Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: My thanks for Linda for the great and very prompt beta work.
Buck sighed, he was so board, there was just nothing to do, nothing at all. He'd been for a ride this morning, before the sun was too high, now he was sitting in the hay loft above the livery, his legs dangling over the edge of the door watching the town as it baked and shimmered in the heat. There was nothing to look forward to except his lunch and that was a long ways off! He sighed again. It was too hot to do anything, the summer heat had been fierce since before June and now it was the end of July and there was no end in sight. There had been no rain, thunder occasionally rumbled over head, summer lightning lit the sky, but no rain fell. Most of the time there were no clouds, and the sky was endlessly blue and not a breath of wind offered any relief. The town well still had water, but the river that ran past the town had dropped so that it was now no more than a few inches deep. School has been out for what felt like years, though in truth was only a few weeks. Almost all the other children in school lived out of town on homesteads and ranches. Other than Chris the only other child in the town was the hotel owner's daughter and she had gone to stay with her aunt in Denver, where it was cooler.
It just wasn't fair that Chris had a job for the summer and he didn't. Nine was old enough, he wasn't a baby. Vin said that since Chris was thirteen now and would be leaving school next year and getting a real job, he better start this summer. Five years ago, while trying to rise the one dollar entry fee for the fourth of July horse race, Chris had worked for the mill owner, sweeping up in the evenings while his son Eric was laid up with a sprained ankle. Now, he was working for Mr Johansson all summer. Since there wasn't enough water to move the water wheel, the grindstones were being turned by a pair of mules. Chris had been hired to tend to them and keep them moving.
“Hey there,” Vin greeted as he came down the street.
Buck looked down at him and smiled.
“How'd you like a trip up into the hills?”
“Yeah!” Buck shouted instantly, jumping up.
“Well okay then, lets get saddled up and we'll head out.”
As they worked to get their horses ready, Vin explained that a neighbour of Nettie Well's had been in town and said that she'd developed a problem with her water supply. Nettie's property was high up in the foot hills of the mountains that lay to the west of Four Corners. The stream that ran though her place had its source high up in the mountains, and was reliable all year, even in a drought. Not only did Nettie rely on it, other farms further downstream relied on the stream water before it fed into the river that ran though the town. Now the stream had run dry, which had never happened before, not ever.
“So I'm gonna go up and see what's going on, JD said you can come with me, before you die of boredom.”
“Ya can't die of boredom, not really,” Buck insisted.
“Sure feels that way sometimes, don't it?”
“Sure does,” Buck agreed.
Still tall for his age, Buck had had his own pony for the last three years. Rosie was fourteen hands high, and a black flecked grey. JD said that the proper name for her coat was ‘flea bitten grey' but Buck was mightily offended by this and got very upset if anyone tried to call her that. She wasn't the most beautiful horse in the world, her nose was a little long and there was a particularly large collection of dark flecks on her left flank that made her look permanently dirty, but she was gentle and reliable and Buck loved her to bits.
Well supplied with water and cookies, they set out for Nettie's place. Buck hadn't met Nettie very often, she lived a long way out of town. However, on those occasions when she came into town, she'd always been nice to the boys and brought them homemade pie or cake. JD had told both boys that Nettie was especially fond of Vin, although he didn't know why. She had a small heard of cattle that she grazed on the high mountain pasture in the summer. She also had some pigs, from which she made her own ham and bacon, chickens and a couple of goats. She explained that the goats – Sadie and Lucy – had two jobs, one to provide fresh milk and the second to clear out the undergrowth around her cabin in the woods.
“I like to see what's coming at me,” she explained “and the chickens and pigs like it.”
In addition, Nettie grew a variety of vegetables and had a small orchard. Vin would never admit it to anyone, but he thought Nettie's life was just about perfect and if he ever had enough money to buy a place like her's, he'd jump at it.
“I've got lunch on the table boys!” she called as they rode up, “won't take a moment to lay a place for young Buck.”
“I'm sorry ma'am, we don't mean to impose,” Vin apologised.
“Nonsense boy, you know I love to see the young'ns, so where's the other one?”
“Chris got a job for the summer,” Buck explained as he slid down off his horse and tied her to the hitching rail.
“My, they do grow up fast, don't they?” she commented looking with some sympathy at Vin.
“I can't believe how much he's changed in just five years,” Vin admitted. “He's turning into a man right in front of me.”
Over the meal, Nettie explained what had happened.
“It's just stopped, one day there was plenty of water, the next just a trickle, today there is nothing. There is still some water in the pools, but not much, and in this heat, they won't last long.”
“Don't worry, sounds like something must have blocked it,” Vin assured. “Streams don't just stop for no reason, not all of a sudden.”
After they'd eaten, Vin and Buck rode up the valley, following the course of the mostly dry stream bed. Buck found it fascinating to be able to see what was usually hidden under the water. They'd been going for about two hours when they found what they were looking for. The stream's rocky banks narrowed and right where there should have been a small waterfall or rapid, there was a dead tree, stuck, root end on, in the gap. All kinds of debris had built up around it, forming a very effective dam.
“Wow,” Buck gasped. “Did beavers do that?”
