Characters: Kid,Ike, Jimmy, Cody
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.
Not for the first time during the night, Jimmy wished for Buck Cross's quiet presence. It had taken longer than any of them liked to learn from Ike what had happened to him and Kid on the ride back from Laramie, but after several moments of tense frustration, they'd been able to put together that the satchel had been delivered without incident, and they'd been attacked by a mountain lion while taking a shortcut on the way home.
Nate was recovered enough to be a third body able to protect the station, and if all went well, Teaspoon reminded them, Buck and Lou would be back by morning.
"Go bring Kid home, son," Teaspoon had said, resting a heavy hand on Jimmy's shoulder. "You got that?"
Jimmy frowned, not liking the implication that it may already be too late to save Kid. Ike was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, ready to get moving.
"Kid's gonna be just fine, Mr. Spoon," Emma admonished quietly. Her calming green eyes rested on Jimmy for a heartbeat, then skimmed over to Ike, a smile of reassurance relaxing her features.
They rode out, Jimmy atop Katie, Ike on the gelding. The ride was nearly silent, as Jimmy had known it would be, with the sound of his blood pounding in his ears louder than the horse's hooves. Ike's form bounced in front of him, the setting moon gleaming off of his white shirt and pale scalp. Jimmy tried to count the minutes between first seeing Ike and this moment, tried to figure out how long Kid had been alone, and decided to stop.
He didn't do fear well.
When they reached the cliff face, the morning sun had started its defeat of night, chewing up the darkness with each passing second, providing the riders with a graying light to guide their way. Ike pulled his mount to a stop this side of a narrow foot path winding around the edge of the mountainside.
"You guys rode on that?" Jimmy asked, incredulous.
Ike spared him a glance, tying the reins of his horse to a tree growing out of the side of the cliff.
"Crazy bastards," Jimmy grumbled, sliding off Katie and leading the dancing horse next to Ike's mount. "Easy, girl," he soothed. "I'll bring him back." He pulled the pack of supplies Emma had given him from the saddle, and slung it across his back.
Ike jerked his head, leading Jimmy down the foot path and around the jutting outcropping of rocks. As they made their way forward, Jimmy realized that the sound he'd casually shoved to the background of his mind was snarling. Snarling, snapping… growling.
"Ike," Jimmy warned, pulling his Colt free.
Ike shot a look over his shoulder, and Jimmy saw his friend's gun was already gripped tightly in his right hand, his left running along the cliff face in the dim light, searching for something. Jimmy watched carefully, stopping when Ike's hand sank into a divot of rock, pulling him up short. Placing his back against the cliff face, Ike nodded down the hill.
"Down there?" Jimmy swallowed hard. He'd never been much for heights.
Ike nodded, frowning fiercely as they heard a cry of pain and anger slash through the snarling.
"Let's go," Jimmy said, starting down the side of the hill, his boots sliding, the pack on his back catching in tree branches. They fell, climbed, slid down to where Ike had left Kid, Jimmy's eyes opening wide at the sight of the mauled mountain lion.
"Coyotes," Jimmy guessed. "Or wolves."
Ike nodded, his eyes renewing their frenetic search in the growing light of morning.
"Be ready," Jimmy warned, looking further down the hill.
Ike held his pistol barrel up, and stared forward, his jaw tense. They continued down the hill, the cries getting weaker as the snarling grew louder. At first, Jimmy couldn't see anything. Then, the backwards motion of one of the coyotes caught his eye and he pointed to his left with the barrel of his Colt.
Ike looked at him, and with perfect clarity signaled that he would go left, and that Jimmy should go right and they would catch the coyotes in a crossfire.
Now… why can't you do that all the time, you bald-headed genius?
Stumbling quietly to the jutting rock Kid had barricaded himself behind, Jimmy caught sight of Ike across the way. He lifted his gun, and fired two shots in the air, causing the animals to jerk, flattening themselves in surprised defense, before turning toward the new threat.
"Go on!" Jimmy yelled, firing again. "Git! I don't want to kill ya, but I will, dammit!"
Two of the animals scurried partway up the hill, where they turned back, lips pulled up exposing yellowed teeth in a wicked snarl. A third turned back to Kid, drawn by the heady scent of blood.
