A/N: This little story came about as pretty much a two (wo)man tag team. That being said, a very special thank you to our Pard, Liz Muir of Perth, Australia, for providing the “bite” that turned this story down a whole ‘nother path.

 

Disclaimer: We do not own the rights to the magical inhabitants of the universes of Laramie and Star Trek. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

Acknowledgment: A very special thanks to Gail Gerstenlauer for volunteering to be drafted to beta this tale. You’ll do to ride the range with, Pard!

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONUNDRUM

 

By Barbara Taylor and Maddie Holthe

 

 

Jess Harper stared at the empty coffee tin, dark eyebrows quirked in consternation.

 

"Son of a..." he muttered.  "Slim, didn't Daisy have coffee on her list when she went into town last week?"

He was tired and thirsty after a long day spent digging post holes and mendin' fences. In short, he was in no mood for niceties. 

 

Slim Sherman stretched his long legs towards the fireplace. "Sure did, Pard, even brought back an extra sack of coffee beans, seein’s how you can't get any work done around here without twelve cups of that favourite brew of yours. It's in the corner cupboard."

Still muttering, Jess bent and tugged at the cupboard door. A sack tumbled out spilling a few beans at his feet – along with a yellow ball of fluff the size of a large apple.

 "What in tarnation ...Slim, we got varmints, they done ate the coffee beans!" He was about to stomp on the thing when it rolled over, and produced what sounded suspiciously like a very contented, furry burp!

The ball of fluff emitted a mewling noise and pinprick black eyes stared up at Jess – something beckoned to him in that intense gaze… his throat constricted and he took a quick step back.    

 

"Hey, you found Chewy!" Mike whooped and scooted across the floor.

 

"What the heck's a Chewy?" Jess quickly put some more distance between himself and Mike’s new friend. The strange feeling left him.

 

Mike scurried around him and gently picked up the little creature. ”Weeell, I don't really know,” he confessed. "It kinda found me in the chicken coop when I went to collect the eggs this morning". 

 

"Huh! Durn thing probably eats eggs too, as well as coffee beans!” Jess snorted, still keeping a wary eye on the fur ball. 

 

Slim uncoiled his long frame from his chair get a closer look.  "Did you bring it into the house, Mike?" He asked sternly.

 

The youngest member of the Sherman household ducked his head and shuffled his feet, looking guilty.

 

"It…well, it looked lost, like it needed a cuddle, so I put it in my room...must’ve got out and…and found its way into the cupboard. Aw, Slim, can’t I keep it? ” He wheedled.

 

"I reckon Buttons’ll have something to say about it when Daisy gets back from the vet in Cheyenne with him tomorrow. You know that pooch likes to chew…er… gnaw on just about anything.”  Slim grinned and tousled the boy's hair. 

 

“Look, Mike, why don’t you find a warm spot for it out in the barn until we figure out exactly what this critter is. An' when you've done that, it will be bedtime for you too.” 

 

Mike made for the door, and then paused. "Will you read me a story, like Aunt Daisy does when she's here?" 

 

The two men looked at each other and Jess shook his head. "Well, Tiger, I've got to put another poultice on Traveler’s knee.  So I'll see you across to the barn, and Slim here can be your storyteller tonight." 

 

 Mike uttered a cheerful "Thanks!" over his shoulder as he disappeared out of the door.

 

Slim gave Jess an appraising glance.  "You look like you could fall asleep standin’ up, Pard!" 

 

Jess grinned ruefully, scratching at his unruly dark hair. He didn't deny the truth of his friend’s observation.  "I'll get on with that poultice".

 

He turned for the door and Slim made for the kitchen. "I'll brew up some fresh coffee so's its ready when you’re done.”

 

 Jess nodded gratefully and headed to the barn.

 

Mike had Chewy nestled in a box of hay, and was petting the little creature when he came in. "I think he’ll be alright here for the night, Jess. You just take good care of Traveler.” 

 

Jess gave the boy a light hug around the shoulders. "I’ll do that, Tiger.”

 

He drew a deep breath. He really was bone tired, but Traveler’s swollen left knee concerned him. The bay turned his head and nudged him gently as he removed the wrappings. Mike stayed quietly in the background while Jess calmed Traveler with gentle touches.

 

Jess’ hands stilled as he became aware of someone, or something, watching him.  He straightened slowly and turned around.

 

Chewy, all yellow fur and big eyes stared solemnly back at him.  Jess grinned in spite of himself; it was such an odd looking little thing. 

 

"Now what do you want, sneaking up behind me like that?" he asked. He reached out to gently brush at the bundle of fur, but the creature shot forward and sank his teeth into his hand.

 

“Ouch! Fer crissake!” Jess yelped and flung the creature away from him.

 

"Jess! What’s wrong?” Mike asked anxiously. He wavered briefly between concern for his best friend, and going after his new pet.

 

"Durn thing bit me!" Jess grunted, flapping his fingers. "Keep that thing away from me, Tiger." He checked his hand, saw small punctures, but no blood.

 

Mike retrieved Chewy and held it close. It was trembling and emitting soft, mewling sounds as it nestled in his hands.  "Aw, Jess, you scared it," he murmured, stroking the soft, yellow fur.

 

"I scared it!" Jess snorted. "It durn near took my thumb off!"

 

Mike turned and gazed at Jess, his eyes half closed, his expression dreamy. "It’s sorry," he whispered. "It only wants us to be happy. Here, Jess, try – just try holdin' it for a bit, you'll see."

 

Jess was about to protest that he needed all his fingers for ranchin', but something in Mike's face made him reach out and let the youngster gently deposit Chewy in his hand.

 

"Well, I'll be…it's purrin'," he breathed, and bent his head down.

 

The soothing sound washed over him and he closed his other hand around the creature. Exhaustion and concern faded away, and Jess caught his breath in wonder as his immediate surroundings were suffused by warmth and sunlight.

 

He was standing at the swimming hole, watching his younger brother getting ready to take the plunge. In the distance he saw a woman on the porch of a box shaped house, and the smell of fresh baked apple pie wafted on the breeze.

 

“Ma?”

 

It was Panhandle country ...he was home....

 

 

*****

 

James Tiberius Kirk eyed his First Officer and best friend, and shook his head.

 

"I don't know, Spock, the ‘ears caught in a mechanical rice picker’ excuse might not work in this era."

 

Spock's right eyebrow traveled in the direction of his hairline as he tugged at the brim of his Stetson, making sure the tip of his ears were tucked in securely.

 

"Is this another one of your colorful metaphors, Captain?" he asked.

 

Kirk grinned, and wondered again at the onboard computer that had outfitted them. Spock, all lean and dangerous in black – and himself looking akin to Heath Barkley out of that old 20th Century Western, “Big Valley” – way too clean and tidy.

 

"We've got to find the missing tribble, Spock," he said, his voice quiet. “It carries the immune gene for the strain of Quatrotriticale that is contaminating the grain harvests. The crops are already dying back on Earth!”

 

He paused and squeezed the back of his neck to relieve the tension.

 

“If Doctor McCoy can’t come up with an antidote, the future will starve…and then, what once was will never be."

 

-----

 

Spock's human half registered the discomfort of walking over uneven terrain in heeled leather boots, while his stoic Vulcan side accepted the logic of a situation that could not be changed.

 

His Captain moved ahead of him, navigating past rocky outcroppings, pushing through brush and trees, rapidly closing the distance to the three human life forms they had picked up on the tricorder.  

 

Prime Directive!  Kirk muttered under his breath, and cursed softly as he lost his footing on some loose gravel. He windmilled his arms to keep from falling, and the steely grip of a hand on his arm restored his balance.

 

The Vulcan's touch, so seldom shared, was a reminder of a friendship that would keep him safe, always.

 

He acknowledged the question in the raised eyebrow, "I'm fine, Spock. Just wish Scotty could have beamed us to the farm house instead of landing us miles from nowhere!"

 

"Captain, the Prime Directive precludes such an action," Spock pointed out with unfailing logic. "Contact with this primitive, barbaric society could result in irreparable distortions to this century's timeline. I calculate that it…" He stopped as Kirk waved a hand in dismissal.

 

"Spock, my Vulcan friend, we don't have time for your…calculations. We go in, get the tribble – and get out. Once back on the Enterprise McCoy and his team can use it to distil the antidote to the contaminated Quatrotriticale grain that's killing off Earth's harvests."

 

He wiped a hand across his face, hazel eyes quizzical as he looked at his First Officer.

 

"Spock, if I didn't know better I'd say you looked troubled."