“No, no beavers around here and besides, that tree is much to big for them. No, I reckon this one came down in the spring floods, and this other stuff has been building up around it ever since.”
They dismounted and clambered over the rocks to examine the blockage. The smaller debris was packed in tight around the big root ball of the fallen tree. The pressure of the water behind it making it solid and as strong as any rock. The water behind the dam had now built up and spread out to form a shallow lake that sparkled in the afternoon sun as it filtered past the tall pine trees. It would have been an idyllic spot, if only it wasn't starving Nettie and her neighbours of water.
Buck helped Vin get a rope on what he judged to be the most vulnerable part of the dam and then both horses were put to use trying to pull it down, but it didn't move so much as an inch.
“What are we gonna do?” Buck asked.
“Head back down. I can get some dynamite from the mine in the next valley and tomorrow I'll come back and blow it, can't see any other way to do it.”
Buck had never seen dynamite in action. “Can I come back and see you blow it?” he asked eagerly.
Vin shook his head. “I'm gonna have to do some hard ridin;' to get to the mine and back and blow it in a day.” Buck opened his mouth to protest, but Vin cut him off. “I know you're a good rider and Rosie is fast, but you'd still slow me down, sorry buddy. Besides, the mine is no place for children,” he added, almost to himself.
Buck's shoulders slumped. Vin hated to disappoint the boy, who he knew wasn't having anywhere near as much fun as he should be in this long, hot, boring, summer.
“Tell you what, shall we have a swim before we go down?” he asked with a impish mischievous grin. “That water looks mighty inviting.”
“Yes!” Buck exclaimed.
So, while their horses stood knee deep in water, munching sweet water-logged grass from the bank of the newly created and ever expanding lake, a boy and a man stripped off dusty, dirty, hot and sweaty clothes and waded out though the shallows to the deeper water where the real stream bed was and had good, honest fun.
Back down at Nettie's, Vin explained the plan.
“You know, young Buck could always stay here with me tonight,” Nettie offered. “Then he could watch you blow that old tree tomorrow, might even mount up and watch for myself. Don't think I've ever seen dynamite in action.”
Buck liked that idea. “Can I really? Can I Vin?” he asked eagerly.
“Well, I don't know,” Vin hesitated.
“Please,” Buck pleaded.
“I haven't asked your father.”
“He won't mind, please Vin.”
Vin still wasn't sure, he knew JD worried about his son. Buck had always been a confident, adventurous boy and because he was tall, people tended to see him as older than he was. Buck always tried to do things he wasn't really old enough to do safely, which was a constant source of worry to all the adults who really knew him, especially JD. But then again, what could happen in one night at Nettie's?
“Okay, you can stay,” he conceded.
“Woo hoo!” Buck exclaimed.
“I reckon I should be back here tomorrow afternoon,” Vin told Nettle. “Buck?”
Buck was still celebrating. “Yes sir?” he answered, suddenly halting his own little happy dance.
“You make sure to help out and mind Miz Nettie.”
“Oh yes sir,” he nodded emphatically, being asked to help a lady was rarely a chore for Buck.
The first thing Buck helped Nettie to do was fetch more water. The pools of water closest to the house were all but gone, little more than damp patches of mud. Below the farm the stream ran across a relatively flat valley and there were no pools, so they had to climb higher. Buckets were no use, they'd have spilled most of their precious cargo before they got down. Instead, Nettie used three canteens, she took two and gave one to Buck, who instantly protested that he was the man and so he should carry more.
“Oh honey, that is most gallant of you, but you're not a man yet, and if you'll listen to an old lady, don't be so much of a hurry to grow up.”
Though her words were meant good naturedly, it was clear Buck wasn't convinced.
“I'm serious, being grown up isn't as good as it looks. I'd love to go back to being your age,” she assured.
“That's what grown ups say when they tell you, you can't do something ‘cause you're too small or too young,” Buck told her sadly. “Chris gets to do lots more than me, jist ‘cause he's older, and he's only four years older than me, but JD won't let me do nothing fun.”
Nettie knew that wasn't so, and she was sure in his heart, Buck didn't really believe it. Still, it was clear that he felt aggrieved.
“You know, my sciatica has been playing up today, maybe it would be better if you took two of the canteens.” With that, and rewarded by a beaming smile from the nine year old, she handed over one of the canteens.
“Now we better get on, before we lose the light.”
It took three trips to gather enough water for the stock and their own needs. It wasn't particularly far, but at one point it was steep and when they were done, there was almost no water left in the pool. As it was, the water was less than clean.
“Don't worry,” Nettie told Buck, “We'll strain it first. And we might just have enough water for Sadie to produce some milk in the morning, nature's own filter.”
Inside the cabin, she showed Buck the box bed where he was to sleep, enclosed on three sides. It wasn't that dissimilar to the bed he shared with Chris at home, which only just fitted into the tiny room the boys shared. They dined on chicken pie, make from the remains of the roast chicken they had had for lunch.
“Hope you like chicken,” Nettie commented. “Because it'll be chicken soup for lunch tomorrow.”
Buck's plate was empty, and he was still using his last biscuit to mop up the last of the sauce.
