The Twilight Years

by Patricia

Part Two
The cold, stiff saddle leather creaked under Vin as he shifted his weight stiffly in the stirrups. Gusts of frigid air, blowing hard down from the north, whipped at him. Tugging a thin cord out of his saddlebags, he tied back his wind-tangled, shoulder length hair to keep it from lashing against his face. Underneath him, his bald-faced black was getting restless and tossing his head. Bringing his hands up to his mouth, Vin blew warm breath across his chilled fingertips, and then stuffed them back into his damp wool gloves.

"I know how ya feel, fella," Vin spoke softly to the horse, giving him an affectionate pat on the neck.

"You spot anything yet?" Chris’s impatient voice sounded out from behind him. "Tracks, or a blood trail from that one you hit in the leg?"

"I’m trying to follow a blind trail!" Vin replied as he scrutinized the ground through Peso’s ears. "The ground is so froze, I can’t tell one hoof print from another, and the frost has came down so thick it’s covered up any fresh blood."

Vin exchanged a concerned glance with an equally cold Buck Wilmington, while Chris blurted out a few choice words that almost had them blushing.

"Well boys, we sure managed to make a mess out of this one!" Chris said through a heavy sigh as he suddenly realized his two men were staring at him funny. "We got caught completely flat-footed and let three convicts ride right on past us. Now all we have left to show for our effort last night is one dead corpse, and an old man who won’t tell us nothin’. Top that off with the fact JD, Ezra and Nathan got hurt. Not exactly a job we should feel any particular pride over!"

"Pride or not, I don’t know about you boys, but I think I’ve froze my chestnuts off nearly enough for one day." Buck shivered from the cold breeze, and pulled his scarf up tighter around his neck as he scanned the dark, threatening clouds above them. "I say we head back to town and see if we can’t convince that old coot to be a little more cooperative with us."

Vin looked up at the dark sky and tried to decide how much daylight they had left.

"It’s your call Chris, but we rode a pretty fair hole in the daylight and dusk is getting set to slide in. I ain’t been able to pick up any new tracks for over four hours, and I’m getting to thinkin’ that this is a mighty waste of time," Vin said in his slow husky drawl, at the same time trying to get a read on Chris’s expressionless face.

"I’m not so sure we should give up just yet…those men weren’t just petty thieves. Not one of them convicts was serving time for less than two murders apiece. I don’t know how they got away with just a life sentence, they should’ve all been swinging at the end of a rope!" Chris responded as he looked out over the frozen horizon. In every direction the land lay colorless under a thick layer of frost, just like Chris’s mood. "No telling what other kind of trouble scum like that will find to get into. Or who they will cause trouble for!"

"I ain’t suggesting we give up, Chris. I’m suggesting we get that old man to talk!" Buck pulled his big gray gelding over in front of Chris. "Vin hasn’t found any new tracks…hell, they could have swung back behind us and be going off in any direction right now. We’re out here freezing, and not even sure if we’re going the right way. I’ll hunt them to hell and back with you, but I don’t want to be out here wandering around aimlessly. Just let me get the right destination out of that old fossil, that’s all I’m asking! Let’s go try us a little friendly, western persuasion."

"Vin?" Chris asked looking over at the tracker, to seek his opinion on the subject.

"I’m thinkin’ I agree with Bucklin on this one, Chris. Ya know we’ll go to the wall with ya, but we could be huntin’ em for the rest of the winter and not come within a hundred miles of seeing as much as the back end of their horses." Vin lightly placed his rein against Peso’s neck, and with a grin spreading across his face, he spun his horse towards Four Corners. "Sides, you know Buck ain’t going to stop fretting until he gets back to check on his little amigo."

"Ya better not being talking about the little snot-nosed pip-squeak I think you are referring to. If I am in a hurry to get back to town to see someone, it’s my soft, sweet-smellin’ Miss Sally. I don’t need to waste my time checking up on every wannabe, wet-behind-the-ears gunslinger. We all took our fair share of lumps and bumps along the way to manhood. I ain’t the one responsible for making sure he reaches it…no sir, I ain’t!" Buck grumbled defensively and shot Vin a dirty look.

"Come on now Buck, you ooze out all this charm. It makes all the youngin’s wanna be just like ya!" Vin quipped over his shoulder as he booted Peso into a lope.

"Just keep it up, Tanner!" Buck shouted as he cued Polecat past Chris and into a gallop after Vin. "Yeah, you keep talking it up, pup, and I’ll kick your can to town and back! Come and take it like a man!"

"Come on, Pony," Chris mumbled out of the side of his mouth. Riding on a loose rein, he too lightly booted his mount up, and raised him into a long lope to follow his men home. "Bad enough we screwed up last night, now I have to listen to these two bicker all the way back into town! Maybe you and me will take a slower route home."

+ + + + + + +

JD woke with a shiver as his top blanket slipped to the floor and a cold draft of air invaded his restless slumber. With a moan, he slowly forced first his left eye to open, then his right. With a loud groan, he slammed his eyelids shut against the flash of daylight that spiked all the way to the back of his brain.

‘What the heck did I do to myself this time?’ JD thought, as he rolled his head back and forth across a feather-down pillow and ran his tongue over his dry lips. It didn’t help much, he still felt like his mouth was full of cotton. And his head was pounding incessantly.