 

Spock interlocked his fingers behind his back and nodded slightly.

 

"I am, Captain. Have you considered the effects on the tribble as a result of the removal of the immune genes?" He paused briefly.

 

"It cannot survive. It will die."  

 

 

*****

 

Slim Sherman heard something crunch under his heel and realized he'd been a mite hasty when he promised Jess he'd brew him up a fresh pot of coffee. Thanks to Mike's new-found critter the only coffee left in the house were the few beans he'd just stepped on.

 

"Sorry, Pard," he murmured, "reckon it'll have to wait."

 

He put away the empty tin and gazed despondently at the dirty dishes in the sink. He was on clean-up detail. Jess had done the cooking – if you could call undercooked bacon and overdone beans cooking. One more day of this and his belt buckle would be chewin' on his backbone.

 

Wish Daisy'd hurry back from Cheyenne.

 

"Slim! Slim!" The front door slammed open and Mike tore into the house, his face white as a sheet. "Slim, come quick, something’s wrong with Jess!"

 

The boy wheeled around and was on his way out the door again when Slim caught him with an arm around his waist. "Whoa, whoa, Tiger! What's goin' on?"

 

"It's Jess!" Mike hollered, squirming in his arms. "Lemme go, Slim, we gotta help him."

 

Slim fetched up short at the stark terror in the youngster's eyes. "Mike, slow down –what happened?"

 

"It's Chewy," Mike gulped. "I…it…it bit Jess. I think it made him sick!"

 

Slim Sherman's long stride covered the distance between the ranch house and the barn in record time, with Mike hard on his heels. The door to the weathered structure swung half open and not knowing what to expect, he pushed Mike behind him. "Stay out here, Mike."

 

"But Jess is in trouble, I wanna help," Mike protested, loaded for bear.

 

The look Slim gave him brooked no argument and he sidled off to the side, lower lip trembling.

 

Slim stepped through the doorway, one hand on his iron. The familiar, earthy smell of warm horse flesh, leather and fresh hay wrapped around him like a comforting blanket, and yet, there was an eerie sense of wrongness…. 

 

"Jess!"

 

Layering calm over icy fear Slim approached his friend slowly, his mind trying to absorb what his eyes were telling him.

 

His friend stood in front of Traveler’s stall, his hands cradling what looked to be a ball of pulsing vibrant colors. Golden threads of light flickered over Jess’ face, wrapped themselves around his throat and chest, extended outwards like tendrils of heat lightning.    

 

Jess Harper grinned as he watched his brother's antics splashing around the swimming hole.  He heard a familiar voice calling his name and turned toward the house.

 

Approaching twilight muted the contours of the boxy structure, scoured by the harsh winds of the Panhandle.

 

"Jess!"

 

"Comin', Ma!"

 

He gestured at his brother to get out of the water and trotted homeward. His mother stood on the porch, wiping her hands on a faded, yellow apron. Her face, tired and careworn, softened in a smile as she extended her hands towards him.

 

"Wash up 'fore you come in, son. Supper's almost ready." Her sweet voice was warm, welcoming, and full of love….

 

Time folded in on itself.

 

"Jess!"

 

Shaken to the core by the look of wondrous rapture on Jess' face, Slim reached through the misty glow now enveloping his friend and grabbed his arms.

 

Jess' eyes were open, but unseeing, staring at something beyond Slim's ken. His lips moved, but not a word was uttered. Slim looked down at the glowing creature Jess cradled in his hands, and for a moment – for one heart-breaking moment – he thought he saw his own parents, alive and happy, his mother cradling a new-born, his brother Andy…NO!

 

"NO!" Slim shouted.

 

He wrenched himself away from the vision, and with tears burning in his eyes he did the only thing he could think of; his hand connected with Jess' cheek with a resounding smack that sent his friend reeling backwards.

 

Chewy uttered a high pitched whine of anguish at the violent separation. It tumbled to the floor, rainbow colors fading to shades of desolate gray as it rolled along the floor and into Traveler’s stall.

 

Jess came out of his dazed condition, overwhelmed by a feeling of emptiness. He rubbed his cheek and stared at Slim.

“Who the hell are you, Mister?”  Jess eyed the tall man in front of him. He shook loose from the hands that still grasped his shoulders.

 

Slim’s hands dropped to his side and he gaped in disbelief at his friend.

 

"Who am…what’s wrong with you? It’s me, Slim!" A thought struck him. Mike had said the little critter had bit Jess. “Pard, let me see your hand!"

"Huh?"

 

Jess’ stance turned vaguely threatening. The world kept shifting around him. Faces blended and changed from the familiar smiles of his family to the face of the blonde stranger in front of him. He stepped back, and tripped over the hoe that had fallen when Slim lunged to knock the fur ball from his hand.

 

Jess staggered and Slim surged forward to stop his fall.

 

"Your hand, Jess, let me see your hand." Slim pressed his advantage.

The young Texan offered no resistance as Slim reached down and took hold of his hand. Fear flickered across the rancher’s face when he saw the small circle of teeth marks. A blue glow surrounded each tiny puncture wound and seemed to be emanating from the skin itself.

Jess looked to his own hand and pulled it back hurriedly, cradling it against his chest.

Slim’s mind was racing. Whatever the creature was, could it carry rabies?  "That wound needs cleaning, Jess.”

The man in question hesitated. He felt he should know this person, and that he could trust him, but even so, he had no clear memory of him. His last coherent thought had been of home, in the Texas Panhandle, surrounded by his family.

Another voice joined in the urging. "Jess, let Slim take care of it," Mike pleaded as he stepped into the barn.

Jess turned to stare at the newcomer. He staggered as a wave of dizziness washed over him. He blinked rapidly as the towheaded young boy’s face blurred into his brother Johnny’s laughing features, and then back again.

 

Disoriented and feeling worse by the minute, Jess offered no resistance when the man guided him out of the barn towards a small ranch house. A house that was nothing like the familiar shack that Jess knew as home.

 

Finding his voice, he managed to force out a question "Who…where…where am I?"

 

Mike’s young mind had trouble processing what had just happened. For some reason Jess did not recognize him, and didn't seem to know who Slim was either.  He sniffled a bit, and wiped an angry sleeve across his eyes. He was about to trot after them when he heard a commotion from the barn.

 

The boy turned around and slipped back through the half open door. He froze at the sight of Traveler, Jess' beloved bay, prancing around in his stall, nickering loudly. The same vibrant lights that had enveloped Jess now bobbed and weaved over the excited animal. Soft, golden strands changed rapidly to shades of blue, green, red…. Mike sensed no fear from Traveler, and he slowly edged closer. He peeked into the stall and his eyes bugged out at the spectacle he beheld.

 

Chewy had wrapped itself around Traveler's injured leg.

 

 

*****

 

"The tribble is the key to the Earth's harvests, Spock, without it we’ll all starve."

 

Kirk sank down in the soft grass with a grateful sigh. He was convinced his feet had grown two sizes in the last half hour of walking. Grunting, he tugged his right boot off and upended it. A tiny pebble fell out and he glared at it, as if it alone was the cause of all that had gone wrong lately.

 

They had used the Guardian of Forever to step through to different eras of the past trying to find a solution to the contaminated grain harvests. The last time they beamed down to the Guardian's planet the transporter beam had sent a tribble along with them into 1870 Wyoming Territory.

 

This particular tribble was only survivor among the hundreds of its kind that had eaten the contaminated grain the Enterprise was transporting. It had shown no ill effects, and while Kirk and Spock looked to the past for answers, Doctor McCoy had run diagnostics on it to determine why it had survived.

 

They had been in process of beaming down to the Guardian planet when the creature escaped from the lab and found its way to the transporter room. They lost sight of the tribble just as McCoy informed them that test results showed that it carried immunological mediators in its system.

 

Extracted and distilled it would reverse the contamination – the only problem was that the process would kill the little creature.

 

Spock looked up from his tricorder, his face impassive.

 

"Captain, we are dealing with a benign, sentient being, but while the symbiotic powers of tribbles are well documented, less so are the synergistic effects of its different quinides in relation to the opiate receptor agonist."

 

"Precisely what are you saying, Spock?"

 

Spock quirked an eyebrow. "I believe I was being very precise, Captain."

 

Jim Kirk felt a headache coming on.

 

The captain of the Enterprise squared his shoulders and flipped open his communicator. It was time to check in, and he needed to hear Scotty’s no nonsense brogue. Something to anchor him to the present…the past…the future…? His headache intensified.

 

All he got from the comm lines was static.

