Disclaimer: Don't own, of course. The characters belong to the open plain.
Spoiler: This story is set directly after episode 1.8, False Colors.
A/N: If you're familiar with my name, you know I'm mainly a Supernatural fanfic writer. This is, so far, the only fic I've written outside of that fandom. I feel like I grew up with these characters, and about a year ago when I was in a bit of a turmoil with some of the SPN fandom, I retreated to this series and created this fic to ground myself a bit. Through some prompting, I submitted this story to the Brotherhood gen zine, and it was printed this time last year; it also received an 'Honorable Mention' in the MediaWest FanQ awards.
If you choose to read, I hope you enjoy and would love to hear what you think. For you Supernatural readers, I am mid-way through finishing the first chapter of Desolation Angels. Real Life has been a bit... hinky of late. Thanks for your patience!
Things I've done and where I've been…
Scared to death, no reason why
Do whatever to get me by,
Think about the things I've said
Read the page it's cold and dead…
-- "Don't Follow" by Alice in Chains
Ike McSwain had made watching people an art form in the years since the fever took his voice. Watching their eyes, their hands, the set of their jaw. More often than not, he knew what they were thinking before they did, he was just never able to tell them. If it hadn't been for Buck Cross, Ike knew he would have been trapped inside himself, away from the world, his observations going unnoticed until insanity ruled his life.
Being sent on the dual run with Kid had been an honor and a sacrifice. Marshal Sam Cain had said he needed two of the Pony Express' fastest. Teaspoon hadn't hesitated when he'd called Kid and Ike forward, telling them to mount up.
Ike had been secretly thrilled to be entrusted with the sensitive materials in the Army satchel, but taking the trip without Buck left him without his voice, without the dark eyes that watched him as closely as Ike watched all others, without a way to be heard. Kid tried—they all tried—but talking to them was like whispering in the dark. They could barely hear, and they couldn't see.
The ride to Fort Laramie from the Sweetwater Station had been long and arduous. Ike and Kid had ridden their mounts hard, bodies bent forward across the saddle horn, dust coating their faces and scratching at eyes narrowed against the wind. The sun had dried their lips and burned their cheeks and the backs of their hands. They stopped only to water the horses and relieve themselves, words useless between them, and rode on.
Kid had left Katie at the station, unwilling to risk her, knowing she could never make it there and back in the amount of time they'd been given to perform this duty. Ike didn't blame him. He had learned from Buck that souls connected—be it man or beast.
Ike had thought he'd never see anyone as alone as he'd once felt until he met Kid. The only time the taciturn rider relaxed was around that Paint. For Kid, protecting Katie was akin to protecting himself. After weeks of working side by side with Kid they didn't even know his real name.
Standing behind and to the left of Kid as they waited in the sheriff's office for confirmation that all of the contents of the Army satchel were accounted for, Ike watched his friend closely. Kid stared a knot in the worn wooden floor, a muscle in his cheek dancing across his jaw. Ike knew the loss of his brother, Jed, the week before from a botched bank robbery attempt weighed on the rider's already heavy heart. Kid hadn't talked about it since Teaspoon Hunter and Emma Shannon helped him bury Jed.
And he hadn't looked at Jimmy Hickok, Ike realized, who shot Jed to save the Kid's life. He hadn't looked directly at any of them. It was like watching someone fold in on themselves, one layer at a time. Even the silence around Kid was cracking with the weight of loss.
"You boys." The sheriff's whiskey-smooth voice blasted into the space between Ike and Kid, startling them both. "You done good here. We got what we need."
The boys lifted their heads to regard the sheriff and the quiet captain in blue standing just behind him, holding the satchel.
"Thank you, Sheriff," Kid's soft Virginia drawl replied for both of them. "If you don't mind, we'll be heading back."
"Long ride, boy," the sheriff frowned. "Want to take a meal? Got us a fine saloon—"
"No, sir," Kid answered, not glancing back at Ike. "We'd just as soon get on back."
He nodded at the sheriff, tipping a finger to the soft, wide brim of his rounded brown hat, and backed up a step, his shoulders asking Ike to lead the way out.
Ike nodded to the sheriff as well, before turning, pushing the door open and exiting into the coppery, mid-afternoon light.
"Sorry, Ike," Kid said softly as he rounded his horse, pulling the black muzzle up from the water trough and flicking the reins around the underside of its neck. "I know you're tired, but…."
Ike swung up smoothly onto the back of his pinto, his weary backside whimpering as it made contact with the unyielding leather of the saddle. He waited until Kid glanced his way, then shrugged, making sure the motion was caught by his friend.
I want to go home, too….
"We'll be back in Sweetwater by nightfall, if we ride hard," Kid muttered, turning his mount in the direction they'd come, the fringes of his buckskin shirt swaying with the motion.
Ike watched the curve of his back as Kid kicked his horse into a lope. He felt for the horse, knowing it carried more than just the slim body of a Pony Express rider.
It carried the silence of sorrow.
It was a familiar call, one that Jimmy Hickok usually met with rueful anticipation. But today, he was tired. In fact, he'd been tired for the last several days. He sat at the rough-hewn bunkhouse table, his Colt on his lap, fingers running restlessly over the barrel, imagining he could still feel its heat as he had when he'd last holstered it. After he shot Jed. After he had watched Kid gather his brother's body helplessly into his lap.
Jimmy had fired his gun with deadly intent before—several times, in fact. Enough to have earned him a reputation as a gunslinger even at this young age. He knew drawing his gun could mean someone's death—his or the man facing him. But he'd never smelled the acrid odor of gunpowder days after firing the Colt. He'd never before felt the pain that the sound of Kid sobbing his brother's name had cut across his heart.
Jimmy knew with everything inside of him Jed would have killed Kid to get away. He knew, because he and Jed weren't all that different. There had been a frighteningly familiar restlessness captured in the blue eyes of the Virginian. Jimmy had been on alert since the moment Kid introduced the man as kin. He had subliminally circled Jed with the wariness of a pack animal whose territory is threatened.
While he didn't always understand Kid, he was a friend. And in Jimmy's world, that made him family, closer than blood, more vital than breath. Jimmy closed his eyes, curling fingers, calloused and worn from years of holding reins and guns, around the barrel of the Colt, wishing he'd just had more time that day. He always wanted more time….
Raised voices pulled his eyes open, tugging his chin around to the closed door of the empty bunkhouse. Rising, he holstered his gun and crossed to the door, pulling up the wooded brace free of the notch that held it closed. Stepping out onto the bunkhouse porch, he saw Lou McCloud's small frame holding the reins of a lathered horse, Emma crouched low, offering water from a tin cup to a figure on the ground. Buck and William F. Cody huddled close, eyes trained on their staion master, Teaspoon.
Jimmy crossed to join his friends in three quick strides.
"Easy, easy there," Emma crooned. "Small sips, Nate, that's it."
Jimmy's eyes shot from Teaspoon to the boy in Emma's arms.
Buck straightened, looking at Jimmy, his dark eyes unreadable. Jimmy always wondered how he and Ike seemed to share a brain; he could never tell what the Kiowa was thinking.
"He just came from Hicks' station," Buck said. "Someone burned it down."
"What!" Jimmy looked over at Teaspoon, instantly alert, on edge.
Teaspoon's face was grim, his chin resting on his chest, thumbs hooked in his pink suspenders. Jimmy knew that when a man who had survived the biggest massacre in American history—one that had even claimed Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett—looked worried, he was a fool not to join him.
"They were looking for something," Teaspoon's thick voice growled.
"The Army satchel?" Cody guessed, crouching next to Emma, helping to support Nate.
Jimmy saw the boy was pale and trembling, the water beginning to revive him. Blood trickled from a laceration beneath his head of red curls. Nate was one of the Pony Express' youngest riders. Jimmy felt the heat of his blood, the chill in his fingers, the hairs on the back of his neck stand up at the thought of someone hurting one of the riders. One of his riders.
"I expect," Teaspoon nodded.
"We haven't heard from Kid and Ike," Lou said, her voice a forced growl to mask both her gender and her worry. "What if they got—"
"There you go, jumping to conclusions again," Jimmy snapped.
"I'm just saying we don't know—"
"That's right," Jimmy shifted his weight from his gun leg to his free one, looking from Emma to Teaspoon. "We don't know. We need to take care of Nate, then get someone back to Hicks' to check on them."
Teaspoon regarded him for a moment, his puckered eye giving him a suspicious countenance. "You volunteering?"
"Sure," Jimmy nodded.
"I'll go, too," Buck spoke up.