Whatever happened to him, he was sure Buck was behind it. Probably let himself get talked into some kind of crazy drinking game that Buck was so good at playing. JD just wished if he had to feel this bad, he could at least remember if he had fun last night or not.

With another moan, he reached up to rub his throbbing temples and nearly fell off the bed in pain as his fingertips made contact with a large knot on his forehead. Suddenly he remembered images of some strangers shooting at them from every which a way and then something bad happening to him in the livery. He just couldn’t hardly re-collect any more of it than that. More careful this time, he reached up until his fingertips came in light contact with the cut above his eye. And then along with a sharp pain, the rest of last night’s activities came flooding back to him in a hurry.

Squinting against the light, he again forced his eyes open and looked to his left. Bringing his head up an inch higher off the pillow he could see gray clouds moving slowly across the windowpane and branches swaying in a steady flow of wind. Outside he could hear a loose shutter bang against the building. The blankets on the bed beside the window were messed up, but the bed was now empty. He vaguely remembered a limping Ezra being helped up the stairs last night and sometime later, Josiah waking them both up to check how bad they were hurting.

Groaning at the effort, JD swung his head to the right and saw Nathan sleeping peacefully on the other bed, his chest bare except for the white bandage that was bound around his ribs. JD searched his memory and tried to remember how the healer had gotten hurt, but it was escaping him. Shifting his weight around, JD realized he was lying on a small cot between the two beds in Nathan’s clinic, and except for him and Nathan the room was uninhabited. He didn’t know if he was happy or disappointed that Buck was not hovering over his bed, but before he could decide, he heard the familiar sounds of his friend’s voices near the boardwalk below.

Kicking off the remaining blanket JD sat up, swung his legs over the side of the cot and placed his bare feet on the cold floor. A sudden head-rush had him grabbing the cot with a sweaty hand and forced him to swallow down the nausea that threatened to come up his throat. Taking a deep breath, he rose unsteadily to his feet using the end of the empty bed for support, and shuffled over to the window to see Chris, Vin and Buck pull up their mounts in front of the clinic.

All three men were huddled down deep in their clothes to keep warm, and a white mist came out of their mouths as they wearily talked to one another. After exchanging a few words, Buck dismounted with the awkwardness of fatigue and cold, and handed Vin his reins. Chris and Vin slowly turned and rode towards the livery, and Buck disappeared under the porch roof below JD’s window.

JD turned as he heard Buck’s tired footsteps come up the stairs and enter the clinic.

"What the heck are you doing out of bed, JD?" Buck asked in a soft, hushed voice as he opened the door and saw his young friend standing by the frosty window while Nathan remained asleep on the closest bed.

"I’m fine, Buck. But you sure look cold. Did you have any luck finding them?"

"One of us will tell you when you’re fine, JD, now get back into bed. And yes, I am cold. And no…we didn’t find them. We didn’t even see any fresh tracks since early this morning. They just disappeared off the face of the earth."

"Heck, I would have gone out and looked today, if one of ya would have bothered waking me!" JD said as he tried to walk back to his cot without letting on to Buck how unsteady he felt on his feet. "But I’ll be ready for sure tomorrow."

"Yeah, sure thing kid." Buck said as he walked over to the little potbelly stove in the corner that was cranking out heat for the small clinic. Pulling off his wet gloves he rubbed his cold hands together over the heat, then unwrapped his scarf from around his neck. "I just came to see how you’re doing. As soon as Vin and Chris finish with the horses we’re going to go have another talk with the old man down at the jailhouse. I don’t plan to spend another day in the saddle, riding all over the damn prairie and freezing my keyster off for no reason. That old guy must have some information about where his friends would go."

"I want to come too!"

"You ain’t going anywhere, but back to bed before you do a face-plant on the floor!" Buck said as he examined JD’s pale face and dark hooded eyes.

"Ah come on, Buck. You wouldn’t have even known to go out looking for him if it wasn’t for me. I got every right to be there and to hear what he has to say!"

"Okay, okay!" Buck waved his hands in surrender. "But I ain’t carrying you. I’ll get you your coat from the rooming house but after that, peach fuzz, you’re on your own getting to the jail."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra sat on the only chair with his swollen knee propped up on the desktop. Dark bruises were starting to spread out from under his eyes and his nose throbbed from the punch he had received from Buck’s lady friend. He pulled his brilliant red, satin lapelled smoking jacket tighter against his aching body. His one foot was adorned with an expensive high-heeled riding boot, and on his other foot was a lone, gray wool sock. The cold bite of an approaching winter kept him sitting cozily in the jailhouse, but his own bed in the hotel with his thick satin comforter was where he really wanted to be. Gratefully, he accepted the steaming mug of coffee Josiah had poured for him and then he watched as the preacher filled up a tin cup each of the hot brew for Vin and Chris.

Vin mumbled his gratitude as he wrapped his chilled hands around the hot mug, but Chris just waved Josiah away with a preoccupied shake of his head.

Josiah and Ezra could feel the angry tension coming off of Chris, as their disgruntled leader paced the room.

"Hey cowboy, wearing a hole in the floor ain’t going to help us catch them convicts any faster," Vin said from the edge of the desk, where he had propped his tired body. "They escaped from prison, so’s we can’t be the only law huntin’ for them. We get any telegraphs in today Josiah?"

