STORM IN THE MOUNTAINS

By ssinco

 

Chapter 1:

JD Dunne was tired of the rain. He hadn't experienced a spring this soggy since he left his native Boston three years ago. It had been cool and stormy for the last few weeks, ever since five of the town's regulators returned from a mission to find a missing boy. One of his fellow peacekeepers, Vin Tanner, had taken ill on the trip, and two others, Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish, had been injured. The nasty weather had given the three men time to rest up and recuperate because there simply wasn't much else to do.

Unfortunately, the wet weather keeping everyone cooped up brought around a nasty spring cold, and JD became one of the unfortunate ones to catch it. It had been about a week since he had come down with the illness, and he was starting to feel better. Buck Wilmington and healer Nathan Jackson took care of him during the worst days, and he was currently sitting in Buck's rented room re-paying the favor and staring out the window at the rain. Buck came down with the same virus just a couple of days earlier. He brought Buck some of Inez's chicken soup and was waiting for his tall friend to finish his lunch.

 

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Chris Larabee, leader of the seven, shook the rain off of his hat and walked through the batwing doors of the saloon to see four of his men sitting at Ezra Standish's table playing poker and having lunch. Larabee had just come from the telegraph office where he had received a wire from Sheriff Bob Hawkins. Hawkins was the sheriff in a small town a couple day's ride southwest of Four Corners. Chris, Vin, Ezra, Nathan, and Buck dropped off three prisoners to him on their way back from rescuing a young boy named Sam Miller. Chris and Ezra were captured trying to take a prisoner, Russell Storm, to Yuma, and once captured discovered that the boy was being held there as well.

Initially, they figured that Hawkins was being paid off by Storm's father, Daniel, and that he would release the men and "look the other way." That turned out not to be the case at all, and the Sheriff made sure that the imprisoned men were tried and punished. He had kept in touch with Larabee and the regulators in Four Corners ever since. Sheriff Hawkins reported a couple of weeks earlier that the Storm compound had been abandoned, but there had been no word on where the group had gone...until now.

A friend of Hawkins', who lives up north, informed him this week that a gang matching the description of Storm's killed two people: a sheriff in Colorado territory and a man trying to protect his family and homestead from the gang. When Larabee read that, it made him feel sick to his stomach. He knew they shouldn't have left without capturing all of Storm's men, but they had three injured or ill men and a little boy to get to safety. They had been too out-numbered, but that didn't make Chris feel any better about it. The death of two good folks could have been prevented if they had put the gang away three weeks earlier.

Vin Tanner looked up from his stew to see Chris standing in the doorway. The tracker could feel the tension coming from the darkly-dressed gunslinger and knew he wasn't bringing good news. One-by-one, the other men slowly looked from Tanner to Larabee with a similar realization.

All eyes were on Chris by then, so the blond-haired man took a deep breath and approached the table to tell them the news.

"I shoulda shot 'em all when I had the chance," Vin responded after Chris read the telegram. Realistically, though, Vin knew he couldn't have shot 20 men without getting himself or one of the others injured or killed.

"I wanna go after 'em," Chris said quietly, looking at the four faces to judge their reactions.

"I'm in," replied Vin.

Although the weather outside was awful and he was only just now able to rise in the mornings without feeling sore, Ezra surprised everyone by saying, "count me in as well." The gang had held him prisoner, abused him, and more-or-less starved him for 3 days. He was reminded of the experience every single morning when he looked in his closest, and he was ready to exact some revenge. Storm's men had stolen his shirt, boots, and his favorite red jacket.

"You know me, Chris, I'm always up for a good fight," smiled Josiah.

"I agree they need to be put away," said Nathan. He couldn't bring himself to say it out loud, but he had his doubts that the seven would be able to bring in the entire gang without serious casualties...on both sides.

"I'm thinkin' that I take four men: myself, Vin, Ezra, and Josiah," Chris continued. "JD and Buck are sick, so Nathan should probably stay here."

"I'd feel better if you had more help, Chris," countered Nathan. "Buck and JD aren't that sick."

"They aren't going to be able to take patrols or be full strength for a while; need someone dependable to watch the town until they're better."

Nathan sighed, "alright, but promise me you'll pick up some local folks to help you – Sheriff or deputies or whatever – once you find the gang." Nathan did not want to think about these four men having to face off with 10, 15, or more gang members alone.

Chris' green eyes met the healer's brown ones, and Larabee shook his head in affirmation that he understood and appreciated those concerns.

"I'll wire Hawkins back and let him know our plans. Get supplies ready to head out first thing tomorrow morning." Chris left the saloon, and the remaining men did their best to finish lunch with their now-lessoned appetites.

After sending the telegram, Chris stopped by Buck's room to see how he was doing and let him and JD know about the next day's plan.

 

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"How're you feelin' big dog?" Chris asked as he looked at his old friend's pale face.

"Like shit, Chris, thanks for askin," smiled Buck. He was still a mess; his voice was rough, and his cough sounded terrible. Thankfully neither he nor JD ran a fever, so it was simply going to take time to get the tall man back on his feet.

"Vin, Josiah, Ezra, and I are plannin' on going after the Storm gang. They killed a couple of folks up north of here," Chris just came out and said it, expecting Buck to argue about not being able to go.

Buck stood up out of bed in his long johns and towered over his old friend.

"You four can't take on that whole gang, Chris," pleaded Buck, but clearly acknowledging he himself didn't feel well enough to go by saying, "at least take Nathan with ya."

"Need somebody to watch the town while you and JD recover. Nate can do that and keep an eye on how you're doing."

"I'm mostly better, Chris, let me go with you," said JD. Damn the timing of things: the minute that JD stood up to plead his case further, he broke into a coughing fit.

Chris tilted his head, looked down at JD, and said, "I think it's best if you stay here and let yourself fully recover, JD. You'll be a big help to Nathan with Buck and the town too."

Chris turned to leave and looked at the two ill peacekeepers and said, "take care boys. We shouldn't be gone more than a couple of weeks."

"Be careful, Chris," Buck sighed as he sat down on the bed.

 

Chapter 2:

The next morning, the four men met at dawn at the livery. It was still raining, but not quite as hard as the preceding days. The horses and supplies were checked and re-checked. Once everyone was satisfied they had what they needed for a long journey, Larabee cleared his throat and said, "let's ride, boys."

The first day passed uneventfully. They rode north towards the Colorado Territory. It was east of the Rockies, on the plains north of Denver, that the Storm gang was last sighted. Chris had a feeling that the gang planned on finding a place in the rugged landscape to hole up for the summer.

Vin was just happy to be out of town, regardless of the weather. He had taken ill on the last trip, and Nathan got testy if he so much as saw Vin walking from his wagon to the saloon in the rain. He finally stopped coughing a week or so ago and felt fine, but Nathan continued to be concerned that he could relapse if he didn't take care of himself.

Josiah too was enjoying the open range. With his large, muscular physique, cooler temperatures and rain didn't bother him. His companion riding to his left did not share his view, however.

"Will this incessant rain never stop?" grumbled Ezra. "We're going to need an ark to get to Denver if this continues." Despite being wet and chilled to the bone, Ezra too was relieved to be feeling well enough to ride out. He and Larabee suffered brutally at the hands of Storm's men, and the bruises and sore muscles had finally dissipated over the last week.

