Disclaimer: I can’t think of a creative way to say that I don’t own them and am not profiting from this (doesn’t give you much hope for the story, does it?)
Comments: This is in response to a challenge on the Black and Buckskin list where Mother Nature steps in and spoils a long overdue vacation for the seven. Thanks again to LaraMee for her continued encouragement and support.
He was wrong. Horribly, desperately, tragically wrong. And now the men he treasured most would pay for his mistake. The tornadic winds bearing down upon them would tear the seven apart, literally and figuratively.
Vin burrowed down into the shallow creak bed, glancing anxiously at his companions who followed suit. It wasn’t enough. Could not possibly be enough if the widespread storm continued on its path and plowed over them. If Fate were kind, the black cloud would sweep him up and leave the others untouched. Nature’s winds could scatter him in pieces over this land he loved - better that than to lose just one of his friends. For to lose just one would surely break him apart more painfully than any physical force ever could. To lose just one would mean losing everything - because it would be his fault.
Over the past few months, the seven men had worked themselves to the point of exhaustion. An endless stream of bandits, outlaws, and random troublemakers had crossed their path, testing the seven’s skills, endurance, and patience. When Chris Larabee noted increasingly short tempers and incessant bickering among his men, he decided some "time off" might be in order. Originally, he’d suggested the men pair off, so as not to leave the town unprotected. However, when Judge Travis arrived in town unexpectedly, and several of Four Corner’s male citizens stepped forward to assist him, the boys were given the opportunity to spend a few days away concurrently. Chris suspected the whole thing had actually been a plot, probably hatched by Mary Travis, to give everyone a break from the seven bull-headed and recently less-than-hospitable peacekeepers.
In any case, the Larabee gang took the not-so-subtle hint, and to their leader’s surprise, determined they would ride off into the sunset for a few days of rest and relaxation together. He realized it was a testament to the bonds they had forged, the family they had become, that they chose to spend this time as a group.
The men had been working together for well over a year now, but this was the first time there were no criminals to chase after – or chasing after them. The first time no one needed rescued or mended. The first opportunity they had to enjoy each other’s company with no pressures attached; to celebrate the men they’d become and the friendships they’d embraced. Warm days were spent swimming and fishing, or leisurely riding along the scenic trails. In the evenings, they played cards while regaling each other with wild stories, laughter and whiskey flowing in abundance.
On the morning of the third day, Vin awoke first, as was his custom. By the heaviness in the air, he knew rain would hit by day’s end. When the others joined him for a light breakfast, he suggested they head back towards town, conditions being right for a decent spring storm. He didn’t figure there was a big hurry though, and so the men took their time packing up camp, all in high spirits after two days of peace and companionship.
They’d been riding several hours when the sky began to take on a noticeably strange hue. The hot, humid air now seemed to weigh down upon every living thing, subduing the men considerably. Naturally, they looked to their tracker for direction. They trusted Vin. Trusted him to read the signs that pointed to a trail they followed. Trusted him to watch their backs from the rooftops. Trusted him, in fact, with their very lives. And they trusted him now to tell them if ominous weathered threatened and they needed to take cover.
So when Vin looked up at the darkening sky and told his friends they’d have time to reach the shelter he led them towards, they didn’t question him. He’d bypassed a fairly protected over-hang, a second choice, to continue on to the more enclosed caverns a few miles ahead. But as the black, swirling cloud burst forth from the western horizon, he knew they’d never make it in time. Not to the shelter ahead, and not to the one they’d passed. He considered turning them all due south, to try to outrun the storm, or at least to escape its full force, but the shear width of the phenomenon made that possibility unlikely, as well. They’d have to go to the ground now, their best option being the creek bed they had casually followed. They let loose of their mounts, knowing the animals had a better chance of outrunning the storm or instinctively finding shelter on their own.
Vin pulled up from behind the boulder where he lay, and gasped at the frightening display of nature’s wrath. He had never seen anything like this. Never experienced any storm so enormous, so fast, and so furious. And he’d led his friends right into the middle of it. He’d never been so wrong.
Chris hunkered down next to Vin, near enough that he could hear the other man’s short, rapid breaths. They lay as close to the banks of the rocky stream as possible, just barely touching the cool water’s edge. Peering behind him, the gunman noted that the others had naturally paired off.
Buck and JD lay several yards downstream from him and Vin. Buck nearly covered JD with his long body, and in the eerie stillness, Chris could just barely make out the kid’s soft protests.
Several feet beyond them, Josiah had taken almost the exact same position with Ezra. Larabee knew the big man probably had some insane hope of keeping the lighter con man from blowing away – just as Buck hoped to protect JD. In reality, they all knew it wouldn’t matter. A twister that could scatter a barn for miles, was no match for a man – no matter his size.
