Title=====Weathering the Storm
Disclaimer====One of these days maybe they'll be mine, but for now I'd just like to play with them for a while. No money was made from this story, but I hope people enjoy reading it
Comments======This is written for LaraMee who has given us so many wonderful H/C lists to enjoy. Her stories are a perfect read, especially when in the mood for H/C…hmm, for me that's all the time. I think I cut my mag7 teeth on her story Comfort of Friends and wanted to give her something in return for the great stories she's given us. Happy Birthday, LaraMee, I hope you have a wonderful day filled with all your dreams and wishes and that there are many, many more to come. Thanks to Marti and Antoinette for beta reading this one and to Pamela for the wonderful collage.
Vin looked up at the sky and silently cursed. There was no doubt in his mind that there was a storm coming and it would be a hell raiser. He glanced sideways at his riding companion and knew he had to find them shelter, but they were still several hours' ride from Four Corners. Chris Larabee had to be one of the most stubborn men he'd ever met and had kept denying the fact that he was sick, and probably would continue to do so right up to the point where he fell off his horse and landed on his feverish ass.
"Chris, storm's comin' in fast," Tanner finally said and watched Larabee's eyes open.
"Figured as much," Larabee said and tried to hide how lousy he felt. Each step the horse took sent daggers through his skull and swallowing felt like he was chewing on crushed glass. He'd been fine when they left for the prisoner drop, but had been feeling pretty raunchy since leaving Bennett's Crossing to head home. "Think we'll make Four Corners?"
"Not a chance," Tanner said and cursed when lightning streaked across the sky and struck a tree nearby. Rain began to fall heavily and thunder echoed through the surrounding hills, leaving the two men drenched to the skin in a matter of seconds. "We need to find shelter."
"Not much around here," Larabee said and patted Pony's neck in an effort to calm the skittish animal.
"There's a cave near Baker's Pass. It ain't much, but at least it'll be dry," Tanner told him and was glad when the other man didn't argue. He spurred Peso into a gallop and kept glancing over his shoulder to make sure Larabee was following. The lightning flashed continuously with only a second or two separating each mesmerizing streak. Peso shied away when lightning struck the base of a tree on his left, but Vin managed to keep the animal aimed toward what he hoped was their shelter.
Chris knew his grip on Pony's saddle was slipping and he prayed he could hold on until they reached shelter. He coughed, and groaned when it tore at his chest and closed his eyes for a few seconds. When he reopened them he realized he could no longer see Tanner or Peso and glanced around, but he was alone in a world that had taken on a whole new look.
"Vin," the blond called, but the only sound was the thunderous cacophony the reverberated through his skull and left him sick to his stomach. Chris had no idea where the cave was and without Tanner to show him he would miss the entrance.
"Vin!" his voice was lost in the screaming wind and the darkening funnel cloud he could see bearing down on him. Pony panicked and bucked, throwing Chris backward before racing away from the horrifying display of nature's violence.
"I gotcha, Cowboy!" Tanner seemed to materialize out of nowhere and he helped Larabee to his feet. There was no time to check for injuries and Vin knew there was nothing he could do even if there were. Right now the tornado was bearing down on them and their lives depended on them making it to the cave. He prayed Peso and Pony would be all right, but his priority had to be getting Larabee out of the path of the storm.
Chris stumbled along beside the Texan and caught sight of the twister closing in on them. "Go, Vin!"
"I'm goin'!" the sharpshooter assured him, and dragged Larabee to his feet when he stumbled.
"How…how much fur…ther!" the blond screamed.
"Not far…it's jest past them rocks!" Tanner answered. He could feel the winds whipping up around them just as they reached the entrance and in a last ditch attempt to keep them both out of the twisters path he dove inside, dragging Larabee with him. They landed heavily just a few feet inside and Vin covered his ears as the screaming winds of the tornado whipped past the cave's entrance. It felt like the storm went on forever, but in truth it lasted less than a minute, leaving a devastated landscape in its destructive wake.
"Right here, Cowboy," Tanner said and touched Larabee's shoulder. Even through the sodden clothing he could feel the heat of a fever brewing and wished they were closer to home. Out here, alone, with little supplies, Larabee's illness could turn deadly. He looked toward the entrance and knew the rain was still falling at an alarming rate and was glad he'd had the fortitude to grab his saddlebags and bedroll before sending Peso on his way. He thought back to the moment when he'd turned Peso loose and realized Larabee was no longer following him. He'd thrown the supplies inside the cave and headed back toward the writhing column of wind swept debris. He'd grabbed Larabee and began pulling him toward the cave and barely made it inside.
Chris sighed tiredly and finally admitted to himself just how lousy he was feeling. He regretted not staying in the town for a couple of days, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He could see Tanner moving around the cave and wondered how the younger man seemed to know so many landmarks in the area.
"How did you k…know a…about the cave?" the ill man asked, his words weak and shaky as he tried to get to his feet.
"Stay put, Chris," Tanner ordered. "I found this place last time I took Baker's Pass. Figured it'd come in handy one day."
"Figured right," Larabee whispered and shook with the force of a series of harsh coughs that left him weak and in pain. His throat felt on fire as he looked at the Texan through hooded eyes.
"Damn it, Chris, why didn't'cha say somethin'…could've stayed in town," Tanner groused.
"Rather sleep in m…my o…own bed," Larabee answered.
"Ain't no bed here," the Texan told him and helped him move to the wall of the cave. "I'm gonna get a fire started…"
"Don't go out there, Vin, wood is too wet anyway," the gunman stated, shivering as the cold seeped through his body. His teeth began to chatter and no matter how hard he tried he couldn't stop them.