Chris rode ahead of the group early in the day, enjoying the quiet and wide open spaces. It annoyed him that Ezra complained so much. Hell, he wasn't enjoying being soaked and cold either, but it was part of their job. Later in the day, he slowed to ride next to Vin, and they talked about the best plan to find Storm, the best way to capture such a large group of men, and best place to camp for the night. He didn't remember talking THAT much, but by the time they decided to camp his voice was rough and hoarse.

 

Chapter 3:

It had been a cold, wet night, but the next morning found the sun peeking through the clouds. Vin woke first, just before dawn, and made coffee and unpacked supplies for a quick breakfast. The former buffalo hunter was used to living outdoors in all kinds of weather, but even he had to admit that he was enjoying the sight of the sun this morning.

Chris was next to wake up, and he felt like he had swallowed a cotton ball. He tried to clear his throat, but the feeling would not go away. "Maybe coffee will help," he thought.

As Larabee walked over to Vin and asked if the coffee was ready, Vin's bright blue eyes grew wide and a smirk formed on the tracker's handsome face. Only a couple of strange squeaks emerged from Chris' mouth as he tried to speak.

"Shit," thought Chris, "what a wonderful time to lose my damn voice."

"You ok there, Cowboy?" Vin continued to smile.

"Shit." This time Chris attempted to say it out loud.

Vin poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Chris. "Here, try this."

The silent, blond gunslinger took the offering and wandered over to a patch of sunshine to warm up and drink the coffee.

"Never a dull moment with these fellers," said the long-brown-haired Texan to himself as Josiah ambled over towards him.

"Good morning, brother Vin. What's our plan for this fine day?" Josiah asked.

"Mornin' Josiah. I think Chris is feelin' a might talkative today. Why don't you go ask him?" Vin laughed.

The big ex-preacher was curious as to what was tickling Vin so this morning, so he took his coffee and headed over towards Larabee.

 

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"Damnit Vin," thought Chris.

Vin could have made his life easier if he just explained to Josiah what was going on, but now Chris was going to have to squeak out enough words to tell him himself. Maybe he would get lucky and the ex-preacher wouldn't feel like talking?

Yeah right.

"Brother Chris, are you enjoying the sunny morning?" boomed Josiah's loud voice.

Vin followed not far behind Sanchez.

Chris tried desperately to clear his throat once again, looked at Vin, and managed to mostly get out the single word, "help."

The long-haired man broke out laughing, and said, "Chris here seems to have come down with a case of laryngitis."

Josiah's blue eyes widened, and he said, "is that right?"

Chris tried to say, "yeah," but he was only able to mouth the word; no sound came forth.

"Do you think you caught Buck and JD's cold?" Josiah asked.

Chris shrugged his shoulders and replied (as best he could), "feel ok otherwise." He was trying so hard to make a sound that it made him cough.

Their party wouldn't get close to the Storm gang until at least tomorrow, so Larabee figured maybe he wouldn't have to talk much today…..and then he heard Ezra stirring around.

 

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Vin headed back to pack up the camp and left Larabee and Josiah to finish their coffee and get the horses ready. Vin decided that he was going to have some fun with their current situation.

"It's about time you woke up," Vin said. "Chris is pretty ticked; was wantin' to be on the trail by now."

"Of course he was," sighed Ezra. "I guess the sunshine has done nothing to improve our leader's disposition."

The gambler quickly packed up his bedroll, grabbed a biscuit, and a cup of coffee. He then met up with the two eldest members of the group.

"I am ready whenever you gentlemen are," remarked Ezra. Chris walked away, not wanting to try and explain his vocal problems to Standish at the moment. Since Vin had already planted a bug in Ezra's ear, Standish thought Chris turned away because he was angry.

"Mr. Larabee?" Standish questioned. Chris looked back, shook his head, and turned away again. "Mr. Larabee?" Ezra repeated. "If you are upset with me, I ask that you at least have the common decency to tell me why."

Chris sighed and tried to give Ezra a look that said, "let it go." Standish did not read the look correctly.

"I, for one, am quite tired of always being at the receiving end of your anger. Maybe I should ride back to town now and save you all the irritation of dealing with me as a companion," Ezra's voice was getting louder, and Josiah and Vin took notice.

"Damnit Ezra, I ain't angry," Chris tried to say, but his back was still to Standish and Ezra didn't hear Larabee say anything at all. Ezra's temper was boiling over at the fact that Chris was simply ignoring him.

Ezra reached out and spun Larabee around...so quickly in fact that Chris' hat fell off. Ezra then proceeded to deck the gunslinger with a hard right hook to the face. Vin and Josiah took off running towards the battling men. Larabee was still sitting on the ground, holding his jaw, and Ezra finished with, "there, sir, NOW you truly have a reason to be angry with me."

Josiah grabbed Ezra by the arm as he tried to walk to and mount his horse, "Wo there, son."

Vin offered his hand to Larabee to help him up and then retrieved the black hat. "Ah hell," Vin started. "I'm sorry fellers. I was just havin' a little fun this mornin'. Chris, I's the one who told Ezra you were angry." Vin then looked to Standish, "Ezra, Chris wasn't mad at all. He's just frustrated 'cause he done gone and lost his voice, and I don't think he felt up to explainin' it to ya right now."

"What?" questioned Ezra. He looked at Chris, and said, "is this true?"

The fair-haired man shook his head, "yes," and squeaked out between coughs, "I tried to tell ya things were fine, Ezra."

"I do apologize Mr. Larabee," said Ezra, "I should have decked Mr. Tanner instead." And with that, Vin took off back towards the camp with Standish running after him.

"You ok, Chris?" asked Josiah, watching the man still rubbing his jaw.

Larabee shook his head in the affirmative and then motioned with his hands that he would follow Josiah to help finish readying everyone's mounts.

 

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Ezra finally caught up with Vin, grabbed a handful of his hide coat, and flung the lean tracker to the ground. "Mr. Tanner, what on Earth were you thinking? You managed to goad me into punching Chris Larabee."

Vin looked up at the auburn-haired man as innocently as possible and said, "come on Ez. It was just a little joke."

"It wasn't funny. Would you have found it amusing if Mr. Larabee would have decided to shoot me?"

"Chris wasn't gonna shoot ya," Vin rolled his eyes.

"I am positive that he has shot men for less," Ezra continued to glare at the tracker.

"I said I was sorry; don't know what else I can say, Ezra," Vin got to his feet and returned the glare, "and if ya know what's good for ya, ya won't shove me again."

"Fine, sir, next time I will just punch you instead," Ezra walked away and went to collect his things for the long trip ahead.

 

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All parties made up before leaving camp, and the remainder of the day passed without much excitement. Chris remained quieter than usual. Trying to talk proved painful for his sore throat. He presumed that he had indeed caught JD and Buck's cold, but overall he didn't feel too bad. He didn't have a fever and his head was clear; the infection was only bothering his chest and vocal cords. Even for Larabee though, who was always fairly quiet, it was damn annoying not to be able to talk at all. Fortunately, Ezra and Josiah were more than happy to carry the day's conversations, and Vin easily took over the leader position temporarily.

The four men camped that night with a view of the majestic Rocky Mountains in the distance.