"Yeah, both bad. We received confirmation from the sheriff at Eagle Bend just after you left this morning that they had formed a posse up, but he said now that the escapees are in our jurisdiction they have backed off. It’s always so nice to know we can count on those folks from over that away! That said, it looks like we are on our own for now, gents." Josiah reluctantly handed Chris the copies of the telegrams. "And the prison sent a description on the four we had our shootout with, plus the name of the old guy that we did manage to hang on to. Six prison-guards were hurt in the escape so they’re telling us they’re too short handed to offer any assistance in any re-capture attempt."

"Well that’s just great news! We’re down to four men of our own, so what do they expect us to do alone?"

"Five men, Chris," JD said, pushing open the jail door, and entering the building with both Buck and a cold blast of winter air. "I can ride!"

"How ya feeling, kid?" Vin asked, as he now stood propped up against the desk with one thumb casually hooked into the gunbelt that sagged low on his hip.

"With my fingers." JD told Vin, and closed the door behind Buck.

"Yeah, well smart aleck, you’re lookin’ a little used!" came Vin’s good-natured jab.

"Yep, but those bumps on his head ain’t slowed his mouth down at all." JD flinched as Buck made his customary swat toward JD’s head, but with a grin the tall lady’s man swiped empty air above the kid’s head instead.

"Uh um!" Chris said as Buck helped a battered JD sit down on the desk beside Vin. "Like I said, we have four men to spread out in our search and still watch over the town."

"I can’t ride, but I think I can most certainly sit at a desk and keep an eye on the town," Ezra volunteered. "That will free up at least one of you to continue the search."

"Thanks Ez." Chris nodded his appreciation at the injured gambler. "If you’re up to it, that will help a lot."

"Come on Chris, it’ll take more than a bump on the head to slow me down. I can ride in the morning!" JD insisted again, rocking back his derby to reveal his mope of unruly, thick black hair, and the white bandage wrapped around his forehead.

"Forget it, kid," Buck dismissed the idea with a shake of his head, ignoring JD’s glare.

Chris turned and faced his two injured men. Slowly he let his eyes roam over Ezra’s bandaged knee and then over JD’s badly bruised face.

Without a word he turned away. He silently agreed with Buck, the matter was settled to him, and he needed to move on to more important issues.

Buck placed a hand on JD’s shoulder as the young man got set to argue, and pushed him back down onto the desk. Before the youth could sputter out his displeasure, Buck released him and turned to face Chris again.

"Well, I’m not riding anywhere else until I know exactly where it is we’re heading. Give me a hand, Josiah. Let’s bring that old geezer out here and see if we can’t convince him it’ll be a lot healthier on him if he spills his guts to us!" Buck said, grabbing the jail keys off the hook and heading to the back room where the jail cells were separated from the office by a closed door.

"We couldn’t get him to tell us nothing last night," Vin reminded Buck before he entered the cell area.

"Maybe we weren’t persuasive enough last night," Buck answered, following Josiah into the other room and closing the door behind him.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Chris heard JD take a deep breath, "Chri…"

"How’s Nathan holding up?" Chris cut JD off in a tired voice as he waited for Buck and Josiah to return and tried to avoid an inevitable squabble with JD.

"He was asleep when Buck and I left the clinic, but he seemed to be okay," JD answered over the clanking of a cell door being closed.

Buck and Josiah felt the old man shiver through his thin shirt as they brought him out of the cell area and into the office. Releasing the hold on his arms, the old man tottered unsteadily over to the woodstove. With eyes closed and a contented sigh, he reached out with his arms and absorbed in some of the heat until one of the men behind him started to speak to him.

"Okay mister, let’s see if any of your memory has returned and if it’s any sharper than it was last night!" Buck commanded.

Slowly the old man turned from the stove and looked upon the six men who were scattered around the room. Two of the men stared at him with levelheaded dispassion evident in their eyes, while another sitting at the desk dismissed him with a haughty, aloof reserve. The man whom the others seemed to answer to was staring right through him, with a distracted look on his face, but the tall man pacing in the middle of the small room appeared antagonistic and was making no attempt to disguise his open contempt. His glance fell last upon the young man he had seen in the livery the night before. The youngest studied him with a quiet intensity, as though he was trying to see right into his mind.

The old man met the scrutiny head on, "It’s good to see you up and about, son. I’m truly sorry Sam hurt you last night, but ya got away lucky. I’ve seen that man wreck some god-awful beatings on some of the other convicts."

"He ain’t your son!" The tall, mustached man bristled at him, pulling off his gloves in an angry motion and shoving them into his hip pocket. "And if you’re so sorry our men got hurt last night, why won’t ya tell us where your friends are heading so we can send them straight back to prison or whatever hell they escaped from?"

The old man slowly nodded his head, and then asked if they minded if he had a smoke. Silently he drew a lone cigarette out of a torn shirt pocket, and pulled open the stove door. Grapping the black part of a live coal, he rolled it between his hands till he got his cigarette lit, and then threw the coal back into the stove and closed the door.

