The air they were breathing was crisp and clean, with more than just a little bite to it, and the winter skies were bright blue with a touch of haze.
The four men followed the dirt road leading away from town and across the plains for most of the morning. Then they broke off and started to slowly climb upwards in altitude, leaving the grasslands behind and now riding through groves of aspen and ponderosa pines.
JD set a steady working pace, not in a hurry to get there, but not wanting to hold his fresh mount back either. Mud settled in comfortably behind Seven and kept the lead shank light in JDs grasp. JD was still feeling upset about the job and didnt know what to say to Rusty, but thankfully the old cowboy seemed content to just ride along enjoying the view, and not make conversation.
Vin spent most of his time riding off in different directions, scouting for the tracks of the missing convicts, but by noon he rode back to join the group.
"Hey Bucklin the more the merrier, as my mama used to always say, but why exactly is it that youre tagginalong with us?" Vin asked as he rode up beside the easygoing, older man. "Ya dont think we was planning on doing something stupid, like letting Hopkins go, now do ya?"
"You insult me, Vin," Buck said with a grin as he smoothed his mustache down with his thumb and index finger. "I came out of the very goodness of my heart, and here you are accusing me of accusing you. I figure only one man with brains is all any outfit needs, but after watchin you three sorry lookin hombres getting ready to leave town this morning, I figured you all were in some trouble in that area!"
"Well, it was right nice of you to volunteer for the job, Buck!" Vin said with a grin. "Here I thought it was cause ya wanted to annoy Chris some more."
"That was part of it too!" Buck replied with his own grin. "Speaking of brains, you think it is smart to let JD lead the way?"
With a relaxed grin, Vin watched as JD led the old man and horse up an incline and onto a narrow deer-trail. "We just gotta keep heading northwest. It dont matter to me which path we take to get there, so Im just going to keep letting him blaze the trail. Makes trackin our convicts easier for me."
+ + + + + + +
JD pulled his collar up higher around his neck as a cold wind started to pick up, and gray clouds were quickly filling in the blue sky.
"Getting cold, kid?" Rusty asked as he swayed in rhythm to Muds smooth walk, and watched the young man leading him shiver against the colder air.
"Im doing okay. How are you feeling, Rusty?"
"Im riding a horse and hes wearing a saddle. Thats all it takes to make me happy!" Rusty said as he surveyed the country around him. "This country makes for right pretty ridin, but you sure you know where youre headed?"
"I got a fair to middlin idea, but it dont matter much. If I get us too far off the beaten path, Vin will let me know."
Rusty looked over to his right, where the sharpshooter was again busy searching for signs of the escaped convicts. Vin rode with his trimly built form tilted slightly forward in the saddle. The pale blue eyes that stared out of his tanned, wind-burnt face missed nothing as they scanned the territory ahead of them.
"You really like these men you ride with, dont ya, kid?"
"I could sure pick worse men to try to be like!"
"Youre probably right, but no two men are alike, JD. You have to find your own way and walk in your own footsteps and not follow anyone else. But these seem like good men to learn from until you found out just who exactly JD Dunne is."
JD looked over to Rusty, but the old cowboy had his eyes on the tracker, "Vin yeah, you dont find none better! Hes a man who can shoot the eagle off a silver dollar three hundred yards away. He has fast hands, steel nerves and few words. And he lets me learn things from him without treating me like Im still a ten year-old."
"JD if you think you can keep from getting lost, why dont you scout ahead a ways and see if you can find a good place to rest these horses!" Buck shouted out from behind them.
JD shot Buck a dirty look.
"Unlike some people who shall go nameless!" The young man muttered to a grinning Rusty.
"Your friend Buck there, hes just looking out for ya, JD. Not every man would be willing to hit the trail with winter coming on, but here he is."
JD burst out laughing, "Oh, Buck didnt come along to keep an eye on me. He just hates the idea that he might be stuck in town, in case Vin and me find us some great adventure. Telling Chris he had to come with us because of some gut feeling is the only excuse he could think up that Chris might buy."
