The Twilight Years

by Patricia

Part Five
The sign said the town was called Horse Springs, but to the four men riding in with their heads pulled low inside up-turned collars, it hardly rated a given name. Blowing snow swirled up and down the one and only street that housed a small mercantile, a livery barn that consisted of a rickety old corral, a couple of lean-to’s, and a run-down saloon. Three horses stood tied to a hitching post outside the saloon, with their hindquarters turned to the wind.

"This town looks like it wakes up slower than an old hound dog!" Rusty said to JD as they rode down the street side-by-side at a tired walk.

Buck sidled over to Vin and in a quiet voice pointed out the three horses tied to the hitching post.

"Three escaped convicts…three horses tied up. I say we best keep our eyes open!"

"Those three horses are decked out in ranchin’ gear, Buck. My bet is we’ll just find some out of work cowboys in the saloon." Vin said as he scanned the street looking for any problems.

"I’m just saying keep your eyes peeled for trouble!" Buck responded, before turning to watch JD and the old cowboy ride up behind them. Rusty didn’t seem to show any interest in the horses in front of the saloon, but Buck wasn’t taking any chances that JD could get caught in the middle of a gunfight, if in fact it was the convicts waiting inside to break Rusty free.

"JD, take the old rooster and ride down the street to that other hitching post. Vin and I’ll let you know when it’s clear to bring him in."

JD looked confused for a second, but he was too hungry and tired to bother figuring Buck’s order out, so with a shrug he led the old horse and cowboy further down the street to another hitching post.

Vin and Buck cautiously dismounted and made their way to the saloon. An old oak door with peeling paint was closed over the bat wing doors to help keep the winter winds out. Buck grabbed the handle and pushed the door open. The light from outside flooded the small dingy saloon, and they found eight pairs of unfriendly eyes swivelled and locked in on them, but none were the convicts.

"I’m thinking we needed us a better plan," Vin whispered to Buck as they both stood in the doorway feeling overly exposed. "They coulda shot us dead before we stepped through this sorry excuse of a door."

"I think they still might shoot us!" Buck answered as he scanned the inhospitable faces that were staring back at him. With a nudge of his elbow he indicated for Vin to call the kid in.

The saloon smelt like cheap beer, stale cigar smoke and musty, rotting wood. The tables and dirt floors were covered in filth.

"Damn, Buck!" Vin was not the least bit skirmish, but even he had to fight the urge to hold his nose against the rank stench. "Ya really want to eat in here?"

"It’s eat here or go back and look for that jackrabbit."

Buck put on his best ‘howdy’ expression, and sauntered up to the bar and placed his elbows on it.

"Nice place you have here," Buck said, smiling at the man behind the counter.

The barkeep pushed an oily strand of pepper grey hair behind an ear with a tobacco stained finger, then he picked up a dirty, wet rag and splashed water across the top of the bar. Buck lifted his elbows out of the way to keep from getting wet and took an involuntary step back.

"What do ya want to order?" The barkeep asked in a surly voice.

"Well…let me think," Buck flashed Vin a mischievous look, and then with his blue eyes crinkling up and his moustache twitching he turned back to the cranky barkeep, "Got any women in this town?"

The barkeep’s eye turned to tiny black slits before he answered, "Just one!"

"One will do fine!" Buck said with a laugh and slapped Vin on the back. "Come on, Vin, we can fight over her!"

"She’s my wife!" The barkeep said with a growl and straightened up to his full height so he towered over Buck, "Say one more word about her and you’ll be leaving with some of your more important body parts unattached."

"God Buck, you just walked in here and already have the locals riled!" JD said as he and Rusty entered the dark room and stood behind him. Seeing the anger building on the barkeepers face, JD grabbed Buck’s sleeve started to pull him towards an empty table. "Sorry mister, he don’t mean nothing by it, we just came in to grab a hot meal and then we’ll be on our way!"

"I’ll take a whiskey," Buck shot over his shoulder and shook off JD’s hand, "And not that cheap rotgut stuff either, but the good kind! Price is no object…as long as it ain’t too high!"

