The Twilight Years

by Patricia

Part Seven
It was nearly four in the morning when the three dog-tired men choked back a meal of dry beef jerky and black coffee before crawling into their bedrolls beside Vin and the campfire.

By five, the intense, cold air creeped into their bedrolls and chased them all up again.

It was still dark when an only semi-rested, and troubled Vin led the way out of camp; he could smell the blizzard coming in the air. The temperature had slowly climbed upwards, but now one blast followed another as a new oncoming winter storm increased to a deep, loud roar. Giant white blankets of fresh snow swirled out of the dark sky and almost knocked the horses and riders over with its ferocity.

Vin pushed Peso as hard as he dared. The black gelding’s long winter coat had been covered in frost from the cold during the night, but he was now covered in sweat and fresh snow. Vin had figured on reaching a town yesterday, but that was before he and JD had ended up going through the ice and putting them a whole half day behind schedule. Now with this new storm blasting down on top of them, he needed to get them to shelter as quickly as he could, before a whiteout made it impossible for him to see any landmarks and he ended up losing his direction.

He kept them riding in a sheltered gully for as long as he could. By mid-morning he was forced to take to the high country where he could make out the flow of the land better. Unfortunately up on the ridges they were also exposed to belting, strong winds and driving snow. The snow was coming fast, deep and too much, too soon!

Vin dropped his reins on Peso’s neck and shook the snow off his hat brim before re-tying his scarf around his hat and under his chin, again thankful for the long hair that protected the back of his neck. He had lost feeling in his hands and toes a long time back, but knew he would be in worse shape if he stopped without finding some sort of shelter for them to take refuge in. He usually could tell distance by how far he rode, but with the conditions bad, and getting worse, even he had no idea how much area they had managed to cover.

Behind Vin came Buck, riding slightly forward in his saddle to penetrate the wind. The tall, handsome, and usually humorous man was not feeling any amusement this morning, as he had to often stop and shake the snow off his wide brimmed hat before it could fall down his coat collar. He shivered as another gust of wind blind-sided him, and for the hundredth time that morning he wondered what the hell he had been thinking of when he worked so hard to convince Chris that he had been needed on this trip. As he ran his cold hands briskly up and down his pant legs to keep the circulation going, he bet Chris knew exactly what kind of trip they were having in this lousy weather. In fact he would even be willing to bet Ezra a months wages that Chris was sitting back in Four Corners right now laughing up a storm at his oldest friend’s predicament.

Buck had ridden on another mile or so, the whole time steaming under his collar at the thought of Chris getting the better of him, when he looked up and saw Vin ride up an icy ridge to get a baring on their exact location. It suddenly dawned on him that the young tracker most likely would be dead if he had not come along on this trip, and chances were JD would probably be dead too!

Buck sat up straighter in his saddle. He was still not happy, but for the first time in days he was glad he had insisted on coming with the two younger men, and he would be dang sure he let Chris know he had been right in doing so. With a feeling of self-satisfaction, he swivelled in his saddle to take a quick glance at the two men riding drag.

Rusty shifted his weight out of his saddle uncertain whether it was his body, or the leather beneath him that creaked in protest. The movement gave no relief to the cold ache in his lower back.

JD’s feet were numb. He had no feeling left in them whatsoever, not even when he thought he was wiggling his toes. His mittened hands were so stiff he could not feel his reins or the rope he held to lead Mud, and he was again chilled clear to the bone. He didn’t think the tired old cowboy trailing behind him was doing any better, but Rusty never said a word of complaint. He’d just smile a tired smile every time the kid turned around in his saddle to check on him.

JD felt miserable. He kept wishing Vin would hurry up and find this dang town, or at the very least some sort of shelter so they could all get off their horses and warm up; and then he would have to reprimand himself. All he had to do was follow the trail Vin made. Vin was doing all the work leading them through this storm that JD could hardly see ten feet ahead in.

Brushing the snow away from his face, JD suddenly caught Buck grinning back at him. JD quickly glanced around him to see what his friend was finding so amusing, but all he saw was snow, and more snow. Confused, and now just a little suspicious, JD squinted his eyes and cocked his head questioningly at Buck. He was glad Buck got over being mad and was acting like his old self to him again, but he wished he understood the reason behind it.

‘Yep!" thought Buck, as he watched confusion dance across JD’s face before he straightened back around in his saddle and started to whistle a jaunty tune. ‘It was a good thing he had decided to come along after all!’

+ + + + + + +

It was mid-afternoon when Vin rode up over the crest of a small hill and felt an immediate wave of relief. Letting out a loud whoop, he waved his hat at the three men behind him and signalled them to follow him up.

Buck held back and waited for JD and Rusty to catch up, and then all three men rode up the slippery incline to a smiling Vin. Below them, in a sheltered valley, a small town appeared out of the swirling snow.

