Rusty stepped back as a buddy of the man JD had just knocked out, came swaying across the room to meet him, roaring out his challenge as he clutched a whiskey bottle tightly in his hand.
JD took an involuntary step back as the bull of a man came marching towards him. The guy was big enough to eat hay. Being a lot smaller, JD figured he had only one chance. Attack first and get in as many shots as possible. If he didnt drop the big man right away, he knew he was going to be in for a heck of a beating.
JD let out a loud roar of his own that even startled Rusty and with his head down, he rushed forward catching the surprised cowhand in the midriff with his shoulder. The man grunted, and staggered back. JD kept pushing until they both tripped over an upturned chair and crashed to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs.
JD was on his feet first and raining down blows on the blonde mans head, getting in lots of lucky licks. The blond tried to push JD off with one hand and cover his face protectively with the other, until he finally managed to push the kid back with his long reach and gain his feet.
JD bumped up against a table and used it to regain his balance. Turning he saw the big blond lumber to his feet, unhurt. With a sinking heart, JD quickly scanned around for a weapon to use that would even out the odds. Grabbing a chair, he slammed it down hard on the approaching mans shoulder. The chair splintered and vibrated painfully in JDs hands, but the man just smiled and grabbed JD up by the back his shirt collar and his britches. With a loud holler, the man ran across the saloon until he reached the bar, and then he dragged JD down the length of it.
"Whoa ! JD screamed out as he went flying across the polished surface and sailed off the far end. Tucking into a ball, he hit the floor on his neck and shoulder and somersaulted across the floor taking several pairs of legs out with him.
"JD what the heck are ya doing?" Vin asked, shoving JDs elbow out of his side and trying to stand with the other men JD had also knocked over. "I nearly had that guy until ya came along."
Next thing the men knew, hands were reaching down to scoop Vin up by the back of his shirt and the tracker was flung back into the mix of flying fists.
JD scrambled back to his feet to try to help Vin when the big, blond man snuck up and walloped him across the back of his head. JDs sight blurred as he fell onto his hands and knees under the feet of the fighting men. Shaking his head, he tried to clear the cobwebs blocking his vision. But before he could, rough hands again grasped the back of his shirt, hauled him to his feet and threw him against a wall. Through his blurry vision he could make out a fist coming at his face. Closing his eyes, he waited for the pain, but it never came. Instead, he felt the heavy body fall against him, almost dragging him down as it slithered to the floor.
Opening his eyes, he saw Rusty standing in front of him holding a broken beer bottle. The blond cowhand lay on the floor with the back of his head bleeding from a small cut.
JD nodded his thanks to the old cowboy, while pushing his fingertips up gingerly against the bump he now had forming on the back of his head. Sinking down the wall, JD landed with a thud on his bum on the floor and through squinted eyes, tried to make out where his friends were.
Rusty had been smart; after knocking the man out, he quickly took refuge behind the bar with the ladies and barkeep. Vin was back in the middle of the saloon, still ducking and jabbing with stinging accuracy.
"Come on, kid!" A grinning Buck suddenly appeared over him, and pulled him to his feet. "Wade on back in! Theres still some of them cowhands standing we cant let Vin have all the fun!"
+ + + + + + +
Out of the corner of his eye, Vin saw Buck come up behind two cowboys and bop their heads together. The two men sank to the floor like stones sinking in a creek.
A hand on his arm swung Buck around to face a stocky, muscular man with a poor, poxed complexion and decaying teeth.
"Im going to beat the hell outta ya for doing that," he slurred, grabbing the front of Bucks shirt and bringing his arm back to launch a punch. "But first who are ya? I like to know who it is that Im laying a pounding on."
"Hooey !" Buck sputtered, stepping back from the other man and fanning his hand in front of his nose. "You all ever use anything besides alcohol for that breath? Cause I got to tell ya it aint doing the job!"
"Why, you smart-mouth !" Angrily, the stocky man let go with his fist, but before it connected with Bucks chin, the man doubled over as Buck slammed a right followed by a left fist into the mans belly.
The hard blows made him stagger backwards, but he kept his feet under him, roaring out his pain and frustration. He shoved Buck an arms length away and then swung at the tall, moustached man with a roundhouse right. The cowhands knuckles raked across the side of Bucks head, knocking his hat off again.
He swung again, but this time Buck easily ducked under it and pounded his own fist into the cowhands jaw. Buck stepped in again and snapped a couple of jabs to the mans face, knocking his head back. A fresh trickle of blood dripped from the cowhands nose.
Buck stopped punching to see what else the other man was going to do. The man just stared blankly at him for a few seconds. Buck reached up with his index finger and gave the man a small poke. He swayed back and forth, until Buck gave him another finger poke and the man just slithered harmlessly to the floor.
Triumphant in his battles so far, a gloating Buck bent over to pick his hat up off the floor. From behind he heard running feet coming at him in a hurry. At the last second, Buck ducked lower and sent the cowboy flying over his back to crash against the log wall. Buck finished picking up his hat and dusting it off while he watched the cowboy try unsuccessfully to regain his feet.
