A TEST OF FRIENDSHIP

by Jackie, a.k.a. Phoenix1972

Winner of the GAMBLERS AND GUNFIGHTERS 2012 RED BANDANA Award

A/N: Rated PG, Old West, Word Count: 6,469. Characters: Chris and Buck, cameos by Josiah and Vin.

 

Buck and Chris rode side by side on a road that would eventually lead them back to Four Corners.  Only the jingle of a bridle and the rhythmic sound of hooves striking hard packed dirt disturbed the silence as the way stretched out before them. From the corner of his eye Buck could see Chris's stiff posture, the posture Chris took when he was really angry but had to wait to do anything about it.  Getting in trouble in the little backwater town hadn't been Buck's intention even though his soft heart for the ladies seemed to land him there quite often.  "Do you want to stop and rest a while?" Buck asked his silent friend as they neared a stand of Cottonwoods.  "I know I could use some time out of this saddle..." Buck's one-sided conversation ground to a halt when Chris skewered him with a gaze of barely contained rage.  "Ah shit, Chris.  I forgot.  I reckon your posterior is plum crying to be out of the saddle."
 
"It was my back, not my ass."  Chris's gaze turned even frostier right before he turned his head straight away without uttering another word.
 
Chewing on his bottom lip in thought, Buck suddenly blurted, "At least he used rock salt."
 
Chris pulled Pony up and hissed at Buck, "It should've been you."
 
"Well next time I tell you to run, you run!" Buck shot back as he pulled General up along-side and leaned against the saddle horn.
 
"I didn't do anything."  Chris kicked Pony into a ground-eating canter, leaving Buck behind.
 
"Guilt by association, Stud!" Buck called after his irritated friend.  Urging General to catch up, Buck chuckled, remembering the look on Chris's face as the preacher took after them with his shotgun.  How was he supposed to have known that sultry young thing was the preacher's daughter?  She sure hadn't seemed innocent up in the loft of the town livery.
 
~~~
 
Though Chris's temper had seemed to mellow over the last few hours he'd still kept up the silent treatment, leaving Buck to entertain himself and when Buck tired of the silence, he'd started whistling random melodies.  That had been about a half an hour ago and Chris was now sending him sidelong glances and it was all Buck could do to keep the satisfied smirk from tilting his lips.  If Buck tried he could almost picture his old schoolmarm and how her face got a pinched look about it whenever he and the girls would start acting out.
 
Hiding a grin behind his hand, Buck made a great show of scratching at two days' worth of stubble. "Your lunch not agreeing with you?"
 
"No."
 
"You could have fooled me.  With your face all twisted up like yesterday's drawers, I thought you might be ill," Buck explained as he looked Chris over with a critical eye.
 
"My face don't look like yesterday's drawers," Chris denied, wincing as he adjusted his seat in the saddle.
 
Shrugging, Buck resumed whistling "Camptown Races" only to switch a few bars later to "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
 
Without warning, Chris pulled Pony up and stared silently at his companion.
 
"What?" Buck asked innocently.
 
"Think you could finish at least one song?" Chris griped, a scowl darkening his face.
 
Shifting in the saddle and stretching tall, Buck smiled brightly.  "All you had to do was ask.  What would you like to hear?"
 
Chris appeared to contemplate the question for a moment before deadpanning, "Silence." Clucking Pony into a walk, Chris left Buck to stare at his back.
 
"Hey, who put the burr under your saddle this morning?" Buck called as he urged General to catch up.
 
"You did," Chris answered as he twisted in the saddle to look back at Buck.  "Let's head over to that ridge and rest the horses.  There should be a creek nearby if I remember correctly."
 
"Sounds like a good idea.  My canteen's getting a little light and I'm parched."
 
"Must be all that hot air you been blowing," Chris chuckled, a genuine smile lighting up his face.
 
Gasping and clutching at his chest dramatically, Buck beamed, "I was trying to keep you entertained."
 
Shaking his head, Chris gave Pony his head and they took off toward the ridge.
 
"Come on, boy.  Let's go get some of that cool, sweet water waiting for us just over yonder."  Buck took off after Chris and as he closed the gap between them, Chris urged Pony into a gallop.  Not one to be left behind, Buck gave chase.
 