“Oh yes ma'am, I like it fine, I like most everything, ‘sept for cabbage and cinnamon.”
Nettie had to laugh, “I don't think I've met a boy yet who likes cabbage, my sons both hated it.”
“You got kids Miz Nettie?” Buck asked in wonder.
“Well I did, they're all grown up now.”
Now Buck was frowning. “How come they aren't here to help you?”
“Well,” she began, her voice loosing some of it's humour. “Truth be told, one of my boys died, when he was a little older than your brother.”
“I'm sorry,” Buck sympathised, with genuine regret, the loss of his mother had been a traumatic event that Buck had never forgotten or truly got over, as happy and energetic as he was, and even though he had only been four at the time, he still missed her and included her in his prayers.
“Thank you Buck, but it was a long time ago now.” She sighed, it was a long time since she'd told anyone about Josh. “He was my eldest and he was a good boy, but he took a fever. He fought hard, but he lost.”
“My Ma died of a fever,” Buck told her quietly.
“Some times God has plans for our loved ones that we can't understand.”
“My other son, Stan, he's still alive. He was the wild one, ran off to fight in the war, then made a life for himself back east. Of course, I don't hear from him as often as I'd like, but, well he's happy. Now my brother has a daughter, Casey, and she comes to visit me sometimes.”
Buck had finally finished cleaning his plate. “Miz Nettie?”
“Did Mr…,” he stopped, realising he didn't know what Miz Nettie'e other name was.
“Mr Wells,” Nettie supplied.
“Did he die too?” Buck asked very softly.
“Bless you no. We came here together, when the boys where still young, actually about the same age as you and Chris. I loved living here, but Mr. Wells, he never did take to it, so eventually he went back east.”
Buck looked shocked. “He left you?”
“He did, but it was for the best, he was very unhappy and by then my boys were old enough to do the work he hated so much.”
Buck clearly didn't think this was a good enough reason to leave a lady alone in the wilderness, but she didn't want to even try to explain her contentment with the arrangement with an nine year old, so before he could say anything, Nettie produced an apple pie.
“Now don't worry, there's no cinnamon in it, Vin warned me you didn't like it.”
Food could always distract Buck and it worked perfectly. After supper, Buck went out to the barn to see to Rosie. He brushed her and assured her she was safe in this new place, that Morty, Nettie's mule in the stall next door was her friend.
With a full belly and being very tired, Buck slept well in his new bed and woke late.
“I'm sorry ma'am,” he apologised as he scrambled out of bed, pulling on his clothes. “I didn't mean to sleep so late.”
“Nothing to apologise for boy, you're not late, I'm old, old people don't sleep much.”
After a breakfast of oatmeal made with fresh goat's milk and a poached egg, they tended to the stock and then set out again to collect more water. With that done, Nettie decided the kitchen garden needed some weeding.
“Can I help?” Buck asked.
“No dear, it would take me longer to show you which plants were the weeds than to do it myself. Besides, I enjoy it.” She looked at him, not sure what to suggest he do while they waited for Vin to return.
“Miz Nettie, can I go riding?” Buck asked.
“No dear, I don't think so.”
“I'm a good rider,” Buck assured.
“I know, but you don't know the country around here, so I think the answer has to be no.”
Buck thought he could have talked her around, but he'd promised to mind her, so gave up on the idea. “I could get more water,” he offered.
“I'm not sure that's such a good idea either, you'd have to go higher.”
“Not much, I can do it, I know where I'm going, I'll be quick.”
“Please, let me help.” He gave her his best, ‘cute pleading look'.
“Oh very well, but you be sure to be quick and tell me the minute you are back or I'm going to come looking for you.”
“Yes ma'am!” Buck exclaimed, even as he was turning to run into the house and get the canteens.
Buck set out at a run, scrambling with the sure footedness of a mountain goat over the rocks of the stream bed. It didn't take him long to get to the pool they had used the evening before. Above him thunder rumbled, but he paid it no mind. There had been thunder on and off and summer lightning more than once in the last few weeks, but it never rained. He stood and stared at the water. If it were possible, what water that was left was even less appealing than the evening before. Buck, ever the resourceful lad, looked around. From here on, the stream bed was steep and rocky, there must even have been small falls. When he and Vin had ridden up, they had taken a long, looping track, some why off to the left before coming back to the stream at the top, where the dam was.
The water at the top, in the new lake, was clear and cool. If he ran, he could get up there, fill the canteens and get down with nice clean water and Miz Nettie would never know how far he'd been. So, with the confidence of youth, he set out.
It took a lot longer than he thought, although he wasn't aware of that. The lake was just as he remembered it, clear and clean, though it no longer sparkled. Buck looked up, to find the sky grey and almost misty, but that was of no interest to him. The water, on the other hand, was very inviting and he was sorely tempted to take a swim, but he resisted. Back when he was a little guy, Buck had been swept away by the river after he'd disobeyed his father and gone swimming on his own. Chris had tried to stop him and been swept way as well. It was a lesson little Buck had learned well. So tempting as it was, he filled the canteens and started back down.