Ike fired, his aim once again true, felling the animal as its jaws crashed through a stick Kid had been using to keep the animals at bay. The animal's yelp of pain, and a fourth bullet from Jimmy sent the other two away, leaving the hillside in relative silence. Panting, Ike and Jimmy stared at each other for a fraction of a second, then moved as one toward the makeshift barricade around Kid.
Jimmy holstered his gun, swallowing in shock at the sight of his friend. Kid had managed to wedge himself nearly underneath the rock overhang, pulling sticks up and around him in a meager attempt at protection. Blood covered the side of his pale face and swathed his left shoulder and side. He was wheezing, his eyes closed. Ike pulled the dead coyote away.
"Kid?" Jimmy started to move the sticks, eager to reach his friend.
Kid jerked, pulling back, his eyes opening wide, nearly all pupil.
"Easy, hey, easy, it's me. It's Jimmy."
"Jed?" Kid breathed.
Jimmy felt a stab in his gut. "No, it's Jimmy. Ike's here with me."
Kid blinked, fog starting to lift from his fever-bright eyes. "Knew he'd come b-back…."
"Yeah, he came back," Jimmy nodded, reaching out a hesitant hand to Kid's neck, trying to pull his friend free. He had to stop himself from flinching back at the heat he felt radiating from Kid's skin. "I'm just gonna… gonna lift you up here…."
He cupped Kid's neck; placing his other hand under the buckskin-clad legs, he shifted Kid's trembling body free of the outcropping.
"AH!" Kid's cry was quick and harsh.
Jimmy flinched, but didn't let go. "Easy," he soothed. "Almost free…."
Once Kid was free of the barricade, Ike crouched on the other side, his large, expressive eyes beseeching Jimmy's for a purpose, something to stop the harsh, wet gasps emanating from their friend.
"Okay, listen, uh…." Jimmy took his hat off, running fingers of helpless frustration through his shoulder-length brown hair. "Emma, she… uh, she gave me some stuff for you… so's we could get you home, okay?"
"Home?" Kid blinked, his jaw trembling. He rolled his head on the hillside, searching for something. Jimmy frowned, following Kid's eye line. He was staring at the empty space down the hill, just above the shallow creek.
"Yeah, Kid, home. Back at Emma's."
"Jed didn't… didn't know me…."
Ike grabbed Jimmy's hand, causing him to lift his eyes. He motioned to his head. Jimmy frowned.
"I know," he snapped at Ike. Sure it was fever. Or a head wound. Or a night in the cold. But it was also the truth. And Kid hadn't spoken to him since those broken words on the floor of the stable. He never gave me a choice, either.
"He knew you, Kid," Jimmy soothed, pulling bandages and water from the pack Emma had given them. "You were his brother."
"He woulda killed me y'know," Kid said, his voice losing its pained tremble for a moment.
Jimmy looked at his face, unnerved by the emptiness in his friend's normally vivid gray-blue eyes.
"He was ready to kill me."
"Yeah, well," Jimmy carefully pulled the saturated bandage from Kid's arm. "I didn't let him."
"Can't go home…." Kid whispered.
"'Course you can," Jimmy argued automatically, wincing at the ugly tear across his friend's skin. He poured some of the water from the canteen over the cuts, dabbing at the blood. Kid jerked at the touch.
"Don't belong there…."
"Yeah, you do," Jimmy grumbled. "You do a helluva lot more than—" Ike's frantic jerk at his sleeve stopped him from cleaning more of Kid's shoulder wound. Jimmy jerked his eyes up to Kid's face and saw his eyes flutter closed.
"Kid!" Jimmy snapped, reaching up to grasp his chin. "Kid, hey! Hey, open your eyes, okay? I mean it. You keep those eyes open, or I'll shoot you myself."
"M-might… be better… off…."
Jimmy turned Kid's head to him. "Don't talk like that. I'm bringing you home. I promised someone."
Kid frowned, blinking, his attention captured.
"I swear that horse is part human," Jimmy said, continuing to clean the blood from his friend's fevered skin as best he could.
"Hell, yeah, Katie… who else you think?"
Kid just shook his head, opening his eyes wide, air wheezing in through his tight lips and leaking out on a painful-sounding hiss.