 

Chapter 4:

Chris was the last of the campers to wake the following morning. Even Ezra was already up, freshly-shaven, and having breakfast. Larabee had moved his bedroll far away from the main camp the night before. He didn't want to wake everyone with his coughing and was hoping to keep the other men from getting sick. He was especially concerned about giving the illness to Vin, who had just gotten over a nasty lung infection a couple of weeks back. He had seen all six of his men injured, but he could not remember Josiah ever being ill, even with just a cold. So, he probably didn't need to worry about the large preacher. Ezra, was a different story though; Standish could be a bear to deal with when he was sick. He walked over to where the gambler sat but made an effort to keep far enough away to give little risk of infecting the con man.

"Hey Ez," Chris said. His voice was much better but still low and hoarse.

"Good to hear your voice again, Mr. Larabee, although it looks like you could still benefit from this," Standish said as he handed Chris a cup of hot coffee. The gambler felt a twinge of guilt when he saw the bruise across Larabee's chin. The gunslinger looked rough anyway. He hadn't shaved in three days, and the dark circles under his eyes suggested that he hadn't slept well.

"I truly am sorry about my little, uh, outburst yesterday," Ezra said locking his pale green eyes with Larabee's.

"Really, Ezra; don't worry about it," replied Chris. Looking back now, it was clear how Ezra could have easily mistaken his silence for anger. He didn't mean to be, and he didn't even understand why himself, but Chris knew he was often harder on Ezra than the other men.

Vin had been preparing the horses with Josiah. He walked back to the camp and said, "how're ya feelin', Cowboy?"

"Alright," said Chris. "At least I can talk." This made him cough, but Chris was happy to be able to make sounds again.

"You sure, Chris? We could stay here for another day," Vin suggested. He didn't say it, but he was a bit worried by Larabee's tired appearance.

"Nah, I'm fine," and as if to prove it the gunslinger got up immediately and started packing up the camp.

"Whatta ya think, Ez?" asked Vin. "You think that stubborn cuss is telling the truth?"

"I am not sure Mr. Tanner," replied Ezra, "but he is eating, drinking, and taking care of his share of the work, so I suppose we have to take his word for it." He and Tanner had exchanged some harsh words the day before, but that was one of the most endearing qualities of the young tracker. Once a fight was settled, Vin didn't hold a grudge. He could not necessarily say the same about himself or the majority of the men they rode with. Ezra, Chris, Josiah, and Nathan could all brood about things for days; only Tanner, JD, and Buck forgave rather quickly.

 

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Once packed up and in the saddle, the four men rode hard for six hours and made it to the town of Pueblo, where the Storm gang allegedly murdered the sheriff. Chris was eager to head to the local law office to question the deputies about what happened, but Vin suggested they stop and have a hot meal first.

The tracker was hoping that with a good meal and a short rest, Larabee would look a little more human. The man was intimidating anyway, but right now – he looked downright scary. Vin was afraid the deputies might just as soon arrest him as answer his questions.

Chris wasn't aware that he looked so rough, but he did have to admit that he felt better after the hearty meal of chicken and dumplings.

 

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Vin, Chris, Ezra, and Josiah entered the sheriff's office to find a tall, lanky deputy sitting behind a desk. There were no prisoners in the cells, so the four dusty, scruffy-looking men got the deputy's attention immediately. He was a little leery of strangers after the sheriff's murder.

"What can I do for you boys?" the deputy stood and asked, with his hand on his weapon.

Chris made it through the introductions of himself and his men, and then his voice started to fade. Vin seamlessly took over the questioning and explained their interest in the Storm gang, and Chris dipped his head in thanks at their second-in-command. The deputy became more relaxed once he realized who these men were; he had heard about the "Magnificent Seven" from Four Corners.

The former-deputy, who was promoted to sheriff after the murder, relayed that "a few of Storm's men got liquored up and started a fight in the saloon. The sheriff showed up and arrested two of the men. When old man Storm himself appeared and demanded the two men be released, the sheriff refused, and got himself killed for the trouble. There was no one else in the jail when it happened, but a couple of working girls down the street heard the gunshot and saw the gang leaving the scene about 5 minutes later. I was the one to come in early next morning and find the sheriff dead, and Storm's men gone. We searched the surrounding area, but it seemed that the gang had already high-tailed it out of town."

The four regulators believed his account of events, and everything made sense with what they had previously been told. That put the gang up north at the correct time to commit the next murder as well.

Chris took the opportunity of being in a decent-sized town and wired Nathan to let him know where they were and what they found out. He didn't make mention of his illness. There was no reason to worry folks, and he wasn't feeling that bad.

Ezra made a strong case for staying in town for the night, but in the end he was over-ridden. The remaining three wanted to get a head start towards Denver to ensure they could make it to their final destination by the next afternoon.

 

Chapter 5:

The adrenaline rush that came with knowing they were getting closer to their targets had the men up, packed, and riding just as the sun peaked over the eastern horizon. They had ridden late into the night before, ate only a few bites for dinner, and skipped breakfast in favor of an early start.

Vin was excited to get close enough to get on an actual trail of the gang. Josiah was looking forward to the battle that was likely to ensue, and Ezra was ready to inflict harm on the men who stole his favorite red jacket. Chris was always ready for a fight, and these men deserved everything they had coming to them.

Larabee was feeling better today. His voice was almost back to normal; only those who knew him well would be able to tell he was under the weather. The cough continued to get worse, but Chris knew that was how these things usually go. JD's cough was still hanging on a week after he got sick.

 

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The four men made it to the small settlement about 50 miles northwest of Denver, known as Little Thompson, in the early afternoon. They found the closest sheriff's office and were met by a large old man named Ken Barton. Barton had been the sheriff in that area for over 20 years, and although he looked to be in his 60's or 70's, he still got around well and was a formidable-looking fellow.

He and some local men had tracked the bandits up into the mountains. Unfortunately, an avalanche had come down and blocked the trail, so they were waiting for the weather to warm up and make the trail passable again. He offered to take Larabee and his men up to where the avalanche occurred but warned them it could be another couple of weeks before they would be able to pass through there.

The old sheriff was a talker and filled the silence pretty much all the way up the trail. He told Josiah about a friend of his who had decided to become a preacher. He himself was also fond of gambling in his spare time and was very intrigued by Ezra and his card skills and tricks. He was full of suggestions for how Chris could get rid of that nasty cough. His wife passed about 5 years ago, and they had been married for 30 years. She was very good at taking care of sick folks, and he was positive that she could have had ol' Chris fixed up in no time.

As they approached the avalanche area of the trail, Sheriff Ken (as he said everyone called him) rode next to Vin and told the young tracker about the local scout that followed the trail with him a few days earlier. The sheriff's tracker spoke of another goat path that could take them around the avalanche area, but it was narrow and treacherous. Barton himself had never been on it, but the tracker traveled it many years ago. He had walked it on foot and wasn't sure a horse could even make it across the rough, rocky, narrow path. About a quarter of a mile before they reached the avalanche area, the old Sheriff pointed out the trail that led to the possible detour.

It was going to be dark within the hour, so Chris shook the sheriff's hand, thanked him for his help, and sent him back down the trail. Larabee said that he and his men would find a place to camp and decide how they would proceed the next morning.

"Good luck, boys and take care," called out Sheriff Ken as he rode back down the mountain trail. He had only known them for a few hours, but he could tell these were good men. He hoped that they accomplished their mission without any injuries or loss in numbers. He wasn't optimistic though, given the gang they pursued and the terrain they were entering to do it.