~~~
 
Chris frowned at the dark clouds in the distance and down at the rapidly flowing creek.  “Buck hold up.”
 
Dismounting, Buck stated, “I know what you’re thinking, but those clouds are miles away and the creek’s still low.”
 
"Yeah and it can turn mean fast.  Let's head to the next one."  Chris stared at the fast moving trickle noticing how it seemed to be getting even deeper as he watched."
 
"It's fine," Buck insisted, unstrapping his canteen and grabbing Chris's as he climbed down into the gully.  "I’ll be in and out before you know it."
 
Chris watched with trepidation as the water inched up. It would crest the sides of the shallow creek before long.  "Make it quick.  I want to put some distance between us and it."
 
"Relax."  Tossing the refilled canteens up to Chris, Buck slowly climbed the rocky bank and held out his hand as he reached the top.  Clasping his friend's wrist, Chris helped him up over the ledge and away from the steadily rising water.
 
Feeling better for being further from the danger, Chris turned to secure his canteen to his saddle. The sound of rushing water rose fast and brought him back around.  What had been a trickle was now a fast moving river with only a few feet to rise before it crested the bank.  "Let's go!"  Chris shouted over the roar of the water.
 
"Relax there, Boy." Buck was trying to soothe General as he shifted back and forth.
 
Preparing to mount his own skittish horse, Chris cried out as General tossed his head, catching Buck unprepared.  The crack of their two heads colliding caused Chris to cringe in sympathy, but sympathy turned to disbelief as Buck staggered away from the horse towards the water's edge and tumbled in.
 
Chris's heart froze in his chest as he watched Buck, dazed from the blow to the head, sink below the surface.  Not waiting to see if he would resurface, Chris jumped in.  The icy water stole the very breath from his body and Chris's shocked lungs struggled to pull in even a small sip of air.  Gasping against the knife-like pain, Chris tried to keep sight of Buck as the raging water hurled debris unmercifully.
 
"Buck!" Chris cried out hoarsely as the swift, roiling current jealously kept Buck's limp body just out of reach.  Fear ripped at his heart as Buck disappeared from view.  "No!"  Kicking with all his remaining strength, Chris reached out, desperate to catch his friend and by some miracle he managed to latch onto Buck's jacket.  Pulling his head back above the water, Chris realized Buck's lips were slack and tinged with blue when his head lolled against Chris's chest. Chris had a death grip on the bastard because he was afraid if he relaxed Buck would be snatched from his arms. 
 
With Buck held tight, the mind numbing fear was replaced with stubborn determination to escape the storm-bred maelstrom, lick their wounds, and get home.  Chris grimaced when they crashed into a large tree, and barely missed a dead deer. Fear crept back in when he realized his strength would wane quicker than the horror-filled ride they were caught in.  Chris realized that he would have to pull them both to safety.
 
Time seemed to stretch on and on as Chris continued to fight the water and used his body to protect Buck from the debris that beat on them relentlessly.  Casting a glance over his shoulder, Chris noticed an old tree, its roots exposed and hanging down into the rushing water.  He'd have to try and snag the roots before they drifted past.  It would be difficult but Chris knew he had no choice.
 
Breathing heavily, he readjusted his grip on Buck and kicked toward the tree.  Reaching out, the wood tearing at his fingers, muscles straining, Chris twisted and willed his fingers to maintain their precarious grip on the gnarled roots even as large branches crashed into his unprotected back and legs. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on keeping their heads above water and blocking out the pain as his body was pummeled ruthlessly.  Not normally a religious man, he prayed desperately for the strength to get them both to safety in one piece and God must have been listening, because as Chris's grip on the roots weakened Buck twitched in his arm.
 
"Buck, come on!" Chris wheezed, "You gotta help me here!"  Buck's eyes, dull and sluggish, opened and stared up at him.
 
"Chris?" Buck slurred as he struggled, further compromising Chris's tenuous hold.
 
"Grab for the ledge!" Chris shouted over the roar of the water and when Buck stared up at him, uncomprehending, Chris snapped, "Grab the fucking ledge!"  He almost wept with relief when Buck reached up, struggling to climb out.  His arm now free, Chris pushed from below and kept watch as Buck laboriously pulled himself to safety.
 
