Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: A little fic that grew and grew from one drabble and then dragged in a second one.
Chris paced, or more accurately pounded, as Nathan worked on his patient.
Finally, Jackson stood back; giving Chris is first proper look at JD. The kid was a mess. What visible skin not black and blue was so white it was almost transparent. Blood, red and stark, still stained the sheets where his numerous wounds had bled freely before Nathan has stitched them closed.
"I've done all I can," Nathan told him softly.
"So when will he wake up?" Chris asked.
"No way to know. He..." Nathan paused and looked back down at JD. "You know as well as I do he may never wake up."
Chris did know, men who'd hit their head sometimes never work up, they just slipped away. Sometimes, they woke up, seemed to be fine, only to collapse and die, hours or even days later. Realization stuck him. "But he's the only one who knows what happened. He's the only one who knows where Buck is!"
"There's nothing more I can do."
Chris took a deep breath. "I know. Can you tell what happened to him? Did someone beat on him?"
Nathan shook his head. "Don't think so. He's got wounds on his hands, but on the palms, not the knuckles. He's got a lot of deep scratches and grazes as well as the bruises, but not the kind I've seen when you hit a guy. If I had to guess, I'd say he fell, but not just off his horse. He fell further than that. Oh, and splinters - he has a lot of splinters in his hands. It's going to take me some time to get them all out." He gave a sad sigh. "At least he won't feel it."
Chris nodded. "Take care of him. We'll find Buck."
Outside the clinic, Chris pulled his collar up as he jammed his hat on tighter. The rain was still falling. It had been raining for the best part of two days. The river that ran beside the town was close to bursting its banks and several homesteaders, who'd settled on its rich flood plain down stream, had been flooded out already.
Buck and JD had been away for a week. the Judge had requested someone head out to the mining town of Silver Camp, to sort out a local dispute. Just after dawn, Tiny had arrived to stoke up the forge and open up the livery, and found Milagro, with a riderless Beau behind him, standing wet and weary outside. JD was slumped and unconscious in his saddle. Tiny said it was a miracle the lad hadn't slipped off.
Even as he descended the stairs, Chris could see the others, gathered under the veranda of the saloon opposite. Inez, still in her nightgown and wrapped in a shawl, was standing in the doorway. Running as best he could though the foot-deep mud that now made up the main street, he finally reached them and explained what he now knew, such as it was.
"Has Nathan had a chance to remove some of those splinters yet?" Ezra asked.
"I think so, why?" Chris asked.
"Well, if we could examine them, it might give us some clue as to where he acquired them."
Chris just looked at Ezra, knowing he was right and kicking himself for not thinking of it himself.
"I'll go," Josiah offered.
"No, I'll go; I'm already covered in mud."
When Chris returned, Vin and Ezra peered at the slivers of wood, some of them still blood stained, but in the end it was Chris who spoke. "This is cut timber."
"You sure Cowboy?" Vin asked.
Chris picked up the largest one and peered at it. "Sure."
"So JD fell some distance and picked up splinters from cut timber, and he and Buck were in mine country," Josiah summarized.
"Ah hell," Vin muttered. "I know where he is."
There was no way he could have known, that was what Buck kept telling himself. The rain, which had been torrential, had made the already steep trail down from Silver Camp into what amounted to a rapid. The horses were slipping and stumbling so badly they had been forced to dismount and lead them. Close to the bottom of the steepest section, they decided to make camp before the sun began to get too low. With all the rain and among the tall trees, it was going to get very dark, very quickly once the sun slipped behind the mountains. They had spotted a rock wall with a slight overhang, enough to give them some protection from the rain, which had eased off a little. But, as thunder rumbled overhead, they knew they had only a little time to set camp before the heavens opened again. Ground tying the horses, which had no desire to venture further into the rain, they set out to find what dry fire wood they could. That was when it happened.