With two heavy canteens on his slung over his shoulders, it wasn't as easy as it had been to come up. The straps were meant for an adult and were too long for Buck, causing the heavy canteens to bang on his legs, just above his knees. None the less, he continued on as fast as he could. He was about a third of the way down when he reached a particularly steep bit. Sitting down, he lowered himself down the side of a large boulder. As he stood and pushed himself away from the boulder, the rock below his left foot gave way, sending him tumbling to the side. With the added weight of the canteens, he had no chance to regain his balance.
For a second as he sprawled in the rocks and dust, he though he was okay. He always thought he was okay. Even when he tripped and hit his head on the post outside the school house, he'd thought he was okay, until all the other children stared at him in horror as blood poured down his face. That had turned out to be a tiny cut on his forehead, but like most head wounds, it had bled out of all proportion to it's size. So it was that, without even thinking of disentangling himself from the canteens, he tried to stand up, only to yelp in agony and drop back down as pain shot up his leg from his ankle. It hurt more than anything he'd ever experienced. He cried out loud and tears streamed down his face as he rocked back and forth, trying to will the pain away. He wanted to rub it, JD always said ‘rub it better' when he fell down and hurt something, but he couldn't through his boot. He considered taking his boot off, but he couldn't seem to get his fingers to cooperate enough to untie the laces. So he just sat and rocked. Eventually, he decided it was time to move. He was a long way from Nettie's and, in any case, she was only an old lady, she couldn't carry him and there was no way to get a horse up to him over the rocks. He'd just have to get himself down. Slowly he pushed himself up, using the rocks to help him. Once up, he tried to put some weight on his left ankle, only to be rewarded with more pain, making him feel nauseous. Taking a deep breath, using the rocks and surrounding trees to support him, he began his long, painful journey down.
He hadn't gone more than twenty yards when he was startled by a deer leaping out in front of him. It didn't even seem to see him as it raced away. Seconds later, there was another deer, then another, then a fox and several smaller animals Buck didn't have time to identify before they were gone. They forced him to stop and when he did, he became aware of a smell. Something was burning, somewhere off to his left there was a fire. At first he wasn't worried, maybe he was closer to Nettie's than he thought, maybe there were hunters or prospectors in the woods. Limping and hopping painfully on, he felt his eyes begin to sting. The smell of smoke became stronger and now there was a noise, like a far off roaring, which was getting louder. Out of breath, Buck stooped and lent against a tree. He lifted one of the canteens and pulled out the cork stopper, taking a long pull on the cool, clean water. As he pushed the stopper back in and looked up, he realised it had suddenly got darker. Thinking a storm would finally break and end the drought, he looked up, but the sky wasn't dark, it was orange. It wasn't that late, he was sure the sun wasn't setting, so why was the sky orange.
Standing up, he hobbled a few yards away from the tree and turned to look up at the forest. Now he saw why the sky was orange, the trees were on fire! He could clearly see the flames through the dark outlines of the closest trees. Fear rising, he turned and tried to flee, but his injured ankle betrayed him, even in his fear. Adrenalin blocked much of the pain, but it couldn't stop the ankle giving out under him. It didn't even occur to him to get rid of the canteens, all he could think about was getting down the mountain.
Nettie stood up and stretched her aching back. It was then that she noticed the smell. Even as she did, she heard the animals begin to call out in fear. She knew that smell, knew their fear, she'd seen in once before and it terrified her like nothing else ever could. Turning, she ran as fast as she could to the barn, the goats, staked out under the trees were bleating as she ran past, but she had other priorities. Nettie only had a small wagon but it was all she needed. She intended to hitch Morty to it, put the chickens on it, along with her mother's patchwork quilt, her papers and money and, if she could persuade them, the goats on it, and make it ready to leave if she had to. The pigs she would let go and hope they followed her.
As she ran into the barn, picking up Morty's tack as she went, she pulled up short. There was Rosie. Buck! How could she have forgotten him?
“Oh my dear Lord!” she turned on her heels and ran from the barn, heading for the dry stream.
“BUCK!” she shouted as loud as she could. “COME DOWN!”
She continued to shout and call out as she tried to move up the mountain, but even as she went, she began to falter. It was still hot, the smoke was billowing in ever thicker clouds, her legs refused to carry her as fast as she wanted to, but she continued to climb. Sometimes she had to scramble on all fours, to take the shortest route, and all the time she called and shouted.
Vin had ridden hard to complete his mission in a day. As he headed back to Nettie's at steady lope, Peso began to fuss and toss his head.
“Now what's the matter?” he asked, but even as he did, he knew the answer. The wind was carrying the smell away from him, but looking up, he saw the pall of smoke hanging over the mountain side.
“No!” he shouted and, ignoring his horse's protests, he spurred him on into a gallop.
Buck was now so scared he didn't know what to do. The smoke was getting thicker and it was harder to breath and see, his throat burned and his eyes streamed. The sound was so loud he couldn't think, it was a monster, it was a dragon and it wanted to eat him. Tears fell down his cheeks and dried instantly as the wind grew hotter and hotter.
Suddenly there was great gust of wind and flames erupted in front of him, jumping to the other bank of the stream and blocking his escape. He stopped, he was so scared as he looked all around him.
