arm off Buck and the leg he had wrapped around the smaller boy as well. Then he pulled the arm still embedded beneath Buck toward him.
It made the other boy stir and snort a little, before setting himself again. Chris took a deep breath and pulled his arm out fast.
This arm wasn't cold, it felt heavy and... dead. Anxiously Chris sat up and looked at it. The sharp pain from the movement cleared his thoughts and he realized his arm was probably asleep.
Shivering, he pulled up his knees to huddle against them, while he looked around. The river wasn't far from where he and Buck were laying and the earth he was sitting on was wet. No wonder he was cold. His clothes were wet too. He looked at Buck, who was stirring now and tried to get closer against him, only finding a hip. The eyes of the younger boy flew open.
"Chris?" he yelled.
"I'm here, Buck."
The still sleepy eyes blinked and a huge smile lit up the smudged and muddy face, but only for a short moment. Buck pouted while he sat up, stating, "I'm hungry."
Chris sighed and looked at the river again, streaming gently in front of them. He was hungry too, the feeling in his stomach all too familiar to him. When he had been punished by the brothers of St. John's it had usually meant missing one or two meals and he had been punished a lot, always fighting their rules and never willing to compromise. He could do without food, but he didn't know about Buck.
"We'll find something," he told the smaller boy.
"Why can't we just go home and eat there? It's light now."
Chris frowned at Buck. "What do you mean, go home and eat? I thought you were hungry now?"
"Yes, and I wanna go home. I don't like it here." The little boy looked at the river apprehensively, pulling his feet close, further away from the water. "I'm real cold," he added.
"Yeah, me too. We better move." Chris pushed himself up. Immediately pain exploded along his back. His stomach churned, effectively killing off any hunger pangs. He hissed, but stood up anyway. He had to, they couldn't stay here.
Buck stood as well, only to immediately fall back down on the ground with a cry of pain.
"Buck?" Forgetting about his own pain, Chris kneeled beside him. "What's wrong?"
"My leg!" Buck whaled. "Owowow, it hurts, it hurts real bad. No, don't touch it!" He moved his leg away from Chris' hands, eyes opened wide in terror.
"I have to see it, see what's wrong with it."
"No! I want JD! I w... w... want Nathan."
"Buck, they ain't here, it's only me."
"Can't you go get him?"
Chris shook his head. "I think Four Corners is really far, Buck. I think the river took us a long way, 'cause it looks all different here from home."
"It... it does?" Buck wiped the tears out of his eyes and looked around as well. "How do you know?"
"I know, 'cause I went riding with Vin. When it's just the two of us we ride a lot further away from Four Corners then when you come along."
"Oh? Really? Why?"
"You get bored, sitting in front of Vin or JD. You always wanna stop and do something."
"That's only 'cause I see something."
Chris used Buck's distraction to pull up his trousers leg and Buck screamed.
Chris had wanted to be fast and unwittingly had pulled the cloth off a deep, bloody wound. The cloth had been stuck to it and now Chris realized that it hadn't only been the water of the river that had wetted Buck's dark pants, it was also blood. It made him feel sick all over again.
Buck wasn't screaming anymore, he wasn't even crying. When Chris looked at him, he saw Buck staring at the wound in silent horror, his face very pale.
"I... I have to clean it, Buck. Nathan would clean it."
Buck's eyes traveled from the wound to the river and if possible he looked even paler. Chris looked at the water as well. He didn't think he could use it, it was all muddy and he didn't think that wouldn't be good for the wound. Besides, Uncle Nathan had told them dirty water could make you sick.
"I... I go find a good spot, all right? You wait here."
Small hands clung at him and Buck looked up in terror.
"I won't be far, I promise. But I have to do something about that wound. I'll make sure you can see me."
Buck stared at him and then nodded. Slowly Chris stood up, now anticipating the pain in his back. When he turned around to go to the water's edge, he heard Buck gasp behind him.
"Chris? You... you bleed too."
Frowning he looked back, but Buck stared up at him in earnest. "Your head, you got b... blood in your hair."
Hesitantly he felt the back of his head. It did feel sticky and when he brought his hand back, he saw Buck was right. His hand was red. He felt again.
"Don't feel like it's bad, Buck. Don't worry." He turned before Buck could answer and took the few steps to the river. There he looked apprehensively at the stream. No, it was all muddy here and he didn't dare take Buck all the way to the swifter flowing water in the middle of the river, further away from the banks. He stepped into the water to get a better look around the trees and bushes growing at the waterside, but Buck's loud scream stopped him. When he looked back, he saw Buck stare at him in terror.
"What?" he asked annoyed. He didn't see anything wrong, anywhere, except Buck's leg. He felt queasy when he saw Buck's leg.
"Don't... don't go in the water, Chris. Please!"
"I'm only going in a little way, to take a look."
"But what if the river goes bad again?" Buck whaled.
"It won't. It's calm now, see?"
Buck didn't look relieved, he kept staring at Chris with huge, fear filled eyes.
"Oh, all right. I'll walk on the land. See?"
The tension left Buck's body, but the eyes kept following him. Trying to ignore their stare, Chris walked along the river. He hissed when his bare feet got caught on a stone and proceeded a bit more carefully. He looked back from time to time to wave at Buck, until he reached a line of trees he had already noticed.
"Buck!" he shouted. "I have to see what's between the trees, I'll be right back." Hastily he stepped between them, ignoring Buck's cry from behind him. There he saw a small creek, the water that streamed over the rocks toward the river crystal clear. Just like the water Nathan had talked about, people water, which should be streaming or coming from a well.
He felt he could clean Buck's leg with this.
His stomach churned just thinking about it, but he knew he had no choice.
When he stepped from between the trees, he saw Buck limping toward him. Ignoring the pain in his back and head he quickly went to the little boy.
"Why didn't you wait?"
"I couldn't see you! You said you would stay where I could see you."
"It was only for a little while, to see what was between the trees."
Buck glared at him, not appeased at all. With a sigh Chris put his arm around the little boy, to give him some support. "You have to go there anyways 'cause there's clean water there, so come on."
Buck's face cleared when he saw the little brook dancing over the stones and branches between bright green moss and ferns.
"It's pretty," he said.
"Yeah. Come, you can sit here, on this log and I'll clean the wound."
"Do you have to? I don't want you touching it."
"You know I have to."
"Oh, all right." With a deep suffering sigh, Buck lowered himself on the log, sticking his leg out apprehensively. Chris noticed the little boy refused to look at it.
He wished he wouldn't have to look at it either.
Steeling himself, he knelt at the water's edge and held out his hand. "Give me your bandana."
"My bandana? But... JD givet it to me."
"I don't have mine anymore, it's gotta be yours."
"Oh." Buck took the bright red bandana off and handed it to Chris. "What you gonna do with it?"
"Clean it and then use it to clean the wound."
Chris cleaned the bandana as well as he could in the small brook, balancing on some stones. After he had felt how cold the water was, he didn't want to stand in it. When he thought the bandana looked good enough, he carefully tried to wash the blood from Buck's leg.