"Could swear I was talking to a young man at the jail the other day, who looked just like you, about Buck being bossy and not letting you be your own man?" Rusty raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Oh, he is all that, but sometimes its just his plain old hating to miss out on things that helps make up his choices for him." JD answered before he turned Seven around and went to hand Muds lead rope to Buck. "You better be nice to Rusty till I get back, Buck!"
"Or what, kid?"
"Or Ill whomp the daylights out of you, Buck!" JD said leaning into Bucks face.
"My fat fanny you will, kid!" Buck grinned, and before JD could stop him, Buck snatched the derby off JDs head and mussed his hair with the hand that had been reaching for the lead rope and then he slapped the hat back on the kids head. "Your pony looks like he could use a run go ride! Your friend will be as safe with me as a day-old kitten."
JD gave Buck his best imitation of a warning glare, and then swung his horse around and sent him down the trail in a lope.
"Nice kid!" Rusty said as JD disappeared down the trail.
Buck yanked both horses to a halt and stared angrily at the old man. "Hes a great kid, and you best not be messing with his mind. If youre stringing him along on a whole line of crap, so help me god, youll be sorry you were ever born!"
"I told you, I dont hold with lying! I dont have any way to prove it to ya, but my word. And JD, hes just an easy youngin to be around. Every outfit I ever worked for had some greenhorn running under foot. Some werent worth spit, but mostly they were hard working kids, trying to be the best men they could with what experience they had. Heck, I even admire you for looking out for him the way you do. I know how trying that can get."
"Hes a big boy. He looks out for himself without any help from me!" Buck answered gruffly.
"Oh, I can see that." Rusty said with a small grin parting his lips. "Do you have a wife and children of your own?"
"Youve been keeping a close eye on both them young men who are riding with us today," Rusty said. "At first glance you cry out good old boy but I suspect there is more to ya than that!"
"How did you manage to get so old, being so nosy, you old rooster?" Buck asked the cowboy indignantly
"A little bit of brains, a whole lot of luck, and always making friends with the biggest man in the room, I reckon!" Rusty replied with a big grin this time.
"Vin !" Buck shouted out, "come and watch this old rooster for me, Im going to check that JD aint broke his fool neck or got his self lost!
+ + + + + + +
The wind brought tears to JDs eyes as he galloped along the riverbank. Seven pulled on the bit and fought the hands that were lightly holding him back. Giving into the spirited little horses mood, JD let his fingers soften, and gave the game gelding his head to race faster. Raising his seat lightly out of the saddle, JD bent slightly over the horn and urged the horse on. Sand and mud flew up behind them, landing in the water and sending ripples across the small creek.
The little bay had his neck stretched out and his ears folded back against the cold wind, his feet barely scuffing the ground as his hindquarters propelled him forwards.
Turning over his shoulder, JD saw Buck waving at him to come back. JD galloped another sixty or so feet, then with a sigh sat down deep in the saddle and cued the little gelding into a sliding stop. Sand flew all around them as the bay sank down on his compact hindend and slid along the bank, leaving a twenty-foot long skid mark behind him. Before the gelding could come back up off his haunches, JD reined his forehand around, and sent him loping back towards Buck.
Buck laughed at the bright-eyed youth who pulled up in front of him. JDs cheeks glowed a healthy bright red from the wind, and puffs of steam came out of his mouth as both he and his horse gulped in fresh air.
"Whats the matter?" he finally managed to gasp out.
"Nothing just came out to see if you found a spot to rest the horses. It looks like your horse is about a throw that shoe again," Buck said pointing to Sevens right hind.
Buck started to laugh as JD hung upside-down off the saddle and looked at his horses hind foot. "Nope I think its okay, Buck "
"Oh well, my mistake last one back has to do the cooking tonight!" Buck hollered as he booted Polecat up into a gallop and headed back towards Vin.
JD nearly flew from his saddle as Seven reared up. Grabbing the horn, he pulled himself back into the middle of his saddle while cursing at Buck. Spinning Seven around, he raced after the disappearing gray horse and his cheating rider.
"Try to keep up, kid!" Buck yelled over his shoulder, as he galloped away. "I aint going to double back every five minutes looking for ya!"
