The Twilight Years

by Patricia

Part Eight (continued)
"How far did you have to go to catch up with the horses?" Buck asked Vin over his shoulder, while he settled JD onto his saddle.

"I trailed the shooters for about a mile before I had to break off and follow our horse’s tracks," Vin replied from the back of Peso. "Lucky for me, they ran a ways up a little coulee that was too steep to climb out of, and all three seemed happy to see Seven and me ride up."

"You manage to get a glimpse at who was shooting at us?" Buck asked.

"It could have been anyone. Maybe it was the Double D boys and those deputies from town. Or maybe even the convicts who escaped from the prison are coming back for old Rusty here. I didn’t get close enough to see."

Buck just nodded that he was listening to Vin while he worked on JD, "If you need us to stop or slow down some, you just let us know, okay son," Buck placed JD’s foot into his left stirrup as the youth sat on his horse, gripping his reins with one hand and his side with his other. At JD’s nod, Buck moved around to Seven’s other side and reached for the kid’s right boot.

"Just leave it out of the stirrup, Buck," JD told him in a tired voice. "My knee is still troubling me a tad."

Buck gave the kid’s knee an affectionate rub, then ducked under Seven’s neck and took Polecat’s reins from Vin’s extended hand.

"You got any idea how far we are from any help?" Buck stood with Peso between him and JD, and whispered quietly under his breath to the tracker. "You think he’ll be safe if we head back to Rudy’s?"

Vin drew his left heel back and had Peso swing his hindquarters around so his back was all that was exposed to the younger man, "It’s like I said, I ain’t sure where the hell we are. It could have been them cowboys from town shooting at us, or it could have been anyone else. Once I came across our horses I hightailed it back here to you."

"Would ya all stop whispering behind our backs," JD snapped. "Rusty and me can’t make out a word you’re saying."

"Rusty don’t need to hear a word we’re saying," Buck snapped back. He didn’t care a rat’s backside if the old cowboy could hear him or not. Then realizing he had just snarled unfairly at JD, he forced a grin and walked around to the other side of his grey gelding so JD could see his face again. "We’re just discussing the route easiest for you to ride."

"Well, if you have to discuss things that concern me, I’d be obliged if you’d say them loud enough I don’t have to strain myself to hear you." JD’s cheeks were inflamed with two red circles, though from anger or pain, Buck couldn’t tell.

"Sorry kid," Buck glanced over at Vin and saw that the tracker had noticed the red cheeks as well. The kid was in enough difficulty from the wound, they didn’t need him losing his emotional control about everything as well. "Vin was just saying it’s probably closer for us to backtrack to Kennedy City than it is to keep going ahead, but since we don’t know who was shooting at us, we ain’t sure which way would be the smartest to go. It could have been them Double D boys firing at us, so it might not be safe for us back there, or if Rudy would even be willing to put us up."

JD nodded his understanding as he hunched over his saddle horn, "We best keep going forwards then."

"That’s what we figured, kid," Vin reined Peso over beside JD. "I know you’re hurtin’, but we have a heck of a long ride in front of us still. We need ya to be tough, JD. Can ya do that?"

"Let’s stop talking and get riding," JD nudged his horse in the ribs, biting on his bottom lip to keep from groaning as the gelding fought his way through the snow drifts, and jarred his injured side. "I can ride as far as any of you have to."

"Okay, kid," Vin pushed ahead of JD’s horse and started to break trail again. "Buck, you and Rusty bring up the rear. And keep your eyes peeled for more trouble. I suspect them men will be coming at us again!"

+ + + + + + +

Buck was having a hard time keeping his eyes peeled for trouble and keeping his eyes on the youth riding in front of him. He had a real paternal fondness for the young man. Strong feelings that he was not sure he wanted the responsibility of, but could not escape from.

Sometimes the kid was wilder than a green-broke colt and hard to put a handle on, but so were he and Chris when they were JD’s age. Come to think of it, Buck figured they were probably way worse, but then they hadn’t had six other men to show them the way like JD did. At least Buck thought of it as being shown the ropes by wiser, more experienced men. JD would argue that he was just being kept around to provide cheap child labour and entertainment most of the time.

