In the Year AU
Main Characters - Vin, JD
The horned horse raced through the misty rain. The half conscious man on his back clung to the long wet mane and slick reins tightly. His head almost touched the racing horse’s neck as he slumped forward a little more with each long stride of the horse. Time stood still as they moved across the land.
Pain radiated from his upper back and head. He breathed in short bursts in an effort to ease the ache and stay conscious. He was far from home and wasn’t even sure he was heading in the right direction. He had to trust the horse to get them to safety. Time passed. The dreary day became darker; the rain began to fall harder. The rider wrapped his hands tighter into the long black mane, trying to anchor himself firmly on his mount. Minutes later blacked out. He slumped onto the racing horse’s neck.
The large black horse slowed his head-long run into a smooth mile-eating canter. He sensed that his rider was no longer alert and could fall off. He also knew they had started out going the wrong way to get home. With unerring accurate sense, he made the necessary adjustment to head home. They were now headed in the correct direction. They still were a long way from home. It would be late the next day before they’d be close to town, unless the weather became worse.
When darkness overtook them, the stallion and moved into his easy, mile eating running walk. With the darkness came more rain, and the chance of other animals taking advantage of it, hunting for easy food. Snorting the black slowed; there was something in the air that made him nervous. His ears flicked constantly back and forth, straining for sound through the thundering rain. He lowered his head a little and swung the lethal horns from side to side, dark eyes wide, and snorted softly. The man groaned and shifted and his grip tightened. The horse blew through his nose smelling fresh blood from the man on his back.
The stallion edged along the narrow trail only he could see in the black night. He placed his hooves carefully down and quietly as he moved along. A few minutes later he heard the noise of the creek roaring across the trail ahead. Having been here before, he knew it wasn't very wide or deep. Easy to step across its expanse, he now sensed it had grown wider, swifter and deeper. The black stopped at the edge of the water and listened. His head rose as he scented the air, smelling the dirt that churned in the flooded creek. He turned his large head; his dark eyes gazed at the trail behind him. He sensed danger. With the darkness and the heavy rain, he couldn’t see it with the rain and darkness.
Looking back to the water he sniffed at it then sniffed his rider’s leg before he took the next step, going into the flooded creek. He needed to protect his rider. Carefully he made his way into the creek. He reached the middle of the creek and heard a loud howl behind them. He swung his horned head around, but kept walking through the water. He paused when the water reached his chest feeling his rider stir when the cold water soaking his feet and legs. When the man gripped his mane tighter he moved forward several more steps. He felt his rider shift and sit up. With a snort of warning, he moved forward a little faster through the rushing water. With a growl, the stallion dipped his muzzle into the cold, fast running water and took a swallow, lifting his head he looked over his shoulder as he kept moving.
The man muttered a curse and shifted again, griping the reins in his hand and reached for the blaster in his holster. The blood smell came again as the man sat straighter. He was aware of where they were and what could be behind them. Even though he couldn’t tell what was there, he tensed, knowing they weren’t alone.
The animals behind them had stopped at the edge of the flooded creek. Still unable to smell or quite see what was behind them, the black horse made his way to the newly cut creek bank and stepped out of the flowing water. He eased over the slick, sucking muddy ground, until it changed to more solid land. Howls erupted behind them and a loud splash.
The stallion felt hands tighten on the reins and began to canter away from the water, moving onto the more solid ground. They both knew there was going to be a fight; the howls let them know the wolves were chasing them.
Mud splattered up from the iron clad hooves pounding the soggy ground. The stallion kept a steady pace across the soaked land. He felt his rider shifting on his back as the howls got closer. All of a sudden lightning flashed across the sky, lighting the land for miles around them. The man turned and fired his blaster at the following wolves as he urged the horse to go faster. Yowls and howls came from behind them as wolves were hit with the accurate blasts. The man’s fist wrapped a hank of the long mane around his wrist and reins as he faced forward again. The light flash had lit the trail for the stallion and he unerringly followed it now though the darkness.
The remaining wolves were closing in on them. The blood smell, though faint in the rain, drew them after the fleeing horse.
Another flash of lightning lit the country side. This time it parallel the land for miles and the rider twisted in the saddle and poured blaster fire into the following animals.
This time the rider could see the wolves for almost a full minute and by the time darkness once more enveloped him, only two followed. The man groaned as he twisted forward. He knew he was weakening fast. He wasn’t sure where they were. He silently prayed he could hold on until he was home or somewhere safe. He leaned over the horse’s neck and waited for the next lightning flash. He had to take out the last wolves or they’d continue to attack him and the horse. He wouldn’t allow that to happen.
Just as his eyes started to slide closed, lightning flashed again. He turned and looked behind them. He gasped. The wolves were almost on top of them. A gapping mouth full of razor-like teeth reached for his leg and he fired pointblank into it. The head disappeared and he glanced around for the last wolf and spotted it making a jump for his mount’s hindquarters. Another blast from the blaster caught the wolf just as it hit the horse. With a squeal, the stallion lashed out with a rear leg and caught the dead, faceless wolf in its chest. The animal flew through the air landing on the edge of the trail.
The rider listened as his horse raced onward. There were no more howls behind them and when lightning lit the sky yet again, he scanned the land behind them before breathing a sigh of relief. The countryside was empty of wolves. The dead ones had been concealed by the rain that continued to come down. He turned his face forward, shoved the blaster into its holster. With his left hand reached for the radio hanging on the side of the saddle. For an instant he fumbled it then his grasp tightened and he fingered it on. A blast of static sounded, loud enough to make the horse snort and flatten his ears.
“Anyone there? Can you hear me? Need help,” the rider yelled into the radio.
Static sounded then Chris Larabee's voice came through. “Buck is that you? Where are you?”
“Chris, I'm not sure where I am. Headed for home; wounded. Need help…” Buck Wilmington's voice broke for a moment as a wash of pain ran through his back. The rain pounded on his aching head.
“We’re heading out. Is Vin with you?”
Buck was silent for a moment, not sure if it was rain running down his face or tears. “Not here. Not sure where he is. We need to find him ... Chris…” Static sounded and Buck winced as it cut through his head. He heard Chris’s voice once more but couldn’t make out what he was saying before total static cut him off. With a curse Buck almost flung the radio away, but at the last instant caught himself and secured it to the saddle. He might need it later.
The horse, running effortlessly, continued racing along a trail that only he could see. Buck’s thoughts stretched back to the events of the last several hours. He clung to the saddle horn and the flying black mane to keep his balance on the horse’s back, and forced himself to stay awake.
He and Vin were appointed to deliver a prisoner and a bunch of paperwork from Judge Travis, to R10. Located northwest of 4C, it would have taken a couple of weeks to accomplish, if the man had been sent by bus or train. By horseback it took only three full days, one way. The ride had been uneventful, though the prisoner, Roger Masters, had been a mouthy man and they’d finally gagged him to keep him quiet. The man's whining and cursing had driven them crazy. The rest of their trip passed without any other problems. They’d arrived at R10 late Wednesday afternoon. By the time they turned Masters over, and found the business men to deliver the papers to, it was too late to start home. A short time later their horses were stabled and cared for, and the two had taken a room at the only hotel in town. After a filling dinner and a beer they’d retired, planning to leave early the next morning.
They were on the road heading home before the sun rose. They led the spare horse that Masters had ridden. Late in the afternoon, Vin said it was time to look for a place to spend the night. The weather was changing and they were well past where they’d previously camped the last night on the trip. The storm was coming in fast, and they were less than halfway home. With that in mind, Buck had urged Tanner to speed up, and they pushed their mounts into a faster gait.
The storm caught them near a large outcrop ridge of rocks and boulders before they found a place to stop. The hard rain came down in bucketful's. Vin thought there was a cave on the other side of the rocks that they could take refuge in and they hurried onwards.
As they rounded the last large boulders they spotted trees in the distance. Their mounts roared out loud challenges but it was too late. Gunshots and blaster bolts caught them. Buck got hit on the side of his head. His horse roared in pain when a blaster bolt caught her. She jumped sideways and Buck went flying before he could react. A bullet caught him in the back above his left shoulder blade. Pain grabbed him as blackness overtook him when he hit the ground. Beauty ran a short distance away before she stopped. She stood quivering as her lethal head swung back and forth. Though hurting she was ready to fight. Buck felt hands on him as he was roughly dragged upright.
Forcing the blackness away he opened his eyes to see Vin gripping his arm and the reins of Peso, his agitated black stallion.
“Get on him, move Buck!” Vin commanded as he shoved Buck towards the side of the big black. As Buck shook himself and stepped to the horse’s side, Vin had drawn his blaster and was firing at the men who were trying to surround them. Buck managed to mount the black. Vin shoved the reins into his hand. He pushed on Peso’s head and told Buck to hang on.
Vin hit Peso with a hard slap on his haunch and yelled, “Go home! Home, Peso. Go!” He smacked him again and the stallion took off, leaping into a run in one stride. Buck barely had time to grab a handful of mane to hold onto as they raced away from the gunfire. He managed to shoot a quick glance back as they fled, and saw Vin running toward Beauty and firing his blaster at the riders. Then they were beyond the rocks with one man chasing after them. Buck had forced himself to pull his gun and rotated in the saddle and fired at the man. He snickered as the man flew off his horse. Buck faced forward as the rain continued to hit him hard. He managed to slip his gun into his holster then gripped the black tighter. He didn’t know what happened to Tanner and prayed that the youngster was alive. He didn’t want to tell Chris what happened to their friend.
Light brought Buck’s aching head up. He looked around, for a moment confused as to what happened. As he gazed at the countryside around him he thought, as his fuzzy brain started to work, the rain stopped, or did they outrun it? Morning had arrived, the sun rising brightly. The brightness almost blinded him as he looked into the east. Peso walked along steadily and for long minutes Buck listened to the horse's even breathing. He realized he couldn’t hear anything else, other than his pounding head. He saw they were headed for a green expanse, he knew the black needed water and he needed to bandage his head. For a minute he wondered if there was a way to bandage the gunshot wound to his back.
Peso’s head dropped when he reached the grassy area. He grabbed mouthfuls of the long grass and chewed them as he moved towards the scent of water.
Buck looked around, checking to see if there was anything or anyone nearby. He saw nothing but a low flying bird. When Peso stopped at the edge of the small creek, Buck wondered if he dared to get off the horse. He wasn’t sure he could mount if he did.
Looking around as the horse drank, he spotted what looked like a rectangle rock. He might be able to use it as a mounting block. Buck eased himself off the black. When his feet hit the ground, he groaned as pain shot through his upper back. Holding onto the saddle horn he fought to stay conscious. Finally he opened his eyes. Peso, turned his head towards him, his ears pricked forward and watched him. Buck hoped if he lost the rein he clutched, the horse wouldn’t take off.
"You going to stick with me Peso? I can't go far without you. I sure don't want to be stuck out here in no-man's land on foot. Will you stay put big boy?" Buck patted the horse's arched neck.
Taking a deep breath Buck moved. Slow and careful he stepped close to the saddlebag attached ot the back of the saddle. Reaching inside he fumbled through its contents and found a roll of bandages. He also pulled out the container of salve, but put it back. He couldn’t really see where his head wound was located to use it properly and didn't want to waste it. With a small grin he pictured himself smearing it all over this face as he tried to find the wound. He realized he could do nothing about his back. He could feel the grate of the bullet on bone but knew his reach wasn't long enough to do anything about it.
Leading Peso, he staggered to the rock and sat down. He dropped the reins to the ground and placed his foot on them to keep the horse from wandering away. Peso didn’t care as he pulled at the grass around the rock while keeping his head turned so his horns didn’t come near Buck.
With a shaking hand, Buck unrolled some of the bandage and wrapped it around his head. He hoped he'd covered the bloody graze. Once finished, he eased out of his coat and using his right hand felt over his shoulder to find the location of the wound. He couldn’t find it. His arm, though long, couldn’t reach it. With a frustrated sigh he wadded up a length of the bandage and stuffed it under his shirt and tried to push it down far enough to cover the wound. When pain shot through his shoulder he stopped pushing, figuring he’d somehow managed to get the bandage over the hole.