"Can we get a pot of hot coffee first?" Vin asked as he turned from the bar and followed his friends to a dirty table.

"Ya sure know how not to attract attention, Buck!" Vin said as he sidled up to the table, and with his usual strong sense of self survival, picked the one chair that was facing the rest of the room so he would not have his back to anyone.

Stuffing their gloves into their gunbelts, the three peacekeepers shucked their coats and sat on wobbly log chairs. JD reached up and tried to help Rusty slide his coat off his shoulders, but with the chains on both wrists the old cowboy was stuck with wearing it.

JD looked at Buck with an expectant look on his face. With an exasperated sigh, Buck reached across the table and unlocked one wristband so JD could pull the coat off.

Vin looked over to the barkeep to see what the hold up on the coffee was. The barkeep glared back at them, and stayed where he was.

The hair on Vin’s neck bristled, but the tracker forced himself to remain passive. As dirty as the place was, it was at least warm and Vin decided they all needed to warm up and put hot food in their stomachs more than they needed to make enemies with this group of men. Vin smiled at the barkeep and settled into his chair as though the idea of waiting for their order was fine by him.

Still all four men felt the unwelcome looks being thrown their way.

Vin leaned over to Buck, "Guess ya shouldn’t have made the crack about his wife!"

"How was I to know the only women in town has the unenviable job of being married to him?" Buck whispered back. "Man has to learn to take a joke!"

"One thing I have learned in my travels; not many men handle innuendos about their wife’s well!" Rusty said glancing at the angry barkeep.

Chairs started to scrape on the floor as some of the men in the room pushed back from their tables and turned to watch the four newcomers.

JD sat up taller on his stool and tried to put a mean scowl on his young face as he felt all the unfriendly stares being directed at them.

"Ya don’t need a beard or to be drinking whiskey or smokin’ cheroots to look tough, JD. Don’t let them bother ya," Rusty said in his soft drawl.

"They don’t bother me!" JD said back cockily, stretching up taller in his seat to look more imposing, "We can handle anything they can throw at us…right boys!"

Buck rocked back on the heels his chair and looked at the suspicious expressions belonging to the men at the other tables. Unconcerned, he smiled good-naturedly at the kid, "We can handle them without even breaking a sweat."

"Ah, to be young again," Vin bumped Buck under the table with his foot, "And so sure of one’s ability to handle all the world has to throw at ya!"

"Oh come on now Vin, from where I sit you’re still a youngin’ too!" Buck straightened up his chair and grinned across the table at the young tracker.

"Hell, Buck…from where you sit, we’re all youngin’s still!" Vin shot back as a shadow fell across his face.

"So, what did he do?"

All four men turned to look at a burly, middle-aged cowboy standing beside them, wearing worn batwing chaps and an old Stetson that had seen better days. He had bold eyes, and bulging muscles that were barely concealed by a filthy shirt covered in stains that looked and smelt suspiciously like cow dung, and his unshaven face was carved into an ugly leer.

"So…what did he do?" he asked again, pointing at Rusty, and then grabbing the back of the only empty chair at their table, he whirled it around and straddled it backwards with his arms resting on the backrest.

"Please, feel free to join us uninvited!" Buck answered in a clipped tone, but then not wanting to be any more antagonistic, he added politely, "Just a case of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong people."

"He can’t have done nothing all that bad. Hell, he looks like he’s got a foot and a half in the grave already. You about set to give up and die, old man?" the stranger sneered over at the old cowboy.

Some of the men at the nearest table sniggered.

JD started to get up off his stool, but Rusty placed a chained hand against the youth’s thigh and held it there.

"I can’t afford to die…I’m too broke to bury!" Rusty spoke softly as he met the other man’s gaze square on.

The stranger looked at him for a few more seconds, then grinned, showing a mouth full of missing teeth, and turned his attention to the other three man at the table, "The barkeep don’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. He don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, or red. As long as you’re old enough to be in here! He hates squirty little boys who ain’t been off their momma’s tit’s but a short time, sneakin’ in here and trying to pull the wool over his eyes. And this boy don’t look like he even shaves regular yet!"