The kid had a brain full of wheels and gears that just never stooped turning. Buck’s moustache twitched, as a smile creeped onto his face while he thought back to the many battles the kid had with the other six men when chore lists were handed out. The kid never scrimped on doing his duties, but he didn’t except every task one of the seven presented before him quietly either. Much snorting and bellowing could be heard as JD, and usually Buck, went toe-to-toe over the repetition of jobs handed down to the youngest member of the group. Buck could count the numerous times he stood with his hands on his hips, hunched forward with his face inches from JD’s, and let roar that JD was in fact going to do what he was told. Only to have the kid stand up on his toes so that they were almost eye to eye, and roar back at Buck to make him. Damn kid was on the smallish size, but had more steel in his spine than any three grown men, and that gumption was all that was keeping him from falling out of his saddle right now.

+ + + + + + +

Large snowflakes drifted down out of the pale grey winter sky, obscuring the mountains from their view with a sheet of white.

Vin reached forward and gave his gelding an encouraging pat on his damp neck. The horse’s black coat was again covered in sweat and puffs of white steam shot out of his nostrils as he struggled through the deep drifts.

Pulling up, Vin gripped his hand across his ribs for support and gingerly stepped off his horse’s back. Sinking up to his waist in the snow, he threw his saddle-fender over the top of his saddle and loosened off his cinch, making it easier for Peso to get his breath back. Vin felt like hell, so he could well imagine how bad the kid was feeling about now. Rolling his shoulders and neck, he tried to stretch out his knotted back muscles. It was bad enough riding on hard saddles the distance they had to travel, through worse than ideal conditions, but he could have really done without the barroom brawl last night. Seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but he was really paying the price for it now. Out of reflex he reached up to tighten the missing scarf that had been around his ears. Only good thing about the frigid wind that was blowing down on him was the cold air froze the skin on his face so he could no longer feel the bruises or cuts.

Vin turned and looked at the horse and rider that stopped behind him. JD was ashen grey with pain and soaked with sweat from the effort of staying mounted. The youth had crossed his reins over Seven’s neck a ways back and he was riding with his two hands gripped tightly to the saddle horn. He seemed to be swaying in rhythm with Seven’s stride even through the horse was no longer moving. Vin could just make out the red of his scarf through the buttonholes in JD’s coat. They had used it to bind their bandanas over the bullet wound in place of bandages.

Vin thought about trudging through the snow to check on JD, but before he could the youth finally seemed to notice he wasn’t moving any more.

"What’re stopping for, Vin?" JD asked through chattering teeth. "Just keep moving."

Buck and Rusty had caught up to them, and Buck nodded at Vin to keep going. The temperature was dropping lower with every hour they rode and the snow was now coming down around them in a heavier, swirling blanket. They had to find some kind of heated shelter or they were all going to freeze to death. They had all been in good shape the first couple of nights they had to camp out in the cold, but none of them were in any condition to be setting up a cold camp tonight, even if JD hadn’t been shot.

"Sorry, old boy," Vin said turning back to his horse and tightening the cinch up, "But we gotta ride."

+ + + + + + +

The dark grey clouds were turning the day to black even though dusk had a ways to go before starting to set in. Vin had a hard time seeing where he was going through the thick falling snow. He was sure he was still going in the right direction of the prison, but he had no idea how far they were from it. It could be right over the next ridge, or for all he knew; it could be forty miles away. He had lost track of distance a long ways back. The second day out was probably the last time he had any idea just where the heck they were.

Poor Peso was lathered from head to tail and stumbling with fatigue nearly every step he took. Neither the animals nor the men would be able to go much further. Vin pulled the horse to a halt and contemplated making camp here with what little energy they had left, or whether he should push on. All around him, he saw nothing but snow, mountains, and snow-covered trees. The best they could do was to dig a snow cave and huddle together for warmth.

His gut instinct told him to keep them moving.