At first it wasn't so bad, because he washed the leg all around the wound, without touching it. Buck whimpered a little, but didn't seem to be in too much pain. It was when Chris put the bandana on the wound itself when things got ugly. Buck screamed and tried to remove his leg, so Chris had to hold it down with one arm, while trying to wash the mud off it with his other hand. In the end Buck managed to kick him away and Chris fell down on his buttocks heavily. He managed not to scream and only gasp in pain when the fall jarred his sore back, while Buck looked at him silently, eyes filled with horror.
The little boy didn't speak until Chris slowly managed to get up and carefully, with small steps, walked back to the small stream to rinse the bandana out one last time.
"Here," he said through clenched teeth when he gave the bandana back. Buck leaned over and took it, but didn't wrap the wet cloth back around his neck. Chris pulled his shirt out of his trousers and ripped off the underside.
"What... what are you doing, Chris?"
"You need a bandage." The blond boy washed the strip of cloth in the water as well and then stared at it in dismay. He knew Nathan always washed everything before he used it on a sick or wounded patient, but he also knew bandages were supposed to be dry.
"It's wet," Buck said.
"Yeah, but it's all I've got." At least the strip was clean now. He turned to Buck and said tersely, "You kick me again and I...."
"I won't," Buck hastily assured him. "I'm real sorry Chris, really! But... but it hurt so much and you didn't stop."
"That was 'cause it was still muddy. I had to wash it more."
Buck stuck his leg out. "I'll be real good now," he said in a small, meek voice.
"All right. 'Cause I don't know if this is gonna hurt or not, but I have to bandage it to stop the bleeding." He wrapped the strip of cloth around Buck's leg, staring at it in dismay when he was done. It didn't look too bad, it sure covered the entire wound, but how could he fasten it now? Finally he took both ends and tied them together with the neat knot Vin had showed him.
At last Buck dared to look at his leg again. "It looks really good," he said in awe. "You're as good as Nathan."
Chris felt a lot more dubious about the result, but he decided not to tell Buck that. "It'll do," he said and stood. "You coming? We better get going."
"But I'm hungry and I'm still cold."
"We'll get warm when we walk. And there's no food here, see? Only water. We'll drink some of that and then we go looking for food."
"Where we going, Chris? Do you know where home is?"
"Yeah." It was the one thing Chris was certain of. "We only need to follow the river. That's where home is. Come on, let's go."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra became painfully aware of Vin's reasons to take the last watch when he was rudely awoken out of his much needed sleep. Josiah and JD were already up, walking around in the semi-dark when he finally opened his eyes at the incessant shaking of his shoulder, his groping hand unable to find his guns where he usually put them, right beside his head.
"Unhand me at once," he told Vin angrily, trying to pull up his blankets and snuggle into them again.
"Nah, we're goin'. The sooner we're on our way, the sooner we can go back home."
Ezra only buried himself deeper into his blankets. "I am very much aware of the benefits of getting back to our dear municipality that much sooner, but some things simply are inhumane. Standing up in the middle of the night is one of them. I abide by the rules by which it always seems necessary to ride at some ungodly time in the morning, but really, this is going too far."
"Damn it, Ezra," Vin snapped, throwing Ezra's guns back down beside the gambler. "We've gotta go sometime, so why not now? What's yer problem?"
"The fact that the sun is hardly up, that is my problem, Mister Tanner. If I had known in advance, I would have backed you up one hundred percent yesterday to keep our pursuit going until far into the reaches of the night."
"Oh, that's rich," JD said disgusted. "You rather break your neck than get an early start?"
"I do not need ridicule on top of it all. Josiah, unhand my blankets right this minute! Josiah, for the love of... it's cold!"
"Merely helping you on your way, brother, by folding your blankets for you. As you see Vin has already saddled Chester and I will be more than happy to load up your bedroll while you enjoy your breakfast. JD, please hand the man some coffee."
Knowing he had lost, Ezra grumbling accepted the coffee. He immediately spat it out again.
"By all the Saints, what is this?"
"You seemed to need something strong to get you going, so I added some extra coffee, just for you," JD told him with an innocent look on his face. "No, don't thank me, Ezra. I was glad to do it for you. Vin, need a hand?" The young man made a hasty retreat and Ezra was sure he heard something sounding suspiciously like snickers coming from him.
While Vin tried not to laugh and Josiah whisked away the rest of his bedroll, Ezra gave in to the inevitable and wandered over to the creek, to make himself as presentable as possible for the coming day. A day he was sure would be filled with misery. He sighed when he saw the cold chicken leg and hard biscuits that constituted for breakfast, thinking wistfully of the ham, eggs and fresh bread he would have had at home, in the Saloon. By the time he normally woke up, little Buck had already been running around town all morning and more often than not the boy would come into the Saloon at Ezra's usual breakfast time to chat happily with the gambler. He always made sure Buck had his own coffee, just a little in a mug, filled for the rest with milk, and the boy would perk up, sitting very straight when he was given it, a serious expression on his chubby face. Ezra knew why that was; he remembered how it made him feel when as a child he was treated like an equal by his mother. It made the little boy feel all grown up. When for some reason Buck didn't make it to Ezra's breakfast, maybe because by then it was already lunchtime and he was at home eating with Chris and his guardians, maybe for some other reason, Ezra always felt a sense of loss.
He sighed. How fast had he gotten attached to the cheerful and sunny boy. Actually, the others were right. It would be good to get home as fast as possible. The boys hadn't been without their guardians and two of their uncles this long before. Heaven forbid that he would think Nathan incapable of taking care of them; it was just that he didn't think Nathan would appreciate all of Buck's exuberance the way it deserved. The healer seemed more at ease with Chris' seriousness. Understandable maybe, since Nathan was a very serious man himself, but Buck needed fun and laughter and some silliness from time to time.
Ah well, he would just have to eat his breakfast while on his horse. Not the best way to conjure up a good digestion, but since everyone else was ready, he really shouldn't hold them up any longer.
Taking the chicken leg and biscuit to Chester he thanked Heaven that at least it wasn't salted pork.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan wasn't a happy man. Elijah, the boy he had been called out for, was in a bad state and he had worked tirelessly to do everything he could for him. He had felt bad about staying the night at the McNeal's place, leaving Chris and Buck to the mercy of Mrs. Potter, Tiny and Mary Travis, but in all good consciousness he hadn't been able to abandon his patient. Elijah was suffering from some internal bleeding as well as a broken leg. Nathan had stayed up half the night to keep draining the blood away, so the boy's insides wouldn't fill up. He had seen the drainage procedure enough times during the war, but once again he wished he was a real doctor, so he would know how to actually stop the bleeding inside.
Somewhere during the night the bleeding had finally stopped all of its own and Nathan had cleaned the hole he had made for the drainage, after which he had carefully sewed it up to try and keep infection away.
At least the boy had been lucky with the break in his leg. It had been a clean one, so no bones had to be set. When broken bones were shifted from their place, the broken ends away from each other, the patient died of infection more often than not. Nathan didn't quite understand why that was so even when the skin hadn't broken, but he had seen it happen too often. With the break a clean one and with the internal bleeding apparently stopped, he had gone to his bedroll exhausted, but carefully optimistic.