"I’m older than I look!" JD objected to the stranger.

"Yeah," Vin said, looking up at the man with a bored and un-intimidated expression on his face, "He’s big enough to hunt bear!"

"Okay…" The stranger got up and turned the chair back around, "I’ll tell the barkeep that."

"Oh," he added before walking away, ‘The barkeep’s a little jealous about his woman too!"

"Yeah, we already got that!" Vin said giving the stranger a two finger wave.

As the man walked away from the table towards the bar, the rest of the room resumed their own conversations, and turned away from the new-comers.

Vin and Buck slowly each pulled a hand away from their gunbelts, where they had been resting in case of trouble.

"JD, you best just sit here quiet like, and be on your best behaviour. You be a good boy, and I’ll buy ya a glass of warm milk when I get my bottle of whiskey." Buck grinned as JD just wrinkled his nose up at him.

Not realizing how young it made him look, JD took his hat off and ran his hands through his matted hair until his long bangs fell loose and almost covered his eyes. Resting his elbows on the table, he set his chin in his hands and surveyed the room.

"That barkeep needs glasses!" JD mumbled to no one in particular. "Heck, I’ve been old enough to drink in saloons for more years than he probably can count!"

Grinning at Vin and Rusty, Buck took his wet hat off too, and plunked it down on the table beside JD’s.

"Yep…but you know young man, I wouldn’t want to be your age again, not even for a whole pile of money!" Buck said, knocking one of JD’s elbows out from under him.

"Right Buck," JD answered with a smile, "You’d do it again for free!"

Before JD could move, Buck’s big hand shot out and grabbed the youth behind his neck and forced his head down under the table, "I see its time to teach you another lesson about talkin’ back to your elders, leaky mouth!"

There was a resounding wap and the table jumped a couple of inches as the back of JD’s head hit the under-side of the table.

"Damn it, Buck!" JD gurgled out, as Buck held him down and tried to tickle him. "Quit it!"

The table jumped again when Buck suddenly let him go and he caught it with his head a second time on the way up.

"Geez, Buck!" JD said, swatting his friend on the arm with one fist while rubbing the back of his head with the other hand. He then turned a light shade of red when he realized every head in the place was watching them again.

"JD, ya always just have to fight when ya outta have run, and ya opened your big mouth when ya outta have kept it shut!" Vin said with a slight grin touching the corners of his mouth, then he bent over to pick up Buck’s hat that fallen off the table when JD’s head had banged it. "I apologize for the boys unruly behaviour, Rusty. Ya can dress them up, but ya can’t take them out!"

"He started it!" Buck and JD said in unison and pointed at each other.

The clank of four empty tin mugs being dropped onto the table stopped further bickering. "I’ll feed ya, then I want you to get your mangy ass’s out of my saloon," the barkeep growled at them and slapped a pot of hot coffee and a shot of whiskey down in the middle of the table.

"Right sociable sort of chap!" Rusty said holding up his mug for someone to fill.

Buck grabbed the whiskey glass and tossed the gold liquid into the back of his throat. It seared the back of his throat all the way down to his insides.

"That’ll keep the hair on a man’s chest," he barely managed to sputter out as he dragged in a great mouthful of air to cool the raging fire in his stomach. "Ah…it was the good stuff!"

Under the sullen glares from the bartender, the four men ate their meal quickly. He ran a dirty establishment with little social graces, but they found out the man could really cook when he had set plates piled high with beef, beans and sourdough biscuits down in front of them.

"I ain’t ate like that in over ten years," Rusty said standing up and stretching his arms out before Buck locked the wrist chains on him again.

"Vin and JD ain’t ate like that since yesterday," Buck joked. "And they’ll be ready to eat like that again before they bed down for the night."

"And its all turned into sinewy muscle, Buck," Vin replied patting his rock hard stomach. "JD, you keep an eye on Rusty outside while Buck and me settle up with the barkeep."

