Topic #79: Ledged Up
|Rescue by: Cindy||Up on the Farm by: Miss Raye|
|Over the Ledge by: Dede|
"Come on, let's just get it done."
"Ain't no reason to hurry."
"Ain't no reason to wait, either."
With a heavy sigh, Jimmy lifted his hat from over his eyes, and sat up on his bunk, swinging his legs over the edge. Pointing dramatically at the window, he sighed again. "'Case you hadn't noticed, it's rainin' out there."
Buck rolled his eyes with equal drama. "I'd noticed," he said dryly, looking up as a roll of thunder boomed. "Kind of hard to miss."
"Then why go out?"
"We've got chores to do, Jimmy."
"We can do 'em tomorrow." Jimmy hopped down and continued quickly, before Buck could voice an objection. "Ike's takin' Emma to Blue Creek for that wedding, right? Won't be back for a few days. Kid and Cody got that special run to Green River." He held up one hand, ticking off four fingers. "Lou's on a run, not due back 'til day after tomorrow." His thumb went down for number five. "Teaspoon's stayin' in town to help out 'til Sam gets back from takin' that prisoner to Fort Laramie." He looked down, realizing he was out of fingers, so he just waved his hand for emphasis. "No one here but you an' me, Buck. So we can do the chores tomorrow!" He smiled, confident of his logic.
Buck raised one eyebrow in a skeptical response. "If we wait 'til tomorrow we'll have twice as many chores to do."
Jimmy's smile faltered briefly at that thought. "But it won't be rainin' so hard!"
Buck eyed the window, where the rain seemed to be falling in sheets. "And how do you know that?" he challenged, interested in knowing what Jimmy's prognostication secret was.
"Well, it can't keep rainin' like this for long," Jimmy replied, scowling.
Before Buck could reply, both of them were distracted by the sound of a horse, running fast.
"Now who'd be out ridin' in weather like this?" Jimmy muttered.
Buck could only shrug and shake his head. He tried looking out the window, but the rain was too heavy, and he couldn't see beyond the bunkhouse porch.
"Help! Oh please, someone help me!"
The woman's voice somehow carried over the storm, and both riders swung into action. Buck ran for the door, with Jimmy half a step behind. They made it out onto the porch just in time to see the horse stop suddenly in the yard, its rider barely holding on at the end of the wild ride.
Buck and Jimmy both sprang forward. Buck managed to get a hand out to steady the woman before she fell, and Jimmy grabbed the horse's bridle to hold the animal steady as his friend helped their mystery guest to the ground. She had a hat pulled low over her face, and was shivering from her ride in the cold rain.
In just the short time they'd been out, both men were drenched as well, and all three were standing in mud up to their ankles. Without even needing to speak, Buck and Jimmy each grabbed one of the woman's arms and helped her up onto the porch and into the slim shelter of the overhang.
The woman was shaking, and sobbing. They could see her hands trembling as she pushed back the hat.
"Mrs. Timmons?" Jimmy said. He still couldn't see her whole face, but he thought it was Emma's widowed neighbor to the north.
The woman nodded and looked up. She took a few deep breaths, trying to still her sobs. "Please," she begged. "Please, you have to help me." Her gaze went back and forth between the two men, her eyes pleading.
"What's wrong, ma'am?" Buck asked, as gently as he could.
She sobbed again, then gulped. "Joey. My son Joey…" Another sob tore from her throat. "I can't find him!"
Jimmy thought for a moment, vaguely recalling a small tow-headed boy with her in town. "How old is Joey?"
"He's… he's only six."
Buck reached for the door and opened it. "Why don't you come inside and tell us what happened," he suggested, stepping inside.
Estelle Timmons took one look back at the horse she'd ridden in on, then stepped into the bunkhouse. While Jimmy followed her and closed the door, Buck went to the stove and poured coffee into a mug.
"Drink this," he suggested, handing her the mug and pulling a chair out for her.
Estelle took the proffered drink, wrapping chilled fingers around the mug for warmth. Then she sat nervously on the edge of the chair.
"How long has the boy been gone?" Jimmy asked, perching one hip on the end of the table.
Her hands started shaking again and she set the mug down, hard, sloshing some of the liquid out. "Maybe… maybe an hour."
"Where did you last see him?" Buck asked. He had already reached for his gun belt and was strapping it on, preparing to leave once they had the facts.
"He was out on the porch," Estelle said softly. "He was playing with the puppy he got for his birthday last month. Joey…" Her voice trailed off, and she swallowed hard. "Joey said he was hungry," she finally continued softly. "I went inside to make some sandwiches. He promised… he promised me he'd stay right there." She shivered, wrapping her arms around her shoulders. "I wasn't inside for very long, but when I came out, he… he wasn't there."
Jimmy watched as she took a deep breath, trying to compose herself, before he asked his next question. "What about the puppy? Was it still there?"
Estelle shook her head. "No. Scruffy was gone too."
That said a lot to Jimmy, and one look at Buck's face convinced him that they were both having the same thought. "Do you figure maybe the dog ran off, and Joey followed?"
This time Estelle nodded. "That's what I thought. But I called and called for him, and I looked all around the farm. The barn, the smokehouse, the woodshed…" She turned tear-filled eyes up toward the two men. "I don't know where a young boy, and a small dog, could have gone so quickly. I wasn't inside long at all. Really, I wasn't."
"It's not your fault, ma'am," Buck said quickly. He well remembered how lost he had gotten once as a young boy in very little time when his mother had turned her back. "We'll help you find him."
The first sign of hope flickered in her eyes. "Emma talks so highly of you riders. I just didn't know where else to go for help. Town is so far…"
"Well, it's just the two of us here right now," Jimmy said. "But you got the two best. I'm Jimmy Hickok, and this here's Buck Cross."