 

"Kirk to Enterprise! Scotty! Bones!" Kirk thumped his communicator with his fist.  "Dammit, will somebody talk to me!"

 

The only answer he got was more static – and then nothing.  He stared at the offending comm unit willing it to talk to him, but ominous silence, and the centuries of the past separated him from his beloved ship, and his crew. His lips thinned in frustration, Kirk wheeled and faced his friend, willing him to provide a solution.

 

"Mister Spock?”

 

Spock closed his communicator slowly, his face impassive. His human half empathized with the Captain, and the Vulcan in him stoically acknowledged that they were stranded in 1870's Wyoming Territory looking for a missing tribble – one that held the key to saving the future harvests of Earth.

 

"Captain, it would seem that we are cut off from the Enterprise," he said slowly. "Since we cannot, from our present position, change this, I would suggest that we proceed with utmost speed to the location the tricorder has given provided us."

 

James T. Kirk, Captain of the Starship Enterprise, and halfway through his five year mission to boldly go where no man had gone before, knuckled his eyes and stifled an exasperated snort.

 

"Mister Spock, as always, your logic is impeccable. Very well, let's go find that ornery critter!"

 

He didn't have to look at his friend to know that the eyebrow was winging its way upward.

 

A few hours later Spock and Jim Kirk halted at the top of the crest in the road and gazed down at the tranquil scene below. The shadows of approaching evening washed over the weathered barn and little ranch house. A few chickens scratched around in the front yard and several horses milled in the pole corral that backed up to the barn.

 

A gentle breeze fanned Kirk's face and he sniffed at the warm, dry air. Memories of his Iowa farm boy upbringing caught up with him for a moment, and he smiled slightly.

 

"This was tomorrow once, Spock," he said wistfully. 

 

*****

 

In the barn Mike forgot his concern for Jess as he stood completely enthralled by what was happening in Traveler’s stall.

 

The bay lowered his head to the glowing fur ball that had wrapped itself around his injured leg. Traveler nosed at the creature, inquisitive and unafraid. It sensed no harm from the strange apparition, rather a comforting, healing warmth was spreading up through his leg as the shards of light wavered and danced around him, scooting between his ears and along his back. It felt like a gentle scratching, almost as if his master were brushing him.

 

Traveler nickered softly in contentment, and bobbed his head at the young boy in front of him.  

 

-----

 

Jess reached the little ranch house and grabbed one of the porch uprights for support. The violent severing of his connection to the strange creature had sent him into emotional overload; chaotic images assaulted his mind as past and present merged, blurred, and separated.

 

He tore loose from the steadying hand on his arm and turned to the stranger… stranger? Slim?

 

No! Who was this man…where was his brother? His Ma…the world tilted as his perception of reality became suffused with intense waves of colored lights. For a moment the present overcame the pull of yesterday, and the concerned face of the blonde man in front of him solidified.

 

"Pard?" Jess' voice was a hoarse croak, as if he'd been shouting at the top of his lungs for a very long time. "Slim?"

 

Relief flooded through Slim Sherman as he watched Jess' eyes clear and focus on him. He put a hand on his friend's shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

 

"Yeah, Jess, yeah, it's Slim," he grinned. "You had me worried there for a minute. Didn't seem to recognize me…or Mike. What happened to you in there?" He nodded towards the barn.

 

Jess gazed at the familiar face of his best friend, recognizing sky blue eyes and a voice that had never lied to him. He was about to respond when his world suddenly careened out of control again and sent him reeling backward.

 

A violent inferno of flames enveloped the house on the Panhandle; he heard windows shattering – and the screaming of his family.

 

"Nooo…no…." It was an anguished moan and he sank to his knees, palms pressed to his temples. "I can't…I couldn't help them…Oh God, what's happening to me?" 

 

 

*****

 

Spock had long ago stopped denying his empathetic connection to Jim Kirk. The starship captain, whose favorite game was bluffing his way out of no win scenarios, had somehow breached the Vulcan's emotional exile and touched his soul.

 

Whatever the outcome of their journey back in time to save the future from starvation, Spock knew that the enigmatic human at his side would stand with him, to the gallows and beyond.

 "Kipling's thousandth man indeed," he thought as they approached the ranch house.


Jim Kirk gave up shaking his comm unit into life. He had left his Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott, in charge of his ship and could only pray that the lack of contact did not signify anything serious. Kirk grimaced; considering the way their luck had been running lately….

 "Captain, the tricorder indicates two adult humans in the ranch house and a child in that structure over there." Spock gestured at a faded, red building to the left of the house.

 

 "That, Mister Spock, is a barn," Jim grinned. "Holds tack equipment, grain, tools and that's a blacksmith's forge in the lean-to. These deep ruts in the roadway indicate heavy traffic; this might be what was called a relay station."

Spock's mind hunted swiftly for a reference. "Ah yes, a stage stop to change horses?"

Kirk nodded. "Running a relay station was dangerous in those days, Spock. Indians wanted the horses, outlaws wanted money – sometimes the stage would come carrying nothing but dead bodies."

He checked his phaser and eyed his black-clad friend. "Ready to ride shotgun?"

 

*****

 

Jess Harper’s face drained of color. His blue eyes lost focus and stared through Slim, not seeing his best friend and partner at all. Attempting to pull away from the strong, supporting arms that held him, Jess' struggles became frantic.

 

"No! Let me go, I gotta save em'. Let me go!"

 

The struggles changed, becoming more intense. Jess' voice faltered and hitched as he begged, "P…please…please let me go to them."

The rancher’s heart ached at the pain and despair he heard, and his grip slackened momentarily.

It was the chance Jess needed. He twisted within Slims grip and broke away. Frantically he stumbled towards the barn. In his mind’s eye he saw the flames from the past greedily devouring his family, his home, his LIFE.

Slim grabbed him, pulling him around to face him. He didn’t know where his friend’s soul was, but he knew it was no place good.

Spinning on his heel, Jess came up in a fighting stance and Slim ducked as Jess swung a fist in his direction. Fearful that Jess would injure himself in his deranged state Slim swallowed hard, pulled back his right arm and delivered a haymaker to his Pard's jaw.

For a split second Slim saw Jess' eyes widen in recognition, and then the Texan’s eyes rolled back in his head. His knees buckled and Slim grabbed him to prevent him from further harm by an impact with the hard ground.

"I've got to get you some help, Pard, ‘cause I sure as hell can’t figure out what’s wrong with you.” Slim spoke aloud, as if to reassure himself. He lifted the unconscious form of his friend and carried him into the ranch house.

 

-----

In the barn, Mike watched as the bright lights around Traveler dimmed to a pale golden glow. Chewy dropped away from the horse’s injured leg and rolled away to the side. Traveler nickered and gently dipped his head as if in acknowledgement of the small yellow fur ball.

"Wow, that sure was something!" Mike breathed.

 

He was even more surprised when he saw that the horse’s previously swollen knee was good as new. "Gollee, won’t Jess be pleased when he sees this."

Along with that thought came another not so pleasant one. Jess was hurt, and that seemed to be due to the actions of the same creature that had just healed Traveler. Mike turned towards the barn door, and then swung back around. 

 

"You'd best stay put, Chewy,” he said sternly. “I don’t think Slim would be too pleased to see you right now".

 

Mike headed out of the barn, and behind him, little Chewy retreated into a corner of Traveler’s stall.

 

-----

 

Shaking his head, Slim gazed at his best friend as he lay on the bunk. Still only semiconscious, Jess tossed and turned restlessly, no longer shouting out, but muttering softly to himself. Slim didn’t know what was worst, the loud cries of denial, or the soft pleas he now heard coming from his friend.

More alarming still was the fact that the thin glowing lines of light that Slim had seen around the bite marks only a few minutes before were now slowly creeping up Jess' hand and towards his arm at a steady rate.

"What’s happening to you?" the rancher murmured. Jess needed a doctor, and soon, but Slim didn’t want to leave him alone in his current state.

 

That left Mike.


Mind made up Slim headed out the front door, and almost collided with the boy as he bounded up onto the porch. He reached out and steadied the youngster.

 

"Mike, I need you to ride over to the Bates’ place. Tell Bill to ride to Laramie and bring Doc Collier out here.”

Mike’s face crumbled from a tentative smile to a worried frown. "Is…is Jess alright?"

Realising the concern his words caused the boy, Slim tried to soften the blow.

 

"He'll be fine, Mike. I just need the doctor to check that bite. Think you can ride Patches over there for me?"

