The Twilight Years

by Patricia

Part Eight (continued)
Feeling dizzy and slightly disoriented, JD lay on his narrow bedroll, stripped of his damp clothes to expose his wound.

"We gotta get the bullet out of ya, kid." With light from the fireplace on one side of them and an oil lantern overhead, Vin sat on the floor leaning over JD, prodding at the raw wound in the kid’s side.

JD weakly swatted at Vin’s hands, "Ow…would ya stop? I was hardly hurtin’ at all, until you started poking at me."

"Hush up and let Vin alone, kid. He isn’t getting any pleasure from the task." Buck sat at JD’s head and wiped the glistening sweat from his forehead with a cool cloth. "But it’s got to get done. How many bullets have you ever dug out of a man, Vin?"

"I ain’t no Nathan, but I’ve removed a few," answered Vin, trying to sound more confident then he felt. This was the last thing he wanted to be trying, but Buck was too shaken to be responsible for digging in the kid’s hide with a knife. With all six of the other men Buck wore his emotions on his sleeve, out in the wide-open space for all to see, but somehow his feeling ran even deeper for the kid. Vin couldn’t ask Buck to do what he didn’t want to do himself, not to the kid anyways. He talked briefly to Rusty to see if he had any doctoring experience, but the old man said he had never pulled a bullet out of anything that didn’t moo, baa, or nicker at him.

That left him to do the task. Vin thankfully finished examining the wound and sat up.

JD had finally stopped shivering after they had wrestled him out of his damp clothing and wrapped him up in several blankets, but his skin shimmered with sweat. Vin had pushed the blankets away just far enough that he could peel the makeshift bandage off JD’s side and examine the gunshot. The bullet had just made a small hole, but the skin around the wound was red and inflamed, and covered in caked-on dry blood.

"See, it ain’t so bad," JD said in a wispy voice, "It isn’t going to kill me. I can wait until we get to a doctor, or back to Nathan."

Vin put a reassuring hand on JD’s arm, "You’re right, kid, it ain’t going to kill ya, but you’ll feel a whole lot better if we get it out of ya. Besides, I think you might be getting an infection in it. Looks like ya got some material from your coat or shirt up inside there that’s irritating ya."

"Just clean it out then," JD told him.

"JD…you scared I can’t get this out of ya or something, because I can. Heck I’ve treated worse shavin’ injuries than this!" Vin tried to grin as he ran his hand through his hair in a tired gesture. Sitting on the hard floor wasn’t doing his aching ribs any darn good, but he figured JD was hurting worse. If he could get the bullet out, they could all get some rest and feel better.

‘It’s not that, Vin. I just don’t want you guys to feel bad about cutting into me. I can hold out longer, so you won’t have to do this."

Buck listened to Vin and JD talk without interrupting, but now found his voice, "JD, son. You’re right about neither of us wanting to cut into you, but like Vin said, you ain’t about to die, but you are going to get a whole lot sicker if we don’t get that lead out of you. You just concentrate on getting well, and let Vin and me worry about how we feel, okay? Besides, how are we going to get Rusty back to prison if you aren’t up to riding?"

"I got you, Buck. You went and fell for that part of my plan. I got shot on purpose, just to slow us down getting Rusty back to prison." JD tried to smile though his pain at Buck. "I just wasn’t figuring on it hurting this much."

JD closed his eyes and wished the pain would just go away. They were right, he could feel himself getting weaker and dizzier with each passing moment. There was no way he would be able to ride another foot, let alone get all the way back to Four Corners, and into Nathan’s care. He knew instinctively that Buck and Vin cared deeply about him, and they wouldn’t put him or themselves through this if it was not absolutely necessary.

Putting all his trust into the two men he rode with, JD sighed a resigned sigh and gave his head a nod to go ahead.

"Then let’s get it done. Here JD, take a swig on this." JD felt Buck put something cool against his lips. JD opened his eyes and saw Buck holding a flask of whiskey to his mouth. "It’ll help dull the pain."