Only to find this morning that his patient was delirious and sporting a raging fever.
"Thanks," he said to the eldest daughter when she brought him a bowl of clean, cool well water. Thank God the McNeals had a well, so he could trust the water, at least enough to use it to wipe the boy and try to keep the fever down.
The girl smiled shyly at him and left with the dirty bowl and cloths, passing her mother who was watching from nearby. He looked at the drawn features of the woman. She hadn't left her son's side until just now, to make breakfast for the rest of her family.
"Let me wipe him," she said.
"Ma'am, you are exhausted. I can...."
"No, he is my son and at least this I can do for him. Besides, you need a good breakfast, Nathan."
"... don't need to do everything." She looked at him with pleading eyes. "Please, I need to do something else for him than just sit beside him and hold his hand. I need to know I am helping."
"You are," he told her. "Holding that hand is far more important than most people think." It was; he had seen often enough how patients responded to it. Still, he did understand her need to do more, so he nodded. "Reckon I can use some breakfast, Ma'am. But first I'll make some tea for the boy to help him with the fever."
She merely nodded. She didn't ask him how her son was doing, or even if he was going to make it. This woman had probably seen too much to have false hope. She would battle for her son until the very end though, whether that end would be death or recovery.
He smiled at her encouragingly when she sat down in the chair beside the bed, the bed she and her husband usually slept in, and took over wiping the fevered body down. Then he walked to the big table standing close to the kitchen area, where McNeal was helping his youngest children eat. He sighed when he thought about two other boys, who by now probably felt very alone despite Mrs. Potter looking after them. It was the first time Chris and Buck were without any of their protectors and he felt bad about it. Maybe he should have taken the boys with him after all, but he hadn't wanted to expose them to the brutality of another boy so severely wounded.
He also hadn't wanted to impose on a family he knew was very poor, living with six children in a one room cabin. Now he wished he had done it anyway. He could have taken enough food with him for all three of them, enough even to let the family share. After all, room and board came with his peacekeeper job.
Too late now. All he could do was his best for Elijah and hope he could return in time to Four Corners, so Chris and Buck would not have to spend another night without him to look out for them.
+ + + + + + +
"Oh, look, berries!" Buck forgot the pain in his leg and all the other pains in his body when he saw the almost black, small and round berries on the bush in front of them. He limped toward them and started eating as fast as he could. Only when the worst of his hunger pangs were appeased, did he look around him again.
Chris was standing a little further away, picking berries as well, a dark purple smear on his face that made Buck giggle. Chris was eating slowly, not fast like him and Buck frowned. He didn't want to voice his fear, hoping that if he didn't say it, it wasn't real, but Chris didn't look too good. He had suddenly dived behind some bushes during their walk, but Buck had heard him throw up. And now he was eating only a little.
When Chris looked up as if he felt Buck staring at him, he blurted it out anyway, despite his fear.
"Chris? Are you sick?"
Chris squinted at him and shook his head. "I'm fine, just a headache."
"Well, you bumped it. It was bleeding."
"Yeah." Chris' hand went to the back of his head. When he pulled it back, he looked at Buck and smiled. "It's fine now, see? It don't bleed no more. Come, we better go on."
"Really? I'm tired."
"We ain't walking for long after our last rest and now we stopped for the berries. We gotta go on."
"But m... my leg hurts, a lot!" Buck meant it, his leg hurt terribly. He didn't want to walk, he wanted to lie down and wait for JD.
Chris sighed. "I don't wanna walk either, but I think Four Corners is real far and we also have to find a place to cross the river."
"Cross the river?" Buck gasped. "Why? Why would we do that?"
"'Cause Four Corners is on the other side."
"You don't know that," Buck immediately argued. "Four Corners could be on this side too. Why would it be on the other side?"
"'Cause it is. We walk upstream and Four Corners is on the left bank when you go upstream."
Buck eyed his friend dubiously. What Chris said didn't make any sense to him. And although normally he would have taken what Chris said as the absolute truth, this time he didn't want to.
"I won't cross the river," he said adamantly.
"We'll have to. Come on, let's go."
"No! I'm not coming! I'm not going into the river!"
Chris stopped and looked at him. Then he said softly, "We're not gonna go into the river, Buck. Not now."
Buck nodded. "Okay," he said, feeling very small. "Can I eat some more berries first?"
"Guess so." Chris walked away from the bushes and sat down against a tree. "Just hurry, promise?"
"But Chris, don't you want some more berries? They's real good."
"I'm not hungry anymore," Chris answered. He was leaning carefully against the tree and Buck didn't like the way he winced when he did it. Then he looked sternly up at Buck, still with that purple smear on his face. "Just you hurry, I'm not waiting much longer."
Buck sighed before attacking the bush again. This time he was very careful to put as much berries in his pockets as in his mouth. Chris might not be hungry now, he would be later on and then Buck could give him those berries.
+ + + + + + +
"I've seen fools before, but these sure beat the lot," JD hissed softly at Vin.
"Yeah. Jist don't forget they're murderin', killing fools," Vin whispered back. "So hold yer gun ready."
The four lawmen hadn't needed to conduct a search after all; all they had to do was follow their noses and the smoke they saw spiraling upwards from between the hills. It led them straight to a fire beside a small creek, with a few rabbits hanging over it. It was the same creek they had camped beside, so Vin's idea to go and start their search at the well had already taken them in the right direction that morning.
"I would surmise these men have had a libation or two too many," Ezra murmured.
"Sure looks that way," Josiah grinned, all of his teeth showing. "My friends, I think we better move in fast, before those fine rabbits are burned to a crisp. That really would be a shame."
"They do have a nice aroma about them," Ezra agreed. "It would mean a lunch worth eating, one with the power to eradicate our ghastly morning repast."
JD and Vin both gave Ezra a dirty look. Then Vin beckoned for JD to go left and for Josiah to go right, while Ezra would take the route straight down. He had already found the right spot for himself to cover his friends. After a last thumbs up to the others he settled there, rifle ready and aimed.
He needn't have bothered. JD, Ezra and Josiah could walk right into the camp and gather up all the weapons, even straight out of the holsters of the gang members, while the deep snoring never wavered. The only shot he had to make was when a man came walking up from between the hills with his arms full of wood. One shot in front of him was enough to make him stand absolutely still, the wood tumbling from his arms.
After that he joined his fellow peacekeepers to help tie up the gang members.
"And whom might you be?" Josiah was asking the one who had come with the wood and turned out to be a boy of no more than fifteen or sixteen years old.
"T... Toby, Sir. I... I came with my brother." He looked at Josiah with apprehension. "He said I was too young to drink with them and to make sure there would be food when they woke up, or he'd belt me. He... he can hit really hard with that belt and now he'll be mad that I didn't warn them."
Vin pushed down the outlaw he had tied up and stood, his attention now on the boy, who was looking at Josiah with what he could only call puppy dog eyes. Damn, but he didn't like it. He liked it even less when Josiah smiled at the boy reassuringly and told him, "Don't worry, he's not in a position to use that belt, as you can see. And he'll never be again," before turning his back on him.