Pleased at being given such a responsible job, Mike brightened and nodded eagerly. "You bet I can, Slim. Can I see Jess before I go?"

Slim cast a worried look over his shoulder into the ranch house, and forced a smile as he turned back to Mike. "He's resting right now, Tiger. You can see him when you get back."

"Okay, Slim." Mike sighed. "I'll be as quick as I can." He was gone, running to the corral where his little sorrel pony was grazing.

Slim called after the boy’s retreating back: “Mike! You be careful, you hear, and tell Bill Bates to hurry the doc along.”

 

*****

 

Up on the ridge, Kirk had ducked down as soon as he saw the young boy run out of the barn.

 

"Something’s going on there, Spock. Let’s hold back for a minute. Don’t want to be walking into trouble."

Spock raised an eyebrow at his Captain, but chose not to say anything; instead he proceeded to scan the area below with his tricorder.

In the barn Chewy sensed the waves pulsing from the tricorder, and a memory awakened, a psionic memory that flashed a warning. Mewling in fright, it rolled hastily towards the back wall of the barn. It pushed through a small opening created by a loose board, intent only on getting away from those frequencies that meant danger had found it.

 

Spock's tricorder told him what he already knew. He watched the small human child run from the barn towards the house and shook his head slightly.

 

The life force was draining from the tribble. The brief burst of energy they had detected was fading. It meant that its healing powers were draining at an alarming rate; all the readings indicated that they were too late.

 

He suppressed an urge to shiver in the cooling night time temperature. The black range garb the synthesizer had outfitted him with provided scant protection, and he had an illogical moment of longing for the hot, dry climate of his home world.

 

Spock put away the tricorder. "Captain, the tribble is in the barn. The readings indicate it is in distress. Time is now of the essence."

 

Captain James T. Kirk sneezed slightly as an errant wind gust blew dust up his nose. Time - it always came down to time, and there was never enough. Time for yesterday, for tomorrow...if they didn't succeed, would there be a tomorrow?

 

"Mister Spock," he sighed. "If we can't make this work we may all be heading for the last round-up."

 

"A moment, Captain," Spock cautioned as the door to the ranch house opened and the child came out again, followed by a tall, broad shouldered man. There was an exchange of words and the man went back in, closing the door behind him while the youngster headed towards the corral by the barn. 

 

 

*****

 

 

Mike couldn't understand what had gone wrong. When he found the strange creature hiding in the chicken coop he had been entranced. It had nestled unafraid in his hands when he picked it up, making purring noises as he petted it gently. Strangely hypnotic black button eyes gazed up at him; it was a…a tribble…funny, he heard the voice only in his mind.

 

The soft yellow fur had begun to glow and change color; he got a sudden impression of despair and hunger …. The next thing he remembered was Jess standing in the kitchen staring at the empty sack of coffee beans.

 

Having lost so much early in his life Mike clung fiercely to his adopted family. He loved his two big brothers equally, and whenever Slim or Jess got hurt, Mike's heart went into overdrive.

 

"Chewy wouldn't hurt Jess," he whispered. "I just know it. It didn't mean to bite him, prob'ly just scared."

 

He thought of how the creature had healed Traveler's leg and his anxious heart flip-flopped; if it could do that for the horse why couldn't it cure Jess too?

 

He scampered across the yard to the barn to get his saddle. Traveler and Alamo nickered a greeting at him, but Mike had no time for them. He looked around for Chewy but saw nothing, no glowing lights; no purring sounds greeted him…only emptiness. In despair Mike tore through the building, moving aside equipment, poking at hay bales and searching every darkened corner.

 

"Nooo...." he wailed softly. “Where are you? You can't be gone, I need your help!"

 

The tribble cowered in the lean-to that housed the forge. It did not relate to anything from this strange new world, but the anguish that emanated from the small being washed over it, causing its sensors to go into empathy mode.

 

It mewled and rolled towards the hole it had squeezed through, pushing its way back into the barn. It would heal this being, this smallness; it did not want it to be in pain. 

 

-----

 

Mike’s new pet had cleaned them out of coffee, beans and all, so Slim Sherman poured himself a shot from the bottle Daisy kept in the cupboard for "medicinal purposes only." The whiskey burned down his throat, but he relished the warmth it spread in his stomach.

 

Despite the roaring fireplace, Slim was frozen to the bone. Whatever the creature was that Mike had found, it had bitten Jess and sent his mind spiralling into some unimaginable nightmare from the past.

 

He refilled his glass and tossed it down, his hand shaking. His best friend was lost, and he was powerless to help him.

 

-----

 

 Mike’s face lit up when the small fur ball reappeared in Traveler’s stall and rolled towards him. He know that somehow it was connected to Jess’ current condition, but wasn’t sure how Slim would react if he brought the creature back into the house instead of delivering his message to Bill Bates.

 

To Mike’s young mind there was only one thing he could do. He snatched up the shimmering creature and stuffed it into his saddle bag. Chewy complained loudly, chittering as its psionic energy thrummed with distress.

 

A distress that transferred itself to Jess Harper as he lay lost in the semiconscious state that his violent severing from the creature had caused.

 

-----

 

Jess opened his eyes slowly, and blinked as the surroundings faded into focus. He saw nothing familiar, where in tarnation was he? Somebody's bedroom and that half open door looked to lead into a living room. He heard crackling from a fire…FIRE!!! No, not again! Never again!

 

He shot off the bunk and the gun flashed into his hand. The room swayed crazily and slivers of agony shot through his head, almost bringing him to his knees. He shook it off and flung the door open. A man came towards him, called his name, reached for him....

 

"Bannister!" Jess snarled and brought the gun up.

 

His world fragmented; time wheeled and tilted. The man yelled his name and lunged at him, grabbing for the gun. Struggling, they stumbled backwards. A shot rang out.

 

The logs in the fireplace shifted, sending out sparks, and a man fell to the floor, mortally wounded.

 

 

*****

 

Up on the ridge across from the ranch a rapid beeping from the tricorder pulled Spock’s attention back from his Captain.

"Spock, that was a gunshot! What’s happening?"

"I am not sure, Captain. The readings are most confusing." Spock continued to study the instrument.

"Take a guess at it." Kirk’s voice conveyed his exasperation.

The Vulcan’s eyebrow raised even more than usual. "Vulcans do not guess, Jim.”

"Dammit, Spock, you know what’s at stake here!"

"Captain, I appear to have two genetic codes for the tribble – one with the young boy, and one is still within the house, but it is fading.”

Kirk was convinced the very jaws of hell were opening up before him. "I need more than that, Spock, are you telling me the tribble has somehow replicated?”

"No, to do that it needs to consume huge amounts of sustenance in order to generate enough genetic material to divide into clones of itself. I do not believe that has happened yet."

 

Kirk was sure he was turning purple. He took a deep breath, desperate to get a clarification from Spock, but knowing that the Vulcan was disinclined to guess at things. "Alright, what does the second signal tell us?"

"It is mostly human, Captain. There are recorded instances of tribbles melding with foreign entities while they are in healing mode, both physically and mentally. It is part of the tribbles very essence, their sentience that they must help ease pain.

 

In extreme cases they may donate some of their own genetic material to the other entity. It helps the healing when the physical, or psychological pain, is too deep. I would calculate that this human was in the middle of such a process with the tribble, but that their connection was violently severed."

"And?" Kirk prompted.

"I'm sorry, Captain, I do not understand your question?" Spock stated seriously.

"There is always an and, Spock. Give me the rest of this possible scenario." Kirk was standing now, his anxiety making him oblivious to any danger from the ranch below.

"Captain, unless the process is completed, the human and the tribble will die."

Kirk started to move away, but Spock pulled him back. "Jim! That shot we heard appears to have finished the job. The human’s life signs are being extinguished."

"Then there’s no time to waste!” Kirk was running now, heading down the hill at full tilt.

"Captain, what about the Prime Directive?" Spock shouted, even as he started to run after his friend.

"To hell with it,” drifted back to him from Kirk’s retreating back. "The whole Universe is at stake."



*****

 

 

In the ranch house below, Slim Sherman staggered back, his eyes flickered briefly to the gun in his hands. The smell of cordite stung his nose, and the weapon dropped to the floor.

 

He stared in shock at the fallen body, and the steadily growing red stain that spread across Jess’ chest.

He sank to his knees beside his friend. Heard Jess’ breath hitch in his throat as he fought to draw air into his blood filled lungs.

 

Slim tried desperately to stop the flow of blood, pressing down on the gaping wound. His eyes filled with tears as he alternately swore at and bargained with, God.