"I told you last night, if I knew where they were going I would tell ya, but I honestly don’t have a clue." the old man said in a tired, soft, twangy voice as he rolled the cigarette between his fingers before continuing. "I quit smokin’ twenty-five years ago, but sometimes I just need to smell one. I will gladly share all I can with you about the other escaped men, but I can’t tell what I don’t know. I can give you their names, but I got no idea where they were heading from here. Now, like I told you last night, them that knows me, calls me Rusty Hopkins…"

"We already have their names, as well the prison records show your name as being Mathew Louis Hopkins," Chris said as he read the telegraph they had received from the prison.

"Yep, it is or at least it was years ago. Believe it or not, but when I was a youngster I had myself a full head of red hair, before all this here snow covered it up," Rusty attempted a small grin, but quit as soon as no one returned it, not even the kid.

"It says here you were sentenced to ten years hard labor for stealing from your last employer," Chris said as he handed the telegraphs to Buck to read.

"Only because I couldn’t prove that I hadn’t." The old man paused to again scan the faces of the men surrounding him, and then in his quiet voice he started to speak. "I came west back in the early 1840’s from Pennsylvania. All I ever wanted to be was a cowboy. I spent my whole youth reading about Indians and rustlers and homesteaders. But it was the cowboys who set me dreaming the most! I came from an intellectually driven family who never understood me, and I didn’t want to keep wasting my life hearing my shoes echo on dark, hollow hallways of scholastic institutions. I wanted to feel the clean air on my face and hear my horse’s hoof beats on the wide-open range! I had to live free!"

"Being a convict in prison ain’t what I would call living free!" Buck interrupted.

"Being in jail was a hard swallow to my pride! I roamed free for almost thirty years, staying in one place just long enough to get bored, then moving on when the mood hit. I didn’t know the underside of a milk cow from a bull when I first arrived out west, but I got lucky. I met a man who saw something in me that no one else saw, and for his own reasons, he took me on. Saw to it that I learned all he could teach me in the few short years he had left on this great earth. After he died, I drifted around from spread to spread, busting broncs, rounding up mangy longhorns in Texas, doing any job a rancher was willing to pay me for. When times were bad and the ranchers couldn’t afford wages, I was a chuck line rider. As long as my belly and my horse’s belly was full, I was happy. Made me a lot of good friends along the trail too, but at my age there just ain’t many of them left."

"Excuse me. While I find this all vastly entertaining, and informative if I should suddenly find myself with a strange desire to chase after bovine, which I never will by the way, why are we listening to this? I believe the idea behind this enterprise is to find out where his fellow henchmen are heading and re-incarcerate them, not to reminisce down memory lane with grandpapa here," Ezra asked grumpily, as he shifted his knee painfully into a different position.

"You know the two worst things about getting old, young man?" At the old man’s question, Ezra nonchalantly shook his head.

"Remembering what it was like to be young…and that nobody gets to be a cowboy forever! At the very least you can humor an old man and listen to my story." Rusty said in a calm voice as he looked Ezra square in the eye.

"We had three of our men hurt last night, and six guards were hurt when you decided to break out of prison. Don’t be telling us we gotta humor you!" Buck hissed out hotly.

"Buck please…I want to hear what he has to say," JD said in a quiet voice.

"Course you do, kid. You always want to hear stories about other folks who came from the east and how they made it big out in the west, but this ain’t one of those stories. This guy ended up broke, homeless, and in jail for the last ten years to boot!" Buck moved his lanky frame in front of JD and blocked his view of Rusty. "You need to look elsewhere for a hero."

JD shoved on Buck’s backside to get him to move. "That’s not it, Buck. I’m looking for no hero, but if it weren’t for him, I probably would’ve got myself kilt last night in the livery! I think I can at least listen to what he has to say. Go ahead Mr. Hopkins, finish what you were saying."

Rusty gave JD a grateful nod. "Anyways, I worked for several different ranchers over the years. I put down roots longest at the last ranch I worked for. Not out of any particular loyalty to the brand, I just got tired of starting over, and the young kids he had working for him were a good bunch. Ten years I put in, until the rancher thought I was to old to hold up my end of the deal and he decided my ridin’ and ropin’ day were over, and it was time to put me out to pasture. That’s when one of the other hands told him about my past employment, and my job description got changed."

"What past employment?" Vin asked when Rusty paused talking.

"I was the headmaster at a boys school in Pennsylvania for several years before I let myself give into the pull of the west…" Rusty started to say.

"While I will admit you are easier to understand than a lot of the average cowboys we have visit our fine establishments in town," Ezra said, "you don’t exactly strike me as someone whom I would want an offspring of my own to learn from!"

"Blame that on thirty years of trying to blend in with westerners! Anyway, the rancher needed someone who could do figures to look after his books, so I got promoted to that job. I got to keep my bunk out in the bunkhouse and three squares a day. Seemed like a good job at the time for this worn-out cowboy, but it weren’t long after I started on the books that I ended up railroaded, and got sent to jail for something I didn’t do."

"Every outlaw in the world claims they’re not guilty!" Buck snapped.

"The rancher’s books had all sorts of discrepancies in them. His top-hand handled all sales of beef and I think he was skimming him. Plus the number of cattle carried on the books didn’t match the numbers on the range, but when I took the evidence to the rancher and he found he had money missing, he blamed me even though I am the one who showed it to him. I ended up getting convicted and sent to prison for ten years. I had four months left to serve on that sentence when Sam and the other boys broke out. Damn if I didn’t find myself again in the wrong place at the wrong time. Them boys jumped some guards and then broke out through the cook-shack, just when I happened to be in there cleaning up. I thought for sure they were just going to kill me, instead Sam comes up with the idea that I could split their shares up evenly for them after they robbed all these banks. Not a one of them can add one plus one and come up with the right answer. The bunch of them combined couldn’t come up with an intelligent plan to steal a cooling pie off an old lady’s windowsill. Not only are they all as mean as the devil himself, they’re all dumb as bricks besides."

