The Twilight Years

by Patricia

Part Eight
The howling of the wind, and swirling of the snow, diminished to let the briefest sparkle of stars glitter through the clouds. The four horses stood tied to the hitching rail as their four battered riders tightened the cold stiffened cinches around their bellies.

"You sure I can’t talk you boys into staying over a spell?" Rudy asked, trying to mask the concern that threatened to show up on her attractive face. She had ripped an old nightgown into strips to tightly bind Vin’s injured ribs, and she had wiped the blood from all their faces and soaked their stinging knuckles in alcohol, but they then insisted on heading back out onto the trail before she could stitch up all their various cuts.

"We just got you all patched together with spit and a bandage. Why don’t you give yourselves at least till the morning before heading off? I don’t understand your need to hurry!"

"We’re obliged for the offer, Miss Rudy," Vin unwrapped his reins from around the hitching post, and hugging an arm to his aching ribs stepped aboard Peso. "As temptin’ as it would be to stay with ya, the weather is finally starting to break, so we best hit the trail while we can."

Buck groaned as he lifted a toe up to his stirrup. Grimacing, he slowly sank down onto Polecat’s back, and then resting against the saddle horn with one arm, he doffed his hat to all the ladies who were standing out in the snow to see the four men off.

"Old Vin here has turned into a right cranky trail boss." Big dimples cut into Buck’s cheeks, as the handsome ladies man smiled at the girls in spite of his split lip. "It ain’t a democracy when he’s in charge. He says time for us to ride, we ride!"

"Well, all I can say, is you boys keep mighty strange hours," Rusty said, pulling his pocket watch out his shirt and trying to read it in the dark. "It’s barely this side of 5 a.m."

Shifting in his saddle, Rusty moved from one saddle-sore cheekbone, onto his other. Chains from his handcuffs rattled as he put back the watch and brought out his last rolled cigarette. He licked it and stuck it in his mouth with his right hand, while he rasped a match across the saddlehorn with his left. He lifted the sputtering flame to the cigarette that he kept protected with cupped hands. He figured he was going to need all his vices in place if he had any hope of lasting out the day; he would have to quit smoking again tomorrow.

Vin backed Peso away from the rail, and holding the prancing animal to a walk, waved over his shoulder to the dancehall girls, "Thanks for all the hospitality. If ya ever make it up anywhere near Four Corners, we’ll be right disappointed if ya don’t come look us up."

Buck rode over to the boardwalk and scooped a squealing Dixie up against his side. The small blond wrapped her arms around Buck’s neck and letting her feet dangle above the ground, she planted a big kiss on the ruggedly handsome man’s lips.

Giggling, she slid back to the snow-covered boardwalk, leaving her hand to rest against his thigh, "You best stop on your way back from that prison. I’ll keep a light burning in my room so you won’t have to look hard to find me."

His eyes twinkling, Buck twitched her perky nose with a finger, "No need for that, the glow of your smile will guide me back to you, just like a beacon draws a ship back home!" Buck reached over and loosened Mud’s lead shank from the rail and wrapped it around his horn. "Come on, Rooster. Times a wastin’, sooner we get ya back to that prison, the sooner I get to see this lovely lady again. Get a move on, JD!"

Seven swung his hindquarters around and nickered loudly as the other three horses started down the street, "Hold still, ya goof! They ain’t leaving without us," JD soothed his horse as he fumbled to give his cinch a final tug with his scraped and bruised hands.

JD was just reaching to free his reins from the hitching post when his spirited horse swung his head around and knocked the bowler hat from the youth’s head. It fell on the boardwalk and then went tumbling along on a gust of wind, forcing JD to chase it across the slippery wooden deck. Bending down, he scooped it up and dusted the snow from its brim. Straightening up, he suddenly found himself standing nose to nose in front of the lovely Miss Rudy.

Her brown eyes looked sad as she watched the other men ride away. Turning back to JD, she gave the young man a gentle smile, while reaching up to touch his cut cheek in an almost motherly fashion.

Impulsively, JD grabbed the older woman and gave her a hug, "Thanks for everything. Sorry your place got wrecked because of us."

"You boys didn’t do nothing, it was those trouble-making Double D boys that started it." Rudy softly placed the back of her cold fingers against JD’s bruised cheek. "You take care of yourself, you hear me young man!"

"JD…time to saddle up, cowpoke, you’re burning daylight!" Buck hollered back at him. "Stop flirtin’ with them beautiful ladies and get your scrawny butt up into your saddle."