With Buck out of harm's way, Chris struggled to escape the flood's deadly pull but found he'd used up everything he'd had to save Buck.  The ledge seemed so far away.  With his arms and legs feeling as if they were full of lead, Chris momentarily thought of how easy it would be to just let go and end the struggle when a hand wrapped around his wrist and pulled.  Not wanting Buck to be pulled back in, Chris's feet scrabbled for purchase and he suddenly found himself lying flat out on the riverbank.  Pushing tiredly to his elbows, Chris glanced over his shoulder to the water raging past them and then over at Buck, who'd passed out once more.  The steady rise and fall of Buck's chest was the last thing Chris saw before he collapsed to the ground unconscious.
 
~~~
 
The first thing Buck knew was the ache in his bones and then the agony of over-taxed muscles had all of his attention.  Rolling gingerly from his side to his back Buck pulled at the waterlogged clothing that clung to his flesh like a second skin. As he lay there the sounds of rushing water and heaving gasps worked to sort themselves in his jumbled senses so Buck struggled to force his eyes open.  Perseverance won out until the sun's rays, like molten iron, pierced his burning irises.  Buck groaned in pain and clamped his eyes shut once more.
 
A harsh cough drew his attention.  Who was that?
 
"About time you opened your eyes," a ragged voice said as the noise of crunching gravel grew louder.  "I was beginning to wonder if you were going to leave me all alone out here."
 
Buck knew that voice, but he couldn't quite place it.  His head just hurt too much to sort it out.  He lay there waiting for the pounding to ease as he listened to the harsh breathing nearby.  Nagging worry finally won out and he tentatively opened an eye again, squinting painfully against the sun's glare.  A face slowly moved into his line of sight, blocking out the sun.  Buck smiled as recognition washed over him, and grimaced when a sudden and strong bout of nausea followed on its heels.  "Move!" Buck cried as he pushed Chris away, rolling to his side and heaving over and over into the mud beside him.  After what seemed an eternity of his guts trying to work their way out through his throat, Buck was able to wipe at his chin with a trembling hand and pull in a shuddering breath.  The scummy, fishy taste coating his mouth was enough to make his stomach toss like a ship in stormy seas, and Buck wrapped his arms around his knees, praying it was over.
 
"You gonna live?" Chris asked softly as he rubbed comforting circles over Buck's back.
 
Taking a few careful breaths, Buck swallowed and slowly lay back down.  Trying to ignore his stomach, Buck wheezed, "Not sure what hurts worse, my guts or my head."  Willing his body still, Buck contemplated falling asleep.  He knew it would take very little effort on his part, but when Chris's muffled curse reached his ears it gave him the strength to crack an eye and look his friend over.
 
Chris looked like five miles of bad road and his hunched appearance brought Buck up to his elbows in concern.  Chris's pained gaze flitted away from him.  "What happened to you?"
 
"Must have cracked your head harder than I thought."  Chris frowned as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at Buck's forehead.
 
"You feel as bad as you look?" Buck asked as he batted Chris's hand away.  Pushing up shakily, Buck rested his elbows on his knees.  Squinting from the sunlight, he slowly looked around before he settled his gaze back on Chris.
 
Chris refused to meet Buck's gaze as he struggled to pull off his boots.  "You feeling any better?" Chris asked as he shook the mud and water out.  It was an obvious ploy to avoid Buck's question.
 
"I asked you first," Buck persisted. He jerked his head away when Chris's fingers again touched his temple.  "Hey, leave that alone."  Leaning away from his friend, his attention was drawn to the trickle of a creek fifteen feet behind them--or what had been a trickle.  The calm water had disappeared and had been replaced by a torrent of angry water, full of mud, branches, and Lord knew what.  "Flash flood," he mumbled absently.  Moving his gaze from the churning water, Buck looked at Chris, taking in his pale features and trembling shoulders.
 
"Gotta get the horses," Chris groaned as he awkwardly climbed to his feet.  Buck watched in concern as Chris hissed and pressed his right hand to his side.
 
"We got caught up in that?"
 
"Yup."
 
Buck frowned at Chris's retreating back before collapsing against the unforgiving earth.  Maybe if he didn't move the pain would just go away. Closing his eyes, Buck concentrated on breathing in and out, slowly and evenly.
 