+ + + + + + +
Vin fought like a wildcat from the centre of the scrum, throwing flurries of blows at the men who circled him. He blocked and dodged, dancing lightly on his feet, trying to avoid the punches being thrown back at him. Someone got in close enough to grab his arm and try to bend it behind his back, but Vin quickly twisted out of the grip and snapped a well-placed kick to the assailants kneecap. Vin hit him with a quick right, then left jab, and the man fly backwards onto a table and somersaulted onto the floor.
Very leery now of the young, buckskinned-dressed man with the quick hands, the cowhands slowly pulled back, enlarging the circle and waiting for better opportunities. Suddenly, two of the men were pushed aside and the cowhand who had grabbed Lily at the start of the fight immerged into the circle, his hand resting on the butt of his gun.
"Hey, Smitty!" A cowhand seeing the gun stepped closer. "Why dont ya leave that thing in your holster before someone gets hurt!"
"Oh, someone is going to get hurt alright!" The man glowered at Vin, in no mood to calm down. "You all might be willin to let this long-haired mountain man, come waltzing in here and steal our women out from under us without so much as a howdy-do, but I aint lettin em get away with it!"
With a manic expression, the man started to draw. Vin lunged quickly forward to close the distance between him and the agitated cowboy. His right fist lashed out, cracking against Smittys chin, while his left hand closed over the cylinder of the Colt revolver before it could be dragged all the way out of the holster. With a violent twist of his wrist, Vin wrenched the gun from his opponents grasp, as the man was staggering backwards from the punch. Vin tossed the weapon to the barkeep to keep it away from Smitty, and then with a lightening fast jab, he hit the cowhand in the nose again. Slowly Smitty crumbled to his knees and would have fallen onto his face if two of his friends hadnt caught him by his arms and set him down on the floor.
One of the cowboys stood back up in disgust, "Old Smitty was always the slowest draw on the spread. Ya knocked him stupid!"
"Nah," Vin said to the cowhand. "He was already stupid, I just knocked him out!"
The cowhand laughed out loud at the trackers comment, and then swivelling quickly on his heel, he took a jab at Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Buck shook out his knuckles after hitting the wily cowhand in the nose. The man hadnt looked that tough, but he had had a head like a brick block. Buck figured he had hit him point-blank six or seven times before the big ox had the smarts to drop and stay dropped.
Buck turned his back to a wall and watched as tables and chairs went flying across the large room. Glasses crashed and splintered into thousands of pieces, adding to the noise and confusion as the bored, restless cowhands fought amongst the different brands and not just with the three men from Four Corners. Buck was just trying to decide where to jump in next, when a mug thrown from across the room caught him unexpectedly on his right temple. His hat was knocked a skewed on his head, as he blinked in surprise and slowly slid down the wall to the floor.
Buck blinked again and shook his head to clear it. He blinked again and tried to focus on the small figure leaning over him. Swiping the trickling blood, and broken glass off the side of his head with the back of his hand, he saw JD come into shape as the young man knelt over him, concern evident in his eyes.
"Dont look so worried, kid," Buck said, grinning at his friend. "Ive been hurt worse falling off a haywagon hey, look out!"
Buck grabbed JD around the back of his head and pulled him to the floor just as a beer mug aimed for the young mans head went flying by. Buck came up off the floor in a rush and sledged the thrower in the belly with a clenched fist. Pushing his hat back on straight, Buck tossed JD a smile and headed off for a new tussle.
+ + + + + + +
JD wiped the sweat from his eyes and stepped away from the man he had just knocked down. Acting on reflex, he reached up and smudged the blood that was dripping down his cheek from a cut. Breathing hard, he scanned the room to find out where his friends were, when he heard Rusty call out to him.
"Hey button! Dont just stand there with your finger in your butt. Were losing over here!" the old cowboy yelled out from behind the bar, and then as soon as JD looked at him, he pointed over towards the staircase.
JD turned in time to see Vin go down under a pack of the cowboys. But before he could move in to help his friend, two pairs of hands grabbed him by his arms and tossed him backwards. JD hit the saloon doors hard with his back. The doors slammed open with a resounding thud, and JD went sailing outside. Snow flew up into the air as the youth somersaulted across the boardwalk, coming to a stop on his back with his feet propped up against a snow bank. Laughing, the two drunken cowhands followed him out into the cold, night air. JD struggled in the deep snow to regain his feet, but could only manage to sit up before the two drunkards shoved him back down and walked across his chest with their cowboy boots on their way back to the saloon.