"Praise to all the right saints above, and your guiding skills, Vin!" Buck hollered over the wind to the young tracker, before swatting him the back with a resounding thud. "Let’s find us a saloon to take the wrinkles outta our bellies and a warm place to thaw out!"

Wearily, the four men rode their horses through chest-deep snowdrifts to the valley floor and entered the outskirts of the tiny town. A faded board with the name, Kennedy City, burnt into it, hung crookedly from a tree. Wagon-wheel ruts and horse hooves packed down the middle of the one and only road through town. The rest of the town was buried under the freshly fallen snow. The men rode slowly past a few weather beaten shacks, a rundown jailhouse, and an even more dilapidated boarding house. At the end of the road stood a large clapboard saloon with the name Rudy painted above the door, and with more than two-dozen horses tied to a couple of hitching rail out front. Loud piano music and laughter from within reverberated up and down the street.

The four men looked at the boarding house, but as one, they rode past it and headed for the saloon.

"We would be right smart to get us a couple of rooms at the boarding house, fill our bellies, and get us a solid night of sleep," Vin commented over his shoulder.

"Ain’t no one ever confused us with being smart!" Buck said, a grin lighting up his tired face.

"That’s a fact, but duty first, boys." Vin changed direction and rode towards a sign that read the livery stable was behind the saloon. The deserted livery was just planks nailed together to form a lean two, but at least there was fresh hay piled on one side of the building and the tie-stall floors had clean straw thrown down on them. The four men wearily removed their tack and stored it in an enclosed tackroom, before rubbing their mounts down and feeding them for the night.

"Wait up, boys." Without explanation, Buck suddenly reached over and slipped the key into the chains that encircled Rusty’s wrists. "This is just for tonight, rooster, so don’t go getting any ideas and don’t disappoint me by trying something stupid. I’m going to be watching you. I am only doing this on account of you dragging these two sorry excuses for lawmen out of the water yesterday."

JD and Vin exchanged grins with each other, while Rusty gratefully rubbed his raw wrists.

"Don’t you two be grinning like a couple of schoolgirls! I still don’t trust him, and you shouldn’t neither!" Buck pushed the two younger men ahead of him and then indicated for the old cowboy to walk between them.

Fighting their way through more snowdrifts, they made their way back to the front of the saloon, where the music and laughter sounded even louder than it had been from the road. The men made their way past all the horses tied to the long hitching posts. The horses all looked like ranch stock with several different brands barely showing through their snow covered hides.

"What’s with all the cowboys in this neck of the woods; all they got to do is sit in saloons drinking all day?" Buck asked as he took in all the working saddles and ropes sitting on the horse’s backs. "Don’t none of them know how to work when there is snow on the ground?"

"Work can be hard to come by in the winter months. Most boys are happy if they can ride for grub," Rusty said, giving one of the horses a pat on its rump as he walked by. "And any good cowboy will tell ya that their feet never touch Mother earth except to eat, sleep, use the privy, or waste time in bars drinking, browsing and brawling!"

"Well heck, boys…we finally found something we have in common with these cow herders," Buck said laughing.

"Recognize any of the horses or brands, JD?" Vin asked JD as the youth looked the mounts over.

"Nope…" JD answered looking closely at the animals. "None of these were behind the livery in Four Corners. You really think those convicts are anywhere near us?"

"Don’t rightly know, JD, that’s why we gotta keep our eyes open," Vin said. "Them convicts could have traded horses. They could still be holding up in any hole or saloon between here and Mexico, waiting for the weather to break, and it would just be our luck to walk in on them unawares."

Vin grabbed JD’s arm as the youth stepped up onto the snow covered boardwalk and nearly fell through when a rotten board gave way under his foot.

"Guess that’s why all the footsteps are coming from the other side," Buck said as he helped JD extract his foot.

JD stepped down and followed the other three men as they stepped up on the other side of the doorway. Buck shook the snow of his hat brim, then reached for the doorknob and pushed the door open. Shouts to close the door before they let all the heat out, motivated them all to shove their way in quickly, but once inside they stood motionless by the door and stared at all the noisy hub around them.

Heat from the large room that was packed in wall-to-wall activity, wrapped around their shivering bodies. The room was lit with lanterns hanging from the ceiling and a long hand-carved bar ran half the length of the building. A rowdy group of men stood elbow to elbow in front of it, and there wasn’t an empty chair at any of the dozen tables that were positioned near the front of the smoke filled room. The smell of cheap whiskey and stale beer intermingled with a lot of unwashed cowhands. Except for a couple of curious glances in their direction, no one in the over-crowded room seemed to care about the appearance of four new strangers.

The music they had heard from outside came from a couple of fellows in a back corner; a bald headed man played a squeezebox and a younger blond haired man was banging away on the ivories. In front of them a brown haired woman with heavy breasts that threatened to spill out of her low cut gown, danced enthusiastically for several men who were clapping out encouragement. A couple of dancehall girls were passed around from one cowhands lap to another, all laughing and smiling.