It had all happened so fast. JD had been walking a little in front of Buck. As Buck saw something on the ground, it took a critical few seconds for his brain registered what it was, then he shouted a warning to the young man. JD began to drop, even as Buck was lunging forward. He felt his hands impact with JD's back even as he felt himself falling.
For JD it almost as if he was watching it happen to someone else. He heard Buck shout his name, then he felt the ground under him give and he began to drop. He had enough time for the words 'oh no' to pass through his mind before something very heavy slammed into him and sent him flying. He missed his footing and began to fall, rolling over and over down a steep drop.
Buck didn't fall instantly. He'd managed to grab hold of the wooden rim of the shaft, scrabbling to hold on and pull himself up as the ground fell away below him. He'd almost made it, and then the brittle and rotted wood gave way and he fell. To begin with, it was like falling off a horse, you have just about enough time to think 'this is gonna hurt' maybe drop your shoulders so you land on that and not you head and that's it, you've hit the ground. Except he didn't hit, he just kept falling, waiting for the pain of the landing for what felt like forever, even if in reality it couldn't have been more than a second.
JD tried to work out where he was and why. His head hurt, a throbbing pain that lanced though his whole skull making it feel like it was going to explode. He looked around, to find he was at the bottom of a steep slope, which seemed to be made up of rocks off various shapes and sizes. Somehow, these loose rocks seemed out of place among the trees. As he lay there, breathing heavily, he did some testing, to see what worked. His legs moved, there were a few aches and pains, but nothing felt broken. The same for the arms and hands, so he tried to stand up. That sent his head swimming and he had to grab hold of a tree to steady himself. What had just happened? How did he end up at the bottom of this slope? Before he could ponder this further, a wave of nausea over came him and he was forced to double over as he lost the contents of his stomach. Once he'd regained his composure, he set out to climb up the slope.
It took time. His head pounded and waves of dizziness forced him to stop repeatedly or risk falling, but in the end, he made it.
"Buck!" he called, looking around. "Buck, where the hell are you?" It was getting dark and heavy rain drops were beginning to fall. "Damn it Buck, where the..."
Suddenly he remembered the ground dropping below him and something, presumably Buck, shoving him in the back. That's when he saw it, an opening in the ground, the pale jagged edge of newly splintered timber, clearly visible against the dark forest litter. Approaching carefully, he could now see the remains of the timbers that had covered the mine shaft. On one side all the wood had fallen in, which was going to make it much easier to see down into the shaft. The trouble was, as he approached, dirt and small stones began to fall into the shaft as the loose, rain-soaked ground began to slide toward the shaft where the side was now missing. Backing up, JD circled around to the other side, where the shaft looked more solid. The trouble was, the remaining planks made it impossible for him to see into the shaft without putting some weight on them.
Lying flat on the ground, he inched forward until he could reach over the edge of the shaft and reach the broken end of the plank. At full stretch he didn't have any choice as to which part of the wood he grabbed and so it was that huge splinters embedded them selves in his palm, but he paid them no mind. It wasn't as hard as he'd expected to pull what was left of the planks free. He'd expected them to be rotten, whereas in fact they seemed, if anything, to be desiccated and brittle. Despite his best efforts, some of the wood did fall into the shaft, but there was no time to worry about it. He just kept working.
"JD? Kid?" Buck called out even as pain beginning to make itself known all over his body.
There was no reply, which was scaring him. He needed to know JD was okay. He called again, but then had to stop, as the pain in his chest caught him, forcing him to wrap a protective arm across it and try to gasp in some air with out actually moving his ribs, which of course proved to be impossible.
"Come on JD, boy, where are you?" he muttered to himself. He might have fallen asleep or passed out, he wasn't sure, but he was awakened by JD's urgent voice above him, calling his name.
"Oh thank God," Buck gasped. "You okay kid?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." JD did his best to sound confident. "What about you?"
"Better than I should be I reckon. Might have cracked a rib or two."
"Can you see a ladder?" JD asked.
"Blacker than Chris' wardrobe down here... Wait a sec."