Spitting snow out of his mouth, JD struggled crossly to regain his feet. Dusting the snow off his britches with a quick swipe of his hand, he followed the two drunks back to the saloon, only to discover they had locked the door on him from the inside. Cheesed right off at the men, and because of that, not stopping to consider the consequences, JD put his head down and rushed at the door. Leaving his feet, he threw all his weight at it, hoping to knock it open with his shoulder. The thick solid wood door didnt give an inch, but a big whoosh of air was slammed out of his lungs and he was sent reeling onto his backside on the edge of the porch. The slushy snow instantly saturated his bottom, with the wetness seeping right through to his longjohns. Cussing, JD grabbed the hand railing and pulled himself to his feet. He took a deep breath, glared at the door, and then leaped again. This time he miscued his timing on the slippery footing, and slammed his knee hard on the doorframe. Hissing through his teeth at the unexpected sharp pain, he leaned against the door using one hand for balance and rubbing his sore knee with his other. Immediately, he felt it start to swell and tighten against the unyielding confounds of his chaps. Rubbing it through the leather only made it hurt worse, so JD pulled his hand away and tried walking the pain off. When that didnt work, he hobbled back to the door. He tried willing it to open by his sheer strength of mind, but that didnt have any effect either. Trying to knock the door off its hinges with his shoulder door hadnt worked, so he gave it a kick with his good foot and banged on the doors with his fist, but still no one on the inside opened it up for him.
Frustrated, he finally hobbled around to the open side-door and burst back into the building. His eyes darting around the room he saw a bright red colour that looked suspiciously like Vins scarf, buried under a pile of cowhands. With a yell, JD jumped up onto the bar to get past the room full of fighting men. Dashing down its length he made a running dive off the end and struck one of the cowboys hard enough to ride him to the floor. From his stomach, JD scratched, and kicked, and pinched even as hands tried to pull him to his feet.
On the floor beside him, Vin was being hammered with knuckles to his eyes and lips, but the tracker was far from finished as he took blow after blow, but still managed to take out one cowboy at a time with his quick hands.
Bucks long legs suddenly appeared into the mix of men now as well, and he too started inflicting a lot of damage to the remaining group of mostly drunk cowboys.
Suddenly, just when JD thought they were finally winning, a hand with a steel grip clamped onto his shoulder, biting deep into his flesh and dragged the youth to his feet. An arm came up and wrapped itself around his neck, tightening off his air. The harder he thrashed, the tighter the arm crushed his throat until his eyes were bulging and all he could hear was a roaring sound inside his head.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Vin both found themselves standing back-to-back, all alone. Moaning cowhands were scattered every which way across the floor of the saloon, with still others draped across tabletops, or leaning on the banister for support, most bleeding from one body part or another.
"Thats it?" Buck asked sounding disappointed. Testing out the kinks in his back, he cautiously straightened up, and managed to grin even with his split lip. "Heck Vin, I think these boys are calling it quits already, and I was just getting warmed up."
Vin stood bent over at the waist with his hands resting just above his knees to hold himself up, with long strands of his blond hair hanging down into his face. He fought to catch his breath while tasting salty blood on his lip, and feeling his left eye swelling. Puffing hard, he lifted his head up to give Buck a dirty look.
Laughing, Buck swatted Vin lightly on the back and then helped the tracker straighten up, "The boys will be sorry they missed out on this one. I cant remember the last barroom brawl I was in that was this much fun."
Not sure if he quite shared Bucks enthusiasm for the brawl, Vin shook out his bruised hand, and searched the room. Men were strewn all about, most on the floor, but some had now managed to up-right a few chairs and crawl onto them. The barkeep and dancehall girls came out from their hiding places behind the bar and overturned tables. Cautiously they moved from man to man, checking to see who needed help.
"Ya see where Rusty went?" Vin asked Buck when Rusty didnt appear out from behind the bar. The last time Vin had seen the old cowboy he had been beside the barkeep, ducking flying whiskey bottles.
"Oh great dont tell me that old bird up and went south on us?" The smile on Bucks face quickly disappeared when he didnt see the old cowboy anywhere either. " I told you and JD we couldnt trust him! Whats the first thing he does when I cut him a little slack, but high-tail it out on us!"
"Dont get your feathers all riled just yet," Vin cautioned, while scooping over to pick up his hat that had been knocked from his head sometime during the brawl. "He could be with JD."
"Thats a possibility. Hey, JD ?" Buck called out. "Kid, where did ya get to?"
Both men looked around the room for their youngest, but neither man could spot him amongst the wounded or the helping hands. The two men exchanged puzzled looks. The kid had just been there beside them and holding his own in the fight.
"Buck !" They suddenly heard Dixies loud, piercing cry from the back of the building and looked to see the small blond pointing to the side door.
Buck could not believe his eyes. The big cowboy he had thought he had chased off earlier now stood in the entrance with his arm wrapped tightly around JDs neck, slowly choking off the young mans breath. He stared back at Buck with malice in both his eyes and in the set of his mouth.
Dodging over or around fallen cowhands, Buck and Vin marched threateningly towards the cowboy.
"Get away from him!" Buck hissed menacingly, as he sidestepped a drunken cowhand who was still trying to throw punches from his place down on the floor.
"Dont come any closer, or he wont be breathing for much longer!" The riled cowhand yelled while tightening his grip. JD grabbed the mans arm with both his hands and tried to wiggle his fingers down between the arm and his windpipe.
Buck and Vin stopped a few steps from the door. Bucks face was turning red with rage, but he allowed Vin to pull him back a step.