Jimmy wiped at the sweat on his upper lip, glancing up at Ike as the sky behind him turned a brilliant red, decorating the clouds with layers of gold. He knew they needed to hurry; between the mountain lion carcass and Kid's blood, they were going to draw a lot more than three hungry coyotes.
"Okay," Jimmy said, shifting slightly to get a better balance on the steep hillside. "I'm gonna… try to wrap you up, and then… then Ike and me, we're gonna get you up this hill, back to the horses."
Kid simply blinked at him. Ike shook his head, his hand gestures too quick for Jimmy to follow. But he didn't need to understand Indian sign to know Ike was protesting moving Kid.
"What do you want to do, huh?" Jimmy growled, his brow furrowing with frustrated anger. "Leave him here?"
Ike made a V out of his hands, motioned to Kid, then up the hill.
Ike grinned in assertion. Jimmy looked down at Kid. He was blinking slowly, staring at the empty space behind Jimmy once more, his pupils large, his face pale with spots of fever flushing the portion of his face not covered by dried blood.
"Yeah, okay, but we'll have to hurry," Jimmy said softly.
Ignoring further comments from Ike, Jimmy padded the deepest cut on Kid's shoulder and arm with torn strips of bedding, then gently lifted and placed Kid's arm against his chest, watching as his friend's face pulled tight in pain. Jimmy's hands felt clumsy, too big for his arms, as he rolled the rest of the strips of bandages around Kid’s arm and torso, binding the wounded limb to his friend's equally wounded chest.
He couldn't readily see the source of the blood on Kid's face, but figured from the flakes of dark copper clinging to Kid's eyebrows and lashes that wound could wait. He looked in the pack, but saw nothing big enough they could use to make a stretcher. Sitting on his haunches, he pressed the back of his hand against his mouth in thought. Kid was slender… it might work.
Shrugging out of his large canvas coat, Jimmy laid it on the ground next to Kid, nodding at Ike, who seemed to understand his intent.
"Kid," he called softly.
Kid blinked, but didn't move his eyes from the spot just over Jimmy's shoulder.
"Kid, we're gonna move you now. You ready?"
When he didn't receive anything else, Jimmy lifted his eyes to find Ike's large ones pinned to his face, as if awaiting a command. Jimmy wasn't used to being in charge. When they went after Katie and the stolen pouch during his first week as part of the riders at Sweetwater Station, Kid had been the one to call fire for the volley gun. Jimmy was used to working in the shadows, calling attention to himself only right before he dealt a heavy blow.
But Ike was looking to him to lead them out. And Kid… well, Kid wasn't looking at much of anything. Nodding once more to Ike, Jimmy shifted his hands under Kid's shoulders and knees, waited until Ike did the same, then lifted him slightly and setting him in the center of Jimmy's coat. Kid's eyes slid shut, but blinked open wide once more in an obvious effort to keep Jimmy from shooting him.
"Okay, here we go," Jimmy said, gripping the bottom edge of his coat and his sleeve, motioning to Ike to do the same, then lifting their wounded friend. Kid cried out, then bit down hard on his lip, trying to keep silent. Jimmy was thankful for that. This was going to be hard enough without being reminded how much they were hurting him.
Stumbling backwards slightly, Ike and Jimmy found their balance, then, leaning forward, began the arduous trek up the side of the hill.
"Too bad we… couldn't ask the horses… to meet us at the bottom," Jimmy panted. "Woulda been a helluva lot easier."
Ike simply focused upward. Jimmy glanced down at Kid once when he stumbled to his knees and saw that his friend's eyes were closed, his face pale in the growing light.
Hang in there, Kid….
Ike stumbled, picked himself up, stumbled again. He paused, twisting the coat litter they held between them slightly as Jimmy continued up the hill.
"C'mon, Ike," Jimmy grunted. "Keep moving."
Ike licked his dry lips, shaking his head once. Jimmy didn't know what Ike was trying to indicate, but his patience was thin. He was tired, he was scared, and he hated both feelings. He did not like being so out of control of a situation.
"Ike, get up. Now."
Ike dropped his head weakly, working to push himself to his feet, Kid slipping limply toward the slope Ike had created.