~~~
 
"Buck!"
 
"Let me be," Buck slurred as he swiped at the hand tapping his cheek.  "I just got comfortable."
 
"You’ve been laying here for the last two hours while I’ve been fetching the horses.  Now get your hide movin' before it gets dark."
 
There was no way it'd been two hours, he'd only just closed his eyes a moment ago.  Chris had better get himself a new watch.  Wait, hadn't the sun been almost directly overhead?  Suddenly, the hands were back, but now they were clutching at his coat and trying to pull him upright.  Damn Chris anyway.  He could be such an ornery son-of-a-bitch with a stubborn streak a mile wide.  Why couldn't they just rest where they were?
 
Chris continued to pester him and with strength he didn't realize he possessed, Buck gripped the arms of his tormentor and pushed him away. Lowering gingerly to the ground, Buck sighed in contentment.  "Told you to leave me alone.  I'm perfectly fine where I am."
 
Fists twisted in his collar and he found himself snapped upright so fast his head rocked.  "Damn, what'd you do that for, you twisted jackass?" Buck cried as he cradled his aching head in his hands and squinted at the man crouched before him.
 
If possible Chris was even paler than before and perspiration coursed in rivulets down the sides of his face.  "Get up and get on your horse," Chris wheezed as he wiped the sweat away with his forearm.  "We've got to get moving."
 
Cursing Chris's parentage loudly, Buck climbed to hands and knees that shook with weakness, and by flagging willpower alone he gained his feet, all the while glaring at his supposed friend.  Buck felt himself start to sway and if Chris hadn't pulled him in close to steady him he'd have fallen flat on his face.
 
Wrapping his long arms around his friend, Buck muttered, "You still mad you got shot in the ass?  There's no reason to be so rough."
 
"Right now you look like you went ten rounds with Yosemite and lost."
 
"Say's you.  You look worse off than ol' Mr. Lewis and he was dead a week before we found him."
 
"Shut up," Chris barked as he pulled Buck along.
 
Clutching at Chris, Buck slowly stumbled toward the two horses ground-tied a few feet away.  Each time Buck tripped Chris gasped and flinched in pain, but he kept pushing Buck onward.  How far away could those horses be?  Buck could have sworn they were only a few steps away but it seemed as if he'd walked a mile already.  Finally, Buck had his hands resting against General's flank and he gripped at the cantle to keep from tumbling back to earth.
 
General turned his head back and stared at Buck as he worked his way along the horse.  "Hey there, boy.  Don't be paying me any mind.  I'm just gonna climb up here and let you find the way home."
 
Chris held the stirrup as Buck swayed where he stood, frowning when his foot couldn't find purchase.  After two failed attempts, Buck mumbled an apology and Chris sighed deeply as he helped guide Buck's foot into the stirrup.
 
Chris moved around behind and Buck huffed, "I got it," as he bounced on his right foot, hoping to get enough momentum to clear the horse and settle gently in the saddle.  At least that had been the plan.  But Chris, who still seemed mad about the rock salt, ignored him by shoving his shoulder under Buck's posterior, lifting him.  Too late, Buck realized he'd overshot his seat and tumbled from the saddle onto the hard ground below.  "You trying to kill me?" Buck groaned, as he fought and failed to get to his feet once more.  "Just leave me here," Buck mumbled pathetically, flopping an arm across his eyes.
 
Grabbing Buck's arms, Chris yanked him to a sitting position.  "We're burning daylight."  Chris tried to lever Buck up but he shook free of Chris's grip.
 
Before Chris could lay hands on him again, Buck pushed him away and lay back in the dirt.  Clutching his aching head, Buck moaned, "You know a bullet would be faster and less effort."
 
Stumbling to his feet, Chris glared down at Buck and snapped, "I wouldn't waste the bullet!" He turned his back on Buck and walked stiffly toward Pony.
 
"You're one sorry son-of-a-bitch, you know that?!" Buck shouted as Chris mounted up and rode away from him.  "Fine, leave me behind.  It's not like it's the first time and this time you can't blame me for someone dyin’." 
 