All JD could see was blackness below him, then suddenly there was a small orange light, presumably Wilmington had struck a match.
"Might have been one once, but it's all broke," he called up.
The match died.
"If I join both the ropes together it might be long enough to reach you," JD suggested.
They both carried a length of rope in their saddle bags when travelling, it was just one of the things you took, like a bed roll, a slicker, frying pan and a knife. The trouble was they weren't that long. Good for turning a slicker into a make shift bivouac or a snare, not really much use in a mine rescue.
"Don't bother, don't reckon it'll reach. Besides, I may have busted up my hand some as well," Buck admitted.
JD desperately wanted to do something to help, to get Buck out of that black pit, but he was running out of options.
"I'll get help. If I leave now I can be in Silver Camp by midnight and have help back here by dawn!" he shouted down.
"No," Buck called back.
"Just let me think a moment... Look, you'll never get back up that trail in this weather. Baker's Ford, that's the closest town. Carry on down and then turn back toward Silver City. It's no more than four hours from here."
"Right, I'll be back by dawn." He began to get up.
"JD wait!" Buck shouted.
"Go at dawn. You can't ride in the dark, not around here, not in the rain." By now the rain was falling steadily and increasingly heavily.
"JD, please promise me you won't leave until dawn," Buck insisted.
After a long pause, JD agreed. He wanted to camp next to the hole, to keep his surrogate brother company in his miserable prison, but Buck would hear none of it, insisting he move back to the rock wall and get some shelter. Before he settled for the night, JD bundled up Buck's bedroll, a canteen of water and almost all the food in Buck's slicker and dropped them down the shaft.
Dawn broke on another miserable day.Steady rain still fell as JD pulled himself stiffly off the cold ground. His head hurt. It hurt so much it was hard to think. It was like a hot poker burning into his brain and it wouldn't stop. He knew he had to get help for Buck, but that was all he could remember, get help, bring help back for Buck. Help meant the others, help meant Nathan. He mounted up, leaving his bed roll on the ground and turned Milagro down hill, away from Baker's Ford and towards Four Corners a full day's ride way. Beau, not wanting to be left in this cold, unfamiliar place, followed his stable mate.
Nathan had packed some basic medical supplies, and Vin had collected ropes and lanterns, while Josiah made sure the horses were ready.
Chris was speaking to Ezra. As much as Standish wanted to help, someone needed to stay in town. There had already been tension between the homesteaders sheltering in town and ranchers, not to mention the stage coach passengers marooned in town until the road was passable, all crammed into the hotels and getting on each other's nerves, not to mention every else's.
"Nathan needs to stay with JD, I need someone to keep a lid on things," Chris explained.
"I know, but I still feel I should be doing more."
After watching the others gallop out of town, Nathan turned back to his patient with increasing concern. If JD had been unconscious when he was put on his horse, surly he'd have been tied on. That he wasn't indicated that he'd been awake when he started his journey. The ones who woke up and then passed out, were the ones who almost always never woke up.
"Come on JD, show me something," he asked, as he continued to extract slivers of wood from the boy's hands. "This has got to hurt."
Almost on cue, JD tried to pull his hand way from Nathan's knife. It was a very weak effort, but Nathan felt it.
"There you go, I knew you wouldn't let me down.
JD became increasingly restless, but even so, Nathan was taken by surprise as his suddenly cry of, "Buck!" as he came to, eyes flying around the room.
"Easy JD, just rest."
"No, I have to get help!" JD then tried to sit up, only for Jackson to push him back down.
"Just relax, it's okay."
"He's in the mine! We have to go and get him out!" JD was still struggling to get up, but now lay back down, his hand coming up to his forehead. "Ahh," he groaned, colour draining from his face.
"Bad headache?" Nathan asked.
JD managed a nod.
"Don't fret about Buck," Nathan reassured. "We figured out that you fell into a mine. The others have gone back to find him."
Still feeling groggy, it took JD a while to work out the ramifications of this.