For several minutes he sat there, fighting to get his breathing and the pain under control. He felt a nudge on his leg and opened his eyes. Peso stood over him, his nose almost in his face.
Smiling Buck reached out and ran his hand over the soft muzzle. “I’ll be alright boy. Just have to catch my breath. It must be time to leave isn’t it?” Rising he replaced the roll of bandages in the saddlebag, grabbed his coat and with care began to put it on. He stopped and looked towards the sun in confusion. It seemed a lot higher in the sky than it should have been. He glanced at the ground and saw that all the grass within 10 feet of the rock had been eaten down almost to dirt.
“Oh, for God’s sake! I fell asleep!” he exclaimed. Peso looked at him as if to say ‘Duh, you did.’ Shaking his head, Buck finished pulling on his coat then gathered the dangling reins and with a grunt of effort, mounted. As soon as he settled in the saddle Peso stepped out, heading east. Buck, still surprised over the lost time, took a drink of water from the canteen hanging on the saddle then urged Peso into a canter.
By late afternoon Buck clung to Peso’s mane and the reins, as his eyes kept sliding closed. He couldn’t figure out where they were. "Hope you know where you're going Peso,' he thought. His head pounded and his back felt as if it were on fire. Peso was striding along in his mile eating running walk It didn’t jar him, but Buck didn't think he could hang on much longer. Tired, pain filled eyes gazed at the terrain that stretched ahead of them. Dark shadows were lengthening and the sun, behind them, was on the verge of disappearing behind the low hills in the distance. His brain seemed to be wrapped in cotton as he watched their long shadow that stayed well ahead of them. Reaching for the canteen he tightly gripped it as he took a drink. Closing it he hung it back on the saddle and studied the lay of the land ahead of them.
Blinking his eyes, Buck realized the foothills ahead of them were familiar. They were still a good ways from 4C but he now knew where they were. Gathering his strength he pulled the radio up and fumbled for the on switch. Before he could turn it on Peso roared loudly. His black horned head lifted and the running walk turned into a canter. Buck clung to the radio and wrapped his hand that held the reins into the black mane. He didn't see anything. He trusted the horse, knowing that the horned horses had better eyesight and hearing than any human. He clutched the radio for a couple of minutes before he flipped it on. Static sounded and he quickly shut it off. No way could he get through that racket.
Once more Peso roared loudly, and was answered by another roar from ahead of them. Buck dropped the radio into its place and pulled his blaster. He still couldn’t see anything, but the roar he’d heard was closer. Peso was chomping at the bit to move faster, and Buck wondered if it was one of the guys coming to meet him. But he wasn’t going to take any chances. Peso might just be happy to know there was another horse out here.
The sun went down. The darkening shadows were melting into the grey darkness settling over the land when Peso let out another loud roar that blasted over the quiet countryside. Instantly there was an answer. Several roars of different pitches sounded ahead of the cantering stallion.
Eyes squinted; Buck finally spotted the oncoming riders. A black horned horse galloped with two dark horses beside it. He sighed in relief. Chris, and he thought Josiah and Nathan. With an effort he pulled Peso to a walk and let the others come to him. His head pounded and he felt lightheaded, though he didn't think the wound in his back was bleeding.
Chris, Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson spotted Buck and urged their horses into a run and raced towards him. They saw him pull Peso to a walk. Chris wondered why he rode Peso and stared in the direction Buck came from. There was no sign of another rider. The three men converged on Buck as Peso halted and Buck slumped onto his neck.
“Whoa Peso, hold on boy, you know us,” Chris soothed the antsy stallion as they quickly dismounted and moved to the black. Nathan and Josiah were on each side of the horse while Chris took hold of the reins that fell from Buck’s limp hand. While Chris talked to calm the horse, the other two got Buck off his back.
Once they had Buck on the ground, Nathan let Josiah settle him as he stepped to his horse and grabbed his saddlebags. Josiah laid Buck gently on the ground and moved to Peso. He pulled the bedroll from behind Peso’s saddle and quickly spread it out. He and Nathan moved the unconscious man onto it before Nathan started removing Buck's coat and shirt.
“We need a place for the night.” Josiah said as he helped Nathan, pouring water over the shoulder wound to loosen the cloth that stuck to Buck.
Chris, holding Peso’s reins, looked around the area. Dark had fallen, and he thought of what lay around them. He turned to his left and gazed into the dark, then stated, “We’re about a mile from an old line cabin. It should still be in good repair. There’s plenty of water and a decent barn for the horses. Can Buck be moved?”
“Shoulder wound. Bullet is still in there. Head wound is a graze, looks like it just needs cleaning. I need hot water and light to get the bullet out. We can move him as soon as I get him bandaged.” Nathan said as he continued to rapidly wind a bandage around Buck’s head.
“I’ll take him on my horse. I think Peso needs a break.” Josiah declared and minutes later helped Nathan sit Buck up.
Buck groaned and raised his head. His eyes opened and he looked at the shadowy figures around him. “Chris?”
“You’re safe Buck, we’re here,” Chris said as they lifted Buck and carried him to Josiah’s big red horse.
“Got to find … Vin … He didn’t follow me … He should … be here…” Buck said as he settled on the horse. He felt Josiah mount behind him and tried to turn his head, stopping as pain shot through it.
“Stay still brother. We have you. We’ll be inside shortly,” Josiah said as he turned his horse to follow Chris.
They rode rapidly through the dark toward where Chris thought the cabin sat. By the time they reached the line cabin the sky had lightened. The moon had come up. It changed the deep black shadows to a dark orange-ish color.
Chris pulled up in front of the cabin. Dismounting he hurried into the building to check it for unwanted animals. He found a candle on the table in the center of the room. Once it was lit he glanced around. He saw nothing that wasn't supposed to be there. He spotted a lantern and lit it then moved to the firewood to start a fire in the stove standing in a back corner. The other two men came in with Buck supported between them. They laid him on one of the beds that lined two of the walls.
A short time later, the fire in the stove and in the small rock fireplace was warming the cabin. With the light from the lantern and the hot water Chris heated, Nathan finished doctoring Buck. The horses were safe in the attached barn having been watered and fed several handfuls of grain. Food was cooking on the stove. Before they ate, Josiah helped Chris bring in enough firewood to last the night. They'd checked around the cabin's perimeter and brought in more water from the spring in their canteens. When they sat down to eat, two on rickety chairs, one on a sturdy wood box, more water was heating on the stove.
Buck slept deeply, unaware of what went on around him. The powder Nathan had slipped into the drink of water Nathan gave him eased his pain. The wound in his shoulder and head were now bandaged professionally.
"He is lucky, the bullet, though against a bone, hasn't done much damage. Buck won't lose movement or have a problem with his shoulder and arm." Nathan said. "Once it healed," he added with a smile. "The head wound, I got it cleaned, caked it in salve and bandaged it. I don't think there will be a scar. When we get home I'll laser the wounds closed. For now he just needs some rest."
The three men settled down for the night. While two slept, one stayed awake to keep the fire going and keep an eye on the wounded man. They changed guards every three hours.
In the morning, Buck insisted he was well enough to go with them to look for Vin. Nathan knew better. The mustached man had a fever and looked drawn and in pain. After a quick breakfast the horses were saddled. Chris put his tack on Peso and Vin's on Pony, he'd ride the unpredictable stallion and Buck would ride his calmer black.
Once they were mounted and headed back to where they met Buck, Nathan knew no way Buck would be up for a long rough ride. They stopped long enough for Nathan to fill Chris' saddle bags with the supplies he carried and what was in Vins', then they parted company. Nathan and Buck turned towards 4C. Chris and Josiah headed to where the attack happened, following Bucks instructions.
Nathan contacted Ezra, who was at the jail at the time, to let him know he and Buck were coming in, and the others were going to look for Vin. Ezra promised to alert Rain a wounded Buck would be coming riding in with Nathan.
Ezra left the jail and glanced around for JD. The teen was making rounds, checking the town and greeting the opening businesses. Knowing JD's route he headed for the last place JD would visit, and waited for him. He wondered what happened to Buck, and speculated where Vin could be. After a short time and no sign of JD, he contemplated what the boy had done. Crossing the road he entered his business, 'The Saloon, Hotel & Restaurant', and asked Inez, his chief cook and friend, if she'd seen JD.
"No, he's not come in for his breakfast yet," Inez told him as she carried plates of food to a couple of customers in the dining room.
Puzzled, Ezra left. He stood on the boardwalk and looked up and down the street as more people stepped into the open stores along the walk. 'Where are you Mr. Dunne?' A thought struck him and he walked swiftly down the road to the livery. Entering the huge stable he saw Yosemite cleaning a stall and walked over to him. His gaze took in the horned horses still in stalls. He didn't see JD's pretty pinto and stopped where the big livery man worked.
"Good morning Mr. Yosemite. Have you seen Mr. Dunne this morning?" Ezra asked.
"Ah, Mr. Standish. He and another man came in a while ago. I didn't recognize the man, but he helped JD saddle his horse. Then the guy got his, and they went out the door together. Heard them ride off. They headed to the north." Yosemite replied as he dumped a bundle of straw into the cleaned stall.
"Did Mr. Dunne say anything?"
"No. He looked a little pale. But he never said a word."
"Have you ever seen the man before?"
"No. He was a stranger." Yosemite scratched his chin and looked towards the stall that JD's horse had been stabled in. "Come to think of it, I've never seen the guy around town either."
"What did he look like?" Ezra inquired.
"Big guy, maybe a little larger than Buck, with brown hair, cut real short. He took off his hat for a moment. Has a scar on the top of his head, looked like a hoof print. He wore dark jeans, brown shirt and jacket. He had two blasters, one on each hip. Oh, he also smelled. Milagro didn't care for his scent and kept tossing her head and growling." Yosemite stopped for a moment, closing his eyes as he tried to remember any other details. He looked at Ezra. "He wore some odd looking spurs. They looked like twisted metal shanks, maybe four inches long, and an inch thick. They were pretty shiny, like he never used them other than to shine them for show. He talked with a slight foreign accent. I have no idea what it could be. That's all I can recall of him."
"Did you happen to see his horse?"
"No. Sorry, I was working in a back stall."
"Well, thank you Mr. Yosemite. You've been a lot of help. You mentioned they left a while ago, do you know exactly how long it's been?" Ezra asked as he checked the time on his pocket watch.
"Close to a half an hour ago. Didn't see the time, but it usually takes me about that long to get this far cleaning stalls."
"Thank you. Would you please saddle my horse for me? I will return in a few minutes. Oh, also, I dislike asking you, but I believe I should follow Mr. Dunne and his escort before they get to far away. Would you mind keeping an eye on the town for a few hours? Mr.'s Jackson and Wilmington should be here before too long."
"I'd be happy to. Just need to finish this stall and then I'm free for the rest of the day, unless someone arrives. I will have Chaucer ready when you return."
"Again thank you. I shall return promptly." Ezra tipped his hat to the livery man and hurried out the door. He needed to alert Rain, Nathan would be arriving with a wounded man, and he wanted to pick up a few supplies.
Fifteen minutes later, Ezra headed out of town. Thanks to the rain the day before, he picked up JD's tracks. He hoped they were his tracks. Another set of tracks were beside them. Three hours later he pulled Chaucer to a stop and looked at the ground. There were several more tracks over top of the two he'd been following. He wished Vin was there to make sense out of what he saw. It looked, to him, like the tracks went around and around; obliterating the ones he'd been following.
Cursing Ezra looked over the drying mud for more tracks. For several minutes he sat there, his gaze locked on the jumble spread out before him. His mind raced over one idea then another. With a sigh, he nudged his horned horse to walk a wide, slow circle around the area. On one side of his circle, he found tracks leading away. He finished the circle. Having found another set of tracks leading off to the south. He halted his horse and debated with himself. Which way to go? Which set to follow? 'Come on brain. What would Vin do in this case? I'm only one man, can't follow both sets of tracks. Which way to go?'