"I best get going," JD said as he swung up onto Seven. Leaning past his horse’s neck, he pulled his reins loose from the hitching rail and with a nod to the ladies, he let his anxious gelding lope through the snow to catch up with the other horses and riders.

Dixie, and even the dignified Lily, ran down the boardwalk with their skirts clutched up to their knees with one hand while they waved and hollered good-byes to the departing men. The four men waved back at the girls, but ignored the two deputies and several Double D cowhands who stood in front of the dilapidating jailhouse on the other side of the street. They all wore ugly, angry scowls on their faces as they watched the four men ride past them and head out of town.

+ + + + + + +

Once again dawn found the four riders long in the saddle, but not as far away from town as Vin had hoped they would be by now. They followed the draw that sheltered the small town for as far as they could and were now climbing towards a mountain summit. The snow had drifted up in places as high as their horse’s shoulders. In the good places it was only past their knees.

Buck wanted to yell out to the young tracker who rode in front of him to slow down even more. He wanted to tell him to stop pushing so hard, but he knew the younger man felt a responsibility to get them all to the prison alive. Being the oldest peacekeeper on this expedition, Buck figured he should be the one to shoulder most of the responsibility for their safety. It was an irrational feeling since they all knew Vin was the logical choice to get them through this stretch of bad weather alive, but still he felt it was his place.

Hell, he must be getting old and soft. He had always lived his life in a carefree fashion, in fact it was one of the things he liked best about himself, but now right out of the blue he felt an overwhelming need to keep the men he rode with out of danger. Or maybe it wasn’t so sudden; he had actually been feeling twinges like this since the seven men joined up together. How Chris was able to handle the weight of leading them all was beyond him; he was feeling crushed just by looking out for the two youngest. Of course, if you asked JD, the kid would come out and blatantly lie, telling anyone who would listen that Buck had been riding herd on him from the first time they had met.

The snow had finally stopped falling, but damn, it was cold out. Buck gave a hard tug on Mud’s leadrope as the old horse started to lag behind. He immediately felt sorry for his roughness, it wasn’t the old horse’s fault they were out here, but it sure was the fault of the old coot that was sitting on top of the horse. Buck turned to glare at the old man, but got no feelings of self-satisfaction when he saw how stiff and sore the old man looked. Still, Buck didn’t have any sympathy to spare on the old cowboy, not with him and his two friends riding cold and all beat to a pulp. Buck stuffed the hand that held the leadrope under his armpit to warm it up, and turned his concentration back to the trail and the man riding in front of him.

Vin again broke the trail just has he had yesterday, with his game gelding floundering through the deep drifts until he was all lathered up in a foamy sweat.

The dawn broke clear, and finally the sun rose out of the darkness and clouds, to reflect off vast expanses of snow. For the first time in days they were not fighting swirling, whiteout winter conditions, but instead a dazzling sun that was blinding them with its intense glare.

Vin pulled the brim down low over his eyes to block out as much of the brightness as he could. His one black eye was almost swollen shut anyway, so that helped a bit. With a grunt, he grabbed his aching ribs as Peso stumbled over a log that lay buried beneath the snow. Pulling up on his reins, he brought the black gelding to a halt and slid to the ground, disappearing to his waist in the snow. He would have stayed mounted, but his animal’s laboured breathing made his ribs hurt more than standing in the snow did.

"You okay there, Vin?" Buck stopped Polecat a few feet from Vin, and looked the tracker over carefully. His face was a mixture of purple and yellow bruises. "You got the face only a mother would love."

"You ain’t looking so purty there yourself, Buck," Vin grinned back painfully. Truth was they all looked and felt like hell, but to Vin’s way of thinking, moping about it wasn’t going to make them feel any better. "I figure I’m looking right dandy for someone who’s feeling dead from both sides of his belt buckle."

"I hear ya!" Buck laughed, and then cursed at the discomfort it caused. With a gloved hand, he touched his fingertips to his split lip to see if he had made it start bleeding again.

Vin reached out with a tired arm and rubbed Peso affectionately between his ears, "Figured I better pull my horse up for a rest before I killed the poor bugger. Just getting him broke to point where I like em’, I ain’t to anxious to start afresh with another horse anytime soon."

"How far you figure we are from town?" Buck asked, as he looked back at the tracks the four horses had made through the deep drifts.

"Two, maybe three miles if we’re lucky," Vin answered. "We’re going to end up killing our horses if we have to ride through much more of this stuff."