"Worked it out? How?" he asked.
"Well apparently there is only one mine on the Silver Camp trail that's closer to here than there. It has to be the one, or you'd have gone back there for help."
JD looked up. "But that's wrong, that's all wrong."
"I don't understand... He's not in a mine?"
"Yes, yes he is, but not that one. The main trail was blocked by a flood. We came down the pack tail. We were less than half a day from some place called Baker's Ford."
"So why didn't you go there for help?"
JD shrugged. "Don't reckon I did much riding, I don't remember anything after I spoke to Buck. Nathan we have to get to him, we have to get him out!" He shot to his feet and then swayed alarmingly, grabbing on to Nathan to keep upright.
"Sit down now," Jackson insisted.
"When did they leave?"
"About an hour ago I think."
"Then we can catch them."
"Not you, you're in no fit state."
"No, Nathan my head hurts, but I'm okay to ride, come on!"
Buck could do nothing more than sit after he'd managed to retrieve the bundle JD had dropped. He'd heard him calling down, he'd even responded, but clearly his voice hadn't carried. His wrist was broken, he knew that. He'd broken his hand when he was seven. He'd been walking home when some boys began to jostle him and call him names. His mother was always telling him to turn the other cheek and not retaliate, but sometimes it was hard. So when he shoved them and they shoved back, causing him to fall off the side walk and hit it on a the edge of a horse trough, he hadn't told his mother until she noticed that he couldn't hold his folk at supper.
It wasn't that the pain had been that bad, but it was a very particular pain, once felt, always remembered. That was how his wrist felt now. If that was all that was wrong, his predicament wouldn't have been that bad, but it wasn't all that was wrong. There was something wrong with his left leg, not bad enough to prevent him using it. He though it would carry his weight, just, but his thigh burned and stung. He was also very aware of the damaged ribs. He'd broken and cracked ribs before and he knew not only how painful they were, but how difficult it made breathing and that the worst thing he could do was lie down. It was pitch black, but he resisted the urge to light another match, he only had six and he didn't want to waste them. Besides, if JD left at first light, he'd have help back by the end of the day. A night and a day, he could do that. Just twenty hours, maybe less, he could do that, easy - right?
The night seemed endless, the rain never let up, filling the shaft to a depth of about four inches in places, but not more, so somewhere it was draining away. With some difficulty and the sacrifice of two more matches, he'd managed to get a hold of the bundle that JD had dropped him. He'd placed the slicker on the ground and sat back down on it. For a while it gave him some relief from sitting on the wet ground, until the water seeped up and over it. He spread his bedroll over himself and it did keep off the rain, though he was already wet though and that wasn't going change until he got out. The water was welcome, though he could just as easily have turned his mouth skyward and opened his mouth. The food he had no interest in. Swallowing the water was painful enough.
Eventually, he could make out a small patch of pale light above him, heralding the day. He expected JD to call down to him before he left, but he never came. He fleetingly worried the boy had ignored his advice and set off in the darkness or was more seriously hurt than he'd admitted and was up there lying hurt and alone.
Finding each idea too worrisome to dwell on, he concluded that he'd passed out or fallen asleep and had missed JD's goodbye. Though he could see a pale patch of sky the light never reached him. Sacrificing another match he tried to get a feel for his surroundings, discovering a tunnel, running off and slightly down hill from the bottom of the shaft. Although its roof had collapsed, blocking the tunnel, this was where the water was, mercifully, draining too. As the hours slowly ticked by, he began to find it harder to keep his spirits up. The rain never eased up, the darkness seemed to seep into his very soul and then, as it started to get dark, that little pale grey patch that represented his hope, got darker and darker and then it was gone.
He never though that JD would fail him, not if he could help it, so when the night dragged on and no help came that horrid, unthinkable, little thought came back, that somewhere up there, JD was hurt and alone and he wasn't there to help him, trapped and useless at the bottom of a hole.