 

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That night, they camped at about 7,000 ft. in elevation in the Rocky Mountains. The weather wasn't extremely cold, but the winds were strong. Chris and Vin set up a good portion of the night discussing the best strategy for the next morning.

Chris thought maybe they could clear the avalanche path and go on the larger, more passable trail. Vin was doubtful and expressed his concerns as to whether the trail was even still there under such a large avalanche. The Texan thought they could waste most of the day removing rocks and snow only to find the road was gone underneath.

In the end, Chris bowed to Vin's judgment and agreed that they would try the so-called goat path to detour around the avalanche area. He hoped the horses would be able to make the trail. If they needed to go it on foot, they would have to cut way back on their supplies. That seemed especially scary when facing weather and terrain such as they would be.

 

Chapter 6:

The following morning, the four men headed back to the trailhead pointed out by the sheriff. It was a steep uphill grade initially, but the trail itself was fairly wide – plenty wide for the horses as long as they rode single file. After about an hour on the trail, it flattened out a bit. The path also became narrower and was a shelf road that carried them along the edge of a sheer cliff. The drop straight down was at least 500 ft.

Vin went first, followed by Ezra, Josiah, and Chris. The horses slipped on the loose rocks, and the narrowness of the trail left no room for error. The view, though, was beautiful. Vin was the only one who had spent extended periods of time in the Rocky Mountains, and Ezra, Josiah, and Chris were awed by the sights. The sky was a bright blue, and they were surrounded by snow-capped peaks.

As they approached 10,000 ft. in elevation, the temperatures grew much colder. There were patches of snow in shady areas, and the men wished they had brought their heavier coats.

As the four travelers encountered a bend in the trail, Josiah's horse stepped on yet another slippery area of rock. The horse didn't fall, but it went down to one knee. That was enough of a quick change to cause its rider to lose his seat. Josiah hit the ground with a resounding thump and proceeded to roll directly over the edge of the cliff.

 

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"Wonder how the hunt for the Storm gang is going?" Buck asked as he ambled into the jail, where JD was getting ready to head out on patrol.

"Buck," JD said, surprised to see the taller man out of bed. JD was feeling fine now after his bout with a late spring cold, but his moustached-friend was still working to fight off the bug. JD felt especially bad because he knew he had been the one to infect Wilmington. "How are you feelin?" JD asked. "You still don't look too good."

"Now, I thought we covered that already...the fact that it is damn near impossible for me to look bad," Buck coughed then smiled. JD was right though; Buck was still pale and there were dark circles under the ladies' man's blue eyes.

"It was just gettin' too damn lonely in that room of mine," Buck continued. "Nathan said no visits from Blossom, so I figured if I leave and go to her room - I'm technically not breakin' Nathan's rule."

"Buck," JD chastised, "are you sure you're feelin' up to THAT?"

"Hell, son, I'm always ready for THAT," Buck grinned and followed JD out the door. Blossom was just on her way to Mrs. Potter's store, when she saw her handsome friend.

"Buck," she ran towards him and engulfed him in a bear hug, "oh, I've missed you so. How are you? Mr. Jackson said you were ill...in fact you still look kind of peaked. I think you should go to my room and lie down. I'll get us some breakfast, and I'll be right up."

Buck coughed on cue, and said, "why thank you darlin'. It's been a rough few days, but I definitely think breakfast with you is just what the doctor ordered."

Blossom headed over to the store, and Buck looked at JD and winked. He then headed towards Blossom's room.

Nathan walked down the steps of the clinic and over to JD. "Was that just Buck I saw go in the boardin' house?"

JD didn't want to tattle on his friend, so he just shrugged his shoulders.

"His lungs were still awful congested last night," Nathan glared at the hazel-eyed youth. "If I find out that fool is runnin' around town, I swear I'm gonna tie him to his bed."

JD tried not to make eye contact with the healer, mounted his horse, and said, "sorry Nate, I got patrol. I'll see ya later."

 

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Larabee yelled, "Josiah!" and immediately jumped off his mount with his heart about to pound out of his chest. He almost cried when he looked over the edge and saw Josiah hanging onto the branch of a tiny little shrub about a foot down the cliff wall. Chris dropped to his stomach and reached over and grabbed Josiah's left wrist just as the shrub let go - roots and all.

Once the bush came loose, Chris had all of Josiah's weight, and that pulled both of them down another 3 or 4 inches. Chris dug the toes of his boots into the ground as hard as he possibly could. "Vin! Ezra!" screamed Chris, as he tried his hardest to pull Josiah up the slope. His efforts only managed to make them both slide another couple of inches, and he knocked some fairly large rocks off the edge and right onto Josiah's face. One of them hit hard on the big man's temple and caused a good-sized cut to form and bleed.

Josiah, too, was hoping help arrived soon. Sanchez knew he was too heavy for Chris to pull back up by himself, and he was afraid he was going to drag them both to their deaths if Vin and Ezra didn't show up in the next couple of minutes.

"Hang on boys," shouted Vin. He and Ezra heard Chris scream and immediately looked back and noticed Josiah was missing. "Go help Chris, Ez. I'll get a rope," instructed Vin.

The gambler's arms were not as long as Larabee's, so he was unable to reach Josiah's other hand. Therefore, he figured that the best way he could be of help right now was to add some weight to Larabee to keep Josiah from pulling them further over the edge. So, Ezra sat down on Chris' back. That stopped Chris from sliding any further, but Larabee wasn't expecting it and felt all of the air rush out of his lungs when Ezra plopped down.

Ezra then called out, "Fear not, Mr. Sanchez. Our resourceful tracker is bringing some rope, and we will have you back on solid ground momentarily."

As promised, within a minute, Vin showed up with the rope. He had tied one end to a solid tree on the other side of the trail. He then tied the other end underneath of Josiah's arms.

"Hop up here Ez and help me pull," Vin said as he leaned all of his weight back on the rope. Ezra grabbed on, behind Vin, and both men began to pull as hard as they could. Once they got Josiah close to the top, Chris was able to get to his knees and help hoist him the rest of the way. The four men collapsed to the ground, out of breath and sweating despite the cold temperatures.

"You ok, Josiah?" asked Chris, as he crawled over to get a better look at the older man lying on the ground. Josiah sat up, smiled one of his huge smiles, and said, "I'm just fine, brother, thanks to you boys."

Vin got up to grab the mini-medical kit that Nathan packed, and he and Ezra went to work cleaning and bandaging the cuts and scrapes on Josiah's face, arms and legs.

Chris remained seated on the ground for another few minutes, while he waited for his heart to return to a normal rhythm. Josiah had been looking up at him the entire time, but he had been looking down. It was an extremely long and rocky drop, and there would have been no way that Josiah would have survived if he had fallen.

 

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Within the hour they were back on the trail, but the men decided to walk their horses for the next few miles. By that time, they met back up with the original, larger trail and were able to mount up and ride more safely on up higher into the mountains.

The trail was covered with fresh snow, which meant no tracks for Vin to follow. He could see some broken tree branches along the path and other signs that suggested riders passed through here not too long ago. Vin believed that they were on the correct path, but he was surprised at how high up these fellows had chosen to camp.

It was starting to get dark, and the four men came upon a relatively flat, forested area. There was enough grass for the horses, so it looked like as good of a place as any to camp tonight. Vin went out alone on foot while the other three prepared the camp and dinner. Tanner found fresh boot tracks about a mile from where he left the boys, and peeking over the ridge he could see and smell smoke from a campfire. They had found them. It was fully dark now, so Vin simply returned to camp. He would scout again in the morning to see how many gang members there were and determine the best way to capture them.