Vin spun Peso around and rode back to Buck, "We’re losing light fast, and I don’t have a clue where the hell we are. I ain’t sure if we should dig in for the night or keep riding. You got any opinions ya want to part with?"

Buck dropped his reins on Polecat’s neck and blew on his chilled hands. Like Vin, he knew if they didn’t stop soon to dig in, they wouldn’t have the strength to get themselves, or their mounts through the night. JD was in trouble no matter which choice they made. Buck muttered a curse under his breath and then snuck a troubled look at the youth sitting hunched over his saddle, "Damn Vin, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if the kid will be able to ride much further, but I doubt he will last out here much longer either."

"Why did this happen to him?" Buck slapped his saddlehorn angrily. "If I say we stop, he could die, but if I say we stay riding, he could die. I don’t know the answer!"

"Easy, pard," Vin said in a soothing voice. "I ain’t asking ya to make the decision, just for an opinion."

"You boys see something back of us?" Rusty suddenly asked, pointing behind them.

"We weren’t asking for your opinion, old rooster," Buck snapped over his shoulder at the cowboy." You just sit there and keep your damn mouth closed and your thoughts to yourself. We wouldn’t be in this mess and JD wouldn’t have gotten himself shot if not for you. So you just shut up!"

"You think we can keep JD warm enough to last the night or keep him from bleeding to death?" Buck turned back to Vin, his eyes brimming with uncertainty. "And then even if he makes it through the night, how is he going to ride again tomorrow?"

"Boys…" Rusty cut in.

"Shut up!" Vin and Buck snapped in unison at the old man.

"The best I can tell ya is I’ll die trying to keep him alive," Vin answered, knowing that was not what Buck wanted to hear, but he wasn’t about to make a promise that he didn’t know he could keep.

"Damn…" Buck muttered again.

"Buck, we ain’t even had a real good look at the wound," Vin put a soothing hand on Buck’s shoulder. "It might not be as bad as you think."

"Ah…boys?" Rusty spurred Mud between their two horses. "We got company coming up hard!"

Vin and Buck whipped around in their saddles, but didn’t see anything.

"Look here, rooster," Buck reached up, and grabbed the cowboy by his coat label and shook him, "One more word comes out of your mouth and I am going to shoot you on the spot and let JD use your body for a blanket until the last bit of your body heat disappears!"

Rusty just shook his head in disgust at Buck, before he twisted away from Buck’s grip, "Wait for them."

"Damn, he’s right, Buck," Vin pointed to the tree line to his right. "Riders, looks like some of the same ones that was shooting at us. I count four…no wait. Oh hell, I see at least eight riders with em now! We gotta get out of here!"

Vin pushed his tired horse up beside JD and reaching over grabbed the reins and pulled the little bay to a halt. JD turned and looked at him through bleary eyes.

"What…why ya stop me?" JD nudged his horse on. "Can’t stop, Vin. If I do I’m afraid I won’t be able to start again. Just gotta keep riding…"

"JD, ya gotta wait for me," Vin said pulling the horses up again and stepping off Peso. He placed a hand on JD’s thigh and got the kid to look at him. "I know you ain’t feeling your best, but we have some of the same trouble coming up behind us, excepting there’s more of them this time. So you’re going to have to do some hard riding in a minute, you think you can keep up with us?"

Vin saw the look of despair that flashed uncontrolled across the young man’s face, only to be replaced with grim determination a second later, "Yeah, I’ll keep up to ya. You see if I don’t!" JD nodded as vigorously as he could.

"Vin…they’ll be in rifle range in another minute," Buck hissed out, as he rode up and placed Polecat and Mud in front of the other two men for cover.

Vin reached over and pulled his lariat from his saddle. With deft hands, he ran it under Seven’s belly, around JD’s legs and up over the youths thighs before tying it off to the saddle horn.

"This’ll keep ya in the saddle and Seven will follow our horses, so you just have to hang on, okay?" Vin gave the kid a slap on the leg and then vaulted back on to Peso.

"Buck, I’m breaking trail. You ride drag and shoot anyone who gets to close to us," Vin yelled over to his tall friend as he spun his gelding around on his haunches and put a light spur against the black hide.