Chris halted, back ramrod straight with tension oozing from every pore as Buck realized too late the hateful words had escaped his mouth in a fit of anger.  Buck searched for something to fix it, but Chris only spat out two words and those two words held so much power. "We're done."
 
Buck clamped his lips shut. Any apology would sound hollow and placating, but this was classic Chris and he could bring out the bad in Buck so fast when he was being overly obstinate.  Climbing painfully to his feet, he stumbled into General and the horse shied away.  "Whoa, boy.  Settle down and let me climb up here."  After two more tries Buck somehow managed to plant himself in the saddle and stay there.  Turning the horse in the direction of home, Buck was surprised to see Chris waiting a ways down the road.  "Maybe I can fix this after all," Buck murmured and urged General on.
 
Chris turned in the saddle and kept his eyes on the horizon and as Buck drew close he clucked Pony into a walk.
 
~~~
 
As the sun was nearing the horizon Chris pulled up and made to get off his horse.  Needing a short break also, Buck eased out of the saddle and breathed a sigh of relief as his feet once again touched solid ground.  "We should ride straight through."
 
"Do what you want," Chris said as he slowly lowered himself out of the saddle, his back to Buck.
 
Buck frowned at the clipped tone and Chris's stiff posture.  "You want to talk about it?"
 
"You've said plenty already."
 
Frustrated by the cold shoulder Chris was giving him Buck blurted out, "Let's call a truce.  We're both racked up and too quick on the draw."  Chris didn't respond as he flipped the stirrup up and reached for the cinch.  Buck stepped closer and grasped his wrist to keep him from unsaddling Pony.  "Let's go home.  Put this trip behind us."
 
Stiffening, Chris twisted out of Buck's grip and grumbled, "Go if you want to go."
 
Buck bit back a curse as he watched Chris's slow and stilted movements as he settled his mount for the night.  Buck's pounding head and random aches dulled as his concern for Chris increased and he wondered how badly Chris was really hurt.  He winced in sympathy when Chris grunted and clutched at his right side as he tried to take the full weight of the saddle as it slid from Pony's back. 
 
Abandoning the saddle where it lay, Chris turned to face Buck, eyes narrowed.  "Your horse ain't gonna unsaddle himself," he pointed out in a brusque manner as he brushed past Buck and neared General.
 
"Wait!" Buck protested loudly, clutching at his pounding skull.  "I can un-tack my own horse."  Squinting at Chris in the gathering dusk he blew out a breath at the stubborn tilt to Chris's head.  Squeezing his eyes shut against the drummers who beat a lively tempo inside his brain, Buck said, "Really, go sit down before you fall down.  I've been stove up worse than this before."  Chris looked as if he'd rebel, but he only frowned and haltingly moved back toward the spot he’d picked for their camp.  "You look like Hell by the way!" Buck hollered as he held his head to keep it from exploding.  Not the smartest move but he felt better for saying it.  Gingerly releasing his skull and dropping his hands down to his sides, Buck turned to settle his horse for the night. Chris would be back and he’d bet a month’s salary on it.  The man just couldn't sit idly by and let others work while he rested.
 
Sometime later Buck realized that he’d have lost the bet because Chris had apparently taken his suggestion to heart and had not returned.  With his head ringing like a church bell on Sunday, the task of settling the horses was taking much longer and Buck was beside himself.  Grumbling irritably, he turned to gather his saddle and saddlebags and caught a glimpse of Chris in the lengthening shadows.  Guilt quickly replaced irritation as he watched his friend laboriously work his shirt off his shoulders and even from this distance Buck could see the colorful and mottled bruising covering his back.
 
Chris seemed unaware of the concerned gaze boring into him while Buck took in the myriad of red and purple bruises.  Those bruises couldn't all be from the rock salt. Many of them seemed bigger than his fist.  Some of the heaviest bruising appeared to wrap around Chris's right side and Buck would bet he was sporting a few cracked ribs.
 
Coming around to face Chris, Buck saw what the dark, wet clothing had hidden from view.  Anger and frustration forgotten, Buck dropped to his knees and gently pulled Chris's blood-stained hand away from his side.  "Why didn't you say anything earlier?" Buck scolded as he studied the angry gash along Chris's ribs.
 
"It's just a scratch," Chris breathed as he held the now blood-soaked linen over the wound. "Go change your clothes."
 
Reaching for Chris's saddle bags, Buck snorted, "Now you know I can't do that."  Pawing through the contents Buck found and held up two shirts, one red and the other blue.  "Which one you want to sacrifice?"
 
Chris didn't look up from where he was dabbing at the wound.  "I'm fine."
 
"The red one then," Buck stated, ignoring Chris’s angry protests as he started slicing the shirt into strips.  "How about you tell me what happened after General slammed his hard head into mine."
 
Chris looked as if he'd resist but after a moment he seemed to deflate before Buck's eyes.  "I thought you wanted to leave."
 
"I'm not leaving you while you're so busted up," Buck stated as he again rifled through Chris's saddle bags and brought out the flask of whiskey he'd seen when he'd dug for the shirts.  The silver shimmered in the early evening sun and Buck smiled down at the ornate "CL" inscribed across the front.  He'd special ordered it for Chris's birthday and had surprised him with it a few weeks ago.  "You kept it in your saddlebags?"
 
"Good thing or it'd probably be halfway to Mexico."
 
Chris reached for it, but Buck held the flask up out of the way.  "You can have some after we clean you up."
 
"Give it," Chris griped and reached, wincing.
 
"Not until you tell me what happened.  Your three words a day won't work on me."
 
Chris grumbled at his friend but filled in the blanks in Buck’s memory anyway. 
 