The smell of the liquor churned JD’s stomach, but still Buck tipped the bottle up and started pouring it into his mouth, forcing him to swallow to avoid drowning. Whiskey splashed on Buck as JD sputtered and chocked on the burning fluid, "Whoa there, son! Going to have to start hoisting a cup with you more often when you’re feeling better, so’s you learn to drink it like a man! Right now you’re just wasting most of it."

Buck put the bottle on the floor and held on tightly to JD as he coughed and tried to roll up into a ball, "I got you, kid. Hang on, I know it hurts!"

Buck looked up into Vin’s sympathetic blue eyes. Buck took a deep breath and then looked down at the knife Vin held in his hands. Then like JD, he let out a resigned sigh and asked Vin what they needed to do to get started.

"Rusty, get over here," Vin said to the old man still sitting at the table. "I need ya to hold JD’s feet. Buck you hold on tight to his arms, and no matter what happens, don’t let go. You got that!"

"What’s going to happen?" JD suddenly asked, as his hazel eyes teared up from the whiskey he was choking on. Reaching up, he gripped Vin’s wrist in a weak grasp. "What do ya mean they can’t let go of me, why do they have to hold me?"

"I can’t have ya moving around, JD, that’s all." Vin cussed silently to himself. Why did he always seem to get himself into these unasked for situations? When Chris had asked him to take on this assignment, why hadn’t he gone with his first gut reaction and said no.

"Take a breath, kid." Vin thought he would try to calm them all down, including himself, by talking in a neutral collected manner, but it wasn’t working real well, at least not for him. To disguise his shaking hand he opened and closed his grip on the knife, and then when that didn’t seem to make a difference he tried gripping it looser, then tighter. Finally he held his left hand out to Buck and pointed at the bottle sitting by the tall man, "I think I need me a shot of that whiskey, Buck!"

Vin took a deep swig from the bottle and swallowed it in a single gulp, and then poured some of the whiskey over the knife blade before setting it back on the floor beside him. It was when he put it down that he realized JD had not taken his eyes off the knife. Vin looked down at his hand and saw the reflection from the fire dancing off the wet blade. Again Vin swore silently to himself.

"Easy, JD," Buck also saw where the young man was watching. "We have to find the bullet first, the knife is just to help dig it out. Vin isn’t going to slice you open none. He’s going to be as gentle with you as a baby bunny."

JD took a shuddering breath, and then ruefully tried to grin, "Guess it is my own damn fault. I should have ducked when they started shooting, huh?"

"Hard to duck when the first bullet fired finds a hole in your hide," Buck said soothingly, pulling the damp bangs up and away from JD’s forehead with a cold hand. "None of this is your fault, kid, the only ones to blame for your condition are the jackasses who were shooting at us for no reason."

Rusty slid the chair he was sitting on back and rose to his feet. Stiffly, he walked across the floor to where JD was laying and sank to his knees. Meeting Vin’s glance he reached down and put all his weight on the youth’s legs. JD squirmed under him, as much from the unpleasant feel of being held down as from any pain he was feeling.

Buck tightened his hold on JD’s arm and without looking at him, nodded his head for Vin to start. Buck felt himself tensing, dreading what was coming.

Vin took a rag out of a bowl of clean water and rung it out. As softly as he could he brought it up to the wound and started to wash some of the dry blood off. As soon as he touched the wound, JD fought back a moan and thrashed under them. Vin snapped his hand back and tried to avoid making eye contact with any of them.

"You can’t help it, Vin," Buck released one of JD’s arms to touch Vin lightly on his hand. "You have to keep going, he’s tougher than he looks."

"Yeah, I know." God, but he hated this. He would hate doing this to anyone, but to be digging into a close friend. That made it double hard.

"It is not your fault JD got shot either, Vin," Rusty suddenly piped up, as Vin seemed to falter. "You both feeling bad that he got hit, thinking you should have somehow been able to prevent it from happening. Well I have news for you; the bad guys shooting at us were not taking your feelings into consideration. He got hurt, could have easily been either of you. Some times the bad guys win the point, you gotta get over it and move on!"