“JD! Pa! Help me!” he shouted out loud.
No one answered as he looked around at the wall of smoke and flames. Finally, in desperation, and even though it went against every instinct, he began to retrace his steps, to climb back up. All he could think of was that lake above him, water, water put out fire, water would protect him. His leg hurt, it shot fire of it's own up his leg as he tried to push up and climb onto the next boulder. He cried, but carried on. One of the canteens snagged a rock and so he finally discarded them. He climbed, scrambled, dragged and crawled up. He didn't look back or around, he didn't even look up, he just climbed. His eyes stung so badly he couldn't see properly, his throat burned and he coughed constantly.
Please Pa, make it stop, please! He pleaded silently, no longer able to speak out loud.
Suddenly, his hand landed not on rock but on wood, damp wood. He looked up, he was at the dam. The tree stump was a sheer wall, at least twelve feet high. He couldn't climb it, he'd have to go around it. He turned to the right, the fire was there, eating the trees and the undergrowth and the litter on the forest floor. The heat hit him like a wall and he ducked his head back, even as he felt his hair begin to burn. Desperately, he turned to the left. The fire was there too, but just a fraction further way. He was so scared, he didn't want to move. Maybe he could stay where he was, under this damp tree root. Maybe the dragon wouldn't see him if he hid down there, so small and quiet, but the dragon wanted him. There was a rush of wind and a roar and flames shot out and licked at the top of the root, burning the tinder dry fingers of root that reached for the sky.
His hesitation had cost valuable time. Now, even on the left, the flames began to edge toward the dam. Buck began to climb as close to the root as he could. It was hard, his ankle refused to work, and as he reached up to get a hand hold, he felt the skin on his knuckles burn, but he wouldn't give up. Slowly, he pulled his aching, injured and, by now, burning body up level with the now flaming roots and slithered over and into the water.
Never had anything felt so good as that water.
Peso galloped into Nettie's yard at brake neck speed, Vin swinging down from him long before he could ever have come to a stop. He was tempted to just let the horse go, but they might need to get away fast, so he forced himself to lead the protesting animal into the barn. All the time, he was shouting for Buck and Nettie, but there was no answer. He could hear and smell the fire now, smoke and debris blew all around him as he ran back out. Rosie and Morty were still in the barn, so they hadn't left, the house and garden behind it were deserted, so he was at a loss as to where they were until he remembered the lack of water. Still running, he set out up the mountain, still shouting.
Finally he spotted Nettie, she was bent double, coughing and clutching a tree root for support.
“Where's Buck?” Vin all but shouted as he reached her.
Still unable to get her breath as she coughed, Nettie shook her head.
“What does that mean?” Vin demanded in desperation.
But Nettie still couldn't answer. Realising he needed to calm down and think logically, Vin took a deep breath and then wished he hadn't, as he inhaled too much smoke and began to cough uncontrollably himself. Without any further delay or any conversation, Vin guided Nettie back down to the farm, and grabbed his canteen from Peso's saddle, all the time cursing that he hadn't thought to bring it with him in the first place. Once Nettie had gulped down some, he asked her again where Buck was.
Nettie's eyes were already red and sore, now tears instantly began to run afresh down her cheeks.
“It's all my fault, I should never have let him go on his own,” she spluttered out, still coughing.
“What did you let him do, where is he?” Vin demanded.
“Up there, somewhere.” She pointed to the mountain side behind the farm. “He went to get more water.”
Vin stood back and stared. Smoke hung over the whole area, the tree tops were ablaze, there was an orange light in the smoke, indicating the location of a wider inferno behind the smoke.
“Oh no!” he gasped out. “Oh please no.”
As he stood and watched, it was clear the wind was blowing across the mountain, and if it didn't change direction, Nettie's place was in no immediate danger, but winds were fickle and unpredictable. Where Buck was, who could say, all he knew was he had to do something find him.
“It's not your fault,” he told Nettie firmly. “Stay here.”
With that and pulling his bandana up over his nose and mouth, he set out again.
The higher he climbed, the thicker the smoke became and the hotter it got. He began to dodge around small pockets of flames, but he kept going. Above him, the flames still roared and crackled. He'd been shouting, but he knew his words would never be heard above the noise, so he pulled out his gun and lifted it high, firing three times in close succession.
“Buck, please hear that, please, I'm coming!”
But even as he tried to get higher, the flames grew more intense. Flaming branches started to fall, showering fire down on him, but he couldn't give up. The smoke began to choke him, but he wouldn't turn back. He stepped to the left to avoid a pocket of flames, he stumbled, his legs buckled and he fell to the ground, coughing and spluttering, his eyes streaming, his heart braking.
“Please Buck, please no…” he croaked out as his world became blacker.
Suddenly there were hands on his shoulder and he was being lifted up.
“What?” he muttered, instinctively beginning to struggle.
“Vin!” a familiar voice shouted. “It's us!”
Vin looked to the left, still trying to see past stinging eyes.
“We need to get him out of here!” Nathan's voice urged on the other side of him.
“But Buck's still out there!” JD pleaded.