It was the first inside of a saloon Rusty had seen in nearly ten years, and it looked like a good one. He just wished he could work up more enthusiasm, but his old bones had minds of their own. He ached deep inside every one of his joints from the cold, and after years of forced inactivity his backside felt like he had saddle sores on top of raw saddle sores. He was ready to hit the hay, but from the looks of eagerness on the three younger men he know he was in for a long night.

"This place is plumb plain, whoopin’ western!" Rusty said in his soft drawl.

"Amen to that!" Buck answered Rusty back with a large smile lighting up his handsome face.

"I think these are the wild and woolly types Chris was hoping we would avoid, "Vin said, leaning back against the door with a thumb hitched in his holster and surveyed the room. "If them four convicts are hiding in here we’ll never be able to pick them out, unless you’re willing to give them up, old-timer?"

"Ain’t a familiar face in the crowd, but if I see any of them murdering jailbirds you all will be the first I tell!" Rusty said adamantly.

"Yeah right!" Buck said in disbelief, before being distracted by the sight of several women.

"Ohmygosh…!" JD stammered, his hazel eyes growing wide and his jaw slackening as a pretty dancehall girl in a short, flouncy skirt swayed by.

Vin just took a quick glance at his two friends and shook his head, "Ya both look like two little kids who escaped from your mama’s apron-strings and ended up in a candy store." He tried to say it in disgust, but the laughter in his voice gave him away.

"You’re welcome to go back and get a room at the boarding house, Vin." Buck said giving Vin a slap on the back. "We can come get ya in the morning if this is too wild for you."

"That’s okay Buck. Someone has to make sure you all don’t get yourselves into any trouble that ya can’t get out of. Chris would expect nothing less of me."

"Oh, there ain’t no trouble in here, but you better stay close to me just in case, JD," Buck said, just as another pretty girl sashayed past them and slid Buck an inviting wink. Buck gave JD a shove out of the way and started to follow the attractive blond. "But not too close!"

"Well hello there, sweetpea," Buck said, his eyes dancing with mischief, as he draped an arm around the smiling girl’s shoulder and headed them towards the bar.

"How does he always manage to do that?" JD asked in total awe. "He’s charmed the garter off more females than I’ve even met."

The three men watched Buck in wonderment as he disappeared into the crowd with the attractive dancehall girl, before Vin pointed out an empty table at the back of the room and steered JD and Rusty towards it.

After lots of jostling through the packed room they finally arrived at the table and tried not to bump those sitting at surrounding tables as they removed their winter gear.

"What do ya think the chances are that we will get served over here?" Rusty asked sitting down on his chair with a grateful sigh.

"Somewhere between none and probably not at all!" Vin replied, looking through the mass of people that stood between them and the bar. "JD, go get us a beer will ya?"

"Why me?" JD asked.

"Because Rusty is our prisoner, so we can’t rightly send him," Vin said as he pulled the only vacant chair closer to him and set his feet up on it to rest. "And cause I don’t want to!"

+ + + + + + +

"Excuse me…sorry…can I just get past you here?" JD tried to make his way through the busy saloon, but everyone ignored his polite gestures, so he quickly found himself elbowing and pushing his way past the same as everyone else was doing. After what felt like an eternity he was shoved up against the bar and was able to order their drinks, wondering the whole time how he was going to get them back to the table without spilling beer everywhere.

"Four bits each," The barkeep said.

JD dug into his pocket and dropped a silver dollar onto the bar. He hoped the guys didn’t expect him to fetch and pay all night long. He hadn’t brought a lot of money along with him, thinking he wouldn’t be in need of much for where they were heading.

JD was standing with his back to the bar with three mugs in his hand. Mesmerized, he stared at the mass of people that stood between him and his table when he felt a hand lightly grip his arm. Turning, his hazel eyes ran into pools of soft translucent blue.

"Hello darlin’," A soft, husky voice breathed in his ear. "You look like you might be lost."

An elegant woman about Chris’s age, in a low cut hunter-green velvet dress, stood lightly pressed against him as the crowd closed in around them. Her scented red hair reminded him of the colour of the autumn maple trees that surrounded the mansion back east where he was raised. One long tapered hand was laying gently across his arm, while her other palm was splayed out softly against his stomach, and her ample chest pushed up against his.

JD was sure he could feel his skin burning through all his clothes where her body touched his. Heat rose up from his navel as he unsuccessfully tried to match her confident gaze. Unable to pull his eyes off her, JD tried to think of something intelligent to say, but she possessed a beauty that clouded a man’s mind. In the blink of an eye, all wit and common sense left him.

"I ain’t lost ma’am, heck my friends are sitting right over there," JD finally sputtered out, his tongue stumbling over the words before he could stop himself. He wanted to kick himself when he heard her break out into a soft, sensuous laugh at his comment. His only consolation being that Buck hadn’t been around to hear his witty banter.