Ezra didn't like it, again. Now Nathan and JD were heading out to intercept the rescue party, and again he was left behind to stop a lot of imbeciles with the attention span of gnats from killing each other, just because it had been raining for a few days. They should live in Georgia, that'd show them want real rain could be like. The least he could do was lend JD his horse, since Milagro was exhausted and he knew Chaucer would look after the lad, which might prove vital, since he looked like he'd pass out at any time.
It was insane, Nathan knew that. They were galloping, riding flat out. JD's only concession to his weakened state was that he had a death grip on the horn of Ezra's saddle. At least it had a horn, unlike JD's own saddle. They came to the point where the trail curved away, following the contours of a high bluff. JD made to turn, but Nathan pulled him up with a shout.
"This way!" He wheeled Ben to ride up the bluff.
"Where are you going, that's dead end!" JD called out.
There was no trail, but the horses, somehow sensing the urgency of the situation, made light work of the uneven terrain and sage. In no time they had reached the flat top of the bluff. Nathan rode to the edge and surveyed the valley below them.
"There they are!" he pointed to the three riders on the trail. Pulling out his rifle he fired three shots in quick succession.
The result was instantaneous, all three pulled up. Nathan lifted his arm in the air, rifle in hand. His gesture was met by Vin.
By the time the five of them arrived at the mine, the rain had finally stopped and clouds were beginning to clear. It was also getting dark. JD was dismounting before Chaucer had even stopped, running as best he could on legs that felt like jelly, he flung himself down on the ground by the edge of the shaft.
"Buck! Were here, can you hear me!" he yelled, but there was no response.
Even as he was calling, Chris and Josiah were looping one of the long ropes they had brought around the strongest looking tree. Vin, having seen to the horses, was stripping off his heavy coat. Josiah fashioned a loop in the end of the rope, into which Vin placed one foot.
"Come on JD, you need to get up," Nathan said softly to the desperate boy, who hadn't stopped calling since they had arrived.
"No..." he protested.
"Yes, Vin's going down, this is the safest side to use."
Instantly JD was up, stepping back to let Vin approach.
"Ready?" Chris asked?
"As I'll ever be."
"I thought Vin hated small places?" JD whispered to Nathan.
"He does, but he's good with highs, this is just a different kind of high. Besides with his back, he shouldn't be pulling on ropes."
The very thought of descending into that small, black hole terrified Vin, but he was the best man for the job and his friend needed him, so he forced himself to control his fear and concentrate on Buck. The far end of the rope was around the powerful shoulders of Josiah's horse, Cardinal. He trusted the ex-priest and his horse to lower him steadily and safely.
After what felt like forever, his feet touched the ground. With a sigh of relief he signalled that we was down and called for a lantern to be lowered to him.
"Hey there Bucklin," he greeted, as he stuck a match. "Ah hell."
Getting the unconscious, dead weight of a man Buck's size out of the mine wasn't easy. Vin secured a rope around his chest and under his arms, then they used three of the horses, two, Ben and Cardinal, to pull up Buck, and Peso to pull up his master beside their injured friend, to hopefully keep him from further harm on the way up.
"Well?" Chris asked, even before Nathan had felt for a pulse.
"Let him work," Vin warned.
Chris just glared, but said nothing more. Two days ago, he'd been pacing while Jackson worked on JD, and now was doing the same thing while he worked on his oldest friend. JD knelt at Buck's head, trying to remember to breathe.
"Come on Brothers," Josiah announced, "let's get a fire stared."
Reluctantly, Chris and Vin turned away. By the time they had a fire started, Nathan and JD had Buck stripped out of his sodden clothing and tucked up under several bed rolls. He was deathly pale, so pale his skin almost seemed transparent.
"Stoke up the fire," he instructed, "as hot as you can."
"Why?" Chris asked, instantly detecting that there was more to this request than the simple need to get warm and dry.
"He's got a busted wrist," Nathan began, looking up at Vin. "I'll need a couple of splints."
"I know what you need," the Texan assured.