Looking to the heavens he turned his mount and followed the tracks heading to the north, hoping he'd chosen the correct direction. For over three hours he followed the trail. After two hours the trail began to get harder to see, until he lost it. They dried up, and now the hard ground didn't show much of anything. Frustrated, he continued riding north, before he lost what little he could see of what he thought were tracks. He decided they were still heading north from the few, slight, last hoof prints he managed to spot. He hoped he could find more before dark set in, but after a little while he found nothing but open land that stretched for miles in all directions. The riders could be anywhere.
He cursed, halting his horse and eyed the vague blue-green of the mountains in the distance. He turned Chaucer around, to return to 4C. He thought, that across the expanse of land, and a long two weeks travel, would be the city of Durango. But he wasn't totally sure. It was many miles away. He did know it was located well north and a little west of 4C. He needed Tanner and his expertise. Vin was the best tracker any of them had ever seen. If anyone could pick up JD's trail, it would be that young man. With a sigh Ezra urged Chaucer into a canter. He contemplated what happened to his friends. Something bad enough that Buck ended up injured. Buck and Vin were on their way home from R10 per their radio call when they left the town. He hoped Buck would be all right. He didn't look forward to telling the man he'd lost JD while he and Vin were gone.
Dark had overtaken the countryside by the time Ezra rode into town and stopped at the livery. Leading Chaucer, he opened the door and led him into the huge stable. A couple of lanterns lit the front area, and he led his horse to his stall. As he tended to Chaucer he noticed that Nathan and Chris' horses were stalled and wondered if he'd heard Nathan wrong that morning. Was it really Chris who'd been wounded?
Making sure the doors were tightly closed behind him, Ezra headed for the hospital clinic having noticed lights on in the building. He found Nathan eating dinner. He could hear Rain speaking to someone in the room that held several patient beds.
"Mr. Jackson, I must have misunderstood you this morning. I see Mr. Larabee's horse is stabled. Is he all right?"
"Ezra, glad to see you. Yosemite told me you went after JD and someone else. Did you find them?" Nathan asked at the same time Ezra spoke.
Ezra shook his head. Nathan answered him as he took in the man's weary expression. "It was Buck. He was on Vin's horse. Chris took Peso and had Buck ride Pony back. Buck will be fine. Rain and I have dealt with his wounds and he's sleeping right now."
Before Ezra could say anything Rain entered the room and with a frown on her pretty face, she placed her hands on her hips and stared at him. "You need to eat, Ezra. You look wore out. What have you been doing?"
With a smile Ezra answered, "I am quite fine Mrs. Jackson. I went after Mr. Dunne. But the tracks disappeared and I came back. Mr. Tanner, I take it isn't here."
"We don't know where he is. Buck told us this morning, before we parted ways, they'd been attacked by someone. Buck got wounded and his horse injured. Vin helped him onto Peso and sent them away. Chris and Josiah are backtracking to see if they can find him." Nathan said with a sigh.
Ezra sat down in one of the chairs and looked at the couple. "And now Mr. Dunne has disappeared. What is going on?"
"I don't know. I haven't heard from Chris. He said he would try to contact us before dark. I spent most of the afternoon at the jail. Yosemite is there now. I came to check on Buck and eat."
"I'll go over." Ezra stood up.
Rain glared at him. "You go eat first. Then you can go over. With just the two of you here, you both need a break. Yosemite will let us know if a call comes in."
"Yes, ma'am," Ezra said putting on his hat, he tipped it to her and headed for the door.
"You better, Mr. Standish, or, I will come after you," Rain threatened.
Smiling Ezra opened the door. "To be sure. I would like to clean up and partake in a hot meal. I will see you both later."
"Rain, he' a grown man, he knows his limits," Nathan stated taking another bite of his meal as the door shut behind Ezra.
Rain sighed and sat down in the chair Ezra vacated. "Yes, you are all grown men, but as to knowing your limits? I'm not so sure. I'll bet Chris and Josiah are still riding. And I think if JD isn't back tomorrow, you and Ezra might be heading off to see if you can find him."
Nathan finished his meal and sat back, looking at his wife. "I don't know. But, yeah, we might do that. I hope we hear from Chris or Josiah before long. See if they think we should head out. Thanks for dinner, honey, it really hit the spot. I was hungry."
Running her hand over her husband's hand Rain rose and gathered his plate and utensils. "You will hear from someone. I am sure and before long."
Grinning, Nathan followed her into the small kitchen, needing another cup of coffee, and a kiss.
Chris and Josiah, after leaving Nathan and Buck, urged their mounts toward the place Buck had described to them, where he and Vin were attacked earlier. They found several patches of blood along the way and realized it was all that was left of the wolves Buck managed to kill. It was dark when they reached the swollen creek, the noise of it deafening.
Unable to see the other side, they looked for a place to set up camp for the night. Josiah found a partly sheltered area in front of a jumble of boulders, the roaring creek barely fifteen feet from the rocks. It wasn't the best place to camp if there were wolves around, but they were between the boulders and the creek, and could escape into the water if they needed to leave fast.
It didn't take the two tired men long to set up camp and get a fire going. Before long they were eating a hot meal. Once things were cleaned up they sat beside the fire for a last cup of coffee, before calling it a night. Chris took the first watch. After checking the horses, which were tied just outside of the camp area, he climbed to the top of some of the boulders. From the place there, once the moon rose, he'd be able to get a good view all around the area. An hour after Josiah turned in, the moon rose. Its bright light threw a light orange glow that reflected off the creek. He could see the land across the creek, and for a ways in all directions in the orange-grey shaded moonlight. He tried to get comfortable on the hard boulder then concentrated on Vin and their connection. Hoping he could reach the young man.
After trying off and on for over an hour he stopped. There was nothing. He couldn't 'feel' his soul brother. Everything in his head was silent, as if there'd never been a connection. Chris rose and stood on top of the boulder and slowly turned around. His gaze moved over the land he could see in the odd colored light. Nothing moved anywhere. The countryside was totally silent and still, except for the noise of the water and the sound of Josiah's snoring below him. Even that was muted.
Chris stretched and sat down once more. He'd give it another try, to reach Vin, and then call it good. It could be that Vin wasn't near enough to be in contact with him he thought.
With a sigh, Chris rubbed his head an hour later. Silence. It felt like he was thinking in a vast void. He couldn't reach Vin. He hoped the young man was all right, that they would overtake him the next day. Safe and sound? He thought, would be nice. But worry cruised through him, having heard the words Buck spoke that morning. Buck thought Vin had been hurt.
Another hour passed. Then after one more hour, Chris woke Josiah, before he rolled into his bedroll. He watched the older man head to the boulders for his watch. 'Be safe Vin' Chris thought as he drifted to sleep.
Chris and Josiah crossed the swollen creek early the next morning. The orange moon had set and the rising sun had begun to color the distant hills. Once across the water, they found some deep tracks that hadn't been washed away by the rain. All they could tell from looking at them was the horse had been traveling towards the water, and a pack of wolves were following. They figured there had been at least six wolves. The two men exchanged a glance, both knowing they were Buck and Peso's tracks.
Peso snorted and looked ahead; shaking his horned head he pulled at the reins. Chris knew the horse wanted to go and glanced at Josiah. When the man nodded they headed off. Peso chomped at his bit but Chris held him to a canter.
Four hours later they approached a long jumble of rocks and boulders forming a ridge in the desert. They could see trees in the distance and knew this was where the attack happened. Slowing the horses they walked them nearer. Peso, agitated, kept fighting the strong hold on his reins. Flinging his head up he let out a loud roar. Nothing answered, but Josiah's horses head was as high as Peso's.
Chris and Josiah turned their gazes to the ground and watched for any kind of sign or trail. For several minutes they rode in silence, holding their mounts to a walk, eyes scanning the ground. Josiah pulled his blood red horse to a halt and pointed at the ground.
"Chris, looks like blood. Could be Buck's. He said Vin ran after he was put on Peso. We need to go a little farther I think."
Chris swung to the ground. Gripping the reins he walked in a slow circle. He made it wider as he'd watched Vin do countless times. He found a set of hoof prints that were deep and blurred from the rain, they went to the west. Another set cut in over them about fifty feet from where the first set started. Chris followed them a ways and found a large bloody spot on the ground and wolf tracks. He knew this probably had been the man Buck shot. He back tracked, walking to where Josiah studied the ground in another area.
Josiah waved, and Chris joined him. "I don't know, but it looks like something hit the ground here. Could be where Buck landed. So these tracks could be Peso's. We need to go a little farther." Josiah straightened and pointed ahead of them, "That way I think."
Side by side they walked forward. Their boots and the horse's hooves barely sank into the now dry ground. It was hard to believe it'd rained so hard the day before, there was barely anything to show it happened. Tracks were cut into the dirt but already were filling with dust, the edges blurring.
Peso stepped forward, his nose inches above the ground. He grumbled, and then moved faster almost pulling the reins from Chris's hand. He halted in one spot and sniffed the ground. Raising his head he roared.
Chris pulled the stallion to a stop when he tried to move away from him. "Easy boy, we'll find them. Calm down and we'll be off," he spoke calmly to the big black and ran his hand down the horse's muscular neck. He could see a set of tracks going west.
It took a couple of minutes to calm the horse. When he lowered his head Chris scratched him between the lethal horns before he stepped into the saddle. They set off, Peso now calm but alert, his dark eyes taking in the countryside. Now and then he lowered his head and sniffed at the tracks they were following.
In less than an hour the single tracks disappeared. They found tracks of several horses going in the same direction and followed, thinking they were following the single rider. When those disappeared some time later, the two men halted their horses and took a good look around.
Chris had an idea of their location and tried to figure out where the riders were heading. The day was getting short. They needed to get out of the open. As he studied the countryside, he remembered a cave in trees near a cliff. He glanced around and spotted the jagged rocks soaring into the air several miles away. The cave lay at the foot of them, in a narrow crevice whose opening faced east.
"We have to ride. There's a cave ahead where we can spend the night. It's going to be close to get there before full dark. I don't know if the outlaws are already there. Guess we'll find out." Chris told Josiah.
Josiah looked to where Chris pointed. He could barely make out the jagged horizon, but trusted the younger man to know where they were. "Let's go. I'm starting to feel like I'm part of this saddle." The older man grinned.
With nudges to the horse's sides they moved out at a gallop. Both men knew when it got darker they'd have to slow the horses; they didn't need a lame mount.
It was almost full dark when they reached the jagged rocks that hid the cave. The horses, still on alert, didn't react in any way, and the men figured people or wolves weren't in the area. Riding through the trees they moved close to the cliff and in minutes Chris found the opening to the crevice and the cave beyond. Nothing stirred in the deepening dark and they rode into the crevice. The cave sat fifty feet back and was deep enough the horses could be inside. The men search for and found a few dry limbs, enough to build a small fire and heat water for coffee. They ate a cold meal and after the coffee was done the fire went out by itself. With the horses near the opening they rolled into their blankets and fell asleep, the horses would warn them of any intruders.
Early the next morning Ezra hurried to the livery and found JD hadn't returned. He debated if he should get Nathan or ride out himself. He knew if he left without talking to Nathan, he'd never hear the end of it. He turned and headed to the clinic.
Entering the main part of the clinic Ezra smiled at Nathan who was packing his saddle bags.
"Good morning Mr. Jackson. I see you might be taking a trip?"
Nathan smiled at the shorter man. "Looks like it. Are you ready to go?"
"I need to pick up my saddlebags and then I am ready. I will meet you at the livery." Ezra said and went out the door.
"Nathan, Nathan I need to talk to you." Nathan heard Buck yell from the other room. Nathan shook his head as he walked into to the clinic's ward room.
Buck was leaning on one elbow, partly raised from the bed. "I need to go with you and Ezra."
Rain entered the room carrying a tray with breakfast for Buck. Her dark gaze went to Nathan then settled on Buck before Nathan could say a word.