"I meant, darlin’, that you look like you could use some help getting through this mob." Again the husky voice whispered against his ear. "Just go out through that side door; there is a path that will bring you around to the back of the building and a backdoor right beside your friends. I don’t want to see you get beer dumped on yourself."

"Oh…," JD felt a small jolt of disappointment that the very attractive woman was just giving him directions. He would have loved to see Buck’s face if he had shown up at the table with such a beautiful woman hanging off his arm. Pulling his eyes away from hers, JD looked over towards the side door and then ducked his head so his dark bangs covered his eyes. "Thank you ma’am. We’ve had a few rough days out on the trail. Vin and Rusty will probably appreciate getting their mugs mostly full."

"I didn’t think I had ever seen you in here before." the woman said, while applying just enough pressure on JD’s arm to let him know she wasn’t quite ready for him to leave. "I never forget a handsome face."

"Handsome…?" JD snorted and then started to feel his face heat up. He couldn’t believe he had just snorted in front of this woman, but her soft laugh made him feel that it was all right.

"The men you came in with are very handsome too. And once you realize how handsome you are, you will give them all a run for their money. So what do they call you, honey?"

"Um…my friends call me JD, ma’am."

"Nice to meet you JD, and I can’t have you going around calling me ma’am. It makes me sound like someone’s mother, and I definitely am not anyone’s mother. You can call me Rudy. I own this fine establishment."

"You’re Rudy?" JD asked, his voice filled with surprise. "You don’t look like a Rudy; more like a Ruby with all your pretty red hair."

"There it is. I just knew under that little boy exterior you were hiding a charmer!" Rudy said with a sensuous laugh before pulling her hands away from JD. "And just when I have business to attend to. You best head over to your table anyway, your friends are probably wondering what’s happened to their drinks. I don’t want word getting out that Rudy’s has slow service. Ta ta for now, darling."

JD stared at the back of the saloon owner as she sashayed her way through the crowd, stopping to chat here and there before joining a table of fancy dressed men. JD shivered as the places on his body that her hands had been touching suddenly cooled off, and he realized how much he had liked her tender touch, even if she was a lot older than him and way out of his league.

An elbow banging his hand and cold beer running down his fingers snapped him out of his daydream. With a sigh, JD turned to make his way towards the side door, and just about ran smack into Buck.

Buck still had the blond under his arm and the big smile planted on his handsome face. The dimples in his cheeks cut even deeper when he smiled down at his young friend.

JD smiled back at his best friend and hoped Buck had not seen him talking with Rudy. That hope was quickly squashed when Buck pointed towards the attractive redhead.

"You lost the girl, JD?" Buck asked. "And to a table full of dandy’s too. That has to hurt!"

"No…I didn’t lose the girl Buck, she was just nice enough to tell me I could get to the back of the saloon by going outside and walking around." JD smiled politely at the couple and then tried to push past Buck, but his friend snaked out an arm to stop him.

"Lick down that cowlick, and unbutton your Adams apple and a lady might just take a second look at ya." Buck reached over and ran his fingers through JD’s mussed hair.

"Buck, would ya stop it?" JD said backing up from his friends reach. "Seems to me, you got a pretty lady of your own under your arm, and yet here you are hassling me. Some of your animal magnetism get washed off in the snow?"

"You hear what I have to put up with here, little sweet pea?" Buck asked the giggling blond who was cuddled up against him. "I go out of my way to make sure my friends backs are covered and this is the thanks I get."

JD laughed as he again headed for the door, "Right Buck, you just couldn’t wait to rush over and find out who the pretty woman talking to me was. I know who’s back, front, and everything else you was watching, and it sure wasn’t mine!" JD shot over his shoulder as he exited the building.

"Fine!" Buck hollered after him. "You’re on your own from now on, boy!"

Buck swung away from the door and grinned down at the sweet thing he had tucked against him, "He’s right…what the heck am I talking to him for when I have the prettiest gal west of the Mississippi by my side?"

+ + + + + + +*

Rudy stopped at the top of the stairs and watched the back of the young man as he exited out of the saloon while trying to balance three beer-mugs in one hand and close the door behind him with his other. She had to smile to herself as she thought back to his shy smile, and the soft hazel eyes he kept veiled behind long bangs when he talked to her. She hoped he wouldn’t lose his boyish charm as he matured; she didn’t get to see much of that in the men who frequented her saloon lately.

Even though the saloon was full to the brim, she knew every man by name and which brand they rode for. That is why she had instantly spotted the four strangers through the crowd when they had entered her saloon earlier to get out of the winter storm that brewed outside. The first one she had noticed was tall and had legs that seemed to go on forever, and even from across the room she could see he had eyes that twinkled with good spirits. He was a handsome man, hitting his middle age with some battle scars, and surprisingly few wrinkles, but each one worn with pride. And even after he scooped up the silly, blond girl, Dixie, against his side, he displayed a gentleness and respect for women that Rudy saw far to seldom in this line of work.