The boy nodded, watching one cursing outlaw in particular and hastily cowering behind Josiah when the oaths were directed at him. When he drew the gun Josiah hadn't taken from him in that hidden spot, Vin was ready.
"Don't", he warned. The boy never hesitated though, his gun clearing leather faster than Vin had anticipated. There was no room, not with Josiah standing so close to the boy, to try and wing him. Besides, winging him could mean Josiah's death, so Vin did the only thing he could, a headshot, an instant kill without the possibility of the boy firing even one shot.
Life sure sucked now and then.
No one moved, they all stood staring at the lifeless body, the foulmouthed outlaw gasping.
Finally Josiah said softly, "He was only a boy."
"He was more 'n willing to use his gun on ya." Vin looked at the body with disgust. "Ya think he wasn't part of those ruthless killings at the homesteads, Josiah? Y' ain't really that naïve, are you?" Seeing the stricken look on Josiah's face, he felt sorry about being so harsh, but he needed to make sure Josiah or any of the others would never make a mistake like this again.
"Tracks at that last homestead were very clear," he told them. "Five outlaws murdered those people, not four, with one hangin' back."
"But he's still so young."
"I know," Vin sighed. "I know, and he ain't the first of that age I met that's already a coldhearted killer. Probably won't be the last either. Come on, let's put the others on their horses and go home."
"We are not leaving these fine rabbits," Ezra said. "Come, JD, I could use some assistance in this worthy endeavor."
"Sorry, Ezra, you're on your own. I need to get the horses ready for our guests." JD grinned at the four glowering men. "Make sure they're comfortable on their way to the noose."
+ + + + + + +
"Chris? I's tired and my leg hurts."
Chris stopped and looked around to where Buck was straggling behind. Buck was limping very heavily now and Chris felt bad about that. Only he didn't know what else to do but to try and go on. They just had to, even if he didn't really have the strength to go on himself either. They would never get home if they didn't.
Looking up, he noticed the day was already half gone and he and Buck had hardly made any progress at all, what with how slow they went and with all the moments they had stopped to drink some water from the river or to just rest a while. And every time they had rested, it had become harder for him to get up again.
Walking carefully, so he wouldn't jar his back too much, he went back to where Buck had now fallen down on the ground. Buck was holding his leg and he was crying silently.
"My leg hurts real bad, Chris."
"Well, I'm hurt too," Chris said in exasperation. "But I also wanna go home."
"You're not hurt as bad as me," Buck scowled. "I'm hurt on lots of places! Here." He pulled up his sleeve and showed a nasty bruise on his arm. "And here." The shirt was pulled up all the way from his tummy and there were more bruises there. "And my back too." He twisted around so Chris could see. Buck's back was not only bruised, but also had some nasty scratches.
"See?" he said triumphantly when Chris kept silent. "And my leg is much, much worse than your head. Your head didn't even need a bandage."
"I'm still hurt too, but you don't hear me whining about it all the time."
"Ha!" Buck answered his statement with disbelief. "Show me."
"All right." Chris was mad now. "My head hurt and I bet my back's hurt much worse than yours. And I have scratches and bruises too, just like you." He pulled his shirt up and turned around. "See?"
"Oh," Buck gasped. "Chris, your back is black, really black!"
"It is?" Chris tried to twist his head so he could see. He had never heard of bruises turning black before. His back immediately protested the movement vehemently and he had no choice but to trust Buck's worth on this.
"Really," the boy said in awe. "It's the biggest bruise I've ever seen. But my leg is the worst, my leg's all bloody," he concluded triumphantly.
Chris pulled his shirt down. "Maybe I should take the bandage off and clean it again?" he offered. "Nathan always cleans wounds more than once."
"You only just cleaned it!" Hastily Buck put his hands on his leg protectively. "Nathan never ever cleans wounds more than once a day."
"I don't know...."
"He doesn't," Buck said with absolute conviction. "Only once a week."
"Oh no, he cleans them more than once a week."
Buck scowled up at him and Chris scowled right back. Then he sighed and nodded. "But I reckon he doesn't do it more than once a day. Can you walk again now? I really wanna get to the town and have Nathan look at it. He must be back by now."
With a defeated look, Buck slowly climbed back on his feet. He didn't put any weight on his leg and looked ready to cry again.
"I'll help," Chris said softly, holding out his arm. "Here, you can lean on me."
Buck nodded and accepted his arm. But he still looked like he wanted to cry.
+ + + + + + +
Elijah's fever had broken and with a profound sense of relief Nathan stretched his back, hurting from sitting leaned over his patient for so long. There had been a moment, around noon, when he had felt certain he would lose the boy. Luckily his drastic measure of holding Elijah in a tub filled with tepid water had helped. He had been afraid the shock of the much cooler water might be too much for the boy, but there had been nothing left to lose. He had already opened the cut in Elijah's abdomen and cleaned the wound again, draining out an infection in the process.
Luckily the cool water had helped and now Elijah had a fighting chance. And it was time for him to finally get back to Four Corners and Chris and Buck. He didn't want them to spend another night without one of their protectors. Maybe his colleague peacekeepers would be back as well, but somehow he doubted it. Tracing a gang was usually a long process.
"Nothing more I can do," he told the worried parents. "Stay alert for the fever, keep giving him the tea and I think he might make it."
They were very grateful and the father held out his hand. "We know you've wrought a miracle here, Doc. No matter what the outcome will be, we're eternally grateful for what you did. Thanks to you our boy at least has a chance."
"I ain't a doctor," Nathan smiled. "Just a...."
"Yes, you are a doctor. I've seen plenty of them at work and a lot of them had less skill than you, that's for sure."
Nathan looked away, a bit embarrassed by the compliment. He knew he did his best, but he didn't think he was that good. He knew too little and was confronted with his lack of knowledge often enough.
"I do what I can," he mumbled.
"Come, I'll have David get you your horse. I... I am ashamed to admit we hardly have any money, so I had hoped...." This time McNeal looked away embarrassed.
"That's all right," Nathan hastily assured him. The man looked back gratefully.
"We do have some other things you might want to take as payment?"
Nathan nodded, although he did hope he wouldn't be paid with any more chickens. Having room and board as part of the payment for his peacekeeper work made fresh meat a bit unnecessary.
Oh well, he could always try and sell them to Mrs. Wheeler from the restaurant, he thought ruefully when he rode away with three feathered carcasses bound to his saddle. Or to Ezra, to use in the Saloon. Yeah, he would make Ezra take them.
He did feel good about the jars of berry jam Mrs. McNeal had insisted he took with him as well. Buck and Chris would love those.
Not bothering to try and gather herbs on his way back like he usually did, Nathan kept his horse in a ground eating lope. It would be almost dark before he reached Four Corners as it was.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had forgotten the pain in his leg. At the moment all of his attention was on Chris, who had walked into a tree again. This time his friend didn't back up and walk on, but he stumbled, fell down and kept sitting where he had fallen without trying to stand up again. Instead he pulled up his knees, put his arms on them and dropped his head on his arms.
"Chris?" Buck asked again, sitting down beside his friend. "Are we gonna stop now? I's tired too."