"He's busted some ribs, however the real problem is this." He lifted the bedrolls to reveal Buck's thigh just above his knee. It was heavily bandaged, but already blood was seeping though the bandage.
"It's not that deep, but is probably been bleeding since he fell two days ago. I have to stop the bleeding as soon as I can. Stitches aren't going to work. The wound's too old, too ragged, too wide and too dirty." Saying nothing more, Nathan pulled one of his razor sharp knives, and shoved the blade into the fire. "Cauterization... it will stop the bleeding and hopefully prevent any infection."
Josiah squatted down opposite his friend. "Are you sure you want to do it this way?" he asked.
Nathan shook his head. "I don't want to, but there's no other option. He'll die if I don't."
Josiah looked down at the bloodied bandage around Buck's thigh and nodded his understanding. "There's just enough light for me to get to Baker's Ford. I'll meet you guys at the bottom of the pack trail with a wagon tomorrow morning." With that he stood. "And I'll pray for him, and you."
Chris nodded to his thanks to Sanchez as he began to saddle his horse.
"I'll get you those splints and then see if I can't shoot us some fresh meat for supper," Vin offered.
JD stared at the knife in the fire. "Will he feel it?" he asked in trepidation.
"Probably, some, but not the way he would if he was awake," Nathan assured.
It took what seemed like forever for the blade to heat up sufficiently to do the job. Vin was away hunting, JD sat by Buck, his own pain, physical and emotional etched on his young face. Nathan tended the fire, checking on the knife periodically. Chris stood off a little way, his back to the others. He didn't want them to see how scared he was and right then he was so scared he didn't think he could hide it, not without that fear turning to anger, and none of them deserved to be on the receiving end of that.
Buck was too important to lose. Buck was all he had left of Sarah and Adam, the only other one who knew them, who knew what Sarah's laugh or Adam's giggles sounded like. If he - Chris - died, and he expected to die almost every day, becuase in the past he had actively sought out death and was privately amazed he was still alive - Buck would be the only one left to carry their memory. If their memory was still alive, so, in some small way, were they. Besides he needed the big rouge. Buck kept him human. Buck argued and challenged and never took anything too seriously. No, life with out Buck Wilmington was not something he was prepared to contemplate. Besides, Buck shouldn't die from something as dumb as falling into a mine. Buck should die in bed, with at least two women and a smile on his face.
Finally Nathan said the blade was ready. JD looked on horrified as Nathan pulled the rag wrapped hilt from the embers and he saw the glowing, cherry red, blade. Almost hypnotized, he watched as Nathan and Chris rolled Buck onto his side and Nathan removed the blood soaked bandage. The wound wasn't as large as he'd expected, no more than three inches, perhaps an inch or so across, but the sides were all ragged and uneven and blood was still flowing freely from the gash, even after all this time. He was suddenly aware that Chris was speaking to him.
"You up to this?"
JD nodded nervously.
"Can you hold on to his shoulders?"
As JD positioned himself, Chris moved to kneel up against Buck's back, one strong hand pressed down on Buck's thigh the other on his hip.
"JD, you hold on to that left arm, by the elbow, I don't want him moving that wrist," Nathan told him, as he knelt down opposite Chris, the evil-looking blade in his hand.
JD did as he was told, never taking his eye off the blade.
"You both ready?" They nodded. "Okay then."
With no further discussion or any warning he placed the blade on the wound. There was hiss and a smell reminiscent of cooking deer on the camp fire and then Buck jerked, arching his back and trying to pull his leg away from the pain, even as Nathan lifted the blade.
"Easy Pal, easy," Chris soothed. "It's okay, it's over."
Seconds later he'd relaxed again.
"Is that it, is it over?" JD asked.
"For now," Nathan told him.
As the last of the light faded, Vin returned carrying a turkey and two pieces of bark. JD sat propped up under the rock wall, Nathan kept watch over his patient, while Chris plucked and gutted the bird.