 

"Please don’t let him die; you can’t let him die, please, please. Jess, breathe. Stay with me, Pard!"

 

Jess Harper opened his eyes to a world fragmented by memories of the past, and silver colored by the agonizing shards of the present. Flashes of fire, Frank Bannister's face leering through the flames, like some apparition from beyond hell…replaced by a tall man with blue eyes and ready smile…Slim!

 

"Slim," it was barely audible.

 

"Easy, Pard, easy, I'm right here."

 

Jess felt himself gently lifted and supported, his head resting on Slim’s knee. "Slim, what…" He coughed and needle sharp pain shot through his chest. Blood trickled down his chin. “Slim…I…."

 

The world around him grayed and grew cold. He tried to draw air for what he wanted, needed to say, but he was tired…tired…his head sank back and his eyes closed.

 

"Jess!" Slim shook him gently. "Don't you quit on me, Pard! Jess!"

 

Tears burning in his eyes, Slim put an ear to his friend's chest, and found no sign of life. No steadfast heartbeat, no sign that the young Texan, who had stood shoulder to shoulder with him through so many trials, was with him still, would be there to stand beside him again.

 

His shirt and hands stained with Jess' blood Slim held him against his chest. He rested his cheek on the sweaty, dark hair and closed his eyes in prayer. His face was marred by anguish and helplessness; the fact that he was powerless to save his friend shredded his insides.

 

"Please," he whispered. "Jess, you can have the last drop of my blood…but not this …how can this be happening?"

 

Death.

 

The ultimate fork in the road – where his friend must now go alone, without him.

 

 

*****

 

Doctor Leonard McCoy gave up trying to regain contact with the landing party, and instead endeavored to sidestep the tribbles that had invaded his sick bay.

 

He had been about to initiate an autopsy on one when it emitted a high pitched screech. Nurse Christine Chapel, who was assisting, took a step back and tripped over the tribbles that suddenly materialized from the body bin where they'd been deposited after ingesting the contaminated Quatrotriticale grain. The fur balls were followed by a seemingly never ending mound of brown pellets that spilled onto the floor.

 

“I’m standing in Tribble poop!” Bones McCoy thought with an exasperated snort. He turned to the lovely, blond woman at his side.

 

“Nurse Chapel, when this is all over I'm going to write a book. Mind you, not one of those computer generated books, but a real paper book, the kind Jim likes. Antique! I have the perfect title! The Trials and Tribulations of Traveling with Tribbles!" 

 

"Doctor McCoy! They're alive!" Nurse Chapel stated in disbelief.

 

"And your point is?" McCoy grunted and grabbed hold of the golden creature merrily bouncing around on the autopsy table.

 

She shook her head. "How can they be alive, Doctor? They ingested the contaminated grain and died – well, except for the one that was caught in the transporter beam with the Captain and Mister Spock.  What we're seeing is impossible!"

 

Bones McCoy regarded the little fur ball squirming in his hands. It purred gently, round black eyes focusing on him. It was a soothing, tranquil sound, like a late summer evening’s breeze wafting across his parents' front porch in Atlanta; he tasted mint juleps and caught the smell of magnolias…. With an oath he dropped the creature and backed away.

 

"Christine, after all these years with Jim Kirk at the helm, you should be used to the impossible as an everyday occurrence," he sighed and ran his medical scanner over the tribble.

 

He eyed the readings and the rise of his eyebrows would have done a certain Vulcan science officer proud.

 

----

  

Montgomery Scott, Chief Engineer of the Starship Enterprise, stared in disbelief at what was being disgorged through the open doors of the turbo lift.

 

Tribbles. Hundreds upon hundreds of tribbles.

 

Pulsing with a color spectrum that defied description, the little creatures tumbled onto the bridge. Mewling and purring they skittered across the floor and wrapped happily themselves around the ankles of flabbergasted yeomen, disconcerted weapons officers and bewildered communications personnel. Because of the tribbles' unique psionic connection with other species, the humans could not help but pick them up, pet them, murmur nonsensical endearments.

 

It was as if a furry rainbow had taken over the bridge of the Enterprise.

 

"Och, the wee bairns," Scotty murmured, stroking the three that had found their way onto his lap. His thoughts meandered – he was strolling through a glen of tranquillity on the shores of the Dornoch Firth….

 

Lieutenant Uhura tried re-establishing contact with the landing party, but to no avail. The tribbles meandered happily across her communications panel, nibbling at her fingers as she toggled the comm switches.

 

She inhaled the intoxicating scent of the moist, warm air of her homeland, the sway of the grasslands, and the Bantu tribe's call to evening meeting….

 

-----

 

Down in sick bay Leonard McCoy thumped the intercom. "Scotty! Do you have the coordinates for the landing party?"

 

"Aye, Doctor McCoy, but the comms are still down. I dinna ken if…”

 

"I have an antidote for the grain contamination, so just get me down there. We need to retrieve the tribble before the Prime Directive is compromised.

 

Oh…and retrieve the landing party too, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

 

Montgomery Scotty tore his mind away from the purring creatures in his lap. "I'll meet ye in the transporter room, Doctor."

 

Doctor Leonard McCoy, of the Atlanta, Georgia, McCoy’s, disliked nothing so much as having his molecules scrambled by a transporter beam and then reassembled at a destination that was hopefully not inside a rock – or, with Scotty at the helm, inside a case of well-aged, single malt scotch.

 

He eyed his reflection in the mirror with a satisfied smirk. The onboard computer had done him proud. He looked the epitome of a southern gentleman, gray suit, white shirt with ruffles, string tie. He tapped the hat to give it a more rakish angle and tugged at the jacket's wide lapels. Perfect!

 

"Doctor McCoy." Nurse Chapel couldn't help but grin, even if the situation was dire, with the landing party apparently trapped in the past. "You will need this." She handed him the much needed accessory to pass as a country physician, the obligatory Gladstone bag.

 

He nodded at Nurse Chapel, trying to reassure her. The satchel held all of his time's medical equipment along with two tribbles and an old fashioned stethoscope, just in case. And, for good measure, a bottle of Romulan Aquavit, for medicinal purposes… and unforeseen emergencies.

 

If experience had taught him anything, it was that Jim Kirk and unexpected circumstances were two scoops of the same pile of tribble poop. 

 

Since tribbles were essential a "one-ness, a totality," each organism was uniquely connected to the other. When one was in distress the others linked together to enable healing.

 

All of McCoy’s medical scanners indicated that the tribbles did not die after consuming the Quatrotriticale, instead going into stasis. Ingesting the tainted grain had sent them into healing mode. They repaired the contaminants and rendered them safe. Extracting the immunological mediators became unnecessary; he could synthesize a new strain of Quatrotriticale from the tribble excretions they had so generously deposited on the floor of his sick bay.

 

A strain that would be impervious to contamination.

 

"Scotty, this better work," he muttered a little later, standing on the platform in the transporter room. "I do not want materialize on Earth with tribbles growing out of my ears!"

 

"Nae t’worry, Doctor McCoy, the creatures are not affected by the transporter process. They revert to stasis mode – ye'll be fine."

 

"…toil and tribble," McCoy harrumphed, misquoting Shakespeare as the beam fragmented the world around him.

 

*****

 

Patches, Mike's little pony, stopped abruptly in mid stride, and shook his head from side to side. The sudden halt almost unseated Mike, but he managed to grab hold of the horn at the last minute, chin hitting his chest at the sudden stop.

 

"Whoa, Patches, what's wrong?"  He called and straightened up in the saddle.

 

Two men emerged from the shadows ahead of him and his heartbeat picked up. "Who…who're you?"

 

Kirk and Spock advanced slowly towards the frightened youngster. Kirk had set his phaser on an ultra-low interferon frequency that disrupted the horse's equilibrium and brought the confused the animal to a stop.

 

"We mean you no harm, young man," he said and held out his hands, palms up. "We…we were set upon by…er…by outlaws. They took our horses and left us afoot. Those lights back there –is that your home?"

 

Mike gulped as the second of the two men came closer. He looked scary, tall and black clad, and his skin was kinda…kinda pale green, like he was sick or somethin'….

 

Like when I ate too much of Aunt Daisy's chocolate cake last week, Mike thought ruefully.

 

"My name is Jim Kirk," the captain of the USS Enterprise said. "And this is my First Of…”

 

"I am called Spock," his friend said quietly, keeping his tone even to not alarm the boy further. "Spock of the plan…of Vulcan. A country in Eastern Europe. Perhaps you know of it?"

