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A Home for Better Men, PG, 1/2, GEN

Title: A Home for Better Men
Author: gaelicspirit
Genre: GEN
Characters: Kid,Ike, Jimmy, Cody
Rating: PG
Spoilers: Takes place after The Young Riders Season 1, episode 8, False Colors
Summary: Returning from a special delivery ride, Kid and Ike are attacked by a mountain lion, leaving the Kid grievously wounded. Ike returns to get Jimmy's help, leaving the station short several riders. Meanwhile, to pick up the slack, Cody embarks on what becomes the longest ride of his life.
Disclaimer: They're not mine. More's the pity.


a/n: If you're familiar with my name, you know I'm mainly a Supernatural fanfic writer. This is, so far, the only fic I've written outside of that fandom. I feel like I grew up with these Pony Express characters, and about a year ago when I was in a bit of a turmoil with some of the SPN fandom, I retreated to this series and created this fic to ground myself a bit. Through some prompting, I submitted this story to the Brotherhood gen zine, and it was printed this time last year; it also received an 'Honorable Mention' in the MediaWest FanQ awards.


If you choose to read, I hope you enjoy and would love to hear what you think. For you Supernatural readers, I am mid-way through finishing the first chapter of Desolation Angels. Real Life has been a bit... hinky of late. Thanks for your patience!


Things I've done and where I've been…
Scared to death, no reason why
Do whatever to get me by,
Think about the things I've said
Read the page it’s cold and dead…



-- "Don't Follow" by Alice in Chains


Ike McSwain had made watching people an art form in the years since the fever took his voice. Watching their eyes, their hands, the set of their jaw. More often than not, he knew what they were thinking before they did, he was just never able to tell them. If it hadn't been for Buck Cross, Ike knew he would have been trapped inside himself, away from the world, his observations going unnoticed until insanity ruled his life.

Being sent on the dual run with Kid had been an honor and a sacrifice. Marshal Sam Cain had said he needed two of the Pony Express' fastest. Teaspoon hadn't hesitated when he'd called Kid and Ike forward, telling them to mount up.

Ike had been secretly thrilled to be entrusted with the sensitive materials in the Army satchel, but taking the trip without Buck left him without his voice, without the dark eyes that watched him as closely as Ike watched all others, without a way to be heard. Kid tried—they all tried—but talking to them was like whispering in the dark. They could barely hear, and they couldn't see.

The ride to Fort Laramie from the Sweetwater Station had been long and arduous. Ike and Kid had ridden their mounts hard, bodies bent forward across the saddle horn, dust coating their faces and scratching at eyes narrowed against the wind. The sun had dried their lips and burned their cheeks and the backs of their hands. They stopped only to water the horses and relieve themselves, words useless between them, and rode on.

Kid had left Katie at the station, unwilling to risk her, knowing she could never make it there and back in the amount of time they'd been given to perform this duty. Ike didn't blame him. He had learned from Buck that souls connected—be it man or beast.

Ike had thought he'd never see anyone as alone as he'd once felt until he met Kid. The only time the taciturn rider relaxed was around that Paint. For Kid, protecting Katie was akin to protecting himself. After weeks of working side by side with Kid they didn't even know his real name.

Standing behind and to the left of Kid as they waited in the sheriff's office for confirmation that all of the contents of the Army satchel were accounted for, Ike watched his friend closely. Kid stared a knot in the worn wooden floor, a muscle in his cheek dancing across his jaw. Ike knew the loss of his brother, Jed, the week before from a botched bank robbery attempt weighed on the rider's already heavy heart. Kid hadn't talked about it since Teaspoon Hunter and Emma Shannon helped him bury Jed.

And he hadn't looked at Jimmy Hickok, Ike realized, who shot Jed to save the Kid's life. He hadn't looked directly at any of them. It was like watching someone fold in on themselves, one layer at a time. Even the silence around Kid was cracking with the weight of loss.

"You boys." The sheriff's whiskey-smooth voice blasted into the space between Ike and Kid, startling them both. "You done good here. We got what we need."

The boys lifted their heads to regard the sheriff and the quiet captain in blue standing just behind him, holding the satchel.

"Thank you, Sheriff," Kid's soft Virginia drawl replied for both of them. "If you don't mind, we'll be heading back."

"Long ride, boy," the sheriff frowned. "Want to take a meal? Got us a fine saloon—"

"No, sir," Kid answered, not glancing back at Ike. "We'd just as soon get on back."

He nodded at the sheriff, tipping a finger to the soft, wide brim of his rounded brown hat, and backed up a step, his shoulders asking Ike to lead the way out.