"Don’t look like we are going to have much choice, ain’t nothing but snow ahead on the trail," Buck said, squinting out at the mass of shimmering white that surrounded them in every direction. "Why don’t you let JD break trail for a bit? It’s been too quiet back there, I suspect he’s been napping since we left town."

"JD…." Buck hollered to the youth who was bringing up the rear. "Get your lazy duff up here."

JD nudged Seven in the side and the little horse instantly took a rearing lunge through the deep snow to catch up with Buck and Vin.

"What’s the matter?" the young man asked in a tired voice as he pulled up behind the other three men.

"Why you lagging so far behind, kid?" Buck asked as JD reined in beside him. "Feeling poorly from last night, are ya? Why don’t you come and let your salty tears fall right here?" Buck said, tapping his chest over his heart area with an open palm.

"I ain’t shedding any salty tears, but if I was, I wouldn’t be doing it anywhere near you," JD answered with only a twinge of annoyance creeping into his voice. He wouldn’t trade the big-hearted Buck in for anyone else, but sometimes the good-natured man could get on his nerves, especially when JD was feeling as poorly as he felt right now. "I was just minding my own business. You outta give that a try sometime, Buck."

Always happy when he could get a rise out of the kid, Buck grinned at JD to let him know he was just joshing, "You up to breaking trail for a while so Vin can rest his horse?" Buck asked looking the kid over carefully.

The youngster’s tired face was also awash with bruises, and he rode with his sore leg dangling out of the stirrup. But he still looked a speck better than Vin, and Buck suspected even better than him, not that he would admit that to the kid anytime soon.

"Sure!" the kid hastily replied, pushing Seven past the other riders. Maybe not as quickly as he normally would, but still with more enthusiasm for the job than any of the other three men felt.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was sorry he had complained earlier in the morning about the sun being too bright. By noon the clouds had rolled back in on the gust of a northerly wind and snow was threatening to cover them again. It was cold. The spare pail of water for coffee sitting away from the fire had already turned to ice and the blustery wind rolling down off the mountain was brutal.

Buck scooted closer to the campfire they had built to heat up lunch, pulling his scarf tighter around his neck and looked at the others through the steam of his coffee. He had to admit they were a sorry looking bunch. Their faces were all marred with yellow and purple bruises. He had a bump on his left temple and JD kept rubbing the knot on the back of his head. Vin had a weeping cut over his left eye and JD had a nasty one under his right one that probably could use a stitch or two. Heck, they were lucky they were all still standing. Chris had warned them to stay out of trouble, but as usual to their detriment, they had ignored his advice and were now paying the price for that foolishness. Buck looked up again to see JD watching him. A small dimple appeared on the younger man’s left cheek.

"What the heck you grinning at like a fool," Buck asked, but he already had a strong idea what JD was grinning about.

"There was only three of us against all of them," JD said breaking out into a full cheek smile as though he just realized it for the first time and was in total awe of their accomplishment. " And we kicked their butts!"

There it was. Buck had to fight back the laugh that threatened to bubble out of him. He had wondered how long it would take JD to re-live last night’s victory of sorts and start gloating about it. He and Vin had been through enough of these brawls to know that sometimes you won and sometimes you lost. He was just grateful that bruises and soreness was all they had to contend with today. It could have been a whole lot worse for all of them. On the other hand, he did have to agree with JD that they had all held up their end of the battle in a somewhat marvellous style. With a paternal pride, he was especially proud of JD for sticking right along beside them and lasting to the end the fight. Looking over at JD’s glowing face he saw the face a young man getting one step closer to adulthood, but he knew there was no way he was going to share that opinion with the kid. Foolish boy was looking too proud of his achievement for his own good. Next time a fight broke out he might not have the sense to step back and see if it was one he could win, but jump in because he had won this one.

"Boy…would ya think about how something sounds before ya say it," Buck said, scowling to show his displeasure at the young man’s comment.

"I’m just saying…" JD started to defend his comment.

"Sometimes kid, I think you’re so dumb, you couldn’t hit water if you fell out of a boat." Buck cut in. He knew that was the wrong thing to say, but he wanted to protect JD from making stupid choices down the road that could end up with him getting hurt, or worse. Not able to find the right words and not wanting to get into an argument with the youth, Buck pointed towards the horses with his chin. "Ain’t got time for this conversation right now, kid. Let’s get the horses tacked back up and ride."

Vin and Rusty both cringed at Buck’s untactful, attempted lesson on life, but for once JD just got to his feet and followed Buck to the horses.