"Now, wait a minute," Emma said, helping Nate to a wobbly stance. "We have a station to run, mail to get out, and we're short riders with Kid and Ike gone."
Jimmy looked at her, watching as her pale green eyes swept each of them, weighing her next words. He knew that even if they protested, each one of them would kill themselves to do her bidding. She turned to Teaspoon and as Jimmy watched, an entire conversation passed between them.
"Lou," Teaspoon barked, "you and Buck check out Hicks'. Stop to see Sam on your way, let him know what's happened. Jimmy, you stay here. We need your gun. Cody, you're up."
"Anyone think we should ride out to check on Kid and Ike?" Cody asked.
"They're fine until we know otherwise," Emma said, her voice a controlled calm. "Mr. Spoon, help Nate inside?"
Teaspoon worked his mouth as if to argue, but nodded. He looked at Buck, then at Lou. "You boys be careful," he said seriously. He shifted his glance to take in Cody. "Ride hard, Cody. Keep low, keep safe."
Jimmy watched Cody's wide, maniacal smile spread quickly across his face as he tugged on the brim of his hat, before turning to the corral. Jimmy felt a tightening in his belly as he watched each one ready their mounts, preparing to leave.
Look at me…
He would never let them know. He would never show he needed it. Needed them. He rested his hand on the butt of his Colt to keep from reaching out and clasping Lou's shoulder as she passed, waving to Buck, or checking Cody's cinch. He stood, still, stoic, empty-eyed and ready for trouble.
Because trouble knew where to find him.
Eager to reach home before nightfall, Kid led them toward a shortcut Cody had told him about. Ike followed, watching as Kid unconsciously rolled his neck or straightened his back to relieve the aches beat into his body. Ike felt the same aches—he felt gritty and dense, like he'd been rolled in salt and set out in the sun to dry. Long ago, he'd shoved his hat off his head, letting it hang down his back by the stampede strings. He was contemplating pulling the red bandana from his bald head to let the sparse wind cool his skin.
"Keep close, Ike," Kid said suddenly, snapping Ike's wayward attention to his friend's back. "It's getting narrow here."
Ike nodded, though Kid couldn't see. He pulled his mount up abruptly, watching as Kid used his legs more than his reins to guide his horse across the rocky terrain and down the narrow footpath leading around a jagged outcropping in the low mountainside. To their left, the trail literally disappeared in a steep drop-off peppered by trees and rocks. To their right, the side of the mountain jutted out with arms of stone eager to knock them free of their mounts.
Ike waited until Kid had managed to get firmly on the trail, watching as he kicked his foot free of his right stirrup so that he could slide his leg back and out of the way, balancing the horse and ducking the rocks. Ike followed suit about five feet behind him.
"Some shortcut." Kid grumbled. "You didn't want to come this way, did you?"
Ike knew Kid didn't expect an answer, watching as he glanced quickly to his left, catching a glimpse of his friend's tense profile. Even from this distance he could see sorrow etching lines in Kid's face, continuing the path it had begun since Jed died. It's not your fault, you know….
"I haven't been much for company," Kid admitted. "Guess you woulda been happier if Buck took this ride, huh?"
People are always happier when they are heard.
"I don't even know what I'm still doing here…." Kid grunted as he laid flat over the saddle, ducking to the side to avoid both the rock and the saddle horn. His horse stumbled slightly, before recovering.
You're with your family.
"I ran away so long ago…. I mean, long enough that Jed didn't even know—he didn't recognize me at first."
Ike tried to spur his mount closer, not wanting to miss a word, but the narrow path prevented it. He continued to ride low, watching Kid, the set of his shoulders, the balance of his body. The revealing timbre of his friend's voice pulled at Ike's patient heart.
"I don't belong at the station. Not now. Not after… Jimmy… what I made Jimmy do… dammit, Ike, it's all screwed up now, you know?"
You didn't make him; he did it to save you. He protected his family.
"I thought… for a minute there I thought I was home again. Jed, and you guys, and… now… I should just… I need to go. I need to—"
Hide… you want to hide. You want to go where no one knows you…
"Sorry," Kid finally muttered, tossing an unseeing glance over his shoulder. "Just tired, I guess."
Don't run away, Kid. Don't leave us.
"Whoa, what's the matter, boy?" Kid, soothed his suddenly nervous mount.
Kid leaned forward. Ike could see his hand smoothing a pattern of calm down the horse's dark, sweaty neck. He was so intent watching Kid and keeping his mount on the trail in the gray light of early evening, he missed the shift of pebbles above them, the slight warning of attack. It was the smell that caught his attention. The feral smell of an animal intent on its prey. Ike shot his eyes up and saw the shadow of the beast as it kept pace with Kid and his horse.
Ike opened his mouth instinctively, cursing as his silence mocked him. He cast about for something—anything—that he could throw at Kid to catch his attention. One hand gripped the saddle horn to keep from tumbling over the edge, while the other scrambled for his rifle scabbard, pressed tight against the wall of the cliff.
His heart slammed against his ribs as his fingers closed around the stock of the rifle, climbing into the base of his throat as he tugged the weapon free. He felt fear and desperation smothering him as he watched the mountain lion pause, muscles rippling across its shoulders, joints bouncing in frightening repetition as it prepared to pounce.
Ike pulled the rifle up. Squeezing his upper thighs, he signaled his nervous mount to stop. The pinto danced in place, snorting and tossing its head, not liking this situation at all. Ike exhaled, pressed the stock of the rifle against his shoulder, aimed, and curved his finger over the trigger. He fired one second too late.
The mountain lion arched through the air, its body slamming into Kid, knocking him from his horse in an almost-silent tangle of fur, buckskin, and claws.
The horses screamed, lurching forward, desperate to get away. Ike grabbed at his reins and saddle horn, fearing there was no room for him to fall. Holding tight to his rifle, he kicked his left foot free of his stirrup, then with the grace born of a trick-rider, rolled off the back of the horse and landed on his knees in the middle of the dirt footpath.
Kid's scream of pain was echoed by the big cat's howl of rage. Ike pulled his rifle up, scrambling to the edge of the cliff, his eyes dancing across the landscape, searching for his friend. He found him quickly enough, about thirty feet down, wrestling the mountain lion, his pistol out, but useless against the superior strength and lethal claws of the animal. Ike blinked in surprise at the unbelievable sight of Kid's slim, buckskin-clad body keeping the sandy-colored beast at bay, curses streaming in an unending flow from his normally quiet mouth.
Holding his breath, Ike took aim again. Please… please don't let me hit Kid….
He fired and heard the mountain lion yelp, then go silent. Lowering the rifle, Ike searched the growing darkness and saw no movement.
Oh, God, please….
Then he heard a grunt of exertion and saw the buff-colored body below him shift as Kid tried to climb out from beneath the heavy animal. Setting the rifle against a boulder, Ike began to gingerly make his way down.
"No!" Kid gasped, pain audible in his voice. "Ike, don't. I-I can see from here… it's too… steep… aww, God…." His voice choked off in a groan of anguish.
Ike ignored his friend's admonition and continued down the slope. Darkness collected at the edges of the canyon, spilling thickly into the area of trees and blocking any assistance the dying light of day might have offered his descent.
How bad… are you bleeding… are you hurt… did I let you down by not being able to warn you…?
He could say nothing, only try to maintain his tenuous grip on calm as he half-slid, half-climbed down to where he'd last seen Kid. He paused for a moment, listening, letting Kid's ragged, wet breathing pull him to the right. He was able to see him, finally. The body of the dead mountain lion was sprawled across Kid's legs; his back and shoulders were propped awkwardly against the rock that had stopped his fall.
I'm here, I'm here, it's okay….
"N-nice… sh-shot," Kid gasped as Ike reached him.
Ike nodded once, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, then reached down to grab the massive body of the animal and tug it off of Kid. He tried to ignore the sound of the claws as they scraped along the needles and dirt on the hillside.
Turning back to Kid, Ike began to inspect him with shaking hands. The questions he needed to ask slammed together against the edge of his mind, screaming in their inability to be heard. He could feel the warm, sticky wetness of blood along Kid's left shoulder. When he gently probed his side, he heard Kid moan as he stiffened slightly under his hands.
"Uhh… m-my sh-shoulder and… and head," Kid tried, telling Ike what he needed to know, what he couldn't ask. "And, uh… hurts… hurts to breathe…."
Ike pulled his bandana from his head, then snapped several strands of buckskin from Kid's buckskin shirt.
"Damn… m-my favorite shirt, too."
Your only shirt.