"Buck Wilmington, you are not to get out of that bed. You had a bad wound and we put it together for you. You continue to improve but it will be a couple more days before I allow you out of that bed. So, no arguing. Settle back, here is your breakfast. Nathan you need to get going. I will check your wounds when you are finished eating Buck. Nathan, go." Rain ordered and glared at one man then the other.
Nathan leaned over, kissed Rain on the cheek and put his hat on, "Yes Ma'am. I will call as often as we can." He nodded to Buck and quickly left.
Buck leaned back on the bed and looked at Rain. Her glare made him pull the blanket up to his neck. She cocked her head and he sat up and waited for her to set the tray on his lap.
A day earlier
JD felt something hard shoved into his ribs. He looked around at the big man who had come up alongside of him.
"Keep walking. Go to the stables and get your horse. Don't try anything or you will be dead."
At the livery JD waved to Yosemite and saddled his horse. The stranger stayed with him the whole time, once JD led his horse from the stall, the man pointed to another stall. Following orders, JD walked to the other stall where the man got his mount. Together they went outside, mounted and rode north out of town.
Once they couldn't see the town the man command, "Stop your horse and put your hands out. Don't try anything, you're covered and I'm not afraid to shoot you."
The look on the man's face convinced JD and he held out his hands. One handed the man wrapped a piece of rope around one of his wrists, pulled it tight then wrapped it around his other wrist. Holstering his gun he knotted it, then reached out and pulled JD's weapons out of his holsters.
"Now you can ride. But remember I will be watching your every move. Go." He said as he stuck JD's weapons into his saddlebag.
JD nodded. "That way?" He asked nudging Milagro into motion.
"Keep going, I'll tell you when to turn." The man said as he lined his horse up, a little behind JD, but close enough that he could reach the youngster if he needed to stop him.
A couple of hours later a horseman appeared in the road ahead of them. JD wondered what now. He shifted his eyes back and forth, looking to see if there was a way he could get away from the big man riding beside him.
"Don't get any ideas kid. Stop your horse."
JD ground his teeth together and pulled Milagro to a halt. The new man grinned and spit something out of his mouth. "About time you got here. We were thinking we'd have to come after you."
"Took a bit longer to get him alone. But we have him now. Any change in the plan?"
"Nope. You know where we're meeting. James and I will meet you there later today."
At those words, JD glanced around again and spotted another man riding towards them. 'Damn no way to get away from here,' he thought.
The second rider joined them and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. He rode closer to JD who backed his horse a few steps. Milagro tossed his horned head and grumbled.
"Don't make us shoot your horse, or you'll be walking." The man threatened.
"He's just nervous." JD calmed his mount and the man leaned to him. He grabbed a handful of the front of JD's jacket and pulled him closer. The man wrapped the kerchief around his eyes.
"Don't touch it, or we'll kill you. Better tie his hands to his saddle just to be safe. We don't want to lose him now." The man said leaning away.
"Good idea." JD heard and a moment later felt a hand on his tied hands. An instant later they were pulled down to his saddle horn. He tensed but there was nothing he could do but go along with whatever was happening. As they started out he wondered what in the world was going on. Why would they take him, he didn't know any of these men. As they cantered along he tried to figure out what they wanted, and why. He couldn't think of anything.
Some time later JD felt the change. They'd been riding for hours and he could feel the sun beating down on him. Now it was cooler. He wasn't sure if the sun went down or if they were in trees or something else. He was hot and thirsty, and feeling stiff and needing to take a break for a few minutes. He'd asked once earlier, to stop for a few minutes but the big man just laughed and spurred his horse faster, dragging Milagro along with them. He felt his horse stumble and catch himself. Finding his voice he called out.
"Can we take a short break? I need to get down for a minute." Under his breath he said, please, please, not thinking the man would answer.
JD was surprised when the horses slowed then came to a stop. "I'll give you two minutes, but if you try anything, it will be your last."
"Thanks. Can you let my hands lose? Well, from the saddle horn so I can get down?"
JD felt a tug on his wrists then he was able to lift them. He stiffly dismounted and groaned when his feet hit the ground. He quickly took care of pressing business before being nudged in his shoulder.
"Mount up. We have a ways to go."
As JD mounted and his hands were once more tied to the saddle horn he asked, "Where are we going? Why do I have to have this cloth over my eyes? I'm thirsty, and am sure my horse is too…" Something hit him in the side of his head and he felt his hat go flying.
"Shut up. You'll find out when its time. And get water when we get there." The horse moved under JD and they were moving at a canter once more.
JD kept quiet but he listened for any kind of sound he could hear over the thudding of the horses hooves. He figured they were still in the open as he could hear nothing but the horse's hooves striking the ground and the creak of the saddles. The ground sounded hard. He thought if they were in the woods or in a grassy area the sound would be different, maybe softer if there was enough grass underfoot.
Another couple of hours passed and JD felt sure it was dark. Before he could say anything the horses were stopped and the blindfold over his eyes disappeared. Blinking his eyes JD looked at the man on the horse beside him. 'Dang he really did stink' he thought to himself.
"You can go without the blindfold now. Am sure you don't know where we are." The man growled then turned his horse and once more set off, though this time at a walk.
JD looked around. They were on the edge of a grassy area. The ground was softer and the horses were trying to grab mouthfuls of grass as they went along. He figured the moon should be rising soon by the looks of the sky. It wasn't quite totally black; he knew the moon was almost full now. He'd be able to see the countryside soon, and hoped he would recognize it even with the falling darkness.
After an hour of steady riding, JD saw a pinpoint of light ahead. The shrub trees ahead of them made it blink in and out. Since the moon came up, he was able to see a little better. He had no idea where they were though. He could see a dark outline of what he thought were cliffs and tried to place where he could be. With the spot of light getting larger as they rode closer he finally thought he knew where they were. It was a long way from town.
The challenge roars came from several horses before they got closer, and the rider's horses answered. When they finally reached the light, JD found it was near a steep cliff that dropped to the ground about ten feet behind the fire. Pulling the horses to a halt the man leading his horse looked around.
"I'm back and I got him. Hasn't had anything to eat all day, hope you got food." At the words several men materialized out of the darkness as the man dismounted.
"About time you got here. We are pulling out in the morning. And we got one too. Who is this kid?" One of the men stepped to JD's side and cut his hands lose and pulled him off his horse.
"It's that Vin Tanner. Like you told me to get and bring here. Had to wait until this morning before I could get him alone."
"What? We have Vin Tanner. He's over there. We got him, he was riding with another guy and that one got away, this one didn't."
"How's that? This kid has long hair and is young, just like the description we have."
Laughing the first man clapped JD's captor on the shoulder. "Sorry Tom, there can't be two Tanners."
Tom shrugged off the hand, "This is the one. He was in town and going in and out of the places like we were told."
The man who untied JD grabbed his arm and dragged him to the other side of the fire, retied his wrists once more then shoved him a bit farther. JD saw a figure leaning against a boulder. His eyes widened when he realized it was Vin.
JD was shoved hard and he fell, landing next to Vin. He'd heard the men talking about capturing Vin and wondered what was going on. He straightened up and glanced at Vin who seemed to be asleep.
The man walked back to the fire and poured himself a cup of coffee.
Tanner opened his eyes and looked at JD. "Don't tell them who you are," he whispered before letting his head fall back against the boulder.
JD frowned then realized that Vin was wounded. And he sported some bruises along the side of his jaw. He leaned closer to Vin and whispered, "Where are you hit? Can I do anything?"
"Don't tell real names. Leg and side." Vin hissed.
JD nodded then straightened and moments later two men stopped in front of him. "What's your name boy and this one's name? Tell us, or I will shoot you both right now."
Thinking fast JD replied, "I'm Jonathan Tanner, this is Timothy Tanner."
"Jonathan and Timothy? Where's Vin Tanner? You two don't look related."
"Vin Tanner? He left a several months ago, haven't seen him in a long time. Tim and I are stepbrothers."
Tom laughed, "Yeah right, brothers. I don't believe you."
"Same dad, different moms. Tim's Mom died when he was a year or so old. Dad married my mom and she had me about two years later. Dad died three years ago from a fever. It's just us now."
"I don't believe a word you say. One of you is Vin Tanner. We will find out in a few days which is which." Tom growled and turned back to the fire. The other man stared at JD and Vin for a moment longer before he followed Tom.
"Good try JD," Vin whispered.
"They aren't sure. I'm sure the guys are looking for us though. Let me see if I can stop that bleeding." JD answered and moved to Vin's leg. He saw blood slowly seeping from a hole in Tanner's thigh. Dark blood covered the front of his leg all the way to the tip of his boot. Blood had started to puddle on the ground under his leg.
'Damn.' JD thought as he raised his tied hands and worked off his neckerchief. Then he twisted his arms around to reach his pants pocket and pulled another one out. He fumbled to tie them together then scooted closer to Vin's leg and wrapped them around his thigh. He pulled the ends together and Vin groaned in pain.
"Sorry V... Umm Tim, don't mean to hurt you," JD said as he tightened the makeshift bandage.
"It's all right. Needed to be done. Bleeding too much again." Vin rasped.
"Let me see if I can get us some water," JD said and turned his head towards the men around the fire. "Hey guys can we get some water here? We're both thirsty."
For a moment JD didn't think anyone would do or say anything, finally a man rose and grabbed a canteen and brought to over to him.
"Don't waste it; it's all you'll get."
"Could I get some bandages out of my saddlebags? My brother needs his leg and side bandaged better." JD asked holding the canteen against his chest with his tied hands.
The man glared at him for a minute and JD was ready to ask again. "I'll check your saddlebags for it." He stomped off towards where JD thought the horses were being kept. Minutes later the man returned carrying JD's saddlebags over his arm. He dropped them in JD's lap.
"Nothing in there but the bandages and some jerky. Best enjoy that food." With a laugh the man walked back to the fire.
JD opened the canteen and awkwardly held it for Vin to drink from. Vin took a few swallows then pushed it away with his tied hands. JD took a drink then replaced the top and laid it beside Vin. Pulling the saddlebag to him he opened one side and dug inside with both hands to get the bandages. Pulling a couple free he unrolled one and using the other as a pad, he untied the handkerchiefs and put the pad on the wound, then managed to get the other bandage wrapped around Vin's leg.
"Hold on I have to tighten this again."
Vin nodded and with a couple of quick pulls JD tied the ends together. Sitting back he tossed the bloody neckerchiefs to the other side of Tanner, against the rock. "What about your side? There is salve in here that he didn't take out."
Vin nodded. "It’s a blaster burn. It only bled when they caught me. Hurts like hell."
"Can you get your shirt up enough so I can reach it?"
For a moment Vin stared at JD, then the words seemed to click and he nodded his head. He moved his bound hands to his left side and tugged at his shirt, wincing in pain. JD put his hand over his, stopping the movement.
"Let me pour a little water on it, looks like it dried to your side." JD picked up the canteen, holding it between his knees he twisted the top off. With care he lifted it and poured a little water on Vin's shirt over the spot that stuck to him. Putting the top back on, JD set it aside and helped Vin work his shirt off the wound.
Opening the can of salve JD dipped two fingers into the salve then ran his fingers over the dark, nasty looking wound in Vin's side. He could hear Vin's ragged breath and then a low moan of pain. Putting more salve on the wound he grabbed the bandages, tore a piece off and made a pad before he covered the wound. With Vin's help he ran a strip of bandage around Tanner and tied it off. He wished he'd had some tape that Nathan kept in the clinic; it would have been a lot better than having to tie bandages together.
Vin collapsed back against the boulder behind him. JD reached across him and picked up the neckerchiefs and for a moment he wondered what he could do with them to let their friends know they had been here. Finally he stuck them against the edge of the rock Vin leaned on. If the camp was found, they might be seen. He hoped these men wouldn't notice them.
JD slumped and leaned against the boulder beside Vin. He was tired, and dismayed at the condition his friend was in. He could see deep shadows under Vin's eyes and he was running a fever. If he had more water he'd try to cool Vin off, but the canteen barely had any left and he knew they would need it through the night.
