With difficulty, Vin struggled back to consciousness. A feeling of intense sickness and desolation swept over him as he took a moment to reorient himself. His heart refused to believe what his mind told him. NO...Chris wasn't there...didn't push me... Taking a deep breath, he choked, his body stiffened as he realized he was lying in water. Gasping, he weakly struggled to pull himself out of the water. He fought hard against the tears he refused to let fall as he clenched his jaw to stifle the sob in his throat. Wet, freezing, and shivering uncontrollably, he dragged himself from the water.
"Oh...God...please...help me..." he gasped as he lay on his back, his chest heaving from the exertion of the movement.
Curling on his left side, his right hand went to his left shoulder. Owwwww Gulping, he swallowed several times, but was unable to stop the rising bile in his throat. As the painful retching subsided, he fell back with a groan. Pain like he'd never known before tore through his body as he recalled falling. Moaning softly, he squeezed his eyes shut, unable to stop the memory of the rocky water as it rushed up to meet his falling body. Lifting his head slightly, he opened his eyes and surveyed his surroundings. Sighing, he realized the water had carried him down near the abandoned town of Rio Plata. Best...I...get moving...so...so I can...get...back...to town. Swaying, he stood and blinked slowly as the world spun before his eyes.He took a few staggering steps before he stumbled and fell unceremoniously once again into a black oblivion.
+ + + + + + +
Buck looked at Josiah, two deep lines of worry between his eyes.
"Chris..." Josiah attempted.
"What?" Chris stopped with his foot in the stirrup, his eyes blazing.
"Chris, it's getting dark..." Nathan began.
"The horses are spent," Josiah added.
"We should be heading back, start again in the morning," Buck finished.
With lightening speed, Chris jumped from his saddle and grabbed Buck by the front of his shirt.
"We ain't going back, not giving up until we find him," he spat out between clenched teeth.
Placing a calm hand on Chris's arm, Josiah pulled him off Buck and looked him in the eyes.
"Chris, it's going to get too dark to see anything, the horses can't keep going...let's head back, get supplies and start out again at first light...he might even be back in town by now."
"Yeah, maybe Vin found him," J.D. hopefully added. He gulped when four sets of eyes turned to glare at him.
"What do you mean, 'maybe Vin found him' ?" Chris looked at J.D. questioningly, his voice threateningly calm. "J.D. ..." J.D. took a step back as Chris advanced.
"I...uh...Vin...he...I mean Vin..." J.D. stammered.
"Chris, quit intimidating the kid...it's not him you're mad at." Buck placed a hand to Chris's chest.
Chris turned to look at Nathan.
"Vin left this morning...before we did," Nathan answered in a short, clipped tone.
"Stubborn son of a bitch!" Chris exploded.
"Now, Chris...Vin's pretty capable...he's prob'ly fine," Buck attempted to soothe.
"Don't matter," Chris began as he angrily mounted his horse. "He wants it that way, he's on his own...let him take care of himself."
Before any of the others could respond, Chris angrily spurred his horse and left for town.
+ + + + + + +
"C...c...co...cold," Vin stammered as he slowly regained consciousness. Lying flat on his back, he squinted up at the sky and realized it would soon be dark. The rapidly cooling temperature had done little to dry him, and he was tormented by pain, cold, and sheer exhaustion. He closed his eyes and attempted to take a deep breath, but was unable to do so. The tightness in his chest made breathing difficult, and he lay there, short of breath and wheezing audibly. Swallowing painfully, he attempted to clear his head. He knew he couldn't just stay there.
Okay, gotta get up He drew up one knee slowly. Go to Rio Plata for the night He turned slightly on his left side. Head back to town in the...
"Owww..." he yelled out as he began to raise himself on his left arm. "Son of a bitch...shit...shit...shit," he hoarsely cursed. Clutching his left shoulder, he leaned forward and rocked back on forth on his knees. He was gasping, trying to pull more air into his lungs as hot tears streamed down his cheeks. As he rocked in pain with his eyes closed, he recalled the impact of the ground as he fell on his outstretched arm. He winced as he remembered the sound of the bones snapping in his arm. Trying to move his shoulder, he realized it was dislocated, the grating near his ear told him he'd also broken his collarbone. Oh God, please help me.... Chris, I'm sorry... please... please help me... he silently pleaded.