Estelle sighed, looking down at her hands. "I know I'm asking a lot, especially in this storm."
Jimmy waved a hand, dismissing that concern. "A little rain ain't gonna bother us, ma'am."
Buck hid his grin as he grabbed their jackets. Just a few minutes earlier Jimmy had been complaining about the very idea of going out in the rain. "Jimmy's not sweet enough to melt," he assured Estelle as he tossed one jacket to his friend, conveniently hitting him in the face.
Jimmy scowled as he snagged the jacket and started to pull it on. "A Pony Express rider gets used to workin' in all kinds of weather," he said, very seriously.
Buck used the act of shrugging into his own jacket to hide another grin. "I'll get the horses," he said as he worked the buttons. "Why don't you get some rope," he suggested. Without waiting for an answer, he stuffed his hat on his head and headed out into the rain.
Estelle gasped. "Rope? What do you think…"
"We just wanna be prepared," Jimmy assured her. He buttoned his own jacket and reached for his hat. "We're gonna find him, ma'am." With that, he too walked out into the rain.
They reached the Timmons farm, Buck and Jimmy riding on either side of Estelle, who was obviously not used to being on a horse. But they made it to the house and Buck helped her down while Jimmy tied off the three horses.
There were a few items on the front porch - a frayed length of rope, just right for tug-of-war between a boy and his puppy; a cup, with a bit of milk still sitting at the bottom; a well-gnawed bone.
Jimmy and Estelle stood to one side as Buck looked around. With all of the rain, neither of the men was very hopeful of finding a usable track to follow. But as he reached the far corner, Buck suddenly stopped and then crouched down, reaching out to gently move some branches of a shrub aside.
Climbing onto the porch where he couldn't cover any possible tracks, Jimmy walked to the corner. "See somethin'?" he asked.
Buck pointed to where a clear footprint was visible - just about the size a six year old might make. Next to it were a couple of small puppy-sized paw prints. Partially hidden by the shrub, the marks hadn't yet been erased by the rain. "This was caught in the bush," he said, holding up a tuft of light brown fur.
"All the rain and wind, figures this couldn't have been there that long," Jimmy said.
Buck nodded. "That's what I'd figure." He stood up and pointed off the way the print was facing. "Recognize that?"
Jimmy followed the line of Buck's arm, and then he nodded slowly. "Devil's Gate," he whispered.
The Gate was a major landmark along the Oregon and Pony Express Trail. Carved over the millennia by the Sweetwater River, it marked a deep cleft in the rock just outside of the town.
Buck turned toward Estelle Timmons. "Ma'am, is there anything in that direction, other than the river?"
She gasped, one hand to her mouth. Shaking her head slowly, she whispered an answer. "He knows not to go toward the river."
Buck and Jimmy exchanged a worried glance. A young boy, possibly chasing a puppy…
As one, they started toward the river.
Estelle hurried up behind them. "No, Joey knows…"
Jimmy reached for her arm. "Ma'am, maybe you should stay here. Nothin' says for sure he went this way."
"He might come back and be looking for you," Buck added, trying to make it sound like he believed that was a real possibility.
"No, I have to know," she whispered, almost pleading.
Another glance passed between the riders, and then they acquiesced. The three of them continued on toward the river.
Buck kept his gaze focused on the ground, hoping against the odds to see another sign. But this time no track didn't mean much, because this was open ground, and the storm would have obliterated the light tracks of a boy and a puppy in no time.
Suddenly though he stopped, holding up one hand. He turned his head, listening…
Estelle stepped forward. "What is it?" she asked anxiously. "What…"
Jimmy reached out a hand to silence her questions. He didn't understand it, but more than once he'd witnessed Buck hearing something long before anyone else did. Seeing Buck's head turn toward the northwest, Jimmy turned that way too. He strained to listen…
"The puppy!" Jimmy declared - but Buck was already running in that direction.
They slogged through the mud, the puppy's frantic yipping becoming louder and clearer as they ran. Soon another sound became clear as well.
It was a rumble, almost a low roar - and it was coming from the direction of the river.
The two men ran faster, quickly outdistancing Estelle Timmons. They didn't need to speak; each knew the meaning of that sound. The mountains were just beginning to release the snow from their peaks as the spring weather started to warm up. The snow melt, combined with the heavy rains of the last few weeks, had combined to turn the normally placid Sweetwater River into a raging ribbon of water. The normal fords had been impassable for the last couple of weeks, forcing the riders to detour to complete their runs.
The roaring grew in volume, as did the barking. And then, suddenly, they were at the edge of the river. At the Devil's Gate itself, the gorge was nearly four hundred feet deep. Here, some distance south, the walls had dropped to somewhere between thirty and forty feet above the river - though that distance had decreased as the flood waters rose.
Buck reached the edge, jumping back quickly as the damp earth crumbled under his foot. But the barking was close. "Joey!"
"Joey!" Jimmy's voice joined in, calling the boy's name in a mixture of hope and fear…
"I'm down here."
The response was soft and a bit shaky, but it was a sweet sound to the two men on top of the cliff.
Buck dropped to his stomach in the mud and edged out as far as he dared. When he felt Jimmy's weight on his legs he leaned out a little farther. It took a few moments for him to make out the shapes, but then he saw them. They were on a narrow ledge, the boy huddled against the rock wall, the puppy held tight beside him.
Pushing himself back carefully, Buck rolled to his knees. "Maybe twenty feet down," he said.
"Figure there's a way down?" Jimmy asked.
Buck shook his head. "Didn't see one. This rain's washing away everything that's not solid rock."