"With pleasure!" Buck drew his pistol out of his holster and then snapped the leadrope off Rusty’s horse and the handcuffs off the cowboy’s wrist’s. "You ride in front of me and keep an eye on JD. If he so much as gets a scratch, or you try running for it, I will shoot you down without a moments thought. I promise you that, old man!"

Rusty pretended not to hear Buck, instead he rode up and pulled the reins from Seven’s neck and threaded them through fingers, "Hang on, kid. It’s going to be a bumpy ride."

+ + + + + + +

All he could hear was the roaring breath of the horses as they lunged through the deep snow. He felt every jar and jolt, every stumble his horse took through the deep snow with every part of his body and soul. JD didn’t know how much longer he was going to be able to stay conscious. The tight grip he had on the saddlehorn with both hands was starting to slacken. The sweat he had worked up had turned the inside of his longjohns damp and clammy, and a cold chill ran down his spine and into his legs and feet, making them throb. The fine biting snow kicked up by Mud’s hooves in front of him, whistled across his exposed skin, the cold prickling like a million pins on his face. He wanted to grab his side and hold his palm against the ugly wound, but he was afraid if he let go with one hand from the horn he would fall from his horse. Afraid that Vin’s rope job would not hold him on and he would have to try to defend himself in the snow against the men who were chasing them down. Or worse, Buck and Vin would try to protect him and get killed. JD clasped his eyelids together tightly, ignoring the tears of pain that escaped to run down his cheeks, and grabbed the saddlehorn with all his strength and put all his resolve into staying upright and mounted.

+ + + + + + +

Vin snatched back hard on his reins to keep Peso’s head from plummeting into the snow drift, at the same time booting the black hard in the side to keep him up and running. Foamy lather flew off his hide and fell to blend in with the snow. Guilt tore at Vin as he pushed the tired animal on. If he didn’t lame him permanently, he was going to break his horse’s wind from the frigid air that the game black was trying to draw in, turning his nostrils a deep, burned red.

Behind him, he could hear Buck shoot off a round, and return fire coming back at them, but so far they had managed to keep out of range of the rifles, but while not losing ground to the men behind them, they were not gaining ground either. And he was going to kill his horse if he pushed much further. Ahead of him, he spotted a small valley. He didn’t have a clue what lay at the end of it, but he hoped it would offer them enough shelter to make a stand. Reining sharply to the right, he turned Peso and spurred the horse down the middle of it.

Behind him he could hear Buck yelling out encouragement to JD. It sounded like the kid had nearly come off his horse at the sudden direction change. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Rusty slow up some and JD grab a handful of mane to keep from tumbling off. Once JD was solid again, the old cowboy put the two horses back into a gallop and followed Vin up the valley.

In spite of the circumstances, the sound of hooves striking the winter hardened earth, the creak of saddle leather, and the rush of wind against his face, filled Rusty heart in a song that swelled over him. Just one last time before a prison cell was closed on him, locking him away from the wide-open sky maybe forever, he wanted to savoir this feeling. If a bullet managed to find him, ending his life, at this moment he would die a happy man.

The sides of the valley narrowed through a little pass. Vin kept the lope, but let his horse pick his own route through the twisting path. Vin started to doubt the wisdom of coming this way, the walls were far too steep for them to climb out and he saw no shelter to hide behind. From behind him, he could hear more gunshots. He hoped like crazy that Buck was able to stay far enough away from the trailing men that he didn’t take a bullet.

Again Peso stumbled and almost went down to his knees.

"Vin…"Rusty’s breathless voice sounded out, "Vin slow up…I think they stopped chasing us."

Cautiously Vin took his legs off Peso’s side and the exhausted animal almost came to a complete halt. Vin squeezed his legs lightly and the tired black started forward in a stumbling walk. Behind him, he could hear Rusty talking to JD as they also dropped to a walk, and then the sound of Polecat slowing as well. Vin checked over his shoulder again. Buck was watching behind them too. When he finally faced forward, he gave Vin a confused look and shook his head to indicate he couldn’t see anyone chasing them.