Vin tried to work out where he was, but couldn't. He knew JD hated him, would never forgive him for this. Buck was lost to them and it was all his fault.
It took them more time when they would have liked to get a semi-conscious Vin back to Nettie, who was feeling as guilty as he was. The pall of smoke was visible from Four Corners and if the wind didn't change, the fire would pass close to the town. If the wind changed, it could head straight for them, making folk very nervous.
Alarmed by how close it seemed to be to Nettie's property, JD, Ezra and Nathan had set out to check on her and the farm. Chris had wanted to come, but JD said no. Josiah had stayed in town to keep a lid on things until they got back. The three men had ridden into the farm yard in a cloud of dust to find Nettie sitting on the front step, dirty, dishevelled and weeping. To begin with, all she said was ‘sorry, JD I'm so sorry' but eventually she was able to explain about Buck and the fire and where Vin was. Not stopping to get a full story, they set out to find both of them.
When they made it back, with Vin, Chris and Pony were in the yard with Nettie.
“What the hell are you doing here?!” JD demanded.
“I followed you, I can help, I need to know what's happening,” the determined boy replied defiantly. Even as he said it, he was dismounting and running to his father. “Dad? Are you okay?”
Vin, still leaning heavily on Ezra, was drinking greedily from a canteen Nathan was holding for him in between coughing and wheezing. Still not able to speak, Vin nodded.
“JD, I'm so sorry,” Nettie repeated.
“Sorry for what?” Chris asked. “Where's Buck?”
“My fault,” Vin gasped out. “Sorry.”
“Where is BUCK?!” Chris demanded again.
“He went to get water, I let him go up the mountain on his own, it's all my fault,” Nettie told him.
Chris looked at her and then up at the wall of smoke above them. “But the fire, no, he can't…”
“I'm sorr…” Vin began.
“Will everyone stop saying sorry!” JD shouted. “Sorry won't rescue Buck.”
Everyone looked at him, not sure how to react. Finally, it was Ezra who said it.
“JD, there is very little chance he's st…”
“Don't say it!” JD told him fiercely. “Not to me, not in front of Chris, he isn't, he can't be. We just have to get past the fire and find him.”
“He's right!” Chris told them, leaving his father's side to stand with JD.
Vin had finally got his breath back. “There's no way past the fire, we'll have to wait for it to burn itself out.”
“How long will that take?” Nathan asked.
“Last one I saw took three days to burn out,” Nettie told them sadly.
“We need the wind to blow it out,” Chris commented as he looked up.
Ezra suddenly grabbed Chris. “That is it!”
“What?” Chris asked.
“We blow it out, with the dynamite Vin fetched.” The others looked at him, not understanding, so Ezra elaborated, telling them how, in the war, he had once seen an explosion create such blast waves that they blew out the bush fires the battle had started. “We would need to get the dynamite to explode deep in the fire, so our main difficulty is to get close enough.”
“I could throw it,” Nathan offered.
“How far can you throw it?” Ezra asked, even as Vin was retrieving the explosives.
Nathan shrugged, “I'm not sure, not that far, maybe 80 feet?”
“From what I've seen, that won't be far enough,” Vin told them.
Chris suddenly turned to Nettie. “Ma'am, where is Buck's saddle bag?” he asked.
“Um, I don't know, in the house I think.”
Without saying anything more, Chris ran into the house and came out a few minutes later with something in his hand.
“Buck's catapult,” he announced as he held it out. “It's a good one.”
Despite his protests, this time Chris was forced to stay back and wait with Nettie. Nathan had tried to make Vin stay back, but he was having none of it. They made their way as deep into the fire zone as they could, before they stopped. Nathan notched the first stick of dynamite in the catapult, Ezra lit it, and then Nathan fired it, sending it high up over the trees to land deep into the blaze. It seemed to take forever, as they sheltered behind a rock, but finally they heard and felt the blast. Even more smoke and debris flew around them. Finally, they stuck their heads up and looked over the rock. The fire was still burning, but there was a wide stretch in front of them where there was nothing but charred tress and ash covered ground.
“Come on, let's move!” JD shouted as he began to run up the mountain, following the dry stream bed.
They had to throw one more stick of dynamite before they reached the damn, but by then it was getting dark.
“If he made it to the lake…” Vin ran forward, the others on his heels.
All three of them looked out across the water. The fire lit up the sky with an eerie orange glow, sending out dancing inky black shadows. There seemed to be nothing there, then a tree somewhere ahead of them flared up and the water was illuminated.
“There!” JD shouted, plunging into the water. He began to swim and then, as it got shallower, wade toward a dark mass in the middle of the water.
“You two stay here!” Nathan commanded, as he followed JD into the water.
He didn't have time to explain that Vin was in no state to go swimming in freezing water and he needed Ezra to keep an eye on him, in case the smoke got to him again.
“Oh Jesus no!” they heard JD swear as he reached the object. “My son!”
JD found Buck in the water, he was lying on his back, floating, limp and lifeless. He held him to his chest and looked in desperation to Nathan. The big healer was ploughing through the water as fast as he could.
“Let me get to him.” He pushed past JD, his hand going to Buck's throat as soon as he reached him. “He's alive,” he announced. “Come on, we need to get out of here and back to Nettie's!”