It seemed that the night dragged out forever to JD. A few times he woke to the sound of Tanner moaning in pain and gave him sips of water. It was hard to sleep sitting up leaning against the hard boulder. Before the camp fire died out, one of the men came over to them and tied their feet together. JD sneered when they tied Vin's ankles together, as if Vin would be able to disappear into the night.
Finally one man roused before the others. Before long the camp fire was rebuilt and the eastern sky showed sign of dawn coming.
JD opened his eyes and without turning his head he glanced around. He saw where the horses were tied and could make out Buck's grey mare standing next to his horse. The other horses were tied around in several places and he figured they were the lookouts for the men. He wondered where these men were taking them. And why…
JD looked at Tanner who hadn't awakened yet. He could see the flush of fever on Vin's cheeks and feel the heat coming off him where Vin leaned against his shoulder. He was worried, Vin really needed to be attended by a doctor who knew what to do. Not a man whose hands were tied and could barely manage to get bandages on his friend, much less know what he was doing.
The camp came alive with the six men. A couple men started fixing food while others saddled the horses and tended to them. Tom, JD's kidnapper walked over to JD and Vin and kicked them in the foot before bending down to cut the ties around their ankles. He reached down and grabbed JD's wrists over the binding ropes and pulled him to his feet.
"You have five minutes to take care of business."
"Can you free my hands so I can take care of Tim? I don't think he can stand. I can't help him tied this way." JD almost begged.
Tom looked at the young man and then over at Tanner who hadn't moved. Then he looked over to the camp fire. He called out, "Chas, come help me here." He took JD's hands in his and cut the ropes.
JD shook his hands and looked at Tom.
"Go, over there and best get back fast." He pointed towards the cliff wall, and JD moved away.
It only took JD a minute to do his business and he came right back. He leaned over Vin. Chas was there with his blaster drawn and pointed at them. Tom stood several feet away, his blaster pointed at them.
"Come on Tim let's get you up so you can relive yourself."
Vin looked up at JD in confusion. He was surprised to see him there. His foggy mind slugged through thoughts as he tried to remember what happened. "So cold? Hot." He muttered.
"I know brother, but there's nothing we can do about that right now. Let's get you up." JD reassured him and pulled on his arm. Vin made it to his feet and leaned heavily against JD. JD felt the tremors shaking the thin body and the heat coming off him.
"Come on Tim lets go over here." JD slowly led Vin to the other side of the boulder and waited while Tanner was finally able to take care of business. JD helped him button his pants then held onto him as they moved back to where they'd been sitting. Vin collapsed to the ground and JD sank down beside him.
Tom stepped forward and tied JD's wrists together once more. He looked at Vin and decided the young man couldn't run even if he could get up.
"Can we get something to eat?" JD asked looking up at Tom. "We haven't had anything all of yesterday."
"We'll see if there is anything left after we eat." Tom answered as he turned away.
JD moved so he could touch Vin and looked at his friend. Vin's blue eyes were narrow slits and JD knew he'd been listening. In a low voice he told Vin, "I hope we can get something to eat. We need to keep up our strength for when the guys arrive."
Vin's lips quirked in a small grin. "Good luck getting anything to eat. Hasn't happened yet for me." He closed his eyes and relaxed.
JD stared at Vin for several long moments then turned his head to the camp fire where the six men stood or sat around it eating their breakfast. He ignored his growling stomach and looked away. It was getting lighter and he saw his horse and Bucks were still standing together. Their heads, with the lethal horns, would swing one way or the other when any of the strange horses got closer to them. Lady, Buck's pretty grey mare, had her ears pinned to her head, she was not happy at all. His Milagro stood almost against her side, taking comfort from one of his companions. JD hoped their friends were on the way and would find them soon.
Before long the men around the fire were cleaning things up and putting out the fire. JD's hopes of something to eat died as they packed their plates and pans. He was hungry and it looked as if he and Vin would have to go without food.
One man walked towards them with something in his hand. JD looked up at him.
"Here's some jerky for you two to chew on. Better enjoy it. I doubt if you'll get anything more." The man grinned as he handed JD two pieces of jerky before stepping past them, following the others to the horses.
JD nudged Vin's shoulder. When his eyes opened JD held his hands out with the jerky in them. "Take one, this is all we'll get today."
Vin closed his eyes, "Not hungry."
"Vin, you have to eat something. We have to try to stay strong. We don't know when the guys will find us, or if we can escape. So eat."
Blue eyes opened and Vin looked at JD then the hunk of jerky in his hand. Vin reached out and took the smaller piece from JD and put it in his mouth. After a moment he began to chew. He really was hungry he decided. With a nod to JD he closed his eyes again, but kept chewing.
JD chewed his piece of jerky and watched as the men readied the horses. He noticed both his and Bucks horse were saddled. He didn't think Vin would be able to ride. Not in the condition he was in. He turned ideas over in his head and fell on an idea as one of the men led their horses to the boulder.
"Get on," the man growled.
JD rose and looked at the man. "My brother can't walk much less ride. His horse was injured. We can ride double on my horse. I'll keep him in the saddle."
Spitting to the side the man studied Tanner then shot a look at the other men. "Duncan, this one can't ride."
"So tie him across the saddle."
"No! He can ride with me." JD said loudly looking towards the man called Duncan.
Duncan, a tall, muscular, grey haired man walked closer leading his horse. He looked JD over then at Vin.
"Get them mounted, Darrel. Tie that one on and this one can ride behind him. Tie their legs together. They won't fall off." He turned away and mounted.
Darrel reached down and dragged Vin to his feet and threw him onto Milagros saddle. Taking a length of rope he tied Vin's wrists together then to the saddle horn. JD was helped to mount; he slipped his feet into the stirrups before his legs were tied to Vin's and the saddle fenders. He passed his tied hands over Vin's head and encircled his shoulders to help steady him. A rope looped around Lady's neck was tied to one of the stirrups. JD breathed a sigh of relief; they'd left the rope long enough that she could swing her head without ripping his leg with her horns.
Minutes later all the men were mounted, Milagros reins were taken and they were on their way. This time JD wasn't blindfolded and he felt glad about that. He studied the surrounding countryside; if they happened to get away he needed to find the way back to town.
After a couple of hours Vin stirred and woke. His blurry eyes took in the dull looking country around him. He frowned. He was hot and thirsty and something was holding his hands down. Looking down he saw they were tied to the saddle horn and he remembered with a rush that he was a prisoner. He thought over what happened. He remembered Buck's horse falling and Buck being thrown. He'd gone back and got Buck on Peso and sent them off then ran to Lady and mounted her.
He glanced around and realized he was on Milagro and Lady was cantering beside them, her ears back against her head. Someone on a brown horse was leading Milagro and there were other riders around them. He was confused. How he could be on Milagro, how had JD gotten there?
"Don’t move to much Vin, they're watching us. Remember your name is Tim and I'm John and we're brothers," JD whispered in Vin's ear.
"Are you all right?" Vin asked in a low voice.
"Yes. You're the one who's wounded. I bandaged you as best as I could. Just rest. I'm watching where they're taking us. Though I don't think they really know, I think we made a large circle. But if you are awake for a bit you can watch too."
"'kay. I'll watch. Any water?"
"No, they took the canteen. If we stop I'll ask for water again. We need it. At least it's not too hot today. We don't have our hats."
"Yeah." Vin said then lapsed into silence. He remembered running Lady in the pouring rain, with, he didn't know how many men chasing them. He thought one went after Buck, but in the rain he wasn't sure. He'd managed to take a couple down before Lady slid down a bank and fell when she hit the bottom. For long seconds he was trapped under her weight and when she managed to get to her feet, the others were too close. He'd shot at them and was hit in his side then a bullet took out his leg and he went down. They were on him before he could get up. He'd been tied up and thrown on Lady and they left the area. He wasn't sure where they were when they finally stopped and made camp. By then he hadn't cared, as he hurt and was soaked.
He glanced at Lady beside them. She looked all right, there were a few scrapes on her left shoulder and she had a lot of mud on her side, but she wasn't limping. He wasn't sure where she'd been hit, either by a bullet or blaster but she didn't act like anything was bothering her. He was relieved. He didn't want to see her injured, really, any horse injured. Turning his gaze back to the countryside he realized where they were. He'd ridden through this country several times and knew it was a good two days ride northwest of 4C. He wondered where they were taking them, and then wished for some water.
The sun was beginning to set when the riders turned more north and slowed to a walk. The countryside now sported low hills and ravines. The mountains were a lot closer and JD figured they were headed for them. They should be there by dark. He felt Vin move and watched his head rise.
"It's all right Tim I think they're looking for a camp spot. We're closer to the mountains. Would bears be out? And wolves too?"
Vin nodded his head. "Yeah they need a place they can protect from predators. I don't think they'll be too hungry this time of the year, but never know."
"Damn, I was afraid of that. I just hope once they get camp set up they'll feed us this time. We still need water."
The men found a place to camp; it wasn't the best, but it was protected on three sides and an overhang covered about ten feet of the back space. JD and Vin were taken off Milagro. After attending to their needs, they were tied against a boulder near one of the walls, barely under the overhang. A fire was built and while one man began cooking the others took care of the horses. When the horses were fed and watered in the small pond found nearby, they were tied across the opening to protect the men. Lady and Milagro, since they wouldn't let the others near them were tied across from where Vin and JD were.
JD let Vin lean against him. Heat still radiated off the thin frame, but it looked as if the bullet wound in Vin's leg wasn't bleeding. JD thought he needed to change the bandage but wasn't sure if their kidnappers would let him. Vin slipped a little farther down and moments later he was lying on the ground with his head on JD's thigh. JD could tell he'd lost consciousness and wished he could do something more for him, but in the position they were in, there was nothing he could. He rested his bound hands on Vin's shoulder and leaned into the rock behind him, tired and hungry.
A half hour later JD was jarred awake when he was kicked on the bottom of his foot. He looked first at Vin, still out and lying on his leg then up at the man standing over them.
"You hungry boy?"
JD straightened a little and nodded his head, "Yes. We are. Could use some water too."
"Well you're in luck. You get some food tonight. Here." The man thrust a plate of food into JD's hands.
JD almost dropped the full plate and looked from it to the man. "Can I have my hands lose so I can eat and then tend to my brother?" he asked.
For a moment the man studied JD then knelt down and untied his hands. Using the rope he used it to tie JD's ankles together.
"Eat, I'll be back to get that in a few minutes." The man rose and walked back to the camp fire.
JD shook his free hand to get more feeling into it, and then transferred the plate to it. With his free hand he rubbed Vin's shoulder until he stirred and opened his eyes.
"Sit up Tim. We've got food to eat," JD said in a calm voice so he wouldn't startle Vin and have him come up fighting.
Vin looked up and realized where his head lay. "Damn," he said in a quiet voice and pushed himself up then leaned back against the boulder behind him.
"Food Tim, you have to eat some of it." JD said and moved the plate closer to him.
Together they ate, making the food disappear in minutes. When they finished JD sat the plate aside and looked over to the camp fire, barely ten feet away. At least two men were watching them. The man called Duncan said something to one and he rose and moved to the pile of saddles. The man dug in the saddlebags then picked up a canteen and walked over to the two young men who watched him.
"Here's bandages, if you need them, and a canteen." He picked up the empty plate and went back to the fire, tossing it the man who was gathering the plates and utensils to wash. He sat down next to Duncan and they kept an eye on the two 'brothers.'
JD shot a quick glance at the men from under his dark bangs falling over his eyes, before he looked at Tanner again. "I think I should change the bandage on your leg V…Uh Tim. It's bloody, but dry. I wish Nathan was here, he'd know how to get this taken care of and get the bullet out."
"S'all right. He can take care of it when we get home. Get this changed, no since drawing wolves to the smell of blood." Vin leaned back and closed his eyes.
JD set to work. He had to pour water over the bandage to get free from Vin's leg. He didn't like not being able to get the wound out into the open, where he could see it better, but he didn't want to undress Vin with the men staring at them. He worked the bandage loose then used a little water to clean the wound once more. He was glad to see it didn't start to bleed. He placed a fresh pad over the hole and wrapped a length of bandage around the leg to keep it in place.