Standing slowly, he began to stagger in the direction of Rio Plata, an abandoned silver mine town. His mind was focused solely on making the walk to the town. Fierce stubbornness drove him to painfully stand up each time he stumbled and fell. Sheer determination kept him going, oblivious to the mass of cuts and bruises covering his fever-wracked, shivering body.
+ + + + + + +
Vin opened his eyes and realized that he must have fallen again. The daylight was rapidly fading as he darted his eyes around without moving his head. Taking a deep breath, he sighed as he licked his parched lips. Okay, made it here...now just need to get inside for the night.
Vin's brow furrowed in confusion. What? He lay quietly, trying to clear his mind, thinking he was hearing things.
"Help me! Please!"
"Amanda..." Vin's pulse quickened as he realized he'd finally found the little girl. Again, he painfully struggled to his feet and staggered in the direction of the child's voice.
"Help me! Down here! Please help me!"
Falling, Vin crawled to the edge of the abandoned mine shaft and peered in to the dark hole. Putting his hand up, he pulled it across his eyes, attempting to clear his blurred vision.
"B..Billy?" he stammered, in shocked disbelief. His mind was unable to comprehend the sight below. "Billy?" Vin was panting, his voice hoarse. "Is that you?"
"Vin! Please help me! I fell. I can't climb up...please Vin," the near hysterical child begged.
" 'kay, Billy...just calm down...let me find some rope..."
"Vin! No, please! Don't go!"
"Billy...s'okay...be right back...promise...not gonna leave," Vin slurred.
Standing slowly, Vin glanced briefly around the town. Seeing what he thought may have been the general store, he slowly made his way there. Reaching the storefront, he leaned wearily against the door, with his hand on the knob. Panting, he closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath. He sensed that he was dangerously close to unconsciousness and struggled to remain alert. There was a deafening roar in his ears, and his closed eyes did not stop the sensation of dizziness.
With a loud gasp, his eyes flew open when he felt a sudden, searing pain in his right leg. Looking down, his heart started pounding as he stared at the knife protruding from his leg. Letting go of the door knob, his hand went to the knife and he fell. As he lay on the boardwalk, his blood spilled on to the worn boards.
"I... no..." he licked his parched lips. "Sorry... help... please... Chris," he choked out as the edges of his vision started to darken. Stretching out his arm, he extended a bloody hand to a skirt just beyond his reach. "Please... help... please..." With a long sigh, he slowly closed his eyes. As he lost his struggle to remain conscious, a single tear rolled down his dirt-stained face.
The first rays of sunlight shimmered in the puddles left behind by the previous night's rain.
Leaning against the hitching rail, Chris absently chewed his lower lip while staring at one of the puddles. He didn't acknowledge Josiah when he walked up and sat on the rail, loosely holding the reins of both their horses.
"You okay, Chris?" Josiah quietly asked.
"Hear that thunder last night? Quite a bit of lightening too." Chris's tone was distracted, he didn't look at Josiah as he spoke.
Sighing, Josiah folded his arms across his chest.
"You know, it's okay to admit you care."
Chris turned and scowled at Josiah as he shook his head.
"Course I care, he's just a little boy." A heaviness settled in his chest as he remembered Mary's reaction when they had returned without Billy.
Leaning forward, Josiah lowered his voice.
"Not talking about Billy, and you know it," he responded pointedly.
Reaching out, Chris took the reins of his horse from Josiah.
"He's a grown man, Josiah. He can take care of himself, been doing it a long time. He don't need me fussing and worrying about him." Lifting his leg, Chris started to put his foot in the stirrup.
Grabbing Chris's shoulder, Josiah turned him around. Leaning in, he spoke in a low, measured tone.
"I know he's a grown man, there's no one else I'd rather have watching my back in a fight. But you know something, Chris? I also see that gleam he gets in his eye when he's baiting Ezra. No matter how old he seems, he ain't much older than a kid. None of that makes a difference anyhow, he's sick. He's sick and he's out there, and he shouldn't be. Did you know Nathan's afraid he has pneumonia?" Letting go of Chris, Josiah put his hands on his hips and turned away. "I don't know what you know about Vin's background," Josiah tiredly rubbed his forehead, "but Vin wouldn't have stayed out in a lightening storm unless he couldn't come back."