The war between sun and moon reached a resolution, and with the powerful heat gone, the silvery light from the near-full moon lit the hillside, dancing shadows across the body of the mountain lion and revealing the almost-black color of the blood spilling freely from Kid's head and shoulder. Ike swallowed, his eyes shifting to Kid's face, pale in the moonlight.
As he watched, Kid's gray-blue eyes slid slowly shut, and Ike felt a strange vibration slide through Kid's body, beneath his fingers. Panic slammed into him, and Ike shook his head vigorously, grabbing Kid's chin and pulling his face to him.
No… nononono… no, you can't. You stay. You stay here, with me.
"Tired," Kid admitted.
Ike shook his head again, tapping Kid's face lightly until his friend opened his eyes. He gripped Kid's chin roughly, forcing their eyes to meet, forcing Kid to look at him. Look at him for the first time in days.
Kid blinked, then looked around as if confused. He shifted against the boulder, crying out suddenly as the movement renewed the pain.
"O-okay, yeah, n-not a good idea," he whispered.
Ike nodded, then used his bandana and the strings from Kid's shirt to bind the slashes across his shoulder as best he could. Kid clenched his teeth shut, air puffing out through stiffened lips, his back arching up and away from the boulder as Ike worked. The cuts ran deep across the meat of his shoulder, down his bicep and into his chest. There was no way for Ike to completely bind the cuts; he decided the best course of action was to pad the worst of them.
This shirt is done for.
Tearing the slashed sleeve of Kid's buckskin shirt free, he manufactured a sling, pulling Kid's arm up against his chest and tying the material around his friend's neck.
"Gonna hafta… have Emma… make me a new… shirt," Kid wheezed.
Ike grinned and nodded, sweat from a combination of the humid night and fear rolling from his bald head and down his temple to collect at the base of his neck. He reached up, gently brushing Kid's brown hair from his forehead, looking for the source of the blood. It looked like the mountain lion hadn't caught more than his shoulder; the wound on Kid's head seemed to have occurred with his impact against the boulder.
"Horses?" Kid asked.
Ike shook his head.
Ike shook his head again.
"Then we can find 'em," Kid swallowed, leaning his head back and wincing. "Gimme a sec… and I'll, uh…."
Ike frowned. There was no way Kid was climbing up that hill in this condition. Ike looked over his shoulder at the steep rise, then down past the boulder to the valley floor. Faintly, he could hear the sound of water. Either way they went, the trip could kill Kid. And Ike knew he wasn't strong enough to carry him alone—not after the ride they'd just completed.
He took a breath.
I have to leave you… I have to get help… how can I make you understand…?
"I know," Kid whispered.
Ike blinked, surprised.
"There's no way… no other way."
He stared at Kid for a moment, watching his friend's face, watching his eyes, seeing the resolution there, the understanding Ike might not make it back. That he might not make it.
"It's okay, Ike," Kid whispered, absolving him and thanking him in one breath.
Ike wiped his mouth again. He cast about the moonlit-covered ground until he found Kid's pistol, checked the rounds, then picked up Kid's limp right hand, and wrapped his fingers around the grip. Kid nodded once, his fingers trembling from pain, but Ike felt him hold the gun, felt his hand steady with the weight of the heavy steel.
Ike stood, moved over to the dead cat, grabbing the massive animal's front paws and pulling it upwind from Kid. He had nothing to bury it at the moment; it was all he could think to do to protect Kid from other animals that would come for the carcass.
He turned to Kid, meeting his friend's gentle, pain-laced eyes. I'll hurry… I swear to God, I'll hurry.
"Be careful," Kid breathed. "Don't… don't get lost out there."
Ike reached out and laid his fingers softly on the top of Kid's head, licking his lips, and yearning to say something—one thing—that would reassure the wounded boy. Kid tilted his head, leaning briefly into the touch as if accepting Ike's promise, then pulled away. With one backwards glance, Ike started the treacherous climb. When he reached the trail, he looked down at the shadowed figure of his friend, small and still in the distance.
The powerful legs of the palomino ate up the miles between Emma's station and the next stop. Cody loved to ride. He loved the way the power of the animal beat into him, how his body cut through the air, how he couldn't be matched in speed or prowess when atop a horse. He knew his future lay in using these animals to keep him high, keep him strong.
Keep him bigger than he was on his own. He had to be big. He craved the attention as keenly as Jimmy craved respect, as Kid craved silence.
The rides were always hard, but he thrilled at that. He pulled his horse to a skidding, panting stop in the empty yard of the station, not noticing, at first, that there was no one to catch his reins, no one reaching for the pouch. He slid from the horse's back, stumbling slightly in the dirt as the feeling returned to his legs, bending at the waist and catching his breath.
The silence finally caught up with him. Standing, dust gathered into red lines at the corners of his bright blue eyes, the folds of his wide mouth, Cody looked around the empty yard, noting the three horses in the corral staring back at him in blank confusion.
No welcoming call was returned.
One of the horses in the corral whickered. Cody grabbed the pouch from his saddle, slinging it over his shoulder. He pulled his rifle free, cocking it with deadly intent. Keeping his eyes on the move, checking for the shadow that would expose a threat, Cody advanced on the silent house. He pulled in a breath, holding it, tense as he stepped up to the front door.
It was ajar. Using the barrel of his rifle, he pushed the door further open, careful eyes surveying the empty room. Nothing looked out of place. He continued back through the main room to the kitchen, noting the pot of potatoes half-peeled sitting next to a wash bucket. The back door off the kitchen and leading to the bunkhouse was also open.
Dread began to build heavy in his gut, climbing to his heart with mercury fingers. As Cody made his way through the opened door of the kitchen, he saw the smear of blood on the doorframe.
"Dammit," he growled, lengthening his strides until he was pushing through the bunkhouse door.
The sight that met his eyes was not one he'd soon forget. Three riders lay dead in their bunks, bullet holes creating a third eye in their otherwise peaceful-looking faces. The station owner, a man who looked like he should have been a banker, not part of the Pony Express, lay face-up on the floor just inside the door, two large knife wounds on his chest having relieved him of his life blood.
"Shit," Cody breathed, covering his mouth with the back of his gloved hand. The bunkhouse had been ransacked. The killers had obviously been looking for something.
"How did they miss Emma's…" Cody muttered, fear for his friends' lives suddenly flooding through him and erasing the dread with a clean sweep of panic.
He turned from the sight of death and hastened to the empty lot and his palomino. The only explanation he could think of was that there was more than one group searching for the Army satchel, and they weren't following the Pony Express route; they were hitting stations and riders at random.
Instinctively grabbing up the exhausted horse's reins, he reached for the pouch to fling over the saddle, then stopped. It was nearing evening. He'd been riding for hours, and the horse was beat. He would never make it back to Emma's before nightfall, and there was a job to do.
Tightening his gloved hand into a fist, Cody growled. There was nothing for it; he had to keep riding. He pulled his saddle from the horse's back, picked the strongest-looking mount in the corral, and fit the tack securely in place, adjusting the bit and bridle to fit the new horse's smaller head.
Pulling his gloves free, he wove the fringes into the mane of his palomino, then turned the horse back toward Emma's, knowing it had ridden the route enough, there was hope of it returning. If it came back to the station, rider-less, Cody knew someone would get the message and make their way to Johnson's and discover the bodies.
Filling his canteen from the pump in the yard, Cody swung aboard the brown gelding, settling his tender backside into the unrelenting seat of the saddle, and began what was to become the longest ride of his life.
Jimmy hated night.
He hated the twilight of evening almost as much, but the darkness that wrapped around the world, bringing things to life that had no business lurking, laying in wait for the protection of the sun to disappear brought with it a vulnerability of stolen sight that made Jimmy's skin crawl.
He sat in one of the wooden chairs outside the empty bunkhouse, a shotgun across his lap. Emma and Teaspoon were in the main house, feeding the rattled Nate. Buck and Lou hadn't returned from Hicks' station. Ike and Kid were… who knows where.
Jimmy could feel control slipping through his fingers as though he were gripping sand. He needed them back. Here. He needed to know where they were. And he hated that. He hated that need. It left him feeling open, as if he'd left his back exposed to a room full of people each with a sidearm on his hip.
He had stayed here too long. He'd gotten too close. But he couldn't leave. Not yet. They were all he had.
The horses in the corral warned him of the approaching rider. Whickering calls and shuffling legs were answered with a neigh and the rhythm of pounding hooves in the distance. It wasn't the thundering approach of an Express rider. It was more of a stumbling, exhausted, crawling for safety.