"And yet in the eight days since the breakout none of them mentioned where they were heading?" Chris asked skeptically.

"Heck, I’m not even sure if they know where the they’re heading themselves. They were always arguing amongst themselves, got so I never paid them no mind. They stole them five horses they were riding the first night out, and I had all I could handle just staying on board after ten years in a cell. So far they only hit a small bank in Kettleston and then yours last night, but I swear I have no idea where they are going next."

"Ya swear do ya! Well, that’s good enough for me, Chris. He says he don’t know nothing, so I guess we are just supposed to believe him!" Buck said sarcastically, as he waved his arms wildly about, and then started to move threateningly towards Rusty.

"Buck…" Chris spoke out warningly. "How much was your cut from the bank robbery, Hopkins?"

"Sam never discussed anything with me." Rusty answered.

"As my departed father used to always say, ‘a clear conscience is a sure sign of a bad memory’!" Josiah said.

"You really think they was going to share a plumb nickel with me? Ain’t none of it was mine to take anyways…it was all stole money, and I ain’t never taken nothing that was not mine!" Rusty responded to Josiah.

"Then why didn’t you try to get away from them? They left you all alone guarding their horses last night, you could have made a run for it then?" Josiah asked.

"I’m not as young as I once was; it takes an effort I just ain’t got anymore to get these old bones moving. By the time I realized I should be making a run for it, the shooting had already started, and I wasn’t about to try riding away in the middle of that bullet storm. I was hiding behind a water trough when I seen the kid here go into the barn, and then Sam comes running out of some alley and dang if he don’t head right in after the kid. I just knew there was going to be trouble a brewing. Where Sam goes, trouble always follows, so I left the horses and went in the back door and managed to talk Sam out of killing the boy. I knew when Sam and the boys had as much money as they needed, they would find a way to get rid of me. I was too cold and tired to run anymore, once all the shooting had stopped, I was going to turn myself in to you."

"I hope you ain’t buying into any of this hogwash, Chris!" Buck said angrily. "He knows where those convicts are heading, I say we make him talk! It took someone with brains to figure out how to break out of that prison and rob those banks. If those boys as dumb as he says they are, and he is so smart, it don’t take a genius to figure out who’s running the outfit!"

"Those boys were robbing and killing long before I met them. I’m afraid I had no skills to add to their education." Rusty shifted back half a step as Buck headed towards him.

"Buck…stop it!" JD staggered off the desk, grabbing the back of Buck’s coat sleeve and tried to get between the two men.

"Get out of the way, kid. You can’t stomach this than you better get out of here now!" Buck pushed JD up against the door with one arm and grabbed the front of Rusty shirt with the other.

"Chris…!" JD hollered. "Stop him!"

"Buck!" Josiah laid his hand over Buck’s and untangled it from the old man. "That’s not the way to handle this. You’re half his age, for godsakes!"

"I’ve been known to tell the odd tall tale in my time, but I don’t abide lying. I didn’t steal that money and I’m not lying to you about those convicts," Rusty said again in his soft twang to Buck. "If you want to beat on me, I can’t stop you. All that will happen is you might feel better, and I will hurt, but you won’t have any more answers, because I can’t tell you what I don’t know. There wasn’t a shred of human decency in any of those four as far as I could see. I didn’t think a place could get worse than that prison…then them four boys showed up and they turned it into a greater hell for every last one of us. I would love to see them caught, and this time get punished for crimes so horrendous, you can’t even imagine."

"Josiah, put our Mr. Hopkins back in his cell for now," Chris said. "I don’t know what to make of all of this just yet. I need to think."

"I’ll keep trying to remember what they yapped on about," Rusty said to Chris, as he was led past on his way back to the cell. "I’ll tell ya if something comes to my mind."

"You think he’s lying to us, Vin?" Chris asked as Josiah returned from the cell and closed the door between the two rooms.

"He couldn’t be the leader! Why he’s just an old man!" JD interrupted

"Don’t have to be spry in the body, to be quick in the mind, JD." Josiah answered.

"I still say he’s telling us the truth," JD said in a quiet voice.

"I don’t know what to make of him. He seems sincere, but heck, he looks like someone’s grandpa so I can’t tell. All I know is we ain’t any further ahead now than we were this afternoon." With a tired sigh, Vin removed his hat and ran his fingers through his tangled hair.

"I still say he’s telling us the truth!" JD spoke a little louder.

"This mean we’re going have to do more patrols out in the cold until we find their tracks, or they move on and some other town gets stuck with the problem?" Buck asked disgustedly. "I wasn’t going to hit the old geezer, ya know, but I had to try something to get him talking."

"Why won’t you guys listen…I believe him. I don’t think he knows anything!" JD said louder yet.

"I don’t know if I believe him about his lack of knowledge or not, but I believed him when he said we wouldn’t get any answers by beating on him," Josiah spoke out from beside the stove. "He’s old, but I think he’s a tough old bird. You don’t survive working rough stock as long as he did and then ten years in prison if you aren’t."