"Told ya I's here before. Figured someone might need a place ta stay. Laid in some wood and other stuff…should still be here lessin someone else used it," Tanner explained and moved to the back of the cave. He found the pile of wood he'd placed there and tucked in behind it was the tin box with several matches.
Chris watched through half mast eyes while the Texan started a fire and wished there was something he could do to help, but right now he didn't have the strength to lift his arm, let alone do anything remotely close to manual labor. If he was going to be honest he'd have to admit that he was as weak as a day old calf and even that would be stretching the truth.
Chris shivered and looked toward the entrance as hail pelted down and bounced off the ground. He knew enough about the weather to recognize the signs that the tempest raging outside had only just begun. Sighing tiredly, Chris leaned his head back and tried to stop the building itch in his throat from becoming another coughing spasm that could tear his lungs from his chest. His head felt ready to explode and he felt Tanner kneel beside him and something was placed at his lips. Chris was shocked and amazed, but even more gratified that the other man had grabbed his canteen before turning Peso loose to fend for himself.
"Easy, Cowboy," Tanner said, unconsciously rubbing the sick man's shoulders while Larabee struggled to swallow the water. He glanced outside and knew the storm was just raring its ugly head and that things would get worse before they got better. He could feel Larabee shivering and knew the first thing he had to do was get him warmed up. Capping the canteen, Vin placed it on the floor and looked at his friend's face.
Larabee had looked bad, but now with the glow from the fire, he looked ten times worse and Vin knew he had to get him out of the wet clothes and wrapped in the lone blanket he'd somehow managed to keep mostly dry. "Jesus, Chris…"
"Ain't dead, Vin, can't feel this lousy when you're dead," Larabee mumbled through chattering teeth.
"Don't 'spect ya would," Tanner said and eased the man forward. "We need ta get'cha warmed up…"
"Not much c…chance of that hap…happening," the blond groaned, but was grateful when Tanner helped ease him out of the wet duster. His fingers were numb from the cold and he couldn't quite handle the tedious job of undoing the buttons and silently cursed the sickness invading his body.
"I can do it…"
"Ain't like we got all night, Chris, man could freeze ta death waiitn' fer ya," the Texan griped and was glad when Larabee dropped his hands and allowed him to finish removing the wet shirt. The gunman's skin was cold to the touch, but Vin knew from experience that was just because of the rain and chills. It wouldn't be long before Chris' fever rose and the real battle would begin. Vin reached for the blanket and wrapped it around Larabee's shaking body and helped him to his feet.
"Thanks," the blond whispered and reached out for the warmth of the fire. His legs refused to hold him any longer and his knees gave out. He sank toward the floor and was grateful when Tanner's strong arms caught him, but his momentum was enough to carry them both to the ground where he leaned wearily against the taut chest.
"Yer not such a scrawny feller, Larabee!" Tanner snapped and held the sick man when a series of wet strangling coughs erupted from the gunman. It scared the hell out of him and he prayed he had something in his saddlebag he could use to mix up one of Jackson's remedies. "Jesus, Chris, think ya jest coughed up a lung!"
"No…no shit," the blond snarled and turned his head to spit out the crud that came up from his lungs. "Damn…think may…maybe I'll sl…sleep now."
"Not until we get'cha outta them pants…"
"You're not my type, Vin…"
"Thank God fer that…ya ain't exactly the marryin' type either…not with them bones stickin' out ever'where," Tanner said and helped Larabee out of his wet clothing. "Ain't much more I can do, Chris."
"You…" Chris tried, but it quickly became a series of coughs that took his breath away and scared the hell out of his companion. He lay down on his side and snuggled deep into the Texan's bedroll and let his eyes close.
Vin watched Larabee's chest for several minutes before moving to check the contents of his saddlebags, He knew Jackson had placed supplies in there, but he'd also made sure to add his own things. He'd learned early on to make sure he carried the things he'd need…not the things he'd like to have. He soon had everything placed beside the fire and picked up the small, battered pot that took up very little space. He walked to the entrance and held the pot outside until the rain filled it.
The cave was high enough that he didn't have to stoop over to walk back to where Larabee lay next to the fire. The blond's heavy wheeze worried him, and he watched the lean chest rising and falling with each harsh breath. Again he cursed the foul weather that had come upon them suddenly, and hoped Peso and Pony were all right. Knowing there was nothing more he could do about the horse, Vin turned his attention to his ailing companion.
Larabee would gripe and complain about taking one of Nathan's remedies, but he would finally give in and take it. He placed the pot of water in the outer embers of the fire and reached for his saddlebags. He opened then and smiled when he found the neatly wrapped package Jackson had placed there when they'd left Four Corners. There were herbs and bandages and salve, but the one he reached for was the willow bark tea because of its ability to help lower a fever.
Vin reached out to touch the pale forehead and couldn't help, but noticed the sweat glistening on the exposed chest. He silently cursed the storm raging outside and felt a tremor race through his own body. It wouldn't do either of them any good if he got sick and he looked toward the extra set of clothing he'd removed from the saddlebags. Larabee was warm enough beneath the blanket and huddled close to the fire so Vin quickly removed his own drenched clothing and donned the spare shirt and pants. Next he took his and Larabee's wet clothing and spread it out on the opposite side of the fire in an effort to dry it out.
Sighing heavily he placed the herbs in the water and sat down next to the sick blond. The long ride had taken a toll on his strength and he felt himself drifting to sleep, basking in the heat from the flames. Closing his eyes, Vin placed a hand on Larabee's shoulder and was soon sleeping with his back against the cave wall.