Ike nodded to the sheriff as well, before turning, pushing the door open and exiting into the coppery, mid-afternoon light.

"Sorry, Ike," Kid said softly as he rounded his horse, pulling the black muzzle up from the water trough and flicking the reins around the underside of its neck. "I know you're tired, but…."

Ike swung up smoothly onto the back of his pinto, his weary backside whimpering as it made contact with the unyielding leather of the saddle. He waited until Kid glanced his way, then shrugged, making sure the motion was caught by his friend.

I want to go home, too….

"We'll be back in Sweetwater by nightfall, if we ride hard," Kid muttered, turning his mount in the direction they'd come, the fringes of his buckskin shirt swaying with the motion.

Ike watched the curve of his back as Kid kicked his horse into a lope. He felt for the horse, knowing it carried more than just the slim body of a Pony Express rider.

It carried the silence of sorrow.

***

"Rider comin'."

It was a familiar call, one that Jimmy Hickok usually met with rueful anticipation. But today, he was tired. In fact, he'd been tired for the last several days. He sat at the rough-hewn bunkhouse table, his Colt on his lap, fingers running restlessly over the barrel, imagining he could still feel its heat as he had when he'd last holstered it. After he shot Jed. After he had watched Kid gather his brother's body helplessly into his lap.

Jimmy had fired his gun with deadly intent before—several times, in fact. Enough to have earned him a reputation as a gunslinger even at this young age. He knew drawing his gun could mean someone's death—his or the man facing him. But he'd never smelled the acrid odor of gunpowder days after firing the Colt. He'd never before felt the pain that the sound of Kid sobbing his brother's name had cut across his heart.

Jimmy knew with everything inside of him Jed would have killed Kid to get away. He knew, because he and Jed weren't all that different. There had been a frighteningly familiar restlessness captured in the blue eyes of the Virginian. Jimmy had been on alert since the moment Kid introduced the man as kin. He had subliminally circled Jed with the wariness of a pack animal whose territory is threatened.

While he didn't always understand Kid, he was a friend. And in Jimmy's world, that made him family, closer than blood, more vital than breath. Jimmy closed his eyes, curling fingers, calloused and worn from years of holding reins and guns, around the barrel of the Colt, wishing he'd just had more time that day. He always wanted more time….

Raised voices pulled his eyes open, tugging his chin around to the closed door of the empty bunkhouse. Rising, he holstered his gun and crossed to the door, pulling up the wooded brace free of the notch that held it closed. Stepping out onto the bunkhouse porch, he saw Lou McCloud's small frame holding the reins of a lathered horse, Emma crouched low, offering water from a tin cup to a figure on the ground. Buck and William F. Cody huddled close, eyes trained on their staion master, Teaspoon.

Jimmy crossed to join his friends in three quick strides.

"Easy, easy there," Emma crooned. "Small sips, Nate, that's it."

Jimmy's eyes shot from Teaspoon to the boy in Emma's arms.

"Nate Jergenson?"

Buck straightened, looking at Jimmy, his dark eyes unreadable. Jimmy always wondered how he and Ike seemed to share a brain; he could never tell what the Kiowa was thinking.

"He just came from Hicks' station," Buck said. "Someone burned it down."

"What!" Jimmy looked over at Teaspoon, instantly alert, on edge.

Teaspoon's face was grim, his chin resting on his chest, thumbs hooked in his pink suspenders. Jimmy knew that when a man who had survived the biggest massacre in American history—one that had even claimed Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett—looked worried, he was a fool not to join him.

"They were looking for something," Teaspoon’s thick voice growled.

"The Army satchel?" Cody guessed, crouching next to Emma, helping to support Nate.

Jimmy saw the boy was pale and trembling, the water beginning to revive him. Blood trickled from a laceration beneath his head of red curls. Nate was one of the Pony Express' youngest riders. Jimmy felt the heat of his blood, the chill in his fingers, the hairs on the back of his neck stand up at the thought of someone hurting one of the riders. One of his riders.

"I expect," Teaspoon nodded.

"We haven't heard from Kid and Ike," Lou said, her voice a forced growl to mask both her gender and her worry. "What if they got—"

"There you go, jumping to conclusions again," Jimmy snapped.

"I'm just saying we don't know—"

"That's right," Jimmy shifted his weight from his gun leg to his free one, looking from Emma to Teaspoon. "We don't know. We need to take care of Nate, then get someone back to Hicks' to check on them."

Teaspoon regarded him for a moment, his puckered eye giving him a suspicious countenance. "You volunteering?"