+ + + + + + +
"You boys dont strike me as normal peacekeepers," Rusty said to Vin as they walked down the trail. "How long have you all been riding to together anyway? You all seem to know each other real well."
Vin looked the old cowboy over. Out west a man normally wasnt expected to live too long if he asked a lot of questions. Vin figured Rusty knew that as well as any man, having survived as many years as he had, but because the question seemed harmless enough and Vin was in a good mood, he decided to answer. "Buck and Chris go back a long ways, they are the only ones amongst us that has a history together. Nathan and Josiah knew each other a short time, both living in the same town and all, but we all just met up not much more than three months ago."
"I rode for a couple of outfits that were like that. No reason for it, just the right blend of personalities and temperaments meeting at the right time in our lives. You cant be much older than JD, but youve lived a hundred lives compared to him. Youve had it rough!"
Vin looked over at the old man and searched the wisdom that was shining out of the watery blue eyes. Vin felt like the old cowboy could look into his eyes and read whatever was scribbled on his soul, and he wasnt real comfortable with the feeling. "Id seen most of Texas and a whole pile more of hell than I wanted too by the time I got to JDs age." He answered guardedly.
"I didnt mean to make ya feel uncomfortable. Its just that Ive sat under the big old sky with a lot of different folks in my life, it got so I figure most out pretty quick."
"I bet you have us figured out a whole heap more than we have you pegged."
"No son. You all have me being a lot more complicated then I am. Im just an old cowboy who fell on hard times nothing more, nothing less." Rusty quietly rolled his seat back and forth to Muds smooth walk and enjoyed the ride before glancing in Vins direction again.
"Youre awfully good out here on the trail. You must of spent most of your life away from town and livinout in the wilds."
"Towns aint where I normally like to park myself, but in this cold Im thinking maybe I would rather be back in Four Corners drinking hot coffee and yarning with the boys around a good old potbelly stove."
"I hear ya on that..."
Suddenly from in front of them came galloping hooves and whooping riders. Vin pulled Peso and Mud up as first Buck, and then JD came racing into view.
"JDs cooking supper!" Buck roared out as he flew past them.
"Am not! Buck cheated!" JD hollered as he followed past.
"Those two are a little easier to figure out," Rusty said laughing.
"Pretty much, but old Buck there would turn himself inside out looking out for the kid," Vin replied as he watched the two riders ride back to them.
"I can tell that, Buck doesnt work to hard at hiding his feelings. And not with just JD, he watches out for you too! The worst part about getting to my age is so few of my friends have lived to join me. One by one those who knew me, and what I was all about have dropped off. Dont get me wrong, I like meeting all you young men, but with an old friend you dont have to explain who you are, or how you got to this point in life, they already know," Rusty said in a soft wistful voice.
Vin turned and looked deep at the old cowboy. He rode looking relaxed, if not a man born in the saddle, than at least one who had spent enough time there to look like he had. His expression was open, showing neither malice or conniving. Vin felt his insides waver as he tried to figure out this man he was returning back to prison.
"What makes you think you know me, or any of us for that matter?" Vin suddenly felt the need to know how this man saw him so clearly.
"Youre an old soul, and it has been my experience that old souls grow up fast. You were born knowing," Rusty answered straight. "There are only so many personality traits that a person can have. What makes us unique is how many of those traits we have and how they react all mixed together. I bet I have met just about every conceivable personality there is roaming around out there at some time or another. Youre a man who knows who he is!"
Vin shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and wondered again why this old man could see them so clearly. He saw him deep down in places that very few were allowed a glimpse. His ma knew him as a child and Nettie saw him as a young man. Chris saw him as the man he had become, but somehow Vin had the notion that this old cowboy could connect his whole being.
"Dont fret, son, it dont mean nothing. You like to keep your private thoughts private. Anyone can see that, but your eyes tell things that the rest of you keeps hidden."
Vin turned and again scanned the weathered face of the old man, and for the first time he really thought, or at least hoped, JD was right about the old guy.
"All I am saying, is if you cant pay, you best not play!" Bucks joking voice interrupted Vin thoughts as his two friends rode up beside them.
