Disclaimer: The following story is a work of fan fiction and is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. The characters, show, etc. belong to John Watson, MGM, and probably others, and are being used without permission. The story belongs to the author; please do not copy, post elsewhere, or sue without the author's express permission.
This was written as a Christmas present for Shellie right before the great ice storm of Jan. 2001. When I posted it to the public in December 2001, my website got eaten. Coincidence?
Rated PG-ish for language; feedback and constructive criticism always welcome at the email link below the story.
HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
Icy wind shook the frozen limbs of the trees overhead, threatening to snap them and send them crashing down on the two travelers below. The whole world seemed encased in ice. Each individual leaf and blade of grass shone like melted diamonds had been poured over it. The trees groaned with the additional weight, and loud crackling sounds split the air with every step the horses took.
"Damn beautiful, ain't it?"
The soft, almost awed words were spoken by the taller of the two travelers. His blue eyes sparkled over cheeks reddened with cold, crinkling at the edges as if he were smiling under the scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face.
"Damn cold is what it is," the smaller man grumbled. He reached up with one gloved hand to shove his bowler hat more firmly around his ears. "I still say we should have stayed in Eagle Bend till some of this thawed out. I bet it won't take more than another couple of days."
The older man shook his head, replying patiently, "If we waited another couple of days, we'd be late getting back home."
"Been out here nearly four years now," the younger one continued to complain as if he hadn't been interrupted, "and it never saw fit to snow even once. No ice, no sleet, nothing but rain. I remember saying last year I missed having a white Christmas. Didn't feel right with mud everywhere instead of snow. So what do I get? It waits till I'm two days from home and rains ice all over everything. Not snow. You can ride in snow, you know. No, we get ice. Slick, cold ice. Rain that freezes to everything. Frozen mud. Cold, wet . . . "
"I get the point, JD."
"And why are you in such an all-fired hurry to get home, anyway? You afraid Miss Blossom's gonna find someone else to keep her warm while you're gone?"
The blue eyes crinkled even more. "She'd better, if she wants to keep food on the table."
Sighing loudly, JD turned to glare at his companion. "Then why do we have to be riding out here in the ice, Buck? My horse already slipped twice, and I swear, if she falls . . ."
"You know good and well you ain't gonna let that horse fall, son," Buck answered cheerfully. "Why, you could practically ride her over water and not sink. You're just cranky 'cause that silly hat don't keep your ears warm."
Obviously flustered by the combination of compliment to his riding skills and insult to his favorite and only hat, JD could only growl in inarticulate frustration.
Buck chuckled. "'Sides, we should be home by late afternoon, and you can sit yourself down in front of a fire and not move till after Christmas."
"I could've done that in Eagle Bend, too," JD pointed out.
"But then you would have missed out on seeing this." Buck indicated the countryside with a sweeping gesture. "Look at it, JD. It ain't like this happens every day out here."
"Thank goodness," JD muttered.
"You just don't have any appreciation for the finer things, boy." Buck shook his head disgustedly. "No appreciation at all."
Several hours later, JD still hadn't gained any appreciation, but at least he wasn't griping anymore. Buck was willing to settle for any small favors he could get. The kid had a point, it was colder than it had any right to be, but Buck didn't see any reason to complain. Griping wouldn't change the weather; it just made the company miserable.
Buck had held on to his good humor by the skin of his teeth all through the kid's fussing. Hell, it was the Christmas season, a time of good will and good cheer toward everyone, even partners you wanted to strangle.
His determination had worn away once JD had fallen silent, though, and a twinge of guilt had set in. Sure, he'd wanted to get back to Four Corners before Christmas as much for JD's sake as for his own, but maybe the kid was right. Maybe it wasn't worth braving the cold and risking their horses and themselves just so they could be around familiar faces for the holidays. Not that he'd brought up Christmas to JD. The holiday hadn't been a good one for the kid since he'd come out west, and Buck didn't think he'd be too receptive to the idea that he was freezing his butt off because of it.
By noon, the silence had started to wear on Buck enough that he was almost ready to hear griping in its place. He'd cast his mind about for something to start a conversation, but couldn't think of anything that wouldn't remind JD he wasn't happy about the weather. He'd just about decided it was easier to let JD sulk when inspiration presented itself.
"Hey, look over there," he called, gesturing through the light covering of trees they were riding through at a small, ice-covered clearing. In its center, watching them warily with ears cocked forward and body poised to run, stood a beautiful roan mare.
JD pulled his horse to a stop, whistling softly. "She's incredible, Buck. Where do you think she came from?"
Buck smiled under his scarf, pleased that JD seemed to have shaken his bad mood. Shrugging, he answered, "I don't know. I haven't seen any signs of people living around here. Maybe she's wild."