"Sure," Jimmy nodded.

"I'll go, too," Buck spoke up.

"Now, wait a minute," Emma said, helping Nate to a wobbly stance. "We have a station to run, mail to get out, and we're short riders with Kid and Ike gone."

Jimmy looked at her, watching as her pale green eyes swept each of them, weighing her next words. He knew that even if they protested, each one of them would kill themselves to do her bidding. She turned to Teaspoon and as Jimmy watched, an entire conversation passed between them.

"Lou," Teaspoon barked, "you and Buck check out Hicks'. Stop to see Sam on your way, let him know what's happened. Jimmy, you stay here. We need your gun. Cody, you're up."

"Anyone think we should ride out to check on Kid and Ike?" Cody asked.

"They're fine until we know otherwise," Emma said, her voice a controlled calm. "Mr. Spoon, help Nate inside?"

Teaspoon worked his mouth as if to argue, but nodded. He looked at Buck, then at Lou. "You boys be careful," he said seriously. He shifted his glance to take in Cody. "Ride hard, Cody. Keep low, keep safe."

Jimmy watched Cody's wide, maniacal smile spread quickly across his face as he tugged on the brim of his hat, before turning to the corral. Jimmy felt a tightening in his belly as he watched each one ready their mounts, preparing to leave.

Look at me…

He would never let them know. He would never show he needed it. Needed them. He rested his hand on the butt of his Colt to keep from reaching out and clasping Lou's shoulder as she passed, waving to Buck, or checking Cody's cinch. He stood, still, stoic, empty-eyed and ready for trouble.

Because trouble knew where to find him.

***

Eager to reach home before nightfall, Kid led them toward a shortcut Cody had told him about. Ike followed, watching as Kid unconsciously rolled his neck or straightened his back to relieve the aches beat into his body. Ike felt the same aches—he felt gritty and dense, like he'd been rolled in salt and set out in the sun to dry. Long ago, he'd shoved his hat off his head, letting it hang down his back by the stampede strings. He was contemplating pulling the red bandana from his bald head to let the sparse wind cool his skin.

"Keep close, Ike," Kid said suddenly, snapping Ike's wayward attention to his friend's back. "It's getting narrow here."

Ike nodded, though Kid couldn't see. He pulled his mount up abruptly, watching as Kid used his legs more than his reins to guide his horse across the rocky terrain and down the narrow footpath leading around a jagged outcropping in the low mountainside. To their left, the trail literally disappeared in a steep drop-off peppered by trees and rocks. To their right, the side of the mountain jutted out with arms of stone eager to knock them free of their mounts.

Ike waited until Kid had managed to get firmly on the trail, watching as he kicked his foot free of his right stirrup so that he could slide his leg back and out of the way, balancing the horse and ducking the rocks. Ike followed suit about five feet behind him.

"Some shortcut." Kid grumbled. "You didn't want to come this way, did you?"

Ike knew Kid didn't expect an answer, watching as he glanced quickly to his left, catching a glimpse of his friend's tense profile. Even from this distance he could see sorrow etching lines in Kid's face, continuing the path it had begun since Jed died. It's not your fault, you know….

"I haven't been much for company," Kid admitted. "Guess you woulda been happier if Buck took this ride, huh?"

People are always happier when they are heard.

"I don’t even know what I'm still doing here…." Kid grunted as he laid flat over the saddle, ducking to the side to avoid both the rock and the saddle horn. His horse stumbled slightly, before recovering.

You're with your family.

"I ran away so long ago…. I mean, long enough that Jed didn't even know—he didn't recognize me at first."

Ike tried to spur his mount closer, not wanting to miss a word, but the narrow path prevented it. He continued to ride low, watching Kid, the set of his shoulders, the balance of his body. The revealing timbre of his friend's voice pulled at Ike's patient heart.

"I don't belong at the station. Not now. Not after… Jimmy… what I made Jimmy do… dammit, Ike, it's all screwed up now, you know?"

You didn't make him; he did it to save you. He protected his family.

"I thought… for a minute there I thought I was home again. Jed, and you guys, and… now… I should just… I need to go. I need to—"

Hide… you want to hide. You want to go where no one knows you…

"Sorry," Kid finally muttered, tossing an unseeing glance over his shoulder. "Just tired, I guess."

Don’t run away, Kid. Don't leave us.

"Whoa, what's the matter, boy?" Kid, soothed his suddenly nervous mount.