As much as Ezra wanted to be in that cabin, finding out what was happening to his favourite nephew, he accepted that someone had to stay outside and watch the fire. If the wind moved, they needed to know. He stood there and watched as the flames lit up the night. A small noise made him look back to the house, only to see Chris come out.
“What is happening?” he asked.
Chris shrugged. “They don't tell me anything,”
The boy, and while he looked a little older and acted much older, Chris was still only 13, came to stand beside Ezra, who put his arm around his shoulders.
“They don't mean to exclude you, they are just worried.”
“I know, but he's my brother.”
“We must have faith in Mr Jackson.”
Chris sighed and lent into Ezra's embrace.
Nathan was worried. Buck had some burns on his hands, left forearm and cheek, those he could deal with, but the boy's wheezy, rattled breathing was another matter. On top of which, he had been in the cold water for who knew how long. JD and Nathan had stripped his clothes off and placed him in the bed he'd slept in the night before, piling on blankest and quilts, and propping him up on a mound of pillows. They had placed rock's in the stove to warm, ready to wrap them in towels and place them in the bed with him. The most worrying thing was he hadn't shown any sign of regaining conscious.
On the other side of the room, Vin sat with Nettie, sipping water and coughing. Both felt guilty, but there was nothing they could do to help or change what had happened.
“He' still too cold,” Nathan decided. “JD, ‘till them rocks heat up, you get in there, and hold him close.”
JD needed no second bidding, he was already stripped down and wrapped in Nettie's patchwork quilt, since, he, like Nathan, was wet through. Now he climbed onto the bed, and got under the covers on the far side of Buck, wrapping his arms around his son, pressing his warm body to the boy, willing him to show some sign of waking up, something more than that horrid noise he made with each painful breath.
Nettie patted Vin on the shoulder and stood up, she walked over to Nathan.
“Time for you to get dry Mr Jackson,” she said quietly. “I'll put out some towels and a blanket in my room. Bring me your wet clothes and I'll hang them to dry with JD's by the stove.”
Nathan looked down at her. Nettie was a feisty lady, she had come west and thrived on the challenge and the danger. Now she looked broken and for the first time, he could see how old she was.
“Yes ma'am,” he agreed. “Call me if there is any change,” he told them as he left the room.
There was no change in Buck or the direction of the wind as the night wore on. Come morning, Nathan decided they needed to get him down to the town, where there was more water and cleaner air.
“You should come with us,” he told Nettie.
She shook her head. “I have stock to tend, I can't just leave them.”
“You have no water,” Ezra pointed out.
“I'll stay here and take care of that,” Vin announced. He'd improved during the night, physically at least. Mentally it was a different story, his guilt was consuming him.
“There still isn't any water and no more dynamite.”
“So I'll go up to the lake and get some, I'm not leaving Nettie here on her own and she won't leave.”
Vin and Ezra were now facing each other, tensions rising.
“Ezra, leave it,” Nathan cut in.
For a second it looked as if they would continue to square off, but seconds later, Ezra turned away.
“What can I do to help?” he asked.
“Take Chris and saddle the horses.”
Nathan turned to Nettie and Vin. “You need water, there is only half a canteen left. Take it easy, don't over do it, you both swallowed a lot of smoke.”
JD rode with Buck cradled in his arms. The others offered to share the burden, but he refused the offers. As they neared the town, Chris and Ezra rode ahead to get the clinic ready according to Nathan's instruction and tell Josiah what was happening.
When JD carried Buck into the clinic, the bed was turned down, with a warming pan in it and there was a plentiful supply of fresh, cool, well water. With his son settled in the bed, JD sat down beside him and took his hand.
“Come on Buck, wake up for me, I need you son,” he whispered.
There was no response, other than the erratic movement of the boy's chest as he coughed.
“Why doesn't he wake up?” Chris asked from the doorway.
“He's tired, he'll wake up when he's ready,” Ezra assured. “Isn't that right Mr Jackson?”
Nathan looked Ezra in the eye, clearly telling him this was far from sure. “Sure,” he confirmed.
“Come, let us go and get clean and then collect some food for JD and Nathan,” Ezra suggested.
Reluctantly, Chris allowed himself to be turned way. Even as they started down the stairs, more thunder rumbled in the distance, but they paid it no mind. As the day wore on, the thunder got closer and louder. Suddenly, there was an enormously loud crack of thunder that made everyone jump, rattled the window and spooked more than one horse. In the clinic, Buck's eyes flew open.
Nathan had stepped out to get cleaned up, and JD had turned to the window. When he looked back, he saw Buck looking at him.
“Hey there,” he greeted softly.
Buck opened his mouth and tried to speak, but nothing came out but a horse, painful squeak.
“No, hush, don't try to speak.” JD grabbed the cup of water from the table. He then gently lifted Buck's head a little higher off the mountain of pillows he was propped up on. “Come on drink, just a little.”
Buck managed four sips, before he began to splutter.
“Gently, gently, take it slow,” JD coached. After a few more sips, JD let him rest. “You mustn't try and talk, you're safe and so is Nettie. Vin is with her.”