The narrow pass was somewhat sheltered from the elements, so there wasn’t as much of the powdery snow on the ground for the horses to tend with. Peso’s heaving sides started to even out and his blowing breath slowed down.

Vin scanned the ridge above them for sight of the men, but saw nothing. Men don’t come at you hard twice, and then just back off out of the blue for no reason. Vin looked behind them again, and saw nothing suspicious, but still the hair stood up on the back of his neck. He didn’t like this.

He could make out Buck talking to JD in a quiet voice. The kid didn’t sound strong, but he was at least still conscious.

After checking on JD verbally, Buck quickly alternated between reloading his pistol and watching their backs from over his broad shoulders. The silver on his bridle jingled as his big grey tossed his head up and down and tugged on the bit. Buck shushed the horse to keep quiet, but Polecat just kept tugging and then started snorting and dancing sideways.

"Knock it off, ya big jughead," Buck hissed at the horse and gave him a little yank with the reins. "Everyone else is completely done for and you wanna keep racing. What the heck’s gotten into you?"

"Buck…"Vin suddenly whispered back at him. "Git yourself up here!"

Buck nudged his gelding up beside JD, and laid a hand lightly on the back of the kid’s neck as they walked along side-by-side, "You’re doing good, kid, real good. Just hang on a little further and we’ll get ya comfortable, I promise you that."

Under his hand he felt JD give a slight shake that he heard, but most of his concentration seemed to be on just staying mounted and not Buck’s words.

"Good boy!" Buck gave his hair a ruffle before he rode past the youth and caught up with Vin.

"What you got?" He asked Vin in a soft tone, as he also scanned the ridge above for a sign of trouble.

Vin pointed ahead and Buck looked to see that the pass suddenly opened wide in front of them. Both men now had their guns drawn and guardedly made there way out into the open.

They slid across a frozen creek and came out in a huge open meadow.

A big relieved smile broke out on Buck’s face.

Before them was a wide valley. One side looked like they might be hay fields buried under piles of snow, and up against the base of a mountain on the other side, sat a big log cabin and barn surrounded by corrals filled with mixed-breed cattle and horses. From the cabin, a veil of blue smoke drifted out of a rock chimney.

"I told you we’d find a warm place for you to bed down in tonight, JD." Buck turned excitedly to look at the two riding up behind them. "Lets get you down off that old plug, and onto a soft bed."

"Hold up, Buck." Vin grabbed Buck’s sleeve before the man could start riding up to the house. "You don’t know who lives here. What if it’s the pecker-heads who have been trying to kill us? We gotta check this out first."

"No, we gotta get that bullet out of JD somehow!" Buck hissed back. "If this was their place, why did they stop chasing us?"

"I don’t know, but riding in there bright as day could get us all dead too!" Vin looked over at the angry mask that covered Buck’s face. "Alright…but keep your guard up. I didn’t come this far just to get shot here."

The four men slowly made their way towards the cabin. A pair of grey Percheron draft horses nickered as they rode past their corral, and a small herd of light riding horses raced up and down the board fence on the other side.

A big red-boned hound dog came ambling out of the barn and barked at them twice, before flopping down on a pile of straw, and watching them ride by.

Rusty let out an amused snicker at the dog, "Good watch dog that. Knows just the right amount of energy to expand on a given job."

As they got closer, they could see the cabin was made out of hand-hewned ponderosa pine logs. A big veranda, with a twig bench on one side and a rocking chair on the other end, ran the whole front length of the building. They could see the gathering darkness in the reflection of glass windows that were hidden behind wooden shutters. Icicles hung from the roof all the way to the ground on both front corners.

Except for the smoke, the cabin looked quiet and deserted.

Pulling up in front of the porch, the four sat on their horses in a row.

"Hello the house," Vin cautiously yelled out, and hoped if the bad guys were living here, they would shoot Buck first for being so stupid as to talk them into riding straight in.

They heard nothing but the howling wind.

"Don’t sound like no ones home," Buck whispered to Vin, though why he was whispering, he was not sure. "Lets get JD inside and out of the cold."