Kid leaned forward. Ike could see his hand smoothing a pattern of calm down the horse's dark, sweaty neck. He was so intent watching Kid and keeping his mount on the trail in the gray light of early evening, he missed the shift of pebbles above them, the slight warning of attack. It was the smell that caught his attention. The feral smell of an animal intent on its prey. Ike shot his eyes up and saw the shadow of the beast as it kept pace with Kid and his horse.

Ike opened his mouth instinctively, cursing as his silence mocked him. He cast about for something—anything—that he could throw at Kid to catch his attention. One hand gripped the saddle horn to keep from tumbling over the edge, while the other scrambled for his rifle scabbard, pressed tight against the wall of the cliff.

His heart slammed against his ribs as his fingers closed around the stock of the rifle, climbing into the base of his throat as he tugged the weapon free. He felt fear and desperation smothering him as he watched the mountain lion pause, muscles rippling across its shoulders, joints bouncing in frightening repetition as it prepared to pounce.

Ike pulled the rifle up. Squeezing his upper thighs, he signaled his nervous mount to stop. The pinto danced in place, snorting and tossing its head, not liking this situation at all. Ike exhaled, pressed the stock of the rifle against his shoulder, aimed, and curved his finger over the trigger. He fired one second too late.

The mountain lion arched through the air, its body slamming into Kid, knocking him from his horse in an almost-silent tangle of fur, buckskin, and claws.

The horses screamed, lurching forward, desperate to get away. Ike grabbed at his reins and saddle horn, fearing there was no room for him to fall. Holding tight to his rifle, he kicked his left foot free of his stirrup, then with the grace born of a trick-rider, rolled off the back of the horse and landed on his knees in the middle of the dirt footpath.

Kid's scream of pain was echoed by the big cat's howl of rage. Ike pulled his rifle up, scrambling to the edge of the cliff, his eyes dancing across the landscape, searching for his friend. He found him quickly enough, about thirty feet down, wrestling the mountain lion, his pistol out, but useless against the superior strength and lethal claws of the animal. Ike blinked in surprise at the unbelievable sight of Kid's slim, buckskin-clad body keeping the sandy-colored beast at bay, curses streaming in an unending flow from his normally quiet mouth.

Holding his breath, Ike took aim again. Please… please don’t let me hit Kid….

He fired and heard the mountain lion yelp, then go silent. Lowering the rifle, Ike searched the growing darkness and saw no movement.

Oh, God, please….

Then he heard a grunt of exertion and saw the buff-colored body below him shift as Kid tried to climb out from beneath the heavy animal. Setting the rifle against a boulder, Ike began to gingerly make his way down.

"No!" Kid gasped, pain audible in his voice. "Ike, don't. I-I can see from here… it's too… steep… aww, God…." His voice choked off in a groan of anguish.

Ike ignored his friend's admonition and continued down the slope. Darkness collected at the edges of the canyon, spilling thickly into the area of trees and blocking any assistance the dying light of day might have offered his descent.

How bad… are you bleeding… are you hurt… did I let you down by not being able to warn you…?

He could say nothing, only try to maintain his tenuous grip on calm as he half-slid, half-climbed down to where he'd last seen Kid. He paused for a moment, listening, letting Kid's ragged, wet breathing pull him to the right. He was able to see him, finally. The body of the dead mountain lion was sprawled across Kid's legs; his back and shoulders were propped awkwardly against the rock that had stopped his fall.

I'm here, I'm here, it's okay….

"N-nice… sh-shot," Kid gasped as Ike reached him.

Ike nodded once, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, then reached down to grab the massive body of the animal and tug it off of Kid. He tried to ignore the sound of the claws as they scraped along the needles and dirt on the hillside.

Turning back to Kid, Ike began to inspect him with shaking hands. The questions he needed to ask slammed together against the edge of his mind, screaming in their inability to be heard. He could feel the warm, sticky wetness of blood along Kid's left shoulder. When he gently probed his side, he heard Kid moan as he stiffened slightly under his hands.

"Uhh… m-my sh-shoulder and… and head," Kid tried, telling Ike what he needed to know, what he couldn't ask. "And, uh… hurts… hurts to breathe…."

Ike pulled his bandana from his head, then snapped several strands of buckskin from Kid's buckskin shirt.

"Damn… m-my favorite shirt, too."

Your only shirt.

The war between sun and moon reached a resolution, and with the powerful heat gone, the silvery light from the near-full moon lit the hillside, dancing shadows across the body of the mountain lion and revealing the almost-black color of the blood spilling freely from Kid's head and shoulder. Ike swallowed, his eyes shifting to Kid's face, pale in the moonlight.