Buck stretched up tall and glared at the cowhand, "Look you old rooster, you have no idea how we feel. So keep your opinions to…"

"I know exactly how you feel! You hate holding him down while he squirms in pain under you, trying to get away from it, but can’t cause you won’t let him. Well, so do I! And Vin, it’s killing you to be the one pokin’ and proddin’ into his body with your hunting knife, but he needs someone to do it and you unfortunately drew the short straw on this one. The bullet has to come out, and the only one here who can do it, is you! So quit your fretting and get it done,"

"I hate to admit it, but the old codger is right, Vin." Buck stopped glaring at Rusty long enough to encourage the tracker. "Kid is tough, and so are you."

Thanks, Buck," Vin gave Buck an appreciative glance, and then nodded at Rusty. "Thanks for the pep talk, old man."

"Yeah, thanks…Buck," JD stuttered breathlessly.

"Ain’t polite to listen in when folks are talking about ya, JD," Buck gave his friend a light squeeze on the arm. "You might hear something that you can use against them at a later time. I keep finding you lacking in good social manners education."

Vin took another deep breath and reached up with his forearm to wipe away the perspiration that was dripping from his brow. Buck had stopped talking and the silence seemed to grow loud as they waited. Vin sudden realized they were waiting for him, so he again squeezed out the cloth and started to wipe the dried-on blood from JD’s side, this time shutting out all of JD’s sounds and concentrating on what he had to do. Once the blood was removed, he slowly inserted his finger into the bullet hole until he could feel where it had lodged.

Vin slowly extracted his finger to the sound of JD’s pain filled moan. As he pulled his finger out, JD bucked up against it and his back arched up off the floor.

"Hold him down!" Vin shouted at the other two men, as JD withered under them to evade the searing pain.

"Jeezus!" Buck breathed haltingly, and dragged the back of his hand across his mouth.

"That your idea of a decent prayer?" Rusty asked, as he struggled to get a better grip on JD’s legs.

"The best I can come up with, under the circumstances!" Buck shot back.

Rusty finally had to throw himself across JD’s legs and hips to pin them to the floor, and Buck had to push down harder on JD’s arms.

Vin placed two fingers on either side of the bullet hole, and pushed the opening wider. Fresh blood started to trickle down the lower part of JD’s stomach and across his hipbone. Vin brought the knife up and slowly inserted it into the wound.

JD cried out and blindly fought to escape the hold Buck and Rusty had on him. His head wiped back and forth on the rug as Vin inserted more pressure.

"That’s enough!" The three men had forgotten all about the woman, but now she stood above them, with her hands on her hips and an unhappy expression on her face.

"Look lady…we don’t have time to argue with you," Buck snapped angrily at her, as he fought to hold the straining youth down. "You think we’re enjoying this? The bullet has to come out!"

"I know the bullet has to come out," She answered indignantly. "But that don’t mean you have to half kill him doing it!"

Seeing Vin had pulled his hands away from the youngster, the woman knocked him away with her hip and sat on the floor in his place.

"Get out of the way. Your hands are too big…just let me do it!"

"You have any idea what you’re doing?" Vin asked, picking himself up from the floor.

"I’d say more than any of you," She said taking the knife from Vin’s hand. "He’s biting through his lip. Give him something to bite down on, or we’ll be stitching up that part of him too!"

Vin looked around the room for something, and then finding nothing else appropriate, hastily unhooked his gun belt. Taking his weapon from the holster, he slipped the leather belt into JD’s mouth.

Now that he had been removed from the task of digging the bullet from JD, Vin took a deep calming breath and then hunkered down beside the old lady in case she needed help.

"Okay, boy," The woman said bending over JD. "I ain’t saying this won’t hurt, cause we both know that would be a bald-faced lie, but I am going to be as gentle as I can, all right?"

Sweat ran in rivets down JD’s face and his breathing was quick and shallow. With the leather in his mouth his nostrils flared as he fought to get enough oxygen. He could hear his friends and the woman talking to him, but all he could focus on was the searing pain in his side. He was trying to be brave and put on a strong face in front of his friends, but he hurt so badly. It was all he could do to keep from screaming out, but he knew if he started screaming he would not be able to stop.