Jimmy stepped back, leveling the coat, glaring at Ike. "We're getting him home, you get me?" He snarled. "I am not going to lose a friend to some damn mountain lion because I couldn't carry him out of here. Now get your ass UP!"
Ike glared back at Jimmy, finally able to rise to his feet. Jimmy could see a vein swell along his bald scalp and knew he'd pissed Ike off, but at the moment he didn't care. The sun was climbing higher in the eastern sky, and by his rudimentary calculations, Kid had been without any kind of real help for nearly twelve hours. They needed to get out of there.
They reached the top of the hill, setting Kid on the dirt path, and pausing on hands and knees to gather their breath and find reserves of strength. With a silent glance at Kid's closed eyes, they clambered to their feet, situating the litter between them so that they walked single file carrying their precious cargo.
When they reached the horses, they laid Kid on the ground once more.
"Listen," Jimmy said, turning quickly and approaching Ike. "I'll ride with Kid. You go ahead. Get the doc to Emma's."
Ike started to shake his head, but Jimmy put a hand on his shoulder. "Ike, this is the best way. Help me get him up on Katie, and then go."
Ike looked down at Kid, then nodded. Jimmy breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't really have another argument up his sleeve and knew time was short. As gently as possible, they lifted Kid into a sitting position, his head lolling to his chest. Bracing their arms across his back, and clasping wrists beneath his knees, they lifted him up and onto Katie's saddle.
As his legs made contact with the unyielding leather of the saddle, Kid was jarred awake, gasping from the shock of pain that shook through him.
"Easy," Jimmy soothed. "Grab the saddle, Kid."
"Grab the saddle horn," Jimmy barked, causing Kid's eyes to bounce wide. He watched as Kid fumbled clumsy fingers around the saddle horn, then he swung up behind the saddle, wrapping his arms around his friend and grabbing the reins. Ike picked up Jimmy's coat from the ground and rolled it, stuffing it between the two riders to pad Jimmy's legs against the saddle.
Jimmy shoved his feet into the stirrups, his legs at a slightly awkward angle, Kid's booted feet flopping against his shins. He felt Kid sink into him, his battered body unable to maintain awareness for long.
"Go, Ike," Jimmy said as Katie danced in place, eager to move. "Get back there as fast as you can."
With one last worried glance at Kid, Ike wheeled his mount and slammed his heels into the horse's side, thundering away in a cloud of dust. Jimmy moved forward as fast as he dared. A trot would bounce Kid's broken ribs to pieces. A canter would open any barely sealed cuts. He settled Katie into a quick walk, her long-strided gait swaying both gently from side to side.
Kid's voice was whisper quick and ancient.
"Where… where're we goin'?"
"Pretty sure, Kid."
"Why… why're we goin' home?"
Jimmy paused, frowning. Isn't that what you did? When the ride was over, you headed home. Doesn't everyone yearn to go home? Yearn for a home? He glanced down at Kid, his friend's head tilted back against Jimmy's collar bone. He couldn't see Kid's eyes from his angle, but he felt his shallow breath against his neck. He felt the weak tremors running through Kid's body, warning them both there wasn't much in the way of reserves.
"Don't you want to go home?"
"Don't know where… that is," Kid whispered. "Can't… can't remember."
Jimmy closed his eyes for a brief moment, images from a long ago childhood dancing across the back of his lids in colors so vivid they didn't look real. None of them had gotten this far in life without gathering scars. None of them knew of a home they could return to that didn't hold a trove of nightmares and sorrow. Nowhere except Emma's. Except each other.
"I didn't want to kill him, Kid."
"He was your brother. I just… I reacted."
"No," Jimmy shook his head, feeling Kid grow heavier against his arm. "No, it's not okay."
Kid didn't reply. Jimmy squeezed Katie with his calves, encouraging her to walk faster.
"Hang in there, Kid."
When Cody heard the shots, he gripped the saddle horn as tightly as his numb fingers would allow. His body was spent. His legs past a simple ache straight on to pain, hip joints grinding bone against bone, back screaming for mercy. His eyes burned, his lips were cracked, yet he rode on, toward the sound of gunfire.
Gunfire meant people. Meant someone might need him to do more than ride. Endlessly ride.