As he watched, Kid's gray-blue eyes slid slowly shut, and Ike felt a strange vibration slide through Kid's body, beneath his fingers. Panic slammed into him, and Ike shook his head vigorously, grabbing Kid's chin and pulling his face to him.

No… nononono… no, you can't. You stay. You stay here, with me.

"Tired," Kid admitted.

Ike shook his head again, tapping Kid's face lightly until his friend opened his eyes. He gripped Kid's chin roughly, forcing their eyes to meet, forcing Kid to look at him. Look at him for the first time in days.

You stay.

"Ike… I…."

Kid blinked, then looked around as if confused. He shifted against the boulder, crying out suddenly as the movement renewed the pain.

"O-okay, yeah, n-not a good idea," he whispered.

Ike nodded, then used his bandana and the strings from Kid's shirt to bind the slashes across his shoulder as best he could. Kid clenched his teeth shut, air puffing out through stiffened lips, his back arching up and away from the boulder as Ike worked. The cuts ran deep across the meat of his shoulder, down his bicep and into his chest. There was no way for Ike to completely bind the cuts; he decided the best course of action was to pad the worst of them.

This shirt is done for.

Tearing the slashed sleeve of Kid's buckskin shirt free, he manufactured a sling, pulling Kid's arm up against his chest and tying the material around his friend's neck.

"Gonna hafta… have Emma… make me a new… shirt," Kid wheezed.

Ike grinned and nodded, sweat from a combination of the humid night and fear rolling from his bald head and down his temple to collect at the base of his neck. He reached up, gently brushing Kid's brown hair from his forehead, looking for the source of the blood. It looked like the mountain lion hadn't caught more than his shoulder; the wound on Kid's head seemed to have occurred with his impact against the boulder.

"Horses?" Kid asked.

Ike shook his head.

"Dead?"

Ike shook his head again.

"Then we can find 'em," Kid swallowed, leaning his head back and wincing. "Gimme a sec… and I'll, uh…."

Ike frowned. There was no way Kid was climbing up that hill in this condition. Ike looked over his shoulder at the steep rise, then down past the boulder to the valley floor. Faintly, he could hear the sound of water. Either way they went, the trip could kill Kid. And Ike knew he wasn't strong enough to carry him alone—not after the ride they'd just completed.

He took a breath.

I have to leave you… I have to get help… how can I make you understand…?

"I know," Kid whispered.

Ike blinked, surprised.

"There's no way… no other way."

He stared at Kid for a moment, watching his friend's face, watching his eyes, seeing the resolution there, the understanding Ike might not make it back. That he might not make it.

"It's okay, Ike," Kid whispered, absolving him and thanking him in one breath.

Ike wiped his mouth again. He cast about the moonlit-covered ground until he found Kid's pistol, checked the rounds, then picked up Kid's limp right hand, and wrapped his fingers around the grip. Kid nodded once, his fingers trembling from pain, but Ike felt him hold the gun, felt his hand steady with the weight of the heavy steel.

Ike stood, moved over to the dead cat, grabbing the massive animal's front paws and pulling it upwind from Kid. He had nothing to bury it at the moment; it was all he could think to do to protect Kid from other animals that would come for the carcass.

He turned to Kid, meeting his friend's gentle, pain-laced eyes. I'll hurry… I swear to God, I'll hurry.

"Be careful," Kid breathed. "Don't… don't get lost out there."

Ike reached out and laid his fingers softly on the top of Kid's head, licking his lips, and yearning to say something—one thing—that would reassure the wounded boy. Kid tilted his head, leaning briefly into the touch as if accepting Ike's promise, then pulled away. With one backwards glance, Ike started the treacherous climb. When he reached the trail, he looked down at the shadowed figure of his friend, small and still in the distance.

You stay….

***

The powerful legs of the palomino ate up the miles between Emma's station and the next stop. Cody loved to ride. He loved the way the power of the animal beat into him, how his body cut through the air, how he couldn't be matched in speed or prowess when atop a horse. He knew his future lay in using these animals to keep him high, keep him strong.

Keep him bigger than he was on his own. He had to be big. He craved the attention as keenly as Jimmy craved respect, as Kid craved silence.

The rides were always hard, but he thrilled at that. He pulled his horse to a skidding, panting stop in the empty yard of the station, not noticing, at first, that there was no one to catch his reins, no one reaching for the pouch. He slid from the horse's back, stumbling slightly in the dirt as the feeling returned to his legs, bending at the waist and catching his breath.