Behind him, partially hidden in the shadows stood a lean, tanned young man who seemed to have an inherent sense of awareness as he scanned the crowd with piercing blue eyes. Even under a three-day growth of stubble, his ruggedly handsome face was made up of sculptured features and a strong square jaw. His lean and lithe form was that of a rider, and his sinewy hard muscles moved with coordinated athleticism as he led the way to a back table.

An old cowboy followed right behind him. He had a short grizzled beard and the leathery skin of a man who spent most of his life outdoors and his pale blue eyes were in a permanent squint. At first she thought he was frail, but as he jostled his way through the crowds of younger bigger men, she could see a quiet, steady strength immerge. He was a man who had learned long ago how to look after himself. She thought it was strange a man of such a different age would be riding with the other three. Maybe he was their father or uncle, except that he didn’t look like any of the three younger men. Funny how these four men piqued her interest, normally, except for names and brands, the less she knew about the men in her saloon the happier she was.

The last one she had noticed had been the young man she had just talked with. Like the old man, he had been dressed in a wool coat and worn chaps, but she was pretty sure he was no cowboy, even if he hadn’t been wearing the derby hat perched on his head. Except for the old man, she didn’t think any of them made their living as working cowboys, but whatever he was, she didn’t feel at all threatened by this slender, slightly below-average sized young man with long little boy eyelashes.

"Do you know who they are?" A pretty brunette asked as she sauntered up to stand beside Rudy on the top of the stairs.

"Not really," answered Rudy, snapping out of her daydream. She obviously had not been the only one to take notice of the four strangers. "It’s not like you to take an interest in any of our cliental if you don’t have to, Lily. Do you see something that appeals to you?"

"I’m not sure, maybe," the pretty woman said as she leaned on the banister and stared down at the back table pushed up against the wall and observed the two remaining men sitting there. The young one was all lean and lanky in his buckskins, sexy with his hat pulled down low on his long sandy locks. "Gawd…but that is a lot of man!"

+ + + + + + +

JD shivered against the blast of snow that hit him and wished he had his coat on still, but he just had to go around the corner of the building and he would be back inside where it was warm. He got around the corner when he heard footsteps on the crusty snow behind him. He fumbled with the three mugs he held in his one hand while trying to open the door, but found he needed both hands to get the doorknob to turn so he was looking around for some place to set the mugs down when the other person came around the side of the building.

"Hi," JD said backing away from the door. "Perfect timing. Would you mind getting the door for me so I don’t have to put my beer down…Hey!"

JD suddenly found himself being grabbed by his shirt lapel and thrown back hard. The force of the shove sent the beer mugs flying out of his hands and into the snow as he hit the building wall with a thud. He hit hard, sending a shower of powdery snow raining down from the porch rafters.

"What the heck…? JD got out before a fist connected with his stomach, forcing a whoosh of air out of his lungs. JD lunged forward, clutching his stomach with his arms and would have fallen to his knees, but his attacker pushed him back up against the wall.

"Hey, you little piece of meat, do ya remember me?" The smell of bad breath and stale whiskey rushed up JD’s nose as he gulped in a mouthful of air. Dragging his eyes up, JD recognized the burly cowboy that had tried to steal their gear the night before last.

"What do you want?" JD managed to pant out.

"You and your friends made us look like fools the other night, and we damn near froze to death walking off that mountain before we caught up with our horses. You owe me a pound of flesh for that, boy, and so do your friends!"

"He don’t owe you nothing, and as far as looking like fools, well, you did that all by yourselves." Buck said, his voice as hard as steel as he appeared from around the corner, his thumb clicking the hammer back on his big Colt Peacemaker as he pulled it out of the holster and pointed at the burly cowboy. "Let go of him…now!"

The cowboy breathed in a snort of air and then swung his head back and forth between the two peacekeepers. Angrily, he tightened his grip on the front of JD’s shirt, twisting the material into a knot with his hands. Growling, he searched the darkness behind the tall moustached man, but saw nothing but falling snow.

"Last I saw your friends, they were occupied playing cards. They didn’t notice you follow the kid out here, but too bad for you, I did! You’re in this alone!" Buck moved closer to the cowboy, with a muscle flexed in his jaw, and his gun muzzle never wavering from the big cowboy’s head. "I’m going to count to three, and then I’m going to make you eat your teeth!"

Angrily, the cowboy thrust JD away from him and turned with his hands up in the air in surrender, "Who are you guys?" he hissed out in frustrated loathing.

"We’re just simple men minding their own business," Buck answered, as he reached for the cowboy’s gun. "We keep giving ya all sorts of opportunity to leave us alone, but dang if you don’t keep coming back for more. So, what now? I gotta shoot ya just to make sure you ain’t going to come after us again?"