Buck and Vin ignored the rest of the men in the room and made their way back over to the bar. The barkeeper didn’t look any more hospitable now than he had when they first entered the saloon.

"I would like to ask ya a few questions about some men we are looking for," Vin said, as he took some money out of his pocket for the meal.

"Just pay for the meal, then take your questions and git out of my saloon!" the man answered without even bothering to look up at them.

"We’re looking for three men, one of them got a bullet in the back of his left calf. They escaped from prison about three weeks back and they’ve already hit a few banks since they got away. We just want to show you the wanted posters on them, see if you recognize any if them!" Buck pulled the wanted posters from his pocket and spread them out on the top of the bar.

"Don’t need to look at nothing. The only strangers been through here in over a month, are you. And yer leaving right now!" The barkeeper reached down and brought up a Winchester rifle. As the rifle appeared, the hammers on several six-guns were cocked behind them.

"I guess this means we won’t find any warm beds in town to sleep in tonight. No need for anyone to get their shorts in a knot!" Buck held his hands away from his holster, "We’re just getting set to leave. We don’t want to stay anywhere where we ain’t welcome."

Buck slowly folded back up the papers from the bar and indicated for Vin to leave. Keeping a close eye on the men in front of them, both men slowly backed up to the door and exited onto the street.

JD and Rusty stood beside their horses waiting.

JD could see both of his friends were steaming mad, "What happened in there?" he asked as he handed Buck Polecat’s reins.

"Just mount up, JD." Buck took his reins and stepped up into his stirrup. "Friendly little town, this. We’ll have to make sure we tell all our friends about it so they can come visit!"

+ + + + + + +

Vin rode hunkered down low into his sheepskin coat, and was once again glad for the long hair that hung down from under his hat and protected his ears and neck. The mountain air had thinned and chilled, as the scent of new snow grew stronger. The ground was covered in about five inches of dry, powdery snow that had fallen earlier in the day. The night’s stars started to disappear behind building clouds, leaving Vin with only brief glimpses of moonlight with which to guide them along the trail.

Vin was riding down the far side of a slope to escape the bitter wind and blowing snow when he saw the small overhang of rock and pointed it out to Buck.

Buck nodded his head in agreement and pulled up Polecat to wait for JD and Rusty to catch up to him. Soon, out of the darkness and blowing snow, the youngest and the oldest appeared. Like he and Vin, both looked cold and long past tired as they wandered up the narrow animal trail last.

"Vin’s found a place for us to bed down," Buck hollered over the wind and pointed up the path.

JD just nodded and still leading the old brown gelding, he rode past Buck and followed Vin up the icy trail.

Vin was already off Peso when the other three rode into a small clearing, and setting up camp under a rock overhang in a narrow draw that offered them at least some protection from the cold wind.

Buck and JD stepped down from their saddles and stood on the ground with cold stiffened legs.

"Mind giving me a hand here, kid?" Rusty started to throw a leg over his gelding, before sitting back down on the gelding. "My knees are so stove up, I can’t quite convince them to get down."

Buck took JD’s reins from him and then watched as the kid helped the old man slide to the ground. Buck had to give the old guy credit. It was turning out to be tough going for the young and fit, but the old cowboy had not only kept up with them all day, he had not slowed them down even once. And then to top it off, he had saved JD from a serious injury and had done it all without so much as a smatter of complaint.

Rusty fought back a groan as he stretched out his cramped knees. As good as it had felt to be back in a saddle, he was glad to be on his own two feet again. With a little grunt, he raised his head up and met Buck’s gaze from over the top of Mud’s back. Buck gave him a little nod that Rusty almost read as approval, almost, but the old cowboy wasn’t sure what he had done to deserve it.

Silently, the four men set up camp with a practiced proficiency. JD quickly stripped the tack off of Seven and then went looking amongst the pines and spruce trees for dry firewood to get a fire started. Vin saw Rusty had already started to drag grub out of a saddlebag and get a pot of coffee going over the fire, so instead he spread their bedrolls out in a line under the rock overhang where they would be out of the falling snow. JD helped Buck finish rubbing the horses down and graining them for the night, then they took all the wet saddle blankets and spread them out on branches.