The silence finally caught up with him. Standing, dust gathered into red lines at the corners of his bright blue eyes, the folds of his wide mouth, Cody looked around the empty yard, noting the three horses in the corral staring back at him in blank confusion.

"Hello!"

No welcoming call was returned.

"Johnson!"

One of the horses in the corral whickered. Cody grabbed the pouch from his saddle, slinging it over his shoulder. He pulled his rifle free, cocking it with deadly intent. Keeping his eyes on the move, checking for the shadow that would expose a threat, Cody advanced on the silent house. He pulled in a breath, holding it, tense as he stepped up to the front door.

It was ajar. Using the barrel of his rifle, he pushed the door further open, careful eyes surveying the empty room. Nothing looked out of place. He continued back through the main room to the kitchen, noting the pot of potatoes half-peeled sitting next to a wash bucket. The back door off the kitchen and leading to the bunkhouse was also open.

Dread began to build heavy in his gut, climbing to his heart with mercury fingers. As Cody made his way through the opened door of the kitchen, he saw the smear of blood on the doorframe.

"Dammit," he growled, lengthening his strides until he was pushing through the bunkhouse door.

The sight that met his eyes was not one he'd soon forget. Three riders lay dead in their bunks, bullet holes creating a third eye in their otherwise peaceful-looking faces. The station owner, a man who looked like he should have been a banker, not part of the Pony Express, lay face-up on the floor just inside the door, two large knife wounds on his chest having relieved him of his life blood.

"Shit," Cody breathed, covering his mouth with the back of his gloved hand. The bunkhouse had been ransacked. The killers had obviously been looking for something.

"How did they miss Emma's…" Cody muttered, fear for his friends’ lives suddenly flooding through him and erasing the dread with a clean sweep of panic.

He turned from the sight of death and hastened to the empty lot and his palomino. The only explanation he could think of was that there was more than one group searching for the Army satchel, and they weren't following the Pony Express route; they were hitting stations and riders at random.

Instinctively grabbing up the exhausted horse's reins, he reached for the pouch to fling over the saddle, then stopped. It was nearing evening. He'd been riding for hours, and the horse was beat. He would never make it back to Emma's before nightfall, and there was a job to do.

Tightening his gloved hand into a fist, Cody growled. There was nothing for it; he had to keep riding. He pulled his saddle from the horse's back, picked the strongest-looking mount in the corral, and fit the tack securely in place, adjusting the bit and bridle to fit the new horse's smaller head.

Pulling his gloves free, he wove the fringes into the mane of his palomino, then turned the horse back toward Emma's, knowing it had ridden the route enough, there was hope of it returning. If it came back to the station, rider-less, Cody knew someone would get the message and make their way to Johnson's and discover the bodies.

Filling his canteen from the pump in the yard, Cody swung aboard the brown gelding, settling his tender backside into the unrelenting seat of the saddle, and began what was to become the longest ride of his life.

***

Jimmy hated night.

He hated the twilight of evening almost as much, but the darkness that wrapped around the world, bringing things to life that had no business lurking, laying in wait for the protection of the sun to disappear brought with it a vulnerability of stolen sight that made Jimmy's skin crawl.

He sat in one of the wooden chairs outside the empty bunkhouse, a shotgun across his lap. Emma and Teaspoon were in the main house, feeding the rattled Nate. Buck and Lou hadn't returned from Hicks' station. Ike and Kid were… who knows where.

Jimmy could feel control slipping through his fingers as though he were gripping sand. He needed them back. Here. He needed to know where they were. And he hated that. He hated that need. It left him feeling open, as if he'd left his back exposed to a room full of people each with a sidearm on his hip.

He had stayed here too long. He'd gotten too close. But he couldn't leave. Not yet. They were all he had.

The horses in the corral warned him of the approaching rider. Whickering calls and shuffling legs were answered with a neigh and the rhythm of pounding hooves in the distance. It wasn't the thundering approach of an Express rider. It was more of a stumbling, exhausted, crawling for safety.

Jimmy was on his feet, stepping from the bunkhouse porch before he was even aware he was moving. The moonlight shone across the dirt lot, turning the brown of the dust to an almost silver-white, giving the world an oddly magical feel, if he were one to believe in magic.

Narrowing his brown eyes, he gripped the shotgun tighter, peering into the darkness. He recognized Ike's curved shoulders and bald head immediately.

"Ike!" He called, hurrying forward, eyes scanning the distance for Kid, who surely couldn't be far behind. "Took your sweet time, didn't ya?"

Ike reached for him, pulling at his shirt, grabbing his attention. He began to motion quickly.

"Whoa, wait, wait, you know I can't follow you. Where's Kid?"