The town of Four Corners was slowly coming back to life after the storm had whipped through the area. The twister had caught several people unawares, but they'd been lucky and no one had been killed and only a few had minor injuries that were easily taken care of. Nathan stood on the landing and looked out over the town; he'd just finished stitching a small cut in Conklin's forehead and knew the others were helping out around town.
Jackson nodded to Buck and JD who were helping Gloria Potter with the chairs that were normally in front of her store. Further along the street he saw Josiah striding toward the saloon. The building had sustained some damage to the back wall and the ex-preacher was a handy man with a hammer and nails. Ezra was inside with Inez and the duo were trying to set everything back to normal.
Jackson looked toward Vin's wagon before remembering Tanner and Larabee had ridden out several days ago to deliver a prisoner for transfer to Yuma. The two men were not due back for a couple of days and for that he was grateful, especially after seeing the damage the storm left in its wake. The thought of his friends caught out in the open when the twister hit scared the hell out of him, but he shook it off and walked down the stairs.
'Might as well send a telegram and make sure they're okay,' the former slave thought, but stopped to help Sanchez with the repairs to the saloon.
"Town got lucky," Jackson said, handing the bigger man a piece of wood.
"Luck or Divine intervention," Sanchez told him.
"Probably a little of both," the healer agreed.
"How is Conklin?"
"Same miserable sonofabitch he's always been. Griping about us not bein' able to protect the town," Jackson answered.
"From an act of nature?" Sanchez asked incredulously. "The man is crazy."
"And then some," Jackson told him and turned to see JD and Buck hurrying toward them.
"Need some help?" Wilmington asked.
"We got this under control," Sanchez answered.
"In that case JD and I are gonna head out and check on Nettie and Casey Wells," the handsome rogue told them.
"We'll do a complete circle of the homesteads to the north," Dunne added.
"Good plan," Sanchez said. "Just be careful…no telling what damage the storm left."
"I think the worst of it passed south of here," Wilmington added. "Damn good thing Chris and Vin weren't coming straight back."
"I'm gonna send them a telegram and ask them to check the homes to the south on their way back," Jackson explained.
"Are you gonna check on Rain's village?" Dunne asked.
"Was plannin' on riding out as soon as we finish here," the healer answered.
"Not much left to do here, Nathan. Go send the telegram and head out," Sanchez said.
"Ya sure?" Jackson asked.
"Get on out of here," Sanchez said when he noted the twinkle in Jackson's eyes. The man had feelings for Rain and the duo were seeing each other whenever they could.
Nathan nodded and moved toward the telegraph office, once again glad Tanner and Larabee had planned on taking some time for themselves before returning. His thoughts turned to Rain and her village and he prayed they'd fared as well or better than Four Corners.
Vin stared out over the strange landscape and sighed wearily when he looked at his companion. Chris had followed him here and they'd talked about their past and he'd told Chris about the bounty on his head, a show of trust he'd never shared with anyone else. The bond that had formed from that simple glance across a dusty street had strengthened until it felt like he'd found a brother, one chosen instead of born. Vin frowned when he reached out to touch Larabee and the man whimpered and muttered something unintelligible before leaning against him. The heat raging from Larabee's body scared the hell out of him and jolted him back to reality.
The heat of the fire raged within him, but it had nothing to do with the fever running rampant through his body. For Chris Larabee the greatest torment was watching the flames erase his heart and soul. The fire burned through the house, destroying his past and his hope for the future, taking with it the love and happiness that Sarah and Adam brought him. He fought the strong arms that held him back and cursed Wilmington to hell and back before falling to his knees and screaming at a God who so cruelly allowed his dreams to die. He struggled and fought, but the arms renewed their efforts to keep him from racing into the inferno that had become his own personal hell. Exhausted, Chris dropped back against the lean chest and let the tears fall.
Vin felt Larabee's body against his own and knew the blond was not with him. Wherever Chris was, there was no doubt that he was in torment and his fever-baked mind was making it hard to get through to him. Fearing that he could lose this man who'd come to mean so much to him, Vin clung to him and began to speak softly in hopes of getting through to him and bring him some peace.
"Hey, Cowboy, no need ta go fightin' now. I'm not gonna let anyone hurt'cha," Tanner soothed.
"Devil…devil took them…took them…Sarah! Adam!" Chris struggled with the man holding him back and renewed his efforts to get to his family. He could hear them screaming and crying and it tore at his shattered dreams.
"Ain't no devil here, Chris…not anymore. Yer safe and so are Adam and Sarah. They'll be waitin fer ya, but it ain't yer time right now." Tanner took a deep breath and realized he'd spoken more to the fevered man than he'd done to most people in a month, yet Larabee was oblivious to his soft tones. The blond trembled at his touch and continued to cry out even when Vin wrapped his arms around the quaking body that seemed awash with feverish perspiration.
Vin looked around the dull interior and realized the fire was the only source of light. He eased the sick man down on the blanket and added fuel to the flames before hurrying to the cave entrance. The wind had picked up and the torrential downpour continued while dark clouds obliterated any evidence that the day had started out hot and sunny. A series of harsh coughs brought his attention back to his companion and he hurried to his side.
Chris struggled with the world between dreams and reality until he managed to get his eyes to focus on the shadowy figure bathed in the scant light from the fire. He swallowed, grimacing when it felt like he'd gargled with crushed glass and finally managed to speak.
"Right here, Cowboy. Got something' fer ya ta drink," Tanner explained and reached for the pot of herbs and water he'd placed near the embers.
"Not...not the devil?" Larabee wheezed.
"Don't got no horns or tail," the Texan said and was pleased to see a hint of a smile form on the gunman's face.