"I dont mind paying Buck, but not when you cheat!" JD argued back.
"JD Ive been riding longer than youve been walking. Theres no shame in losing to a man that has greater experience and natural ability," Buck shot back as he put his gray into a lope. Circling around them, he did a flying-lead change and changed direction. Circling away from them, Buck asked Polecat for another change and then loped back towards them with a big grin on his face.
Not to be outdone, JD put Seven into a slow and steady spin to the right, gradually building momentum until the others didnt think he could possibly spin any faster, than with a silent cue from JD the horse stopped dead straight, and square. Then just as quick he spun to the left.
"Old Seven can turn on two bits, and still give ya back change for a beer!" A glowing faced JD, reached forward in his saddle and gave his gelding an affectionate pat on the neck.
"Hold off the applause just yet!" Buck said as he booted his horse into a hard run, then sinking down into the saddle he cued Polecat to slide. The horses front feet seemed to stay loping as his hind legs slid over the sand, his gray tail floating out behind him and his powerful haunches almost sitting on the ground. Before the horse could settle, Buck reined straight back and then put Polecat into a spin. And thats when the cinch on the saddle let loose.
With a holler, Buck managed to pull Polecat to a stop as both he and his saddle ended up dangling sideways off the big geldings side. Vin burst out laughing and slapped his hand up and down on his thigh; Rusty sat with a broad grin plastered on his face, and JD doubled over his saddlehorn in laughter.
"You just planning on sittin there all day laughing?" Buck yelled at them while trying to keep his horse from moving any and his saddle from slipping further. "Give me a hand, damn it!"
"How many years did it take ya to perfect that move, eh Buck?" JD asked between peels of laughter, and then he finally reached over, grabbed Bucks hand, righting him and his saddle.
"You keep chuckling, baby face!" Buck hissed out as he reached under his stirrup fender and yanked on his cinch strap, "Takes a true horseman to stay in the saddle when his horse is spinning like that and his cinch comes loose!"
"Then maybe ya should have had a true horseman tighten your saddle for you in the first place! Maybe then it wouldnt have come loose when your horse was spinning!" JD answered back.
"Cool your saddles, boys!" Vin broke in before JD and Buck got carried away again. "Its getting cold out here, and we are a wastin daylight!"
+ + + + + + +
Buck pushed his big gray up the trail, trying to cover more ground and make up some of the time they lost while he and JD had been playing games.
Vin tugged his sheepskin coat up tighter against his neck to block out the wind. Snow had started falling, and was now accumulating under their horses hooves.
JD brought up the rear, leading Mud and the old cowboy again. Shivering against the cold he bent over, wrapped his arms around Sevens neck, and soaked in some of the horses warmth.
"Hey, Vin!" he hollered out through chattering teeth, "Dont ya wish the other guys could have seen Bucks great ride? Ill never forget the look on his face when his saddle slipped!"
"Now kid, dont you go pickin on old Buck. Hes getting a little long in the tooth is all. Not as quick and spry as he used to be!" Vin hollered back over the blowing wind.
"I aint so old Ive lost my hearing!" Buck muttered back, "Dont need you two pups bustin my chops the rest of the way."
"What was that, Buck? You say something?" JD asked, grinning back at Rusty, but the old cowhand just shook his head, unwilling to be drawn into their tomfoolery.
Vin and JD kept razzing Buck good-naturedly as they crossed over a creek and started climbing up a steep hillside.
Buck paid them no attention until the trail got hard to travel, "Okay, you two gigglin girls, ride your fannies single file from here on up!" Buck shouted back at them as he nudged his reluctant horse upwards. A narrow animal path was cut into the side of the hill, with the up-side rising steeply above them and the down-side dropping sharply away from them. A few spindly sapling evergreens hung percariously in the rocky ground.
White swirling steam from sweat dampened winter hides, rose from the horses to mix with the falling snow, and puffs of mist blew out of their nostrils with each buffing breath. They fought their way up the tough, steep hillside that was getting more treacherous as the rocky footing was being buried beneath the accumulating snow.
