Thanks to Melissa, my beta
Josiah looked after the two riders galloping out of town. He gazed down at Vin's mare's leg and holster. "Vin wouldn't give his gun to a stranger. How'd they get their hands on it? Vin must be in trouble. Time to gather the boys. We need to find him."
Once together, Chris remembered Vin saying he was going fishing this morning. They knew of some of his favorite fishing holes along the river. He also frequented several ponds in the area, but they were beyond the river. The river was only an hour away. Though he could be anywhere. Racing out of town, they would start their search at the river.
JD was sent to Nettie's to check if Vin stopped there. He rejoined them an hour later. They searched a mile of the river bank, and hadn't found any sign of Vin.
Buck swore. "Where the hell are you?"
Josiah muttered a prayer as Ezra broke a branch that struck his shoulder. Chris leaned forward over his saddle horn trying to spot any hoof prints.
Finally, they found hoof prints on the edge of the river. Several sets were in the mud, but they couldn't tell if one set belonged to Peso. Being close to the last known fishing hole, the men hoped they would find the tracker there. Buck led them farther up the river, looking for more signs of Vin.
After ten minutes or more, they saw the river begin to narrow as it curved around a bend. The channel here was deep and flowing fast. They wondered if there had been a storm in the mountains to cause the river to get this turbulent. The rough water churned over hidden rocks and ate away at the banks. What had been a crystal clear river now had streaks of mud marring the water as eddies swirled around sharp stones and submerged trees. The bank they were on was thick with underbrush. Thorny brush snatched at their clothes and horses. The noise of the river covered the riders curses. A thick stand of trees growing close together along the river bank made it almost impossible to ride through. Finding a narrow deer path, they fought their way through the trees and saddle high brush.
Over the roar of the river, Chris thought he heard a noise. He held his hand up in the universal sign to halt. This time they all heard a sound echo through the trees
"Was that a horse?" Chris asked. With nods and glances, they doubled their efforts . Several minutes later, they were in the clear, on a small acre sized sandy beach. They were relieved to have found Vin and Peso, but were shocked at their condition.
They were in the river. Vin submerged to his shoulders. Peso lay diagonally on a submerged tree. His right foreleg, shoulder and belly to his hindquarters were under water. The leg dug up mud from the river bottom. The other leg pawed air, skimming the top of the water, his hip and butt out of the water. A large, dead, bark-less tree lay across the horses gleaming side and belly tightly trapping him. Vin struggled to keep Peso's head up as the frantic, tiring horse thrashed and fought to get free. Peso's deadly hooves lashed the water as he tried to reach something solid. His movements were slowing as his nose dipped into the water and he fought to raise it.
"Help! He's stuck, " Vin called hoarsely, shivering with cold. He shoved his horse's large head up as it dropped again.
Chris jumped into the river and swam to Vin's side. He yelled for the others to get ropes. Beside Vin, he shoved Peso's head up for him. Chris could tell Vin was tiring, as his lips were turning blue and his arms were shaking badly. Chris studied the tree trapping Peso. A plan formed in his head. He dove beneath the water and checked the submerged tree under the horse. Surfacing, he was in time to push the horse's head up once more. The wet bridle clung uselessly to Peso's head.
Buck rode into the water and blocked the rushing water. He effectively slowed the water around them. Chris made his decision and began shouting orders.
"Can you hold his head, Vin?" At the shivering man's nod, Chris turned to Buck and the other men waiting on the bank five feet away. "Peso's stuck on a tree under the water. We need the ropes tied to this tree." He patted the dead one. "It looks like we can move it off Peso. It'll go towards the bank and should float free. We're in a hole here. Buck, get your rope. Tie it right here. Then the other ropes. Keep about two feet between each one. Once they're tied off," Chris looked at his friends on the bank getting their ropes ready to toss to him or Buck. "The bank is higher here. The log should move upwards." Under his breath Chris added to himself, 'I hope.'
Within minutes the ropes were tied to saddles and Buck was back on the bank. As Peso's head sank into the water once more, Chris gave the signal and the men backed their horses. The log shifted and Peso's head rose. Nostrils blew water out. Vin and Chris held his head up as the log moved again. It rolled towards the bank as planned, and Peso was almost free.
Feeling the log move then slide off him, Peso kicked out with his legs. All four of his legs landed on the gravel bed below him and he lunged up. Vin was knocked over. Chris grabbed a rein and steadied the black as he blew mightily and shook his head. With a twist of his hand, Chris turned Peso towards the bank and the horse bound away. The log that had pinned him floated away.
Buck rode into the river and cut the ropes tied along the slick trunk. As he turned his grey back to the bank, he saw that Peso had reached the sandy beach. He could hear the horse groan as he laid down. JD, already off his horse, grabbed the saddle blanket from Vin's saddle and started rubbing Peso.
Chris grabbed Vin's flaying arm and pulled him towards the bank. Nathan and Josiah were there to help them get out of the water. Shivering and coughing, Vin accepted the helping hands as he and Chris struggled out of the water and up the bank. Both men stripped. Josiah began drying the shaking tracker. Nathan gave Chris a blanket then moved to Vin's saddle bags. He found a dry shirt and pants for the young man, then clothes in Chris's saddle bags. Before long both men were dressed. Vin, with a blanket wrapped tightly around him, settled by the camp fire that Ezra had started.
JD grabbed Peso's bridle as the horse rose and shook himself before he folded his forelegs and dropped back down. With a loud groan, Peso rolled over. JD laughed and got out of his way turning loose of his bridle. Peso rose and shook himself mightily before moving to the grass and started eating. JD moved around the black, running his hands over his back and legs, checking for any kind of injuries.
Buck started a pot of coffee while Nathan checked Vin and Chris. He added another blanket to both of them. Vin grinned and glanced at his horse, glad to see he was up and eating.
Chris and Vin shivered and moved closer to the fire, wishing it was hotter. Ezra added more dead branches to the fire. Flames raced up the side of the blackened coffee pot and they could smell the aroma of coffee. Buck moved it a little ways from the reaching flames.
The guys gathered around the fire. Josiah was digging through the saddlebags he'd collected from their horses. Ezra gathered branches, dumped them by the fire and sat down. Nathan, using a piece of toweling, began to dry Vin's long hair. Most of them had wet boots and pant legs. They stretched their chilled legs towards the fire. A cup of hot coffee would be a welcomed warmth.
Chris asked, "What happened?"
"Did'ja get m…mmy.. gunn…" Vin's voice stuttered out as he shivered.
"How are ya feeling?" Nathan asked.
"Like .. I fought … a buffalo. Arms an'… sho'lders ache. Peso's head's …heavy."
Josiah answered as he knelt down near the campfire, "That's how we knew you were in trouble. Guy dropped it in my hand and rode away. He looked scared."
"Askkked them … t.. ta tell sssomeone where I was… Been fishing… Peso grazing… tried ta roll an' bumped the … tree. Knocked against it… fell on him, both went inta the rivvver. I'm beat. Been a long … day."
"You're both safe now." Chris said. Vin looked over his shoulder and saw Peso rapidly ripping up grass and chewing hungrily.
JD having joined the men, nodded and grinned at the still shivering Vin and said, "He's fine."
"Thanks." Vin rasped to JD. Vin tiredly watched Nathan move to make his tea. He hoped there was sugar for it. Josiah began to mix up a batch of biscuits.
He and Peso were safe. His brothers found them before either one drowned. He could rest now. Vin lay back in the blankets and let the warmth seep through him. In minutes he was asleep. .
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