Vin placed the bark on the ground. Only then did JD notice that one piece was piled high with sand and gravel. As JD watched, Vin pulled a palm sized pebble from his pocket. Then he divided the sand and gravel between the two pieces of bark. Finally he picked up the pebble and began to rub it up and down along the length of the bark through the sand.
"What are ya doing?" JD asked.
Vin looked at him. "Bark like this makes a great splint, 'cause it curves naturally around the arm. I'll have to shape it some, where it meets his hand, but that's easy. Trouble is, it's kinda rough on the inside. Birch would be smoother, but it's not strong enough. What I'm doing hear is sanding it down, naturally."
"Can I help?"
Tanner smiled. "Sure." With that he fished a second pebble out of his pocket.
Chris, who was almost ready to put the bird on the fire, had to hand it to Tanner. Not only was he making what could have been a very rudimentary splint into something better and more comfortable, he had distracted JD at the same time.
After they ate, Nathan forced JD to lie down on a bed roll and rest. Despite his protests that he didn't need to rest he was asleep almost instantly.
Vin was also lying down, but he was in that half way place, almost asleep, but not quite.His eyes were closed because he couldn't keep them open, but he could still hear Chris and Nathan talking, the fire, the sounds of the forest around them.
"Is he really okay?" Chris asked, gesturing to JD.
"He's awake, seems to have his wits about him, not much more I can do or tell you. From what I've read, if he was gonna fall down again there'd be signs by now."
Chris nodded. "And Buck?"
Jackson glanced back at his current patient. The warm glow of the fire light was giving him a colour he didn't really have. "There too many ifs. If I stopped the bleeding in time, if the wound doesn't infect, if those broken ribs and the cold and the wet don't go to his chest, if there's nothing else broke inside him."
"Is that possible?"
"Could be. He fell a long way. Until he wake up, there's no way to know."
Chris looked at Buck and then at JD, who was as dependent on Buck as he was, only in a totally different way. "He'll be fine," he stated confidently. "You can always rely on Buck." Chris looked back at JD. "How come JD only hit his head, and how the hell did he get out of there?"
"I don't know, he didn't say. He may not even remember."
Both men looked on as JD pushed himself up stiffly. "It was all my fault," he began sadly. "I wasn't looking were I was going. I walked onto the mine shaft. Buck must have seen... he shouted a warning, just as the wood began to give way. He ran onto it and shoved me out of the way, and fell. At least that's what I think happened. I ended up at the bottom of that gully over there, where the spoil heap is."
They had all seen the steep gully. Where the edge was closest to the shaft there was a large deposit of rubble. Clearly when the shaft was dug they had just thrown the debris down the gully.
"It's all my fault," he stated again sadly.
"No it ain't," Tanner's drawl stated confidently from the darkness. "That's an old shaft. Looks like it was covered in forest litter. Unless you've worked around mines, there is no way you could have seen it. Buck told me once he's worked for mine companies in past, keeping a lid on trouble in the camps, guarding the pay roll."
JD nodded. "He told me that too."
"If Buck sees you in danger, or me or Chris or any one of us, he's gonna try and save us, and he won't stop, and he won't think, he'll just act. That's the man he is, always has been," Chris stated.
Even before dawn, all four of them had been awake, eating cold turkey and discussing how to get Buck down to the trail where they hoped to meet Josiah. There was also what Buck was going to wear. His clothes were still wet and filthy and Nathan refused to countenance the idea that they could put them on him. It helped that Vin insisted that the best way to get him down the trial was to unsaddle Peso and for Buck and him to ride together bareback.
"With no saddle I can ride up close behind and hold on to him better. Trust me, I've done this before, when I was with the People."
They accepted his plan and with nothing else available, they put Buck in Nathan's slicker. It was a long, slow ride, but they made it and as they came out of the tree line there was Josiah. All five horses stopped as their riders pulled them up in shock.
"What the hell is that?" Vin asked.