The cowboy arrogantly contemplated his chance of grabbing the youth, and using him as a shield, but the murderous expression on the moustached man’s face made his resolve falter. With his hands still held high, the cowboy started to back away from Buck, "Whoa there, partner, this don’t need to get ugly. Just let me walk out of here, and you’ll never see me again!"

"Hey, we ain’t bonding here…pull your skirt back down from over your head!" Buck scowled at the cowboy between quick glances at the youth who was still leaning against the wall clutching his stomach. "You hurt anywhere, JD?"

"I’m fine!" he answered in disgust at being saved by Buck yet again. And he was mad at himself for getting caught unprepared. With a small grunt, he straightened himself out, while rubbing a hand on his sore stomach, "He just made me spill my beers, is all!"

Keeping his gun pointed at the other man, Buck circled around to JD and clasped a big paw around the kid’s neck. "You want me to shoot him?"

"It’s okay, Buck. He didn’t hurt me."

"No…but he tried hard!" Buck grumbled, and turning away from JD, he levelled the cowboy with a livid glare. "I outta drop you where you stand. JD here, was the only one who didn’t hurt nobody the other night and yet you came after him!"

"Only cause I seen him leave the saloon by his lonesome," the now sweating cowboy said putting his hands in front of the gun as though to block any bullets. "I wasn’t going to hurt him bad, honest, just shake him up a bit for making us walk the other night. Hell, you shot Jim’s finger right off his hand!"

"You came sneaking into out camp in the middle of the night to rob us, and now you’re mad that you all got shot at? You’re unbelievable, "Buck said shaking his head. "Go on…get out of here, and take your friends from inside with ya. I had better not ever see any of you again, or I’ll shoot first and talk later. You got it!"

"I got it…I’m going!" The cowboy hesitated and then started to back away again. "My gun…"

"What about it?" Buck asked.

"Can I have my gun back?"

"You have got to be kidding me?" The cowboy visibly cringed at the deadly, cold octave in Buck’s voice.

"Never mind…I changed my mind, you keep it!" The cowboy yelled over his shoulder as he ran stumbling through the snow in his haste to get away from the irate lawman.

‘How typical!’ Buck thought as he shook his head in disgust. Just like most bullies he had meet in his life, this cowboy was all blustery when he thought he had the upper hand, but as soon as someone came along that he couldn’t push around so easily, he folded like a deck of cards.

+ + + + + + +

Rusty could remember the days when he entered a saloon to start eating and drinking at four in the afternoon and would still be at it at four in the morning. He could drink and carouse with great skill in them days, but them days were long past for him. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with the three other young men he was traveling with. Trying not to groan, he shifted his weight off the saddle sores on his right butt cheek and on to the ones that covered his left cheek. He figured he might as well make himself as comfortable as he could on the hard wood chair, cause from the looks of things he wouldn’t be going to bed anytime soon.

Buck had finally joined them at the table with a bottle of whiskey and his new little yellow-haired friend still clinging to his side. It didn’t take but a glance to see this man loved women. He loved their softness and the sweet musky scent of their skin. He loved how their smaller bodies folded into his, and the melancholy sound of their voices when he gave them pleasure. It was a boost to his masculine, male ego to know the women he bedded down with were as satisfied by him as he was with them.

Soon after they joined them, a beautiful dark haired dancehall girl made her way through the crowd. Ignoring the attempts of several men in the saloon to get her attention, she sat down beside a startled Vin, capturing him with a bold, dark eyed gaze.

A couple of hours later their private party was still going on alive and well, with Buck singing bawdy songs along with the piano player in his usual tone-deaf fashion and making the others laugh.

JD’s first drink had gone down easily, but he had switched to drinking milk after his first two beers. He didn’t want to spend the next day in the saddle with a killer hangover; especially since his lingering headache from the attack in the livery last week had just finally abated. Early on in the evening he swapped tales mostly with Rusty for he felt a little unsure of how to converse with the ladies, but as the evening wore on he started to enjoy the company of the two women more. Both ladies had a raunchy sense of humour that he was not accustomed to, but after some good-humoured jabs at him, he lost most of his inhibitions and fought back with them, much to their enjoyment.

"I think we lost our barmaid," Buck said, leaning his chair back onto two legs and giving Dixie a good-natured squeeze on her shoulder. "Think I’ll just go gets us another round of drinks."

"You boys sit. That’s my job," The pretty girl sitting snuggled up against Vin got up and with a smile at the sexy Texan, started to saunter away from the table towards the bar.

JD gave the Texan a quick slap on the arm, "I think she likes ya, Vin!"

"Heck this ain’t grade school, JD," Vin gave JD a sorry look. "We’re all grown up now…that means we can talk to the fairer sex if we want too."

Buck laughed at JD’s fallen expression.

"Don’t laugh, Buck. If I was sitting with her instead of Vin, you would have lots to say," JD said defensively.