By the time he finished Vin was shaking and JD held the canteen to him, "Here take a drink, Tim. Sorry I hurt you."
"Can't be helped. Bullet's in there. Hurts no matter what." Vin took a long drink of the water before handing the canteen back to JD who put the top on and sat it down beside him. The two leaned their shoulders together and settled back to try to sleep.
The morning brought the camp awake to grumbles from the hungry horses. A small fire was built and breakfast quickly made. The horses were led to the water then saddled and the prisoners were freed to do their business. They were fed a little before they were ordered to mount.
JD helped Vin into the saddle and got on behind him. Vin's hands were tied to the saddle horn, and JD stretched his bound hands over Vin and enveloped him. Lady again was tied to their saddle. She continued to growl and threatened any horse that came too close to her.
They rode north for a couple of hours, before turning east and cut across the foothills. After a while they moved to the edge of the hills and moved faster.
JD watched the land as they rode across it. It began to look vaguely familiar to him and he tried to figure out where they were. He felt Vin stir and moments later his sweat soaked head lifted.
"Are you awake, Vin?" JD asked in a quiet voice.
"Think so, for a minute anyway," Vin rasped. He shivered as he looked around. He felt the arms around him move up and down on his. Within minutes he felt a little warmer, though he knew he was burning up with fever.
"Do you know where we are? It looks familiar, but I can't place it." JD whispered in his ear.
For a long minute Vin studied at the country around them. The horses were cantering, still heading east.
A small smile crossed his lips and he leaned back against JD. He turned his head a little so no one could see him speaking. "There's a line cabin a couple miles from here. We're maybe two or three hours from the ranch entrance."
JD nodded. "Good. Now all we have to do is hope the guys are looking in the right place for us."
Vin frowned and went quiet. His face went blank as he turned his thoughts to Chris and tried to contact him through the strange bond they had. For several minutes he concentrated then gave up, pain and fever overtaking him.
"Don't worry Vin, he'll hear you when they get closer." JD told him, always the believer that things would work out. Vin nodded and let his head fall forward on his chest.
The sun pounded on the two young men's unprotected heads all day. By the time it set, both had headaches. JD wished they would get wherever they were going. He needed to relieve himself and was sure Vin needed to be off the horse also.
Darkness was setting in when the cabin came into sight. The horses picked up the pace scenting water, the men didn't try to stop their actions. When they reached the cabin JD noticed a corral to one side with a rock barn in its middle. He wondered if all the horses would fit into the building. He didn't want Lady or Milagro out at night. He figured it would be too dangerous this close to the mountains, though Chris, Vin and even Buck had never mentioned wolves or bears this close to the ranch. Then he remembered the wolf Vin had killed at the ranch and changed his mind as the horses were halted in front of the cabin.
Duncan and the man called Chas got Vin and JD off their horse and Chas led the horses away. The young men were given a few minutes to relieve themselves before they were shoved towards the cabin's door. JD held onto Vin's arm as they were pushed inside.
Vin stumbled and almost went down. He couldn't stop the cry of pain as his wounded leg hit the edge of a table in the dark. JD grabbed and held onto him, preventing him from collapsing.
Duncan struck a match and found a lantern on the table. In moments the room was lit up and JD looked around. The big man moved to a door in one side of the cabin and looked inside. He motioned for them to go in and stepped back as the younger men passed him.
A narrow cot stood against the wall and JD helped Vin to it. The door closed behind them and the room was plunged into darkness. In moments Vin was unconscious or asleep as JD hoped. He sat on the edge of the bed and leaned against the wall beside Vin's head and shoulder. He wished he'd of thought to grab the blanket roll off his horse. He could hear noises from the other room and wondered if they might get food this evening. He was hungry and figured Vin needed to eat something. They for sure needed water; the canteen they'd been given hours ago only had a little water left in it and hadn't lasted long.
The door slamming open jerked JD from the doze he'd fallen into. He jumped up and stood in front of the bed. The sight of a man backlit from the open doorway had him lifting his hands to defend them.
"Got food for you two," the man said and held out a plate.
JD relaxed and took the plate from the man. "Can we have a little light in here? And a blanket and water? The bandages?" JD asked looking up at the man.
The man looked around the bare room then back at JD. "I'll see." He turned and left closing the door behind him.
JD sighed and turned around. With the plate in his hand he eased back onto the bed and rubbed Vin's shoulder. "Hey Vin, foods here. Wake up so you can have some. Come on brother."
Vin roused himself, and with a groan he pushed himself upright to lean against the wall bedside JD. Who was a dark shadow next to him?
JD held the plate out, "There's some meat and I think potatoes on here. I can't see what it really is."
Vin's hand touched the plate; his fingers felt something lumpy and picked it up. Putting it in his mouth he chewed. "It's meat. Think some sort of bird." He said.
"At least its food of some sort," JD answered as he took a piece.
The door swung open and two men walked in. JD shoved the plate into Vin's hand and rose.
One man struck a match and held it up to light a small lantern. While he lit it he looked at the young captives. "If you start a fire, you'll die, the door will be locked. There's no way out of this room."
JD's eyes widened at the thought. "Wouldn't even think of something like that! We don't want to die."
The man smiled at him, "We'll see about that in two, three days. There's your blanket and saddlebags. Don't do anything stupid." The blanket, canteen and saddlebags were tossed towards the bed, falling to the floor two feet from JD.
JD didn't move until the man hung the lantern on a hook in the ceiling, and the two men left the room. He heard a loud click as they were locked in. He looked at Vin as he sat down beside him. "Are you feeling any better?" He asked as he took a lump of meat from the plate and started to eat it.
Vin looked at him, one eyebrow rising. JD grinned back. "Dumb question isn't it?"
Tanner grinned and continued to chew. JD shook his head and reached for the canteen. "Let's see if we can get drunk on some water," he said with a smirk.
With a chuckle Vin took the canteen when JD offered it. "Dang JD, John… Your jokes don't work on me. Buck maybe, but not me."
JD laughed. "Yeah I can get his goat pretty good sometimes."
They finished eating and settled down, within minutes Vin fell asleep. His fever stayed high and JD used a piece torn off the blanket to wipe him down now and then. After awhile he leaned back against the wall, still sitting beside Vin and fell asleep.
A scream woke JD from the deep sleep he'd fallen into. He rolled off the bed jumping to his feet. Hands fisted to attack whoever had come into the room. Another scream came almost right beside him and he looked to the bed.
Vin was thrashing in pain, and his arms were moving as if he was fighting someone. JD reached out and grabbed Vin's arms, with a little pressure he pulled them down to Vin's chest. JD's heart was pounding like mad as he tried to wake his friend.
"Vin wake up, please wake up." He said over and over. Someone came through the door and stopped.
"Can you give me the canteen please?" JD asked as he held Vin down. "My brothers burning up."
For a moment there was silence then footsteps moved around and a canteen was shoved in front of him. JD easily held Vin's wrists in one hand, and using his teeth he unscrewed the top and poured a little water over Vin's face.
The reaction was instant; Vin quieted and turned his head to reach the water. His eyes silted open a little and he looked at JD. He opened his mouth for more water and JD released him and lifted his shoulders so he could drink.
JD shuddered; the heat coming off Vin was startling. Vin's long hair was wet, some water dripped off the ends onto his soaked shirt.
Vin drank then looked confused at JD. "Chris? Chris, I don't feel so good."
"It's all right Tim. It's me John. You need to rest, have some more water. Take it easy… It'll be all right." JD gave him a few more sips of water before Vin's eyes slid closed.
JD eased Vin back onto the bed. He looked at the man who'd given him the canteen. It was Duncan. The man stared a long minute at Tanner then looked at JD.
"Sorry. He needs a doctor. I think his leg is infected. I don't know where we are but there is a doctor in 4C. He could help Tim, or save his life." JD's dark eyes were begging for help.
Duncan shook his head. "Too bad kid, we have to wait for someone here. He should be here day after tomorrow or the next day. So you have to keep him alive."
JD jumped up and faced the taller man."You want me to keep him alive? I'm not a doctor. I have no idea what I'm doing or what to do for him. He needs more help than me. He - needs - a - doctor."
Duncan grabbed JD by the shirt front and pulled him against his chest. His eyes bored down into the boy's dark eyes, "If he dies you will pay. You make sure he doesn't."
JD tried not to tremble or show fear as he stared into the man's grey eyes. "All can do is try to cool him. He's burning with fever and he's worse. I still have no idea what to do. I'm sure his wound is going bad. Why do you keep us anyway? We aren't who you said you were looking for."
"If you aren't this Vin Tanner, you will go free."
"Then you will go free."
JD huffed, "Yeah right."
Duncan shoved JD away and moved to the door. "Keep him alive."
"I'll need more water and some cloths to use to try to cool him down." JD said before the man got out the door.
Duncan looked over his shoulder, "You'll get it." He left the room.
JD sank down next to Vin. "Oh god Vin, what can I do for you. I'm sure it's your leg that is causing this bad fever." Hands shaking, JD picked up the canteen and poured a little water over the corner of the blanket and wiped Vins face with it.
Vins eyes silted open a little and he looked up at JD. "Need ta get th' bullet out. Hurts."
JD's eyes filled and he looked at the pale, drawn face on the small pillow. A touch of pink high on Vin's cheekbones was the only color in his face. Sweat covered the fine bones and his hair clung wetly to the side of his face. He looked as if he'd run through a down pour.
"I figured that Vin, but I'm no good at doing something like that. I could end up killing you. Can you try to contact Chris again?"
Vin looked into JD's eyes and saw the turmoil there, he understood how the youngster felt, but he needed the bullet out. The sooner the better. Chris he thought, he'd be looking for them. He gathered his waning strength and concentrated on Chris.
**Chris.. Chris, we need you.. Where are you? Chris I need you.** He thought. For a moment there was nothing then warmth flooded him.
**Vin where are you? We're looking for you but... Are you with JD?** Tears filled Vin's eyes and he griped JD's hand where it had paused in wiping the wet piece of blanket over his face.
**Need you now. Nathan too. Wounded. At the little line cabin. There's six here. Need help fast.** Vin thought back as blackness started to over take him.
"Vin?" JD muttered.
"Coming." Vin answered as he let the blackness to consume him.
Chris and Josiah left the cabin behind as they continued the search for Vin. They'd tried to radio their position to the town but only received static in reply. Not really knowing which direction they needed to go, they headed farther west. Peso didn't fight to go in another direction and Chris hoped they'd guessed correctly.
A little after noon, Peso suddenly roared and turned towards the ridge they were passing. He pulled hard even though Chris tried to pull him up. Half rearing the big black slashed his horns in the air as he roared in anger.
Chris released the reins and the horse bolted towards the ridge. In a couple of minutes he'd barreled through shrub brush then into some trees and halted in the opening and began to sniff the ground.
Chris and Josiah dismounted and moved around the area. They found where horses had been tied then the remains of a campfire. Against a boulder they found several handkerchiefs tied together and covered with dried blood. At the foot of one boulder a dark stain discolored the ground.
"Brother Vin has been here," Josiah said.
"Yeah, but where is he now?" Chris asked as he looked around the area.
Finally, the men mounted and headed out of the trees. At least they knew Vin was alive, or had been. They just needed to find him now.
The rest of the day passed without any sign of Vin or other riders. As the sun set they headed for a tiny settlement they knew about. At least they'd be in a walled area for the night, and not have to guard against bears or wolves.
The two peacekeepers were greeted by several men of the settlement who knew them. They were welcomed to enter and spend the night. Over dinner at Ted Brandon's home, Chris and Josiah asked if they'd seen any riders in the last few days. Ted's son Arden looked up. First at Chris then his father.
Ted, having seen Arden's reaction knew the teen might have seen something. He nodded at his son. "Tell us what you saw son."
"Five days ago I saw, maybe nine or ten men heading east. They didn't see me. I hid when I heard their horse's hooves pounding the ground. They seemed to be in a hurry."