Neither man spoke to Buck when they noticed he had joined them and was quietly listening to their exchange.
"Hell, Josiah, he's stayed out all night before." Turning away, Chris looked once again at the puddle before him, trying to hide his worry.
Yanking off his hat, Buck angrily slapped it against his thigh.
"Damn it, Chris! Admit you're worried... admit to yourself he woke up a part of you that died with Sarah and Adam..."
"Buck..." Chris's voice was low and threatening.
"No. Be honest with yourself for once." Buck angrily poked his finger at Chris's chest. "What really happened the day you two stopped Nathan's lynching? I've known you a long time. Exactly when did you step off this boardwalk?" Buck punctuated the air with his finger. "From what I heard, it sure as hell wasn't when you saw Mary Travis pushed down, was it?"
"Buck," Chris grabbed the front of Buck's shirt.
"No, you didn't make a move until you saw Vin step outta that store with a rifle. He's the only reason you got involved then, the only reason you're still here now."
Chris angrily let go of Buck and shoved him backwards. Turning away from the other two men, he put his hands on his hips and lowered his head, his shoulders heaving as he breathed heavily.
Buck gently placed his hand on his old friend's shoulder.
"Chris, admit you're worried, that you care about what happens to him, he deserves at least that much," he quietly urged.
"You're right," Chris sighed as he answered. His shoulders were slumped, his voice low and barely audible.
"Josiah? Did you hear that?" Buck's face was beaming as he pointed to his ear. "Chris Larabee said I was 'right'!"
Chuckling, Chris shook his head as he turned to face the other two men. As he opened his mouth, he was interrupted by the arrival of the others.
"Gentlemen, are we ready to go retrieve the Travis boy?" Ezra calmly held the reins of his horse.
"Yeah." Chris climbed onto his horse, and looked at each of the others. "And I'm worried about Vin, so let's split up and keep an eye out for him too."
"Whoever finds him, throw him across his saddle and haul his stubborn backside back here," Nathan began muttering as he started out.
Reaching out, Chris extended his arm to Josiah and shook his hand. Without a word, he quietly nodded his head.
Vin slowly drifted back to awareness. The shock of pain and discovery hit him full force as he realized he was blindfolded with his arms and legs tied down. I'll tie you in this damn bed if I have to...I'll tie you in this damn bed if I have to... I'll tie you in this damn bed... I'll tie you...
His breath quickened and he angrily pulled at the bindings on his wrists as Chris's harsh words repeated in his mind. Son of a bitch...ain't got no right... He took in a sharp breath and held it while he stiffened as fiery pain lanced though him. His body caught up with his mind, and he lay gasping, remembering his injuries. shit...shit...shit Frowning, he slowed his breathing and turned his head. He sensed he was not alone.
Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly and licked his parched lips.
"Chris? I'm sorry...please let me go...my word...I'll stay put..."
He hesitated and listened to the slow, deliberate movements in the room. The simple act of breathing hurt, he knew he didn't have the strength to get out of bed. He just wanted to sit up, to catch his breath.
"Chris...please," he hoarsely pleaded. "Chris, please untie me...please...it hurts..." Further pleading was cut off when the air was driven out of him by a sharp blow to his abdomen. Stunned, he lay gasping, squeezing his eyes shut tighter behind the blindfold.
"No..." His body stiffened as his right leg was struck. He felt a warm, sticky wetness spreading on his thigh when the knife wound started bleeding again. Feeling lightheaded, he lay panting and in pain.
"No..." he choked, gulping for air.
"No..." his body jerked as a severe blow was delivered to his face. Hot tears sprang to his eyes as several more sharp blows struck him. His mind was reeling. He'd known he'd anger Chris by leaving the clinic, but had never thought it would come to this. A bitter, metallic taste filled his mouth when his lip split. "Chris...please..." he slurred through rapidly swelling lips.