"Don’t worry about it, pup. One day it will be your turn," Rusty said with a laughed filled voice.

Yep…having to educate you is a heavy burden, kid." Buck tilted his hat back on his head and grinned down at the kid.

"Well, I think you are just the cutest thing. If Buck hadn’t seen me first, I would have picked you." Dixie gushed, reaching up to squeeze JD’s cheek. "So, Mr. Hopkins, have you been friends with these boys a long time?"

"No, we’re short time friends. Most of my friends are gone under now, and the few that are left are all leathery, stringy, and mean. Hard to get along with…like me."

"Oh, you boys are so funny," Dixie laughed and waved a brightly painted, finger-nailed hand at Rusty. "You all are just about the sweetest bunch of boys I have ever met…oh, oh!"

"What…Dixie?" Buck looked at the small blond at his side, and then took a quick glance around the saloon to see what had startled the girl.

"Trouble!" Was all she said, looking past the bar.

The four men turned to watch several men leave their table at the front of the saloon and walk up to Lily as she waited for their drinks to be pored.

"How come you won’t come and drink with us?" A man with an unkempt beard asked, while wrapping his hand tightly around Lily’s thin arm. He was big and angular, and looked dissatisfied with every aspect of his life.

"Get your hand off me!" the brunette hissed and tried to shake the hand off her arm. "Ow…let me go! You’re hurting me!"

"I asked you a question!" the big man shouted, his face only inches from hers. "We’ve been coming in here for months and ya won’t even give us the time of day. What’s he got that makes him better than us, eh?"

The man was so loud all the sounds in the saloon stopped and all heads turned in the direction of the bar. Vin rose silently to his feet and started across the room.

Buck told Dixie it might be best if she left the saloon by going out the back door, and then he rushed after the tracker.

JD pushed his chair back and started to rise when a hand from behind fell onto his shoulder shoving him back down into his chair.

"Hey!" he snarled to the man who had pushed him down.

"You best stay outta this, boy!" a cowhand looking to be about forty snapped at him. The man was not a lot bigger than JD, but he was fit from years of hard labour, and wore the scars of past battle wounds on his face like proud badges. "With all that long hair hanging in your face, someone might be tempted to mop the floor with ya."

"You got no call to talk to the boy that way!" Rusty turned to look at the cowhand in an attempt to keep the peace, but the look of anticipation on the cowboy’s face told him that was not likely going to happen.

"I ain’t no boy!" JD blustered angrily.

Rusty looked for Buck, but the moustached man was already near the other side of the saloon, where a large group of drunken angry cowhands were waiting for him.

"Damn!" the old cowboy muttered under his breath. "I think in this incident you would be smart to be a boy, JD!"

+ + + + + + +

Vin shoved his way through the crowd to the bar until he was standing beside Lily and the big cowhand.

"I believe the lady asked you to remove your hand from her arm!" He said in a soft drawl. "That ain’t the way to treat a lady."

"Oh…hear that boys!" The cowhand squeezed his hand tighter, making Lily gasp. "This ain’t the way to treat a lady…well, it’s a good thing old Lily here ain’t no lady! She’s just a used up old whore who likes to go around with her nose stuck up in the air like she’s got something that is too good to share with the likes of us! She’s so willing to share with you, we figure she can share with us too!"

Hearing Lily gasp and seeing fear creep into her eyes, Vin felt all his muscles bunch up, but the last thing he wanted was to start a fight with the woman in the middle of it. Sensing Buck had come up to stand at his back helped him to centre his emotions.

"Come on, pards, lets all pull in our horns so none of these ladies get accidentally hurt. Maybe you just never asked her the right way. Why don’t we all go sit down, and if you ask real nice, I bet she’d be happy to bring us all a round a drinks, wouldn’t you Lily?" Vin asked in a calm voice and pointed to the table the cowboys had just vacated. "Heck, I’ll even buy."

The cowboys all looked at each other. Vin could tell they wanted to turn this nasty, but he was going to do his best to keep it all under control so no one got hurt. Lily was dragged towards Vin as the tall cowboy holding onto her arm puffed out his chest and moved to stand in front of the tracker.

"I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to crowd him," Buck said from behind them, while trying to cover his astonishment over Vin’s uncharacteristically long speech. "You won’t be the first man he’s buried!"

The cowboys all took in the steel of Buck’s voice and Vin’s blue eyes that had turned as cold as frost. Yet both looked calm, almost nonchalant, as if facing a room full of aggressive men was nothing new to them. Most of the cowhands started to find it disconcerting. Mixed emotions flashed over their faces, then one by one the cowboys reluctantly started to relax. From behind him, Vin could almost feel Buck smile.

Seeing his friends were backing down and leaving him to make a stand alone, the cowboy reluctantly started to take his hand away from Lily’s arm just as a loud shout came from the back of the room and all heads this time turned to see JD’s fist connect with some cowboy’s jaw. That was all the encouragement needed. All hell broke loose, as suddenly all around the room bored cowhands set their own fists flying.