"Where ya going, JD?" Buck asked as JD cut in front of him and moving silently away from the jailhouse door, headed back towards the cells.

Buck’s long arm snaked out and he grabbed the back of JD’s coat pulling him into the middle of the room when the youth ignored him.

"I asked where you’re going, JD?" Buck asked in his low, husky voice.

"Get your hands off me, Buck!" JD hissed out heatedly and shaking a startled Buck’s hand off, he again started to stomp back towards the cells. "Not a nice feeling to be ignored, is it?"

"Whoa there, JD!" Chris said as he brought his arm up to block his youngest member. "You seemed kinda steamed. What exactly are you planning to do in there?"

Stopping, JD stared down at the floor for a few seconds, then after taking a deep breath, raised his eyes to meet Chris’s. "I’m steamed, cause I don’t appreciate being ignored by you all and I don’t appreciate being shoved out the way like some little kid, Buck!"

"What…that little shove back there, heck that didn’t mean nothing, kid. It was just…"

"If it didn’t mean nothing, than you shouldn’t have done it!" JD pushed past Chris’s arm and pulled open the door. "And I’m going back here, cause in case none of you noticed, Mr. Hopkins looked like he was mighty cold, and I thought I would get him some more blankets for his bunk."

"Boy, with that bang you took to the head, you don’t have enough strength to carry your brains up off the ground. When’s the last time you had an intelligent thought under that goofy hat? Here you’re getting all bent out of shape over this fellow Easterner, but I’ll eat my hat if you ain’t wrong about him."

"Yeah Buck…well right now I would rather be dead wrong than right, and have to agree with you!" JD said over his shoulder, and without so much as a backward glance, disappeared into the other room.

"What was that all about?" Ezra asked curiously to the other men.

Vin could just shrug his shoulders. "I haven’t a clue. JD seems kinda taken with that old cowboy though, and pissed at you, Bucklin! Whatcha say to the kid on the way over from the clinic that got him so riled up?"

"Dang-fool kid. I didn’t say nothing to him. I can’t tell if he’s turning softheaded, or just softhearted. I’m not sure which he is! That old coot in there has managed to pull the wool right over that idiot kid’s eyes. He’s only been on this earth how many years, and he thinks he can read a person better than all the rest of us. Heck, we can’t even figure if that old character is sending us on a wild goose chase, but after one sad story JD thinks he’s got him all straight! Me…I’ve had all I can handle for one day, I’m going to the saloon for a drink, and then I am going to find Miss Sally and enjoy the rest of the evening in peace. You can tell Mr. Know-It-All; he’s on his own for the rest of the night. I don’t need no attitude from some greenhorn pup…" Buck mumbled under his breath as he grabbed his hat off the jailhouse hook and slapped it onto his head. Opening the jail door to leave, he shivered against the frigid air, before turning and waiting for Chris.

"Oh…guess I’m going to the saloon for a drink too, boys." Chris followed Buck out the door. "Vin, Josiah, you both best call it an early night. I think we are all going to need to get as much sleep as we can tonight, I got a feeling we won’t be getting much rest from the backs of our horses the next few days!"

+ + + + + + +

The old man raised his eyebrows in wonder as the youth stalked angrily into the cell area, and slammed the door behind him. Curiously he rose up from his bunk and went to stand by the cell bars, so he could see the angry young man better.

"They never listen to what I have to say. Just cause I’m younger than them, it don’t mean I’m stupid, or have invalid opinions, does it?" JD asked the old man as he started stripping the bedding off empty bunks.

"No, I don’t suppose it does…" Rusty started to say before being cut off by the seething young man.

"I bet folks didn’t ignore what they had to say when they were my age! I don’t know why they think they have the right to do it to me now!"

The old guy’s eyes twinkled as he listened to the young man vent. He sounded just like every other young cowboy he had worked with over the years as they strived for some level of self-respect from the more experienced, older generations.

"I’m sure they had their rough moments growing up too, hard as that is to believe, you just knowing them as the men they are today and all." Rusty said in an amicable voice.

"And that Buck!" JD snapped out as through he hadn’t heard a word Rusty had said. "I’ll tell you what…he is by far the worst of the bunch. He’s always bossing me around; do this JD, do that JD! Jump this high, JD…don’t jump at all, JD. He’s my best friend, but sometimes he gets on my nerves so bad!"

"I’m guessing Buck is the tall gentleman with the handlebar mustache?"

"Yeah, that’s him. About six-foot four of pure bossy!"

"Son, I don’t mind listening to you rant and rave. Why every man needs to vent one time or another, but those blankets you are gathering…"

"I ain’t your son!" JD interrupted heatedly as he finally heard what the old man was saying.

"You’re right, I apologize to you. I believe the friend you are so mad at, this Buck fellow, established earlier that I was not a part of your parentage. So…do you have a handle that an old man can call you with out upsetting everyone?"

JD stopped ranting and looked at the old man in the cell. Pushing the derby back on his head, he slid a lock of black hair back behind an ear, and silently watched the face on the other side of the bars. Then he broke out into an impish grin, and stuck his hand through the bars.

"My name is JD Dunne."