Chris didn't answer, just sat there very quietly and Buck didn't like it. He wished he could do something for Chris. Suddenly he remembered the berries he had put in his pockets that morning. Now Chris surely would be hungry. Buck knew he was. Happy he could do something for his friend, he dug his hands into his pockets and pulled them out. The berries didn't look too good, all squashed and mushy, but they still smelled like berries.
"Look, for you."
Chris opened his eyes, but when he saw the berries he became all pale. Hastily he turned his head away, making a strange, strangled sound.
"S... sorry, Buck. You eat them, I don't feel too good right now."
"You sure? Ain't you hungry?" Buck asked, a bit disappointed that Chris didn't want his treasure. Still, if Chris really didn't want them, Buck sure did. He was very, very hungry right now.
"No, ain't hungry."
With a sigh Buck decided he shouldn't eat them after all. Chris might want them later on. He started to put the berries back into his pockets, when Chris' hand landed on his arm.
"You eat them, Buck."
"But I picked them for you."
"That's all right. I'm sure we'll find some new berries."
"All right." Happy he stuffed them in his mouth.
When he was done, Chris stood up stiffly. Aw, Chris wanted them to walk again!
"Do we have to?" Buck asked, a bit desperate. He so didn't want to stand on his leg anymore.
"Just a little while and then we'll look for a place to sleep."
"Can we go sleep under a tree? I love trees."
"Yeah, guess so. You look for a good tree then, deal?"
"Oh, I will find the bestest tree, Chris, you'll see!" Feeling a bit better now that he knew they wouldn't walk for long anymore, Buck took Chris' outstretched hand and let the other boy help him to his feet. He stood hopping on his good leg, already looking around hopefully for just the right tree, when Chris gave him his arm again. Leaning heavily on the older boy, still looking around for the perfect camping place, Buck limped on beside his friend.
+ + + + + + +
It was getting dark when Nathan rode into Four Corners. The boys had probably already eaten with Mrs. Potter, but at least he was still in time to see them before they went to bed. He was wondering if they had slept with Mrs. Potter last night, or maybe with Mary Travis, she did have more room than the Potters with Billy gone to his grandparents. He just hoped that wherever they had slept, the boys had been okay with it.
He did have a suspicious feeling that Chris might have tried to have them both sleep in the livery, at the hayloft. That boy sure kept people at a distance. Nathan smiled, thinking about the serious eight years old who had let some people in his heart after all, these last months in Four Corners.
When he dismounted before the livery, Tiny immediately came outside. He looked disheveled and tired, his long hair hanging in strands around his face where it had escaped his ponytail.
"Hi, Tiny, everything all right? You look like you've had a hard day."
Tiny stroked his long beard, staring at him with big, sorrowful eyes.
"Hey, you're making me worried here. What's up?" Suddenly his heart plummeted. "Is it the boys?"
"I'm afraid so, Mister Jackson. They... they went missing."
"Missing? What you mean, missing? They didn't show up for dinner?" But the look on Tiny's face already told Nathan things were worse than that.
"They're missing since yesterday, since that horrible storm."
Shit, yes, the storm. He had hardly paid it any notice yesterday, as he was battling for Elijah's life just then, but he did remember how it had shaken the cabin, prying loose some of the roof shingles.
"What do you mean, since the storm?" he asked, very worried now. They wouldn't have left, would they, because all of the peacekeepers were gone? Run off again to find maybe another home where people wouldn't leave them on their own? No, they wouldn't do that, he knew how much the boys loved Vin and JD.
"When the storm was over, Mrs. Potter was searching for the boys all over town. She was frantic and said they never came in for the storm. They hadn't gone to Mrs. Travis or the Saloon either and that was when I remembered seeing Chris run in the direction of the river, right before the storm. I remember wondering what he was doing, but I was taking the last of the horses inside and I had to secure everything." Tiny looked away. "I'm sorry, Nathan, if only I had gone after him."
"The river?" Nathan could only repeat, stupefied. Buck had wanted to go to the river, he remembered that.
The river... oh God!
He was already clambering back on his horse when Tiny took a hold of the bridle. "They ain't there. Don't you think that was the first place I searched?"
"I'm sorry, off course you have. Didn't you find anything? Nothing at all?"
Tiny's eyes filled with tears. Nathan knew the big, but gentle man had taken a liking to the boys, but he hadn't noticed before just how much.
"We only found their boots, Nathan," someone else answered his question. He turned in the saddle and saw Mary Travis, the light of one of the watch fires highlighting her pale blond hair. She looked very tired as well.
"Yes, they were standing very neatly on the river bank. That probably meant they were in the water. Why else would they have taken off their boots? So we searched both river banks today, but we didn't find them."
Nathan shook his head. "They couldn't be in the water. We told them not to go to the river without adults around. They wouldn't have."
A humorless laugh answered his statement. Only now did he notice that more people were standing around. It was Mr. Conklin who had laughed. "And what make you think they would listen to you? Obey you? For Heaven's sake, they're runaways! Who knows what they've been up to and why they ran away in the first place. For all we know they're thieves."
"That's a lie," Nathan said, trying to keep his anger in check. "They don't steal."
"Oh no? Did you ever check on that? Well, did you?"
"Mister Conklin, enough!" Mrs. Potter stepped forward, her arms crossed before her in a manner that made it clear she was very angry. "How dare you talk like that about two young boys? Have you no shame?"
Mr. Conklin stared at her. "I am sorry, Mrs. Potter," he finally said. "I know you have been taken in by those boys, but I have not. I see them for what they truly are and I'm telling you, good boys don't run away and travel all through the country on their own." He turned and quickly marched away.
"Bastard," Nathan mumbled. But he had no more time to spare for Mr. Conklin and his feelings towards the two boys. Hastily he dismounted and started taking off his saddlebags. "Mary, could you please go to my clinic and bring me fresh bandages? They are on the top shelve of the cabinet just beside the door. There's also a jar of salve there, a blue jar, will you get that too, please? And the bottle of carbonic acid I keep on the shelves beside the stove. It says what it is on the label. Tiny, Buster's exhausted. Can I borrow another horse, please?"
"Nathan, it's already dark," Gloria Potter protested.
"I don't care. Tiny, please? I'll be careful with your horse."
"No, no need, Nathan. You take mine and you do whatever you can to find those boys," Mary said. "Segin is a fine horse, very surefooted. He'll do right by you. Just... just be careful. It won't do Chris and Buck any good when something happens to you."
"I will," Nathan promised, moved by her gesture. "You said you searched the river banks?"
"All the way to Drifter's Cops. We wanted to start the search from there, tomorrow. Nathan, you won't see them in the dark."
"I'm just going to make sure I have a good head start first thing in the morning. It was a severe storm, Mary, who knows how far the river took them. I'll at least make it to Drifter's Cops tonight."
She nodded and hurried off to get his supplies. He took the saddlebags from Buster and Tiny took the reins to lead the horse into its stable. "I'll go get Segin and I'll take care of your horse, Nathan, don't you worry about him."
When Segin was ready and Nathan about to mount, he saw Gloria Potter hurry toward him with her arms full. "Here, an extra blanket and some food," she said a little breathlessly.