~~~
 
"Guess we were lucky to be sitting here and not toed up," Buck remarked as he cleaned his friend's wound.  Thankfully it didn't look as if it'd need stitches, but it was still angry and raw with the impressive bruising filling in behind it.
 
"You could say that."
 
"You're a stubborn cuss."  Folding the whiskey-soaked linen over the wound, Buck began the task of binding Chris's ribs.  Though his head was pounding hard enough to make him sick to his stomach, Buck knew he couldn't rest.  There was too much to do.
 
Daylight disappeared as the fire Buck built crackled merrily while the two men took turns caring for each other's scrapes and cuts.  They both took liberal sips of the fiery drink and waited for the pain to lessen.
 
"Thanks for jumping in after me."  Buck grinned.  "Never figured General’s head would be as hard as yours."
 
Chris snorted and settled back against his saddle.  "Didn't feel like having to dig a hole for you."
 
"You don't mean that," Buck choked as the whiskey shot down the wrong hole, bringing tears to his eyes.
 
"You know how hard the ground is this time of year?"  Chris asked in a serious tone.
 
Wiping at streaming eyes, Buck tried to drag in a proper breath while trying to think of an appropriate response when the corners of Chris's lips tipped up and he started laughing.  Chris laughed so hard he clutched at his ribs alternately laughing and gasping in pain.
 
"You're an asshole.  You know that?"  Buck snapped and turned onto his side facing away from Chris, glad that their rickety friendship seemed on the mend.
 
"You're such a girl," Chris gasped out, and then his voice turned serious.  "Why you’d think I'd ever let you go is beyond me."
 