Buck and Vin took turns breaking trail up the face of the high ridge, while JD continued to follow leading Rusty.
JD shook the snow off his Derby brim and tried to push the snow away from his eyes with a wet glove. The blowing snow was making visibility poor. He could hardly make out Vins form in front of him, and his little gelding was starting to fidget under him as the snow started to pack up in his hoofs.
"Whoa, boy!" JD checked back on the reins as the gelding shied at a partially buried rock, and the horses hooves slipped and clattered on snow-covered ice. Looking down the steep, rocky incline, JD felt his heart rate jump along with his horse.
"Keep you heels dug into his sides, JD, and keep him moving up. Dont let him stall on ya!" Rusty called out calmingly in his soft drawl.
JD didnt look back at the veteran cowboy, but nodded that he heard.
Up ahead, Buck kept pushing on. Polecat didnt share his enthusiasm, but the well-broke trail horse picked his feet over the rocks that punched out of the snow with care and without fuss.
Peso stumbled on some ice, but managed to keep his feet under him. The hot-blooded gelding tossed his head and pulled on the bit in his mouth, but settled as Vins soothing voice and hand touched him.
JD saw Peso slip in front of him, so he side-passed his horse over closer to hug the hillside. When he turned to warn Rusty about the footing, his stirrup connected with a boulder and he accidentally banged the little bay in the side. The skittish horse danced sideways under him, and jumped closer to the edge. JD stuck his spurs lightly into the gelding and hissed at him to get moving forward, but instead the gelding gathered up his close-coupled body into a ball and with one quick spring to the right, pitched high and crooked. JD dropped the leadrope to Mud that he had been holding, and with both hands he tugged his horses head back up.
"Hold up!" Rusty yelled to the men in front of them. Hearing the urgency in his voice, Buck and Vin pulled up instantly and whipped their heads around in time to see Seven lunge forward, hit a sheet of ice and fall to his knees.
JD tried to bail off the horse, but before he could Seven leaped to his feet, clattering to find more secure footing. The gelding then hit the ice again and his hindquarters started to slip off the trail.
Polecats feet scrambled in all directions as Buck tried to spin the horse around on the narrow, icy trail.
"Buck wait!" Vin hollered at him, "Youre going knock us all off. Stay where ya are!"
"Grab his reins, Vin!" Buck yelled back in alarm, watching the little bay slide further over the edge.
But Vin was having his own problems. Sevens thrashing spooked Peso and he reared every time Vim asked him to back closer to the other horse.
"JD kick loose, kid!" Buck yelled as he had visions of the youth being pinned under a thousand pounds of horseflesh while Seven plummeted down off the cliff.
"Get up, Seven!" JD hollered, throwing his weight over the horn so he wouldnt pull his horse over on top of him, and topple them down the hillside. "I cant oh god he falling!"
Suddenly with a yell, Rusty forced Mud over the bank behind the smaller horse, shoulder to hindquarters, and with lots of scrambling and shouting pushed the bay gelding back onto the trail.
Stunned, the men just stared at each other, as the four horses stood on the trail head-to-tail, shaking and blowing hard. The saddles heaved between the riders legs as the horses fought to get oxygen back into their lungs.
JD turned to look at Rusty, his hazel eyes huge in his young face. He opened and closed his mouth, but no sound came out.
"Good thing ya didnt let Buck tighten your cinch for you!" Rusty said with a grin, "Would have been a heck of a place to have your saddle part company with your horse!"
"Youre lucky I am grateful to you, old rooster or Id take insult to that statement!" Buck said back in a broken breath. "JD you okay, kid?"
"What yeah Im fine," JD answered as he lay a soft hand on his horses quivering neck, and looked down where he would have fallen if Rusty hadnt reacted the way he had. "Holy cow thanks Rusty, you saved my bacon."
"Thank old Mud, here! Hes one sure footed mountain goat of a horse!" Rusty put a handcuffed wrist on either side of the old horses neck and gave him an affectionate rub. "And, the idea is to be alive when you arrive, son!"
