by Beth

Notes: January Challenge offered by AngelaB. ‘Where’s my horse challenge’. One of the guys’ horses goes missing. This takes place in my own old west series, and you might want to read or be familiar with Southern Cross…(Ezra’s story).

Sorry if there’re too many mistakes, I beta-ed this myself.

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Tiny entered the saloon and looked hesitantly at the patrons. He found Chris Larabee and his men sitting around their usual table, enjoying their morning repast. Inez prepared for a busy day behind the counter, softly humming to herself. The older horseman took a few long strides toward the group of men with reluctance in each step.

Bad news was never easy to share…particularly when it came to any of the gunslingers’ horses.

Tiny cleared his throat and rang his hands together nervously. “Mister Standish?”

Ezra wiped his mouth with his napkin and carefully replaced the item next to his plate. He smiled and nodded. “Is there a problem?” he asked, slightly concerned with Tiny’s mannerisms.

“Trouble’s missin’—”

Ezra shot up from his seat and was out the door before the blacksmith could finish. Trouble meant more to him than gold. The horse had been his partner and friend far too long.

“What happened?” Chris asked, then finished his toast in one bite.

“Damn horse,” Tiny swore. “He’s figured out every single latch to his stall…I’ve even used rope—but still he’s out by mornin’. I usually find ‘im in the grain bin—ain’t a wonder he ain’t foundered hisself yet. Or I find ‘im behind Mrs. Potter’s store, diggin’ through the garbage lookin’ for those dang rotten apples she tosses out…”  

“Well,” Buck sighed, “s’poze we should go and help Ezra find his horse.” He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt and quickly finished his coffee before getting to his feet.

Vin chuckled and stood up. He knew the importance of a horse in this country. Sometimes a horse meant the difference between life and death…there was a reason men were hung for horse thieving. “Maybe the beast trotted on down to the Miss Cooper’s—she was makin’ apple pies the other day… Hell, even Ezra bought a pie and ate the whole damn thing—in one sittin’.” Nobody could tell if the sharpshooter was more upset about Ezra not sharing his pie or eating it all by himself. It really didn’t matter either way…it was a WHOLE pie!

JD laughed: “I’ve seen the way you go after Nettie’s cobbler.” He snickered, knowing Nettie always had to make more than one when she cooked, Vin seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to her food.

“A whole pie?” Nathan asked in disbelief. No wonder Ezra didn’t eat, he was too full with sweets.

“Should’ve seen it, Nate,” Vin shook his head, “it was the end of the world through Ezra’s mouth.” He couldn’t help but chuckle at the memory.

Chris snorted and quickly wiped his chin free of the coffee he’d spit up. “Don’t let him hear you talkin’ like that, Vin, you’re liable to end up in the outhouse—head first.”

“Let’s go find that damn horse of his,” Buck said, shaking his head as he slipped through the batwing doors.


Ezra rushed toward the barn, fearing the worst. He knew when he bought Trouble that the animal had a mind of his own. Thoroughbreds weren’t known for being the trustworthiest of equines. They were high-strung, quick tempered, and easily agitated. However, their devotion to man was highly underrated. They captured imaginations on the race tracks back east, and their long thin legs and narrow body types were completely opposite of the western cow horse. The Thoroughbred loved to run, that’s what they were bred for. Trouble was a cantankerous animal, but he loved his apples and he loved Ezra.

The stall gate was still open, the leather tie had been gnawed in half and the steel latch still had bits of hay smeared on the handle. At times, Trouble was more trouble than he was worth. Ezra clenched his fists and tightened his jaw muscles. Where in the hell was he supposed to look for his horse? When he first purchased the beast the owner was ready to destroy him…after all, running through town was not a quick way to make friends, particularly when destroying property was at the top of their lists.

Buck and Vin entered the livery and chuckled to themselves while watching the gambler saddle an unfamiliar horse. The short, stocky, mount grunted when the cinch was tightened. Short pasterns, a long back, and bulging muscles were a granted ‘rough ride’…Ezra was going to hate this.

Vin shook his head and pulled his own steed from his stall, the big black tossed his head in readiness then dug at the ground waiting for the saddle to hit his back. “You know, Ezra, he probably just went on down to Masterson’s at the end of town…might as well check there first before ya get all huffy—”

“Mistah Tannah,” Ezra sighed angrily, “If I had wanted your opinion I would have asked for it.”

“Just thought I’d mention it s’all.” Vin shrugged his shoulders and continued saddling Digger.

Buck just chuckled and threw the saddle up onto his big gray. He looked up when JD entered in through the barn doors and collected his breath. “Chris just took off with Josiah and Nate…somethin’ about a prisoner pick up for the judge. Since they had their horses ready they all went. He didn’t think it would take too long so he’s sendin’ me with you.”