Buck wanted to answer but bit his lip, so he settled into silence and let the whiskey warming his belly lull him to sleep.
 
~~~
 
Morning came too soon for Buck's liking and he groaned loudly, covering his eyes with his arm to keep the light out.  A hiss and curse persuaded him to lift his aching head and look across the smoldering campfire ash.  "You say something, Stud?"
 
Chris had turned on his side and was apparently trying to climb out of his bedroll with little success.  "Didn't say anything," Chris grunted as he perched precariously on one hand.
 
Gingerly moving to a sitting position on his bedroll, Buck clutched at his aching head and willed the spinning of the earth to stop.  "Damn, my head hurts!"  Buck hunched his shoulders and closed his eyes, trying to breathe through the pain.  He felt as if he'd been caught in a stampede of wild buffalo then dropped from a cliff for good measure.  "We shouldn't have stopped `cause I'm not so sure I can climb back on my horse."
 
"Need supplies," Chris wheezed as he got to his hands and knees.  Between one breath and the next Chris surged to his feet, crying out in pain and cursing loudly.
 
"What the hell are you doin'?" Buck shouted as he watched Chris wrap his arms around his middle and pull in short breaths as tears tracked down his face.
 
"Shit, that hurt!" Chris groaned as he wiped the evidence of tears away.
 
Stretching back out on his blankets, Buck relaxed against his saddle.  "Why'nt you sit yourself down and rest for a while?"
 
Chris only frowned at Buck before slowly bending over and picking his saddle up while supporting his ribs with his free hand.  By the time Chris had all his gear piled on the ground near Pony, Buck was struggling to keep his eyes open.  "There's no changing your mind?" Buck asked around a yawn as he climbed to his feet and started gathering his own gear.
 
"Nope."
 
Rolling up his bedroll, Buck sighed, "Hell, I guess I gotta go 'cause you'd probably fall out of the saddle before you got halfway there."  An amazingly short time later, Buck was securing the girth on General's saddle when he glanced over to where Pony was tied and saw that Chris had only gotten the saddle blanket on.  When he bent awkwardly toward the saddle, Buck asked, "You need a hand?"
 
"I can tack my own horse," Chris grunted as he lifted and brought his arm back to swing the saddle up onto Pony's back.  The saddle fell to the dirt as Chris gasped and clutched at his injured ribs.
 
Blowing out a breath of frustration, Buck snatched up the abandoned saddle to finish getting Pony ready.  "There's no shame in asking for help. Besides it's only me and you out here and I've seen you worse off than this."
 
"Thanks," Chris murmured as he took a pull from the flask in his hand before holding it out to Buck. 
 
"No thanks," Buck replied, waving off the flask.  "The hair of the dog won't help me this morning."
 
As Chris slid the flask into his coat pocket he chuckled, and Buck smiled until the chuckle turned into a cough that left Chris hunched over, gasping for breath.  Helping his friend to stand upright, Buck was alarmed to see a smear of blood when Chris wiped at his mouth.  "Chris?"
 
Staring down at his own hand, Chris quickly brushed away the evidence on his pant leg.  "Nothing to be done right now."
 
Nodding slowly in understanding, his belly clutching in fear, Buck tried to act nonchalant.  "Let's get you up in the saddle."  Chris didn't resist his help and it was in that moment Buck knew how much his friend was actually hurting.  There was a lot of grunting and flinches of pain, but perseverance won out and Chris was up in the saddle.  Lightly resting his hand on Chris's leg, Buck stared up at his pale friend.  "You need me to tie you on?"
 
"No," Chris wheezed, clutching at his side.  "Let's get moving."
 
"Ok, you just let me know when you need to rest."  Buck patted Chris's thigh and stepped over to General.  Once mounted, they turned toward home and Buck prayed for a quick, uneventful journey.
 
~~~
 
Hours later, hunched in the saddle, hands clutched around his chest, Chris Larabee was in pure hell.  Breathing was almost impossible as each gasp for air ended in pain that stabbed deep into his lungs and the copper tang seemed never to leave his lips.  He felt hot and the weeping wound in his side was irritating the bindings around his ribs.  How much further could the town be?  They'd only been a few hours out and it seemed ages since they'd gotten back onto the trail after Buck had taken an inglorious tumble from the saddle.  He'd been in his own pain-ridden world when Buck had started rambling nonsense.  Chris had looked back in time to see Buck's eyes roll up into his head and his body go limp.  Once he'd checked Buck over for new injuries it'd taken all of Chris's strength and willpower to get the man back into his saddle and when he did, he'd had to tie him on.  Chris knew if Buck fell again they'd be done for and they'd be lucky if the others found them before the scavengers came.  Chris didn’t want to end up as a pile of bones drying in the wilderness, and he certainly didn’t want that for Buck either.
 