"Come and git it, ya trailtramps!" Rusty yelled out just as the other men were finishing up their chores. "Ya better come a running, else I’ll eat it up myself!"

Buck hunkered down by the fire and stuck his chipped enamel mug out to Rusty, "Fill me up with some of your hot brew, rooster!"

Vin sat on a log beside the fire and nodded his thanks as Rusty filled his coffee mug up to the brim. Through the coffee’s steam, he watched JD drop to the ground across from him, and hug his knees to his chest for warmth.

"Hey…this ain’t half bad tastin’, old rooster," Buck said as he gulped down another mouthful of the hot liquid. "It darn near as good as mine!"

"I’d sooner drink dishwater than your coffee, Buck!" JD grabbed his mug with two hands and instead of drinking it he let the warmth of the mug heat up his chilled fingers.

"Kid, it’s been a long day. You say one more thing to rile me tonight and I’ll warm the back of your britches!" Buck squinted up his eyes and shook a threatening finger at JD.

"Yeah, well at least part of me will be warm then!" JD answered back with a cocky grin.

Too cold and tired to do anything more, Buck plunked down onto the ground beside JD and gave the kid a jab in the ribs with his elbow, and then fell silent.

The four men sat huddled around the fire, too weary to bother with the plate of beans Rusty had placed in front of each of them, instead they watched the red flames dance, each lost in their own thoughts.

Rusty set his un-eaten plate of food onto the ground, and in turn looked at each of the men around him. The fresh-faced boy sat cross-legged on the ground with his elbows resting on his knees and his chin leaning in his hands. His hazel eyes were half-hooded with sleepiness and he stared at the flames as though mesmerized.

The tall man sitting beside the kid looked tired too. The day had taken a toll on him, but he ignored his own weariness as he waited for the two younger men to go safely to bed. Rusty wondered good-humouredly if the man ever realized how much energy he used up trying to keep all his friends out of trouble while he himself sought it out regularly.

Rusty drew his eyes to the sandy haired tracker and sharpshooter. He sat with his legs drawn up under him, the firelight casting dancing shadows across the hollows of his handsome face. The young man knew he was being scrutinized, of that Rusty had no doubt. He doubted very little of anything got past this quiet, unassuming young man.

They were all unique in their own way, and while quietly studying Vin, Rusty wished he had met them all under different circumstances. He thought they were the type of men he would gladly have ridden with, even the sometimes-overbearing Buck.

"You ever been hitched, Rusty?" The old cowboy grinned at the suddenly asked question. It had not taken Vin very long to draw the attention away from himself, and put it on someone else. Buck and JD both looked up, startled at the soft Texas voice that broke the night’s silence.

"Got close just once," Rusty answered, "Worked up on the Texas border for an old widow-woman. She needed a hand with her dried out, overgrazed spread, and I needed some place to hang my hat for a whiles. She almost got her hooks into me, but between her and that rundown spread, it weren’t worth it! She was as warm as them icicles hanging off them trees over yonder. And to top that off…she had a mouth on her that ya couldn’t stop with a forty-foot hemp rope and a stout snobbin’ post! She dang near talked my ear off, giving me all sorts of orders like I never worked a ranch or sat a horse before!"

"I had me a woman like that once, too!" Buck said.

"I don’t think there’s a type of woman alive you ain’t been with at least once, Buck!" Vin said, and then grinned as JD snickered loudly.

Ignoring them, Buck continued on, "Prettiest filly I ever slept under a sheet with, but a man couldn’t get a word in edgewise. In bed…out of bed! Didn’t matter to her where she was, or what we were in the midst of. Sometimes a man likes to ponder what he is doing, and there she would be, nattering away in my ear. Natter, natter, natter! She carried on worse than a bloody squirrel! She wanted to make sure I didn’t have a peaceful day between now and doomsday."