"If everyones okay, we best get off of here," Vin spoke out quietly, "These horses are spooked enough, and we have to get down off this mountain yet."
JD quietly kicked his feet out of his stirrup and slid to the ground. Picking the lead shank up, he tied it around Rustys saddlehorn. He then picked up his reins and started to lead Seven up the trail.
"If Rusty wants to try escaping on this damn mountain, hes welcome to it," he said to Vin and Buck. "I cant lead both horses and Im hiking to the top on my own two feet!"
Reaching the top, the four men stood looking down at the small valley below them and tried to decide which was the safest path to take down. JD stood doubled over as he struggled to catch his breath after the tough climb up. Finally knocking the snow from the bottom of his boots, he put a toe in his stirrup and swung back aboard Seven. Reaching behind him, he unwrapped the lead shank from Muds saddlehorn and touching his heels to his gelding he started to follow Buck and Vin down.
"Yep!" came Bucks voice, needling at him. "Hey Vin I truly wish the guys had been here to see the kids ride. Ill never forget the look on JDs face when his horse was disappearing over the edge!"
"Youre real funny Buck!" JD muttered under his breath.
"Now Buck, dont you go pickin on JD. He just aint as wise and experienced on the ways of the mountain as the rest of us!" Vin deadpanned.
Throwing Buck and Vin a look each of disgust, JD looked at Rusty just long enough to catch the grin on the cowboys face.
"You know the trouble with experience, JD its something you generally dont get near enough of until just after you needed it!" Rusty whispered over to the miffed youth.
+ + + + + + +
As they reached the valley floor the snow stopped, but the temperature continued to drop.
Vin thumped his hands back and forth on his arms to keep his circulation flowing. "Dang its getting cold! You boys ready to pull up and eat, or ya wanna keep riding another few hours? At the end of this valley is supposedly one of them two-horse towns Chris was talking about."
"I dont know about you all, but Im hungry enough to eat the backend of an angry rattler," Buck replied, "JD you can hold the front end!"
"Thanks, but Ill pass, Buck!" JD grinned at his friend.
"Hey, dead ahead I see our meal if you boys pipe can down for a minute!" Vin pulled Peso up so sharp Polecat ran into the back of him.
"Vin, what the !" Buck sputtered as he swung his big gray away from Peso before the temperamental black could fire a hoof back at them.
Vin pointed with one finger as he drew his mares leg out of the scabbard with his other hand, "Black-tailed jackrabbit see him blending in with the rocks at the edge of the meadow?"
"Wait up Ill get em, Vin!" Buck said with a strange exuberance in his voice, and then with a big smile he unhooked his lariat from his rope strap, "I aint done this in years!"
"Done what, Buck?" Vin hollered at Buck as he suddenly went galloping across the meadow swinging the rope over his head, and snow went flying out behind from Polecats hooves. "Buck what the heck are ya doing?"
"Well, this outta be right interesting," Rusty said grinning, at the same time turning his big brown horse so he could see better without having to crank his head around on his stiff neck.
Nothing happened as Buck raced across the field, then suddenly the scared rabbit bolted out from his hiding spot and zigzagged across the meadow with Buck hot on his tail. Buck with a quick snap of his wrist, let the loop slid through his fingers, but at the last second the rabbit zipped to the right and the rope sailed harmlessly behind him.
Behind him, Buck could hear catcalls and boos from the other three men. Curling up his rope on the fly, he kept after the rabbit. Leaning out of the saddle he focused in on the furry little animal scurrying in front of him. He had him now; if Buck wasnt so hungry he would almost feel sorry for the little critter. Closer, closer now!
Buck again snapped his wrist and felt satisfaction as the rope sailed straight and true.
The bunny stopped, the rope flew past and Polecat slammed on his brakes. All Buck had time to do was close his eyes as he was launched out of the saddle and hit the snow face-first.
For the second time that day, peals of laughter reached his ears. Stumbling to his feet, he swiped the snow away from his eyes, beat the snow off his pants with his hat, and watched the jackrabbit disappear into a clump of trees.
"Great bunch of pards I ride with," Buck yelled back at them. "The least you could do is ask a man if hes okay!"