Nathan brought up the rear, and the leader could imagine him thinking that, by taking that position, he could somehow save them all. If the wind per chance picked up one of his friends, he would magically reach up and snatch them from its evil clutches – just as he’d managed to snatch them from the jaws of death so many other times. Even from a distance and in the increasing darkness, Chris could see the look of determination in the dark-skinned man’s eyes. Nathan had to be all right, so that he could take care of the others.
Chris turned then to his partner beside him. Vin had stuck his head up, and the blond could see the look of horror etched on his handsome features. He had never seen his friend afraid – not in the countless battles they’d fought together. He knew the man did not fear death, but he was terrified now. As Larabee reached up to pull the lean tracker back to the ground, Vin turned his eyes to him in shock. The gunman suddenly understood the rational behind his friend’s fear – he blamed himself.
He wanted to tell Tanner this was not his fault. He even opened his mouth to say the words, but he found himself unable to speak them. He had counted on Vin. They had all counted on Vin.
In the end, it didn’t matter anyway. Had he spoken, the Texan could not have heard him, for soon an impossibly loud, roaring sound filled the air. Blackness enveloped them, and the heavy stillness seemed to briefly stop time. All hell broke loose then, as rain and hail and dirt and pebbles pelted the earth like hard driven nails. Destructive winds swirled and sucked and carried off all in their path - shrubs, trees, animals, and men. The deafening sound and darkness, wind and rain encompassed all for miles and seemed to last forever, yet it was over in minutes, as it claimed its unpredictable path and veered off to the northeast.
Although the black funnel had lifted, heavy rain remained. One man rose from the muddy ground and strained to see through the downpour, gasping at the destruction that surrounded him. Tall, proud trees that had once lined the picturesque little stream now lay in a jumbled array of twisted limbs, branches and roots. None remained – not a tree or shrub left standing for as far as he could see. Nathan grunted as he noted the ache in his leg. Something had hit him there, but he was otherwise unhurt. He prayed the others had faired as well.
As he peered into the rain, he realized in sudden panic that he couldn’t see any of the other men. Surely the storm could not have carried them all off and left just him? Hearing a soft, low moan coming from several yards behind him, he turned to see a man struggling to stand. Hadn’t they all been in front of him? Was he turned around, or had the storm lifted one of them and carried him downstream? He headed for his friend, and as the rain finally slacked off, he made out the unmistakable form of Vin. The tracker limped heavily, and held his left arm tightly against his side. The left side of his face was scraped raw and had already begun to turn purple along his cheekbone and temple.
Nathan splashed through the shallow water to aid the injured man, but was abruptly shoved aside.
"See t’ the others. I’m fine," the tracker mumbled. Where was Chris? Wasn’t he beside him? Vin remembered being tossed through air like a rag doll, and landing heavily on his left side. He had no idea how far he’d gone, or what had happened to the man next to him.
Groaning in pain from injuries he refused to acknowledge, he scrambled up the bank onto the surrounding land. In a state of clear panic now, he searched desperately for Chris, for any of the other men.
Within minutes, the rain slowed to a mere mist and the sky lightened. Vin saw the gunman then, lying flat on his back not far from where he himself had landed, although Chris had hit land as opposed to the creek. The anguished tracker called out to Nathan for help, and was surprised to find the healer right beside him. Leaning over the blond, Jackson felt for a pulse and, after a brief check for further injuries, rose to move on.
Tanner grabbed the ex-slave by the arm, "Where are you goin’? What about Chris?"
"He’s breathin’, Vin. And from what I can see, there ain’t nothin’ I can do for him right now, except wait for him to wake up. I can’t say the same for the others. Don’t even know where they are. They could be bleedin’ or suffocatin’ or drownin’ for all I know. I gotta find them."
Of course. What had he been thinking? With a brief look at his best friend, Vin followed after Nathan, as quickly as he could manage. His leg pained him something fierce, but he ignored it as he slid back down into the narrow stream. Piles of debris littered the rocky bed, and he almost wept with relief when he saw movement from one of them.
Nathan saw the signs of life, as well, and rushed to assist his trapped companions. Lifting a large tree branch and several smaller ones, he was able to free Josiah’s upper body. Vin rushed to help him, and soon the older man’s entire body was freed. The preacher started to turn himself onto his back, nearly forgetting the smaller man who lay beneath him.
"Hold on, Josiah," Nathan cautioned. "Roll this way so you don’t crush Ezra."