The wagon Josiah was sitting on was small and narrow, very narrow. There was a two person seat at the front and behind it a long narrow flat bed, about seven feet long and no more than four feet wide.
"Is that what I think it is?" Chris asked.
"It used to be a hearse."
"Used to be?"
"It used to have a fancy glass top, but someone stole it one night and rolled it, and that was the end of the glass. The undertaker in Baker's Ford got a new one, he didn't want this one anymore," Josiah explained.
"But why a hearse? He'd not dead."
"No, but look at the suspension... it's gonna be much a more comfortable ride than a common wagon or buck board. I picked up some blankets and quilts as well."
"Can we just get Buck loaded and head back to this Baker's Ford as soon as possible?" Nathan told them, already dismounted.
"No!" JD called out.
The other all looked at him in consternation.
"Not that place, not a strange town. Buck was down there alone, for two days and two nights, he needs to wake up at home, in his own bed, with friends and familiar faces and things and sounds around him, not in some strange bed!"
The passion and conviction of his words was compelling.
From behind the slumped form of the man in question, Vin agreed with JD. Chris looked at Josiah, who nodded his agreement, then he turned to Nathan.
"It's up to you. It's at least another five hours on the road."
Nathan looked at JD and considered the boy's words. "Considering the quality of the transport, I don't think it will make much difference. Let's go home.
As they rode along, with Buck tucked up snugly behind them, Nathan rode beside Josiah on the wagon.
"You do know you'll have to take this thing back at some point," he commented to his friend.
"No, all I have to do is find someone to buy it."
"You brought it?!"
"The only way I could get it... not a very trusting fellow that undertaker."
"Brought it with what?"
"Well I guess I didn't really buy it, Ezra did."
"As we were leaving he pressed a roll of bills into my hand. Told me, whatever we needed to get Buck home safely, he'd cover it." Josiah looked at Nathan and smiled. "Our southern brother has come a long way."
"He sure has."
The first thing he prioritized was that he was dry. The next thing he became aware of, what that as well as being dry, he was warm. Finally, he realized he felt at home.
Slowly, he opened his eyes and saw the familiar ceiling of his room, same planks, same knot holes, same spider web that had always been there. He'd had the strangest dream, in which he'd fallen down a mine shaft and no one came to rescue him because JD was hurt and alone. Buck really hated those dreams which were so real it was hard to convince yourself it was a dream.
Sun was streaming in through the window. What was he doing in bed in the middle of the day? With that, he tried to sit up. Pain shot though his chest and arm and he fell back with a gasp.
"Buck!?" JD's familiar voice made him look to his left. Sure enough, there was JD, looking like he'd just woken up, pushing himself up off a chair by the bed.
"Just take it easy. Rest and try not to move much."
"You've had an accident. You fell into a mine shaft."
Buck's eyes opened in horror. "That was real?"
"Yes, but you're going to be fine, just so long as you rest. That's what Nate said. I better go and get him, now you're awake."
Buck watched JD stand up. "You're okay," he announced, in what was clearly a statement not a question.
JD looked back. "Thanks to you."
"Considering that I'm home in bed, I think I should be thanking you," Buck told him with a yawn.
"But it was my fault. I should have been looking were I was going. I'm sorry."
"Kid I've worked in mine country for years and I barely saw it in time. No way you could have known."
"That's what Vin said," JD told him quietly.
"Smart guy, Vin. Tell you what, though, take him to some big east coast city, he'd be lost in a day. No one can learn it all, so don't go beating yourself up. It was an accident. I'm just glad you're okay. I dreamt, or think I dreamt, that you were hurt. You were up there and all alone."
JD's hand went up to his head. "I hit my head. Took me a while to get help, sorry."
"There you go, apologizing for something that wasn't your fault. We're gonna have to work on that." Buck yawned again.
"Okay, I have to get Nathan and you are going to rest."
Buck made no protest, and even as JD watched, his friend was asleep again. "Thank you Buck Wilmington, for being my friend," he whispered as he left.