"Thanks, Mrs. Potter."
"Just find those boys."
"I will. Mary, Tiny, Mrs. Potter."
Then Nathan was on his way, determined to make it at least as far as Drifter's Cops.
He wasn't even going to think about the very real possibility that the boys might not have survived the storm, especially if they had been swept away by the river.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris? Chris, please wake up."
Buck was scared, very scared, the way he hadn't been on the journey he and Chris had made to the west, after they had escaped the orphanage. But then they had never had wolves around at night!
It was so very dark under the tree they had found. It had looked like a nice spot, Chris had said so too, deep under the roots of a giant tree, where they could try and stay warm. They had filled the hole up with grass and leaves and had felt really good about it.
But now he heard the wolves and it was so dark, it never seemed this dark on their journey west. Off course then they had been walking when it was night. Now, hearing all those noises, he didn't want to walk out there. Besides, he hurt, his leg hurt, he felt funny and Chris wouldn't wake up. Why wouldn't he wake up?
Buck was desperate now, shaking Chris hard.
"Wh... what?" Chris tried to swat his hand away and it was the greatest thing ever.
"I's scared, Chris. Listen, that's wolves!"
"I don't hear... oh."
Chris fell silent when it started anew. First a series of high pitched barks and then there was the howling, wavering a little. After a short time an answer came from further away.
"W... wolves, Chris. There's wolves there."
"Ssssh," Chris hissed. "I wanna listen."
"'Cause I don't think it's wolves. Vin says there's not many wolves here, it's coyote land. And if it was wolves we should hear a whole family."
"Family?" Buck asked, surprised.
"Yeah. Vin says coyotes travel in pairs, or with their young. But wolves, that's a whole family, with father and mother and aunts and uncles and they all take care of the young, all of them. Vin says that's a lot like us, only we don't have females and the wolves would be very unhappy without females."
"Oh? Vin said that?"
"Yeah. He's told me lots about them."
There was more howling and Buck couldn't help it, he had to get a bit closer to Chris, even if he did like the story about wolves being a family just like the family he and Chris had now, with JD.
If only JD was here.
"Sure doesn't sound like a group," Chris said. "Vin says wolves like to sing together. Coyotes, they sing to each other, hear? And they bark. Wolves really sing. I think Vin likes wolves." There was an odd tone in Chris' voice, but Buck had no time for that now. He wasn't convinced yet.
"He ain't sc... scared of them? I thought they's dangerous." Whether he meant coyotes or wolves wasn't even clear to him.
"Vin ain't scared of nothing," Chris immediately scoffed, which did nothing to reassure Buck, but did get his dander up.
"JD ain't scared of nothing too!" he stated loudly.
The howling stopped abruptly.
"See? Now they're afraid and we can't hear them sing no more."
"I don't think it's singing. Miss Evelyn in the saloon, she can sing. She sings pretty."
"Ha, I like the coyotes better."
"How can you say that?" Buck asked, almost in tears now. It was too much. His head felt strange, he had been so frightened and now Chris was being nasty.
"I just wanna sleep, Buck." Chris still sounded odd. Maybe his back was hurting again? Buck could understand that, his leg was really bad and he squirmed a little to see if he could find a position in which it hurt less.
He really, really, really wanted JD!
He felt Chris burry himself deeper into the layer of grass and leaves, making a draft come through the opening. Hastily he curled himself close behind the older boy, who was lying between him and the opening of their small den. It was nicely warm behind Chris' back.
"I still think Miss Evelyn sings way prettier than your stupid c... cuyo... coyots."
"Coyotes. Go to sleep."
The silence came back, the silence of the night. It wasn't really silent though, there were noises everywhere, small noises mostly. After a while Buck decided he didn't mind those small noises at all, like the rustling he now heard. He could vividly imagine a mouse running through the dry leaves. And there, that sounded like something bigger, maybe a rabbit. He liked mice and rabbits, they looked so cute.
He heard a soft sound from above, followed by a long, mournful cry, making him shiver in fear again. Then he recognized the sound. See, he wasn't scared of that either, he knew it was an owl and owls were all right. Except off course that they ate those cute little mice. Now a new noise was coming from just outside, a rustling again, but different. He closed his eyes and tried to hear what it could be. It was sort of like... something gliding, slithering through the grass.
Suddenly he was thinking about snakes, crawling everywhere, crawling maybe in the hole with them.
"Chris!" he hissed, shaking the other boy again. "Chris!"
Chris mumbled something he couldn't make out, but didn't react beyond that. And there it was again, slithering and oh, oh, was it coming closer? It had to be a snake! A huge one, ready to bite Chris, because it would reach Chris first.
Buck flew up, forgetting the tree roots above him and hitting his head.
"Owowowowow! Chris, Chris, I think there's a snake out there!"
Chris, who had been moving toward him, immediately froze.
"Chris? Come away," Buck wailed, frightened.
"If it's a snake you have to pretend you're a statue," Chris hissed. "Where is it?"
"I... I don't know. Like a statue? Why?"
"It's what Vin says. With a snake, don't move and then they won't attack." Chris didn't sound too certain though. Buck could hear the trembling in his voice. "Are you sure there's a snake?"
"I... I heard it in the leaves."
Buck tried very hard not to move, until finally Chris said, "I don't think there is something, Buck."
"You... you sure?"
"Y... yeah, I think so." But Chris wasn't moving, so neither was Buck.
At some point he must have fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes again he was no longer sitting, but lying down and it wasn't so dark anymore. The day was coming.
He felt too terrible to be happy about that. His leg throbbed and he was hot, very hot. He pushed himself away from Chris' warm body, but it didn't really help.
Where was JD? JD was supposed to protect him, he had promised.
"JD," he sniffled softly, before his eyes closed once more.
+ + + + + + +
"That was the by far the worst night of my life," Ezra grumbled, trying to blink the sleep out of his eyes. "Whose brilliant idea was it to take these miscreants in alive? Might I bestow upon that person the wisdom of how to deal with vermin? You crush vermin, making sure it will never wander around again."
He was staring coldly at one outlaw in particular; the one who had claimed the shot boy was his brother. When the object of his scrutiny started a whole new rant, his gun was out in a heartbeat, aimed unerringly at the man's mouth.
"Give me a reason," he smiled. "Or, on second thought, I've decided you have given me reason enough already."
"Oh, do stop being so irritable in the morning, Ezra." Josiah came between him and his target. Suddenly the rants and ravings were reduced to some harmless mumbling. "We'll keep him gagged."
"You should never have taken that rag out in the first place," Ezra retorted.
"He couldn't very well eat his breakfast with it in, Ezra, geez," JD said, passing him with his bedroll in his arms. The young sheriff was yawning hugely, but that didn't stop his quick walk.
"Why give him breakfast at all? He is, after all, destined to hang!" he yelled after the disappearing back.
Ezra eyed the mug Vin was holding out to him with suspicion, making no move to take it. Instead he holstered his gun and looked at the other three outlaws who had calmed down some after a night of making everybody's life miserable. No wonder JD was yawning and Vin looked so tired. The only one who didn't seem to be in the least bit affected by a night of constantly interrupted sleep was Josiah, who smiled at him as if there was nothing wrong in the world.