JD shook his head. "No, look at those saddle marks on her back. She's been ridden, and probably not too long ago." His eyes above his own scarf grew hard. "Looks like she was broke hard, too. See that scarring around her mouth? And someone's used spurs and a whip on her, too, poor girl."
Before Buck could answer, JD slid down off his horse and tossed the reins toward the older man. Walking carefully over the ice-covered grass, he spoke to the mare in a low, gentle tone, holding out one hand to her.
Buck shook his head, but didn't call JD back. There was no reasoning with the kid when it came to horses. More importantly, this was the best mood JD had been in all day, and Buck didn't want to ruin it.
As JD grew closer, the mare studied him carefully, her nostrils flared as she tried to decide if he was a threat. Buck couldn't hear what he was saying over the crunch of ice under his boots, but the mare seemed to understand from his tone that he wasn't going to hurt her. Relaxing her whole body with a slight shudder, she stretched out her neck to smell JD's gloved hand. JD moved slowly, bringing up his other hand to scratch her nose.
Buck grinned. "Kid damn near is a horse," he muttered to his own mount.
JD pulled off his scarf and slid it around the mare's neck, then tugged on it gently. She followed him willingly enough, but as she started to walk, it became obvious that something was wrong with her right hind leg. She seemed reluctant even to put it down, much less put any weight on it.
JD stopped, scratching her nose again as he called out to Buck, "We'll have to take her back with us. She's not in any shape to stay out here by herself, especially if there ain't any food in easy reach. Let me take a quick look at her leg and see if I can find out what's wrong, then we can get going again."
Taking the mare with them would slow them down enough that there was no way they'd make it home by nightfall, but Buck didn't like seeing an animal suffer any more than JD did.
On the other hand, that didn't mean he had to pass up the opportunity for some teasing.
"You know that means we're going to have to spend the night on the trail, don't you? In the ice? I bet it's going to get mighty cold tonight, too."
JD shot him a look that would have melted some of the ice off the trees if it'd been directed at them.
Buck chuckled. "Just hurry up. It ain't getting any warmer while we're sitting here."
JD shook his head, muttering something about putting up with fools. Turning back to the mare, he started talking to her softly again as he stepped back to look at her leg. He patted her lightly on the rump to let her know he was back there before reaching down to grasp her injured leg.
It happened so fast Buck didn't really see it. He could figure out what occurred from experience, though. The mare, apparently not happy with having anyone mess with her leg, struck out with a swift, hard kick that caught JD in the stomach. JD flew back with a grunt, slamming into a sapling behind him. The mare gave a furious snort and took off through the trees at an uneven gallop.
JD's horse tossed her head and pranced back, disturbed by the commotion. Buck yanked hard at her reins to settle her down. As soon as she was still, he slipped down from his horse and wrapped both sets of reins around a nearby tree limb.
"JD?" he called sharply, pulling his scarf away from his mouth as he started over to where the younger man still lay. "You hurt, son? Talk to me, JD."
JD didn't move. He'd crumpled over when he hit the tree, a dark, still lump against the white ground. Buck crouched down beside him. He pulled off one glove and reached out to touch JD's face, trying to feel him breathing.
"C'mon, JD . . ."
With a painful choking sound, JD finally gasped in air. He started to struggle up before he'd even opened his eyes. Buck pressed him down gently.
"Take it easy. Don't move too fast till you know if anything's broken."
JD coughed. The nod he gave Buck would have been more reassuring if he hadn't still been gasping a little, but again, Buck was willing to take small favors where he could get them.
"Ain't the first time I got kicked in the gut," JD said breathlessly. "Where's the mare?"
"Gone." At JD's accusing look, Buck added defensively, "Hey, I had other things on my mind. Like whether I was going to have to think up something . . . "
"Nice to say at my funeral. Which we both know you're not capable of." JD shook his head, not quite hiding his smile. "You ever think of coming up with some new lines?"
Buck grinned. "Why should I, when the ones I got work so well?"
"On who?" JD grinned back at Buck in a way that let the older man's heart slow back down to its normal pace for the first time since the mare had lashed out.
JD grabbed Buck's arm with one gloved hand and braced the other against the sapling behind him.
"Help me up, will you? It's getting mighty damp down here."
"You sure?" Buck said uncertainly. "I've seen men hurt pretty bad when a horse lays into them like that. Maybe you should give it a few minutes."
"I told you I been kicked before." JD pulled his legs up under him, obviously ready to stand no matter what Buck said to the contrary. "I don't feel any worse now than I did then, although I'm going to be mighty sore in the morning. But right now, my backside's about to freeze to this tree."
With that, he shoved himself up. Buck had no choice but to rise with him and steady him, unless he wanted the kid to fall flat on his face.