"Aint nobody been hurt bad here so far," Vin said in his soft tone. "Just slacken your hold and well all go have us a beer. No reason to take this fight any further."
"Thats right. No one has to get hurt. You just tell your big friend there to give me back my gun and Ill let the kid go!" The bitter cowboy snarled, his voice laced with venom. Tightening his grip around JDs neck, he lifted the youth off his feet for added effect.
The move worked, Vin had to hold Buck from leaping forward. JDs eyes were big and his feet kicked helplessly about in thin air, just inches off the floor. The youth clawed at the arm around his neck with his fingertips in an attempt to loosen the pressure on his windpipe. With Vin and Buck watching him, JD tried hard, but they could see he was not quite able to keep the scared look from showing on his young face.
Vin grabbed Bucks hand as the tall peacekeeper started to draw his gun out of his holster.
"What do ya want us to do?" Vin asked.
"I just want my gun back, thats all. He gives me back my gun, Ill let your friend go and I walk out of here!" the cowboy growled, and then shook JD for good measure.
"Oh, for cryin out loud! Buck, give em back his gun "Vin started to say, nodding towards the cowhand, but Buck was already reaching for the six-gun he had pushed into the back of his belt.
Fuming at the infuriating cowboy who they just could not seem to get away from, Buck flipped the weapon over and was starting to hand it over butt-first when suddenly Rusty appeared out of the darkness and belted JDs captor over the head with a chunk of firewood.
The cowboy roared out in anger and pain, releasing JD to grab the back of his head with his hand.
As soon as the cowhand had released him, JDs feet hit the floor and his knees buckled before he caught the corner of the bar with a hand and managed to pull himself upright.
Buck was on the cowboy in a split second. He sledged the cowhand hard in the face with his clenched fist, but the inflamed man barely felt the punch. Roaring out again his resentment, the cowboy started taking swings at Buck. The two men exchanged blow for blow. The sound of knuckles hitting flesh and bone, echoed throughout the saloon. Grunting, and grinding the two men fought an unyielding battle.
"Give it up, Buck!" Vin shouted, trying to shove his way between the two men.
Vin wanted to pull the two men apart before someone really got hurt, but one of the men caught him a crushing blow to the side of his jaw and he was sent sliding across the floor, coming to a rest up against the bar. Vin leaped to his feet right away, but then had to sit back down as the world started to swirl around him.
The rest of the bar occupants stood around, watching and cheering as the two men pelted each other with bloody fists. Both of the men fighting looked like they had finally had enough, but neither was about to give into the other.
Seeing the blood pour down Bucks chin, JD pushed himself away from the bar and quickly got between the two men. With his hands on Bucks chest, he managed to push his friend away, miraculously avoiding the swinging fists.
The barkeep barrelled his shoulder into the cowhands stomach and managed to push him up against the bar. To his surprise, the cowhand didnt try to fight his way out of the barkeeps hold, he had taken enough punishment for one night.
Buck however fought to get around JD and go after the cowhand again. It took all of JDs strength to subdue him until his fury started to subside and his reason started to return.
After a dozen seconds, Buck stopped pushing against JD and wiped the blood from his lip with the back of his hand. Breathing hard, he looked over at Vin who still was sitting on the floor, "You hurt?" he asked through puffing breaths.
"Hell no Im right as rain!" Vin said rubbing his jaw. "Just had me a little tussle is all."
"You sure, Vin?" Buck asked looking at the bruises that were starting to stand out against Vins tanned complexion.
"Yeah, Im sure." Vin kept opening and closing his jaw. It made a cracking sound, "Damn, his punch is like the kick of a mule!"
"How about you, kid?" Buck asked, tilting JDs head up with a finger and looking at the red marks covering the young mans throat.
"Im fine," JD answered, watching the last of the anger slowly slip from Bucks face. Buck didnt get mad very often, but he was kind of scary when he did. JD was just glad the big gunfighter was on his side.
"Boy next time you feel inclined to get us killed, Id appreciate it if you would ask first," Buck said flicking JDs nose as he pulled his finger out from under the youths chin.
"Youre blaming me for starting the brawl?" JD asked incredulously. "I was just defending myself. And I aint the one who took that fellas gun you are!"
"Let me give ya a piece of advise that I learned for myself years ago, JD." Rusty patted the young man on the back. "If ya make a mistake, do it again. That way folks will think ya meant to do it that way all along."
"Dont be giving him any bad ideas, rooster," Buck spoke up. "He manages to get into enough trouble all on his lonesome."
"You guys are unbelievable!" Flabbergasted, JDs mouth dropped open. "How can you stand there, and blame me for starting the fight "
Suddenly, all the men in the saloon ducked when a loud rifle blast went off, and they were all covered in dust that fell from the ceiling rafters.
"What the hell is going on in here?" yelled a booming voice from the front entrance. "Everybody just stay right where you are!"
The three men from Four Corners turned to see two men standing in the main entrance, both had rifles in their hands, and deputy badges pinned on their lapels.