Ike shook his head, gesturing once more, frantic.

"Okay, wait, I know this one…. Buck? Right?"

Ike nodded.

"Buck ain't here. He and Lou had to go back to Hicks' station."

Ike bounced his head in what Jimmy was willing to bet was a curse, then swung free of the horse, nearly falling when his legs failed to hold him.

"Hey!" Jimmy dropped the shotgun and reached out to catch the weary rider. "Easy, take it easy. Where's Kid?" He asked again.

Ike simply shook his head, leaning against Jimmy for a moment, then pulled himself upright and licked his lips. Jimmy saw a dark slash of blood on the back of Ike's hand. A streak on his shirt suggested there was more staining the fabric.

"Are you bleeding?" Jimmy asked, alarmed, reaching for his friend's shirt.

Ike shook his head vigorously, gesturing again.

Jimmy suddenly found himself wishing he weren't so damn good with a gun—then he'd be off with Lou and Buck would be here, knowing exactly what Ike was trying to tell him.

"Ike, man, slow down, okay? Let me get Teaspoon or—"

Ike gritted his teeth, grabbing the front of Jimmy's shirt, shaking him roughly.

Jimmy flinched back; no matter the reason, he didn't like to be touched, and he certainly didn't like to be handled. His muscles tightened and he took a step away from Ike, pushing the boy's hands free of his shirt and tilting his head to regard his friend from the corner of his eyes.

"You better have a damn good—"

The shrill call of a horse in the corral caught their attention. Ike and Jimmy shot a look over to the distinct image of Katie, nose over the fence, head tossing, agitated.

Pointing to Katie, Ike pulled at his bloody shirt.

"What… that's… that's Kid's blood?" Jimmy asked. "Kid's hurt?"

Ike nodded, seeming to sag a bit.

"Where? Where is he?"

Ike pointed behind him.

"Far?"

Ike nodded, wobbling his hand slightly.

"Can you take me to him?"

Ike nodded, leaning over, hands on his knees, pulling in air, visibly weak with relief.

"C'mon," Jimmy pulled the reins from the weary horse, leading it toward the corral. "We need to get you some food and water."

Ike shook his head, tugging on Jimmy's shirt, pointing back the way he came.

"Listen, I know, but it's dark out, okay?" Jimmy snapped. "You pass out on me, there's no way I'm finding Kid by myself."

Ike rubbed a hand over his face, nodding reluctantly, then headed toward the house as Jimmy unsaddled the horse. He didn't know what had happened to the second mount, but that was the least of his concerns. The man whose brother he'd killed lay out in the darkness, bleeding badly enough that he hadn't been able to return.

Grabbing the halter of a bay gelding, Jimmy led him toward the gate and lifted Ike's saddle to the horse's back. Cinching the girth, he reached for the bridle, his arm bumped impatiently by a familiar white muzzle. Jimmy licked his lips, looking at Katie's soft, mis-matched eyes in the moonlight.

"Yeah, you're comin'," he whispered. "We'll bring him home together."

***

The owl startled him awake. At least, he hoped it was an owl. The night held a cacophony of sounds unmatched in the light of day. Black eating black around him, he blinked wide eyes, trying to see the source of the sound.

It took Kid a moment to remember why he was outside, gun in hand, propped against a rock. He felt his jaw tremble with cold and instinctively shifted to relieve the numbness in his legs, suppressing a sharp cry of surprised pain when even that brief movement sliced heat through his shoulder and chest, bouncing up into his head.

Important delivery… shortcut… mountain lion… Jed….

No, wait. Jed hadn't been there. It was Ike. Kid looked down at his shoulder, and saw Ike's red bandana, soaked through with blood, was pressed to a deep slash on his exposed skin.

"Okay, okay," he whispered to himself, needing the sound of his voice. "Ike's gonna bring help. Not too much longer now."

The screech that had awakened him from a feverish slumber echoed through the night once more, ending in a yip and a bark.

"D-definitely not an owl," Kid muttered, shivering. He looked to where Ike had dragged the lion, watching it closely. Did it just… move?

Kid blinked, tightening his grip on the pistol in his hand, shivering again, and rolled his lips against his teeth, trying to keep himself from whimpering aloud. He stared, hard, at the slash of buff-colored fur visible in the moonlight, trying to decide if his eyes were playing tricks on him or if—

There. Just there. The body rocked, jerking.

For a moment, Kid's heart fluttered in his chest, as nightmarish images of the lion slamming into him, rolling down the hill, replayed across his mind. Then he realized with a cold plummet of his heart, that the lion wasn't moving of its own accord. He heard the snarl and snuff of the coyotes as they circled the carcass.