Jimmy was on his feet, stepping from the bunkhouse porch before he was even aware he was moving. The moonlight shone across the dirt lot, turning the brown of the dust to an almost silver-white, giving the world an oddly magical feel, if he were one to believe in magic.
Narrowing his brown eyes, he gripped the shotgun tighter, peering into the darkness. He recognized Ike's curved shoulders and bald head immediately.
"Ike!" He called, hurrying forward, eyes scanning the distance for Kid, who surely couldn't be far behind. "Took your sweet time, didn't ya?"
Ike reached for him, pulling at his shirt, grabbing his attention. He began to motion quickly.
"Whoa, wait, wait, you know I can't follow you. Where's Kid?"
Ike shook his head, gesturing once more, frantic.
"Okay, wait, I know this one…. Buck? Right?"
"Buck ain't here. He and Lou had to go back to Hicks' station."
Ike bounced his head in what Jimmy was willing to bet was a curse, then swung free of the horse, nearly falling when his legs failed to hold him.
"Hey!" Jimmy dropped the shotgun and reached out to catch the weary rider. "Easy, take it easy. Where's Kid?" He asked again.
Ike simply shook his head, leaning against Jimmy for a moment, then pulled himself upright and licked his lips. Jimmy saw a dark slash of blood on the back of Ike's hand. A streak on his shirt suggested there was more staining the fabric.
"Are you bleeding?" Jimmy asked, alarmed, reaching for his friend's shirt.
Ike shook his head vigorously, gesturing again.
Jimmy suddenly found himself wishing he weren't so damn good with a gun—then he'd be off with Lou and Buck would be here, knowing exactly what Ike was trying to tell him.
"Ike, man, slow down, okay? Let me get Teaspoon or—"
Ike gritted his teeth, grabbing the front of Jimmy's shirt, shaking him roughly.
Jimmy flinched back; no matter the reason, he didn't like to be touched, and he certainly didn't like to be handled. His muscles tightened and he took a step away from Ike, pushing the boy's hands free of his shirt and tilting his head to regard his friend from the corner of his eyes.
"You better have a damn good—"
The shrill call of a horse in the corral caught their attention. Ike and Jimmy shot a look over to the distinct image of Katie, nose over the fence, head tossing, agitated.
Pointing to Katie, Ike pulled at his bloody shirt.
"What… that's… that's Kid's blood?" Jimmy asked. "Kid's hurt?"
Ike nodded, seeming to sag a bit.
"Where? Where is he?"
Ike pointed behind him.
Ike nodded, wobbling his hand slightly.
"Can you take me to him?"
Ike nodded, leaning over, hands on his knees, pulling in air, visibly weak with relief.
"C'mon," Jimmy pulled the reins from the weary horse, leading it toward the corral. "We need to get you some food and water."
Ike shook his head, tugging on Jimmy's shirt, pointing back the way he came.
"Listen, I know, but it's dark out, okay?" Jimmy snapped. "You pass out on me, there's no way I'm finding Kid by myself."
Ike rubbed a hand over his face, nodding reluctantly, then headed toward the house as Jimmy unsaddled the horse. He didn't know what had happened to the second mount, but that was the least of his concerns. The man whose brother he'd killed lay out in the darkness, bleeding badly enough that he hadn't been able to return.
Grabbing the halter of a bay gelding, Jimmy led him toward the gate and lifted Ike's saddle to the horse's back. Cinching the girth, he reached for the bridle, his arm bumped impatiently by a familiar white muzzle. Jimmy licked his lips, looking at Katie's soft, mis-matched eyes in the moonlight.
"Yeah, you're comin'," he whispered. "We'll bring him home together."
The owl startled him awake. At least, he hoped it was an owl. The night held a cacophony of sounds unmatched in the light of day. Black eating black around him, he blinked wide eyes, trying to see the source of the sound.
It took Kid a moment to remember why he was outside, gun in hand, propped against a rock. He felt his jaw tremble with cold and instinctively shifted to relieve the numbness in his legs, suppressing a sharp cry of surprised pain when even that brief movement sliced heat through his shoulder and chest, bouncing up into his head.
Important delivery… shortcut… mountain lion… Jed….
No, wait. Jed hadn't been there. It was Ike. Kid looked down at his shoulder, and saw Ike's red bandana, soaked through with blood, was pressed to a deep slash on his exposed skin.
"Okay, okay," he whispered to himself, needing the sound of his voice. "Ike's gonna bring help. Not too much longer now."
The screech that had awakened him from a feverish slumber echoed through the night once more, ending in a yip and a bark.
"D-definitely not an owl," Kid muttered, shivering. He looked to where Ike had dragged the lion, watching it closely. Did it just… move?
Kid blinked, tightening his grip on the pistol in his hand, shivering again, and rolled his lips against his teeth, trying to keep himself from whimpering aloud. He stared, hard, at the slash of buff-colored fur visible in the moonlight, trying to decide if his eyes were playing tricks on him or if—
There. Just there. The body rocked, jerking.
For a moment, Kid's heart fluttered in his chest, as nightmarish images of the lion slamming into him, rolling down the hill, replayed across his mind. Then he realized with a cold plummet of his heart, that the lion wasn't moving of its own accord. He heard the snarl and snuff of the coyotes as they circled the carcass.
"Son of a bitch," Kid whispered, knowing he couldn't stay here, but unsure if he could move.
Swallowing hard, Kid took a steadying breath, then carefully moved around the side of the boulder, away from the coyotes. His ribs protested loudly, his head pounded, but he managed to make it to the lee of the rock, his legs facing downward.
Not far enough….
Slowly, achingly slowly, Kid moved his battered body down the hillside until he reached the base of another tree. Panting, he leaned against the bark, sucking in breath and trembling as it stabbed him from the inside out.
"Hey, Jed, 'member that night," Kid whispered through rapidly numbing lips, his brother as close to him as the darkness in this moment. "That' n-night when the gambler stopped by the h-house… and mama… mama let him come in and eat? Pa got… got so mad…."
Kid rolled his head against the tree, his body shaking violently as he tried to find a position that didn't put pressure on his battered ribs.
"You yelled at him, and… aww, damn… damn, this hurts, Jed. Can't… can't rightly breathe…."
Kid turned, looking for Jed, wondering why he'd left. Hadn't he just been there? You forget how he beat us? Beat Mama?
"I-I did forget… for a little while. Y-you left, Jed. You were gone… and then everyone was gone…. I h-had… had to find somewhere… somewhere that was home…."
He turned to his right, but Jed wasn't there, either. The night was. And the snarls of the coyotes as they feasted on the carcass of the mountain lion. Kid pulled in a shallow breath, listening, shivering, weighing his options. He could hear water below him. If he could get to the water, he might be able to….
He shifted again and teetered off-balance, sliding away from his tenuous perch of safety and started to tumble down the precipice.
Gasping, he lost his pistol, reaching for something to stop his slide, slow his rapid descent. His legs caught on debris, his shoulder hit a sapling. Fire, white-hot in its intensity, burst through him, echoing behind his eyes, slamming the air from him and sending him into darkness.
There's riding hard, and then there's riding hard….
Cody's legs were numb. His lungs were bruised, his eyes bled tears stolen by the wind. His fingers ached from gripping the reins without the protection of his leather gloves. With each stride he heard the air beat through the nostrils of the winded horse. Shnuph, shnuph, shnuph…. The horse was giving all he had, and then some.
The next station on the route was ablaze when Cody approached, so he continued to ride, not even pausing to check for survivors, or a spare mount. He could tell by the smell there wasn't much left. And someone had to get to a town, get the mail through, get the station operator's help.
The darkness masked dips in the ground and hid deadly snake holes, but somehow they'd miraculously avoided broken legs and spills. He had been riding hard for nearly twelve hours now, and his body was crawling toward its limit. As they reached Miller's station, Cody felt his shoulders bow with relief.
He pulled to a stop. Hank Miller's hulking form greeted him with surprise.
"Cody? What the hell you doing out this way?"
"Long story," Cody panted, trying to figure out how to gracefully dismount and not end up as a pile of muscle and sinew at Hank's feet. He kicked his feet free of the stirrups, leaned forward, then swung his right leg free, sliding to the ground and gripping the saddle while the blood returned to his legs. "Where's the rider, Hank?"
"Ain't no rider," Hank shook his head helplessly. "There was a fire over at the livery in Cedar Wells. They all went to help."
"All of 'em?" Cody's voice cracked with disbelief. "No one stayed?"
"Weren't expecting you this soon!"