Cody pulled his mount up to a stop behind the barn. Tossing the reins over the horse's head toward the water trough, he leaned forward on the saddle, dragging his weary right leg over the back of the horse and dropping down into the dirt. He knelt there for a moment, willing feeling to return to his feet, gritting his teeth against the pins and needles that attacked him with a vengeance. He couldn't remember being this tired.
"Where is it, Tate?"
"Go screw yourself, that's where!"
Using the stirrup as leverage, Cody pulled himself to his feet, then slid his rifle from the scabbard, checking the rounds as silently as possible. Pressing his back against the side of the barn, he took a breath, then poked his head quickly around the corner. His blue eyes took in three men with rifles pointed at the house. Another man was lying unmoving in the dirt between the house and the barn. The noonday sun eliminated the shadows of the gunmen, illuminating the lot in a glaring, almost surreal bright light. Cody licked his dry lips, calculating his next move.
"We aim to get the letters," said a swarthy man perched on the top rung of the corral fence. The tail of his long black coat fluttered in the sudden breeze. "We don't much care if you're alive when we do it."
"Ain't no letters here," Tate called back from the house. "So… you probably should head on out."
Cody stiffened as the man in the black coat chuckled.
Turning to his unusually tall companion Black Coat said, "He thinks we should head on out."
"What you want to do?" the tall man said.
"Tate!" Black Coat called. "We ain't got a problem killing you, your riders, your women, your horses… hell, we've gotten pretty good at it. But we're tired of having to chase you down. So, why don't you come on out and save us the trouble?"
"Why don't you go to hell!" Tate's voice boomed back, fear absent from its timbre.
Cody pulled back around the side of the barn. He felt his lips curling up in an appreciative grin. Dead on his feet or not, he had to appreciate rebellion. Pulling in another breath, he rounded the corner, and rested the rifle barrel between the rails of the corral, taking aim.
Cocking his rifle, Black Coat called to the house, "If that's the way you want it, Tate, I think we're gonna have to kill you all."
"I'd think again," Cody said, his voice devoid of emotion, deadly in its intent.
The three men perched on the corral fence turned as one, surprised at being caught unaware. A bullet from the house caused the tall gunman to turn back to their original target, while the other two fired toward Cody.
Cody didn't flinch, didn't duck, didn't blink. He simply exhaled, aimed, and fired. The impact of his bullet painted the rails of the corral red from the body of the ringleader. More gunfire erupted from the house and the tall gunman and his remaining companion darted toward the barn.
Cody turned to fire again, but found himself suddenly on his knees, his strength waning. He caught a pleased grin from the tall gunman as he ran through the wide open doors of the barn.
"Oh, hell no," Cody growled. "No one grins at me like that…." He pulled his rifle up, aiming into the dark recesses of the barn. The bullet from the gunman glanced off the barrel of his rifle, knocking it from his hands. "Okay, well, almost no one."
Rolling away from the corral, Cody pulled his pistol from its holster and cocked the hammer back. Another bullet from the house ricocheted off the barn wall above his head.
"Tate!" Cody yelled, his voice cracking. "I'm a rider, dammit! Watch where you're aiming!"
"Son of a bitch!" cursed the station master.
Ducking his head around the corner of the barn, Cody caught sight of one gunman trying to gather the reins of the horse he'd just ridden in on. Shit! The pouch!
"Hey!" Cody barked, launching to his feet, all weariness forgotten.
The gunman turned, pistol in hand, firing blindly toward Cody. With his left hand rapidly drawing back the hammer, Cody fired four rounds into the man, dropping him into the dirt next to the nervous horse's dancing hooves.
"Whoa," Cody grabbed the reins. "Easy, boy." He tied the horse off to an iron ring on the barn, completely forgetting about the third gunman until he heard the unmistakable sound of a pistol being cocked.
Cody turned slowly, seeing the same grin that had irritated him earlier, leering out at him from the shadows of the barn. He raised his hands, letting his own gun drop into the dirt.
"Should've just given us what we wanted," the tall gunman sneered with a cocky tilt of his head.
The sound of the bullet exploding from the barrel startled Cody. He never thought the shot that killed him would be so loud. It took him a second to realize that he wasn't hit and another second to notice the gunman's eyes were glazing over as he fell face-first to the barn floor.