Rusty raised his eyebrows as he stared at the extended hand. "Your friends might be right, young man. You might just be too trusting for what’s good for your health."

"I admit I am not always right, but I trust me gut feelings, and they’re telling me to trust you. So…are you shooting straight with us about the men you were riding with?"

Tired, watery blue eyes meet clear hazel ones straight on.

"Yes…unfortunately, I’m telling you the truth. I really don’t know where they are headed, Mr. Dunne."

JD searched the old face on the other side of the bars, and then nodded his head just once. Again he extended his hand through the bars, this time it was clasped in a calloused hand that was no longer strong, but had a certain dignity to it.

"Like I said, I believe you, but just call me JD…everyone does, except Ezra and he likes to call all of us by our last names from time to time. Or Josiah…he sometimes calls me John Dunne, but we always seem to be in the middle of an awfully serious life changing conversation when he does."

"Those happen often?"

JD’s eye started to twinkle and he fought down another grin. "Naw…I have to admit Josiah, he’s about the thinkenest man I’ve ever met, but I ain’t what you call a real deep thinker. That’s probably why I’m closest with Buck. Most of our conversations revolve around his getting a woman, or how many women he has been with or how many women he’d like to be with."

"He sounds like a boring fellow."

"Buck…heck no! He’s the least boring person I know, nobody can make me laugh like he can. Once we was at this saloon in Red Fork and this guy was…Hey!"


"I’m mad at Buck! And you got me talking like he was my best friend!"

"He is your best friend, you just said so yourself. Being angry with your friends don’t mean you stop liking them or caring about what happens to them. It just means you are having a difference of opinion. If you asked Buck right now, I bet he would say you are still his best friend."

"I don’t think I’ve ever been Buck’s best friend, most likely Chris is."

"I couldn’t tell you who he is best friends with. To be honest, it don’t matter a hens peck to me right now, but I can tell you this young man. When you were locked in that livery with Sam last night, your big friend was ready to rip that barn apart board by board with his bare hands if he had to, to get you out of there. A man who doesn’t care wouldn’t do that."

"Hey, whose side are you on anyway? He was set to use you for a punching bag!" JD asked indignantly.

"Well, I don’t know any of you well enough to take sides. I’m just saying in my life I was always grateful when I was lucky enough to have someone cover my back like your friend tried to cover yours last night. And like I said, I don’t know any of you better than the man next door, but I really didn’t get the feeling your friend was going to use his fists on me. Just a gut feeling on my part, but he seems more bluster than brute to me. Am I wrong about him?"

"No, I suppose you ain’t. I’ve never seen Buck hurt someone who wasn’t hurting someone else weaker first."

"That is probably why you thought he would hurt me. I was riding with the men that hurt you and the other two men in your group."

"He’s right, JD!" Vin said from the doorway, a tray of food in his hands. "Buck was going out of his mind when you were locked in the livery last night, and him not knowing if you were dead or alive. But the worst part for him was he felt he was too blame because he sent you there alone."

"Ah bulldash, Vin. You know Buck, he just likes bossing me around."

"Yeah…I guess maybe sometimes he does, but that’s just Buck’s way. He wants you to live long enough to become a thorn in his side. So, ya going to keep walking around with a mad on at him?" Vin asked as he passed the food under the bars to Rusty.

"I don’t know…I think he should apologize to Mr. Hopkins for being so rude."

"JD…Mr. Hopkins here is an escaped convict, whether he went on his on or was forced out of the prison by gunpoint. Buck ain’t going to be apologizing to him for nothing anytime soon," Vin said shaking his head at JD.

"Your friend here is right, JD. Don’t be dragging me into your battles. It seems to me you got other things to work out with this Buck fella, so you go face up to them like a man." Rusty said between hungry bites of the chicken and dumplings Vin had brought him for his evening meal.

"Buck’s over at the saloon, kid. I’ve had a long day and I know I could sure use a nightcap before I hit the hay. Ya wanna mosey over there with me?" Vin asked.

Now that he had his complaining off his chest, JD’s head was starting to pound unmercifully, and he wasn’t sure he was going to make it back to his bed without hitting the floor a few times. There was no way he could walk all the way to the saloon and deal with all the noise and smoke and Buck.

"Sure…okay, I’ll keep ya company for a while," JD said and headed for the door anyways.

"Ah…JD! Those blankets you’re carrying around. Is there any chance I could have one or two of them? It’s a might chilly in here!" Rusty asked before JD disappeared into the other room.

"Oh…sorry Mr. Hopkins! I forgot all about them. I gathered them up for you," JD passed the blankets through the bars to the grateful old man, and then followed Vin out of the jail and into the night.

+ + + + + + +

Buck flipped his two bits onto the bar as the barkeep set the unopened bottle down in front of them. With a sweep of his hand, Buck scooped the bottle up, pulled the cork out of the long-necked bottle with his teeth and spit it onto the bar-top. Tilting the bottle up, he took a long drag on the fiery liquid, and let it burn all the way down the back of his throat.

"He’s more stubborn and pig-headed than a mule!" Buck sputtered out between swigs.

"He can be, but I always figure it was the company he keeps." Chris answered back at the same time he managed to grab the bottle out of Buck’s grip and poured himself a shot glass full of the whiskey.

"He’d have to study up, just to be a half-wit!" Buck blustered.