"You okay, Buck?" Vin and JD both hollered out in unison as they leaned against each other to keep from falling off their horses, and struggled without success to stop laughing.
"Yeah, lucky for me the snow broke my fall," Buck grumbled under his breath as he shook off as much of the snow as he could and then reached for his trailing reins, but Polecat snorted and backed up just out of Bucks reach.
"Hold still, ya big lumber-footed trailmonger!" Buck spoke quietly to the big gray gelding until the animal settled enough for Buck to take hold of the trailing reins, "Not your fault I picked this moment to lose all the good sense God gave me."
Buck grabbed his saddle-horn with a hand and stiffly climbed back on his horse. He coiled his lariat up and attached it back on to his saddle, and then rode back across the meadow to the other men.
"Dang, Buck!" Vin finally sputtered out, "That was our evening meal ya let get away!"
"So now we ride on to town to eat. Aint like any of us is going to starve between here and there!" Buck brushed more snow off his coat with his gloved hand, and then he reached over and took Muds lead rope from JDs hand. "You got anything to say to me too, old rooster?"
"Not much," Rusty answered with a twinkle in his eyes. "But I bet catching jackrabbits with a rope seemed a lot easier when ya was a kid!"
"Oh never you mind, old man!" Buck turned Polecat and Mud around, and rode past Vin and JD to lead the way again. "The only one here old, is you!"
Buck ignored the occasional snicker he heard coming from Vin and JD, and led them across the meadow, past the churned-up marks in the snow where he had fallen and along the valley floor. His hungry stomach grumbled at him, and he almost pulled up so they could set up a cold camp and have something to eat, but Vin said the town was only a couple hours ride ahead and the thought of getting out of the cold for a bit was overwhelming. Besides that, after having to tolerate their mirth from his unplanned dismount, he didnt want to give the two younger men the satisfaction of a full stomach just yet.
The four men rode mostly in a companionable silence, with Vin and Rusty pointing out any wildlife they came across. As they neared the narrow shady part of the valley the temperature began dropping steadily and the men found themselves spending most of their energy just trying to keep warm. They all rode huddled over and held reins with cold stiffened fingers.
The only good part about being so cold is that Vin and JD stopped heckling me, thought Buck, as he dallied Muds lead shank around his saddle horn so he could rub his frozen hands together.
Vin rode back and forth across the trail scouting for tracks, but he knew it was a waste of time. Even if the escaped convicts had passed this way, unless they had done so in the last few hours, all traces were buried under the fresh fallen snow. Still, he kept his eyes peeled for any signs because he had told Chris he would and he always kept his word. Plus it gave him something to do to help keep his mind off the cold.
JD tucked his chin into his coat and stuffed his wet gloves under his armpits to try and warm his hands up. And he noticed all the other guys were wriggling their feet around in their stirrups too, as they tried to keep their feet from freezing. He was wondering how far they were away from this town Chris said they would find, when he spotted something in some rocks that looked like another black-tailed jackrabbit. Wanting the chance to show Buck up, JD forced his fingers to open and undid his rope from his saddle.
With a grin on his face, he whispered at Vin, and pointed to the partially hidden animal when the sharpshooter glanced his way.
Urging Seven into a trot, he cut past Buck and Rusty, and rode across the narrow field towards the brown pile of fur with a loop slowly building above his head.
Buck shook his head at the kid, and with a laugh turned to Rusty, "That kid couldnt catch a cow in the butt even if he was holding on to her tail!"
JD was almost on top of the animal when it burst from its hiding place.
Vin and Rusty both yelled out a warning just as JD let the rope fly from his finger tips, and both grimaced as it settled over the head of an angry badger.
JD suddenly found himself holding a spitting, hissing, growling ball of hair-raising fury.
Seven reared and tried to bolt away from the whirling mass of ferocity, almost unseating JD. JD fought to get his panicked horse back under control and not to get twisted up in the lariat that he was hanging on tightly to. Suddenly he realized that, with a savage hiss, the badger was coming up the rope to meet him, its mouth wide open to expose its rows of needle sharp teeth. Seven spun and started running backwards away from the ferocious badger, stumbling over his own feet in his haste to get away.