When Pony came to a stop, Chris looked up and realized that they'd come to the crossroads where one branch led to town and the other skirted the edge of his place, and though his cabin was closer Chris knew without Nathan it wouldn't matter.  Turning Pony towards town, Chris let his eyes drift shut again, too tired to do more.  Oblivion was impossible when the irritating tickle woke in the back of his throat and despite small sips of the tepid water in his canteen he coughed harshly.  Tasting more blood, Chris wiped at his chin, frowning at the amount of blood staining his hand.  It was getting worse but nothing else mattered until he got Buck back home safely.
 
~~~
 
Vin and Josiah were sitting out on the steps of the church enjoying the cool night breeze when the unexpected jingle of a bridle and the steady clomp of hooves drew them into the street.  "Kinda late to be coming into town," Vin whispered as peered into the darkness.
 
Josiah nodded and joined Vin in the street where they waited to see who would show.  The horses drew slowly into the ring of light given off by the night fires, and Vin realized it was a horse he was well familiar with.  There was a rider slumped over his back.  "Pony." Rushing forward, Vin grabbed the horse's cheek strap and halted his progress.  "Chris?"
 
Moving quickly, Josiah grabbed the reins of the second horse and called out to Vin, "Got Buck here tied in the saddle!"
 
Nodding absently, Vin cupped Chris's fevered face in his hands and brought it up to see in the firelight.  Gasping at the blood coloring the man's lips and chin, Vin patted Chris's cheek as he tried to rouse his friend.  Chris remained limp and unresponsive.
 
"Buck looks like he may have taken a blow to the head," Josiah pointed out as he hurried to Vin's side.  "How's Chris?"
 
"He's not breathing too good and I can’t see a damn thing.  Best get Nathan and we'll meet you at the boarding house."  Vin watched in concern as Josiah hurried off to find their healer.  When Vin turned back to check on Chris his gaze met two glazed green eyes regarding him warily.
 
"Vin?" Chris asked weakly.  Vin's heart froze as Chris's hitched breath turn to violent coughs and fresh blood coated his lips and dripped from his chin.
 
Apprehension twisting his gut, Vin pulled a bandana from his pocket and gently wiped the blood.  "You shot?"
 
Chris shook his head and slumped listlessly against Pony's neck.  "We make it back?"
 
"Yeah, you made it.  Buck too."
 
Chris slowly nodded his head, his eyes drifting closed.  "Good."
 
Vin was about to ask another question when Chris went limp and slipped from the saddle.  Lowering his wounded friend carefully to the ground, Vin pulled Chris against him, thankful when the pound of running feet drew closer.
 
~~~
 
Three weeks later the noises of town life drifted up through the open window as a soft breeze gently fluttered the gingham curtains in Chris’s rented room.  Evening had come and the window would soon have to be shut to keep out the chill.  Buck shifted in the ladder back chair trying to find a comfortable position, but the seat had practically molded itself to his posterior.  Scratching absently at the newly healed cut on his scalp, he shifted yet again.  There just wasn’t a comfortable position left to be had.  Preparing to stand and stretch the kinks out, a ragged cough drew his gaze to the bed and he found Chris staring at him, his pale lips drawn into a frown.  Leaning forward, Buck reached out in concern.  "You okay?  Should I get Nathan?"
 
Buck’s worry was not in vain because unlike Buck’s uncomplicated recovery, Chris had been laid so low Nathan had feared he wouldn’t make it.  For more than two weeks Chris had hovered at Death’s door from a damaged lung and a bout of pneumonia that had crept in behind it.  Buck had been there through it all and even when the others tried to spell him Buck had refused them all.
 
Chris’s sigh drew Buck out of his unpleasant ruminations and he watched as Chris set aside the book he'd been reading.  Staring at his friend, Chris asked, "Aren't your ladies getting lonely?"
 
“No.”  Buck scooted closer, resting the back of his hand against Chris's forehead just like he’d done all the while.  Frowning at the warmth he felt there he grabbed another blanket from the foot of the bed, laying it carefully over his friend.  "You've still got a fever."
 
Folding his arms across his chest, Chris frowned. "Buck, please go.  Visit your women, play some cards, get a drink.  Just don't sit in my room all day.  You've paid your debt, or whatever you want to call it, ten times over." 
 
Glaring, Buck growled, "I can never repay that debt.  If you hadn't had to jump in the creek to save my sorry ass you would have never gotten pneumonia."
 
"If I didn't save your sorry ass, who would?  Besides, saving your mangy hide can be downright entertaining."  Chris's frown quickly changed to a grin and he opened his book again.  "Now get outta here and get some sleep so I can finish this chapter."
 
Buck sat on the bed and carefully pulled Chris into a hug.  As Chris tried to push him away Buck whispered, "I'd ride the river with you anytime, Pard."
 
"Just make sure we're in a boat next time." Chris grinned and squeezed Buck's hand.
 
The End.
 



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