 

Mike pulled his lower lip up to join the rest of his mouth and shook his head slightly.

 

His pony stood stock still, as if hypnotized by the two men on the road.  

  

Spock, his stoic Vulcan half  at war with his emotional human half, eyed the tricorder and wished, against all logical Vulcan dictates, that the fading life signs of one human, the one whose psionic readings seemed intertwined with the wayward tribble,  would register.

 

"What's your name, son?" Kirk asked gently, not wanting to frighten the youngster. He reached a hand and took hold of the little pony's reins. The towheaded boy, who looked to be about eight –ten years old, stared at him with saucer like blue eyes, the smattering of freckles across his nose standing out against the pale skin.

 

Mike hiccupped a few mouthfuls of air, his heart fluttering in his throat. He did not know the two men who had suddenly appeared on the road, all he knew was that Jess was badly hurt and Slim had trusted him to get help.

 

"Mike…Mike Williams," he stammered. "I live…" he swallowed and tried again. “I live at the Sherman Ranch.” He pointed back towards the ranch house. "I have to get help for Jess. He’s my friend, he needs a doctor."

 

"Captain, we are running out of time," Spock said quietly. "And I mean that literally, the death of the human is already damaging our time line – one we may not be able to recover from."

 

"Nooo…" Mike wailed. All he understood was the word death! Did that mean Jess was dead?  "How'd you know if Jess is dead? He can't be, he's only hurt…I have to get the doctor!"

 

He dug his heels into Patches' sides, but the pony just stood there, transfixed by the hypnotic presence of man in front of him. Spock stroked the animal's silken nose, caught the anxiety in the little horse, and offered unspoken reassurance.

 

Patches flicked his tail and nickered gently. He felt safe, the calming touch of the Vulcan's brief, gentle mind meld putting his anxiety to rest. 

 

*****

 

Slim supported the weight of his friend's head in one hand as he snagged the pillow off the chair by the fire place, and with infinite gentleness, eased Jess' head down. He gazed at the ashen face, wanting to see just once more those startling blue eyes gleaming with mischief.

 

"Oh God, Pard, what the hell happened?" he thought. 

 

Slim had lost track of time. Things were happening too fast – Mike and his new pet, the Texan grousing about the coffee beans – and now Jess was dead. Shot dead in a struggle for a gun, thinking that he was fighting some demon from his past.

 

"Bannister!" Slim shook his head. "Frank Bannister…Jess, you told me part of the story…but I….”

 

He sucked in a sharp breath. "Chewy…"

 

He grabbed Jess' hand and saw the little punctures where the creature had bit him.  They pulsed with a soft blue light, it was fading but still meandered from the hand up Jess' arm; Slim touched it wonderingly, got a sense of peace, non-threatening, calming, "we seek only to heal…."

 

 

*****

 

James T. Kirk and Mister Spock, with Mike Williams in tow, made their way back to the Sherman ranch. Mike had decided to trust them, partly because his pony appeared to have turned into a puppy wanting to follow them everywhere. His favorite seemed to be the skinny man with the greenish face – Spock? Yes, that was his name.

 

"Mike, in his homeland Mister Spock is considered a healer," the blonde man, dressed in the cleanest clothes Mike'd ever seen, said.

 

"The tribble that you have in your saddlebag is part of his healing powers. One without the other cannot survive." 

 

Kirk was going on sheer gut instinct, he'd played poker with the best of 'em – could this young boy from Earth’s 1870's even begin to understand?

 

"Mike, the two together might be able to save your friend," he kept his voice on an even keel, no nuances to upset the child. "Please trust us. Let us help."

 

For a moment Kirk's mind wandered back through the gate of The Guardian of Forever.  Let Me Help…Bonner, the Stochastic…he shook it off.

 

"Let us help your friend, Mike."

 

*****

 

 

Slim grinned as he watched Jess and Traveler tear up the slope ahead of him; they moved as one, effortlessly, the horse born to run and the man born to ride him.

 

Jess whooped as he chased down the cattle that had strayed from the north pasture and turned them towards Slim.

 

"Comin' your way, Pard!" He hollered and waved.

 

With an effort Slim pulled his mind back to the present; so many good memories, so many things, great and small, that would never be again...so much blood....

 

Slim gazed at the blanket clutched in his hands, he could not bring himself to cover his friend's body, it was too final; a sob hitched in his throat and the desolation in his heart threatened to bring him to his knees.

 

He turned as the front door flew open and Mike tumbled in clutching Chewy in his hands, and followed by two strangers. The fur ball mewled and squirmed, and the youngster deposited it gently on the floor.

 

It rolled straight towards Jess. Startled Slim dropped the blanket and his hand moved to his gun. That critter was the source of everything that had gone wrong lately.

 

"Mike! What're you doing back here? Get that thing out of here! "He was cut off by the excited youngster who ran towards him.

 

"I brought help, Slim, they say they can help," Mike chattered, blue eyes shiny with hope. "They can help Jess!"

 

He skidded to a stop and his face drained of color as he gazed down at his friend lying on the floor. His eyes burned with sudden tears, somehow seeing Jess again made it all worse –  how could they help him, he was dead, it was all too late…"Nooo," he whispered as reality caught up with him.

 

Slim Sherman put a hand on the boy's shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. He eyed the two men who had come in with Mike. One tall, gaunt, with an odd, greenish cast to his skin He stood with his hands behind his back, face expressionless – the  second man shorter, dark blonde with hazel eyes.

 

The black clad man's presence was arresting, but instinctively the rancher knew it was the other man who was in charge.

 

"I am Jim Kirk, and you must be Slim Sherman. The boy told us about you and what happened here."

 

Kirk held out his hand and Slim gazed down at his own hands, still covered in blood, his friend's blood. He shook his head slightly.

 

"I…I don't understand…where'd you come from? Who are you? Mike?"

 

But Mike didn't hear him; he had eyes only for Jess, a still, pale form, so far removed from the vital friend who so often had gotten him into so much mischief.

 

"I am Spock," the black clad man said, his voice low and measured. "I am from another…from Europe…a country called Vulcan."

 

Kirk felt his own eyebrows twitch. His First Officer, the logical, stoic Vulcan, had just let his human side take over, and if it wasn't quite a lie, at least he had bent the truth. The Enterprise captain took a step towards the tall rancher, saw the grief and shock in his eyes and knew that the man on the floor meant the world to him.

 

"Mister Sherman…Slim, in his homeland Spock is considered a healer." 

 

Jim Kirk knew he had to tread gingerly here so as not to compromise the Prime Directive. Hell, it was already compromised, could they even repair the damage?

 

Spock advanced towards the prone body on the floor. "Who is this man?"

 

"His name is Jess Harper…he is my…was my best friend." Slim choked on the words. "We struggled…the gun…" his voice trailed off as he watched the man called Spock kneel down next to Jess.

 

Spock of Vulcan turned his mind inwards and called upon the ancient techniques of his home world. He extended his right hand and placed his fingers gently on the ashen face in the stylized mode of the Vulcan mind meld.

 

His eyes closed and James Kirk held his breath; Slim and Mike could only stare. Chewy had inched its way onto Jess' chest and lay there, extending golden tendrils all along his body. It pulsed with intensity.

 

The Vulcan's head snapped back as a rush of emotions assaulted his senses.

 

"So much guilt," he whispered hoarsely, "so much pain…how is it possible…no, no, they are burning, burning…AH!"

 

He severed the connection and stumbled to his feet. Chewy stayed, purring softly, its light waning as it strived for a healing connection. It knew it would not be enough. It alone could not affect the outcome…it needed more of the one-ness, the totality….

 

"Spock!" Kirk jumped towards him, but his friend turned away, staggering slightly.

 

"What's goin' on?" Slim despaired of the situation and wondered if they had all taken leave of their senses. "What just happened?"

 

Spock gathered himself with an effort. "This man's katra –his spirit – lives still, but the body is shutting down. It may be too late, Jim."

 

At that moment the little ranch house shook as if in the throes of an earthquake. Slim grabbed Mike at the last second as the youngster lost his footing and was about to take a header into the fireplace.  There was a deafening clap of thunder and for a moment reality wavered.

 

Spock steadied himself and glanced at his tricorder. What he had feared, was happening.

 

"Captain, the timelines are diverging. If we cannot save this man the fate of Earth’s harvests will be irrelevant. The future, our future, will cease."

 

-----

 

Out in the front yard Leonard McCoy picked himself off the ground, muttering irritably as he brushed dust of his gray pants. He picked up his doctor's bag and checked the contents. The bottle of Romulan Aquavit was intact, and two pairs of black button eyes stared up at him. The tribbles mewled in protest. 