The lanky tracker shared the news with the other three men when he arrived at their campsite. Chris was waiting for Vin's report to decide whether it was safe to make a campfire. Vin's opinion was that it was not a good idea since Storm's men were less than a mile away. Ezra groaned audibly. The temperatures were already below freezing, and they would likely continue to drop until sunrise the next day. The wind howled, and Ezra knew he was really going to miss the warmth of his feather bed tonight.

"Why did we bother coming up here to arrest Storm's men?" Ezra questioned to no one in particular. "Simply leave them out in this weather for a week or two, and they'll all freeze to death anyway."

 

Chapter 7:

Dawn broke to reveal another cold, sunny morning, and a forest full of exhausted regulators. They found a small rock outcropping that sheltered them a bit from the wind and tried to sleep close to each other for warmth. Still, only Josiah seemed to be able to get any rest. Between the weather, the wind, Josiah's snoring, Ezra's complaining, and Larabee's coughing….the three remaining men mostly laid on their bedrolls counting the hours until dawn.

Chris wanted to see the Storm camp, so he and Vin took off early to do some additional scouting. They climbed up on a large cliff to the south of the gang to get a look into their camp. The group had set up six tents in a small valley surrounded by hills and cliffs. Vin counted 12 men. There were more than that at the Storm compound where Chris and Ezra had been held, so either some of the men parted ways or perished on the journey here.

As Vin was about to turn around and head back to their camp, he heard a gun cock behind him. Two men stood on the cliff behind Tanner and Larabee pointing weapons at them. Neither Vin nor Chris had time to go for their own weapons.

"Make that 14 men," said Vin.

 

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When the two men approached the peacekeepers to tie their hands, Chris lashed out. He wrestled with a large, dark hairy man, but stopped abruptly when a gunshot rang out. He looked over to see Vin clasping his hands around a bloody wound in his left thigh. This only served to enrage Chris further, and he kicked out at the man and sent a boot to his groin. The man who shot Vin then turned and proceeded to fire a second shot, this time into Larabee.

Chris felt the bullet slam into his left shoulder and knew they were in trouble. It was going to be up to Ezra and Josiah now to take care of business.

The hairy fellow that Chris nailed in the nether-regions finished vomiting up his breakfast, and then came over and kicked Larabee in the stomach. He and Vin had been sitting on the snow-covered ground with their hands tied behind their backs, and Chris toppled over backwards with the blow to his midsection.

The two men hoisted their captives up and walked them back to the Storm camp at gunpoint. The journey down the rough hillside was painful for Chris, with his injured arm pulled tight behind his back, but it was excruciating for Vin who was required to climb and walk with his injured leg. Vin fell and tumbled down the hill on more than one occasion.

The blond gunslinger was fuming, at Storm's men and at himself. It was his hair-brained idea to attack the gunmen, and that got Vin and himself shot. He was behind Vin on the trail, so he could see that his younger companion was losing a lot of blood. Tanner seemed to be growing visibly weaker and more unsteady with each step.

 

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They arrived in the Storm camp after about a 15-20 minute journey, and one of the two captors yelled out, "Lookie what we found wandering around this mornin."

Russell Storm came over, recognized the two men from Four Corners, and said, "well, howdy boys. You must have missed me an awful lot to come all the way out here lookin' for me. Tie their feet and set 'em over there next to the rock wall."

"Could we get some bandages or something to tend his leg?" asked Chris. He knew he was going to have to find a way to staunch the flow of blood; Tanner was fading fast.

"You shoulda thought of that before you went and pissed off Matt and Jack, huh Larabee?" chuckled Storm.

He was holding a towel in his hand and simply threw that on top of Chris' lap once he and Vin were tied and seated at the wall. "I guess that'll have to do," thought Larabee to himself. It wasn't easy with his hands and feet tied, but he managed to squat close to Vin, wrap the towel around his leg, and apply some pressure. The bullets went clean through both Tanner's leg and Chris' shoulder without breaking any bones. That was good in that infection wasn't likely to be as much of an issue, but bad in that there were two holes to bleed heavily instead of just one.

After holding pressure on Vin's leg for about 10 minutes, it seemed like the flow of blood slowed down. Chris half-tied the towel on Tanner's leg. "How're you doin' Vin?" Chris questioned, looking into his friend's tired-looking blue eyes.

"Think I'm gettin' too old for this, Chris," Vin replied.

"As Josiah would say – amen to that," smiled Chris. If Vin was getting too old for this, he didn't even want to think what that meant for himself. Honestly, Chris didn't know exactly how old Vin was, but he knew Tanner was at least 10 years younger than he was.

"Try to lie back and rest a bit; ya lost quite a bit of blood hiking down that hill," Chris coughed and continued to look at Vin with concerned green eyes. He knew they would have a much better chance to escape if Vin were healthy enough to walk on his own.

"Should check out your shoulder," said Vin. Given Chris' all-black attire, Vin was having a hard time discerning exactly how much Larabee's wound was bleeding.

"Bullet went clean through, and it doesn't feel like it's bleeding too badly. I'd rather keep our towel right where it is," answered Chris.

"Suit yerself, Larabee. But I'll have you know that I don't much feel like toting your butt outta here if you're lyin'," Vin shot back.

 

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Although he was resting, Vin did not feel any better as the day wore on. The captives were not offered food or water, not that either of their stomachs felt up to it anyway...and the cold sapped what little strength they possessed.

Chris couldn't remember being this cold for a long time. The wound in his shoulder throbbed with every heartbeat, and he was worried about his friend who sat beside him in silence. Vin had clearly lost too much blood; his skin color was almost gray.

As Larabee started to check on Vin's leg again, he heard a sound coming from the forest behind him. He looked back quickly and caught a glimpse of Ezra peeking out from behind a large tree. He didn't know what the boys were up too, so he decided to sit quietly and make sure Storm's men didn't suspect anything.

As darkness began to fall and the men in the camp began to gather for the evening meal, Ezra jumped down off of the rock wall, crouched behind Chris and Vin, untied their appendages, and motioned for them to follow him up towards the south mountain face.

Both men walked unsteadily for a few steps but knew it was run or be killed. One of Storm's men shouted that the "prisoners are escaping" as they reached the rocky area to the left of the hill. Ezra went up first, and Josiah came out from behind a boulder and grabbed Vin to assist him up the slope. Larabee followed behind. Shots were fired from the camp, so the four men weaved and dodged in and out of the rocks for cover. As Ezra reached about three-quarter of the way up the slope, he pulled a stick of dynamite out of his coat and lit it. Just as his arm swung over his head to throw it, one of his feet slipped on a patch of ice and he fell. The dynamite landed, and soon detonated, on the hill about 50 feet down.

The hill was covered in snow, and the dynamite set off a massive avalanche. Josiah saw it first, grabbed Vin and dove further to the left while yelling, "avalanche," to warn Ezra and Chris. Chris saw Ezra get knocked head over heels by a wall of snow, and he attempted to position himself so that he could grab the tumbling gambler.

Ezra was coming too fast. Although Chris was able to touch him, the gambler's body immediately knocked Larabee over and sent him flying down the hill as well. Chris stopped fairly quickly, as the side of his torso collided with a large boulder. He felt ribs give way, and he saw Ezra continuing to tumble down the hill until he was buried and out of sight.