Chris and Josiah exchanged a glance, and then Josiah asked, "Can you describe any of the men?"
Arden started to shake his head then stopped. "Well, they were good sized, big men. One I do remember. He rode a large bay horse with a big white patch on the horses left side. Kind of from its belly across its haunch. It had some white in its tail and a bald face. The man was big, larger than you Josiah. The others were just large men, I think one rode a black and white horse. It was on the far side of the men so I just got a glimpse of it. But they were heading east."
"Thanks Arden that will help us. We're looking for a missing man. I think you know him, Vin Tanner. He went missing a few days ago." Chris told them.
"Damn!" Ted exclaimed.
"I haven't seen Vin, in, maybe a month. And those were the only other people that've come by, other than you and Josiah." Arden told them.
"Thanks Arden. If you happen to see Vin, or those men again, would you radio 4C and let us know? We're thinking they might have run across Tanner."
"I will Chris. If I see any of them I'll let you know."
A little while later Chris and Josiah retired to the room Ted directed them to. They discussed which direction to go in the morning, and decided to head a little farther west before they turned back. Maybe they would run across the trail of the strangers, or Vin.
The morning arrived and the two peacekeepers headed out. They rode along the foothills of the mountains, not seeing anything. At noon they turned back, and moved a little closer to the mountains hoping to see tracks, or something of their missing friend.
The radio on Chris' saddle crackled in the afternoon. He picked it up and turned it on. This time a voice came over it.
"Chris? This is Ezra. Mr. Jackson and I are near the foothills, following a trail." The radio cut out for a moment then came back with a screech. "We are headed north east."
Chris looked at Josiah before answering. "We're heading along the foothills heading that way too. Why are you out here?"
"Looking for JD. Someone kidnapped him. I managed to follow his tracks a ways then went back for supplies. Nathan insisted he come with me."
"JD? Where's Buck?"
"Ms Rain is guarding him and not letting him leave. He is doing well. We are within an hour of the crossroad to 8C. Are you in the vicinity?"
Chris looked around and Josiah nodded at him. "We're about two miles from there, I think," Josiah said.
Chris relayed the information to Ezra and they agreed to meet there as soon as they could.
A half hour later Ezra and Nathan spotted Chris and Josiah waiting at the crossroads. Once together they filled each other in on what they had found, and not found.
"Let's ride. They have to be somewhere. We'll head east a ways. Once we get back towards the foothills we'll spread out." Chris said and turned Peso. The four men rode towards the hills and each one of them hoped they would pick up some sign of the other riders.
When darkness began to fall they were within four hours of Chris's hidden ranch. Since Chris knew the countryside he led them towards a place he and Vin had camped at before. It was a tiny valley protected on all sides with only a small opening to ride through. Once inside, it opened up into an open green space, large enough to contain 12 horses, and an area for the men to set up a comfortable camp. A seep of water dribbled into a basin like rock and never seemed to go dry. The overflow kept the area green.
It didn't take long for the men to set up camp. Chris and Vin left enough firewood before so they would have a fire to heat a meal over. After the meal they let the camp fire go out to save on what fuel was stored there. They rolled into their blankets after checking the horses, making sure there was enough grass and water for them.
A while later, Chris suddenly sat bolt upright in his blankets. His head cocked and he listened to something only he could hear. **Chris.. Chris, we need you.. Where are you? Chris I need you.**
In surprise he instantly answered, **Vin where are you? We're looking for you but. Are you with JD?**
**Need you now. Nathan too. Wounded. At the little line cabin. There's six here. Need help fast.** Came the weak reply, then silence.
Chris jumped up and began rolling his blankets. The others woke, seeing Chris' movements in the semi dark they got up.
"What's happening brother?" Josiah asked as he rolled his bedroll.
"Vin and JD. They're at the line cabin. Need us now. There's six men with them. We need to get there before dawn." He said as he grabbed his tack and walked to Peso.
Within ten minutes the four were mounted and riding through the opening. Once out they turned northwest and headed off as fast as they dared in the semi light the moon gave off.
Within two hours they were near the line cabin. The moon disappeared. Halting their horses they discussed the best way to get into the cabin without alerting the horses who were probably on guard.
"I'll go in and see what I can see," Ezra stated. The three men looked at him.
"What? I am the smallest and I know how to disappear when someone is looking for me. I will see what I can see and come back. Just keep in mind it will probably be me returning," Ezra said as he dismounted and folded his jacket and tied it onto the back of his horse. He pulled a dark shirt out of his saddlebag and quickly changed into it. With a tip of his dark hat, he disappeared into the darkness.
The others, having dismounted, led the horses forward and into some rocks closer to the cabin. From the vantage point they could plainly see the cabin against the bluff. No light came from the couple windows but they could smell wood smoke. They took positions and waited for Ezra to return.
Ezra eased close to the cabin. When he reached the corner, he flattened himself against the wall and listened. Not hearing anything, he eased to the closest window and risked a look inside. He could hear snoring but couldn't see more than a few shadows. Bit by bit he made his way around the back. Having been to the cabin before, he knew there was a small room in back with no door or window, so he continued to circle the cabin. He ducked back when he reached the front corner. A man leaned against the wall facing the barn. Ezra glanced that way and saw two horses standing together in the corral. In the dim, orange-ish light of the moon, one horse's coat looked dull grey. Lady, he thought, the other might be Milagro.
He watched the guard stretch then lean his shoulder once more against the wall, his gaze turned away from the horses. Ezra smiled. This was almost too easy. He hefted his revolver and moved like a shadow to the back of the man. In a second his arm lifted and came down hard, striking the man in the back of his head. Ezra caught him before he hit the ground. In silence he grabbed the man's arms and dragged him around behind the cabin. Looking around he spotted some larger boulders and dragged him into them. Using the man's long belt, Ezra tied his hands to his ankles then took his neckerchief off and tied it around his mouth. Ezra rolled a large rock against the man in a way that he couldn't roll over or move to get the bindings off. With a pat on the unconscious man's shoulder he moved to the cabin again.
'One down five to go,' Ezra thought as he stopped where the man had been standing. He glanced over to the barn and saw the two horses staring at him. 'Okay, time to move you two.' He hurried across the open area and spoke in a quiet voice to the two, with a grumble the horses moved over to him.
"Hey Lady, Milagro, are you two all right? Are you ready to go home? These guys were nice they didn't bother to take off your bridles," Ezra said in a low voice and he patted the two. Both horses sniffed his head and face then rubbed their noses against his chest.
Ezra walked along the fence and finding the gate opened it. He took up the horses reins and led them out of there and towards where he'd left the others.
Chris stepped out of the rocks when Ezra got close. "Over here Ezra."
Ezra changed directions in one step. The horses growled at their buddies and moved faster. Ezra entered the rocks and turned them loose to go to the other horses.
"There is one less man. The guard has been incapacitated. I believe there are five in the cabin. If we don't hurry someone might come out to take this guys place."
"Let's get closer. We might have to go in and take them while they're asleep," Chris said.
The men moved silently to the cabin. Checking the two windows they still couldn't see anyone inside. Chris turned to Ezra. "Was the guy you got large or small?"
"Your size Chris." Came the whispered answer.
"All right, I'm going in. Get ready. Watch the door and windows. Take the men out if need be." Without waiting for acknowledgement, Chris stepped to the door. The others moved quietly, Ezra backing Chris and Josiah and Nathan moved to the windows.
With a last look, Chris opened the door and walked inside. Snores greeted him. He stepped to the closest bunk he could see in the dim light and hit the man in the head before he woke. He turned to the next man. Ezra went for one of the others. A man woke and yelled a warning.
Chaos erupted as the men came awake and saw the strangers in the room. Three men jumped out of their beds drawing their guns. The forth man rolled out from under Chris' downward swinging hand. His hand caught Chris hard in the stomach.
Chris stumbled back from the blow as his air whooshed out of him. He gasped and tried to get his breath, as the man jumped up and smashed into him with his shoulder. Chris went flying backwards and collided with one of the other men and took him down with his momentum.
The man, who yelled the warning, launched himself at the window, trying to dive through it. Crashing head first through the glass, he met the fist of Josiah and collapsed halfway out.
The big man, who'd hit Chris, turned and ran to the inside door. A knife appeared between his shoulder blades and he crashed into the door and slid to the floor. The man Chris collided with didn't get back up, as Ezra moved in and knocked him out. The last man, having jumped out of his bunk, stopped abruptly and his hands flew up.
With a curse, Chris straightened up and looked around semi-dark room, his gun pointed at the standing man. "Ezra find a lantern and let's see what we have found."
A match was struck, and moments later light flooded the room. Josiah and Nathan came through the door one after the other. Josiah went to the man laying halfway out the window and dragged him inside then looked for something to tie him with.
Nathan went to the man at the closed door and pulled his knife out of his back and dragged him out of the way so he could get into the room. He unlocked the door and called out, "JD, Vin we're here. I'm coming in."
"Hurry Nathan." Came the reply from the other side of the door.
Nathan opened the door and entered the room calling back over his shoulder to the others, "Get my bag."
"I will," Ezra, closest to the front door said and ran out.
Nathan went straight to the bed and glanced at JD then looked at Vin. JD, standing beside the bed gave him a little smile.
"Thank goodness you're here Nathan. He's got a fever. Can't get it down. There's a bullet in his thigh. It's gotten bad. He's got a blaster graze on his side, but it seems to be okay."
Nathan rapidly pulled the blankets off Vin and reached for his pants. "He is too hot. Can you get some water heating? And some cool water too. I need it and more light in here." Nathan said as he cut the bandage lose then worked Vin's pants down his long legs. He saw the wound immediately and called out, "Need hot water, NOW. And find me some more light."
"Brother, I think we should bring him into the other room, it's warmer and easier to light." Josiah said from the door. "I'll carry him for you. Chris is cleaning off the table. It'll be easier out there."
Nathan looked over his shoulder to the big man then nodded his head. "More room too. Let's move him. Be careful with his leg," Nathan directed as Josiah stepped to the narrow bed. With care, he lifted the slight body and carried him into the other room.
Chris stepped back from the table he'd just wiped down with clean water and covered with the cleanest blanket he could find in the room. There were two other lanterns hanging over the table. The stove had been stoked up and heat radiated from it, a large pot of water was heating on it.
As Josiah laid Vin on the table, JD and Ezra came through the door. JD carried two buckets of water and Ezra packed Nathan's bag and several saddlebags.
"Thought you would need more supplies," Ezra said putting his burden on one of the chairs.
"Thanks," Nathan said as he bent over Vin's leg and set to work. A pan of hot water was set on the table beside his tools. He dumped something into the water, gave it a stir then dropped a clean piece of cloth into it. He made quick work of getting the wound opened more and began the process of getting the pus out. Between squeezing and the use of the hot, medicated water, he had the wound cleaned in less than a half hour.
Ordering fresh water, he set to work to extract the bullet from the wound. He hoped that it hadn't damaged the bone. After several minutes, he pulled the bullet out of Vin's thigh and dropped it on the table. He held a pad to the bleeding hole and checked for any more infection. When the wound finally stopped bleeding and he was satisfied that it was clean he stood straighter and glanced at the silent men watching him from different places in the room. He motioned for someone to take the bloody water out and give him fresh water.
"The bullet is out. He should be all right in a couple of weeks." As he spoke, Nathan washed his hands and reached for the tin of salve. "I think I got all the infection. But will watch it closely. We need to get him back to town, but I don't want to move him right now. Maybe day after tomorrow."
"We'll have to get the prisoners to town. We'll take them in tomorrow and bring back a wagon to get Vin into town," Josiah said.
"That will work." Nathan turned to JD who was sitting on one of the bunks, his hands clinched between his knees. "JD, are you all right? Were you injured?"
JD looked up, rubbing his hands on his thighs he rose, "I'm all right. It was Vin who was wounded. I tried to care for him but there wasn't too much I could do for him. They kept us tied most of the time, even when we had to ride." JD looked at Vin, now lying in a bunk with Chris laying a blanket over him. JD's dark eyes turned back to Nathan, "He really will be all right?"