"T…thank God…look like hell i…in this fire," the blond told him and watched while the sharpshooter poured liquid into a tin cup. He knew instinctively what it was, and shied away, but Tanner had the upper hand and held his head up before placing the cup at his mouth. Chris took several small sips, grimacing when pain flared in his throat.
"I know it hurts, Chris, but ya gotta drink it," Tanner ordered and continued to feed the liquid to his friend until Larabee closed his mouth tightly and refused anymore. "Damn ornery…"
"Sound like…like Nate," Larabee said, and let his eyes close.
Vin studied the washed out features and prayed it was the flickering of the flames that gave Larabee the appearance of a day old corpse. Not for the first time since ridding themselves of their prisoner, Vin wished Nathan was with them. Larabee's fever continued to climb, yet aside from keeping him cool and drinking fluids, there was nothing more he could do.
'Maybe Peso or Pony made it back to town and help's on the way,' Tanner thought, but the thunderous clap that rattled through the cave told him there'd be no one foolish enough to ride out in a storm like this. Leaning back on his heels, Vin rotated his neck and shoulders, before picking up the small pot and making his way to the entrance. The rain slanted to the left and he held he pot under the stream until it was filled with water. He quickly refilled the canteen and collected more water before sitting beside the sick man.
Larabee's features were bathed in white firelight and perspiration beaded on his forehead, and Vin knew as long as there was sweat, the blond wasn't in desperate need of water. He picked up a strip of cloth and dipped it into the cool water before wiping it across his face. Again and again he repeated the gesture, until his hands were wrinkled and sore from ringing the water from the cloth.
Vin's gaze strayed toward the entrance as a particularly loud clap of thunder reverberated through the surrounding hills, leaving him with a feeling that he and Chris were the only two people left in the world. He turned back to the ailing gunslinger and felt his heart constrict in his throat at the expression on Larabee's face. It looked as if he was in extreme pain and each time he tried to swallow, Vin saw the face twist up as he coughed.
"Damn you, E…Eli Joe…you're a fucking coward!"
"Easy, Cowboy, Eli Joe's not out ta getcha…he's dead," Tanner said and saw Larabee's expression change.
"Killed Eli Joe…God…sorry, Vin…had no choice…no choice."
"No, you didn't, Chris, you saved my life and I owe ya…owe ya more'n ya'll ever know," the Texan vowed and reached for the cloth once more when the gunman started to tremble beneath his touch and the storm seemed to increase in fury just as Larabee's fever climbed higher and higher. Vin settled back and prayed he could weather both storms.
Josiah walked along the street and looked toward the south where the sky was still as dark as a turbulent sea. He remembered his journey across the ocean when he'd accompanied his father to Africa during one of his missions. The storms that had come upon them out of nowhere were the worst, and there'd been times when they'd been forced to tie themselves to the ship whenever they were on deck. He'd lost several friends during one particularly violent storm, and wondered how many people had died from the violence of nature.
"No more than those who died by the violence of man," Sanchez whispered and hurried toward the telegraph office. Nathan had sent the message earlier in the day, but so far there had been no answer and nightfall was quickly covering the landscape. He stopped in front of the saloon and turned to see Mary Travis hurrying toward him.
"Josiah, I just stopped by the telegraph office and there was an answering message from the sheriff over in Bennett's Crossing. He said Chris and Vin left there the day before yesterday," Mary explained worriedly.
"Damn…sorry, Mary," Sanchez apologized and reached for the message she handed him.
"Are you going to get the others and go after them?"
"Buck and JD are out at Nettie's place. Nathan's gone to Rain's village, and Ezra is helping Mrs. Potter with her children," Sanchez explained while the first drops of rain began to fall.
"But they could have been caught in that storm," Mary protested.
"Yes, they might have, but there's not much we can do until morning. The storm seems to be moving back through the area and it won't do Chris and Vin any good if we get caught out in the open," the ex-preacher answered. A streak of lightning shot across the sky and struck a tree near the livery. Sparks flew and fire ignited, making both people forget about their friends in the need to extinguish the flames.
With the help of the heavy rains, it didn't take long to control the small fire and stop it from spreading to the livery. Josiah heard thunder even as flashes of light announced that the storm was moving quickly overhead.
"You'd better get inside, Mary," Sanchez warned and led her toward her home. He knew she was deeply worried about Chris and Vin, but until the tempest passed there was nothing more they could do. Once they reached the newspaper, Josiah tried to reassure her that Chris and Vin could handle themselves and vowed that as soon as the storm ended they would go in search of the missing men.
Vin had never felt so helpless in his life, but he continued to tend the ailing gunslinger. There were times when Larabee cried out in a rasping whisper that spoke of sickness, while at other times he was quiet and whimpered softly as if plagued by demons only he could see. The periods of lucidity were few and far between and lasted only a few minutes while Vin tried to get Chris to drink the water or Willow Bark Tea he'd steeped.
Tanner looked at his hands and wished there was more he could do, before standing and walking to the cave entrance. The thunder sounded in the distance and from experience he knew the storm was moving off, but the end of the tempest did not herald the end of Larabee's problems. The coughing had grown worse and there were times when he thought the man would not draw another breath, but each time he lifted the blond and rapped him on the back until he let loose the plug of mucus that had lodged in his throat. It left the blond weak and struggling for breath, but it also showed the inner strength of the man he'd chosen to call 'brother'.