It turned out standing was the easy part. Straightening proved to be the problem. As soon as he tried, JD's face went whiter than the ice he'd been sitting on, and he fell into Buck like a puppet that'd just had its strings cut.
Buck staggered back, just barely avoiding falling himself. He clutched JD to him, trying desperately to keep them both upright. Somehow he succeeded, but his sudden movements made JD groan and grab for his stomach. Still holding JD up with one hand, Buck grabbed the sapling with the other to steady them both.
"Breathe, JD, you gotta breathe," he reminded the younger man as soon as he had his own breath back.
JD groaned again. "Feels like someone stuck a hot poker in my belly."
Cautiously letting go of the sapling, Buck rubbed JD's back. "I bet it does. You sure you ain't hurt more than you thought?"
JD shook his head. Moving slowly, he used Buck's supporting arm to push himself more upright.
"I'm fine. I just moved too fast."
Buck looked at him skeptically. It was true, the color was finding its way back into his cheeks. He was standing nearly on his own, with only a hand on Buck's arm and Buck's other hand on his back for balance. Buck would have been more convinced, though, if he hadn't been bent over like an arthritic old man or breathing shallowly through clenched teeth. Not to mention the shivers that were starting to make those clenched teeth rattle against each other.
"You look a long way from 'fine', kid." Buck shook his head. "Not much we can do about it out here, though. First thing we need to do is get you out of those wet clothes, then we'll see about getting home and letting Nathan have a look at you." He frowned. "Tell me you didn't forget to bring that extra set of clothes I told you to pack."
JD shot him a look. "I ain't stupid, Buck. They're in my saddlebag."
Buck patted his back in apology. "I know you ain't, kid. Just the way our luck's been going the last half hour or so . . ."
JD sighed. "Why don't you go get my saddlebag while I . . ." He looked around, frowning. "There ain't any place to change out here, Buck."
Grinning, Buck started picking his way back to the horses, calling over his shoulder, "Nobody here but you and me, and you sure don't have anything I ain't seen before."
JD made a sound that couldn't have been anything polite, but Buck didn't turn around to find out. Reaching the horses, he unhooked their reins from the branch he'd fastened them to and led both horses back to where JD was cautiously working his coat off. Buck looped the horses' reins around the sapling, then dug JD's extra shirt and pants out of his saddlebag and draped them over his saddle.
"How you doing over there?" he asked, coming back around the horses to where he could see JD. He stopped short when he saw the predicament the younger man was in, not sure if he wanted to laugh or wince.
JD had gotten his coat halfway off, but the movement was obviously too much for his sore stomach. He'd wound up leaning against the tree, both arms caught behind him in the sleeves of the coat, pain and embarrassment warring for control of his expression.
It being the Christmas season and all, Buck didn't allow himself more than a small smile. Grabbing both sleeves of the coat, he pulled down, freeing JD.
"How 'bout you let me help with your vest?" Buck said casually.
Without waiting for an answer, he undid the buttons on JD's vest and slid that off his shoulders, then did the same with his shirt. Both were soaked clear through in the back and on the side where JD had landed against the ice.
Stripped down to longjohns and pants, JD shook even harder, the movement obviously hurting his abused muscles.
"H-hurry u-up, w-w-will y-you?" he stuttered, in spite of the fact that he'd just batted Buck's hands away from his belt buckle. "I-I c-c-can d-do th-that."
"But how're you going to get your boots off?" Buck asked reasonably. "Those pants ain't coming off over your boots, that's for sure, and neither are those longjohns."
It was reassuring, Buck thought, to know frostbite hadn't set in to the kid's cheeks yet. Not when they were still capable of turning that bright shade of red.
"I-I d-didn't b-b-bring ext-tra l-longj-johns."
Buck shrugged. "Don't matter. You put on your dry clothes over those wet longjohns, they ain't gonna stay dry long, and you're likely to freeze to death before we get home."
"B-but I-I ain't g-g-got n-nothing on u-under 'em," JD protested.
That time, Buck couldn't stop a snicker, Christmas season or not. JD glared at him, which only set him off harder. The kid tried, but he just couldn't manage mean on a good day, let alone standing around in his underwear with his teeth chattering.
"Okay, okay," Buck gasped at last. "S-sorry, kid. You're just gonna have to strip completely, there ain't no help for it. Let's get your boots off, then you can stand on them to keep your feet dry while you get your pants off."
The next part wasn't very funny. It was pretty obvious that holding up his legs long enough for Buck to pull his boots off hurt more than JD would ever admit. Buck tried to hurry, but his own fingers were growing numb from the cold, and it was hard to get a decent grip on anything. About half way through, JD started growing quiet, not even protesting when Buck manhandled the last of his clothes off and started dressing him in the dry ones like he was a child. He just held onto the sapling for balance and stared off into the distance with a dull, empty expression that bothered Buck to no end.