"He don’t mean nothing by it, kid," Vin said as JD shuffled past him. "Man of his advanced age, well, he’s just getting worn out by all our activities the past few days."

Seeing the sympathetic look on Vin and Rusty’s faces, and enjoying the humour they were willing to throw in Buck’s direction, JD flashed them a crooked smile.

JD knew Buck was proud of how they had all fought last night, but for some reason he wanted him to learn some kind of lesson from the brawl. ‘Fine,’ JD thought. ‘Shove more of your worldly wisdom my way. I just wish you would come right out and tell me what you’re trying to say, instead of me always having to guess what it is!’

Vin sighed a sigh of relief. He was too tired and the road ahead too long, to spend the afternoon trying to patch-up a disagreement between those two.

Vin stood and threw the coffee grounds out of his cup in a wet, brown arch and then pored himself another hot cup. Turing to the old cowboy, he held out the coffee pot and offered the man some more.

Rusty held up his cup and nodded his thanks.

"So…"Vin started in a soft conversational voice. "Where were ya planning on running off to last night, and how come ya didn’t go?"

Rusty looked up at him, shock in his eyes, before the veil came back down, "I wasn’t running last night. What makes ya think I was?"

"The footprints outside the saloon leading to the livery, that Buck and I both saw before the deputy hauled us off to jail," Vin reminded him.

"Oh, right. I told ya last night; I only went out for a breath of air. The saloon was stifling and I came back as soon as I saw JD was in trouble."

Vin looked the old man square in the eyes. They both knew he was lying, but that he was not about to admit it to the tracker.

"That night up in the mountains. If it had not been snowing so hard, you were going to make a run for it then too, weren’t ya?"

"I told ya, I was just answering the call of nature is all." Rusty turned his head away from the tracker. His shoulders slumped for a second, but straightened up when the cowboy drew a deep breath.

"Have you ever spent anytime in a prison?" he asked, turning back to meet Vin’s eyes again. "Men like me and you belong outdoors, not cooped up in a hell hole like I was for ten years. Especially for something I didn’t even do!"

Vin could read the desperation in the old cowboy. He wanted to tell him he knew exactly how he felt. That he too had a trumped up murder charge resting on his head, and that the only man who could clear him of the charge lay dead. He would like to be able to tell the old man that, but the fewer men who knew his circumstances the safer Vin was.

"I can imagine how it is for ya," Vin answered, trying to offer what sympathy and understanding he could. "But it won’t help ya to clear your name if ya run, and we have to hunt ya down. Makes you look guilty."

The words were out of Vin’s mouth, but he wondered at the sincerity of the statement. He was innocent of any wrong doing, and yet here he was on the run from the law too. Trouble was, the old man had already been convicted and Vin was not sure he was in the position to second-guess the judicial system in an unbiased manner.

Vin didn’t want to deal with this anymore than he wanted to deal with a duelling Buck and JD. Rising away from the campfire, he lifted his saddle blanket from the branch where he had left it to dry, "This ain’t my problem to deal with; my only job is to get you back to the prison. So get up and lets hit the trail."

+ + + + + + +

JD leaned forward and stroked Seven’s neck with a chilled hand. The little horse bobbed his head up and down as though agreeing with his rider about the frigid weather and tough going. The two of them had been taking turns with Vin to break trail, and it was their turn again. If the going had been easier, JD would have enjoyed this part of the ride. The country grew more wooded, rocky, and rugged as they climbed skyward, but the scenery was breathtaking with snow-covered pines as far as the eye could see; even the grey cloud cover had its own beauty. JD looked over his shoulder and saw his friends were still far below him riding along the trail in the gully, and he was mildly surprised at how far ahead of the others he had gotten. They still had several hundred feet to cover before they even reached the start of the ascending trail JD had made up the steep hill. Cueing Seven to a halt, JD allowed the horse to rest and get his breath back before he was asked to climb the rest of the way to the top. In fact, looking up at the ridge that rose above his head, the youth decided he might be smart to wait for the more experienced tracker to lead the way over the treacherous footing.

Normally JD would jump at the chance to challenge his skills as a rider, but he still felt the deep unsettling emotions of hanging off a cliff at the start of this trek all to clearly. If Rusty had not got behind him when he had, JD was sure he and his horse would have been going home with a whole lot of broken body parts. No, for once JD was going to heed his head and not be ruled by his impulsive heart. Pulling the toe of his sore leg out of the stirrup, JD rubbed his knee briefly before letting it just dangle against Seven’s side. Feeling grateful for the breather, JD scratched his horse’s neck and carried on a quiet monologue with the animal while he waited patiently for his friends.