"Come on, Cowboy, just hang on and we'll be back in town b'fore ya know it," Tanner soothed and added wood to the fire before moving behind his friend and leaning against the wall. Next he lifted the unresponsive blond until he rested against his own chest. The heat scared him, but he needed to know when Larabee was in trouble. His own exhaustion made it impossible to keep his eyes open, but he tried until his eyelids closed and he gave into his body's need for rest.
Chris languished in a fevered state while nightmares plagued his mind and memories tormented his soul. His chest felt like it was on fire and he had trouble drawing air into his lungs, a feat that should have been natural, but had threatened to become a losing battle. Chris could feel the heat raging within, but there was also that slight touch that brought with it a warmth other than the one burning from within. He couldn't quite remember who that touch belonged to, but it seemed to anchor him to life and he leaned into the touch.
Chris fought to open his eyes, but there didn't seem to be enough strength left in his body. A rasping moan sounded nearby and it took a few seconds to realize the sound was coming from him and he shifted slightly. The strong arms that anchored him to this world renewed their efforts to hold him and he relaxed against the lean chest.
"Vin?" Was that really his voice? A hand touched against his cheek and he turned his head, groaning when the movement set off an explosion in his skull and threatened to send him back into the hellish nightmares he'd so recently escaped. There was no answer from the other man and Chris tried once more to force the word through his swollen throat.
"Vin…" The effort tore at his chest and he coughed and held his arms tightly around his upper body even as Tanner's grip tightened.
"Jesus, Chris, hold on!" the Texan ordered and began to thump the other man's back until the attack ended and Larabee's strength gave out.
"Yeah, and then some," Tanner agreed, and gently massaged the gunman's shoulders. He could feel the lean form tremble at his touch and turned toward the entrance of the cave. The fire was nearly out, but it wasn't cold in the chamber and Vin could see that the sun had already risen.
"What…what the he…hell happ…ened?" Larabee asked.
"We got caught in a storm and you sorta took a fall, but it's nothin' serious."
"Easy…easy for you to say…feel like I've been rode hard and put away wet," the blond answered.
"Tha's about what'cha look like too," Tanner teased.
"W…where are t…the horses?" Larabee asked and tried to get up, but fell back against the Texan who cursed softly.
"Jesus, Larabee, yer nothin' but a bag of bones!"
"You're one…one to talk…scrawny assed…"
"Leave my ass out of it," Tanner said and produced the cup of water. "Drink this…"
"Piss…yeah, it is. Now shut the hell up and drink it!" the sharpshooter ordered and heard a raspy chuckle from the blond before feeding him most of the Willow Bark Tea.
Chris managed to drink half the liquid before his energy level dropped to nil and his eyes closed. He felt the Texan ease out from behind him and moaned softly, hating the loss of the touch that kept him anchored to his life. Tanner had a quiet, inner strength that few people sensed, but for Chris it was as plain as day. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up into the bluest eyes he'd ever seen.
"Jest gonna see if'n I can scrounge up somethin' ta eat."
"…o…okay," Larabee answered tiredly.
Vin stood watching his friend for several long minutes before adding wood to the fire and leaving in search of food. Water wouldn't be a problem as the creek had probably overflowed its banks because of the heavy rains. He stood in the entrance and looked out over the storm damaged landscape and thanked God they'd found shelter before the twister had caught up to them.
Buck and JD headed back toward Four Corners at dawn and checked several outlying homesteads to make sure no one needed their help. Nettie and Casey were fine and had even called the storm a minor disturbance. They'd spent several hours watching the lightning in the distance, but it never came any closer. The two men had mounted up after a hearty breakfast and had headed back to town. They entered Four Corners just as Josiah and Ezra exited the livery.
"Gentlemen, you certainly do have impeccable timing," Standish said when they drew abreast of each other.
"What's going on?" Wilmington asked.
"Mary got an answer back from the sheriff in Bennett's Crossing. Chris and Vin left there a couple of days ago..."
"I thought they were staying over?" Dunne said.
"You figure they were caught in that storm?" Wilmington asked, his eyes locked on the ex-preacher's.
"Maybe," Sanchez said and mounted his horse. "I figure we could do a patrol of the area and search for Chris and Vin at the same time."
"I'm going with you," the rogue said, worry evident in his words when he turned to JD. "You stay here and keep an eye on things."
"Look, Kid, don't argue…"
"Wasn't going too…just wanted to say be careful. The storm yesterday did a lot of damage," Dunne explained.
"Josiah, give me a couple of minutes to get a fresh horse," Wilmington said, dismounting and leading the weary animal into the livery.
"Since Buck is willing to accompany you…perhaps it would be prudent if I remained here to aid our young sheriff should trouble arise," the gambler observed.
"Ezra's got a mark lined up," Sanchez said with a grin.
"I assure you that is only a minor commitment…"
"Sure it is, Ez," Dunne interrupted and dismounted before leading his horse into the livery.
"Any idea which trail they'd take, Josiah?" Wilmington asked and nodded to Standish when the conman walked away.
"I figure they'd be coming back through Baker's Pass," Sanchez explained.
"Damn, if the were caught in the pass when that twister hit…"
"I know, but I'm praying they found shelter before that," the ex-preacher said and smiled at the newspaperwoman walking toward him. He could see she was worried, but right now there was nothing he could do to ease her mind.
"Find them," Mary said and stood back to watch the two men ride out of town. Her heart leapt into her throat at the thought that Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner could be lying out there with the sun beating down on them and the vultures eating away at their flesh.
Chris opened his eyes and stared into the flames that were so close they burned a fiery trail throughout his body. He inched his way closer, hands stretching out to touch the inferno that was consuming his whole world. He saw the shadowy images of two figures writhing within the flames and screamed for them to come back, but his only answer was the crackling of the fire and the screams that never quite reached his ears.