“Saddle up,” Buck ordered, cinching Rooster. The big horse nipped flirtatiously at the young mare in the adjacent stall. She squealed and turned her butt to him. “Damn,” he sighed. “Tell Tiny that mare of his is in season!” he yelled to JD.

JD furrowed his brow and lifted his arms away from his sides. “Now?” He shook his head when he didn’t get a response, and raced to find Tiny who was just entering the stable.

Ezra rolled his eyes and mounted the ugly dun. He quickly gathered his reins and headed out the door. He paused a moment, trying to decide which direction to check first. Trouble had always remained in town, bothering anyone who stood in his way…but not this time. Ezra knew his horse had decided to have an adventure…otherwise someone would have notified him…wanting reimbursement for whatever Trouble had destroyed, or ate.

Vin rode up beside Ezra and paused. It was useless trying to find tracks in a town that had horses, people, and wagons entering and exiting from every direction. Horses were a herd animal…so why did Trouble leave the barn? Because his herd was Ezra, Vin surmised, looking at the worried gambler.

“What about tryin’ Nettie’s place first?” JD suggested. “She just got a couple new work horses… I checked with Mr. Masterson thinking Trouble went down there to tease that old stallion of his, but he ain’t seen him.”

“He’s gone,” Ezra whispered, “I can feel it.”

Vin didn’t question the Southerner’s assessment. Ezra knew his horse better than anyone.

“We’ll find ‘im,” Buck reassured, gingerly nudging Rooster forward. The animal protested a brief moment before realizing he had a job to do. He huffed and followed the trio, wishing in the back of his mind he was a ‘complete’ horse…a horse that could easily and willingly service that young mare. Damn Buck and his reasons for doing what he’d done to him so many years ago. Rooster flicked his ears, wondering how his master would like that simple—quick—operation that would make him completely useless in the eyes of all those young fillies. He shook his head and traveled on…thinking about all the beautiful mares...

Gus had to trot to keep up with the others. His energy was equal to Trouble’s; only Ezra’s big chestnut knew when to exude it. Gus on the other hand, was high energy all the time, which made it easy to tell if he was sick. The dark bay stuck his nose out and nipped incessantly at the shanks of his bit, on occasion he’d wrap his tongue around them…perhaps he was searching for that last morsel of food that escaped his mouth when the bit went in. JD played with the reins, and Gus tossed his head…he wanted to race another horse, maybe see who could make it to the trees faster, he or Rooster.

Vin looked into the distance. The day was as calm as one could wish for. A subtle breeze caused the long grass to sway and bend. Tumbleweeds rolled slowly across the ground, stopping on occasion when they entangled with hardy weeds. Birds flew up nto the sky in large groups filling the air with the sounds of their wings waving through the air. His horse suddenly perked up his ears and looked to his right, stopping without being ordered to. Vin looked hard into the distance, searching for whatever his horse had heard.

“Hold up,” Vin called. He pointed east and quickly lowered his hand. He noticed the other horses perk their ears forward into the same direction.

Rooster nickered, sticking his muzzle out and giving Buck a short shake in the saddle. The big gray kept his attention focused in the distance.

“That’s the Watson’s place,” JD said, pulling his eager mount to a stop.

Vin shrugged: “Let’s check it out.”

Ezra had already nudged his mount forward. Using his thighs and calves, he kept his butt out of the saddle, trying desperately to keep from bouncing to the moon with each movement his horse made. The trees made it difficult to see past the ridge line, but the closer they got to small ravine the horses became more agitated. Ezra placed his thumb and forefinger into his mouth and whistled loudly, trying once again to call his friend.

The distant sound of Trouble’s nicker floated through the air like smoke on a clear day.

JD stood up in his saddle and pointed into the remoteness. “Look!” he yelled.

Ezra’s face fell and he kicked his mount forward. The dun pinned his ears and raced ahead, his gallop feeling like a bumpy stage ride from Denver. Every stride was short and choppy…this animal was not meant to be a saddle horse. The gambler could hear the other horses behind him, keeping pace.

It looked strange as Trouble came into view, sunken past his belly in a black murky substance. His ears lay flat and his eyes sad and desperate. Once he saw Ezra, Trouble nickered loudly and struggled desperately to remove himself from his peril. Ezra slid off his mount before the dun came to a stop and he rushed toward his friend.

Buck grabbed his lariat and jumped down, ground tying Rooster. “Don’t go in there!” he yelled to his friend, who had already entered the pit. Black mud appeared everywhere it seemed. Trouble was covered in it, evidence of a struggle that had failed.

“JD,” Vin yelled, “go find us some strong pieces of wood—really long ones!”