Releasing the saddle, Cody took an unsteady step to the side. "Someone's attacking stations, Hank," he said, licking his dry lips, gratefully accepting the canteen of water Hank handed him. "Killing riders, station masters, burning down bunkhouses…."
"Think it has to do with a delivery two of our riders made to Fort Laramie, uh… yesterday," Cody blinked. Yesterday? Earlier? He'd lost all sense of time.
"We gotta get word out," Hank breathed.
Tell me something I don't know….
"I gotta deliver this pouch," Cody said.
"You're dead on your feet, boy," Hank shook his head.
Cody lifted an eyebrow. "You got a better idea?"
Hank stared at him silently, then turned toward his corral. "Go get you some water and food," he said over his shoulder. "I'll get a fresh mount."
"Take care of that one," Cody patted his horse's sweaty neck before limping toward the house. "He's taken care of me."
He rubbed his face tiredly. At this rate, I'll get to see California by tomorrow….
Not for the first time during the night, Jimmy wished for Buck Cross's quiet presence. It had taken longer than any of them liked to learn from Ike what had happened to him and Kid on the ride back from Laramie, but after several moments of tense frustration, they'd been able to put together that the satchel had been delivered without incident, and they'd been attacked by a mountain lion while taking a shortcut on the way home.
Nate was recovered enough to be a third body able to protect the station, and if all went well, Teaspoon reminded them, Buck and Lou would be back by morning.
"Go bring Kid home, son," Teaspoon had said, resting a heavy hand on Jimmy's shoulder. "You got that?"
Jimmy frowned, not liking the implication that it may already be too late to save Kid. Ike was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, ready to get moving.
"Kid's gonna be just fine, Mr. Spoon," Emma admonished quietly. Her calming green eyes rested on Jimmy for a heartbeat, then skimmed over to Ike, a smile of reassurance relaxing her features.
They rode out, Jimmy atop Katie, Ike on the gelding. The ride was nearly silent, as Jimmy had known it would be, with the sound of his blood pounding in his ears louder than the horse's hooves. Ike's form bounced in front of him, the setting moon gleaming off of his white shirt and pale scalp. Jimmy tried to count the minutes between first seeing Ike and this moment, tried to figure out how long Kid had been alone, and decided to stop.
He didn't do fear well.
When they reached the cliff face, the morning sun had started its defeat of night, chewing up the darkness with each passing second, providing the riders with a graying light to guide their way. Ike pulled his mount to a stop this side of a narrow foot path winding around the edge of the mountainside.
"You guys rode on that?" Jimmy asked, incredulous.
Ike spared him a glance, tying the reins of his horse to a tree growing out of the side of the cliff.
"Crazy bastards," Jimmy grumbled, sliding off Katie and leading the dancing horse next to Ike's mount. "Easy, girl," he soothed. "I'll bring him back." He pulled the pack of supplies Emma had given him from the saddle, and slung it across his back.
Ike jerked his head, leading Jimmy down the foot path and around the jutting outcropping of rocks. As they made their way forward, Jimmy realized that the sound he'd casually shoved to the background of his mind was snarling. Snarling, snapping… growling.
"Ike," Jimmy warned, pulling his Colt free.
Ike shot a look over his shoulder, and Jimmy saw his friend's gun was already gripped tightly in his right hand, his left running along the cliff face in the dim light, searching for something. Jimmy watched carefully, stopping when Ike's hand sank into a divot of rock, pulling him up short. Placing his back against the cliff face, Ike nodded down the hill.
"Down there?" Jimmy swallowed hard. He'd never been much for heights.
Ike nodded, frowning fiercely as they heard a cry of pain and anger slash through the snarling.
"Let's go," Jimmy said, starting down the side of the hill, his boots sliding, the pack on his back catching in tree branches. They fell, climbed, slid down to where Ike had left Kid, Jimmy's eyes opening wide at the sight of the mauled mountain lion.
"Coyotes," Jimmy guessed. "Or wolves."
Ike nodded, his eyes renewing their frenetic search in the growing light of morning.
"Be ready," Jimmy warned, looking further down the hill.
Ike held his pistol barrel up, and stared forward, his jaw tense. They continued down the hill, the cries getting weaker as the snarling grew louder. At first, Jimmy couldn't see anything. Then, the backwards motion of one of the coyotes caught his eye and he pointed to his left with the barrel of his Colt.
Ike looked at him, and with perfect clarity signaled that he would go left, and that Jimmy should go right and they would catch the coyotes in a crossfire.
Now… why can't you do that all the time, you bald-headed genius?
Stumbling quietly to the jutting rock Kid had barricaded himself behind, Jimmy caught sight of Ike across the way. He lifted his gun, and fired two shots in the air, causing the animals to jerk, flattening themselves in surprised defense, before turning toward the new threat.
"Go on!" Jimmy yelled, firing again. "Git! I don't want to kill ya, but I will, dammit!"
Two of the animals scurried partway up the hill, where they turned back, lips pulled up exposing yellowed teeth in a wicked snarl. A third turned back to Kid, drawn by the heady scent of blood.
Ike fired, his aim once again true, felling the animal as its jaws crashed through a stick Kid had been using to keep the animals at bay. The animal's yelp of pain, and a fourth bullet from Jimmy sent the other two away, leaving the hillside in relative silence. Panting, Ike and Jimmy stared at each other for a fraction of a second, then moved as one toward the makeshift barricade around Kid.
Jimmy holstered his gun, swallowing in shock at the sight of his friend. Kid had managed to wedge himself nearly underneath the rock overhang, pulling sticks up and around him in a meager attempt at protection. Blood covered the side of his pale face and swathed his left shoulder and side. He was wheezing, his eyes closed. Ike pulled the dead coyote away.
"Kid?" Jimmy started to move the sticks, eager to reach his friend.
Kid jerked, pulling back, his eyes opening wide, nearly all pupil.
"Easy, hey, easy, it's me. It's Jimmy."
"Jed?" Kid breathed.
Jimmy felt a stab in his gut. "No, it's Jimmy. Ike's here with me."
Kid blinked, fog starting to lift from his fever-bright eyes. "Knew he'd come b-back…."
"Yeah, he came back," Jimmy nodded, reaching out a hesitant hand to Kid's neck, trying to pull his friend free. He had to stop himself from flinching back at the heat he felt radiating from Kid's skin. "I'm just gonna… gonna lift you up here…."
He cupped Kid's neck; placing his other hand under the buckskin-clad legs, he shifted Kid's trembling body free of the outcropping.
"AH!" Kid's cry was quick and harsh.
Jimmy flinched, but didn't let go. "Easy," he soothed. "Almost free…."
Once Kid was free of the barricade, Ike crouched on the other side, his large, expressive eyes beseeching Jimmy's for a purpose, something to stop the harsh, wet gasps emanating from their friend.
"Okay, listen, uh…." Jimmy took his hat off, running fingers of helpless frustration through his shoulder-length brown hair. "Emma, she… uh, she gave me some stuff for you… so's we could get you home, okay?"
"Home?" Kid blinked, his jaw trembling. He rolled his head on the hillside, searching for something. Jimmy frowned, following Kid's eye line. He was staring at the empty space down the hill, just above the shallow creek.
"Yeah, Kid, home. Back at Emma's."
"Jed didn't… didn't know me…."
Ike grabbed Jimmy's hand, causing him to lift his eyes. He motioned to his head. Jimmy frowned.
"I know," he snapped at Ike. Sure it was fever. Or a head wound. Or a night in the cold. But it was also the truth. And Kid hadn't spoken to him since those broken words on the floor of the stable. He never gave me a choice, either.
"He knew you, Kid," Jimmy soothed, pulling bandages and water from the pack Emma had given them. "You were his brother."
"He woulda killed me y'know," Kid said, his voice losing its pained tremble for a moment.
Jimmy looked at his face, unnerved by the emptiness in his friend's normally vivid gray-blue eyes.
"He was ready to kill me."
"Yeah, well," Jimmy carefully pulled the saturated bandage from Kid's arm. "I didn't let him."
"Can't go home…." Kid whispered.
"'Course you can," Jimmy argued automatically, wincing at the ugly tear across his friend's skin. He poured some of the water from the canteen over the cuts, dabbing at the blood. Kid jerked at the touch.
"Don't belong there…."
"Yeah, you do," Jimmy grumbled. "You do a helluva lot more than—" Ike's frantic jerk at his sleeve stopped him from cleaning more of Kid's shoulder wound. Jimmy jerked his eyes up to Kid's face and saw his eyes flutter closed.