Inch by agonizing inch Chris made his way toward the fire, but it seemed an insurmountable distance. His voice was a rasping wheeze as he fought to get to his knees and dropped back to the ground. His fingers worked at the hard packed earth, but stopped just before the glowing embers. His head came up and his fevered gaze fell on the two figures framed by the flames before him. He could see her face, could smell her scent, could hear her voice pleading with him, but no matter how hard he tried he could not save them. Not then…not now…not ever!
"SARAH!" he screamed and renewed his efforts to reach his family.
Vin considered himself lucky to have shot a rabbit just before it escaped into its burrow and had quickly skinned and gutted it before making his way back toward the cave. Even though it was still early morning, the sun had risen with a vengeance and threatened to bake him if he stayed where he was. He reached the entrance to the cave just as Larabee's fever pitched rasp screamed out the name of his lost love.
"Jesus, Larabee!" Tanner spat when the gunman's hand reached the embers and didn't stop. He grabbed Larabee's legs and pulled him back, but the ailing gunslinger was stronger than he looked. Chris lashed out with both feet and fought like a wildcat.
"NO! Damn you, Buck! GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF ME!"
"I ain't Buck, Chris," Tanner soothed and felt the man's heart beating against his chest, evidence of the fever that still raged within. Larabee fought like a man possessed, and Vin realized that was exactly what he was…a man not only obsessed but possessed by the need to find the ones responsible for his wife and son's death.
"Please…don't let them d…die…too young to d…die," Larabee whispered and felt someone holding him close.
"I gotcha, Chris…ain't lettin' go," Tanner tried and held on for dear life when Chris tried to reach for the fire again. His heart ached for his friend and he wished there was some way to ease the torment and pain the man suffered from, but that wouldn't happen until Chris held his wife and son once more.
"God! Please…don't l…let them die…don't take t…them!"
"Chris, they're waitin' fer ya, Cowboy, I promise they'll be there," the Texan held tightly to the lean form and felt the fight leave the other man. Chris' delirium scared the sharpshooter but there was little he could do until the fever went down. He felt Larabee's body convulse and turned him on his side in case the blond was sick, vowing once more that he would not let go.
Buck stared straight ahead as they rode along the trail. It had been several hours since they left Four Corners, and his worry increased with each passing moment. So many questions raced through his mind and yet there never seemed to be an answer he could live with. They'd stopped at several homesteads and checked on the people who lived there. No one had suffered any real damage from the freak storm, but there were minor injuries and repairs to be tended to. They turned a corner on the trail and Buck's attention was drawn to something moving near the edge of the trail.
"Josiah, is that…"
"Pony," Sanchez finished and the duo rode hell bent for leather until Buck dismounted and approached the skittish gelding.
"Easy, Boy, I'm not gonna hurt you," Wilmington soothed and smiled when Pony's head turned in his direction. "Just be still now and we'll get you out of this mess. Josiah, I'm gonna need my knife to cut through this shit."
"You just keep talking to him, Buck," Sanchez advised and slowly began to hack away at the thick brambles that seemed to have trapped the horse. He could see scratches on the animal's lower legs and was glad when he finally reached the reins and cut it away from the branches that had held him captive.
"Where's Chris, Boy?" the worried rogue asked and eased the animal out of the tangled brush. Pony's head came up and he whinnied several times while Buck and Josiah checked him over. Buck's worry increased when he looked around and all was quiet.
"Buck, he's going to need looking after…"
"We need to find Chris and Vin," Wilmington interrupted.
"I know, but we can leave Pony with Tom Wilson and get back on the trail within the hour," Sanchez explained and saw the dark head nod once.
Buck knew it would take them a little off the trail, but Pony was the last reminder Chris had left of Sarah and Adam and he would not be responsible for losing him. He quickly removed the saddle and hid it in the brush in order to come back for it once they found Chris and Vin. Without a word he took Pony's reins and mounted up before heading toward the Wilson homestead.
Vin looked at the meat roasting on the fire and wished there was some way of getting Larabee to eat some. The blond seemed to be growing worse and he thought seriously about leaving the blond and going for help, but there was no way he could do that. It would take him at least a day to reach the nearest farm and he couldn't chance leaving Larabee alone for that long. The gunman had nearly choked several times during the last few hours and Vin prayed he was doing the right things.
Vin picked up the small pot and filled it with water he'd brought from the overflowing creek and returned to the task of wiping Larabee's fever drenched body. He'd lost track of how many times he'd made the trip to the creek and wondered if he had the strength to drag Larabee to the creek. He was so damn tired, but he couldn't give in to it, not when Chris' life hung in the balance.
The Texan looked around the cave and took a deep breath before making his decision. Larabee's fever had to be brought down and there seemed to be only one way to do that. He'd have to get the sick man to the creek and immerse him in the cool water. The blanket Larabee lay on would have to do the trick and he gently pulled the edges together and tested the material, relieved when it held under Larabee's weight and his own misuse.
Slowly Vin began dragging Larabee's dead weight out of the cave, stopping several times to ease the strain on his lower back. He looked up at the bright orb shining down on him and for the first time in his life cursed the heat it provided. It took nearly an hour to get Larabee to the edge of the creek and Vin's back ached when he straightened up. Looking around, the Texan realized how thoroughly alone he was and wished Nathan Jackson was there.
Vin looked at the gunman and was surprised to see the green eyes staring up at him. He quickly knelt beside the blond and forced a smile to his face before speaking. "Hey, Cowboy, ya look like hell."
"I know ya are, but we're gonna take care of that. How'd ya feel about a quick dip?"