Finally he was dressed again. Buck glanced over the various clothes he'd draped over the patiently waiting horses with a frown.
"I don't suppose you brought an extra coat, did you?"
JD roused a bit at the question. "I d-don't have an e-extra c-c-coat."
"Right." Buck thought for a moment. "Bedrolls. Get up on your horse, kid. You can wrap up in the blanket from your bedroll."
JD looked up at his horse, then over at Buck, his expression miserable. "I d-don't think . . ."
Realization hit, and Buck winced. "S'okay, we'll manage something."
He studied the situation for a moment. There was really only one way to do it, and it wasn't going to be fun.
"You think you can get your foot in the stirrup if I give you a hand?" he asked.
"Good. I'm going to boost you up into the saddle. It'll probably hurt like hell, but it's better than walking home."
A couple of minutes later, JD sat gasping in the saddle, his arms wrapped protectively around his middle. Buck retrieved the blankets from both bedrolls as quickly as he could and tossed them around JD's shoulders.
"Wrap up. Those'll keep you at least as warm as your coat."
Moving slower than Buck would have liked, JD did as he was told. Buck balled up the wet clothes and tied them in JD's coat, fastening the bundle behind his saddle before starting to mount.
"What?" He looked over to where JD sat cocooned in blankets on the back of his horse.
"D-don't f-forg-get m-my hat."
Startled, Buck looked around, finally spotting the bowler by the sapling.
"How 'bout we just leave it there, and I'll get you a new hat for Christmas?" he asked hopefully.
JD gave him that glare again.
Sighing, Buck trudged over to the sapling and picked up the bowler, knocking a few flakes of ice off the brim. He returned it to JD, who planted it firmly on his head.
"All r-right, l-l-let's g-go."
At first, riding had been hell. JD couldn't ever remember being so cold, not even when he'd lived back east. His skin had burned with it, and he couldn't stop shaking in spite of the blankets Buck had given him. The shaking had pulled at his stomach muscles until he figured out they didn't hurt nearly so bad if he wrapped both arms around his stomach and sat hunched over.
About that time, the shaking had eased off. He'd started to feel warmer and warmer, until finally he was comfortable enough he could almost fall asleep.
If only Buck would leave him alone . . .
"What?" he finally snapped in answer to the nagging voice that kept calling his name.
"Look at me, JD."
Buck sounded . . . weird. JD looked over at him, noticing with surprise that the older man looked tired and worried.
"What?" he asked again, more concerned this time. "You okay, Buck?"
Buck shook his head, although whether it was in answer to JD's question or just in general, JD couldn't tell.
"You need to stay awake, son. Fall asleep in this cold, and you probably won't wake up."
"I'm awake." JD looked around, blinking a little as he tried to get his bearings. "Where are we? You think we're close to home?"
Buck shook his head again, a definite 'no' this time.
"I figure at best we've got another three, four hours. But the sun's going down, and the horses are exhausted. We're going to need to find someplace to stay for the night."
"Out here?" JD blinked again, gritting his teeth against a yawn. A bed and fire would be good right about now.
"There should be an old line shack not too far west of us," Buck answered a little too doubtfully for JD's peace of mind. "Me and Vin found it last spring when we were out hunting. Wasn't in too good shape then, but it ought to keep the wind off. If it's still standing."
He didn't add "and if I can find it," but JD knew him well enough to hear the doubt in his voice.
"Hey, how bad can our luck get? Let's move before it gets dark on us," he said, trying to sound confident. No point in adding to Buck's worries by sounding concerned himself.
"Don't say things like that, kid," Buck said, only half joking. "I remember there was a stand of three trees on a hill right before we saw the cabin, so keep a lookout."
Now that he was fully awake again, the pain in JD's stomach returned. Every jolt of his horse's hooves sent a slice of pain through his belly, and he had to clench his teeth to keep from making any noise. There wasn't anything he or Buck could do to make it better until they got to shelter, so there was no point in complaining.
He tried to focus on looking for the trees to keep his mind off the ache, but his eyes insisted on tearing up no matter how many times he blinked them clear, so he didn't figure he was being much help. Trying was better than dwelling on how he felt, though, so he kept looking.
JD squinted in the direction Buck was pointing. He could just make out the three trees on a short rise. As they got closer, he saw the line shack Buck had mentioned, too--barely more than a large lean-to with a door, but it had to be warmer than where they were. It had been built up against a second, larger hill, which would block some of the wind that felt like it was trying to cut through him.