JD snorted into his coffee cup.

"JD…you ain’t learning nothing when your mouth is a-jawing!" Buck reached over and put the laughing kid into a headlock. "Here we are sharing our vast experience of the fairer sex with ya, and all you can do is laugh."

"Thanks Buck, but some thing’s a man just likes to find out for himself." JD shoved Buck away and straightened his hat back on his head.

A cold blast of air sweeping through their small clearing stopped the conversation again, as the four men huddled closer to the fire. Goosebumps rose on Vin’s skin as the wind blew across him and whipped ash out from under the cooking pot.

Vin felt the chill of cold fingers walk up his spine, and shivered. Nonchalantly, he let his eyes wander the dark trees around them.

"Everything all right, Vin?" Rusty asked as he noticed Vin perk up.

"Yeah…it’s been a long day is all." Vin rose to his feet and threw some more wood on the fire, "We best call it a night."

With a nod, JD also regained his feet and made his way over to check the tether line that the horses were tied to for the night.

Buck tossed the last of the coffee in his mug to the ground and gathered up a couple more pieces of firewood to set by the fire for the night.

With a grunt, Rusty got to his knees, then with another groan rose to his feet. With the chains rattling on his wrists, he wiped the plates clean in a snowdrift.

"Your bedroll is beside me, rooster!" Buck said leading the old cowboy over to where they were bedding down. "I ain’t as nice as Vin and JD, so you best not plan on trying anything tonight, but sleeping!"

Vin waited until he saw JD finish up with the horses before he crawled into his bedroll and pulled his blankets up tight against his face.

JD came scooting across the camp and slid under the rock overhang. He set his holster on a rock above Buck’s head, kicked off his boots, and then weaselling his way between Buck and Vin with his pointy elbows, he settled into his cold bedroll like a puppy.

"How come the smallest takes up the most space?" Buck grumbled as a flopping JD caught him in the small of his back with a bony knee. "Would ya just lite somewhere, JD!"

"Just trying to get comfortable, is all!" JD said yawning as he curled up between his two friends, and using their body heat to keep him warm, fell almost instantly asleep.

With a grunt of protest, Buck pulled the edge of his blanket out from under JD, who had managed to roll up against him in his sleep. Hanging half out of his bedroll, Buck closed his eyes and willed sleep to come put him out of his misery. Suddenly his eyes flew open as even the howling coyotes in the distance were blocked out by the sound of Rusty’s loud snores in his ear.

+ + + + + + +

"Up to your eyeballs in it, ain’t ya boys!"

JD’s eye sprang open at the sound of the strange voice. Puzzled, he tried to sit up, but stopped when he felt the chilly weight of a shotgun barrel resting at the base of his throat. At the touch of a warning hand on his leg, he swung his head around to see Buck and Rusty lying awake beside him. On his other side, Vin was still just a lump under his blanket.

"Kind of late for you boys to be out wandering around, ain’t it?" Buck asked with a calm, but steel-laden voice. Slowly, be pulled his eyes from the men in front of them and turned to survey Rusty’s reaction to these men in their camp. The old cowboy lay with his hands behind his head quietly watching, but showing neither recognition nor surprise at the invasion, which left Buck undecided as to whether he was somehow involved or not.

Buck recognized one of them though. The cowboy, who had interrupted them at their table back in town, pulled his rifle away from JD and squatted down by Buck’s feet.

"We figured you peckerwoods might have got yourselves all turned around wandering around up here in the dark all by your lonesome. We just thought we’d come and make sure ya all found a warm place to sleep."

"Now that was right neighbourly of you!" Buck answered, as the men by the fire all snickered nastily, "But we’ve managed to get by just fine without any help. Why don’t you all ride back in the direction you just came from. It’s late, and by looking at your homely faces, I would say you boys have been running short on beauty sleep yourselves!"

The cowboy bristled and the laughter behind him stopped.