"Let me look." Jimmy crept toward the edge, waiting until Buck's weight held his legs before he slid forward to study the drop. Unfortunately, he didn't see a way down either. All he could see was the small ledge - and below that, the raging waters of the Sweetwater. "Yeah, he's ledged up for sure," Jimmy said as he pulled back. "Got any ideas?"
Before Buck could answer, Estelle finally reached them. Struggling through the mud, she headed right for the edge. "Joey? Joey, are you there?"
Buck lunged, managing to pull her to the ground just a few feet from the edge. "Ma'am, be careful. That edge is crumbling."
"But my baby… he's down there?"
"Yes, ma'am," Jimmy replied. "And he's fine, for now."
"Probably real scared," Buck added. "Maybe you could talk to him. But stay back from the edge. It's not safe." And the last thing they needed was someone else to rescue, especially when they hadn't figured out how to save the first person yet.
As Estelle began to talk to her son, Buck turned to Jimmy. "Get the ropes and a horse," he said softly. I think that's the only way."
Jimmy nodded and got to his feet. "Be right back."
Buck sat quietly, watching Estelle. He was ready to jump, if she tried to move toward the edge. But despite her obvious fear for her son, she stayed back and continued to call encouragement to the boy.
Jimmy returned a few minutes later, riding his horse and with the coil of rope hooked over the saddle horn. "How you wanna do this?" he asked as he dismounted and started to make a loop.
Buck slipped his hat and gun belt off, hooking both over the horn on Jimmy's saddle. He reached for the rope and started to slip the loop over his head. "I figure…"
Jimmy pulled the rope tight. "Why do you figure you're the one goin' down there?"
"I'm lighter," Buck said simply.
Jimmy looked for an argument against that. The two men were fairly well matched, but he had to admit that Buck was thinner. In fact, Emma frequently encouraged the Kiowa rider to eat more, considering him too thin. "Just be careful," he muttered.
Buck grinned, settling the loop of rope around his chest, under his arms. "You just hold on tight," he countered.
Jimmy returned the grin as he measured out enough rope to lower Buck to Joey's location, and then tied off the excess to the saddle. "I'll do my part."
They walked toward the edge, Jimmy leading the horse a little closer - but not too close. He was all too aware that if the edge gave way under the horse's weight, it wouldn't bode well for Buck or the boy. As Buck checked the rope one more time, Jimmy moved over to Estelle and put his hands gently on her shoulders. "Ma'am, you're gonna have to move back now."
She looked back at him, appearing a bit dazed. Tears were running freely down her cheeks. "What?"
Jimmy lifted her to her feet as he talked. "Buck's gonna go down on a rope," he explained. "We need to make some room."
Estelle turned to look at Buck. "You will save him, won't you?" she pleaded.
"Yes, ma'am," Buck replied. He put all of the confidence he could into his words, but the truth was, this was going to be anything but easy, especially in the storm.
Estelle hesitated, then finally stepped back. "They're coming to get you, Joey," she called. "You hold on, baby!"
Jimmy stepped up next to Buck. "You ready?"
Buck nodded and moved up to the edge. "I'm going to start here, a little downriver from where the ledge is. I don't want to have anything collapse on the boy." He kept his voice low, not wanting to panic Estelle Timmons any more.
"Good idea," Jimmy agreed. He nodded his head back toward the horse. "You're tied off, and I'll be holdin' on too."
Buck nodded, an unspoken trust between them. "Let's do this."
As Jimmy pulled on his gloves and settled the rope on his hip, Buck backed up to the edge of the cliff. Bits of dirt and small rocks, loosened by the rain, fell off under his feet as he grasped the rope tightly and lowered himself slowly toward the river raging below.
He did his best not to think about that.
Instead, he focused his attention on the narrow ledge where the boy and the puppy were huddled. Even as he watched, part of the outer lip crumbled away, tumbling into the river and disappearing.
With Jimmy guiding the rope, he was able to walk slowly down the cliff face. Finally, he looked over and found himself even with the ledge holding the boy. It seemed to have taken a very long time, even though he knew it couldn't really have been more than a matter of minutes. But his arms were already aching from hanging on to the rope so tightly.
"I'm moving over now, Jimmy," Buck called, moving slightly to his left. In response, he felt the rope shift with him.
Step by careful step, Buck made his way to his left, getting closer to the ledge. He could see the boy and the puppy, huddled together. "Hi, Joey. My name's Buck."
The answer was quiet, timid, but at least the boy was talking. Buck figured that was a good sign in the cold rain. Besides, maybe he could help keep the boy from getting more scared. "What's your dog's name?" he asked, knowing the answer but wanting to keep the boy engaged.
"Scruffy. That's a good name."
"Yeah, 'cause when Mr. Klein brought him over, my mom said he looked kind of scruffy."
"How'd you get over to the river, Joey?"
The boy's head dipped. "I know I'm not s'posed to go by the river. But Scruffy ran off after a squirrel, and I had to catch him."
"How did you get down here?" Buck asked, almost to the ledge. And even from this angle he couldn't see a path down.
"There was a tree right there," Joey replied, pointing just above him. "An' Scruffy ran down by it. I went after him, but I slipped. I… I grabbed the tree, but it came out."
Buck nodded, realizing what must have happened. All along the high banks there were small tree, holding tenuously to whatever soil they could find to put roots into. The heavy rains they'd been experiencing would have been washing that soil away. Joey's weight must have been enough to dislodge whatever was still holding the tree there, and it had fallen, taking whatever path he had followed with it. "Did you get hurt when you fell?"
"My foot hurts a little."
"Well, we'll get you up to your mother soon as we can."
Joey started to sniffle, and his lower lip trembled. "She's gonna be real mad."