Sagging, he succumbed again to unconsciousness. He didn't flinch as thunder loudly rumbled, causing the window panes to rattle. While lightning starkly illuminated the room, he didn't stir. His fevered, shivering body remained bound to the bed, while just outside, Billy Travis continued his lonely wait for Vin's return.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin?" Billy weakly called. Squinting in the morning sunlight, he looked up, hoping Vin had finally returned. Pulling his knees up, he put his head down on his arms and softly cried. I hate him...he promised he'd come back...he didn't
+ + + + + + +
Gasping, Vin woke with a start. Choking back a cough, he involuntarily twisted as another bucket of water was thrown on him. His lean frame strained against the bindings as his body was wracked by a fit of coughing.
"Chris...please," he weakly begged when the cough finally subsided.
"Ohhhhhhhhhh....." he softly moaned when his pleas were answered by a blow to his injured leg. With a sigh, he sank again into oblivion.
The noonday sun bore down on the six men as they slowly rode. Pulling his horse to a halt, Chris lifted his canteen and drank.
Without lowering the canteen, Chris looked at Buck from the corner of his eye.
"Let's split up here...cover more ground," Buck continued.
Nodding, Chris corked the canteen and sighed while wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Where the hell are they?
"You take Ezra and J.D. and head off to Rio Plata. Vin's horse goes that way, me and Nathan and Josiah will follow him," Buck offered.
Frowning, Chris looked over his shoulder at J.D. and Ezra and then back at Buck. Leaning toward Chris, Buck lowered his voice.
"Look, you know you're too mad to deal with Vin right now. Besides, it might take Josiah, Nathan, and me to haul his ornery carcass back to town."
With a wry shake of his head, Chris snorted. "Yeah, you got a point," he sighed as he looked away.
"Hey, don't you fret none, pard. We'll save a piece of his sorry hide for you to chew out," Buck grinned.
"Be sure you do that," Chris responded as he looked at the two men who would be riding with him. "Ezra, J.D....let's go."
"Why do we hafta go all the way to Rio Plata?" J.D. whispered his complaint to Ezra.
"Mr. Dunne," Ezra patiently drawled while smiling at the younger man, "Rio Plata is a ghost town. As such, it holds a certain allure for young boys. It's only logical to search there."
+ + + + + + +
Slowly, the three men entered the deserted town. Climbing down from his horse, Chris put his hands on his hips and scowled.
"Okay, spread out, see what you can find," he quietly ordered.
The three men stopped and silently stood, straining to hear the faint voice.
Chris cocked his head and frowned at J.D., his eyes darting around the town.
J.D.'s tight expression relaxed into a smile as he started trotting in the direction of the voice.
"Hey, Chris!" he hollered excitedly while peering in a hole in the ground. "Chris!"
+ + + + + + +
Vin's body jerked. J.D.? His heart began hammering wildly in his chest. His back arched and he feebly strained against his bonds. "Chris," he hoarsely called. His voice was weak, his throat painfully raw.
+ + + + + + +
Chris hesitated. Frowning, he put his hands on his hips and turned in a slow circle. Squinting, he strained to hear as he looked at each of the buildings. Vin?
+ + + + + + +
Vin let out a shocked gasp as his hair was savagely yanked. Struggling weakly, he vainly tried to move his head away as a rag was roughly shoved into his open mouth, putting an end to any chance he had at persuading Chris to release his bonds. Gagging, his chest heaved as he began coughing. He moaned behind the gag as he began to panic, his nostrils flaring. He struggled to breathe. His head flung violently to the side as another unseen blow struck him.
Chris...please...please let me go...please...it hurts...can't breathe... were his last conscious thoughts.
+ + + + + + +
"Billy, you okay son?" Chris quietly asked while kneeling in front of the young boy.
Pulling the rope off, J.D. walked over with Ezra.
"He looked okay down there, Chris. Just ain't said nothing yet."
Nodding his head, Chris looked at the young boy while gently stroking his hair
Nodding solemnly, the young boy looked at Chris with wide eyes full of unshed tears.
"Billy, he's..." J.D. stopped when Chris looked up at him.
"He's not here Billy," Chris stated. "Now let's get you back to your ma."