Ezra was barely able to touch his horse’s nose. Trouble reached out as far as he could for human contact, but the substance around him seemed to draw him deeper. He flung his head back and forth trying to pull himself from the pit, but finally he let his head fall onto the black mud…he was exhausted.

“Trouble!” Ezra called to his steed, making the animal pick his head up and look hard toward his master. “Hang on.” It was an order that would be obeyed.

“Loop this around his neck,” Buck said, handing the lariat to the Southerner.

Ezra carefully flung the rope a few feet and pulled, tightening it around Trouble’s neck. Vin slowly entered the pit until he sank to his knees, doing the same with his own lariat.

“Do you need another one?!” JD yelled, carrying two large narrow tree branches.

“No,” Buck replied. He pulled on the lariat, tightening it around Trouble’s neck. The chestnut pulled pack and fought the restraint. “Ezra!” he yelled, “get outta there!” He didn’t want to see the gambler get trampled.

Ezra fell back into the pit and struggled to get to solid ground. By the time he made it, he had to sit back a moment and collect his breath. He watched in misery as his horse struggled to get free. Trouble tried to rear but the black mud seemed to reach up and grab him. His nostrils flared and sweat trickled past his dark eyes and gathered under his throat and around his ears. Ezra could see his horse’s sides heaving, and he knew instinctively they didn’t have much time. Quickly he got to his feet and moved to stand beside JD. He helped the kid move the long branches closer to Trouble’s girth. When the horse tried to rear again, they shoved the long poles under his belly...trying, in some way, to get him above the mud.

Vin and Buck pulled on the ropes, pausing every once in a while to allow Trouble enough air. With their hands red and burning, JD and Ezra grabbed hold to give them a break. Vin wiped his brow, losing faith in their plan, while Buck looked for something else to use.

Ezra slid, but caught himself with the heels of his boots. “Trouble!” he yelled.

In a last ditch effort, Trouble lunged forward, snapping the wood beneath him, but receiving enough leverage to allow him access to dry land. He struggled to his feet and quickly went down onto his side. He tucked his legs under him and lay heaving for air.

Ezra quickly freed his mount of the lariats and sat beside his head, gently rubbing Trouble’s forehead and between his ears.

“What in the hell is that shit?” Vin asked, sitting on his butt and resting his arms over his knees.

“Ore” Ezra replied, taking a deep breath.

Trouble closed his eyes while his muscles quivered. Exhaustion had taken control.

“I bet the Watson’s don’t even know it’s here,” JD said, after drinking some water from his canteen.

“Perhaps we could charge them a finders fee?” Ezra asked with a dimpled grin.

Buck shook his head. It was rare, if nonexistent, to see the Southerner in such a state. Though his clothing was ruined, he hadn’t said a word about it. And he may have joked about a ‘finders fee’, he wasn’t serious about it. No, the only thing on his mind was the concern he had for that horse of his.

Everyone but JD was covered in oil, and it was going to be miserable getting home as they were.

Suddenly, Buck grinned. “There’s a good sized waterin’ hole about twenty minutes walkin’ distance from here—you could give ol’ Trouble a bath, Ezra—I’m pretty sure he’d be thankful for it.”

“Ain’t that on the Watson’s property?” Vin asked, with a subtle grin.

“Figure they won’t mind, knowin’ they’re rich,” Buck replied, scraping his pants with a stick.

Trouble stretched his back legs and slowly moved to stand. He reached out immediately and started munching on some dying grass. Without warning he shook his body, spraying oil outward onto anyone who was unfortunate enough to be standing close by. His mane had gathered in black clumps of knotted hair, his tail looked very much the same.

Vin shook his head and slowly got to his feet. He could use a bath, and there wasn’t anyway he was going to sit in his saddle covered in slick ore. “Bath sounds kinda good for a change,” he admitted, ignoring the snickers.

Ezra chuckled and gently grasped Trouble’s mane. The horse nipped off one last bite of food before lifting his head. He swatted his heavy tail, flinging oil across Buck’s face and neck. The ladies man cringed and tried valiantly to wipe it away, succeeding in only smearing it.

JD laughed outright, earning an oily palm to his cheek.

“You’re so damn clean, JD,” Buck joked, wrapping his oil covered arms around the kid.

JD squirmed and slipped out of the embrace. “Damn it, Buck!”

Vin grabbed Digger’s reins and started walking toward the watering hole. Buck and JD soon followed, with Ezra taking up the rear. Trouble walked in step with the gambler as he led the dun. The big chestnut looked up and toward the others, his ears perked forward and his steps grew stronger with each passing moment. He nudged his master’s shoulder, needing some kind of a treat. He tossed his head when an apple appeared out of nowhere and he clamped down on it, spraying juice and partials everywhere. Ezra chuckled, thankful to have his best friend back.

The end!
How pathetically sweet, right! LOL

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