Buck could feel Polecat start to hesitate under him as they reached the incline, but the man gave him a nudge with his spur and the big grey dug in into the snow and powered up the steep slope, right behind Peso. Up ahead he could see JD resting below a ridge. It seemed the young man was waiting for them. Buck had to grin to himself, seemed the kid was finally learning some smarts and was going to wait for experience to get them to the top of short, but steep incline.

Buck was just about to smugly point out that his teachings to the group’s youngest were finally paying off, when the crack of gunfire echoed down the valley, making the horses spook under them. Forgetting about his painful ribs, Vin leaped from Peso as the horse spun in a half circle, and flung himself behind the protection of a big boulder. He instantly had the safety off his mare leg, and was ready to fire if he saw a target.

Behind him, Buck vaulted from Polecat as the horse danced sideways out from under him and then he watched as the two horses bolted off down the hill and disappeared into the trees at the bottom. He hoped they didn’t get too far, this was not the kind of country a man wanted to be afoot in. He still had Mud’s leadrope in his hand, and was nearly yanked off his feet when the big, brown gelding made an attempt to follow after the other two horses.

Rusty was trying to get off the horse as another shot rang out, but the old horse decided to jump around, making dismounting more difficult for the stiff, arthritic cowboy. Buck yelled at the horse to stand still, and then struggled through the deep snow to reach the old man. Grabbing him by the back of his coat collar, Buck dragged him down from Mud’s back and then gave the old horse a slap on the rump to get out of their way, and the two men fell into the snow beside Vin.

"Did you see where the shot came from?" Buck asked Vin in a breathless voice, pulling his gun from its holster.

"Didn’t see a damn thing," The tracker answered, peaking over the edge of the rock. Above them, JD was still sitting on Seven, out in the open.

"JD…git down before ya get your hair parted by a bullet!" he hollered as another shot kicked up snow on the hillside to his left, forcing him back down behind the boulder.

+ + + + + + +

JD heard the unmistakable whump of lead striking soft flesh. Before he felt any sensation he knew he had been hit, the bullet shredding skin and muscle. Even through all his clothing, he could now feel blood trickle down his side and into his britches.

Shocked, he looked down at his friends as they scattered behind shelter. Vin’s voice reached him, but he still sat motionless on Seven’s back, paralysed by the unexpected attack.

With a short panting breath, he looked down at his side with unblinking eyes. With a shaking hand, he reached out and touched the hole in his coat. Pain roared through him when he made contact with the broken skin. He snapped his hand away and moaned when he saw the blood that dripped from between his fingertips.

More pain shot down his side when Seven suddenly reared up as another bullet hit the ledge above them, showering them with snow. JD fought to keep his horse under control on the sheer hillside with one hand wrapped around his reins and his other pushed against his wound. Another bullet hit the ground under the spooked horse’s feet and Seven reared again, twisting sideways in the air, almost unseating JD. Then another shot skidded across Seven’s rump and the little bay sucked down on his hindquarters and spun around so quick his back legs went out from under him and he started to slide down the hill backwards on his belly.

+ + + + + + +*

"Can you see anyone?" Buck asked Vin as they both searched the back and forth across the horizon for any sign of the shooter, or shooters. He could see nothing, but trees and a few rock formations that peaked out from under the mass of shimmering snow.

"Nothing but snow and than some more snow," Vin answered frustrated, while sneaking a peak over the top of the rock. "Damn it, JD, git down!" he hollered at the youngest again as snow kicked up on the ledge above the youth’s head from another bullet.

"What’s the matter with that damn boy?" Buck shook his head in nervous disgust as JD remained out in the open. "Sitting up there like one big target!"

"JD…you jackass!" Buck peaked over the top of the rock and yelled out to his young friend. "Would you get outta there?" Buck couldn’t figure out why the kid hadn’t at least dismounted and stood behind his horse for some protection. It wasn’t like him to freeze up in a gunfight. Make the wrong choice in how to fight, yes, but he had never froze up before.

Buck quickly rolled the chamber on his gun and made sure it was fully loaded. Beside him, Vin loaded two shots of lead into his rifle and set his pistol on a rock right in front of him for easy access.

"Give me a gun." Rusty sat with his back to the rock and watched the two men above him get set to fight. "I can shoot too."

"At us, or at them?" Buck asked sarcastically. "Forget it old man, just stay out of my way."