"Wilson what the heck do you think youre doing putting bullet holes in my ceiling?" Rudy asked angrily as she came out from behind the bar to stand in front of the two deputies.
"Never mind the ceiling, I want to know whos responsible for starting this nonsense?" The deputy asked, and then he pushed Rudy roughly out of the way to blast a shot off at Vin who was trying to get to his feet, almost nicking the tracker in the ear. "I said stay right where you are!"
Nearly deafened by the loud blast, Vin covered his ear with his fingers and heatedly sank back to the floor.
"Are ya crazy?" Buck yelled out, rushing over to grab the rifle from the deputys hand, but he had to stop when the second deputy swung his rifle around and pointed it point blank at Bucks chest.
"I told you all to stay put!" the deputy named Wilson snapped. "Now I aint asking a third time. Who the hell is responsible for starting this fight?"
"Smitty, and the boys from the Double D started it," Rudy answered.
From all around the room came mumbled denials and fingers pointed towards the three men from Four Corners.
"I dont rightly remember ever seeing any of you three in town before?" the deputy asked looking suspiciously at the three peacekeepers. "Just what exactly brought you all to our little piece of paradise, especially in the middle of a blizzard?"
"Look here, Deputy Wilson "Buck started to say.
"Not you!" The deputy cut him off. "I dont think I like you." He looked over at JD who was hovering just behind Buck, but to the young mans chagrin, dismissed him with barely a glance.
You!" The deputy said pointing his rifle at Vin. "Whats your John Henry, and why are you in my town causing trouble?"
"When did it suddenly become your town, Wilson?" Rudy again moved to stand in front of the deputies, with her hands resting on her hips as she stared down at their drawn weapons. "If its your town, then why the heck am I paying the lions load of the taxes. Id have gone broke ages ago if I ran my business as poorly as you do your job!"
Lily moved out from behind the bar and stooped down in front of Vin. Gently, she pressed the palm of her hand against the trackers cheek, and let the beginnings of a grateful smile touch her lips.
Standing up, Lily came and stood beside Rudy, "Smitty started it, deputy. These three men were just trying to come to my aid. I guess that makes me responsible for the fight starting."
"You didnt do nothing wrong, Lily!" Vin said as he pulled himself slowly to his feet. "Deputy, Im Vin Tanner and were just on our way to the State prison with a prisoner. We just come in here to get out of the snow and warm up some. We werent looking for no trouble, we just had us a slight misunderstanding with some of your local cowboys here is all."
"Where did you say you were all from?" Wilson asked as he watched the interaction taking place between the three strangers and the saloon girls. He thought they were far too familiar with each other, considering they just met.
"Four Corners," Vin answered.
"And just who is your prisoner?"
Vin pointed at Rusty, who was still standing by the open side door.
The deputy looked over at the aging cowboy, "Let me get this right it takes three scrapping men, or two men and a kid is more like, to get one old man to the State prison. I aint never been to Four Corners, but it must be full of sissy men if it takes three of you to handle the job!"
The three men bristled, especially JD, as the cowhands in the room broke out in snickers.
"How many of us decided to come along aint really any of your business, deputy!" Buck said, stretching to his full height so he was looking down at the deputy.
"I already told you once, I dont like you. That means I dont want to hear you speaking to me." Wilson snarled and then before Buck had a chance to sidestep, the deputy drove the end of his rifle butt into Bucks midriff.
Buck doubled over and almost dropped to his knees as the wind was knocked from his lungs.
Rudy and Lily both gasped, and brought a hand up to cover their mouths.
"Dont!" The other deputy pointed his rifle at Vin, who looked like he was about to go after Wilson.
With a hand of comfort on Bucks back, JD moved to stand protectively between his friend and the deputy.
"Yeah, I think I have real good idea who was behind this little ruckus," Wilson said. "Id say you three need a cooling down time."
Wilson stepped back and pointed to the door, "Okay you three move it! I have a jail cell with your names waiting on it."
"I dont think so!" Buck straightened up gasping. "Weve been hired by a Territorial judge to take this man back to prison and thats the only place I plan on heading to. Well pay our share of damages to Miss Rudy, but that ends it!"
"I hear your annoying voice one more time and youll all being staring at a cell wall for a long, long time," Wilson snarled. "You can walk under your own steam, or I can get some of the boys here to help drag you there. Makes no difference to me how you get there."
Livid, Buck did a quick head count to see how many heads he would have to break to keep from getting dragged to the jail. He was mad enough to let common sense fly out the door, and take some of these cowhands down with him. Then he glanced at the two younger men he rode with. If he went for it, he knew he could count on them to jump right in, but neither of them looked like they needed to go another round. Vins face was tuning black and blue, and JD had been limping and was now swaying gently in front of him as though staying upright was presenting a bit of a challenge for the youth. Buck grudgingly had to admit that he himself had taken a hell of a beating tonight and it wouldnt take much to finish him off.
Slowly Buck eased back. He figured he would rather walk to the jail house on his own two feet, than let this jerk of a deputy have the pleasure of seeing him beaten and dragged there.
The deputy again pointed at the door and gestured for the three to head out.