"She's going to be real happy when you're safe," Buck countered. "But you see now why she doesn't want you coming by the river?"
The little boy nodded vigorously.
Buck reached the ledge. He was hanging a little low, so he had to lift his legs up to get his feet onto the surface. He tested it carefully before putting his full weight down, but it seemed sturdy enough. "I'm down!" he called out.
Jimmy's voice came back almost immediately. "Whatta ya want to do?"
"Give me a minute to figure that out." He looked down at Joey, considering. Sending the boy up alone in the wind and rain didn't seem like a very good idea. But the boy certainly didn't weigh much, so the extra weight shouldn't be more than Jimmy could handle, especially with the horse to help, if they went up together. Still, having the boy in front of him would hinder his ability to use the rope to climb, and might bump Joey against the cliff. "Joey, are you pretty strong?"
"I'm real strong," the boy answered proudly.
"That's good, because I'm going to have you get on my back. And you'll have to hold on real tight. Can you do that?"
Joey nodded. "What about Scruffy?"
Buck looked down at the dog, curled into a wet brown ball at the boy's side. The dog was rather scruffy-looking - but fortunately also fairly small. He shifted his weight, catching his balance against the rope when the outer edge of the ledge cracked away. Not as solid as it had seemed. "We'll take care of Scruffy," he promised, reaching down to scoop the pup up. Balancing carefully, he loosened the rope a bit, opened the top of his jacket and a few buttons of his shirt, then slipped the wiggling dog inside. Fortunately, Scruffy seemed to appreciate the relative warmth and soon quit struggling. Next, he turned to Joey. "Ready?"
The boy's eyes were wide, and he looked scared, but he nodded.
Shifting the puppy's weight so it was centered, Buck tightened the rope under his arms again, then turned slowly and bent his knees, crouching down. "Be real careful," he cautioned. "Take it slow, and climb on my back" He heard the scuffing of feet, felt hands on his back. Then Joey's weight was on him, and small arms wrapped tightly around his neck. "Ready?"
"Yeah," Joey replied, his voice a soft breath against Buck's neck.
"Jimmy, we're ready!"
Buck felt the rope go taut. He kept one hand on the rope as a guide, and kept the other free to push against the cliff. He put one foot against the rock, and the other followed as he started to walk up the wall.
Step by small step they moved upward. The rope was an uncomfortable presence under his arms, and Scruffy was wiggling again, but they moved about three feet up the cliff…
And stopped with a jerk.
"Uh, the rope's stuck. Hang on."
As if he could do anything else? "Can you see anything?"
"No. Can you?"
Buck twisted his neck, trying not to bump into Joey. The boy's head was wedged against his own head and shoulders. He looked up, staring right into the rain, following the rope up… to where it disappeared into a deep crevasse in the rock. Unfortunately, the place was about six or seven feet over his head, and probably about the same distance below Jimmy. "Yeah, the rope's in a crack in the rocks." He tried to keep the frustration out of his voice, not wanting to further scare Joey.
There was some scrambling up on top, and some loose dirt and stones cascaded down. Buck threw an arm up, trying to deflect as much as he could from landing on his head, and Joey's. He also kept his feet braced against the wall, trying to lessen the pressure of the rope across his chest.
A little more scrambling, and then Jimmy's voice called out again. "Uh, Buck, it ain't movin' from here. Any way you can climb?"
Buck considered it for a moment, studying the rock. But the wall there was almost sheer, the few cracks nowhere near big enough to be good handholds or footholds, especially on the rain-slickened rock. With Joey on his back, and a puppy squirming in his shirt, there was no way he could attempt it. And a quick glance down showed him no secure way to get back to the ledge to relieve himself of the passengers. "No, it's no good trying to climb," he finally responded.
There was silence from above, but Joey's voice suddenly spoke into Buck's ear. "Are we gonna die?"
The question caught Buck off guard for a moment, but then he shook his head. "No, we're just stuck for a little bit," he said, trying to sound confident.
"All I can think of, Buck, is I'll go up to the farm. Mrs. Timmons thinks there's some rope in the barn." Jimmy's voice had a frustrated, slightly desperate tone to it.
"Wait." It didn't take Buck long to reject that idea. The rope was seriously cutting into his chest, making it hard to breathe as he hung there. And he'd already figured out he couldn't go up or down. Unless…
He looked down, past his feet, past the ledge. The river swept by, running high and fast. He studied the flow for a moment, pleased to see no indication of large rocks directly below them. The water ran smoothly as far as he could see.
"Jimmy, it'll take too long. We're going into the river."
"Buck, I can't lower you either!"
"I know, I'll cut the rope."
There was a muffled scream and Estelle Timmons cried out. "No! Not the river…"
There were more sounds of scrambling up above, and Buck could picture Jimmy stopping the woman from running to the edge. "The water's plenty deep," he called up. Then he added a silent I hope to himself.
"Buck, I don't know how to help from up here."
The plan was coming together in Buck's mind. "I'll cut the rope when I'm ready."
"You're sure about this?"
"It's the best way, Jimmy."
"What do you want me to do, Buck?"
Buck took another look at the fast-running water before answering. "Once I cut myself loose, see if you can get the rope loose. If not, cut it on your end too, and then get downriver. The cliffs level out, but I might need help getting out."
"I'll be there."
Decision made, Buck turned his attention to the other party involved. "Joey?"
"Are we really goin' in the river?"
"Yeah, we are."
"My pa was teachin' me to swim," the boy said. "But then he died."