Above them they could now hear Seven clattering on the ledge as shots came close to the horse.

Vin and Buck both came up from behind the rock and started to shoot rounds off, trying to draw the fire to them and away from JD.

Vin ducked as snow flew past his head from a nearby shot, almost deafening him, but most of the shooting was directed at the ledge above them.

They still couldn’t tell which direction the shots were coming from, and much to their disgust, they were forced to waste ammunition shooting randomly.

Vin and Buck quit firing as silence settled over the valley. Then after a moment more shots followed, thundering and echoing down the gully. The men automatically ducked to the side.

Suddenly, over the sound of the gunfire, they heard a horse scream out in fear.

Buck felt a hand tighten around his chest at the sound. While Vin laid down more cover fire, Buck snuck his head up and saw an avalanche trail of snow come half way down the vertical hill, and at the bottom of it lay JD trapped under his horse.

+ + + + + + +

JD kept a tight grip on his reins, trying to hold Seven’s head down against his stomach so the little horse couldn’t get his feet under him, and get up. The fall took the wind right out of him; he didn’t need the horse stepping on him as well.

JD had lost track of where he was the second time the little bay rolled over him on the way down, and buried him like a snowball. For all JD knew they had landed right on top of the men who had been shooting at them. Not that he could do anything about it anyway, not with Seven laying on top of him.

He heard a weak moaning, and suddenly realized it was coming from him.

"Whoa, Seven!" he gasped as the horse tried again to regain his feet, kicking him in his sore knee as he did. "Please boy, whoa, don’t move!"

Everything started going hazy and he thought he was going to pass out, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to escape the pain for a few seconds, but the relief didn’t come and he was forced to hang on and wait for his friends.

+ + + + + + +

"What’s he doing?" Vin asked from his side of the rock. "What’s going on?"

"Bullets flying ever which way, and the damn fool’s playing in the snow!" Buck slapped the rock angrily with the palm of his hand as he watched JD and Seven somersault down the hill, sending big waves of snow in every direction.

"JD…!" Buck yelled up the bank at the youth, but he got no response. "You okay?"

"Why ain’t he up yet?" Rusty asked, peaking his nose around the rock to see where JD was.

"Hell if I know. He can’t be hurt all that bad. The snow’s got to be four feet deep, if it’s an inch." Buck suspected JD just didn’t want to get stepped on when he saw the youth holding on tight to his horse’s head, and not letting the animal regain his feet. Or maybe the blame fool was hoping the horse would give him ample protection from the shooters.

More shots ricocheted off the boulder making the men drop back down, but not before Buck saw snow kick up from bullets landing near JD and Seven.

‘Let go of the damn reins and get out of there, kid,’ Buck thought to himself. ‘What in tarnation is he thinking about?’

Unless he was hurt and not just playing possum, maybe a hoof had clipped him as they rolled through the snow.

"Damn it to hell!" Buck cursed, reloading again as fast as his cold fingers would let him. "Throw down some cover fire for me, Vin!"

"You want me to cover you?" Vin hissed, grabbing the back of Buck’s coat and pulling him back behind the rock. "Cover ya from who? I can’t see where the shots are coming from. How the hell am I supposed to cover ya?"

Vin let go of Buck, and peaked around the rock to see if he could tell how JD was doing, but he couldn’t tell anything from here, "Let’s find out where they are shooting at us from first and then I’ll cover ya all day if the need be, but I ain’t about to have you go down too!"

"JD could be hurt, Vin!" Buck started to stand again. "And he’s laying out there on that hill like a great big bulls-eye. You can stay here, but I gotta try to help him!"

"And maybe he ain’t hurt. Either way, you getting shot ain’t going to help…"

Buck shook a dismissive hand at Vin, and took a running step forward when Rusty kicked out a leg and tripped the tall man, sending him face first into the snow.

"Vin’s right," the cowboy leaned over Buck and talked to him in a quiet voice as though soothing a spooked horse. "Ain’t going to help the boy, if you get shot too."

Angrily, Buck pushed the old cowboy away from him, "Don’t you dare tell me what to do! For all I know, it’s your friends out there shooting at us!"

"It ain’t nobody I know," Rusty denied hotly. "I’m getting tired of telling you that!"

"Ya, right!" Buck said, trying to pull his feet out of the deep snow. Frustrated and getting scared for his young friend, Buck turned and hollered up the bank, "Hang on, JD! I’m coming for ya!"