"We’ll see how funny ya think ya are when you are left afoot walking down off this mountain!" The cowboy pulled his six-gun out of his holster and pointed it at Vin. "Wake him up, and all of ya climb out of them bedrolls and start pulling your clothes off till I let ya know when to stop!"

Without taking his eyes off the men by the fire, JD reached over and gave Vin a nudge, but the tracker didn’t move from under his bedroll.

"Vin…!" JD hissed, and then shrugged his shoulders. "He don’t wake up so good when’s he tired."

Any mirth now gone from his face, the cowboy kicked out at Buck, "Well, ya best try a little harder fore one of the boys here decides to do it instead. Now damn you all…I said move! And shuck them clothes down to your longjohns. I ain’t asking again. Next time I’ll fill ya full of holes!"

When neither Buck, nor Rusty moved, JD let his hand slide to his hip, but found it empty. Cursing to himself, he darted his eyes past Buck and saw his holster still lying on the rock, just where he had set it before going to bed. There was no way he could get at it, but maybe Buck could. He softly nudged Buck with his foot and tried to get Buck to look over to where he was flashing his eyes, but Buck kept his eyes riveted to the angry cowboy.

"Get up!" The cowboy screeched at them again when they still didn’t move, and then he turned his gun from Buck and pointed it again at Vin’s form. "On three you best all be out of them blankets and your drawers had better be around your ankles, or he’s dead!"


"Buck…?" JD looked at his friend uncertainly, then at the gun that was pointed at Vin. "We outta…"


"Vin…wake up!" JD shoved at his friend harder.


JD threw himself across Vin just as Vin’s mare leg exploded from across the other side of the small clearing. As one, the men by the fire whirled around searching the tree line for where the shot came from, and then one of the men screamed out in pain as a second shot blew his gun out of his hand along with one of his fingers.

Buck rolled from his bed and pushed JD down with one hand while he fired the gun that he had been hiding under his blanket with his other. Another man yelped and grabbed his leg as one of Buck’s bullets burned a patch across his thigh.

Surprising everyone, Rusty leaped out of his bed and swung his chained hands down on top of the nearest cowboy’s hand, knocking his gun to the ground before he could get a shot off. With a growl of anger, the cowboy struck out at the old man, but all he connected with was the metal wristband. The cowboy howled and clutched his hand as he felt two of his knuckles crack.

"Okay…okay! We give up!" the cowboy yelled out, cradling his hand to his stomach. "Don’t shoot no more!"

Vin came out from behind a tree with his rifle still pointed at them.

"Dang it all, Buck! Get off me!" Confused, JD pushed Buck away from him and then lifted up Vin’s bedroll only to find his saddle and horse blanket lying there.

"Look, we weren’t going to hurt ya," the cowboy said, still clutching his hand.

"That’s right. Its just we seen your horses and gear," the man with the bullet streak across his thigh said while tossing his gun to the ground with one hand and grasping the wound with his other, "We ain’t had work all winter, we figured we could sell your gear and get us a grub stake. We was going to let ya keep your longjohns and boots."

"Why, you’re all just plumb weak north of your ears!" Buck shoved the cowboy who had pointed the gun at him, down on to the log by the fire and then pointed at his three friends to join him down there.

"I feel for your predicament, I truly do," Buck continued, "but riding into our camp and pointing guns at us and threatening us, well, that just wasn’t the smartest thing you all done today. Whatcha think Vin? Big stout pine tree over yonder, and course JD ain’t packin’ a rope any more, but the three of us still got ours!"

"Ya can’t hang us for just stealin’ your gear!" The cowboy with the missing finger whined.

"No, but we can hang ya for horse thieving." Vin pointed at the cowboy who had done all the talking earlier. "He said it himself, he was going to leave us afoot up here. So, we can only take that to mean ya meant to steal our horses too!"

"No…no!" the cowboy answered. "I only meant we was going to chase your horses off. You’d have caught them again."

"That’s your story now, but a few moments ago it looked a whole lot different from where I was sitting." Buck looked at his friends. "I say we hang em! What do ya think, Vin?"