"I told you they didnt start it!" Rudy protested again and moved to stand in front of the doorway, blocking it with her arms.
"And I dont think you are a reliable witness," Wilson said, grabbing the saloon owner and pushing her out of the entrance. He then pointed his rifle towards Rusty. "You big, bad prisoner, you best join us too!"
Shaking his head at Rudy and Lily to not interfere anymore, Vin walked past the two deputies and headed for the door. With his arm wrapped around his guts, Buck reluctantly followed, pushing JD in front of him. Both glared at the deputies as they moved past.
With his hand on the doorknob, Wilson paused before following the other men out, and turned to face Rudy, "Well check their story out. If their telling me the truth, they dont have nothing to worry about, now do they?"
Rudy felt her heart tighten, as she watched the deputy exit her building. The smug expression on his face, and the condescending tone of his voice, did nothing to alleviate her worries.
Even with the deep snow and his arthritic knees, Rusty easily kept up with the three battered men trudging through the snow towards the jail at gun point, "So just where were you heading off to, old rooster?" Buck asked the old man quietly, so the two deputies behind them could not hear their conversation and because his split lip was really starting to sting.
"I just went out for a spot of air," Rusty replied slowly. "It was getting a might stuffy in there."
"You found it stuffy in the middle of a barroom brawl!" Buck exclaimed in disbelief.
"Buck, can we please drop it!" JD whispered. "He didnt take off nowhere! And I think we got other more pressing problems we got to deal with right now!"
"Fine, Ill drop it for now," Buck replied calmly, "But this conversation aint over by a long shot, rooster!"
Buck and Vin both exchanged looks. They had both seen the tracks in the snow leading from the side door back out to the livery stable. Whatever the old cowboy had been up to, they were pretty sure it had not been to get fresh air.
+ + + + + + +
The quieter deputy led the four men into the back of the jailhouse. Stopping at the first cell he opened the door and indicated for Buck and JD to enter. He then opened the second cell and pushed Rusty inside, closing the door after the old cowboy.
"Hey its as cold as a snow storm in December in here!" Buck clenched the cold bars with both his hands and shook them insistently while screaming at the deputy. "Because we are in the middle of a snow storm in December, you idiot! You got no right to put us in here hey, Im talking to you!"
With a crooked smile on his homely face, the deputy ignored Bucks vocal outburst as he opened the last empty cell and told Vin to get inside.
Vin looked at Buck and then at the deputy. Not sure why he and Rusty had not been put in the same cell, Vin just shrugged at the deputy and walked in. In spite of himself, he flinched slightly as the metal cell door was clanked shut behind him.
The deputy then silently walked back into the office, slamming the solid wood door that separated the two rooms behind him.
"Come back here, ya damn lawdog you got the wrong guys in jail!" Buck yelled at the closed door. "Id hate to be in your boots when Judge Travis hears about this. Youll be lucky to find work cleaning out biffys when hes done with you!"
"Might as well let it be, Buck," Vin told his friend through the bars as he shook out his pained, skinned knuckles and tentatively touched the bruises forming on his face. "Yellin at them aint going to get them back in here any faster to let us out, so you might as well save your breath."
Vin hated being in small spaces that he couldnt get out of, but there was not much he could do about it, so ignoring what he could not change, he just walked over to the cot and climbed under the one thin blanket.
"Unless one of you has come up with an escape plan, Im going to catch up on some sleep," He said wrapping the threadbare blanket under his chin and resting his head on top of his linked fingers.
"How can you sleep, Vin?" JD asked from his cell.
"Just gotta close my eyes, JD, and the sleep part pretty much comes on its own," Vin yawned.
"I mean, how can you fall asleep now?" JD asked. "Were in jail!"
"Being in jail dont mean a person cant sleep, JD. Heck, there aint nothin else to do."
"JD let it go, would ya," Buck sighed loudly from the cot he had sunk down onto. "I get the impression Vins right. Those two jokers aint about to let us out of here tonight, so you might as well lite somewhere, kid and get your rest while ya can."
JD limped restlessly back and forth across the cell a few times. Stopping his pacing, he noticed that eight feet up the outside wall was a small window. Taking a limping run at it, JD jumped up and grabbed the bars with both hands. Pulling himself up, he could barely see through the dirty pane of glass that had been nailed on the outside of the building to keep the snow out. JD shivered and felt his skin break out in goosebumps as a brisk blast of air found its way around the rotting window frame and into the cell.
"JD would you just lay down?" Buck muttered from under the blanket.
"Lay down where? You got the only bunk and blanket," JD replied as he slowly lowered himself to the floor. "Boy, its cold in here. Youd think they would at least leave the door to the office open so we could get some heat from the stove."
Buck sat up and scooted over on the cot, "Come here then," he said, opening blanket wide. "If sharing a bunk is what it takes to get you to pipe down, than so be it."
JD thought about turning down Bucks reluctant offer to share the blanket, but the cold air circulating the cell overruled any manly pride he felt, so he sat down on the cot beside his best friend and bundled a corner of Bucks blanket around his shoulders. JD squirmed his butt around, searching for a bit of softness on the rock hard bed.