Vin held up a hand to Buck and yelled out again, "Anybody home. We need some help out here."

Suddenly they heard a board being lifted from the inside of the door and a red flannelled shirt appeared holding a double- barrelled shotgun. "Whatever ya want, take it some place else," Came a scratchy voice. "You ain’t welcome here now or ever. I’m going to count to three and when I get to it if you ain’t passing back by them horse corrals, your backsides will be full of buckshot. Now git!"

"Wait a minute…"Vin held up his empty palm for the person inside the house to see. "Look, please we got a wounded man here that needs help bad. He ain’t going to make it much further."

"Sorry to hear that, but I don’t care. Now git!" The sound of the hammer being cocked echoed loudly from the front door. "One…"

All of a sudden, Buck vaulted from his horse and hit the door with a resounding thud. The person on the other side of the door ended up squished between the wall and the door.

"Damn you to hell!" came an angry shout from behind the door, and the tip of the rifle reappeared.

"Where we come from…"Buck casually reached over from his side of the door and put a finger against the rifle muzzle, pushing it in a safe direction, "we don’t point a gun at a man unless we plan on shooting him. It ain’t considered good manners!"

"Now mister…we don’t mean no disrespect, but we told you we have a wounded man with us that needs tending. It ain’t very neighbourly of you to send us packing," Buck said as he pulled the door open.

"Working for the scum that you are! Don’t you dare give me lectures on being neighbourly!" With a start, Buck stepped back as an older woman dressed in men’s overalls and a red flannel shirt stepped out from behind the door.

Her eyes were flashing specks of faded grey, and the face was weathered to the texture of old leather from a lot years spent on this earth, most of it outdoors. The thick, white braid that ran the full length of her back was tied with a leather thong. She looked square on at the four men before her with mistrust and something deeper than dislike, but she didn’t so much as flinch as they stared back at her.

Buck raised an eyebrow in surprise.

"Why, you’re a women," Buck said with a happy lilt in his voice and a hint of a smile lifting the corner of his mouth. Now they would be able to get somewhere. Buck could charm the garters off them all, regardless of age, race or religion.

"Well, ain’t your haywagon just filled to the top with bales," She answered sarcastically. "Your boss-men forget to mention that part to you?"

"Lady, I don’t know who these boss-men are that you keep talking about," Buck gave her another smile that turned out not to be worth the effort. He quickly decided charm was not going to work with her. "My friend is hurt bad and all this jabbering ain’t getting him fixed up in any hurry. Now get out of the way so we can bring him in!"

"You ain’t setting foot in my home…take him back to your boss’s place!"

"Look lady, you’re starting to rile me…"

"I don’t want you in here!" She put both her hands on Buck’s back, catching him unawares, and pushed him roughly out of the cabin with surprising strength. "You can take him to the barn then. That’s the best I’m going to offer you." She said as she slammed close the door and slide the bar back in place.

"No…!" Buck screamed, hitting the door with all his might, but she got the bar in place faster than the chilled Buck could get his body to respond to the situation.

"Lady, you open this door right now or I’ll blow the damn thing right off the hinges!" Buck screamed at the door again.

Suddenly a small slot opened up in the door and the end of the rifle appeared again, "And I warned you I’d shoot on three. One, two, three!" She shouted and pulled back on the trigger.

The horses all reared, JD hollered out in pain and Buck dove for cover behind the bench. Inside the cabin they could hear her reloading the shotgun while they got the horses back under control.

"Buck…!" JD cried out as he wrapped an arm tightly over his stomach. "Please…I can’t stand anymore. Just help me to the barn…please!"

"Damn it!" Buck spit out." Okay lady, stop shooting. I’m coming out. We’re taking him to the barn."

"I take that offer back," She hollered out. "Git the hell off my property!"

"Come on, lady," Vin shouted out while he fought to keep both Peso and Polecat under control. "Can’t ya see he’s hurt?"