The avalanche was over in a couple of minutes, and it buried the entire Storm camp and all of the men in it. Chris jumped up and ran frantically toward the spot where he had last seen Ezra. He was digging furiously in the snow and was joined by Josiah soon thereafter. All of Larabee's hurts and injuries were forgotten in the panic to find Standish.

Ezra saw the avalanche only a split second before it took him off his feet. He felt himself crashing head over heels for what seemed like an hour. He saw Chris reach out for him, but then disappear as well. He continued on past at a ridiculously fast speed. On one crash, he felt his left arm bend and crack unnaturally, and then nothing.

 

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Chris and Josiah continued to dig with all of their might. Both were exhausted, but adrenaline was keeping them going. After about 20 minutes of digging, Josiah finally saw something dark – Ezra's pants. "Chris, over here," yelled Sanchez.

Larabee ran as quickly as he could through the waist-deep snow and helped Josiah uncover the rest of Standish. Chris' heart sank when he saw that Ezra wasn't moving.

The gunslinger tried to pull Ezra out of the deep snow bank, but his fatigued and injured limbs would not cooperate. "I've got him, Chris," said Josiah, who easily scooped the gambler up and carried him over beside Vin.

Vin watched from the rocks and could see that things did not look good for Ezra. He kept a rifle trained on the camp area just in case someone survived, but so far at least – there was no sign of life. "The only good news in all of this," he thought.

Josiah laid Ezra on the ground, and Chris immediately began checking for a pulse. "I can't tell if he's breathin'," yelled Chris. He sat on Ezra's legs, slapped his face a few times and pounded on his chest. Chris visibly jumped when Ezra all of a sudden coughed and opened his eyes.

Ezra had never felt so cold, there was a tremendous pain in his left arm, and Chris Larabee was sitting on him. "Ezra," Josiah questioned, "are you with us, son?"

"I'm not sure," drawled the prone gambler.

Chris laid his head down on Standish's chest for a minute. He had never been so glad to hear that voice.

"I believe I would be better if Mr. Larabee would kindly remove himself from my person," Ezra then said.

"Right," Chris said as he jumped up. The wound to Larabee's shoulder had broken open and started bleeding again during the digging efforts. As he stood up quickly, he felt the world go dark and collapsed to the ground beside Ezra and Vin before he could say another word.

"Lord help me," prayed Josiah. He knew he was going to need some divine intervention to get his three injured friends out of these mountains.

 

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Josiah ripped pieces of cloth off of his shirt and did his best to staunch the blood flow from Chris' shoulder and got his and Vin's gunshot wounds wrapped up. Chris woke a few minutes after collapsing to the ground and looked sheepishly around. The ex-preacher removed his coat and laid it over the shivering gambler.

"Well, boys," started Josiah. "We have a lot of things to do, so I suggest we try to move back to our camp. We have some medical supplies there and food and water. I'm not sure how many, if any of you, would be able to walk on your own, so my plan is to go back and bring the horses. Hopefully riding will be faster and easier."

Josiah could see that Chris was going to say something, but stopped him in his tracks with, "Chris, you stay here and keep an eye on these two. I think all of the Storm gang is taken care of, but keep an eye out for that as well."

"Alright, you be careful Josiah," Chris knew if something happened to their largest and healthiest man that the others would be in trouble.

Tanner and Larabee talked about their options, and how they needed to set Ezra's arm. They discussed the timing and manner of their descent from the mountains. Ezra said nothing; just closed his eyes and tried to deal with the pain as best as he could. And as promised, Josiah soon showed up with horses to carry them back to their own make-shift camp.

"I brought all four horses, but I can take anybody who doesn't feel up to riding alone on my horse too," Sanchez looked from Vin to Ezra when he said this.

"I can make it," said Vin.

The statement was quickly followed by, "I'll ride close to him," from Chris. "I think you should probably take Ezra on your horse, Josiah. We don't even know if he can stand up."

Ezra continued to be suspiciously quiet. He didn't really feel like moving at all, but he knew he would get better care (and dry clothing) back at their camp. His neck was wrenched in the avalanche and hurt when he tried to move it, and the pain in his left forearm was almost unbearable. Any movement was excruciating and made him feel sick to his stomach.

"Sound like a plan, brother Ezra?" Josiah questioned. When Ezra nodded his head, the big preacher proceeded over and mostly carried the injured gambler over and up onto his horse.

Chris helped Vin over to Peso, although it was debatable who was helping whom. Both men were unsteady on their feet, whether it was from blood loss, pain, exhaustion, dehydration, or all of the above Josiah didn't know.

 

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The horses slowly and steadily marched back to last night's camp. Ezra moaned all the way, holding his arm as tightly as he could while getting jostled by the horse. Josiah knew they needed to set his arm to at least give him a bit of relief. Ezra was understandably nervous about the prospect, but he eventually conceded that he wasn't going to be able to function if the pain continued at its current level. They had some meager medical supplies with them, but no laudanum or other pain medication.

After he helped Vin from his horse, Chris volunteered to hold Ezra while Josiah tried to straighten the broken bone. Chris wrapped his arms around Ezra's upper body and right arm, and Josiah readied himself for the task. Lord, he hoped he could get it on the first try...

Josiah grabbed a hold of Ezra's left wrist and pulled quick and hard. Thankfully the bones popped into place, but Ezra screamed and bucked like a wild animal. He ended up getting his right arm lose in the struggles and elbowed Larabee on the same side as his broken rib. That caused Chris to howl and let go of Standish. Ezra then got up and bolted from the campsite. He only made it about 10 paces before passing out and crumbling to the ground.

Josiah followed Ezra and carried him back to camp. He fashioned a rough splint and sling and put them on as gently as he could. Ezra woke up as Josiah finished tying the sling. The gambler remained quiet; he could not believe the situations he let himself get into with these men.

Josiah used Nathan's supplies to clean up Vin and Chris' bullet wounds, and then set about making some food. His three injured companions did take some water and a tiny bit of food, but it was obvious that all of them felt pretty lousy.

Chris wanted to get his men back down to warmer temperatures as soon as possible, so he sat up with Josiah trying to make plans after the two youngest of their friends went to bed. Larabee was afraid Ezra was going to have permanent damage in his arm if they couldn't get him to a doctor soon, and he didn't know if Vin's leg wound would become infected. Of course Josiah was wondering the latter about Larabee's bullet wound as well.

As Josiah and Chris went to lie down, Sanchez donated one of his blankets to Ezra, who was still shivering badly. They put dry clothes on the gambler, but ever since they pulled him from the snow, Standish had been unable to get warm.

Blood loss made Vin so weak that he was dead asleep. He didn't even stir when the other men came over, and Chris knew that was not like Tanner at all. They often joked that Vin slept with one eye open because he was always the first to awaken at any noise or movement.

As he drifted off to sleep, Josiah said a silent prayer that his companions would be well enough to travel the next day.

 

Chapter 8:

"Come on, Nathan," pleaded Buck. "It's been a damn week. I've taken all your breathin' treatments and drank all your teas, and I am really, honestly, TRULY feelin' better."

"Hush up, Buck, and let me listen to your lungs," Nathan replied, as he placed a stethoscope on Buck's bare chest. In all honesty, Buck's lungs were sounding better, and Nathan probably could have released him from his care yesterday...but the healer was still paying Wilmington back a bit for sneaking out earlier in the week. Nate had said he was going to tie Buck to his bed when he found him with Blossom a few days ago, but he had moved Buck to the clinic, where he could keep a closer eye on him, instead.