"What…no!" JD suddenly seemed to find his voice and grabbed Buck’s sleeve, "We can’t hang them, Buck! What are ya talking about?"

"What do you think, old rooster?" Buck asked, ignoring the kid’s outbreak.

"Heck, even I can tell they’re nothin’ but pond-bottom sucking varmints. I say hang em high till their necks stretch!" Rusty nodded his agreement to Buck.

"He can’t have no say!" one of the cowboys fearfully responded. "He’s a convict!"

"Rusty!" JD blurted out, "Why are ya agreeing with Buck?"

"That’s it then," Vin motioned for the men to stand up. "We got four men and only three ropes, on account of JD leaving his around that badger’s neck. So we hang three of them first, and then cut one down and hang the last one."

"Vin!" JD sputtered.

"Now hold on a second, Vin. Lets think this through for a second. If we hang em, the Judge will make us fill out a whole bunch of forms and such, and that means I have to do most of it on account of you don’t write so good yet!" Buck placed a hand against Vin to stop him.

"JD can do the paperwork! I seen him in the office, he’s right smart with his letters," Rusty piped up.

"Rusty…"JD shot Rusty a bewildered look, "Why are you so bent on getting these men hung? I ain’t doing your paperwork for you, Buck. If you’re going to hang em, I ain’t helping!"

"That just leaves me stuck in the office again." Buck paused and looked at the men as though deep in thought. "How’s this, Vin? They give us all their guns and we shoo their horses down the mountain. Next town we come to, we’ll leave your guns for you to pick up. How’s that sound to you boys?"


"That sounds great, mister!"

"Thanks, mister!"

"We’re real sorry!"

Four voices all answered at the same time.

"Well…" Buck said. "Go shoo your horses and start walking home then."

"Hell Buck! That’s just like you…get a man all fired up to have some fun and you have to go and ruin it!" Vin kept his rifle pointed at the retreating men, but still managed to shoot Buck a look of disgust.

JD walked over with the four men to where they had their mounts tied and watched as they chased the horses down the narrow trail.

"I’d git before they change their mind, and hang you anyways!" JD yelled at them, and then broke out laughing as the men took off slipping and sliding in their cowboy boots down the trail after their horses.

"Yep…a cowboy’s worst fear is being left afoot!" Rusty grinned at the laughing young man.

"Did you see the looks on their faces when ya said we were going to hang them?" JD said with his face alight with amusement, "You had em so scared, they were all a twitter, Buck. And telling them you’d cut one down after he was dead so we could hang the last one, Vin, heck I thought they was going to pee themselves when ya said that. And Rusty, talking about their necks stretching! Like we would hang anybody!"

JD turned and looked at his friends, who looked back at him with unsmiling faces. The grin on his face wavered for a second, until he saw the twinkle appear in Buck’s eye.

"I knew you were all joshing all along!" JD said shoving the now grinning Buck.

"So how did you know, Vin?" JD asked as Vin lowered his mare’s leg and started to reload it.

"Know what JD?"

"That they were going to follow us."

"Birds," was all Vin said.

"Birds?" asked JD.

"Mostly birds, but I kept hearing other wildlife getting spooked behind us. I figured there was someone or something trailing us."

"I seen Vin getting all twitchy just before we hit the hay. Man like Vin starts looking perky, I know something is going down," Buck said, grinning at the kid. "Sides, Vin told me his suspicions after you fell asleep."

"Well, nice for you two, but how come ya never bothered to warn me?" JD asked in a hurt voice.

"You sleeping soundly away like you was, was the best way ya could’ve helped. They rode in here bold as brass thinking we was all asleep. You were snorin’ happily away, but it would’ve helped even more if Rusty hadn’t stopped snoring just before they rode in," Buck said giving Rusty a funny look.

"You were awake too?" JD asked exasperated. "You were all awake, but none of you seen fit to give me a heads up!"

"A man gets so he sleeps pretty light in prison; I heard them coming a mile or so back. Don’t worry about it, JD. Like I told you before, a man usually gets experience a few seconds after he needed it."


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