"It's good coffee," he assured Ezra. "I didn't let JD near it, did I, Vin?"
Ezra scowled at the both of them, before he took the offered cup, sipping carefully. Ah, now, that was coffee as coffee was intended to be. Immediately feeling a lot better, he savored the aroma in both his nose and mouth.
"They ready ta be trussed up on their horses, J'siah?"
"They sure are."
"Good. Let's start with mister loud-mouth here. I think some time on his stomach over the saddle might do 'im good."
"I totally agree."
Ezra looked on with mild interest, while Vin and Josiah pulled up the brother of the dead boy. He seemed to be protesting furiously, but since the gag muted what probably were more vile curses, it was highly ineffective. Feeling more magnanimous about it all, after all, the others were doing the work and the coffee was great, Ezra decided to get himself some breakfast first, before pitching in to do his share. The others could do the work a little while longer without him. Now, where was the food?
His mood immediately plummeted again when he saw the salted pork. God, how he wished they were back home.
+ + + + + + +
Where other people were just getting up, Nathan was already following the river for over an hour. He had tried to ride on all night, but had to admit defeat somewhere in the small hours of the morning. The nap he had taken had been a short one tough; the nagging fear for the boys had him up again long before it was light. He had made himself some strong coffee and had forced himself to eat a little of the bread Gloria Potter had given him, knowing full well he needed his strength. But the thought of those two small boys out there, in the wilderness, all on their own and probably hurt made his stomach constrict too much to be able to eat more than a few bites.
He refused to think about the possibility they might be dead.
Now he was determinedly plunging on ahead, leading Mary's horse behind him, trying not to stumble. He sighed in relief when he came from beneath the trees that had been growing along the river for a while, glad to see the first light in the sky. It meant he could get on the horse and ride. He was damned tired of tripping through the dark.
He looked around him, hoping for some sign of life, but didn't see a thing. Then his eyes traveled across the river, to the other side and he swallowed.
He hadn't thought about it before, but there it was, the other river bank, as thickly grown with trees and bushes as this side was. He couldn't see anything else but that thick growth.
What if the boys were over there? It would be so easy to miss them.
He called out, his voice getting a bit hoarse with all the shouting he had already done.
"Chris! Buck! Boys, can you hear me?"
Then he waited, tense, ears strained, but there was no answer. He hadn't really expected one. He knew how wild the river could get and he was convinced the boys were dragged along much farther than where he was now.
At least he had made a good head start, Drifter's Cops was already some miles behind him.
He tightened the cinch and vaulted in the saddle. Segin snorted, not used to his considerably greater weight than Mary's, and the animal started prancing.
"Don't, I ain't in the mood," Nathan told the animal sternly, before applying pressure to indicate he wanted some speed. Segin snorted again and tossed his head, but finally obeyed his new, unknown master and fell into an easy, ground-eating lope.
Nathan soon relaxed his hold on the rein, all his attention on his surroundings. In between his calls, he was praying like he had never prayed before.
Please, Lord, grant me this one thing, that I'll find the boys and find them alive. Please, Lord...
+ + + + + + +
Chris woke up groggy, unable to move. He was shivering and he wondered why his bed felt so hard, like it was full of rocks poking at him. With a groan he opened his eyes, only to close them immediately when a bright light shone into them, so bright it was painful. He lay absolutely quiet, his hand groping for his mother's ring. While he clung to it, he tried to understand what was going on.
The first thing he noticed was that he hurt. The second was his thirst. And then he noticed something else, something strange. Although he was still shivering and feeling cold, he also felt something very hot against his back.
Carefully, very carefully, he opened his eyes again, no further than mere splits, weary of the light this time. It turned out to be the sun, shining down in front of him on lush, brilliant green grass. Three rabbits were hopping around without a care in the world, while a fourth was sitting up on its haunches, testing the air. A small mouse skittered away and in the bushes behind the animals he saw a few small birds hopping through the branches.
He smiled, liking what he saw.
And then he remembered. He gasped and sat up hastily, causing the rabbits and birds to flee. Grass and leaves fell off him. It was hard to push himself up, his body didn't want to cooperate, everything so stiff it was painful to move. Not that he paid attention to it, he had suddenly remembered Buck was supposed to be with him and he needed to see him, see how his young friend was doing. He couldn't help but cry out when he turned to look behind him. His back hurt so much it brought tears into his eyes. He thought it should have gotten a bit better after a night of sleep, but it hadn't, it hadn't at all. It felt worse, his whole body felt worse.
And he still had a headache.
It was all forgotten as soon as he managed to turn and saw Buck. The four year old had his thumb in his mouth, but his lips were slack. His face was unusually red and even sitting up Chris could feel the heat coming from his friend's body. He knew with gut wrenching certainty that Buck was sick, really sick.
"Buck?" he asked, putting his hand on the smaller boy's shoulder and gently shaking him.
"Buck?" Then he yelled, "Buck!"
Chris sat there, quietly, not moving, just staring.
He didn't know what to do.
It didn't happen often to him that he didn't know what to do. Usually there was always something, some choice, some fight to fight, but this, he didn't know what to do about this, about Buck being sick while they were all alone. He couldn't run home and get help; he knew they were too far away from Four Corners to do that. He couldn't leave Buck alone for that long. But he also didn't know how to help him.
As he sat there beside Buck, the tears began to fall, more and more. He didn't try and wipe them away, he didn't have the energy. The feeling of painful loss he had experienced last night, while telling Buck the stories Vin had told him on their rides together, came back tenfold.
He wanted Vin. Vin would know what to do. Vin would hold him and tell him it was going to be all right.
He really, really wanted Vin to come now and find him and Buck.
If only he could be sure of that, of Vin being out there somewhere, looking for them. He knew with absolute certainty Vin could find everything he wanted to find. But Vin was chasing a gang and gangs killed who was in their way. Chris knew all about that.
And now Buck was sick, leaving him all alone.
He wrapped his arms around himself, while the silent tears became heartbroken sobs.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan was tired, hot and anxious now, very anxious. He had ridden all morning without finding a sign of the boys and he was feeling at a loss about what to do. Should he continue, or should he cross the river and ride back, trying to find some signs on the other side? He had no idea how far the river had taken the boys, but the further he got, the smaller the chance the boys had survived their forced trip down the river.
He stopped, stood in the stirrups and once again looked all around him, once again called out the boys' names.
"Chriiiiiis! Buuuuuck! Are you there? Can you hear me? Chriiiis! Buuuuck!"
"Please, hear me," he finally whispered. "Please."
+ + + + + + +
Four Corners, at last! Vin pushed his hat back and grinned, looking at the ragtag collection of stores, houses, saloons and hotels. How it had become 'home' he would never know; he had never dreamed that one day he would grow roots in a small pioneer settlement in the middle of nowhere. He looked around him at the grassy hills, where flowers had started their second period of bloom. He knew they only needed a few more showers of rain to have the hills full of colors, the colors he would always love the most, the colors of the wild.