"Sometimes I wonder if he uses his head for anything, but holding his hat up." Chris passed the bottle back to Buck. "But mostly, I think if he lives long enough he’ll end up smarter than the rest of us put together. Just don’t ever tell him I said that."

"Don’t know why I’m the one stuck feeling duty-bound to play nursemaid to some short, wet-behind-the-ears, greenhorn kid?" Buck said between swigs of the bottle.

"I don’t know, Buck. Nobody made you…you both just seemed to gravitate towards each other. I was the one who tried to send him away at the beginning, remember?"

"Where does he get off, coming down all over me back at the jailhouse like he did? Sure, I told him to go to the livery last night, but I was the first one there to get him out!"

"JD didn’t mean anything by it, Buck. You know his tongue is always rattlin loose around inside his head. He’s just like a pile of fresh horse droppings, and letting off steam!" Chris reached over and poured a second drink from the bottle. "So, why are you really mad at him?"

"I’m not mad at him! It’s just that I can hardly be held responsible for taking care of myself. How am I supposed to ride herd on a kid like JD?" Buck turned and faced Chris, uncertainty all over his face. "I damn near got him killed last night, Chris. If I hadn’t sent him to the livery he wouldn’t have gotten hurt."

"No, he wouldn’t have gotten hurt in the livery, but he could have got shot in the back alley, where I told you all to go. JD doesn’t want you riding herd on him, Buck. He’s just looking to be your friend, and you’re real good at being a friend. And sometimes, we have to make decisions that affect the others that we ride with. JD understands that…he’s not holding last night against you. My take on the whole thing is he don’t want you messing around with the old guy; lay off him and JD’ll be fine."

"And that’s the other thing! JD just met the old codger yesterday, its not like he was his long lost grandpappy. Its just because the old man came from back east…and I always say the best men out west, are west of anywhere from the east!"

"JD’s from the east."

"Yeah, but we got him young enough that we still have a chance at turning him into a real man."

"So…get over being mad, and we’ll show him the way."

"Thanks pard!" Buck said. "Hey Chris, you always knew you were the best friend I had in this world!"

"How much of this bottle did you drink?" Chris asked as he looked to see how much of the whiskey remained in the bottle. "Maybe at one time I was, until JD came along least ways!"

"No, I mean it, Chris. I mean a grown man can’t have some partially grown boy following him around forever!"

"And which of you is the grown man again?" Chris asked.

Bucks face crinkled up in a big smile, Chris just knew him too well. At various times in their friendship he had dragged Chris into one dubious scrape after another, and he had some great memories of their escapades stored away in his mind. Now, looking back from the safe vantage of time and age, those incidents seemed pretty funny.

"You ain’t too bad of an example for a kid like JD," Chris said, swallowing back another shot of rotgut. "Least ways, better than I would have ever given you credit for. I remember when you drank too much, fought too much, and held the record for most nights spent in the jailhouse. By the time I met you, you must have broken the hearts of nearly every female over the age of fifteen."

"I give ya that I am slowing down on the fighting and drinking part, but I ain’t given up on the hearts yet…"

"Howdy boys…you goin’ make some room for us at the bar, and do we have shove ya old-timers out of the way?" Vin interrupted Buck from behind them.

"You can try to move us!" Chris answered with a grin.

"Or we can just move over," Buck said as he made room for the two newcomers to join them.

Buck stood at one end of the bar and took another long pull on the whiskey bottle, and JD stood at the other end with his arms resting on the bar and his head hanging low.

"You got something to say…why don’t you just say it, JD!" Buck said turning his head to stare at the kid at the end of the bar.

JD just shrugged his shoulders.

"Sam," Buck hollered at the barkeep. "Give old JD there a beer, and put it on my tab would ya."

JD pulled his head up and nodded his thanks at Buck for the gesture, but he was really starting to wish he had gone straight back to bed instead of coming over here with Vin. He felt a layer of cold sweat break out on his bruised forehead as his stomach started to churn; the last thing he thought he could handle was a glass of beer.

Vin cracked a smile, and nudged Buck in the ribs with a pointy elbow. Buck returned the grin with one of his own.

"Hey, Sam…come to think of it, we have to hit the trail hard in the morning. This might be a smart time for us to show a little restraint and drink…yeesh…that white cowjuice that the kid likes so much!" Buck grimaced and shuddered, but was happy when JD flashed him a relieved look. "Give us all a round of it."

"You going to lay off Mr. Hopkins?" JD asked.

"I don’t make a habit of hurting kids, women or old men, JD. I was never going to hit him, you should know me better than that, but we need to get any information he has." Buck answered.

"But he said he didn’t…"

"Whoa…whoa! JD we could debate this all night, but sorry boys, I got to call an end to our evening. I do believe Miss Sally is beckoning!" Buck said with smiling eyes, and after retrieving the whiskey bottle from Vin’s hand he whacked all three men on their backs as he passed by and made his way to the stairs where the pretty blond woman stood waiting. With a wink and a wave, Buck and the woman climbed the stairs with their arms wrapped around each other’s waist.

"Bucks always smilin’ when he sees Miss Sally," JD said to no one in particular as he watched his friend disappear into her room at the top of the stairs.

"That’s because he knows just about any time he runs into her, his pants will most likely end up down around his ankles," Chris said laughing, and then he tossed back the last of his drink.


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