+ + + + + + +
Gesturing towards Vin's horse, Josiah smiled broadly.
"Well, fellas, I think we've found our prodigal son."
The tethered horse sidestepped nervously as the three men approached. Stroking the animal's neck, Nathan frowned slightly as he looked at the animal speculatively.
"This horse has been untended."
Seeming to ignore what that could imply, Buck climbed off his horse.
"Vin!" He yelled loudly, with his hands cupped around his mouth.
Buck turned to scowl at the healer. "What?"
"His hat and coat are here...they're both drenched."
"Good. Means he's around here somewhere."
Nathan caught Josiah's sad gaze and they both silently nodded before joining Buck in his search.
Frowning, Buck cautiously peered over the side of the steep ridge. Taking a step back, he got on his hands and knees and approaching the side, looked down again.
"Nathan? What color shirt was Vin wearing?"
"I don't know, hell, I don't think that boy knows hisself what he's got on half the time," Nathan muttered while searching under the bushes.
"Damn it Nathan! ...RED...could he a'been wearing his red shirt?" Buck demanded impatiently.
Finally looking up, Josiah and Nathan noticed Buck looking down at the rocky water below. Quickly going to his side, they crouched down.
"What is it?"
"There." Buck pointed to a bush protruding below them. "You see that? Is that red? Think it could be from Vin's shirt?"
Lifting their heads, Nathan and Josiah sadly looked at each other across Buck's back.
"I'm going down." Buck quickly went to his horse for his rope.
"Buck..." Buck looked down at Josiah's hand on his arm. "Buck...he couldn't have survived a fall from there."
"You two gonna help me and lower me down there or are ya gonna stand here yappin'?" Buck angrily swatted Josiah's hand away and stalked to the edge of the sheer drop.
+ + + + + + +
"Okay...hold it...hold it...yep, I was right...it's red...coulda been from Vin's shirt...lower me down the rest a the way...he's prob'ly waitin' in a bush down there for us."
With both of Buck's feet safely on the ground, Nathan and Josiah let go of the rope. Dragging his hand across the back of his neck, Nathan anxiously watched Buck's search.
"Well, what do you think?"
Nathan didn't look up as he answered.
"Don't know," he muttered. "Hope Buck's right...but look at this height...those rocks...that water...just don't know..."
Josiah chewed his lower lip as he absently nodded his head in agreement. Swallowing slowly, he cleared his throat.
"Think I'll have a look at his horse while Buck's looking down below."
"Nathan! Found some blood on this here rock. He's hurt. You best get some bandages ready."
"Nathan..." focusing intently on Buck, Nathan didn't hear Josiah's strained voice.
"Nathan," the big man repeated louder.
Turning, Nathan looked at the stricken face. Frowning, he took the paper from Josiah's outstretched hand. Reading the paper, he looked up, disbelief etched on his face.
"Buck," Josiah called to the man below, "think you'd better come up, now."
"Josiah, just got a little more looking to do."
Buck stopped and looked up to see the preacher holding the rope, leaving no room for further argument.
+ + + + + + +
"Damn it! I know he's down there... I just feel it....why'd I hafta come up now?" Buck angrily demanded.
"Shit, he's sick and prob'ly hurt and we're up here wastin' time..."
"Buck," Nathan grabbed Buck's arm. Looking down, Buck took the sodden paper Nathan held in a shaking hand. Carefully unfolding it, his brow creased as he looked at it. His stomach lurched, and he fought to swallow the bile he felt rising in his throat. He became short of breath as he continued to look in shocked disbelief at the paper.
S O R R Y
"He must have jumped," Josiah gently stated.
"NO!" Buck angrily glared at the other two men, his nostrils flaring.
+ + + + + + +
"What are we gonna tell Chris?" Nathan asked as the three men slowly approached the town with Vin's horse in tow. After the discovery of the note, they had stayed for several more hours, futilely searching for Vin's body.
"I'll tell him," Buck flatly stated, the first words he'd uttered since the shocking discovery had hit him.
"Buck, you're having a hard time with this...it's gonna hit Chris harder...I can..." Josiah began.
"NO. I said I'LL tell him." Buck firmly stated.
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