Behind him stood the smallest man Cody had ever seen. His mustache was twice the width of his face; his narrow shoulders trembled with the weight of the shotgun. As he stepped out of the barn his round glasses glinted in the sunlight. Cody locked his knees to keep from collapsing with relief.
"Yeah, who the hell are you?" came a surprisingly deep voice from one so small in stature.
"William F. Cody."
"You heard of me?"
"Hell, son, most everyone on the route has heard of you," Tate replied, still holding the shotgun. "What're you doing this far west?"
"It's a long story," Cody breathed. "You got a rider?"
Tate put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. A dark-haired boy about Lou's size ran from the house, caught a black horse from the corral, and led it to the barn.
"Woulda been ready for you, but, well… we had company."
"So I gathered," Cody nodded, acutely aware his legs were now visibly trembling. "Tate… I been riding for awhile…."
"You didn't… you didn't ride here all the way from Sweetwater?!"
"Yessir," Cody said, finding it difficult to keep the world steady. It wanted to shift sideways. He shook his head. "You have some… some water?"
Tate whistled again as the boy who had caught the black horse swung up. Pulling the pouch from Cody's mount, he took off to the west with a loud whoop.
Cody blinked as the dust kicked up from the horse’s departing hooves seemed to grow, spread, and envelop him. He tried to shake his head again, but found that instead, the ground decided to rush up and meet him rather swiftly.
Just before he closed his eyes, he heard Tate swear.
"William F. Cody… all the way from Sweetwater… damn if we aren't the luckiest sonsabitches in Wyoming…."
It was the voice that had saved him from a lifetime of silence. It was his best friend, his lifeline, his home. Ike had to physically hold onto the horse to keep from launching into a flurry of signs at Buck to tell him all that had transpired, all that he'd been unable to do.
Ike dismounted, handing his reins to Lou, who looked equally as worried. Using the well-known signs Buck had taught him, he relayed the message that Kid was hurt, bad. They needed to get the doctor out to the station now.
Buck turned to Lou and told her what Ike had said. Within minutes, there was a flurry of activity surrounding Ike that he wanted to collapse into. He watched carefully, though, as Teaspoon barked an order to Nate Jergenson, telling him to get Marshal Sam Caine; Emma pulled sheets from the line to ready a bed for Kid in the house; Lou mounted up and rode south to the doc's house, just outside of town; and Buck led Ike's tired horse to the corral.
He was nearly lost in the activity, swaying from exhaustion, when Buck's strong, tanned hand gripped his upper arm and led him to the bunkhouse. Ike sat heavily on the bed, listening as Buck's voice undulated around him, telling him to lay down, that they would take care of Kid, that he'd done his job. He felt himself ease back against the pillow, almost allowing himself to relax, when he heard Teaspoon's gravelly voice bellow across the lot.
Ike shot up like a bullet, following Buck out of the bunkhouse as Teaspoon hurried forward to catch Katie's bridle.
"My God," Teaspoon breathed.
"He won't wake up," Jimmy said. "I been talkin' to him, but… but his breath sounds really wet, Teaspoon."
"Okay, Jimmy," Teaspoon reassured. "Let's just get him in the house."
Teaspoon led Katie closer to the house. Buck and Ike followed behind. Reaching up, Buck and Teaspoon gathered Kid from Jimmy's arms, pulling him as carefully as possible from the back of the horse and carrying him into the house.
Ike stepped through the doorway, leaning against the frame, watching. Emma had fashioned a bed in the front room. They lay Kid on the white sheets and began to cut away his shirt.
"Good Lord," Emma breathed. "A mountain lion did this?" She looked up at Ike, who nodded.
"He's awful hot, Teaspoon," Jimmy said, his hat clutched in his strong fingers, the brim bending and twisting as he worried the edge.
"I know, son," Teaspoon said. "Go sit down. We'll take care of him until the doc gets here."
"Something's wrong with his breathing—"
"It's okay, Jimmy," Emma paused next to him, placing a hand on his forearm, meeting his eyes. Jimmy instantly stilled.
Ike remembered how Emma's presence had lulled him into an unfamiliar feeling of safety time and again.
"You did good." Emma looked over at Ike. "You both did. You brought him home. You don't have to do this alone anymore."