The preacher did as he was told, barely managing to stifle a scream at the jarring of his legs. His right one was broken, he had no doubt, and he cursed inwardly at that. He’d be of little help to Nathan this time around. He managed a small smile as he grumbled, "Getting too old for this."
Nathan shook his head as he carefully climbed over his friend to reach the far too still body of the gambler. "You and me both," he replied.
Vin had managed to climb onto a fallen branch that lay on the other side of Ezra and had gently begun to turn him over with his good arm. So far, he’d been able to hide his injured arm from Nathan, and he intended to keep it that way. Nathan had enough to worry about - more than enough. He tried to focus all of his concern on the gambler, pushing aside for the moment the nagging worry that, as of yet, they had not heard from, or seen a trace of, Buck and JD.
Nathan reached down to help Vin turn the gambler face up. The man had been lying face down in the creek bed, and Jackson worried that he could have suffocated in the thick, wet dirt. As he gently pulled mud from the unresponsive man’s nose and mouth, Ezra gasped sharply, then coughed harshly while attempting to pull air into his deprived lungs. Standish sat up suddenly and gasped again as he clutched his chest. Nathan wasn’t sure if the sound came from the pain of broken ribs, or the pain of seeing himself completely covered in mud. Either way, the healer breathed a sigh of relief. Four accounted for – injured, but alive. He cautioned Ezra to stay put as he continued on to search for the missing pair.
"I assure you . . . I have no intention of moving . . . at the moment," Standish responded weakly as he lowered his head back onto the soft ground.
Vin moved ahead to where he thought the missing pair should be. The broken birches and pines nearly obliterated the stream in places, and he had trouble recognizing the exact location where Buck and JD had gone down. Of course, they could have been blown downstream like he and Chris had been. Vin pushed that thought aside – they could be anywhere, trapped anywhere, if that were the case.
He began throwing aside limbs in desperation, praying for a sign of their whereabouts. He stopped for a moment when he thought he heard something and listened intently. Nathan had joined him and they shared a look – he had heard it, as well. As they hurried to remove more of the debris, the sound became stronger, and they soon recognized JD’s soft voice calling for help. Time stretched on interminably until they finally got a glimpse of their friends’ bodies. Blood soaked JD’s shirt and Buck’s head, leaving Vin with a sick feeling in his stomach. They had to be all right, he couldn’t believe otherwise.
Nathan freed up JD and found he had a nasty bleeding wound on his back. But the kid was able to ask, "Is Buck all right?"
"I’ll get to him in a minute, JD. Let me get this bleeding stopped." The healer tore up his own shirt into bandages, thankful that he still wore long johns in the early spring. He pressed against the gaping hole in JD’s back, trying to block out the young man’s agonizing moans.
Next he turned to Buck. The man was deeply unconscious, but he passed the most important test – he continued to breathe. Nathan wrapped another strip of cloth around the ugly wound on the back of the lanky man’s head, wondering vaguely what had happened to Tanner.
Vin had climbed back up onto the banks, trying and failing to calm his emotions. All of them alive, but all of them down - all except for him and Nathan. Oh God, why couldn’t it just have taken him and been done with it?
The nausea that had been slowly creeping up on Vin took him by full force. He stumbled ahead to kneel down behind a large boulder and empty his stomach in privacy, trying to hide the sounds of his sickness from Nathan. He groaned as he wiped a hand across his mouth. He wasn’t even sure anymore what hurt and what didn’t. But it didn’t matter anyway. It couldn’t matter – he couldn’t matter, because he was the only one left standing to help.
Limping back to where the healer still bent over Buck, he was startled when Nathan rose suddenly and gripped him by the arm.
"Where the hell did you take off to?"
Vin instinctively shrugged off the dark hand, but didn’t answer.
Jackson bellowed, "I need you here! You’re all I got right now. We sure as hell ain’t leaving these men lying in the mud and I can’t lift them by myself."
Vin looked down and nodded slightly.
Nathan’s fear and frustration continued to pour out on the silent tracker. "And you ain’t gonna be any use at all if you don’t let me splint that arm. Now get me a decent piece of wood – Lord knows we’ve got enough to choose from – and get yer jacket off."
Nathan couldn’t believe he’d spoken to Vin like that. He surely didn’t deserve it. Or did he? Had he not lead them out in the open, to relatively flat land, they wouldn’t be in this mess. Had they stayed up in the hills, had they reached the shelter, had they started later – or earlier. Nathan remembered telling Vin that every once in awhile, a man could be wrong. This time, though, the consequences of being wrong were just too overwhelming.