Nathan placed a hand on the young man's shoulder and squeezed a little. "He is strong and healthy, he will be fine. Now I think you need to get some rest, you look wore out." The strong hand guided JD back to the bunk he'd been sitting on and gave him a little push.
JD sat down, then stretched out and before Nathan got across the room, he was asleep. The last couple of days of worried stress claiming him.
Nathan glanced at Chris who pulled a chair closer to Vin's bunk and reached for a clean cloth the same time Ezra picked up a fresh bucket of water. Both were placed next to Chris.
Chris nodded his thanks and dunked the cloth into the water. As he wrung out the cloth then wiped Vin's face he looked at the others. "Are the prisoners taken care of for the night?"
"They are confined in the barn in a stall. Tied extremely well. They should not escape this night," Ezra answered before Josiah could speak.
"Then you two get some sleep, and take them to town in the morning. We'll stay here until you bring back a wagon for Vin."
"What about Mr. Dunne?"
Chris shot a glance to where the youngster was sleeping. "We'll see in the morning. I have a feeling he will want to check on Buck. Make sure he is really okay."
"Sleep sounds good," Josiah said and moved to one of the bunks. He frowned, shook his head then laid down on it. His feet hung off the end of the bunk. "Wonder if I could sleep in a chair?" He muttered to himself as he pulled a blanket over him and closed his eyes.
Ezra grinned at Chris and Nathan as they laughed. Taking his jacket off, he shook it then folded it and laid it on one of the upper bunks. He laid on the lower one and settled down. Nathan added more wood to the fire before sitting on the bunk closest to Chris and Vin. Leaning back against the wall he closed his eyes for a few minutes.
Silence settled around Chris and he bathed Vin's face, then arms and chest, working to get the fever in his soul brother down. As he bathed Vin he wondered who the men were and why they wanted Tanner. For several minutes he studied Vin's flushed face and worked through his mind all he knew about the younger man.
A name popped into his head, Jake Phillips. The man had been after Vin for years. He'd held him captive for months when he was a young teenager. "Is that who is behind this?" Chris asked Vin in a low whisper. Chris shook his head, it was the only person he could think of who would pursue Vin to this end. 'I promise you he will never get his hands on you Vin. Never!' Chris swore to the unconscious young man.
After a little while, Chris thought Vin felt cooler and he sat back in the chair. He was tired and his eyes kept drooping. With a sigh he let them slide closed, he was asleep in seconds.
Nathan rose from the bunk and silently moved to check on Vin. A small smile crossed his face, the patient did feel cooler than he had been. Checking the bandages he nodded in satisfaction and went back to his bunk. He could rest a little while then he would make some doctored tea for Vin for when he woke up. He knew Tanner would be in a lot of pain.
The morning arrived. The cabin was silent as the tired men slept through the beginning of the dawn, lighting the sky to the east. First the shadowy dimness lightened, and then the sky began to change colors, pale blue, pinks, then gold and yellows. The sun was on the verge of breaking over the distant hills when loud roars shattered the early morning.
The men in the cabin woke with a jolt, reaching for their guns. Chris jumped from the chair and as he reached for his blaster he glanced down at Tanner, surprised to see him awake and moving to throw the blanket off.
"Stay put. We'll take care of this." Chris ordered pushing him flat.
"Give me a gun," Vin rasped his voice barely a whisper.
As the others were moving to windows, Chris studied Vin for a moment then handed him the blaster he had in his hand. He pulled his revolver from its holster, "Stay put."
Vin cradled the blaster in his shaking hands and nodded his head.
Chris moved to the door, and then out, followed by Josiah. Nathan and Ezra were at the windows that looked to the sides of the cabin. JD, having been handed a blaster stood just inside the door several steps behind and to one side of Josiah.
Silence fell over the cabin as the horses continued to roar challenges to whoever was coming.
Chris whistled loudly at the horses, and they fell silent. The men could hear something coming their way but with the trees near the cabin they couldn't see it. Josiah stepped farther away from Chris, to be out of line of JD who'd stepped out of the door and to the left of Chris, blaster raised.
A loud roar of a horse sounded in the silence that had fallen, and moments later a team of four horses trotted into the clearing, pulling a wagon.
"Buck?" Chris exclaimed when he caught sight of the tall man on the wagon seat with the reins in his hands and a rifle over his lap.
"BUCK! What the hell are you doing here?" JD yelled as he stepped past Chris running towards the wagon.
Buck pulled the horses to a stop and grinned down at the shocked looks on his friends faces.
"Hey guys, did I make it in time to help?" He asked as he tossed the reins to JD, laid his rifle on the seat then moved to climb off the wagon.
"What are you doing here?" Chris asked as Ezra walked out of the cabin and stopped beside him.
"Yosemite came and told Rain and me that Vin was hurt but you were going to get him and JD. That you were coming to this cabin. I was well enough that I convinced Rain to let me come and help. Figured you'd need a wagon to get any injured men back to town. So here I am," Buck threw his arms open and waved at the wagon. "I have more weapons and food if we need anything. And the wagon is well padded for carrying anyone."
JD grabbed Buck's arm and looked him over, "You are really all right?"
"Yep, I am kid. How about you and Junior?"
"I'm fine. Vin will be, Nathan is taking care of him."
Buck shot a glance at Chris who nodded. "Let's go inside. Vin was awake," Chris said as he turned back to the cabin's door.
The men entered the cabin. Buck nodded to Nathan who moved to the stove and stirred a pot. Buck went to the bunk where Vin lay. A smile crossed his face when he saw the young man watching him.
"Hey Junior, how are you doing?" Buck asked.
"'M fine," Vin answered looking Buck over. "You?"
"Nathan and Rain fixed me all up. We'll get you back to town and they'll have you right as rain in no time." Buck smiled at the pale face still looking up at him. "I am fine Vin, a little sore here and there, but pretty much healed."
"Was worried 'bout you Bucklin."
Buck took the blaster from Vin and sat it on the table, and took the chair by the bunk. "I was really worried about you, Junior. Peso got me safely away, but I didn't know what happened to you. Well, we'll have time to talk when we get back to town. Now I've got some food that I brought out for you all, and I better go get it before JD finds it and digs into it before we get to eat," Buck patted Vin's shoulder and stood up.
"JD's right behind you Bucklin. Oh, no there he goes." Vin blurted, looking beyond Buck.
"Be back," Buck hurried out after JD and Josiah followed in case they needed help.
Shaking his head, Chris sat down beside Vin. "Since Buck brought a wagon, if Nathan okays you for traveling, we'll head to town after breakfast."
"Good idea, don't think it's safe to stay here."
"JD said they were waiting for someone, but didn't know who. Supposed to be here or somewhere, nearby, in a day or so. We'll get out of here and get the men we caught out of here too. See if we can trick whoever it was into thinking they never got here." Chris rose, "You rest while we get things under way." He could tell Tanner was fighting to stay awake, and wanted him to rest as much as he could before they moved him to the wagon.
With the supplies Buck brought with him, breakfast was ready in record time. While Nathan and JD cleaned up the dishes then the cabin, the others saddled horses and got the prisoners mounted and tied to their saddles. The dead men had already been taken away and buried, so the peacekeepers cleaned the stables and the corral before calling it good. Someone would know there'd been somebody at the cabin, but no idea who or how many.
By ten that morning everything was ready and Josiah carried Vin to the wagon and Nathan settled him in the well padded wagon bed and covered him with a blanket. Vin slept through the move, Nathan having slipped a sedative into his coffee. He should sleep the whole trip to town.
With several broken branches dragging behind the last horses to leave the area, to cover their tracks, the wagon and men headed for town.
Several days later, Nathan allowed Vin to hobble out of the medical clinic and sit on the chair he'd carried out for his patient.
The trip, four days earlier, turned out to be uneventful. The peacekeepers, prisoners and wagon, arrived a little after noon and Vin was immediately taken to the clinic. With Nathan and Rain working together, Vin's leg wound was completely cleaned. They found the bullet had chipped a tiny piece of bone off his femur. It took them a short time to find the chip and extract it before they closed the wound using their laser. It would take a few days to heal the muscle and bone. The blaster burn, they cleaned, and since it was already healing, they ended up just covering it with salve and a fresh bandage. With the blood loss they made sure Vin was well hydrated with enriched drinks and ate nitrous foods.
Once conscious, the two doctors managed to keep Vin down for almost four days before he rebelled. Nathan decided to allow him to sit outside for a few hours. Rain let Nathan help Vin outside, but she kept the crutches Vin used inside so he wouldn't try to take off on them. They knew he hated being confined inside for long periods, but with his leg still healing, and his blood still building back up, they wanted to make sure he didn't cause any kind of damage to himself. They hoped to keep him off his leg at least for a couple more days.
Nathan sighed as Tanner settled on the chair and pulled the blanket tighter around him. The sunny day had turned overcast and a cold wind started blowing in from the north. Nathan could see the happiness on the younger man's face as Vin lifted his head to the wind.
"Another few days Vin, then you can go for a walk. We just want to make sure that bone is healing and you don't tear anything up in there." Nathan explained once more.
"'S all right Nathan. I just needed to be outside awhile. Thanks. Where is everyone?" Vin asked as his gaze roved up and down the road, squinting against the dust the wind stirred up.
"Chris and Buck went out to check the cabin you and JD were in. They've been checking it every day to see if someone showed up at it. JD is doing rounds, Ezra, I believe is at his place, and Josiah ... Oh there he is, bringing you something."
Vin looked around and spotted Josiah walking towards the clinic. He carried something covered in his hands and wore a smile on his face.
"Hey Josiah, what's going on?" Vin looked up at the tall man who came up the steps and then bent to place the item in Vin's lap.
"Mrs. Potter made some pies earlier. She thought you might like a piece, or three." Josiah grinned as he pulled the cover off the deep plate. Nestled inside were three pieces of pie, apple, peach and pumpkin.
For a long moment Vin stared at the bounty, then picked up the apple pie and took a large bite. After chewing and swallowing, his grin turned to the two men standing beside him.
"She makes really good pies. Got to thank her for sending me these."
"She said to enjoy them, and she'll pick up her pie plate later today from you. She knows you aren't supposed to be out and around yet." Josiah told him.
"'K... I'll thank her later."
Vin took the last bite of the last piece of pie and glanced up sensing movement. He spotted two riders coming towards them. JD, having finished making his rounds of town, stood on the other side of Josiah talking to Ezra who'd arrived minutes earlier. They all looked towards the riders.
Buck said something to Chris and they reined their horned horses towards the clinic. Chris smiled down at Vin when they halted their horses. "Nice to see you outside, Pard."
"Thanks. I'll be out of here in a day or so Nathan said. Anyone at the cabin?" Vin asked ignoring Nathan's 'Two or three day's' comment.
"Everything's like we left it. No one's been there since we left. Guess whoever was coming changed their mind," Buck replied.
"And before you ask, the prisoners are on their way to Yuma. Got word from Judge Travis before we left this morning. So that's done with. We just have to keep an eye out for whoever paid those men to capture you." Chris added.
"Any of them talk?" Vin asked brushing dirt out of his eyes.
"Only said they didn't know the guy, and they were paid cash to take you. No name and each man gave a different description to Travis. All they knew was they had to be at that cabin with you at a certain time. They weren't even sure what you looked like, dark longish hair, young." Buck shook his head. "Heck, with that description, they could have taken me."
For a moment there was silence then the six men burst out laughing. Buck rolled his eyes then winked at Vin. "Well it could have happened," he pouted, making the men laugh harder.
Buck smiled at his friends, they were all together again. They would be keep an eye out for Vin. They hadn't found the person who was after him, though they were certain it was Jake Phillips. They knew the man had been after Vin for many years, it seemed he wouldn't stop until he caught the young man again. Buck shook his head, Phillips was obsessed with Vin for some reason. They would protect Vin, no matter what.
For now, Vin was healing, safe and they all were enjoying each other's company. Life was good.
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