Being in the middle of nowhere, of some of the most beautiful country there was, certainly had played a part in his decision to stay a bit longer in the small town after his first arrival. Then JD had come hurling into Four Corners from the stage coach, all wide eyed innocence and too much bravery for his own good and Vin had found himself a friend.
Now he had four solid friends, the best a man could ask for, but it was two little boys that had anchored him to this town for good.
He couldn't wait to see them again.
"Why don't you and JD ride ahead?" Josiah's deep voice rumbled behind him, clearly amused. "Get the jail ready, order some whiskey for all of us... maybe even see the boys?"
Vin looked to his left, where JD was standing in his stirrups as if that made it easier for him to see the town.
"How 'bout it, JD? Who's first at the edge of town?"
A broad grin answered him.
"Ah, as long as you two don't race the streets, or you'll have to be arrested," Josiah laughed.
Indignant glares were the only replies he got and then the two peacekeepers were off, JD letting out a whoop of joy when he managed to start faster than Peso. Soon Vin and JD were racing side by side, trying to get to town first. It was so close they would never be certain who had won, but then, they weren't really interested in the outcome. Bringing their animals back to a decent trot, they went to the livery.
"Tiny," JD yelled, jumping off Milagro impatiently. "Tiny, can you take the horses?"
It wasn't Tiny who appeared, only the stable boy he sometimes hired.
"Hey, Josh, where's Tiny?" Vin asked, throwing his reins to the boy.
"He... he's out there, searching, Sir. With lots of others. Asked me to take care of the horses, since they have to be fed. Otherwise I would've been searching too, honest I would."
"Search?" Vin frowned. "What search?"
"Why, for the boys off course. They went missing after the storm. I don't know why, but Tiny and Mrs. Travis seem to think the river took them and now they're searching the riverbanks."
Vin's heart plummeted. He hadn't seen Chris and Buck yet. He also hadn't seen Nathan. Beside him he heard JD make a strange, strangled noise.
"What boys?" He asked it, but he already knew the answer.
Josh swallowed and was suddenly very busy with staring at his feet.
"I... I... I thought maybe.... It's your boys, Mister Tanner, it's Chris and Buck," he said in a very soft, small voice.
"The storm was two days ago," JD exploded. "Two days ago! Why haven't they been found yet?"
Vin had already taken his reins back and was mounting again.
"You know how far they got with the search?"
Josh shook his head.
"Right, who might know?"
"Mrs. Potter?" Josh answered in that same small voice. He clearly felt bad about being the one who had to tell them, but Vin had no time for the boy's feelings. He was already on his way to the Mercantile.
Mrs. Potter stood before her store, her face haggard and pale. "You heard," she said after only one look at Vin's face. Vin nodded.
"We don't really know. They never came in for the storm and then, after the storm, Tiny found their boots at the side of the river. I'm... I'm so sorry. We've been searching all day yesterday and a lot of people went out today as well. I would have too, but someone has to stay here and look after the other children."
"Not everyone seems to be looking," JD said angrily. When Vin turned to him, he saw the young sheriff was staring at Conklin, who walked along the boardwalk across the streets. It was true, more people were still walking around as if nothing was wrong, the ones who thought runaways were nothing but bad news.
"Well, most people are," Mrs. Potter said sharply, "so don't you be getting all accusationary, young man. There will always be those who don't care about others, but most people in this town are good and decent folks, who feel very bad about those boys being lost."
"I... I'm sorry, Mrs. Potter." JD had colored bright red and he looked everywhere but at her.
Vin's mind was already racing ahead. "Nathan?" he asked.
Mrs. Potter immediately lost her anger, worry taking its place. "He was over at the McNeals, taking care of their eldest boy who has taken a bad tumble out of a tree, and didn't come home until yesterday evening. He immediately left when he heard, not even taking a rest, to search for the boys. He was going straight to Drifter's Cops, where the search ended yesterday, and I don't know anything else."
"We better tell Ezra and Josiah," Vin decided. "The sooner we do that, the sooner we c'n start searchin' ourselves."
JD nodded. His eyes were unusually bright, but no tears came forth. There was a determined look on his face, a look Vin knew well. Come Hell or high water, JD was not going to give up until they had found their missing boys. Vin realized the young sheriff was already planning, when he said tersely, "I tell them, you get what we need, Vin."
Vin nodded. He jumped off Peso. "Mrs. Potter, I need some food to take along. Bandages too."
"Straight away, Vin," she said softly. "You take everything you need, we'll see about costs later."
"Yes, Ma'am, thank you." Vin heard the implicit message that Gloria Potter probably was thinking about not charging them, but he wasn't going to accept that. She was a woman alone, with two children to take care off; life was hard enough for her as it was.
When he came out of the store, arms filled with supplies, Ezra and Josiah were waiting for him alongside JD.
He stopped and eyed them wearily. "Come on, y'all. Ya know we can't all go, we got prisoners in jail."
"That has been taken care off," Josiah said.
"There is no way in which you can prohibit us from taking part in the search, Mister Tanner. We care about those two youngsters as well. After all, they did make us their honorary uncles."
"Right," Josiah nodded.
It was true, he couldn't forbid these men to come with him and JD, they were a part of the boys' new and strange family too. Still....
"Prisoners?" he reminded them again.
"Luke and Abel from the Double T are in town, they didn't mind being made deputy for a few days," JD said.
"Against a fee, unfortunately," Ezra added.
"Which our brother was more than willing to supply."
"Josiah, please! I did no such thing, I was forced by you two!"
"And Inez will bring them food," JD concluded. "Now, can we finally go?"
Vin nodded. He hastily put the supplies in various saddlebags and jumped on Peso.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had tried to make Buck as comfortable as possible, piling more leaves and grass around him. Buck didn't stir, worrying Chris even more. Impatiently he wiped at his eyes where the tears still fell. He needed to think about what to do next.
What would Nathan do?
Thinking about Nathan had helped him with the wound on Buck's leg, but now he was at a loss. He couldn't remember ever having seen Nathan take care of someone who was sick. He did remember when he had been sick in the orphanage. He was put on the special ward for sick children, the one with the awful smell where nuns took care of them. They had this tea they kept giving him and they had told him he needed to drink a lot, because of the fever.
Hesitantly Chris put his hand on Buck's forehead. Yes, Buck was really hot. That meant he had a fever, didn't it?
The last thing Chris wanted was for Buck to have a fever. Fevers were dangerous, fevers could kill you. It had almost killed him in the orphanage.
All he could recall of that time besides the smell and the crying around him, was the tea and being given lots and lots of water. And later on broth, but that was when he wasn't so sick anymore.
He couldn't make that tea, but he could give Buck water.
Hastily he stood up, glad he had thought of something to do. A jolt of pain nearly made him topple back down and the only thing that saved him was grabbing for a branch. He stood for a few seconds, trying to get his breath under control and very determined not to puke, not now, not here beside Buck, he just wasn't.
Impatiently he pushed himself away from the tree. He needed to get water for Buck, which was all that mattered right now. He was already turning to go to the small nearby stream, when he remembered. He had nothing with which he could bring the water.
And he couldn't carry Buck there, not with his back hurting so much.
He stood staring at the other boy, totally at a loss, while slowly the tears came again.