"Ain’t my problem and I ain’t about to make it mine," She hollered back through the closed door. "I’m counting again, one…"

"Okay, okay. At least let me get off the porch!" Buck put both his empty hands up in the air for the lady to see and jumped from the top step to the ground in a single leap. Mumbling under his breath he reached to take Polecat’s reins from Vin, "We’ll take JD around back behind the barn, and then you find a way to get back inside the house," Buck whispered under his breath to Vin.

Buck sidled up to Seven and taking the reins from Rusty, turned the horses back the way they had just come.

"Okay, lady," Buck barked back at her. "Have it your way, we’re pulling out!"

JD cried out again as the movement of the horse jostled his side. He let go of the horn and grabbed his side with both hands, Vin’s rope the only thing keeping him from falling face-first off the horse.

"I can’t, Buck, I can’t go no further," the kid hissed through pain clenched teeth. "I want down…please…get me down."

Buck and Vin instantly jumped from their mounts and raced to JD’s side.

"Easy, kid," Vin said as he started to undo the rope that kept the youth attached to his horse.

"Oh god, Buck!" JD said as he slid from the horse and landed on his feet between his two friends. He would have gone to his knees if they hadn’t caught him. "It’s really starting to hurt!"

"I know, JD," Buck said, grabbing the young man under his armpits to keep him on his feet.

"Now we got him down, where’re we going to take him?" Vin asked as JD sank weakly against Buck’s chest.

"Git back up on them horses, and git off my property," the lady yelled again, and sent another blast of buckshot into the snow at their feet. "I ain’t falling for your game!"

Buck had to let go of JD to hang on to the reins of the two rearing horses.

JD cried out again as he fell onto his hands and knees.

"What the hell is the matter with you lady?" Vin yelled at the cabin, while he tried to help JD regain his feet. "Don’t ya have any compassion?"

"I lost my compassion when you buggers drove my brother to his death," she screeched back.

"Ma’am…" Rusty turned Mud back to the house and rode up to the porch steps. "I don’t know who these men are you keep referring to, but please rest assured they don’t ride for him. This young man is hurt and he can’t go any further."

The three men stared hopefully at the cabin door, but the only sound they heard was JD’s choking breath.

"I’m starting to count again," She said yelled out again, unmoved. "One…"

"You’re heartless, lady," Buck spat out, while pulling JD back to his feet.

"No…I can’t, Buck," JD sputtered out in a pitiful, pain wracked voice and sank back into the snow. "Please…"

The pain and hopelessness in JD’s voice tugged hard at Buck.

It tugged at someone else too. The cabin door eased open and the woman came tentatively out onto the porch. Slowly she walked to the veranda railing, her rifle still pointed at them, and looked over at the small form hanging by his arms between his two friends. Scruffy long, dark hair hung down over his features, but the voice she had suddenly realized was young, much younger than the men they usually had show up onto her ranch to harass her. She gasped and took a small step back when the hair fell away to reveal a boy’s face.

"Why, he’s barely more than a child!" She said in surprise to the old cowboy who was still mounted.

"I know," Rusty answered in his soft drawl.

"When did they start hiring children?" She asked in disgust, and then took a second look back up at Rusty. "Or old men for that matter?"

"Lady, we all ready told ya, we don’t work…" Vin started to say.

"I know, you don’t work for them, says you!" The old woman pushed the door wider with her foot. "I know I’m opening my den to the devil, but you best bring him on in here."

"Thank you, ma’am, for the hospitality." Rusty touched his fingertip to his hat brim.

Gratefully, with an arm under each of his, Vin and Buck helped JD up the steps and into the cabin with JD’s feet dragging across the porch with little thumps.

The first thing that hit them was the glorious warmth from the fireplace; the second thing was the smell of simmering stew and fresh baked bread.

JD gulped a couple of times to slow down the rise of nausea he felt coming up his throat at the smell of food.

The cabin was a good size, with two rooms partitioned off from the main room. The cabin was chinked together with logs, mud and moss. The floor was made up of ten-inch logs split through the middle and laid flush with each other. Someone had sanded and polished it with linseed oil until it was shiny enough to waltz on.