Buck was one of the best and most loyal men Vin had ever had cover his back in a fight, but sometimes he was just plain aggravating when his heart got involved. Vin knew their best real chance of helping JD, or themselves, was finding the shooters. So he left Buck to Rusty’s care, hoping the old cowboy could handle him, and turned back to his vantage point on the rocks, "Wait…I see something!" Vin suddenly said at the same time pulling on the trigger. A scream ricocheted off the gully walls, and a shadow of a figure appeared to fall out of a tree to the left of them. Vin fired another shot, and another man came climbing down out of the tree in a hurry, firing shots wildly while racing away through the snow. Vin dropped his rifle and picking up his pistol, fired off several rounds at the retreating figures. A single shot was returned and then nothing for a few seconds.

"There!" Buck hollered as they saw five or six men melt out of the trees, mount the horses they had hidden further down in the gully, and gallop off as fast as the horses could carry them in the deep snow. Vin quickly reloaded his rifle as one of the riders stopped to pick up the wounded man, but they were out of range before the tracker could get another accurate shot away.

Buck instantly got back on his feet and scrambling through the snow, struggled up the slope towards his fallen friend.

"Come on!" Vin said to Rusty, helping the old man to his feet. Following in Buck’s track, they also worked their way up the steep hill with Vin keeping his rifle pointed to the tree line in case any more of their assailants were still hiding there.

+ + + + + + +*


Buck did a half run, half jumping gait as he plunged through the knee-deep snow up to where JD was lying.

Seven thrashed around when he heard the puffing man scramble up behind him, making JD cry out.

"Whoa Seven…easy boy," Buck crooned in a soft drawl to keep the horse from spooking further, and with a gentle hand stroked the horse on the top of his neck. "We’ll have you back on your feet in just a minute."

"Any time now would be nice," JD gasped out from under his horse.

"JD, you hurting bad, son?" Buck asked, his voice gruff but gentle, as he unwrapped the reins from the fallen youth’s hand and sank down into the snow beside JD.

"Ain’t nothing," a weak voice answered him.

"Yeah, you sound great," Buck was more than a little stunned at how weak JD sounded. He thought the kid might be winded from rolling down the incline with the horse, but he really hoped it would be minor. JD wasn’t the kind to stay down unless it was serious.

"Get that damn thousand pounds of horse flesh off his chest and he might be better able to carry on a conversation with ya, Buck," Vin said from behind.

"Kid hasn’t been able to carry on a sensible conversation since I met him, Vin. Don’t rightly suspect that will change any time soon just from a horse falling on him," Buck deadpanned, trying to use humour to hide the seriousness of the situation. Handing Seven’s reins to Vin, he started to wipe the melting snow off the young man’s face and eyes, while speaking in the same soothing voice he had just used on the horse. "Just lie steady, son. We’ll get this pony off of you and have you back on your feet in no time."

Rusty quickly moved around to the horse’s front legs and placed them on either side of JD’s legs, and then stood beside Buck. With a nod of his head at the other two men, Vin pulled up on the reins, and Seven rolled up to his side. Once on his side, the little horse scrambled to rise. As soon as he had most of his weight off of JD, Buck and Rusty heaved the small youth out from under the flailing horse’s feet.

Vin quickly led the horse away, so he could not accidentally step on any of them. Seven limped for a few steps, but seemed to come right out of it. Vin ran an experienced hand down the horse’s legs, but didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Vin figured all the snow saved the animal from any serious injury, so grabbing a handful of mane he swung a leg up.

"You best stay put with JD. I’m going to scout around and see if I can’t track them folks down a ways," Vin said as he pointed the small bay gelding down the incline. "I want to see just who the hell it was shooting at us!"

Buck nodded his agreement to the tracker just before JD sagged back down into the snow, dragging him down too.

Buck stared at the youth laying spread-eagle in the snow, "Come on now, kid. How bad can ya be hurt? Even if you did have your horse land on top of you, you were rolling through four feet of snow for god-sakes!"

"Buck…!" Rusty hissed out.

"You look like a snowman by the way, in case you were interested," Buck said brushing some snow away from the kid’s face and neck.

"Buck…!" Rusty repeated when Buck didn’t answer.

"Come on, JD. You best get up on to your own two feet, kid, cause there’s no way in hell I’m carry you down off this mountain!" Buck smiled down at JD.


"What do you want? I’m busy here!" Buck snapped and then he looked up to where Rusty was pointing and saw the bloodstained snow.