"I’m sorry that I have to hurt you, son." JD forced his eyes open to find her faded brown ones staring down at him. Her cool, calloused hand felt surprisingly good resting softly on his brow, but it was the confidence he saw in her eyes that really made him feel better. He gave his head a little nod to let her know he understood, and then he shut his eyes and bit down as hard as he could on the leather gun belt.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rinsed his arms in the water basin up to his elbows. The water that fell away was red in colour. In the reflection of the small mirror hanging above the water basin he looked exactly like he felt…tired, battered, and older than his age. He used a hand to dust the dirt and grim from his hair and then he dragged his fingers through its length in an attempt to retain the resemblance of a part. Carefully, he dabbed a wet cloth across his face to loosen some of his own dried on blood from the cuts he had sustained in last nights brawl. He looked back up in the mirror to see if there was an improvement, but neither action had helped.

Reaching over for the towel hanging by the basin, he dried his hands off and then setting his knuckles on either side of the bowl, he let his head droop down to his chest. Slowly he rotated his head back and forth, trying to work the kinks out of his stiff neck. For a brief second he stared at the tainted water that remained in the bowl, before pulling his eyes away quickly. It only reminded him how lousy the afternoon had been and again of how weary he felt now.

"I need a hand bedding the horses down, Rusty." Vin winced as he straightened up, and rubbing his aching ribs with a damp hand, he turned to face the old cowboy who was again sitting in the chair by the table. "They’ve been standing hitched outside for two hours now. We’ll be lucky if they ain’t stoved right up after we run them so hard this afternoon."

Vin then walked over to where JD and Buck were. JD had finally found solace from his injuries in sleep, and Buck was sitting on a hard wooden stool right beside him, his chin resting on his hands as he watched every breath the kid took. Careful not to disturb the youth, Vin bent over and slowly pulled his holster away from JD. Again straightening, he strapped the belt around his lean hips and tightened the belt buckle. From the mantle piece, he retrieved his gun and slid it back into the holster.

"I’m going to go tend the horses, and then have me a look around the place, make sure we ain’t been watched or followed" Vin said resting a hand on Buck’s shoulder. "Them men were trying awful hard to shoot us down, so why did they stop chasing us when we got near this ranch? Something’s not adding up here and I don’t like it!"

Dog-tired, Buck didn’t even bother trying to lift his head out of his hands, he just rolled his chin around on his knuckles and looked back at Vin, "I ought to get up off my backside and be helping you, pard. You shouldn’t be out there alone!"

"I ain’t going to be," Vin answered with a strained grin on his handsome face. "I’m taking Rusty with me."

"Why does that does not make me feel one little bit better?"

"Well, he’s all I got, so I plan on using him. Don’t worry, I don’t plan on letting him slip behind me, he’s going to be too busy brushing down horses to make any plays in my direction."

"Yeah, well just don’t get to cocky out there. I don’t trust him and you shouldn’t either!"

"You just keep a close eye on JD, and try to get some rest yourself," Vin said. "You look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet."

"Well now, we all know that’s pretty near impossible, Tanner, but if we were discussing the condition of your furry mug…"

"If I can interrupt all the whispering you boy’s are doing for a minute," Buck stopped talking abruptly when the woman immerged from the back bedroom and came to stand beside them. "I guess I would be wasting my breath if I was to tell ya that I want you all out of my house now? But I will offer you the use of my barn to sleep in tonight." The woman stood proud before them, with an uncompromising expression on her face. Then she pointed to the young man sleeping by the fire. "Except him…he can stay in here for the night, but just tonight! In the morning I want you all gone."

No one answered; no one made a motion to move. Nothing.

"That’s what I thought," she muttered under her breath.

"It isn’t for their own comfort, ma’am," Rusty spoke up from the chair he had moved back onto, "But you won’t be able to get them to leave their young friend in here alone tonight."

"He won’t be alone," she snapped out. "I ain’t sleeping in the barn! I’ll be in here to keep an eye on him."

"Ma’am…" Vin started to say.

"Okay, I’ll play your game," she interrupted sounding annoyed. "It’s Lou, as if you didn’t know."

"Lou?" Asked Vin, "As in Louise."

"No…" she replied in a stone cold voice, "As in…Lou!"

"No need to get snippy! Let me guess, "Buck said, "Your father always wanted a boy. And you were as close as he got."