Buck decided he couldn't deal with that issue right now. "It's all right," he said. "I'm a good swimmer." He shifted his hands on the rope and used his left hand to reach for Joey's left foot. "Pull your leg around me." The boy complied, and Buck braced his legs against the cliff, then took his right hand and grabbed Joey's arm. "Real slow now, you need to slide around so you're in front of me." When it was only going to be a matter of a few minutes to climb up on the rope, he was willing to trust Joey to hang on. But dropping into the river was something entirely different. For that, he wanted to be able to hold the boy himself.
Slowly, with Buck's coaching, Joey slid around until he was in front. "I can feel Scruffy wiggling," the boy giggled.
"Yeah, me too," Buck replied. And he was glad Joey had something to distract him. "Jimmy?"
Buck bent his knees until he could reach his knife. "I'm ready."
"Ready up here too."
"See you downriver, Jimmy," Buck called, with all the confidence he could muster. "Cutting now."
He kept the blade in top shape, and it sliced through the rope in once swift motion. With his right hand on the rope above the cut he was able to hang on long enough to re-sheath the knife. Then he pushed back with his legs, let go, and they fell.
He managed - barely - to get Joey wrapped tightly in his arms before the cold water took his breath away as they hit. He took the brunt of the impact on his back, keeping Joey on top. For a moment the water washed all the way over his head, and he freed one arm, pulling with all his strength toward the light he could see above.
They emerged from the cocoon of the water, Buck and Joey sputtering together. The force of the river propelled them along, and Buck didn't fight it. The canyon walls were still too tall and steep here. As long as they stayed afloat - and didn't hit any submerged obstacles - it was best to just ride the flow. Nearer to town the river widened, and the banks were lower, offering better egress.
For the most part he managed to stay on his back, Joey held tightly to him. At one point he caught a glimpse of Jimmy, sitting on his horse, on the canyon rim. And then the rider disappeared again, heading downriver.
At a few points the river spun them around. One of those times he lost a glove to the rolling water. Another time something ripped at his leg and there was a quick, sharp pain, but the cold water quickly numbed it. Time enough to worry about it when they got out.
What he was starting to worry about was how the cold water was affecting him. His hands and feet were going numb from the immersion.
He was back on his back, floating feet-first, so he raised his head, trying to look ahead. Much to his relief, he could see the lower banks coming up fast.
Making sure that he had Joey secure with his left arm, Buck used his right arm and his legs to pull across the current until his feet were behind him. Then he started trying to swim to the bank.
The rushing current was reluctant to give up its passengers. With only one arm to use, and exhausted from the cold and fighting the current, he made little progress. He knew it would be easier with both arms free, but he was reluctant to trust the boy's strength to hold on against the swift, strong current.
He was agonizingly close to the bank, and just as agonizingly far away.
Suddenly, he saw movement on the bank, and as he watched a rope came flying over the water, landing right in front of him. He lunged for the loop at the end, wrapping his fingers tightly around it. Almost immediately he felt a tug, and they moved toward the bank.
When his knees scraped the bottom, Buck struggled to get to his feet, Joey still firmly grasped in his arms. But his numbed legs refused to cooperate, and he stumbled. But then strong arms grabbed him, helped him onto firm ground. He fell onto his back, exhausted.
Jimmy gently extricated Joey from Buck's grasp, wiping some mud from the boy's face. "You all right?"
The boy nodded, then shivered.
"We'll get you warmed up real soon," Jimmy promised, then turned his attention to his friend. "Buck?"
Buck coughed, spitting out some river water. "Joey?"
"He's fine. Just kinda cold. His ma'll be here soon. I just rode faster."
"Saw you one time, up on top."
"I was followin' you the whole way. When I seen you start for the bank, I stopped to help."
"How bad's the leg?"
Buck hadn't really thought much about the injury; in the cold water it hadn't hurt much. But now it was starting to throb. He raised his head, noting the blood on his pants. "Hit something under the water. Not sure how bad."
Jimmy pulled the bandana from his neck and wrapped it around the gash. "We'll get it taken care of."
Just then a horse came running up, Estelle Timmons hanging on gamely. Seeing the gathering on the muddy bank, she pulled the horse to a stop and nearly fell off the saddle in her haste to get down. And then she was running through the muck, arms outstretched. "Joey!"
She fell to her knees, wrapping her son in a huge hug. "Oh, Joey, are you all right?"
"I'm cold," he replied. "But Mr. Buck, he took care of me. And we were floating down the river, Ma!"
Estelle just held him closer, unable to reply to that. Finally, she got to her feet, Joey's hand firmly clasped in her own, and walked over to his rescuers. "I don't know how to thank you."
"I'm glad we could help, ma'am," Jimmy said.
"Me too," Buck added, still flat on his back.
"Well, the least I can do is offer some hot coffee and a fire to warm up by," Estelle said. "And I can clean and bandage that wound for you."
Jimmy nodded his acceptance. "Thank you, ma'am."
"Are you badly hurt?" she asked Buck.
He shook his head. "Just cold, and tired."
"Well, I'll just head back to the house and start the fire," she said. "You come along when you're ready."
Jimmy helped her onto the horse, then handed Joey up onto the saddle. He watched as they headed off, then returned to where Buck still lay in the mud.
Buck was struggling with the knot on the rope that was still around his chest. "My fingers are too cold," he said when Jimmy returned.
Jimmy reached for Buck's knife and carefully sliced the rope free. As he was replacing the knife, Buck's chest seemed to come to life, and he watched in amusement as a small brown head poked out from the top of his jacket.
Buck grinned and reached out to rub the dog's head. "Hey, Scruffy," he murmured as he undid a couple of buttons.
Finally freed, the puppy burst out, stopped to shake himself, and then took off after the horse that carried his boy away, yipping all the way.