"Jeezus, kid!" Buck said trying to hide the panic that washed over him. "Where the heck are ya bleeding from? You’re covered head to tail in snow, I can’t see nothing!"

"I think I got shot, Buck," JD whispered back, grimacing as he spoke.

"You think you got shot!" Buck repeated in disbelief.

"Okay…I know I got shot," JD tried to grin at his friend, but could only muster a groan. "I don’t think it’s real bad though, just hurts like it is."

Buck looked at Vin’s retreating back down in the gully, but the tracker was already out of earshot, and then because he was not sure what else to do, he looked up at Rusty.

Seeing the blank look on the tall man’s face, Rusty shrugged his shoulders, "I seen a few bullet holes in my day, but I was the one left to doctoring livestock, never paid much mind to the human type. Left that up to others more qualified than me."

"But you’re an educated man." With JD lying there listening, Buck tried to keep his anxiety from showing as he talked to the old man. "You must have some idea what we should do!"

"I was a headmaster at a boy’s school." Rusty dropped down beside JD and started to undo the youth’s coat. "I taught reading, writing and arithmetic to a bunch of ten-year olds. We had inspiring doctors, but they got their medical training far from my little academic world."

Rusty pulled JD’s blooded shirt away from the waistband of his britches, and examined the small hole in the kid’s side. Another inch and the bullet would have gone right by or just winged him. As it was now, he had a bullet still buried in him.

"It doesn’t appear to be bleeding too badly," Rusty turned and told Buck. "I think he should be able to ride far enough to get help."

"I thought you said you didn’t know nothing about doctoring?" Buck said as he looked over the cowboy’s shoulder at the red, angry looking hole in his friend’s side.

"I patched up enough schoolyard brawls to know one of us had to see how bad it was. You are just too emotionally close too JD to think quick." Rusty answered while he removed his scarf from around his neck and placed it over the wound.

"Ahhh…!" JD gasped, and tried to squirm away from the pressure.

"Easy, son," Buck placed a comforting hand on JD’s forehead, and glared up from under his hat brim at the old man.

All Rusty could do was glare back.

JD opened his eyes and stared at the two angry men above him, "Would you guys stop it. Ain’t your faults I got shot. Just help get me up, and onto my horse. I’m fine!"

Buck hated feeling inept. He was usually pretty adapt at avoiding situations that he was didn’t think he was really competent of handling, like marriage, or any long-term relationships that didn’t involve male drinking buddies. He had been around lots of folks in his life that had been injured, or worse, but somehow with this man-child being the one hurt, it was different. He felt out of control and that scared him.

"Honest, Buck," JD said in a squeaky voice as he tried to rise up. "See, I’m fine…hardly hurts at all!"

Buck yanked his eyes away from Rusty and glared at the kid, "Would you just lay back down, you fool! Sitting there while folks were takin’ shots at you. What could you have been thinking about, better yet, what was I thinking about letting you come along in the first place? I should have my head examined!" Buck reached over and pulled the scarf away from JD. The bleeding did in fact look like it had nearly stopped, and Buck, after having a closer look, was sure it hadn’t hit anything vital in his abdomen. Nothing important, except JD, he corrected himself.

"You didn’t let me come, Vin and I let you come along with us," JD hissed out through clenched teeth.

"Just lie still would you, least till Vin gets back with the horses and we can get you out of here."

Buck pushed JD back to the ground, all the while ranting at the old cowboy for causing them to be out here in the middle of this godforsaken wilderness in the first place, and even taking a few more jabs at JD for not taking cover right away, bullet in his side or not.

Rusty sat without commenting. The venting seemed to be helping the tall man relieve his pressure, so the old cowboy decided to play it smart, keep his mouth shut, and just let Buck go at it.

JD was glad Buck had made him lie back down. He could feel himself becoming shaky and weakening, his head getting light from the pain. His skin felt clammy against his clothing, and he knew it was not all from the cold snow. Closing his eyes, he let his head sink back into the soft snow. He just needed a couple more minutes to rest and then he was sure weakness would pass. The sting in his side had moved past piercing and was now just throbbing, and he could handle that. He could hear Buck and Rusty talking on either side of him, but he didn’t want to bother listening to what they were saying, praying that if he just kept his eyes closed he might melt into a slumber.

"You don’t pass out on me, son! Damn if I am going to carry you!" Buck leaned over and whispered to JD in a husky voice.

He jumped when he felt the warmth of Buck’s coat being laid over him, and then Buck’s big hand settling on his chest to feel the rise and fall of his breathing. Then came a blissful darkness.


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