"Kid!" Jimmy snapped, reaching up to grasp his chin. "Kid, hey! Hey, open your eyes, okay? I mean it. You keep those eyes open, or I'll shoot you myself."
"M-might… be better… off…."
Jimmy turned Kid's head to him. "Don't talk like that. I'm bringing you home. I promised someone."
Kid frowned, blinking, his attention captured.
"I swear that horse is part human," Jimmy said, continuing to clean the blood from his friend's fevered skin as best he could.
"Hell, yeah, Katie… who else you think?"
Kid just shook his head, opening his eyes wide, air wheezing in through his tight lips and leaking out on a painful-sounding hiss.
Jimmy wiped at the sweat on his upper lip, glancing up at Ike as the sky behind him turned a brilliant red, decorating the clouds with layers of gold. He knew they needed to hurry; between the mountain lion carcass and Kid's blood, they were going to draw a lot more than three hungry coyotes.
"Okay," Jimmy said, shifting slightly to get a better balance on the steep hillside. "I'm gonna… try to wrap you up, and then… then Ike and me, we're gonna get you up this hill, back to the horses."
Kid simply blinked at him. Ike shook his head, his hand gestures too quick for Jimmy to follow. But he didn't need to understand Indian sign to know Ike was protesting moving Kid.
"What do you want to do, huh?" Jimmy growled, his brow furrowing with frustrated anger. "Leave him here?"
Ike made a V out of his hands, motioned to Kid, then up the hill.
Ike grinned in assertion. Jimmy looked down at Kid. He was blinking slowly, staring at the empty space behind Jimmy once more, his pupils large, his face pale with spots of fever flushing the portion of his face not covered by dried blood.
"Yeah, okay, but we'll have to hurry," Jimmy said softly.
Ignoring further comments from Ike, Jimmy padded the deepest cut on Kid's shoulder and arm with torn strips of bedding, then gently lifted and placed Kid's arm against his chest, watching as his friend's face pulled tight in pain. Jimmy's hands felt clumsy, too big for his arms, as he rolled the rest of the strips of bandages around Kid's arm and torso, binding the wounded limb to his friend's equally wounded chest.
He couldn't readily see the source of the blood on Kid's face, but figured from the flakes of dark copper clinging to Kid's eyebrows and lashes that wound could wait. He looked in the pack, but saw nothing big enough they could use to make a stretcher. Sitting on his haunches, he pressed the back of his hand against his mouth in thought. Kid was slender… it might work.
Shrugging out of his large canvas coat, Jimmy laid it on the ground next to Kid, nodding at Ike, who seemed to understand his intent.
"Kid," he called softly.
Kid blinked, but didn't move his eyes from the spot just over Jimmy's shoulder.
"Kid, we're gonna move you now. You ready?"
When he didn't receive anything else, Jimmy lifted his eyes to find Ike's large ones pinned to his face, as if awaiting a command. Jimmy wasn't used to being in charge. When they went after Katie and the stolen pouch during his first week as part of the riders at Sweetwater Station, Kid had been the one to call fire for the volley gun. Jimmy was used to working in the shadows, calling attention to himself only right before he dealt a heavy blow.
But Ike was looking to him to lead them out. And Kid… well, Kid wasn't looking at much of anything. Nodding once more to Ike, Jimmy shifted his hands under Kid's shoulders and knees, waited until Ike did the same, then lifted him slightly and setting him in the center of Jimmy's coat. Kid's eyes slid shut, but blinked open wide once more in an obvious effort to keep Jimmy from shooting him.
"Okay, here we go," Jimmy said, gripping the bottom edge of his coat and his sleeve, motioning to Ike to do the same, then lifting their wounded friend. Kid cried out, then bit down hard on his lip, trying to keep silent. Jimmy was thankful for that. This was going to be hard enough without being reminded how much they were hurting him.
Stumbling backwards slightly, Ike and Jimmy found their balance, then, leaning forward, began the arduous trek up the side of the hill.
"Too bad we… couldn't ask the horses… to meet us at the bottom," Jimmy panted. "Woulda been a helluva lot easier."
Ike simply focused upward. Jimmy glanced down at Kid once when he stumbled to his knees and saw that his friend's eyes were closed, his face pale in the growing light.
Hang in there, Kid….
Ike stumbled, picked himself up, stumbled again. He paused, twisting the coat litter they held between them slightly as Jimmy continued up the hill.
"C'mon, Ike," Jimmy grunted. "Keep moving."
Ike licked his dry lips, shaking his head once. Jimmy didn't know what Ike was trying to indicate, but his patience was thin. He was tired, he was scared, and he hated both feelings. He did not like being so out of control of a situation.
"Ike, get up. Now."
Ike dropped his head weakly, working to push himself to his feet, Kid slipping limply toward the slope Ike had created.
Jimmy stepped back, leveling the coat, glaring at Ike. "We're getting him home, you get me?" He snarled. "I am not going to lose a friend to some damn mountain lion because I couldn't carry him out of here. Now get your ass UP!"
Ike glared back at Jimmy, finally able to rise to his feet. Jimmy could see a vein swell along his bald scalp and knew he'd pissed Ike off, but at the moment he didn't care. The sun was climbing higher in the eastern sky, and by his rudimentary calculations, Kid had been without any kind of real help for nearly twelve hours. They needed to get out of there.
They reached the top of the hill, setting Kid on the dirt path, and pausing on hands and knees to gather their breath and find reserves of strength. With a silent glance at Kid's closed eyes, they clambered to their feet, situating the litter between them so that they walked single file carrying their precious cargo.
When they reached the horses, they laid Kid on the ground once more.
"Listen," Jimmy said, turning quickly and approaching Ike. "I'll ride with Kid. You go ahead. Get the doc to Emma's."
Ike started to shake his head, but Jimmy put a hand on his shoulder. "Ike, this is the best way. Help me get him up on Katie, and then go."
Ike looked down at Kid, then nodded. Jimmy breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't really have another argument up his sleeve and knew time was short. As gently as possible, they lifted Kid into a sitting position, his head lolling to his chest. Bracing their arms across his back, and clasping wrists beneath his knees, they lifted him up and onto Katie's saddle.
As his legs made contact with the unyielding leather of the saddle, Kid was jarred awake, gasping from the shock of pain that shook through him.
"Easy," Jimmy soothed. "Grab the saddle, Kid."
"Grab the saddle horn," Jimmy barked, causing Kid's eyes to bounce wide. He watched as Kid fumbled clumsy fingers around the saddle horn, then he swung up behind the saddle, wrapping his arms around his friend and grabbing the reins. Ike picked up Jimmy's coat from the ground and rolled it, stuffing it between the two riders to pad Jimmy's legs against the saddle.
Jimmy shoved his feet into the stirrups, his legs at a slightly awkward angle, Kid's booted feet flopping against his shins. He felt Kid sink into him, his battered body unable to maintain awareness for long.
"Go, Ike," Jimmy said as Katie danced in place, eager to move. "Get back there as fast as you can."
With one last worried glance at Kid, Ike wheeled his mount and slammed his heels into the horse's side, thundering away in a cloud of dust. Jimmy moved forward as fast as he dared. A trot would bounce Kid's broken ribs to pieces. A canter would open any barely sealed cuts. He settled Katie into a quick walk, her long-strided gait swaying both gently from side to side.
Kid's voice was whisper quick and ancient.
"Where… where're we goin'?"
"Pretty sure, Kid."
"Why… why're we goin' home?"
Jimmy paused, frowning. Isn't that what you did? When the ride was over, you headed home. Doesn't everyone yearn to go home? Yearn for a home? He glanced down at Kid, his friend's head tilted back against Jimmy's collar bone. He couldn't see Kid's eyes from his angle, but he felt his shallow breath against his neck. He felt the weak tremors running through Kid's body, warning them both there wasn't much in the way of reserves.
"Don't you want to go home?"
"Don't know where… that is," Kid whispered. "Can't… can't remember."
Jimmy closed his eyes for a brief moment, images from a long ago childhood dancing across the back of his lids in colors so vivid they didn't look real. None of them had gotten this far in life without gathering scars. None of them knew of a home they could return to that didn't hold a trove of nightmares and sorrow. Nowhere except Emma's. Except each other.
"I didn't want to kill him, Kid."
"He was your brother. I just… I reacted."
"No," Jimmy shook his head, feeling Kid grow heavier against his arm. "No, it's not okay."
Kid didn't reply. Jimmy squeezed Katie with his calves, encouraging her to walk faster.
"Hang in there, Kid."