Buck dismounted first when they finally reached the shack. Ground-hitching his horse, he headed over to the building. As JD started to straighten up so he could dismount, he discovered abruptly how much his stomach muscles had tightened during the ride. He must have made some sort of noise, because Buck turned back toward him.
"Need some help?" the older man asked easily, no sign of the usual teasing in his voice.
JD held up a hand for him to wait, not yet having the breath to answer. Finally, he gasped out, "Just . . . just give me a . . . shove off . . . the side."
He wasn't exactly joking. His legs handled most of the task of keeping him on the horse while it was moving, but getting on and off depending on moving his upper body, and it wasn't going anywhere at the moment.
Buck grinned, but shook his head. "Let's save that for plan B. Think you can get your far leg around on this side?"
"No," JD answered, but gave it a shot anyway.
Buck held onto his arm to steady him, and ever so carefully he inched his leg up over the saddle horn. Then it was just a matter of sliding down and letting Buck catch him. That, and not swearing when his feet hit the ground, which hurt even with Buck's help. Buck was kind enough to pretend not to notice the tears he had to blink back, and didn't let go until he'd got his balance.
They moved carefully over the frozen ground, Buck leading the two horses. One section of the shack had been partitioned off as a make-shift stable, and Buck quickly led the horses in and tied their reins to the support pole.
JD opened the door to the shack. Ducking his head, he stepped inside and looked around in surprise. The interior was actually bigger than it had looked outside. Light filtered in through cracks between the boards, showing that whoever had built the shack had done so around the mouth of a shallow cave, giving the shack two decent-sized rooms instead of one small one.
Buck came in behind him, whistling softly as he got a look at the interior.
"Lot bigger than it looks, ain't it." He dropped the saddlebags he'd carried in onto the floor. "Vin and me never came in, just saw the place from a distance. Pretty decent little spot."
JD nodded. "Now if we just had a fire and a couple of beds."
"And a bottle of whiskey and a pair of pretty ladies," Buck added with a grin. "Guess we'll just have to make do with hardtack and blankets on the ground."
JD turned to look at him, pulling the blankets closer around him. "And a fire?" he asked hopefully.
Buck winced as he shook his head. "Any wood we collect from outside's going to be soaked clear through by the time we melt the ice off it. I brought some kindling for fire starting, but that won't burn more than half an hour, at best." Looking around the empty shack, he added, "We'd do best to use it to melt some of this ice into water for drinking. My canteen's almost empty. The horses need watering, too."
JD sighed, thinking wistfully of the wood-burning stove in the saloon at home, then shoved the thought out of his mind. No point in dwelling on what he couldn't have.
"How 'bout you bring me that kindling. I'll see if I can get a fire going while you get some ice," he offered.
Buck patted him on the shoulder. "Sounds like a plan."
As Buck went back out the door, JD knelt cautiously to clear a spot on the ground for the fire. He felt a twinge as he lowered himself to the ground, but he was moving slowly enough that the twinge subsided back to the dull ache he'd grown accustomed to.
He'd almost finished the job when the cramp hit. There was no warning, just a sudden, twisting pain in his belly that doubled him over and drove the breath out of him. All he could do was wrap his arms around his stomach and try to hold himself together.
After a time, he heard Buck come in and call his name sharply, but he didn't have the breath to answer. Big hands closed over his shoulders and started to sit him up. Whimpering, he drew himself into a tighter huddle as the movement seemed to rip through his stomach.
"Breathe, JD. You've got to breathe," Buck murmured. "Try and relax now."
JD felt one of the hands leave his shoulder and start to work its way between his tightly clenched arms and belly. Then Buck began to rub slow, soothing circles over the tight muscles, pulling JD up against him at the same time. JD pressed his face against Buck's shoulder and tried to feel nothing but the gentle pressure of Buck's hand.
Finally, the muscles relaxed enough that he could draw a breath, and then another. He cautiously relaxed the hold he had on his stomach, but he didn't take his arms completely away and Buck didn't let go of him.
"Sure know how to scare a man, don't you?" Buck said gently. "For a minute there, I thought you'd quit breathing on me."
"Me too," JD whispered, not yet daring anything more strenuous.
It occurred to him suddenly that he was almost warm for the first time since the mare had kicked him. He could feel Buck's shirt against his cheek and thought for a moment that Buck had wrapped his coat around him. Glancing around as best he could without moving his head, he realized that Buck had found a more practical solution: keeping his coat on, he had opened it and pulled JD inside with him, wrapping a blanket around both of them to cover where the coat didn't. Body heat took the place of the fire they didn't have, leaving JD comfortable enough that he could have fallen asleep right there, if not for the lingering tightness in his belly that constantly threatened to become another cramp.