"JD damn it boy, get away from him!" Buck shouted out at the youth.
Fearing his horse was going to go down, JD tossed the rope to the ground and let Seven gallop back to where Buck and Vin sat watching.
Sliding to a stop in front of his friends, JD stared at them with a look of astonishment on his young face, "Yeehaw did you see how mad he was!"
"Mad why you stupid fool!" Buck reached over and swatted the back of JDs head. "He could have ripped your bloody arm right off and beaten ya over the head with it! What were you thinking?"
"I thought it was a rabbit. I figured it would give me some fun!" JD answered back.
"I figured it would kill ya!" Rusty replied staring with amazement at the kid. "But ya did rope em clean!"
"So ha, ha, Buck! At least I caught mine, thats more than you can say," JD grinned and gave
Buck a friendly shove, and then with a little gasp looked back to where the badger had disappeared into the woods, "Oh heck I have to somehow get my rope back!"
"And how do you think youre going to do that?" Buck asked as JD started to ride his reluctant horse after the ferocious animal and his trailing lariat.
"I dont know, Ill think of something."
"Vin !" Buck yelled at the sharpshooter.
"Im on him, Buck, Vin turned and followed their youngest to the edge of the woods.
Vin dismounted and tied Peso up near where Seven was tied. The woods in front of them had so many windfalls that JD had been forced to move ahead on foot. Taking his gun from his holster, Vin followed the tracks in front of him.
"JD what are ya doing?" Vin called out to the figure moving through the trees in front of him, then cursed as his chaps rolled up to his knees and his boots filled with snow.
"JD dang it! My boots are full of snow now, thanks too you! What are ya going to do, walk up to it and ask for your rope back. The only way you will get it back is if ya shoot it!"
"I dont want to kill it! I just want my rope back."
"Come on JD, lets get out of here. Just say good-bye to your rope," Vin said as he slipped off a log and banged his shin, "Ow darn it, that hurt! What the heck is the big deal anyway, that was only the second time I have ever seen the dang thing leave you saddle strap. Its not like ya actually use it for anything!"
"I paid good money " JD paused and looked back at Vin, "Hear that! Whats that noise? I think I hear it moving!"
"Thats too big for a badger!" Vin said as he listened to the sound of breaking branches and some animals grunting as it came towards them. "JD, that aint no badger its a bear! Lets get out of here!"
"It cant be a bear. Theyre hibernating by now."
"Yeah, well someone forgot to tell that one its nightie-night time!" Vin said as a loud roar reverberated out from behind a clump of trees and a big black head appeared.
Vin turned and started running back over the logs he had just crossed. He didnt want to depend on the pistol he held in his hand to kill a bear.
Turning to look over his shoulder he saw JD standing frozen to the spot.
"JD!" Vin hollered as loud as he could.
At the shout JD moved into motion and came barreling after Vin.
"What the hell were ya doing?" Vin asked as they now raced through the trees side by side.
"I couldnt remember if you said bears ran faster uphill or downhill? I couldnt decide which way to go!" JD shouted back as he looked over his shoulder.
"Away from the bear is always a smart way to go, JD!" Vin replied as he slid across a log on his butt, and landing on his feet on the other side took off running again.
"Hes gaining on us, Vin!" JD shouted from a few feet behind him.
"BUCK!" They both hollered as loud as they could while running, "BEAR!"
Stumbling through the last of the woods and back out onto the meadow, they heard hoofbeats and saw Buck and Rusty galloping towards them leading their two horses. Running along side, both young men grabbed hold of their saddle horns as their horses rushed by, and with two little hops, both swung up onto their saddles and galloped after Buck and Rusty just as the bear came out of the woods roaring at them.
"So, what about your rope?" Buck screamed over at JD as they raced down the trail, snow flying out behind them.
"I decided I didnt need it back so bad after all," JD hollered back.
Sitting easy on the old geldings rambling gallop, Rusty wondered how these three men had managed to survive on this world for as long as they had, and if they would all still be alive at the trips end.
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