Jimmy stepped back and Ike stepped forward. Joined by Buck, they hovered in the back of the room, watching as Kid jerked and thrashed when Teaspoon and Emma pulled away the rudimentary wrapping around his wounds, cleaning the blood from his head and arm.
After what seemed like years, hooves were heard in the distance. Ike peered out through the opened doorway and watched as Sam, Lou, Nate, and the doc rode up, dismounted and headed for the house. Lou caught sight of Kid for the first time and Ike saw her gasp and cover her mouth. She backed up until she bounced off Jimmy. Ike saw him put a steady hand on her shoulder.
"Teaspoon," Sam said in a low voice while the doc and Emma bent over Kid. "We need to talk."
"Can it wait?" Teaspoon snapped.
"No," Sam shook his head. "We got the guys that hit Hicks' station, but according to them, there's another group looking for the letters in that Army satchel."
"What's so important about those letters?" Teaspoon growled.
"You know I can't tell you that," Sam replied.
Teaspoon turned to face Sam, his sigh oddly seeming to increase his size rather than deflate it. The elder man twisted his lips in a grimace of distaste. "If you're about to ask me to send any more of my boys out there after this other group, then you damn well better tell me."
"Cody's palomino came back earlier," Teaspoon said, surprising Ike. "His gloves were tied to the mane."
Sam shifted his eyes to Ike and the group standing at the back of the room. Then he looked over at Kid.
"There's talk of a war comin'," Sam said softly, his eyes still on Kid. "The letters are to two generals…. That's all I know."
Teaspoon hooked his thumbs in his pink suspenders. "Doesn't seem like much to kill for."
Sam rubbed his mouth, then looked back at the boys. "Any idea if Cody's okay?"
"He's on a run."
"But you just said…."
"Sam," Emma called, quieting the marshall with a word.
Teaspoon shook his head, turning away from Sam to watch the Kid, hiding his worry. Ike tried to see around him, tried to watch the doc, but the wall created by Emma and Teaspoon was too solid. He felt eyes on him and looked up to see Sam watching them.
"How is he?" Teaspoon asked the doctor softly.
"I'm not going to lie to you," the doctor's voice rumbled up from his crouched position. "It's not good. I can wrap his ribs, hope for the best there, clean and stitch these wounds, but… his fever is high…."
The doctor straightened, pushing wire-rimmed glasses up on the bridge of his nose. "It's going to be up to him. He'll either pull through, or…."
Ike blinked. Or?
"Boys," Emma said suddenly, straightening. "There's work to do. Ike, you and Jimmy go get some rest. Buck and Lou—"
"We know what to do, Emma," Buck said softly, leading them out of the door, past Sam's scowl and Teaspoon's averted eyes.
Jimmy paused in the doorway just ahead of Ike.
"Teaspoon, uh…." He paused, looking down, then lifted his head once more. "Come get us if, y'know…."
Ike shot his eyes to Teaspoon, a cold feeling in his gut at the grizzled man's solemn nod.
Voices rose and faded like the sound of the river lapping against the sandy shore behind their house in Virginia. There were soothing tones when heat seemed to surround him, burning with intensity from his heart through his skin. When the heat suddenly vanished to be replaced by cold, the voices became sharp, insistent, demanding.
They sucked away the air, pressed flat his lungs, drowning him in darkness. He turned, trying to find relief, trying to roll away from the pain, trying to fight the quiet sighs in the back of his mind beckoning him to fall inside the black. The fire returned, shaking him with its veracity, threatening to tear him apart, to burn him alive.
A cooling hand and a whispered promise stilled him. Wetness flowed across his burning lips and down his parched throat. The voices started to separate, become distinct, become clear. Just as he was able to hear them, darkness rolled over him once more, this time bringing peace.
When Kid next opened his eyes, he felt hollow. His shoulder was too big for his body, his fingers heavy weights at the end of his hand. He could swear someone had opened him up and cleared out his insides, then returned them to him in a tangle.
Early morning light turned the room gray. He swallowed, the sensation like that of cracked earth soaking up the first rain of autumn. He blinked, grit melding the corners of his lashes. Rolling his head against the pillow, he saw Jimmy, tipped back in a chair next to the bed, his booted feet propped against the frame, his hat slanted forward to cover his face.