Jimmy watched the whole thing, a big grin on his face. "Interesting way to save the dog."
Buck grinned too. "Ran out of hands."
"You sure you're all right?"
Buck nodded. "Water was just really cold, and running fast."
"Good thing it was you who went on the rope, I guess."
Jimmy shrugged. "I can't swim."
Somehow, after everything he'd just gone through, that struck Buck as extremely funny, and he started to laugh.
After a moment's pause, Jimmy joined him.
"Ready to go get warmed up?" Jimmy finally asked.
Buck nodded. "Definitely."
Jimmy got to his feet and extended a hand, pulling Buck up after him. Together, they started toward Jimmy's horse.
When they got there though, Jimmy turned toward Buck, a quizzical look on his face. "You still wanna do chores today?"
Somehow the very idea struck Buck as extremely humorous, and, despite his exhaustion, he laughed again. "No," he finally admitted. "They can wait for tomorrow."
"I knew you'd see sense in it," Jimmy said with a grin. "Bein' heroes is enough for one day." He stood back, motioning for Buck to mount first.
"If it's all the same to you," Buck said, reaching for the saddle horn, "tomorrow I'd settle for being bored with chores."
Jimmy laughed as he climbed up behind Buck. "Yeah," he said. "I think I'd be fine with that."
They were both smiling as Buck tugged the reins, turning the horse toward the Timmons farm.
by: Miss Raye
Cody held his laughter down to a dull chuckle which he hoped was enough to keep it below the volume of the rain pelting against the roof and wall of the barn.
"You laughin' at me Billy Cody?"
Snaking his arm around her waist he pulled her tight up against his side. "Naw, Dorothy-"
"Dotty," she corrected.
"Dotty," he gave her a wink, "I was just thinkin' it was blind luck that I saw your barn open while I was out ridin' in the rain. If I hadn't taken shelter in here… well, I wouldn't have met you and that…" he nuzzled her cheek and breathed in the clean scent of her hair, "we wouldn't be layin' here… enjoyin' the afternoon or each other."
"Really?" Dotty rolled onto her side and braced her head on the heel of her hand. "I'm so glad you said that… I was just thinkin' the same thing…"
Cody looked at the broad grin she was giving him and the mischievous look in her eyes. "There's somethin' else though, isn't there…"
She played coy, batting her eyelashes at him. "What makes you say that, Billy Cody?"
He trailed a finger down the side of her face and across her plump lower lip. "Just an observation. I saw that look in your eyes right before you 'helped' me unwind that apron you had on."
"Mama always said we should help folks in need."
Cody winked at her. "Really? You think I was needy?"
She shrugged on shoulder and laughed. "I think we both needed somethin'." He didn't say a thing… didn't make a joke; he pulled her tight against him and started another round of sparkin'.
"Dotty? You in here?"
Cody froze when he heard her indrawn breath. "What?" He whispered into her ear. "What is it? Some guy that's sweet on you?"
"Worse," she groaned, "my father."
"Dotty? You answer me right this minute, you hear?"
She opened her mouth to speak but Cody covered it right quick. "Shhh… he'll know I'm up here."
When he lowered his hand she scowled at him. "If I don't say somethin' he'll come up here lookin'… I usually fall asleep up here."
Cody looked down and realized that he really wasn't dressed for company… especially when company was the girl's papa.
"Dotty?" The unmistakable rumble of anger vibrated through the man's voice.
"I'm here, Papa."
"Hmph… sleepin' away the day instead of doin' your chores, eh?"
"No, Papa, I was…." She looked to Cody for help, but the Express Rider was clueless, "chasin' the mice outta the hay loft, Papa."
"Those little devils… I'll come on up and help you, girl."
"No!" The denial was too loud… too quick and Cody couldn't stop the groan that escaped past his lips.
"You got somethin' bigger'n'a mouse up there, girl? Maybe some kind of 'tomcat'?" There was a pause in his words and for a second… one split second, Cody thought he was home free. "I'm comin' up there."
Instantly his eyes swept the loft. He still had his shirt on, but his buckskin pants had been shucked earlier during the initial 'fervor' of action. Where were those… hanging on the top of ladder was his favorite pair of buckskin pants. He dove for it, his feet suddenly caught up in something beneath the surface of the hay, he fell forward on his face, his arms flying out to try to save him from the possible bruising of his downward descent. Too bad his fingers brushed the ladder at just the right, or wrong (depending how you look at it) spot.
The ladder creaked and teetered and groaned and shuddered as it leaned away from the loft. Cody's eyes widened in horror as the ladder fell to the ground below and out of his site.
"What the hell?"
Dotty crawled past him and looked over the edge. "You alright, Papa?"
"Am I alright? Besides havin' a ladder nearly take my head CLEAN off? I'm just…what are these? Pants? Dotty!!!!!"
She leveled a glare at Cody. "Lookit what you done now!"
"Me?" Cody reached down and untangled his feet from her petticoat. "I'm not the one that left this lyin' about in the hay."
"No," he spat back, "but you did manage to lose your pants…" she peered over the edge again. "And now my Papa's got them."
Cody lowered his head down on the hay and groaned. "What the hell am I gonna do?"
"That's exactly what I want to know!" Papa, nearly twenty feet below him chambered a round in his rifle. "Let's begin with a few introductions. What's yer name, son?"
Cody didn't like the way the last word had taken on a different… almost expectant tone. How was he gonna get out of this mess?
"I don't know," Jimmy said warily, as he eyed Cody.
"Oh come on Hickok," Cody said. "It'll be great. It's the perfect spot."
"Mmmm," Jimmy murmured, not sure he believed the blonde. He knew he definitely wanted to get away from the station but he didn't really have a specific place to go and it sounded like Cody did.