When Cody heard the shots, he gripped the saddle horn as tightly as his numb fingers would allow. His body was spent. His legs past a simple ache straight on to pain, hip joints grinding bone against bone, back screaming for mercy. His eyes burned, his lips were cracked, yet he rode on, toward the sound of gunfire.
Gunfire meant people. Meant someone might need him to do more than ride. Endlessly ride.
Cody pulled his mount up to a stop behind the barn. Tossing the reins over the horse's head toward the water trough, he leaned forward on the saddle, dragging his weary right leg over the back of the horse and dropping down into the dirt. He knelt there for a moment, willing feeling to return to his feet, gritting his teeth against the pins and needles that attacked him with a vengeance. He couldn't remember being this tired.
"Where is it, Tate?"
"Go screw yourself, that's where!"
Using the stirrup as leverage, Cody pulled himself to his feet, then slid his rifle from the scabbard, checking the rounds as silently as possible. Pressing his back against the side of the barn, he took a breath, then poked his head quickly around the corner. His blue eyes took in three men with rifles pointed at the house. Another man was lying unmoving in the dirt between the house and the barn. The noonday sun eliminated the shadows of the gunmen, illuminating the lot in a glaring, almost surreal bright light. Cody licked his dry lips, calculating his next move.
"We aim to get the letters," said a swarthy man perched on the top rung of the corral fence. The tail of his long black coat fluttered in the sudden breeze. "We don't much care if you're alive when we do it."
"Ain't no letters here," Tate called back from the house. "So… you probably should head on out."
Cody stiffened as the man in the black coat chuckled.
Turning to his unusually tall companion Black Coat said, "He thinks we should head on out."
"What you want to do?" the tall man said.
"Tate!" Black Coat called. "We ain't got a problem killing you, your riders, your women, your horses… hell, we've gotten pretty good at it. But we're tired of having to chase you down. So, why don't you come on out and save us the trouble?"
"Why don't you go to hell!" Tate's voice boomed back, fear absent from its timbre.
Cody pulled back around the side of the barn. He felt his lips curling up in an appreciative grin. Dead on his feet or not, he had to appreciate rebellion. Pulling in another breath, he rounded the corner, and rested the rifle barrel between the rails of the corral, taking aim.
Cocking his rifle, Black Coat called to the house, "If that's the way you want it, Tate, I think we're gonna have to kill you all."
"I'd think again," Cody said, his voice devoid of emotion, deadly in its intent.
The three men perched on the corral fence turned as one, surprised at being caught unaware. A bullet from the house caused the tall gunman to turn back to their original target, while the other two fired toward Cody.
Cody didn't flinch, didn't duck, didn't blink. He simply exhaled, aimed, and fired. The impact of his bullet painted the rails of the corral red from the body of the ringleader. More gunfire erupted from the house and the tall gunman and his remaining companion darted toward the barn.
Cody turned to fire again, but found himself suddenly on his knees, his strength waning. He caught a pleased grin from the tall gunman as he ran through the wide open doors of the barn.
"Oh, hell no," Cody growled. "No one grins at me like that…." He pulled his rifle up, aiming into the dark recesses of the barn. The bullet from the gunman glanced off the barrel of his rifle, knocking it from his hands. "Okay, well, almost no one."
Rolling away from the corral, Cody pulled his pistol from its holster and cocked the hammer back. Another bullet from the house ricocheted off the barn wall above his head.
"Tate!" Cody yelled, his voice cracking. "I'm a rider, dammit! Watch where you're aiming!"
"Son of a bitch!" cursed the station master.
Ducking his head around the corner of the barn, Cody caught sight of one gunman trying to gather the reins of the horse he'd just ridden in on. Shit! The pouch!
"Hey!" Cody barked, launching to his feet, all weariness forgotten.
The gunman turned, pistol in hand, firing blindly toward Cody. With his left hand rapidly drawing back the hammer, Cody fired four rounds into the man, dropping him into the dirt next to the nervous horse's dancing hooves.
"Whoa," Cody grabbed the reins. "Easy, boy." He tied the horse off to an iron ring on the barn, completely forgetting about the third gunman until he heard the unmistakable sound of a pistol being cocked.
Cody turned slowly, seeing the same grin that had irritated him earlier, leering out at him from the shadows of the barn. He raised his hands, letting his own gun drop into the dirt.
"Should've just given us what we wanted," the tall gunman sneered with a cocky tilt of his head.
The sound of the bullet exploding from the barrel startled Cody. He never thought the shot that killed him would be so loud. It took him a second to realize that he wasn't hit and another second to notice the gunman's eyes were glazing over as he fell face-first to the barn floor.
Behind him stood the smallest man Cody had ever seen. His mustache was twice the width of his face; his narrow shoulders trembled with the weight of the shotgun. As he stepped out of the barn his round glasses glinted in the sunlight. Cody locked his knees to keep from collapsing with relief.
"Yeah, who the hell are you?" came a surprisingly deep voice from one so small in stature.
"William F. Cody."
"You heard of me?"
"Hell, son, most everyone on the route has heard of you," Tate replied, still holding the shotgun. "What're you doing this far west?"
"It's a long story," Cody breathed. "You got a rider?"
Tate put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. A dark-haired boy about Lou's size ran from the house, caught a black horse from the corral, and led it to the barn.
"Woulda been ready for you, but, well… we had company."
"So I gathered," Cody nodded, acutely aware his legs were now visibly trembling. "Tate… I been riding for awhile…."
"You didn't… you didn't ride here all the way from Sweetwater?!"
"Yessir," Cody said, finding it difficult to keep the world steady. It wanted to shift sideways. He shook his head. "You have some… some water?"
Tate whistled again as the boy who had caught the black horse swung up. Pulling the pouch from Cody's mount, he took off to the west with a loud whoop.
Cody blinked as the dust kicked up from the horse's departing hooves seemed to grow, spread, and envelop him. He tried to shake his head again, but found that instead, the ground decided to rush up and meet him rather swiftly.
Just before he closed his eyes, he heard Tate swear.
"William F. Cody… all the way from Sweetwater… damn if we aren't the luckiest sonsabitches in Wyoming…."
It was the voice that had saved him from a lifetime of silence. It was his best friend, his lifeline, his home. Ike had to physically hold onto the horse to keep from launching into a flurry of signs at Buck to tell him all that had transpired, all that he'd been unable to do.
Ike dismounted, handing his reins to Lou, who looked equally as worried. Using the well-known signs Buck had taught him, he relayed the message that Kid was hurt, bad. They needed to get the doctor out to the station now.
Buck turned to Lou and told her what Ike had said. Within minutes, there was a flurry of activity surrounding Ike that he wanted to collapse into. He watched carefully, though, as Teaspoon barked an order to Nate Jergenson, telling him to get Marshal Sam Caine; Emma pulled sheets from the line to ready a bed for Kid in the house; Lou mounted up and rode south to the doc's house, just outside of town; and Buck led Ike's tired horse to the corral.
He was nearly lost in the activity, swaying from exhaustion, when Buck's strong, tanned hand gripped his upper arm and led him to the bunkhouse. Ike sat heavily on the bed, listening as Buck's voice undulated around him, telling him to lay down, that they would take care of Kid, that he'd done his job. He felt himself ease back against the pillow, almost allowing himself to relax, when he heard Teaspoon's gravelly voice bellow across the lot.
Ike shot up like a bullet, following Buck out of the bunkhouse as Teaspoon hurried forward to catch Katie's bridle.
"My God," Teaspoon breathed.
"He won't wake up," Jimmy said. "I been talkin' to him, but… but his breath sounds really wet, Teaspoon."
"Okay, Jimmy," Teaspoon reassured. "Let's just get him in the house."
Teaspoon led Katie closer to the house. Buck and Ike followed behind. Reaching up, Buck and Teaspoon gathered Kid from Jimmy's arms, pulling him as carefully as possible from the back of the horse and carrying him into the house.
Ike stepped through the doorway, leaning against the frame, watching. Emma had fashioned a bed in the front room. They lay Kid on the white sheets and began to cut away his shirt.
"Good Lord," Emma breathed. "A mountain lion did this?" She looked up at Ike, who nodded.
"He's awful hot, Teaspoon," Jimmy said, his hat clutched in his strong fingers, the brim bending and twisting as he worried the edge.
"I know, son," Teaspoon said. "Go sit down. We'll take care of him until the doc gets here."
"Something's wrong with his breathing—"
"It's okay, Jimmy," Emma paused next to him, placing a hand on his forearm, meeting his eyes. Jimmy instantly stilled.