With two short fast blows connecting straight to his nose that he never even saw coming, the cowhand holding Lily slithered to the floor in a heap. Vin quickly shook out his sore hand, and then he stepped in front of Lily to block a wild punch thrown in his direction with his forearm.

"Get behind the bar!" he yelled at her, fending off more blows from the cowboys that surrounded him. Behind him he heard a grunt that sounded like it came from Buck, but when he saw bodies flying by him he realized the punch had just made his tall friend mad.

+ + + + + + +

Rusty knew trouble was not going to be avoided, when every time JD tried to stand up the short cowboy behind him would shove him back down into his chair. On his forth unsuccessful attempt at rising the youth had had enough, and he took a swipe at the grinning face.

The punch had not been very hard, and barely skinned its target, but it was all the invitation the short cowboy needed, "Git up, boy! I’m going to kick your sorry butt, and then make you lick the dust off my boots!"

"I ain’t licking nothin’ off you, mister!" JD jumped to his feet and squared off against the older cowhand with an expression that Rusty had seen all too often before on the faces of young men trying to prove themselves.

The cowboy kicked the table out of the way and started to circle JD. The man was on the smallish side too, but he had the advantage of experience. He threw a quick left hand that caught JD on the cheek and snapped the young man’s head back. With a grin, the cowboy then darted out of JD’s range and swung a right.

Except this time the fist connected with nothing but air. Shocked, the cowhand tried to stop his forward momentum, but before he could, he ran into JD’s clenched fist. Blood spurt from his nose and he toppled over backwards, banging his head hard on the floor.

JD stood over the fallen man with his fists still up, but the man just lay there, staring at the ceiling with blank eyes. JD jumped when he felt a hand on his back.

"Nice shot, pup!" Rusty said as he looked over JD’s shoulder to the man passed out on the floor. "Whoa…lookout!"

+ + + + + + +

Buck ducked as a chair flow past his ear, and then he swung around to find the man who had thrown it. A tall, broad-shouldered man with brawny arms stood a few feet away. Seeing the chair miss its target, the man lunged at Buck. Buck chopped a short uppercut to his jaw then followed it with a harder right.

"Son of a gun!" Buck exclaimed, stepping back and shaking out his newly bruised knuckles. It was like hitting a tree.

Luckily for Buck, the cowhand lost his balance with the first blow and he toppled over with the second one Buck threw. Seeing his chance, Buck came down hard on the man’s chest with a knee and then finished him off with a quick punch to the face. The man’s eyes became glossy and blood mixed with spit trickled out of the corner of his mouth; all the fight knocked out of him.

Buck bent over to pick up his wide brimmed hat that had been knocked from his head. He was proud of his hat. He patted the dents out of it and set it back on his head.

+ + + + + + +

Someone from behind grabbed Vin around the throat while another man tried to punch him in the stomach. Using the man from behind for leverage, he kicked his feet up and caught his front assailant hard in the groin, and then brought his elbow back and buried it deep into the stomach of the man behind him.

Breathing hard, Vin swung around as the hands slipped away from his throat, and he had to deftly deflect another blow that was being thrown at him. A flurry of punches came at him, most of which he was able to sidetrack, but a few got in to catch him with glancing blows. So far none had done much damage, but Vin was staring to feel the effects of the outnumbered battle he was in.

Nimbly, he ducked under a punch and with a strike of his own, he knocked the last man to the ground. Blowing hard, he bent over with his hands resting on his knees, and gasped to catch his breath. Hearing a familiar grunt behind him, Vin straightened up and turned to his left in time to see Buck almost go down under three cowhands.

With a yell, he leaped up onto the back of one of the men and hung on for dear life as the angry cowboy swung around in a circle in an attempt to throw the tracker off. Vin’s feet swung out behind him as he was twirled dizzily around the saloon. As they moved closer to the scrum Buck was in, Vin managed to connect a foot to the head of one of the cowhands. He grinned with satisfaction as the cowhand went plummeting to the floor, but the victory was short lived as Vin suddenly found himself flying through the air before he landed on his stomach on top of a table. The table legs split under his weight, and Vin went sprawling to the floor. Grunting, he tried to rise up to his hands and knees, smacking his head on the underside of a chair as he did. With one hand he shoved the annoying chair out of his way, and started to get to his feet for a second time, when a boot connected with his backside and he was sent sprawling onto his stomach again. Looking over his shoulder, he saw two young cowboys near JD’s age, grinning down at him.

"Time to teach you boys some manners on respecting your elders," the not much older tracker told them in a deadly serious drawl. Before the grins could leave their faces, the younger men found themselves both face down, pinned to the ground with blooded noses, and the buckskinned dressed man sitting on them as he straightened the crease out of his hat.


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