"Son of a bitch," Kid whispered, knowing he couldn't stay here, but unsure if he could move.

Swallowing hard, Kid took a steadying breath, then carefully moved around the side of the boulder, away from the coyotes. His ribs protested loudly, his head pounded, but he managed to make it to the lee of the rock, his legs facing downward.

Not far enough….

Slowly, achingly slowly, Kid moved his battered body down the hillside until he reached the base of another tree. Panting, he leaned against the bark, sucking in breath and trembling as it stabbed him from the inside out.

"Hey, Jed, 'member that night," Kid whispered through rapidly numbing lips, his brother as close to him as the darkness in this moment. "That' n-night when the gambler stopped by the h-house… and mama… mama let him come in and eat? Pa got… got so mad…."

Kid rolled his head against the tree, his body shaking violently as he tried to find a position that didn't put pressure on his battered ribs.

"You yelled at him, and… aww, damn… damn, this hurts, Jed. Can't… can't rightly breathe…."

Kid turned, looking for Jed, wondering why he'd left. Hadn't he just been there? You forget how he beat us? Beat Mama?

"I-I did forget… for a little while. Y-you left, Jed. You were gone… and then everyone was gone…. I h-had… had to find somewhere… somewhere that was home…."

He turned to his right, but Jed wasn't there, either. The night was. And the snarls of the coyotes as they feasted on the carcass of the mountain lion. Kid pulled in a shallow breath, listening, shivering, weighing his options. He could hear water below him. If he could get to the water, he might be able to….

He shifted again and teetered off-balance, sliding away from his tenuous perch of safety and started to tumble down the precipice.

Gasping, he lost his pistol, reaching for something to stop his slide, slow his rapid descent. His legs caught on debris, his shoulder hit a sapling. Fire, white-hot in its intensity, burst through him, echoing behind his eyes, slamming the air from him and sending him into darkness.

***

There's riding hard, and then there's riding hard….

Cody's legs were numb. His lungs were bruised, his eyes bled tears stolen by the wind. His fingers ached from gripping the reins without the protection of his leather gloves. With each stride he heard the air beat through the nostrils of the winded horse. Shnuph, shnuph, shnuph…. The horse was giving all he had, and then some.

The next station on the route was ablaze when Cody approached, so he continued to ride, not even pausing to check for survivors, or a spare mount. He could tell by the smell there wasn't much left. And someone had to get to a town, get the mail through, get the station operator’s help.

The darkness masked dips in the ground and hid deadly snake holes, but somehow they'd miraculously avoided broken legs and spills. He had been riding hard for nearly twelve hours now, and his body was crawling toward its limit. As they reached Miller's station, Cody felt his shoulders bow with relief.

He pulled to a stop. Hank Miller's hulking form greeted him with surprise.

"Cody? What the hell you doing out this way?"

"Long story," Cody panted, trying to figure out how to gracefully dismount and not end up as a pile of muscle and sinew at Hank's feet. He kicked his feet free of the stirrups, leaned forward, then swung his right leg free, sliding to the ground and gripping the saddle while the blood returned to his legs. "Where's the rider, Hank?"

"Ain't no rider," Hank shook his head helplessly. "There was a fire over at the livery in Cedar Wells. They all went to help."

"All of 'em?" Cody's voice cracked with disbelief. "No one stayed?"

"Weren't expecting you this soon!"

Releasing the saddle, Cody took an unsteady step to the side. "Someone's attacking stations, Hank," he said, licking his dry lips, gratefully accepting the canteen of water Hank handed him. "Killing riders, station masters, burning down bunkhouses…."

"What! Why?"

"Think it has to do with a delivery two of our riders made to Fort Laramie, uh… yesterday," Cody blinked. Yesterday? Earlier? He'd lost all sense of time.

"We gotta get word out," Hank breathed.

Tell me something I don't know….

"I gotta deliver this pouch," Cody said.

"You're dead on your feet, boy," Hank shook his head.

Cody lifted an eyebrow. "You got a better idea?"

Hank stared at him silently, then turned toward his corral. "Go get you some water and food," he said over his shoulder. "I'll get a fresh mount."

"Take care of that one," Cody patted his horse's sweaty neck before limping toward the house. "He's taken care of me."

He rubbed his face tiredly. At this rate, I'll get to see California by tomorrow….

Part 2 located here: http://gaelicspirit.livejournal.com/49926.html>

Time is Relative, Stories are Forever

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