It should have been embarrassing to find himself practically cradled in another man's arms. With anyone else, it would have been. But with Buck, JD knew from experience, whatever he needed was exactly that: what he needed, and Buck would never give him a hard time about it. His hat, yes. His relationship with Casey, absolutely. Any one of the hundreds of stupid, greenhorn things he'd done since arriving in Four Corners, in a heartbeat. But if he were hurt and half-frozen, Buck would wrap him up and hold on to him like it was the most natural thing in the world, and would never say another word about it once they got home.
Sometimes, JD wished he could get a chance to show Buck he'd do the same thing, if the need was there. Other times, more sensible times, he prayed he'd never have to.
"Hey, JD?" Buck patted his back lightly. "Don't go falling asleep on me, now. There's still a fire to make and ice to melt."
"Okay," JD answered. He started to push himself away from Buck, then froze as he felt that warning twinge in his belly again.
"Is it starting again?" Buck reached out a hand to steady him.
"Only when I try to move."
Buck frowned. "Damn. You gotta get those muscles loosened up, kid."
"Tell me about it."
"Tell you what." Buck draped his arm over JD's shoulders. "Just lean back and let me do the work, okay?"
JD did as he was told. Buck lowered him carefully to the ground, then tucked a blanket over him.
"Just take it easy while I get the fire going. See if you can't relax some, or else you're going to be cramping up all night."
JD frowned, but swallowed the protest that he wanted to voice. He didn't like it much, Buck doing all the work while he just lay around, but the truth was, his muscles were shaking with exhaustion from the last cramp and twinging like they were about to start up again. He couldn't have been much help if he'd tried; he just didn't like not trying.
Buck didn't seem to care. He hummed something that might have been intended to be a Christmas carol as he started a small blaze in the middle of the floor, then stepped outside long enough to fill both canteens with ice and broken bits of icicles.
JD tried to concentrate on relaxing the muscles in his stomach. The meager warmth from the fire helped, making him drowsy as he watched Buck hold the canteens over the blaze to melt the ice. He tried rubbing his muscles the way Buck had, but at some point, his hand quit moving, and he didn't have the energy to make it start again.
The fire began to die down. JD watched through half-closed eyes as the last bits of kindling glow a soft red-gold. He heard Buck say something about the horses, then go out the door, but he didn't really pay attention. His eyes were getting heavier, the faint light from the fire was blurring, and as soon as Buck came back in, he'd be able to sleep.
Except a cold draft of air hit him, and he turned unthinkingly away from it. A grinding, tearing pain shot through his middle. Again he couldn't breathe, couldn't cry out, couldn't move beyond an almost involuntary doubling over.
"God, kid, here we go again, huh?"
Buck's voice sounded distant but calm, which was reassuring in a vague way. JD felt Buck lift him close again, felt the older man's hand try to work its way between his arms to work on his stomach muscles. He wanted to help, but he couldn't even control his body enough to make his arms loosen to let Buck in. His lungs were on fire, straining to get in air passed the muscles that were crushing them, but he couldn't even manage that much.
"Remember you gotta breathe, JD." Buck didn't sound quite as calm this time.
JD tried. Black spots danced in front of his eyes.
"Damn it, JD, breathe!"
Then a sudden, stinging pain burned his cheek. Startled, JD gasped, nearly choking on the cold air that rushed into his lungs.
Buck pulled him close again, one hand warmly cradling his head against Buck's shoulder, the other rubbing slow circles against his protesting stomach.
"You've gotta quit scaring me like that," Buck said shakily. "I'm just getting too old to deal with it anymore."
"Me too," JD muttered tiredly.
Buck laughed, a low rumbling in his chest against JD's ear. JD couldn't help but smile, even though he didn't really see anything funny about the situation.
They sat silently as the last of the light disappeared from the room. JD could feel the rigid bands of muscle in his stomach give way under Buck's massage. By the time he thought it might be safe to move, every other muscle in his body had gone limp, too, and it didn't seem worth the effort. Buck didn't seem to mind him staying put, so he didn't offer to move.
Finally, Buck stirred, but it was only to reach over and grab the blanket JD had been using earlier. He pulled it up over both of them, adding its warmth to his coat.
"Seems like we'll both stay warmer this way," he said softly.
JD nodded. He figured he had to be more comfortable than Buck, since Buck was leaning back against the cold wall of the shack, but if Buck didn't mind, neither did he. He didn't quite trust his stomach not to cramp up if he moved, anyway.
"Only problem is, the saddlebag with the hardtack is clear across the room," Buck continued. "Hope you weren't hungry."
Actually, the thought of food was a little nauseating. He shook his head, his breath catching as the movement sent a little twinge through his stomach muscles.
"Easy, now," Buck said absently. "Just settle down and relax."