"Ain't no bath house, but the creek's pretty high. Figure'd ya wouldn't mind swimmin' buck naked," Tanner said with a grin.
"Where are my clothes?"
"Back in the cave…ya ain't got much use fer 'em now anyway," Tanner explained and slowly peeled the clothes from his body.
"Why swimming now?" Larabee asked confusedly.
"Chris, yer burnin' up…gotta get the fever down. Trust me?"
"Trust you," the blond said and nodded when Tanner asked if he was ready to get wet. He felt the tracker's hands helping him and was soon standing on shaky legs. His strength was almost nil, but he managed to put one foot in front of the other and leaned against the sharpshooter as they waded toward deeper water.
"How're ya doin'?"
"Feels good…cold," Larabee answered and relaxed against the other man's body until the water was just above his knees.
"Chris, I's gonna sit and I want'cha ta lean against me," Tanner explained.
"…kay…" the blond groaned, his body trembling as the sharpshooter lowered them both into the water. "Ccccold…"
"I know it is, but it's gonna help, Chris, jest try ta relax fer a bit," the tracker ordered and felt Larabee lean back against him. He knew how hard it was for the gunslinger to give over control, yet Chris seemed to be doing just that. Out here, in the open, where lives were lost so easily, Chris Larabee had just given him a sign of complete trust and he wouldn't let the man down. Vin began to chant softly, a soft song that called to the spirits, one he'd learned during his time with the Comanche.
Chris felt the water wrap around him like a blanket of ice and yet there was something there that kept him from feeling the cold so badly. He wasn't sure who it was holding him, but he had trust in the strong arms and he relaxed against the lean chest. He drifted with the motion of the water and let his head rest against the well muscled shoulder while the soft voice anchored him to life.
Josiah watched his companion closely and knew Buck was angry at the delay, but there was no choice if Pony was to survive. They'd left him with Tom Wilson and knew the man would care for the animal as if it was his own. Now they were back on the trail but there'd been no sign of the missing peacekeepers.
"Goddamn it, Josiah, where the hell are they?" Wilmington snapped impatiently.
"Easy, Buck, we'll find them," Sanchez vowed.
"I hope so, Josiah, but something tells me Chris and Vin need help now. Chris would never have turned Pony loose without removing his saddle," the rogue told him.
"Maybe he just didn't have time," the ex-preacher suggested. "Maybe the storm came on them without warning."
"Maybe, but if that's the case then they could be lying out there, hurt, and where the hell is Peso?"
"Don't jump to conclusions, Buck," Sanchez told the younger man. "Chris and Vin are smart and if there was any warning that a storm was coming they'd have seen it and looked for cover. We just need to have faith and we'll find them."
Wilmington nodded and continued along the trail. They were still several hours north of Baker's Pass, and he prayed they'd find Larabee and Tanner holed up in one of the caves that peppered the area.
Vin knew it was time to get Chris out of the water and he prayed submerging him in the cool water would break the fever or at least lower it enough to allow Larabee to regain some strength. He shifted and heard a soft moan from the sick man and quickly held him when he shook with the force of a series of harsh coughs. Larabee leaned back against him when the attack ended and spoke through a throat that felt on fire.
"Vin…can we g…get out now…fucking freezing my ass off in here."
"Was jest 'bout ta ask if'n ya were ready," Tanner said and eased out from behind the blond, but continued to hold him in the sitting position. "Are ya comin'?"
"Give me a hand!"
"Bossy sonofabitch ain't'cha?"
"Just get me the hell out of here!" Larabee snapped and was grateful for the other man's strength when he pulled him to his feet. A soft breeze blew through the surrounding trees and Goosebumps formed on his naked flesh as he waded toward shore with the Texan holding him steady.
Vin reached for the blanket and wrapped it around the saturated blond and could feel him shaking when he guided him back toward the cave. He eased the gunman down to the ground next to the fire and quickly added several dry pieces to the embers. It didn't take long to have the fire going again and he knelt beside his friend.
"How do ya feel, Cowboy?"
"Not a cowboy, Tanner…thanks," Larabee managed and closed his eyes.
"Anytime," the Texan vowed and felt Larabee's forehead, relieved when he found it cooler than it had been earlier. He knew the dip in the creek had a lot to do with that and hoped the reprieve would last. Larabee was deeply asleep when he stood and walked out of the cave and back toward the creek where he'd left his clothing.
JD frowned when he noticed something moving at the edge of town. Twilight was setting in and he knew Ezra was involved in a game of poker with several newcomers to Four Corners. He knew if there was a problem Ezra would drop what he was doing and come to his aid, but he didn't see any need in disturbing the conman yet. JD hurried along the street, his heart in his throat when he caught a glimpse of a familiar animal pawing at the dirt.
"Peso!" Dunne called in disbelief and hurried toward Tanner's horse. The animal had a reputation for biting, but JD had seen how Vin handled him and slowed down when he got near.
"Hey, Boy, where's Vin?" Dunne asked and looked around when the animal's head came up and he pawed at the dirt once more. "Easy Peso, I ain't gonna hurt you."
"JD, isn't that Peso?"
"Yeah, it is, Yosemite. It looks like he's been running hard," the easterner answered. "It don't look like he's hurt anywhere."
"See if you can get him into the livery and we'll get him some feed and a good rubdown," the liveryman offered.
JD nodded and reached for the reins that dangled in front of the animal. Peso shied away, but he spoke softly and was successful on the second attempt. "Whoa, Boy, we're just gonna help you."
Yosemite watched the younger man handle Peso and knew Dunne had been around Vin long enough to know how to handle the horse. He led the way to the livery and wondered what could have happened to Peso's owner.