Everyone else had scattered to the wind before Teaspoon had even finished announcing that the riders could have the day to themselves. Kid and Lou had practically fallen over themselves to get to their horses. Grinning like fools, they'd set the animals running off to places unknown. Buck had disappeared by himself since Ike was on a run. Thus remained Jimmy and Cody.
"Come on," Cody begged. "We got our pouches of food from Emma so let's go." Cody was edging closer to the horses as Jimmy pondered the idea. Jimmy tilted his head down in thought and eyed Cody once more.
"Look, Buck's been there too."
Cody seemed to think that would sway Jimmy, and Jimmy had to admit, it did help Cody's argument. Jimmy trusted Buck not to do anything stupid that would result in destruction of property, or worse, bodily injury. Jimmy looked towards the house, wondering if Emma needed anything, but saw her climbing into the wagon to head into town with Teaspoon. The two waved at the riders as they road off. It seemed he was either on his own or with Cody.
Not that he had anything against Cody, but it was his day off and he could think of other things he'd like to do than spend it with Cody. However, that meant doing these things alone and he really didn't want to be by himself. Sighing, he was resigned to the company he was stuck with.
"Alright, let's go." Cody grinned and climbed up on Biscuit as Jimmy climbed up on Sundance, and the two riders headed towards this perfect spot.
"So, where is it?" Jimmy asked as he unbuttoned his shirt.
Cody was undressing as Jimmy looked around the wooded area. Cody had raved the entire ride about a clear lake to swim in with trees overhanging to provide the perfect amount of shade. There was that word again - perfect. Jimmy didn't see any water, only a drop-off a few feet away. Jimmy slipped out of his shirt, hanging it on the saddle horn, and took off one of his boots.
"Oh, we have to climb down," Cody answered as he tossed his clothes over his saddle. Taking the bundle of food, he walked to the edge of the cliff.
"What?" Jimmy shook his head as he began pulling his first boot back on.
"Jimmy," Cody said, using a tone Jimmy thought should be reserved for children, "there's a ledge just below here and then a path that leads down. It's an easy climb." He then gave Jimmy an almost challenging look. "Buck's done it."
Glaring at Cody, Jimmy quickly kicked off his other boot, pulled off his pants and threw them over his saddle. He grabbed his bundle of food and stalked over to where Cody stood. Once there, Jimmy decided that it didn't look so easy to him. He watched as Cody laid on his stomach, hanging his legs over the lip and slid slowly over the edge.
"Come on," Cody beckoned as he disappeared from sight.
Jimmy shook his head. He glanced around, looking for the other riders to jump out and have a good laugh at his expense. This just didn't feel right. But, normally one to listen to his instincts, he did something that he'd forever regret - he lay on the ground and followed Cody over the edge.
At first there was nothing but air, he didn't touch any ground. It was a helpless feeling, but then Cody grabbed his legs and quickly Jimmy was on solid earth. Relieved, he released the breath he was holding. The cutout was tight so he imitated Cody and squatted down. He laughed and turned to Cody, about to say that it hadn't been so bad, but the laughter died in his throat when he saw Cody's startled expression.
"What?" Jimmy asked. His voice sounded anxious to his ears so he cleared his throat and tried again. "What next?"
"Um, well," Cody hemmed. When Cody looked at him, Jimmy saw the sheepish expression on his friend's face.
"What?" Jimmy asked; his tone this time low and ominous.
"Well," Cody tried again, "there's a small problem."
"Problem," Jimmy echoed, keeping his tone the same.
"The path's gone."
Jimmy stared at his friend - that being debatable at the moment - not quite able to grasp what Cody was saying. The blonde was still talking.
"And I think we can do that okay."
"Do what?" Jimmy asked, digging his fingers into the side of the cliff. He had to keep his hands from finding their way around Cody's throat.
"Butt-crawl down what's left of the path," Cody said, smiling like it was the best idea in the world. He pointed towards where the supposed path was.
The only thing Jimmy saw were rocks of all shapes and sizes. All of them jagged and not welcoming to any part of the body, much less the rear covered only in long underwear. He looked back at Cody.
"I swear," Jimmy growled, "I don't know why I listen to you. Ya'd think I'd learn from all -"
"Now wait a minute," Cody said, "I didn't force ya' to -"
"What?" Jimmy scoffed. "Ya' practically begged…no, ya' did beg -"
"I did not beg," Cody snapped. "Ya' seemed all sad that Lou -"
"This ain't got nothin' to do with…" Jimmy clenched his jaw. He wasn't getting into his feelings about Lou with anyone, let alone Cody. "I'm gettin' the hell out of here."
Jimmy tried to stand and his head immediately hit the dirt overhang. Surprised, he quickly realized that he couldn't stand. There wasn't room. Groping for a hold, it dawned on him that they couldn't go back the way they came. He couldn't use the upper ledge to pull himself up. The cutout was a perfect 'C' shape. Suddenly feeling nervous, he grabbed Cody by the arms and shook him.
"We ain't stuck," Cody said brazenly, as he shrugged out of Jimmy's tight hold. Looking up, he added, "Exactly."
"Then what exactly are we?"
"We can go down on our -"
"If you say butt," Jimmy growled, "I'm gonna throw you off this ledge." He glanced over to the edge, which seemed much closer than it had when they first got down there. The space was getting smaller. He grabbed Cody's arm again.
"Hickok," Cody whined, shaking his arm to make Jimmy let go. "If ya' don't wanna slide down, then what?" He sat down near the edge, stretching his legs out.
Jimmy stared wide-eyed at Cody and then at the empty space in front of them. Slowly leaning towards the brink to peek over, he could just see the water down below. It did look cool and clear, Cody was right about that. However, it was as close to them now as St. Jo was for all they could get to it.