"Ya comfy there yet, kid?" Buck asked as the young man squirmed around beside him.
"Just about," JD said. Reaching down he pulled off his boots and dropped them on the floor. Bringing his feet up, he tucked them under his thighs for warmth as he sat crossed legged on the cot. "Im good now."
"Happy to hear it," Buck mumbled as he stretched his long legs out in front of him, pulled his hat down low over his eyes and tilted his head back against the bars that separated him from Rustys cell.
Rusty took the blanket off the cot and wrapped it around his cold, bony shoulders. With his stiff bones creaking, he sat on his bunk and stared out the bars to the solid wall on the other side. He shuddered as he felt the room close in on him. He had never gotten used to being in a prison cell, but had some how managed to stay out of trouble enough that the warden let him have pretty much free rein during the day to work in the kitchen or prison yard, and not be locked up all the time. He didnt think he would survive if they put him back in there a second time. Not after hed gotten to see the open sky, and feel the breeze against his face and sit upon a horse again.
He had barely closed his eyes when loud voices snapped him out of his slumber.
JD also woke up startled. A familiar voice penetrated his sleepy mind, and then Buck shoving him. Confused and shocked he had even fallen asleep, he looked up at his big friend and realized he was leaning up against one of Bucks broad shoulders.
"Get off me, kid! Sleep on your own side of the bed," Buck looked down at the tussle-haired youth, and was about to make a snappy remark about preferring only women slept snuggled against him, when the door between the office and the cells slammed open to reveal several men.
Vin turned his head in his entwined fingers to get a better look at the men entering the cell area.
Smitty and the four other cowhands from the Double D entered in front of the deputy Wilson.
"Well howdy boys, I see ya finally got the real guilty party figured out," Buck said rising from the cot. "Now I guess we can be on our way."
"Well, you would be guessing wrong, smart mouth," Wilson said as he walked first past Bucks cell and then Rustys, before coming to a stop in front of Vins. After inserting the key, he pushed the door open with the back of his hand and stepped aside. Pointing inside, he turned to Smitty. "Move your sorry butts in there before I kick em in."
Silently, and suspiciously without argument the five Double D men moved past the deputy and entered Vins cell.
"You boys see to it that you all get along nice now!" Wilson told the men, winking at Buck as he walked out of the cell area and back to the office.
"What the hell is going on here!" Buck hollered at the deputy as he closed the door solidly behind him. "Hey! Hey you cant leave them boys all locked in the same cell together! Damn you get back in here!"
"I dont think they can hear ya!" With a nasty sneer on his face, Smitty hollered through the bars at Buck, "You best shout a little louder."
Buck and JD exchanged uneasy looks at the cowhands remark. Now they knew for sure that the cowboys and the two deputies were in cahoots together.
Buck and JD grabbed the metal bars with their hands and urgently shook them, as they looked through Rustys cell and into where Vin was locked up with the five cowhands.
Rusty dropped the blanket from around his shoulders and rose to his feet as well.
Vin continued to lie unflinching on the bunk, exchanging calm looks with the cowhands who were now surrounding him.
"You so much as look at him wrong and I will personally beat on you so bad your kids will be born bruised!" Buck hissed out the warning as he watched helplessly from behind his bars. He knew Vin had more than his share of measure in a fight, whether it was with his fist or his rifle, but he was in tight going against five men when he was already hurting.
Smitty turned his head around and flashed Buck a nasty, pure go-to-hell grin of triumph.
It was the last grin he flashed that night. Before Smitty could turn himself back around, Vin was off the cot, burying one fist deep into the cowboys expansive midriff and the other smashed his square jaw. With his eyes rolling back in his head, Smitty fell to the floor in an unconscious heap.
Buck and JD both screamed out loudly as the four other cowhands jumped on Vin and dragged him away from Smitty, all the while peppering the lean tracker with blows of their own.
"Let him go, you sons of !" Buck screamed out at the cowhands, while trying to rip the bars that were holding him in out of the ceiling with his bare hands. "Get your lousy hands off him!"
"Vin!" JD cried out as three of the cowhands over-powered the tracker in the small cell, and held him against the bars while the forth man hit him in the face and stomach.
"Wilson get your fat ass in here!" Buck yelled at the closed door. "Wilson Wilson! Damn your sorry hide, get in here now!"
"Stop it let him go!" JDs young voice added to the commotion. "Buck, what are we going to do? Theyre gonna kill him!"
Vin struggled as hard as he could, but could not pull his arms loose. The cowboy hitting him had gone from fast, consecutive hits to slower more accurate blows, pausing between each to enjoy the groans of pain Vin could not hold back.
Not paying attention to the old cowboy in the next cell, the three men holding Vin threw him up against bars that separated the two cells. Suddenly an arm snaked through the bars and grabbed one of the cowhands around the back of the neck, pulling him hard face-first into the bars. With a grunt, the man slid to the floor holding his bleeding temple.
"Yeah, way to go Rusty!" JD yelled excitedly from his cell.