 

"Stop complaining," he admonished and snapped the bag shut. He squared his shoulders and stepped up on the porch.

 

"Well, for once Jim can't say there's never a doctor around when you need one!"

 

-----

 

Jess Harper drifted with the winds of the Texas Panhandle. The hot air wavered and shimmered. He turned his back to the swimming hole and faced the weathered, box shaped house and the people on the porch. The swaybacked overhang shaded their faces for a moment, and then, as the shadows shifted, they stepped forward, into the light.

 

"Oh God, Ma…Pa…I tried…." Jess gave up holding back the tears. "I tried… I'm so sorry...please forgive me…."

 

His mother, bleak and beautiful as the land that had etched the lines into her careworn face, smiled softly.  Her lips moved but no sound came; Jess wanted to run to her but his legs were frozen. The light deepened, the outline of the house blurred….

 

"No! No! Don’t leave me!" Jess’ bruised and weary spirit reached out to his family. "Don't go…take me with you!"

 

The world suddenly shifted and darkened, he heard a voice whisper gently:

 

It is not your time.

 

*****

 

The violent shaking ceased as suddenly as it had begun and the house solidified around them. Slim held Mike close and the boy clung to him, his face white with fear.

 

Slim Sherman had a tenuous hold on his own sanity, not understanding for a moment what had happened. The man called Spock stood apart from them gazing at a small, hand held device that emitted a barely audible humming noise. He appeared to be making adjustments to it while his friend Kirk paced up and down tearing at his hair in frustration.

 

"Dammit, Spock, you know I don't accept a no-win scenario! I have tricked fate and cheated death too many times – there has to be a way!"

 

Spock raised his dark eyes from the tricorder's view screen and looked at Jim Kirk. For a split second they were alone in the room, their empathic connection reaffirmed by the bond of a friendship forged among the stars. If this was indeed to be the end of their world the Vulcan was content to share the final moments with the enigmatic starship captain, his t'hy'la – his brother… a random thought, an idea flickered…but was lost.

 

Mike burrowed against Slim's shirt, needing the closeness, the familiar warmth and safety of the strong arms holding him. His young mind had stopped asking questions, he was going on overload, letting events unfold without being able to absorb what was happening.

 

"Slim?" It was plaintive, muffled.

 

"Easy, Mike, easy." Slim soothed the traumatized boy, stroking his hair gently. "It's all right, just the weather, probably a twister or something." He picked up the youngster and settled him in the rocking chair by the fireplace.

 

The tribble chittered softly, obviously in distress as it lay on Jess' chest, covering the fatal wound. Its golden tendrils were fading, changing to desolate gray as the lights flickered over Jess' body. Forgetting about Kirk and Spock, Slim knelt down beside his friend and laid a gentle hand on the dark head.

 

"I thought death was supposed to bring you peace," he murmured softly, his voice breaking. There was no peace on Jess' bone white features, only tension and pain.

 

"Pard, I never got a chance to…" his voice trailed off, it was too late for words.

 

Spock watched the two men, the tall, blond man anchored in the present, yet desperately reaching out, across the void of death, of time and space, to will his friend back to the living. The idea flickered yet again…t'hy'la…..

 

Buffeted by howling winds the Sherman ranch house shuddered, the walls buckled for a moment, winked out and faded back in, their contours grayed, and like clotted, ephemeral mist, everything wavered as it tried to coalesce.

 

"Spock!" Jim Kirk yelled.  He steadied himself against the kitchen table and saw, more than felt, his hand go right through it; he had a moment of vertigo, of falling down the rabbit hole… the phrase came unbidden.

 

"And it's late," he thought, regaining his footing. "Very, very late."

 

The floor buckled and Jess' body heaved, Slim grabbed hold of his friend and drew him close, aching at the feel of lifelessness even as it seemed that the world around him had gone mad. He heard dishes crashing in the kitchen, and worried incongruously about Daisy's good china. Mike curled up in the rocking chair, his eyes squeezed shut.

 

Spock held himself steady against the mantle of the fireplace. Smoldering logs had tumbled out on the floor and he kicked them back into the hearth. His tricorder gave nonsensical readings fluctuating between chaos theory and divergent timelines that merged, split apart and merged again. The universe was sliding.

 

-----

 

Doctor Leonard McCoy relished making an entrance as much as the next man, something he was seldom able to do, with Jim Kirk and his green-blooded, pointy-eared sidekick stealing his thunder most times.

 

The winds calmed and the earth under his feet stopped moving. He steadied himself for a moment and tapped his hat into place. The tribbles in his bag had gone silent – the universe coming to an end will do that to you, he thought and opened the front door.

 

"Did someone call for a doctor?”

 -----

 

James Tiberius Kirk stared in open-mouthed astonishment at the elegantly attired southern gentleman that stepped into the room holding a black doctor's bag. He wondered vaguely why he was not surprised. Had it been only a few hours since Spock and he had materialized on the ridge overlooking the ranch? It seemed The Guardian of Forever had a sense of humor – and timing?

 

"Bones! How in the name of Vulcan's three suns…" he clamped his lips shut before he was reduced to babbling.

 

Spock put away his tricorder, eyebrows again travelling in the direction of his hairline.

 

"Captain, I fail to see the logic of the reference to my home wor...my country’s…my

three…sons," he amended at the last minute. The Vulcan had played straight man to James Kirk more than once, he could do it again.

 

Bones McCoy couldn't help grinning, wasn't often he got the last word on these two.

 

The smile vanished as he looked around the room, saw the pair on the floor, a blond, handsome young cowboywas that the correct phrase? – cradling a dark haired man in his arms, a man whose shirt front was stained with blood. 

 

McCoy registered the waning healing lights of a dying tribble.

 

A young boy, blue eyes stark in a pale face, crouched in a chair by the fireplace where a few logs still smoldered. Sand pebbles, kicked up by violent wind gusts, crackled against the window panes; the whole house creaked and groaned, as if straining against the bonds securing it to this earth, this universe.

 

"Jim, Spock, the comm lines are down but the transporter is working," he said by way of explanation and put his medical bag on the wobbly dining table. "Although with Scotty at the helm I always worry about where I am going to wind up.”

 

He nodded at the two men on the floor. “Is this the cause of the diverging time lines?"

 

If possible, Spock's eyebrow rose even higher and Bones stared him down. "Mister Spock, I have been known to man the science station in your absence."

 

"Bones," Jim Kirk found his voice. "Can you…help him?" He gestured towards the dark haired man.

 

Bones McCoy tossed his hat on the table and shrugged out of his coat. He eyed the terror stricken youngster and approached him warily. In times like these there was really only one way to comfort the members of the family.

 

"Young man, I am Doctor Leonard McCoy and I am going to try and help your friend," he said quietly. He kept the cadence of his speech low and gentle. "What is your name, son?"

 

"Mi…Mike…Mike Williams," Mike stammered, the fact that a doctor had miraculously arrived returned some semblance of normalcy to the tragedy surrounding him.

 

"Mike, good, now then, I need your help. Do you think you can boil me some water? We need lots of hot water." 

 

Mike unfolded himself from his perch and stood practically at attention. "Yessir!" He took a step towards the kitchen and then hesitated. "You can really help Jess?"

 

McCoy reached out, gave him a pat on the shoulder. "I will do my level best, Mike. Now go."

 

Mike scampered into the kitchen, grateful for something to do.

 

Jim Kirk, Spock and Doctor McCoy eyed each other while Slim Sherman eased his friend back to the floor, making sure his head rested on the pillow.

 

He looked up at the man who had introduced himself as a doctor and said:

 

"My friend is dead." It was a simple fact and his voice was shockingly devoid of emotion.

 

Bones knelt down beside them and opened his medical bag. The two tribbles tumbled out; chittering excitedly they bounced onto Jess' chest, enveloping Chewy, whose life lights were rapidly being extinguished.

 

Slim watched in wide-eyed wonder as the Chewy’s gray coloring changed to soft yellow, waves of blue and red, ripples of gold. The two tribbles McCoy had brought with him merged and became one, growing in strength – but Chewy still wavered, as if undecided.

"Doctor?" Slim whispered as the man pulled a device from his doctor's bag and passed it over his Pard’s body. It beeped slightly and then went silent. "What is that? What're you doin'?"

 

Leonard McCoy eyed the readings on the medical scanner willing the results to change. He bowed his head slightly and closed his eyes for a second.

 

"Jim…."