Ike remembered how Emma's presence had lulled him into an unfamiliar feeling of safety time and again.
"You did good." Emma looked over at Ike. "You both did. You brought him home. You don't have to do this alone anymore."
Jimmy stepped back and Ike stepped forward. Joined by Buck, they hovered in the back of the room, watching as Kid jerked and thrashed when Teaspoon and Emma pulled away the rudimentary wrapping around his wounds, cleaning the blood from his head and arm.
After what seemed like years, hooves were heard in the distance. Ike peered out through the opened doorway and watched as Sam, Lou, Nate, and the doc rode up, dismounted and headed for the house. Lou caught sight of Kid for the first time and Ike saw her gasp and cover her mouth. She backed up until she bounced off Jimmy. Ike saw him put a steady hand on her shoulder.
"Teaspoon," Sam said in a low voice while the doc and Emma bent over Kid. "We need to talk."
"Can it wait?" Teaspoon snapped.
"No," Sam shook his head. "We got the guys that hit Hicks' station, but according to them, there's another group looking for the letters in that Army satchel."
"What's so important about those letters?" Teaspoon growled.
"You know I can't tell you that," Sam replied.
Teaspoon turned to face Sam, his sigh oddly seeming to increase his size rather than deflate it. The elder man twisted his lips in a grimace of distaste. "If you're about to ask me to send any more of my boys out there after this other group, then you damn well better tell me."
"Cody's palomino came back earlier," Teaspoon said, surprising Ike. "His gloves were tied to the mane."
Sam shifted his eyes to Ike and the group standing at the back of the room. Then he looked over at Kid.
"There's talk of a war comin'," Sam said softly, his eyes still on Kid. "The letters are to two generals…. That's all I know."
Teaspoon hooked his thumbs in his pink suspenders. "Doesn't seem like much to kill for."
Sam rubbed his mouth, then looked back at the boys. "Any idea if Cody's okay?"
"He's on a run."
"But you just said…."
"Sam," Emma called, quieting the marshall with a word.
Teaspoon shook his head, turning away from Sam to watch the Kid, hiding his worry. Ike tried to see around him, tried to watch the doc, but the wall created by Emma and Teaspoon was too solid. He felt eyes on him and looked up to see Sam watching them.
"How is he?" Teaspoon asked the doctor softly.
"I'm not going to lie to you," the doctor's voice rumbled up from his crouched position. "It's not good. I can wrap his ribs, hope for the best there, clean and stitch these wounds, but… his fever is high…."
The doctor straightened, pushing wire-rimmed glasses up on the bridge of his nose. "It's going to be up to him. He'll either pull through, or…."
Ike blinked. Or?
"Boys," Emma said suddenly, straightening. "There's work to do. Ike, you and Jimmy go get some rest. Buck and Lou—"
"We know what to do, Emma," Buck said softly, leading them out of the door, past Sam's scowl and Teaspoon's averted eyes.
Jimmy paused in the doorway just ahead of Ike.
"Teaspoon, uh…." He paused, looking down, then lifted his head once more. "Come get us if, y'know…."
Ike shot his eyes to Teaspoon, a cold feeling in his gut at the grizzled man's solemn nod.
Voices rose and faded like the sound of the river lapping against the sandy shore behind their house in Virginia. There were soothing tones when heat seemed to surround him, burning with intensity from his heart through his skin. When the heat suddenly vanished to be replaced by cold, the voices became sharp, insistent, demanding.
They sucked away the air, pressed flat his lungs, drowning him in darkness. He turned, trying to find relief, trying to roll away from the pain, trying to fight the quiet sighs in the back of his mind beckoning him to fall inside the black. The fire returned, shaking him with its veracity, threatening to tear him apart, to burn him alive.
A cooling hand and a whispered promise stilled him. Wetness flowed across his burning lips and down his parched throat. The voices started to separate, become distinct, become clear. Just as he was able to hear them, darkness rolled over him once more, this time bringing peace.
When Kid next opened his eyes, he felt hollow. His shoulder was too big for his body, his fingers heavy weights at the end of his hand. He could swear someone had opened him up and cleared out his insides, then returned them to him in a tangle.
Early morning light turned the room gray. He swallowed, the sensation like that of cracked earth soaking up the first rain of autumn. He blinked, grit melding the corners of his lashes. Rolling his head against the pillow, he saw Jimmy, tipped back in a chair next to the bed, his booted feet propped against the frame, his hat slanted forward to cover his face.
"J—" Kid tried, feeling his voice rub against the inside of his throat like a rasp on a horseshoe. "Jimmy…."
As if his name had been spoken with the strength of a bullet fired from a gun, Jimmy jerked, dropping his feet from the bed frame, thumping the front two legs of the chair to the floor. His hat fell off, his shoulder-length hair fell over his forehead, and he looked around, confused.
"Hey," Kid tried.
Jimmy looked over at him, blinking, then shoved his hair behind his ears. "Hey, yourself."
"Uh… dunno," Jimmy blinked, rubbing at his eyes. "But it's Tuesday."
"You been lying there for two days now," Jimmy clarified. "Scared us pretty good."
"How you feelin'?"
Kid thought about it. "Thirsty."
"Hang on," Jimmy stood, grabbed a tin cup and filled it with water from a bucket sitting on the table. He crossed back to Kid, easing a hand under his neck, and lifted his head, helping him drink.
Satiated, Kid let his head drop back on the pillow. "What… what happened?"
"You remember the lion?"
As if from a forgotten dream, images of the ride from Fort Laramie, rolled through his head, the shortcut, the heavy weight of the big cat as it slammed into him.
"Aw, hell," Kid muttered.
"You got cut up pretty good," Jimmy said, nodding to his shoulder. "Broke some ribs."
"Ike rode back, got me, we got you out."
"You?" Kid was surprised. He and Jimmy hadn't exactly talked since Jed died.
"Yeah, me," Jimmy dropped back into the chair. "You think I was gonna let one of our best riders get chewed on by coyotes?"
"Oh, yeah, the coyotes," Kid muttered, remembering. It had been so cold on the hillside. Dark and cold. Had Jed been there? He could remember Jed…. No. No, Jed was dead. Jimmy had killed him. To save Kid's life.
Kid looked over at his friend, Jimmy's brown eyes shadowed in the dim light of morning. "I miss anything?" he asked.
"Uh, yeah," Jimmy chuckled, looking down at the palm of his hand. "A bit."
Continuing to watch his hand as if the answers to questions Kid hadn't figured out how to ask were written on it, Jimmy told him about the stations being attacked, riders and station masters killed, and Cody riding for nearly twenty-four hours straight to get the pouch through.
"He's back, though," Jimmy finished. "Got in last night. Big celebrity," Jimmy grinned, shaking his head. "You know Cody."
Kid nodded. "Yeah."
They were quiet a moment. Kid fought the weight of sleep that pulled at his eyes in the wake of Jimmy's intense gaze. "What is it?"
"You know you belong here, right?" Jimmy said, surprising him.
"What do you mean?"
"You belong here," Jimmy repeated. "If anyone doesn't, it's me."
"What?" Kid pulled his brows together in confusion, wincing slightly as the motion pulled at the cut on his head. "Why don't you?"
"Because…." Jimmy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Because I… I'm not really a good person, Kid. You know that. You saw that. You know I'm not like you. Because of Jed."
Kid was silent. Jed. Jed who had left him to the mercy of their father. Jed who hadn't come looking for him, not once. Ever. Jed who had barely recognized him when Kid approached him on the streets of Sweetwater. Jed who had tried to kill him to escape the law.
"Jimmy," Kid said, his voice serious and soft. Jimmy looked over at him. "Jed taught me something when… when he came back. He, uh… he taught me that there's a face you show the world… and then there's who you really are."
"When I saw who he really was… I didn't like what I saw," Kid confessed.
Kid nodded, working to complete his words before sleep claimed him once more. "This here's our home. Right now, anyway. Our home." He paused, waiting for Jimmy's eyes to meet his. "It's a home for better men than Jed."
Jimmy looked back down at the palm of his hand. "Yeah," he said softly.
Kid blinked slowly, his body needing oblivion, his mind craving connection. "I saw…"
"Kid?" Jimmy prompted him.
"I saw your face…" Kid closed his eyes, feeling himself sink into the bed, feeling the peace of sleep wrap comforting arms around him. I saw the real you, and I'd stand beside you any day…
As he faded, Kid felt the barest brush of fingertips on the back of his hand. He knew when he woke, he'd be home once more.
a/n: Thank you for reading. See ya'll again sometime.