"Alright, Buck, you can go," Nathan said and Buck's blue eyes lit up in a huge smile. "BUT, no drinkin' and no late nights for a while. Got it!?"

Buck sighed, but answered, "alright, I promise." He wasn't sure he could keep his promise, but at this point he would say ANYTHING to get away from Nathan.

"I sent a wire to Denver yesterday, to see if there was any word on Chris, Josiah, Vin, and Ezra," Nathan changed the subject. "Kind of thought we would've heard from 'em again by now."

"Yeah, me too. You think we should go lookin'?" It had been 5 or 6 days since Larabee wired from Pueblo. Buck and Nathan both knew it was going to be a tough mission, and it's possible the boys had to go even further north or further into the mountains to find the gang.

"Let's give 'em another couple of days and hopefully they'll wire us with some good news," Nathan replied, as Buck was buttoning his shirt.

 

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Chris was the first one awake. He was still coughing at night, and that was about to kill him with his cracked rib. Once he got up and stopped coughing, the pain was tolerable….but that meant he had only rested for a few hours at best.

Josiah was up next and greeted the obviously tired man with a "good morning, Chris." The blond gunslinger handed him a cup of coffee and sat down to wait and see how the other two men were faring this morning.

Vin was shocked to see how late it was when he awoke. He was generally the first one up of the seven. Chris witnessed Vin trying to stand and ran over to help support him. The tracker's leg was stiff and shaky, but step by step, he began to bear more weight on the injured limb. Chris handed Vin some coffee and said, "You're lookin' a little better this mornin' – not quite as gray. How're you feelin'?"

"Like I been shot in the leg," smiled Vin, "but I think I can ride if you want to get out of here."

"How're you holdin' up, Cowboy?" Vin returned the concern back to Chris. "As Ms. Nettie would say, you're lookin' a mite peaked yourself." The dark circles under Larabee's eyes were even more prominent today, or his skin was paler – Vin wasn't sure which.

"I'll be fine once I get all of us out of these mountains. I've had about enough of snow, wind, and bad guys for one week," smiled Chris.

"Amen, brothers," laughed Josiah as he thumped the two smaller men on the back and walked away. Both winced and steadied themselves after Josiah's supposedly-friendly pat.

Josiah walked over to the sleeping area, as he saw Ezra starting to stir. He felt bad for the amount of pain he caused the gambler last night. Ezra slowly opened his eyes, and Josiah's voice boomed out, "How are ya, Ezra?"

"Just peachy," replied the smaller man, and he closed his green eyes for a minute longer. Josiah helped Ezra stand, and then followed closely beside him as he walked to where Chris and Vin were sitting.

 

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Ezra didn't feel great by any stretch of the imagination, but he was steadier than the day before.

"How's the arm, Ezra?" Chris asked. He still couldn't get the image of the snow-covered, deathly-still gambler out of his head.

"My arm still throbs quite painfully, but it is bearable," Ezra explained over a cup of coffee, "certainly much improved from yesterday."

Josiah was clearly in the best shape, but Ezra couldn't decide the rank order of the rest of them. They all claimed to be well enough to ride though, so that is precisely what they did.

 

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Josiah debated tying the other three to their horses. On these shelf roads if someone passed out and fell from their mount, it could very well prove deadly. He decided against it though and did his best to stay closest to whoever looked the most unsteady at the time.

They moved slowly and carefully down the mountain. Josiah focused most of his attention on Ezra during the descent. He had to steady the gambler on a couple of occasions but considering his injuries, Josiah thought Standish did very well. Vin and Chris stayed close to one another. When they got to the avalanche-detour path again, all but Vin dismounted and walked the horses. Josiah led his and Larabee's mounts, while Chris walked with Vin and Peso.

"Gentlemen, may I humbly request a short break?" Ezra asked about half-way across the goat path. Chris felt bad when he saw the effort it was taking the gambler to keep going. Standish was out of breath and unnaturally pale.

"Shit, Ezra, you coulda said somethin' sooner," Larabee shook his head, as he led the shorter man to a rock and sat him down.

It was about lunch time anyway, and none of the men had eaten a good meal since breakfast the day before. Josiah helped Vin dismount, and they stopped for about an hour to eat some jerky and drink some water. They had plenty of snow to melt for water, but their food supplies were running low.

"Ya feelin' better, Ez?" asked Vin, once they got some food and water in the con man.

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner, I am," replied Ezra.

"I hate to bring it up, Ezra, but you kinda owe me for a new gun," Vin smirked. His mare's leg and Chris' Colt had been confiscated by the Storm gang and thus buried in the avalanche that Ezra set off.

Ezra laughed, "I'll tell you what, Mr. Tanner. I will assist you and Mr. Larabee in making up a detailed expense report to be submitted to Judge Travis for restitution of the money to replace your fine weapons."

"Or we could just come back in a couple of months, once the snow melts," Chris smiled, "although they might be a little rusty by then." He did hate to lose his pearl-handled Colt, but he knew its loss paled in comparison to the loss of one of his men - one of his friends.

 

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In the afternoon, the men continued on to their original camp, at about 7,000 ft. in altitude. They were weary, but all made it of their own accord. Josiah unsaddled his horse, Ezra's and Vin's, and in the end Chris' as well. Larabee tried to do it himself but was getting so frustrated that Josiah decided to step in.

Chris walked towards where Vin and Ezra sat. He had been fine all the way down the mountain today, but all of a sudden he started to feel himself losing touch with the world around him. Josiah was saying something, but he couldn't hear it. Vin was motioning to him, but his vision was growing darker.

"Chris is going down," yelled Vin, seeing Larabee turn as pale as a sheet. Ezra was the closest and jumped up to slow Larabee's fall as best he could with his one good arm. Larabee's injuries were probably the least serious of the three, but the seven's leader was completely exhausted. He had not slept well since they left Four Corners, and when you couple that with the illness from earlier in the week, the broken ribs, and the gunshot wound, it simply became too much for Chris' body to handle.

Josiah brought over Larabee's bedroll, and he placed Chris on it hoping the blond would be able to sleep for a while.

Josiah remarked to the two concerned faces looking up at him, "Chris' heartbeat and breathin' are strong; he ain't bleedin' anywhere that I can see. I think he's just worn out."

Sanchez set up camp, and the three men ate some dinner. The wind was still strong, but not as bad as up in the higher elevations, and the temperature was warmer.

Chris never woke up that evening. Josiah, Vin, and Ezra turned in early as well. They were all relieved that they would be able to make it back to civilization sometime tomorrow.

 

Chapter 9:

Chris and Vin woke first the next morning, both feeling fairly well-rested and ready to head home. Ezra and Josiah joined them over the next couple of hours. Larabee was embarrassed about passing out the day before, but they all assured him that it was understandable.

"Mr. Larabee, there is absolutely no need to be ashamed," Ezra remarked.

"Really, Chris, it's ok to be human," said Vin, who added with a wink, "at least this one time."

The men stopped in to see Sheriff Ken on the way out of town, and he insisted on calling in the local doctor to check them out. The four people who showed up in his jail today barely resembled the strong, capable men he sent up in the mountains a few days earlier.