That was all it took. Vin got his one arm free and swung it around to connect with a nose. Vin felt the mans nose give under his fist and felt warm red fluid explode over his fingers.
With a yell, the cowhand cupped his hands over his face and fell to his knees.
The two remaining men were wrestling with Vin when the door to the office suddenly was throw open and most of the girls from the saloon, led by Rudy, marched into the cell area with the two deputies close on their heels.
"Who the heck do you think youre, Rudy?" Wilson blustered. "You cant come bursting in here, this is a jailhouse!"
Rudy ignored the deputy, striding over to the bars of Vins cell instead, "You boys, you stop it this instance! Let him go now! Or you wont being visiting any of my girls anytime soon, or maybe never again!"
"Thats right boys," Yellow-haired Dixie strutted up to the bars to stand beside Rudy. "You dont get your paws off that man this instance, the only bare skin any of you will being seeing is on each other when you take your monthly baths. Which I might add, you dont do nowhere near enough to get rid of your stench!"
The two men instantly let go of Vin, who leaned against the bars by Rusty and spit up blood from a cut inside his mouth. Lily rushed up to the bars and stretched her hand through. Her fingertips just barely reached to touch the tracker gently on his cheek.
"Oh, Vin " she said softly, her eyes misting as his blood stained her little finger.
"Rudy, I aint telling you again!" Wilson pushed through the girls so he could be beside the attractive redheaded woman. "You gather up your little hen party and get out of my jail, or Ill "
"Youll what deputy?" Rudy turned and gave the man a haughty stare. "Youll go home loyally to your little wife every night? I would hate to explain to her why you always have to do late night checks at the saloon."
"You wouldnt dare!"
"Or why you always want to check the girls rooms out at night."
"Thats blackmail!" Wilson steamed, his ears turning red.
"Youre darn tootin its blackmail. You ever want to visit my girls again, and not have the Mrs. at home hear about it, youll let these four men go free right this minute."
Wilson stood and stared at the woman and then he turned and looked at all the dancehall girls, most of whom swirled their hips and a few even raised their skirts up and flashed the deputy a look at their net stockings.
"Take a good look, Wilson," Rudy told him. "Make the wrong choice here, and it will be the last time you see that vision."
"Ah, Rudy! You fight a dirty battle!" Wilson said disgustedly. "This is a matter for the law to handle. That means me."
Rudy raised her eyebrows at the man.
"Oh hell Rudy, everything goes along fine until you dang women have to poke your busy-body noses into a mans business!" Wilson threw the other deputy the keys to the cells. "Let em out!"
+ + + + + + +
Come on feet, just start moving, Vin thought to himself as he heard the key slip into his cell door and then saw it start to swing open. Let go of the bar and walk outta of here like a man.
Tentatively, he let his fingers slip from their hold on the cold steel, but as soon as he did he could feel himself starting to sway, Damn! He thought. Come on body, dont fail on me now, just put one foot in front of the other. Dont give these half-wit cowpokes the satisfaction of seeing ya fall flat on your face.
"Vin ?" A soft feminine voice rustled against his ear, and he slowly turned his head to see Lily standing beside him.
She reached up and tenderly touched a bruise that marked his cheek. A sad smile touched her lips as she slipped under his arm and took his weight.
Vin wanted to tell her he had to do this on his own, but as he was about to start explaining it to the petite brunette he noticed the looks of jealousy that flashed across the faces of the cowboys in the cell with them.
Walking under his own steam was good, but leaving on the arm of this pretty girl was even better. He wanted to grin, but the cut on his lip was too sore, so he merely nodded at the men as he and Lily wobbled out of the cell together.
"Ouch!" One of the cowhands clutched his shin after Lily kicked him hard with her pointy shoe on her way out of the cell.
Buck rushed up to help, but Vins subtle head shake backed the tall man off. Struggling to keep as much of his weight off the small girls shoulder as he could, Vin fought to stay upright on his feet and make it into the office without collapsing.
Once through the door and out of sight of the cowhands, he gratefully fell against Buck and let his strong friend half carry, half drag him over to a chair beside the woodstove.
"You hurt bad, Vin?" JD asked, as he came limping into the office, followed close by Rusty.
"Nothing a few more days of sitting on a hard saddle wont make worse, JD," Vin told his young friend who was now hovering fretfully over him. Vin groaned as he felt his stomach. He knew he was going to have some nasty bruises, but he didnt think they had managed to break anything on him. Looking up, he saw a room full of people with concern written all over their faces, especially those belonging to his two friends.
"Im fine guys really," Vin said.
Rudy pushed past Buck to get right in front of the young tracker. Gently she placed a long manicured finger under his chin, and lifted his usually attractive face up so she could see clearer the damage it had taken.
"None of you boys is quite as pretty as you were when you first came into my saloon tonight, but since you got that way looking out for my girls, I love you anyway. Now young man, you think you can make it back to the saloon under your own steam or do you still need Lilys arm? Well doctor you up the best we can back there. You get a good night sleep under your belts and things will look brighter in the morning."
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