"I am," JD mumbled. He was so tired, he didn't think he could have moved right then if the shack had caught fire. If the ache in his stomach would just ease up, he'd be asleep in a second.
"Uh-huh," Buck said disbelievingly. "That why you're as tight as a . . . um . . . "
JD snickered, having a good idea what Buck had stopped himself from saying.
"A what?" he asked around a yawn.
JD grinned again, then closed his eyes and tried to relax. A minute later, his eyes were open, staring into the darkness again.
"JD . . ."
"The more I think about loosening up, the tighter I get."
Buck whapped him lightly on the head. "Then quit thinking about it."
"How am I supposed to do that?"
Buck shifted, as if settling himself more comfortably, then asked, "Did I ever tell you about that time in that little Mexican town . . ."
"Yep, three times." JD yawned again. "Chris said that never happened."
"Shows what he knows," Buck said indignantly. "He wasn't even there."
"Neither were you, according to him."
"Hmph." Buck shifted again. "Go to sleep, kid."
JD tried. Two minutes later, his eyes were open again, and he was trying to breathe through a sharp tightening under his ribs.
Buck started his slow massage again without even asking what was wrong.
"Hey, Buck?" JD asked when he could get his breath. "Why were you in such a big hurry to get home, anyway?"
He'd only asked to get his mind off the pain, but Buck stiffened as if he'd been hit.
"Guess if I hadn't, we wouldn't be in this mess."
JD winced at Buck's bitter tone.
"If I hadn't tried to catch that mare, we wouldn't be in this mess," he said firmly. "You trying to avoid the question?"
That distracted Buck enough that he relaxed and whapped JD on the head again. "Don't get uppity, boy. I ain't avoiding nothing."
Buck was quiet for a moment. "Charlie's pies."
"Charlie, over at the hotel. He makes those dried apple pies for Christmas. Serves it hot with cream poured on it, after the wild turkey and mashed 'taters."
"Pies?" JD asked again. "We could've stayed in Eagle Bend and had pies."
"Yeah." Buck sighed. After a long silence, he added softly, "But we would've been in Eagle Bend."
"Seems like we haven't had a Christmas yet where we could all sit down and have a decent meal together. The first year, nobody much felt like celebrating anything, and Nathan and Ezra wouldn't even stay in the same room with each other. Then last Christmas . . . " Buck trailed off, but JD felt his shudder. "Anyway, I thought it'd be nice to sit down and enjoy some of Charlie's pies."
JD didn't remember much about last Christmas. He heard the slightly wistful note in Buck's voice, though, in place of the joking tone he was used to.
"It would be nice," he said softly, then grinned. "Now Josiah and Vin'll probably eat all the pies before we get there."
Buck chuckled. "Probably."
JD sighed. His eyes were starting to feel heavy again. Buck's hand rested on his stomach, no longer moving but warm and oddly comforting.
"Leave early enough tomorrow and we might make it back in time for supper," Buck continued, his voice sounding a little drowsy.
JD yawned. "Yeah. Hey, Buck?"
"If I can't ride tomorrow, I want you to go on to Four Corners by yourself, okay?"
Buck's voice was suddenly more alert. "Don't talk crazy, JD."
"I ain't talking crazy. If I can't sit a horse, the smart thing to do would be for you to go home and get a wagon."
"And leave you out here in the cold when you can barely move? If we make it home tomorrow, it'll be together."
JD sighed. "Buck . . . "
"When're you going to learn not to argue with me?"
"I'm not . . . "
"Shut up and go to sleep."
"But . . . "
"Fine. But if you miss your pie, don't go blaming me."
Buck whapped him again, and JD wisely decided to let the subject drop. Letting his eyes fall closed, he listened to the wind blowing outside the shack and sighed peacefully.
He must have slept, because he was jerked awake as another cramp hit him. This one wasn't as bad as before. He could at least breathe this time.
"Shh, son, it's all right," Buck whispered sleepily. "Don't fight it. Just breathe and let it go."
Barely awake, JD pressed his forehead against Buck's shoulder. Buck's words drifted through his sleep-fogged mind, and he tried to obey, matching his breathing to Buck's until darkness dragged him down again.
The last thing he heard was Buck's whisper.
"It's all right. Just let go."
Chris pulled his coat around himself more tightly and wondered for the thousandth time what he was doing riding around the frozen countryside in the middle of the night. He was tired, he was so cold he couldn't feel his nose or his fingers, and if he had any sense he'd be back in his room with a decent bottle of whiskey and a fire in the wood stove.
He glanced over at his companion. Vin was nearly as bundled up as he was, and looked twice as cold. The tracker had an intent look in his eye that Chris knew and had learned not to cross. When Vin looked like that, the smartest thing to do was get the hell out of his way.