The doctor examined them all, re-cleaned wounds, and gave Ezra a proper sling. He was amazed that Standish was walking, much less riding, with an injury like his and no pain medications.

Vin and Chris both ran slight fevers from mild infections in their bullet wounds, but the doctor praised Josiah for doing a good job with so little supplies.

He tried to talk the men into staying a few days to allow themselves to recover, but they were all itching to get back to Four Corners.

The doc gave Josiah some teas to brew at night to help the injured men sleep better and wished him luck at getting the men to actually drink them.

 

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The four men dropped by the telegraph office in Denver and were given the wire that Nathan had sent a couple of days earlier. It said that Buck and JD were doing fine, and they hoped things were going well with the hunt.

Chris sent a short telegram back: Mission accomplished. STOP. Should be back in a few days. STOP.

Larabee, once again, made no mention of any of their injuries. Nathan would find that out soon enough.

They kept a slow and steady pace on the way home. Ezra's arm continued to throb and get jostled terribly on Chaucer, no matter how tightly he pulled his sling. The tea for pain was helping a bit, but the gambler had taken to adding some whiskey to the concoction for improved efficacy. Chris' and Vin's fevers were fairly high for a couple of days and then slowly started abating. Their healing wounds often broke open and bled through the bandages by the end of the day. Josiah was bone-tired; he was taking on the lion's share of the work: setting up camp, saddling/unsaddling horses, and doing his best to keep an eye on his friends and their injuries. He couldn't wait to turn them all over to Nathan and hide himself away in the church for a few days.

 

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On the afternoon of the 12th day on the road, the four weary travelers rode their mounts into Four Corners. Nathan, Buck, and JD came out to meet them. Buck finally recovered from his illness and was back to his normal carousing.

Nathan could see that the men clearly ran into trouble. Ezra's arm was in a sling, Vin and Chris's pallor looked decidedly unhealthy, and Josiah appeared exhausted.

"So, you put away the Storm gang?" questioned JD.

"Yeah, they're all dead," Chris answered.

"Now that sounds like an interestin' story," remarked Buck.

"Well, if you wanna hear it, you're gonna have to come up to my clinic 'cause that's where these four are goin'," Nathan interrupted.

"We got checked out by a doc on the way home," Chris informed the healer.

"And I suppose he said you were all just fine?" questioned Nathan. "I think I'd like to see that fer myself...if you don't mind."

 

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Once in the clinic, Nathan addressed Josiah, who the healer trusted most to tell him the truth, "alright, tell me what happened."

"Well, Ezra here single-handedly took out the entire Storm gang. Of course he also broke his arm and wrenched his neck in that avalanche he started," Josiah smiled at the reaction of Buck and JD, who eyes grew huge and shifted towards the gambler sitting on the bed.

Josiah continued, "I'm sure he's got a lot of other bumps and bruises under his clothes from tumbling down a mountain head over heels. He was out for a bit afterwards as well; not sure if that was from hitting his head or from the pain. Vin and Chris got shot by Storm's men: Vin in the thigh and Chris in the shoulder. Vin was made to march into their camp right after it happened and lost a lot of blood. He looked kinda gray for a few days, and he still has trouble walking any distance on that leg."

Nathan, JD, and Buck winced in sympathy at the injuries the men dealt with on the long journey home.

"Besides the shoulder wound, Chris come down with Buck and JD's cold on the second day of our trip, lost his voice for a while and coughed ever since. I think he also may have cracked a rib getting out of the way of the avalanche; been favoring his right side. Think that about sums it up."

Chris glared at the big preacher and followed with, "what Josiah failed to mention is that he damn near fell over a 500-foot cliff and has a number of cuts and bruises too."

Nathan sighed. He didn't really know where to start. "Alright, Josiah, Chris, Ezra – off with your shirts. Vin, you get in the bed 'cause you need to remove yer pants."

"Buck and JD, why don't you get them some food and something to drink," Nathan requested.

"Yeah, Buck, you know what kind of drink we would appreciate," Chris smiled.

"No way. Maybe later if you're all as healthy as you claim to be," glared Nathan.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Josiah's body bore a few bruises but mostly old cuts and scrapes. They were healed enough that Nathan didn't bother them. He re-bandaged the largest cut on Josiah's temple, and then let the preacher get dressed again.

Ezra and Chris' upper bodies were badly bruised. Both of them had clearly gotten knocked around violently during the avalanche. Nathan could see exactly where the rock stopped Chris' journey downhill. A large area on his right-side ribcage was a deep purple. He agreed that there was one maybe two cracked bones under the bruise, and proceeded to wrap Larabee's ribs. He felt around carefully on Ezra's bruised ribs as well but although they were sore, none seemed to be broken.

Ezra's left arm, however, was a different story. The broken bone in his forearm was set properly as far as Nathan could tell, but his arm and wrist were still swollen and tender. "That's likely from all that jostlin' around on your horse," Nathan guessed. The healer fashioned a more rigid splint to put within the sling and hoped that would help…..and he ordered no riding or patrols for Ezra for the next 3 weeks. "The only good news in all of this, "Ezra thought to himself. He always hated doing patrols, especially the early morning ones.

Buck and JD showed up with some grub, so Ezra was re-clothed and allowed to eat with Josiah. Nathan still needed to check out the two bullet wounds.

Nate believed both Vin and Chris still felt a bit warm, so he re-cleaned the wounds and applied fresh dressings. He could tell that the bandages had not been changed for a couple of days at least and both were covered with dried blood, again likely due to the bumpy ride re-opening the wounds.

"Vin, I'm gonna give you some crutches, and I want you to make sure you keep weight off of that leg for at least another week," Nathan ordered.

Chris' lungs still sounded a bit congested, but he thought Larabee would only have to suffer through another few days of coughing to clear it all out of there….IF he took it easy.

From their coloring, Nathan figured both Chris and Vin could use a good meal. So, he helped them into their clothing, and allowed them to partake in some of Inez's fine cuisine as well.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

After the men ate and started to head out to their respective locations, Nathan finished with, "next assignment - Buck, JD, Josiah and me are goin' and there ain't gonna be no arguments. You three," he continued as he pointed to Larabee, Tanner, and Standish, "have gotten yerself hurt, sick, or both on the last two trips. You didn't even put back on all the weight you lost last time, and now you're probably down at least another five pounds."

"I think Nathan just called them three sickly and scrawny, Buck," JD smiled.

"Sounds about right to me," Buck laughed and Chris rolled his eyes at the teasing peacekeepers.

"As I recall, Mr. Wilmington, " Ezra approached the taller man, "you were not exactly the picture of health yourself when we departed Four Corners two weeks ago."

"Yeah, and I seem to recall havin' to take a number of patrols for an ailin' JD as well," Vin slapped the seven's youngest across the top of the head, as he walked to the door of the clinic.

As the men made their way onto the deck outside of Nathan's clinic, Mary Travis was on her way up the stairs. "I heard about what happened," she started.

"Buck," Chris coughed, making sure the big ladies' man heard him. Buck must have run into Mary on his way to or from the saloon. Everyone knew how much Wilmington liked to tell exciting stories to captive female audiences.

"I'm glad the gang is taken care of but was sorry to hear that you gentlemen were injured," Mary continued. "I know this may not be the best time, but the judge sent a telegram for you, Chris. It sounds like there may be trouble."

All seven men sighed collectively. A dollar a day was not nearly enough…..

 

THE END

 


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