Buck and Vin scanned the room, trying to decide the best place for JD, but the lady followed them in and pointed to a woven rug on the floor by the rock fireplace.

"It’s getting too dark to see in the back room, besides I can never get it warm back there," She said as she started to gather supplies together, and then noticed the men had not moved. "Well, you waiting for a fancy invitation or something…lay him down!"

Buck and Vin jumped at her command, and slowly lowered the moaning youth to the floor.

Buck started to pull the wet outer clothing off JD. Strange as it seemed, the heat from the fire seemed to make the young man shiver even more than he had out in the snowstorm, but Buck figured it was shock finally hitting him now that he didn’t have to worry about staying on his horse. Dry blood saturated his sopping wet shirt and the bandana’s they had wrapped around the wound. JD gasped and grabbed at Buck’s hands when the man tried to pull it away from his skin.

Buck paused in the middle of the job to let the kid rest from the ordeal and so he could study JD’s features. With a cold hand, he reached out and pushed the long, wet bangs away from the kid’s eyes. The bruises and cuts from last night stood out vibrantly on his ashen face.

"Spare blankets are in the chest at the end of the bed in that room," the lady’s voice behind him brought him back to the present. He started to rise, but then realized she was talking to Vin.

"You…" She snapped at Buck when she noticed him about to get up. "You get back outside and haul me in some more firewood, and git a pail of water from the creek while you’re at it."

Buck tore his eyes away from JD to look at the lady. Her no nonsense scowl had Buck leaping to his feet to do her bidding. JD was going to have to be on his own for a few minutes, but Buck figured the lady would keep a close eye on him and Vin was just in the next room looking for blankets.

Rusty kicked his foot out of his right stirrup and stiffly stepped off Mud. His gimped knees creaking as loud as the wooden steps he was climbing, he made his way towards the cabin, only to be shoved aside by Buck.

"Get out of my way, ya damn old rooster!" Buck said as he rushed out of the cabin and slammed shoulder to shoulder with the cowboy, nearly knocking the older man back down the steps.

Grunting, Rusty rubbed his stiff knees before he could straightened up again, and then turned his head to watch Buck race over to the woodpile as fast as his long legs would take him in the snow. He contemplated going over and helping, but figured by the time he made it that far, Buck would be back at the cabin. Instead he opened the door and stood leaning up against the door-jam watching the lady bustled around the room. Rusty felt an instant admiration for the old girl; she was pioneer stock through and through. If he had to hazard a guess, he figured she fell somewhere in between five to ten years younger than him. She was still slim of figure, and moved well, but her shoulders had a slight hump to them, the kind that is brought on by years of hard laborious work. Her hands were rough and calloused and her short nails had some chips in them, but they were clean, just like the cabin.

"Sit and stop blocking my door," She snapped at him. "Close the dang thing before you let all the heat out, or maybe you were born in a barn? You all ride in here making a big fuss about the boy being hurt, and then you stand there in a senseless daze and let the wind howl across him! And I don’t suppose you are going to volunteer to go out and find me more firewood after I burn most of my supply keeping you all heated?"

With a start, Rusty stopped staring at the woman and speechlessly, moved into the cabin, closing the door firmly behind him. "We sure do appreciate this, ma’am." he finally sputtered out, and stuck his hand out towards her.

The woman looked at the extended hand and for a second, Rusty thought she was going to ignore it, but then she reached over and offered her hand in a solid shake.

Her calloused hand felt cool in his grasp, but capable and sure. He drew his eyes up to meet hers. They were a deep shade of grey, like thunderclouds gathered on the horizon.

With a start, he released her hand and backed away. There were two wooden chairs pushed under an old slat table, so Rusty pulled one of them out and sat down. He figured he was best out of the way here.

"What in tarnation happened to them boys anyways?" she asked curtly.

Rusty blinked at the woman in confusion until he realized she was talking about the collection of bruises that were evident on the men’s faces.

"Oh, just a small barroom brawl," Rusty told her, "but it weren’t their fault."

"Uh uh, it never is!" She answered back, unconvinced.


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