Buck's still red rimmed eyes looked imploringly at his father. He really wanted a hug, but it hurt so much to try and speak.
“Hey, come here.” JD wrapped his arms around his son as best he could with out touching the raw burns. “It's okay, you're safe, I've got you,” JD soothed.
Outside, the heavens opened. Moments later, Nathan burst into the room. “Damn it, I just get all clean and dry and now I'm wet again!”
He was still standing in the doorway, shaking out the shoulder of his shirt and his hair. Only when that was done did he look at this patient and realise two pairs of eyes were watching him.
“Buck, hello, look at you, awake.”
Little by little, as he sipped water, Buck's throat hurt less, although Nathan though it would be sometime before it was pain free. The sun was getting low and the rain was still falling when Buck looked up at JD and smiled.
“You found me,” he whispered hoarsely.
JD beamed. “Of course we did.”
“Thanks Pa.” Buck sipped some more water. “I was scared.”
“Oh, son, I bet you were. I was so scared when we were coming to get you, but you must have been so brave and so clever, to get all the way to the middle of the water where you were safe. I'm so proud of you.”
JD hugged him again. When he pulled back, Buck's eyes were closed again. JD's imploring and frightened look brought Nathan over instantly. After a quick check, he smiled.
Chris and Ezra were overjoyed with the news, and came to watch him sleep, before heading for bed. Josiah promised to ride out to Nettie's in the morning to give them the good news. When he did, he found that not only had the rain put out the fire, the added water had broken the dam and restored the stream naturally.
“If we'd just waited, nature would have fixed everything,” Vin lamented dejectedly.
“You can't think like that. We all have to make the decisions we think are right at that moment. None of us can see the future.”
Vin wasn't so easily placated. “He nearly died! If he hadn't made it to the lake, he'd have burned to death! That's all I can think of, him, up there, alone, scared, burning.”
“But he didn't, he got himself to safety, and who taught him how to take care of himself in the forest? You did. He's Buck, he's adventurous, he's naughty, he's curious, always trying to help. We can't stop him being who he is. All we can do is teach him to take care, and you did, which is why he's still with us now.” Josiah looked over at Nettie, who also looked crestfallen. “He wanted to help you, he always wants to help, especially ladies.” Josiah shook his head. “I do not envy JD in a few years time. The way that boy takes to the ladies, he's going to be a real handful! You had, neither of you, any way to know a fire was going to break out when it did.”
He wasn't sure they believed him, but since Nettie now had water and the fire was out, Vin was anxious to get back and check on Buck himself.
Now he knew Buck was on the mend, Chris found he was very proud of his little brother. He'd clearly been very brave and had an amazing adventure. While his throat was still sore and he was still coughing a lot, Buck was much improved the next day. Nathan insisted he had to stay in the clinic until he was sure his burns were healing cleanly. The one on his cheek was superficial, but some on his hands and arm were more serious and very painful. So painful, that as much as he didn't like it, Nathan was giving the boys small doses of laudanum, though he intended to replace it with honey laced willow bark tea as soon as possible. When they had been settling him in the bed under the quilt, Nathan had discovered that one of his ankles was badly swollen and discoloured. He believed it to be sprained, rather than broken, but it was just another reason to keep him in bed for a while. When he was able to speak more, Buck would tell them how he hurt his ankle and couldn't out run the fire.
One of the side affects of the laudanum was that Buck kept falling asleep, but that was a good thing, since it stopped him getting bored so quickly. Not that he got bored much, not with all the visitors he had. Along with Josiah, Vin and Chris, Ezra came and played card games with him and did magic. Inez made all his favourite foods, but not the spicy ones, since his throat was so sore. Blossom and the other girls came to coo and fuss over him.
While they were in there, JD sat outside, getting some sun, now that the rains had dried up again, with Vin.
“I'm sorry,” JD said eventually.
“What for?” Vin asked.
“For making out that it was your fault. If he'd have asked me, I'd have let him stay with Nettie as well. I would probably have let him go get the water. It was just one of those things.”
“That's what Josiah told me, can't help but think, what if you'd said no, what if we'd have waited another day. But I guess you can't live you're life thinking ‘what if', can you?”
“No. There is something else.”
“When he woke up, he called me ‘Pa'.”
Vin looked around, a grin on his face, he knew how much that meant to JD. Chris had started to call Vin ‘dad' after only a few months. However, for Buck, who had never had a father, who knew no other children who had fathers, raised in a world where men were the enemy, to be kept away from the children, and not to be trusted, the title did not come naturally. It had taken five years for him to say it.
“That's great, you must be so happy.”
“It's not that I think he loves me any more or anything, but I have to admit, when he said it…”
“It really wasn't your fault.”
“I know, and one day, I might even believe that when I say it.” JD opened his mouth.
“No, don't say anything. I keep telling myself that, but my heart won't listen, not yet.”
Just then, Chris came running up the stairs clutching a box. “Hey Dad!” he greeted his father. “Mr Tiny lent me his dominos so me and Buck can play!”
“That's great son, go on in, just remember he might fall asleep.”
“I know, bye Dad!”
“Damn we're lucky men,” JD commented.
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