When Nathan finally got a look at Vin’s arm, he was relieved to find it was simple break of the smaller bone in his forearm. He swiftly snapped the bone into place and wrapped the crude splint with strips from the tracker’s shirt. Vin had clamped his jaws tightly, but made no sound. Afterwards, the color drained from his face, and Nathan winced as the man wretched violently. But Vin recovered quickly and soon joined Nathan back in the creek bed.
"I can get Josiah. You see if you can get Ezra," Jackson instructed.
With a loud groan, Josiah raised himself up onto his good leg and wrapped an arm around his tall friend’s shoulders. Slowly and painfully, they inched their way up the bank and onto the grassy area where Chris still lay.
Nathan noted that the gunslinger had begun to stir as he settled the big preacher on the ground next to him. He made a move to check on their leader just as Vin approached with Ezra. Jackson could see that Tanner struggled mightily with the gambler, who leaned heavily against him and wheezed with each labored breath. How would he do this? All three needing him, and two more in the creek. Lord, how would he do this?
Vin carefully eased the wounded man to the ground, biting his lip to hold back the pain from his own injuries. Damn leg wanted to give him fits, but he had two more men waiting. After making sure Ezra was as comfortable as possible, and stealing a quick glance at Chris, he turned back into the stream for another round.
It would take them both to get Buck up. Nathan took his upper body, leaving the lighter half for Vin. Being tall and lean, Buck was not heavy so much as awkward – his long limbs spilling out in all directions as the two men struggled to get him onto land. This time, Vin did cry out in pain as fire lanced through his broken arm from the weight of Wilmington’s legs. Long moments later, the rogue lay next to Ezra - far too still for anyone’s comfort.
Vin went back for JD, who was weak from blood loss, but lucid enough to despair over the condition of his best friend. As the young man threw his arm around Vin’s shoulders and tried to carry at least some of his own weight up the banks, he asked repeatedly, "Is Buck gonna be okay? He was breathing, right? Everybody’s gonna be okay, right?"
Nathan tried to reassure him as he settled in on the ground next to the others. "Yeah, we’re all gonna be fine." But Vin saw the doubt in his deep brown eyes.
Five wounded men now lay stretched out on the wet grass. Bloody, bruised, and broken – and Vin had to take a deep breath to hold back the sickness that threatened again. He and Nathan looked at their surroundings. They had nothing. No shelter, no horses, no supplies, no food.
Both men came to the same conclusion at the same time. Nathan would have to stay with the injured and Vin would have to go for help. The healer caught his breath for a moment and took a good look at the man who represented their only hope. Sweat ran in a slow stream down the tracker’s abused face. He continued to hold his left arm close to his chest, and Jackson wondered guiltily if he shouldn’t have checked the man’s ribs. The limp had become more pronounced, and he hadn’t had time to look at that, either. It occurred to him suddenly that he hadn’t checked because he didn’t want to know. He needed Vin too badly to allow him to be hurt.
With a weary sigh, Nathan knelt beside the tracker as he filled his canteen with water. "Let me take a look at you, Vin."
Vin shook his head as he stood. "No time," he said shortly.
Nathan grabbed his arm and said, "Vin . . ."
"Ain’t gonna matter anyway, Nathan. You don’t have any supplies. And if you did . . ." he motioned towards the men on the ground. Nathan heard the uncharacteristic self-doubt in the young man’s voice as he continued, "Horses might come back here. Might go on t’ town. I’d go after ‘em, but I’m not sure which way they went. Ground’s too stirred up for me t’ track ‘em. Reckon the best thing would be fer me t’ head towards town."
"That’s a good ten miles." Nathan shook his head as he added softly, "You’ll never make it that far."
Vin figured it was closer to fifteen, but he didn’t argue the fact. "Reckon there ain’t much of a choice." He paused before pointing out the only bright spot, "You got water and you can build a fire if you need to." He swallowed as he took one last, longing look at his friends. "I’ll be back as soon as I can."
Now would be the time to say he was sorry. But Vin couldn’t bring himself to speak the apology. It wasn’t enough, and it felt shallow and worthless. His only chance for redemption lay in his ability to find help for his friends. They would never trust him again, but maybe, if he made it in time, they would forgive him.
Now would be the time the to tell him not to eat himself up over this. But the words stuck in Nathan’s throat. Although he knew Vin would never do anything to hurt his friends, they were hurting now, and badly. They’d trusted their tracker, and no matter how the healer looked at it, Vin had let them down. Later, he hoped he’d be able to sort it all out and see it differently, but right now, his burdens were just too great.
So with a light handshake and a nod of the head, Vin set off. Nathan watched his slow, arduous progress until it became too painful to do so, and he turned away – from one hopeless situation, to another.