 

His voice caught in his throat. It would take more than the future's magical instruments to save this man; the life force was still there, a barely noticeable blip on his scanner, too far gone for him to pull him back – even with the healing stasis of the tribbles’ symbiotic joining.

 

Spock of Vulcan strode across the floor, the fragile flame of an idea becoming a hope that, despite all logic, burned in his mind. He motioned the doctor aside and knelt next to a distraught Slim Sherman.

 

"I mean you no harm," he said, his voice hoarse.

 

He extended a hand, and against all Vulcan teaching and edicts, his fingers brushed the other man's temple. He kept the touch light, at only the outer levels of consciousness, felt the honor and integrity of this man from the past, the loyalty and courage – and a bond of friendship as strong as he himself had with a certain starship captain.

 

Bound by the Vulcan's touch, Slim could not move. He felt a foreign presence in his mind, but he was not afraid. 

 

"You would give your life for this man." It was a statement, not a question.

 

"Yes…if it would save him….YES!"

 

Spock guided Slim Sherman's hands to his stricken friend's chest, where they disappeared in the light given off by the tribbles. Spock then rested the fingers of his left hand on Jess' face in the mind meld position, and pressed his other hand firmly to the blond rancher’s temple.

 

The Vulcan took a deep breath, calling upon all the knowledge of the Ancients of his home world; he deliberately lowered the barriers to his human half and let the emotions flow into him, he had been here before, but it was still like being burned from the inside.

 

Doctor McCoy stepped back and bumped into Jim Kirk – transfixed they could only watch as Spock completed the joining. They had seen the Vulcan do this before, but never with three entities in the same meld…it could kill him, or worse, send that incredible mind spiralling into madness if he could not sever the link.

 

Time wavered, folded in on them; the house shuddered as wind moaned through the eaves and rattled window panes. The door shook as if a night creature demanded entrance.

 

Spock's mind descended through the flames of a burning house, he was engulfed in a war of blue and gray, wept at the devastating cruelty and incredible heroism. He found a dark haired young man with the devil on his coat tails…and a somber blond rancher who extended his hand in friendship…let me help….

 

The tribbles were quiet, pulsing gently, their symbiosis with the humans completing the meld. Spock gathered up the fragile threads of the link, felt the flames subside as he struggled to find his way back…back to the past… no! The future…a starship… he felt a life force die in the link....

 

"Aaah," he moaned," no…too much…I…cannot…Jim!"

 

The last was a despairing cry and Kirk shot forward as Spock severed the link and staggered to his feet. He caught the Vulcan by the arm and steadied him. "Spock?"

 

The Vulcan shuddered and turned away. "I am…undamaged," he whispered.

 

Slim Sherman felt an inexplicable sense of loss as the strangeness left his mind. His vision grayed for a moment as the present faded back into focus. Returning memory brought only sadness, his friend still lay lifeless on the floor before him – nothing had changed.

 

Bones McCoy pushed the rancher aside and ran his medical scanner over the prone man. Frowning he made some adjustments to the instrument and tried again. This time he got a steady hum.

 

"Well, I'll be damned," he breathed in disbelief.

 

Jim Kirk let go of Spock's arm and turned to the doctor. "Oh, I sincerely doubt that," he said quietly. "Bones, did it work?"

 

The doctor stared down at the dark haired man on the floor – two of the tribbles still purred and pulsed with color, but the one that had been the cause of so much tragedy…it lay there, still covering the bullet wound in man’s' chest, but it was shrivelled and gray.

 

The last of its psionic life force had been expended in the healing meld with the Vulcan and the two humans. It lived no more.

 

"No, not Chewy!" Mike wailed. He dropped the pot of water he had fetched from the kitchen and reached for the little creature. As he picked it up something clinked to the floor and rolled towards Slim.

 

It was a bullet.

 

-----

 

It is not your time.

 

Jess reached out as his family and the Texas Panhandle shimmered out of existence, felt a strong hand on his shoulder, anchoring him, drawing him back to the present.

 

He coughed against a sharp pain in his chest.

 

Slim Sherman's world tilted and righted itself. He stared in disbelief at the bullet in his hand and then at a pair of groggy blue eyes that blinked up at him.

 

"Pard?" Jess' voice was a croak. He tried again. "Slim, what the…hell happened?"

 

"Jess! Jess, you’re not dead!” Mike hollered. He dropped Chewy and threw himself at his friend.

 

Slim closed his fist around the bullet and slipped it into his vest pocket. The bizarre fur balls and the strange man in black had somehow saved Jess, given him back his life. Even the blood stains had been absorbed by the furry creatures.

 

He had his miracle and would not question it.

 

Jess was alive, that was all that mattered. He put a hand on his friend's shoulder. Their eyes met, one puzzled, questioning, the other only full of wonder.

 

"Rest easy, Jess," Slim said, his heart so full he thought it must surely break.

 

"Rest…." Jess murmured. "In peace, I thought." He rubbed at his chest, the ache was still there. He raised his head from the pillow and noticed the three strangers for the first time. "Who're you?"

 

Doctor McCoy had caught the two remaining tribbles and squeezed them back into his black medical bag. They were not happy about their confinement and hissed at him. Ah, the bottle of Romulan Aquavit, he'd almost forgotten about it.

 

Jim Kirk saw Spock eye his tricorder and then nod at him. "It is time, Captain," the Vulcan said as a faint tremor rattled the house. The future was waiting, the time lines were realigning, correcting themselves.

 

"Jess, this is Jim Kirk and his friend, Mister Spock," Slim performed the introductions. "And that's Doctor Leonard McCoy."

 

"Doctor McCoy?" Jess said confused.” What happened to Doc Collier?"

 

"Ah, he was occupied at your neighbor's ranch," Bones said quickly. "A baby that would not wait."

 

"Old widow Perkins is havin’ a baby?" Jess gulped. "Slim, Pard, help me up, I feel real strange."

 

Slim extended a hand and Mike lent him a small shoulder to lean on. Jess swayed on his feet, thought better of it and thumped down in the rocking chair.

 

"Are you sure you're okay, Jess?" the boy asked and squirmed onto his lap, his voice small and worried. His friend had been lost, but had somehow been given back to him and Mike wasn't about to let him out of his sight.

 

Chewy was forgotten and Bones surreptitiously picked the limp creature off the floor and put it in his pocket. It had almost destroyed the universe, but in the end it had given up its own life force to set things right.

 

"I'm fine, Tiger," Jess murmured and rested his chin on the youngster's head. He hurt all over, and he had a headache of epic proportions, along with a nagging memory that drifted just out of reach.

 

"We must take our leave of you, Mister Sherman," McCoy said formally. "My conveyance has orders to meet us…er…me, just beyond the ridge from your house. Jim, Spock, I would be more than happy …hmm…to give you a ride, so to speak.

 

But before we go, I'd like to propose a toast to our newfound friends. I have just the thing."

 

Jim Kirk's eyes widened in amused surprise as the good doctor pulled a bottle of Romulan Aquavit from his bag. And I thought that stuff was illegal, he grinned to himself. Bones, you sly dog.

 

----

 

A half hour later the voyagers from the future gazed at the occupants of the ranch house. The Romulan Aquavit had done the trick. Slim Sherman slumped at the kitchen table, his head resting on his arms. He was fast asleep. So was the dark haired man sitting in the rocking chair. They had almost lost him, and their future, because of an errant tribble hitching a ride with a transporter beam.

 

The young boy, Mike, was sleeping in Jess Harper's lap, curled up like a contented puppy.

 

Spock had gently brushed against Slim and Mike's memories, effecting subtle changes, taking away all knowledge of what had transpired. They would awake feeling only tired after a late night's work.

 

He reached towards Jess Harper, and hesitated. The house shook again as the timelines asserted themselves.

 

"Spock! I've sent the signal to Scotty, we need to get out of here now," Jim Kirk hissed.

 

"This man carries so much pain, so much guilt," Spock murmured. "It is not logical."

 

McCoy arched an eyebrow. "Well, can't you help him, Spock? Take it from him along with the memories of this day?"

 

The Vulcan shook his head imperceptibly.

 

"I can take what happened here today from him – the rest is a journey he must make on his own." 

 

-----

 

The three men from the starship Enterprise stood on the ridge overlooking the little ranch house, and as the transporter beam fragmented the world around them, Doctor Leonard McCoy put a hand in his pocket and felt something soft and furry nibble on his fingers.

 

 

****

 

Jess Harper slept, with the memory of a voice that gently whispered:

 

It was not your time.

 

 

The End

 

 

 

 





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