"J—" Kid tried, feeling his voice rub against the inside of his throat like a rasp on a horseshoe. "Jimmy…."
As if his name had been spoken with the strength of a bullet fired from a gun, Jimmy jerked, dropping his feet from the bed frame, thumping the front two legs of the chair to the floor. His hat fell off, his shoulder-length hair fell over his forehead, and he looked around, confused.
"Hey," Kid tried.
Jimmy looked over at him, blinking, then shoved his hair behind his ears. "Hey, yourself."
"Uh… dunno," Jimmy blinked, rubbing at his eyes. "But it's Tuesday."
"You been lying there for two days now," Jimmy clarified. "Scared us pretty good."
"How you feelin'?"
Kid thought about it. "Thirsty."
"Hang on," Jimmy stood, grabbed a tin cup and filled it with water from a bucket sitting on the table. He crossed back to Kid, easing a hand under his neck, and lifted his head, helping him drink.
Satiated, Kid let his head drop back on the pillow. "What… what happened?"
"You remember the lion?"
As if from a forgotten dream, images of the ride from Fort Laramie, rolled through his head, the shortcut, the heavy weight of the big cat as it slammed into him.
"Aw, hell," Kid muttered.
"You got cut up pretty good," Jimmy said, nodding to his shoulder. "Broke some ribs."
"Ike rode back, got me, we got you out."
"You?" Kid was surprised. He and Jimmy hadn't exactly talked since Jed died.
"Yeah, me," Jimmy dropped back into the chair. "You think I was gonna let one of our best riders get chewed on by coyotes?"
"Oh, yeah, the coyotes," Kid muttered, remembering. It had been so cold on the hillside. Dark and cold. Had Jed been there? He could remember Jed…. No. No, Jed was dead. Jimmy had killed him. To save Kid's life.
Kid looked over at his friend, Jimmy's brown eyes shadowed in the dim light of morning. "I miss anything?" he asked.
"Uh, yeah," Jimmy chuckled, looking down at the palm of his hand. "A bit."
Continuing to watch his hand as if the answers to questions Kid hadn't figured out how to ask were written on it, Jimmy told him about the stations being attacked, riders and station masters killed, and Cody riding for nearly twenty-four hours straight to get the pouch through.
"He's back, though," Jimmy finished. "Got in last night. Big celebrity," Jimmy grinned, shaking his head. "You know Cody."
Kid nodded. "Yeah."
They were quiet a moment. Kid fought the weight of sleep that pulled at his eyes in the wake of Jimmy's intense gaze. "What is it?"
"You know you belong here, right?" Jimmy said, surprising him.
"What do you mean?"
"You belong here," Jimmy repeated. "If anyone doesn't, it's me."
"What?" Kid pulled his brows together in confusion, wincing slightly as the motion pulled at the cut on his head. "Why don't you?"
"Because…." Jimmy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Because I… I'm not really a good person, Kid. You know that. You saw that. You know I'm not like you. Because of Jed."
Kid was silent. Jed. Jed who had left him to the mercy of their father. Jed who hadn't come looking for him, not once. Ever. Jed who had barely recognized him when Kid approached him on the streets of Sweetwater. Jed who had tried to kill him to escape the law.
"Jimmy," Kid said, his voice serious and soft. Jimmy looked over at him. "Jed taught me something when… when he came back. He, uh… he taught me that there's a face you show the world… and then there's who you really are."
"When I saw who he really was… I didn't like what I saw," Kid confessed.
Kid nodded, working to complete his words before sleep claimed him once more. "This here's our home. Right now, anyway. Our home." He paused, waiting for Jimmy's eyes to meet his. "It's a home for better men than Jed."
Jimmy looked back down at the palm of his hand. "Yeah," he said softly.
Kid blinked slowly, his body needing oblivion, his mind craving connection. "I saw…"
"Kid?" Jimmy prompted him.
"I saw your face…" Kid closed his eyes, feeling himself sink into the bed, feeling the peace of sleep wrap comforting arms around him. I saw the real you, and I'd stand beside you any day…
As he faded, Kid felt the barest brush of fingertips on the back of his hand. He knew when he woke, he'd be home once more.>