"Cody what have you done?" Jimmy screamed.
He knew he sounded like a lunatic and probably looked like one. The thought of being stuck on this ledge, with only one way to get down, didn't sit well with him at all. And it didn't help that he couldn't really swim. Lou had tried helping him, in secret, but he just had an unnerving fear of the water. He hated himself for that.
"What I've done?" Cody asked, incredulously. "What do you mean? Let's go back to 'I didn't force ya'.'" Cody crossed his arms over his chest and stared defiantly at Jimmy, daring him to disagree.
"And, as I said, you begged me to come," Jimmy snapped, imitating Cody's posture, though he sat closer to the dirt wall.
"I did NOT!" Cody yelled. "I was only tryin' to -"
"STOP!" Jimmy lashed out. "I don't wanna hear what you were tryin' -"
"Um, you both need some help?"
"BUCK!" they both yelled and heard Buck laugh in response.
"Guess you do need help."
"Yeah, I do," Jimmy grumbled loudly. "Throw a rope down here and get me the hell -"
Before he could finish, he saw Buck's legs come over the ledge. Jimmy grabbed them and tried to shove the Kiowa back up. "NO! The path's gone! The path's gone!"
Without the leverage Jimmy would get from standing, his efforts were in vain, and Buck lightly jumped down. Jimmy fell back on his rear as Buck kneeled down and gave Jimmy a bemused look. "Why'd you need a rope?"
"The - path's - gone," Jimmy said, clipping each word in annoyance. He pointed at Cody. "And the smart one wants to butt-crawl down that." Jimmy pointed towards the rockslide.
Buck laughed. "I don't think that's much of an option. Why don't you just go down?"
"Buck," Jimmy said, trying very hard not to lose the tenuous control he had on his temper or his sanity, "there is no path to go down."
"No," Buck said, a big grin on his face. "Jump." He casually leaned over the edge and pointed down to the water.
You've lost your mind," Jimmy blurted. He finally noticed that Buck was wearing only his long underwear too.
Cody finally piped in. "I was gonna suggest that, Buck, but Jimmy seemed pretty shook up already." The look Cody gave Buck irritated Jimmy and then Cody had the gall to smirk at him.
"I'll help you jump," Jimmy gritted out and clenched his fists.
"Really fellas," Buck said, looking from one to the other, "the water's deep enough and I do it all the time." He nodded his head and tried to give Jimmy an encouraging look. Jimmy wasn't buying it.
"Then you jump and go get me a rope," Jimmy mumbled, crossing his arms sullenly.
"Well, I am gonna jump," Buck said. And did.
Jimmy screamed as Buck disappeared over the edge. He had always thought Buck was the levelheaded one. He'd even followed Cody here on the fact that Buck had been here. But now Buck was risking life and limb. What had Jimmy been thinking? He heard the splash but refused to look. Cody did.
"Is he okay?" Jimmy asked nervously.
"I don't know, I don't see -" Cody suddenly stopped and looked back at Jimmy. Jimmy couldn't stand it, so he crawled to the lip and cautiously peered over. There was Buck, face down, floating on the top of the water.
"Wha'da we do?" Jimmy screamed.
"You jump!" Buck yelled as he rolled over laughing and swam around.
"You'd best keep swimmin' 'cause if I get my hands on you, I'm gonna kill you," Jimmy yelled back.
"So it's fine?" Cody asked Buck.
"Yeah, it's great."
"Okay then," Cody said. He grinned at Jimmy and pushed himself off the ledge. Again Jimmy screamed, this time watching as Cody fell the entire way down.
"Ya' know, ya' sound jus' like a girl when ya' scream that way," Cody drawled as he swam around on his back. Buck laughed and choked as he snorted water.
"I hope ya' both drown," Jimmy said, testily, pushing himself away from the edge.
"Aw, Hickok," Cody called, "jus' jump."
"No." Jimmy again peered over the edge, watching his friends enjoy the water.
"Hickok," Buck said, "you'll be fine."
Jimmy saw Buck and Cody exchange a quick glance. He suddenly had the feeling they knew his humiliating secret. "Ya' both know, don't ya'?"
"Yeah," Buck admitted as Cody nodded. "But we swear you'll be fine and we won't let you drown."
"However, we won't be catchin' ya'," Cody said.
Jimmy chuckled and shook his head. "I'm glad ta' hear that." Buck and Cody laughed.
Sighing, Jimmy draped his legs over the lip and sat, looking straight down. It wasn't really that high but to him, the distance was unfathomable. He looked back at his friends, waiting in the water, and saw no judgment in their eyes. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Well, here it goes." He pushed off.
His heart leapt into his throat but before he could really feel terror, he was hitting the water. Then he did feel terror. The water engulfed him and all the air left his lungs. He flailed helplessly until two strong arms grabbed under his arms and pulled him to the surface. Spluttering, Jimmy gasped for air. After a few deep breaths, he looked up at where he'd been and laughed. He couldn't believe he'd just jumped.
"That was great!" Jimmy held onto Buck's shoulder and wouldn't let go. Buck swam, pulling Jimmy with him.
"You can stand now," Buck said.
Jimmy's feet felt the soft silt and he sighed happily. He was safe and he could control himself where he was. As Buck and Cody swam around, Jimmy looked up once more and a thought struck him. Frantically, he looked at Buck. "Wait a minute. How do we get to our stuff?"
"Oh," Cody responded, "there's a trail that starts over there." He pointed to a clearing about a hundred feet away.
Jimmy stared at Cody as Buck choked again from snorting water. "I swear, I don't know why I listen to you."