Buck and Josiah rode through Baker's Pass just as the sun sank below the horizon. Both men were weary to the bone, but neither one was ready to call it quits until they completed a search of the area. It was Josiah who spotted the lone figure walking slowly away from the creek.
"What? Where?" Wilmington asked and followed Sanchez's directions. "Vin!"
Josiah saw the man turn and even in the twilight he could see the look of surprise and relief on the younger man's face. They rode quickly toward him and dismounted next to the exhausted Texan. "Easy, Son," the ex-preacher said and latched onto the Texan's arm when he seemed to lose his balance.
"How…how did you find me?"
"Got worried when you boys didn't show up," the worried rogue explained.
"Wasn't s'posed ta leave…s'posed ta stay in Bennett's Crossin'," Tanner said.
"We'll talk about that later, Vin," Sanchez explained and looked around. "Where's Chris?"
"He's sick...got a fever…been workin'…tryin' ta bring it down…ain't…" As if the sight of the two men were a sign, Vin trembled and his knees buckled, but Josiah's quick reflexes caught him and supported him.
"Vin, where's Chris?" Wilmington asked.
"Cave…tried ta get him ta drink…fever's sappin' his strength," Tanner told them and leaning heavily against the older man led them to the cave.
Buck stepped into the cave and waited for his eyes to adjust to the meager light cast by the fire. His gaze fell on the lone figure wrapped in a blanket next to the flames and he gasped at how still and pale the man looked in the eerie light.
"Chris," Wilmington whispered and hurriedly knelt beside the sleeping blond. He reached out and touched Larabee's forehead and was surprised when there seemed to be little or no fever. He turned to look at the Texan and smiled before speaking. "Feels like maybe his fever broke, Vin."
"Thank God," Tanner whispered and let Sanchez maneuver him closer to the blond. He touched Larabee's forehead and breathed a sigh of relief that his skin did indeed feel cooler. "He's gonna be okay now…"
"Easy, Vin," Sanchez said and held the younger man who trembled with the force of his emotions.
"Thought he was gonna die…tried…"
"You did good, Vin," Wilmington said. "Now you just get some sleep and we'll get you both back to town. Chris'll be grumbling about horse piss before you know it."
"Already was…so fuckin' tired," Tanner said and closed his eyes.
"I know, Son, go ahead and sleep," Sanchez ordered.
"Josiah, I'm going to get the supplies and see to the horses," Wilmington said. He hated leaving Larabee's side, but with Sanchez holding Vin, he was the only one to get the things they needed. Within the hour Larabee and Tanner were resting comfortably on blankets and Buck had managed to get the sick man to drink some herb tea before settling him back on the blankets.
"I can do it, Buck!" Larabee snipped.
"Yeah, but you're making a mess…keep it up and I'll have Vin take you swimming again!" Wilmington said with a grin.
Vin could hear voices, one strong, the other weak and raspy and yet the latter was like a soothing balm to his nerves. He opened his eyes and watched Wilmington as he tried to feed Larabee some kind of liquid that probably tasted as bad as it smelled. He had some recollection of Wilmington and Sanchez arrival, but after that everything was vague. He snuggled under his blanket and closed his eyes while listening to the bickering duo.
"Buck, get the fuck out of my face!" Larabee said, coughing weakly before noticing the smile on the Texan's face. "Shut the hell up, Tanner!"
"Never said a word," the sharpshooter drawled.
"You don't have too…thinking so loud you're giving me a damn headache!"
"Well, good morning Brother…"
"What the hell's so good about it, Josiah?" Larabee snapped. "Buck, quit doing that!"
Wilmington smiled and handed Tanner a cup of coffee before looking at Sanchez. Tanner had slept nearly eighteen hours and they would soon be headed back to town. They'd already told Larabee about finding Pony, but they had nothing to tell Tanner about Peso. Motioning toward the door, Buck was glad when Josiah followed him out.
"How're ya doin, Chris?" Tanner asked.
"Figured as much…the way ya was goin' at Buck," the Texan said with a grin.
"If I let him have his way he'd be feeding me like a child," Larabee said. "Thanks…you saved my life…"
"Didn't do much," the sharpshooter said.
"You did more than you'll ever know…you listened and sometimes that's all a man needs to weather a storm." Larabee saw the truth in those words and relaxed against the makeshift pillow while Vin drank his coffee.
They rode into Four Corners two days later and had never been so glad to see home. Larabee's illness had left him weak and he rode in front of Buck or Josiah, once they picked up Pony from the Wilson homestead. Vin was glad they'd picked up Larabee's saddle along the way and was mounted on Larabee's horse while worry over Peso continued to plague him.
"Hey, Ezra, Nathan! Buck and Josiah found them!" Dunne called excitedly from the open door of the saloon. The three men hurried toward the livery and helped get Larabee to his room where Nathan quickly pronounced that he was on the mend.
"Buck, I'm goin' ta look fer Peso at first light," Tanner told them.
"I'll be ready…"
"Wait, Vin you don't need to," Dunne exclaimed. "Peso came home on his own."
"He's in the livery, Vin. Yosemite's been looking after him real well," Dunne explained and moved out of the way when the Texan darted forward and bolted out of the room.
"Chris, you get some sleep," Jackson warned.
"Seems like that's all I do," Larabee said.
"Well, it's what you need," the healer vowed and turned to the rest of them. "All right, Boys, get out and let the man rest!"
With those words, Chris closed his eyes and slept peacefully, content in the knowledge that he was no longer alone and there were six men to help him weather whatever storms came his way.