"It's just over that rise," Vin called through his scarf. "If Buck remembered, that's where he'll be."
"Hope you're right."
Vin just gave a short nod and urged his horse on faster.
If it hadn't been for the weather, Chris wouldn't have thought twice about Buck and JD being a day late coming back from Eagle Bend. Buck was likely to get distracted by a pretty face, and JD . . . well, JD was actually a little more responsible than Buck, but he'd let Buck talk him into almost anything.
Odds were, they'd decided to stay in Eagle Bend when they'd seen how bad it would be to travel. Chris had told himself that over and over that day, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong.
Vin had apparently had the same feeling. He'd started in before noon talking about a line shack he and Buck had found last spring and how Buck and JD could camp there for the night if they needed to. By mid-afternoon, he was staring out the window of the saloon, wondering out loud if they were going to have more freezing rain that night.
By sunset, Chris had growled at him to saddle his horse and quit making such a fuss. Neither of them had said anything when Nathan followed them into the stable with a bundle of bandages, laudanum, and a jar of healing salve.
It had been a quiet journey, too. Neither man wanted to think about what might have happened to their friends, and it was too cold to do much more than huddle down and ride.
The moon was nearly full, lighting up the white landscape almost like daylight and allowing them to make good time. They were almost at the line shack Vin had spoken of. If Buck and JD weren't there, Chris had already planned to spend what was left of the night there and continue on to Eagle Bend the next day. He and Vin had brought enough wood wrapped in their bedroll tarps to make a decent fire, and he was looking forward to thawing out his fingers.
As they topped the small hill Vin had pointed out, Chris caught sight of the line shack. It wasn't much to look at, but it would keep the wind off. No light came from inside, though, and that was nearly as chilling as the wind.
Vin led the way down the hill. As they got closer, Vin turned and called back to Chris, "There's horses stabled on the smaller side. One looks like Buck's grey."
Chris's gut tightened as he urged his horse on faster. Pulling up in front of the shack, he jumped down, barely taking time to call, "Buck, it's Chris," before going through the door.
As the moonlight spilled across the floor of the shack, Chris stopped dead. Vin ran into him, then swore softly and pushed past to go to the two men lying against the wall.
"Buck? JD?" Vin shook Buck's shoulder. "Damn, Chris, they're both freezing. Get that wood and get a fire going."
Chris let out a breath he didn't know he was holding and went to get the wood. Before long, a small fire was warming the room. Vin had piled their blankets on top of the ones Buck and JD were already wearing. He'd tried to wake them a couple of times without success, but finally Buck started to shift around a little.
"Buck?" Chris said softly. "Buck, time to wake up."
"Mmm?" Buck frowned, then blinked. "Chris? Wha--JD?"
He sat up, grabbing at JD with a panicked expression before he seemed to realize the younger man was still there. JD groaned faintly, but didn't wake up.
"JD's okay," Vin said softly, squatting down beside the two. "Glad to see you remembered this place. Ain't a fit night out."
"Okay?" Buck sounded dazed as he leaned back against the wall. He blinked again, then focused on Chris and Vin. "How'd you two . . . "
"Felt like a little fresh air," Chris said dryly. "Vin remembered this line shack you two had found, thought you might be here."
"Yeah." Buck freed one hand from the blankets to rub over his face. "We got held up. JD got kicked in the gut by a stray horse."
"Is he . . . ?" Chris trailed off, not sure exactly whether he wanted to ask if the kid was okay or hurt badly.
"I don't think it's too bad, but he keeps cramping up. I don't think he could sit a horse for a few days."
Vin grinned. "Nathan sent laudanum."
Buck frowned at him, not awake enough yet to follow his train of thought.
"Give him a swig and he won't be cramping up," Chris elaborated. "Might have to tie him to his saddle, but he'll make it home."
Buck nodded. Leaning his head back against the wall tiredly, he closed his eyes as his hand dropped back to JD's shoulder.
"Glad you guys could make it."
"Like I said, we needed some fresh air. Vin gets cabin fever if he's stuck inside too long."
Vin gave Chris a look that told him he'd pay later for that comment.
"Just got a little worried, is all," the tracker said softly.
"Glad you did." Buck forced his eyes back open. "You to want to pull up a blanket and catch some sleep?"
"Sounds like a plan," Chris answered. "If we get up early enough in the morning, we can make it back home by supper."
He had no idea why that made Buck chuckle, or why JD, who was supposed to be asleep, grinned widely before snuggling down closer to Buck's chest and sighing contentedly.
Long after they'd banked the fire and settled down to sleep, Chris heard a couple of low whispers from across the room.
"Told you we'd go home together."
"Just make sure you save me a piece of that pie."