"Probably, but I was named after the grandfather who raised my papa," she told him, "My mama got to name the first born, that was my brother Jake, and papa got to name me."

‘Okay then…Lou," Vin started to say again, "We are all staying in here together. Partly because we are not about to leave JD to wake up in a strange place with no one he knows sitting right beside him, and partly because the men who shot him are still out there. We need to be someplace where we can defend ourselves."

"You going to keep going with the story you don’t work for the Morrison’s? Okay, let’s say you don’t know them; you just thought you would use my place for a hideout," She asked indignantly. "I don’t think so. I have enough problems with the Morrison’s; you can mount up and take your troubles someplace other than here!"

"You keep talking about these men," Vin said. "Who are they and why would they be shooting at us?"

"I ain’t so sure I want to talk to you about anything," Lou said with caution. "I seen you come riding through the pass. You ride in here like a blue northern is hot on your tails; one of you has a bullet hole in his hide and you’re all beat to a pulp. Well, I don’t need your troubles; I got plenty of my own. I just want you off my property!"

"Ma’am…I mean Lou." Vin reached up for his coat that was hanging on a coat hook. "We’ll leave as soon as JD here is able to sit his horse. Two, maybe three days, we don’t want to bring any more trouble to you, we just want to make sure our friend is healing okay first. I am truly sorry for invading your home the way we done, I know how I would feel if’n strangers rode in and took over my wagon. We respect your right to privacy, but we’re in a bind here that pushes us past good manners."

Vin tossed Rusty his hat from the coat rack and opened the door, letting in a blast of snow, "Come on, old timer, we got chores that can’t be put off no longer. If ya tell us what needs doing, Lou, we’ll finish up your nightly chores too."

+ + + + + + +

Vin scratched his black gelding affectionately between his ears. It had taken him over an hour to rub the dried sweat off his mount and get his coat gleaming again, and then nearly as long to groom Polecat. Rusty was still in Seven’s stall, brushing down the little bay.

Vin had been relieved to find several large, empty box stalls in the barn, along with lots of sweet smelling straw for bedding, and clean timothy hay to feed the hungry horses.

Vin took one last swipe across Peso’s neck with his hand and then walked out of the stall, pulling the door behind him. With slow steps he walked over to Seven’s stall, and settled his arms on the stall door to watch Rusty. God, he was tired. And cold, he suddenly realized. He had been cold for a long time, but with JD getting shot and the horses needing care he had put that fact to the back recesses of his mind. Now as he wearily leaned against the stall door, he could not stop his body from shivering. He also realized he was so exhausted he was having trouble forming a coherent thought.

Closing his eyes, he let his chin droop down onto his arms. He just needed to rest here a few minutes and he would be fine.

"Hey…wake up! You’re snoring and it’s disturbing the horses." Vin jumped as a dandy brush bounced off his shoulder blade. Rusty grinned at the tired tracker, "Sorry son, but I ain’t got the strength to carry ya back to the house if you fall asleep out here. I’m done brushing this nag, why don’t you plop down on the straw by the door while I toss some feed to Lou’s horses and cows."

Vin yawned and looked longingly at the pile of straw the red-bone hound dog was curled up on. Pushing away from the stall door he walked over to the straw and sank down beside the dog. The dog stretched, yawned, and wiggled his way down beside Vin on the straw. Whining, he shoved his wet nose under Vin’s hand.

"Changed your mind about us, did ya, fella?" Vin muttered to the dog, as his hand automatically started to scratch the hound behind his long ears.

A big wet tongue slapped the lanky tracker across a cheek, "Stop it ya big mutt." Amused, Vin pushed the dog to the far side of the straw and wiped the slobber off with the back of his hand. Having wasted all the sense of humour his tired mind had left, he turned to face Rusty with all traces of the smile gone. "I figure it shouldn’t take no longer than five minutes to get all the chores done that need doing outside. If ya ain’t back in six, I will come hunting for ya. Be warned, I’m hungry and tired and as short-tempered as a grizzly bear with a burr in my paw. I’m more likely to shoot ya, than I am to retrieve ya in alive tonight! We understand each other?"

"I thought you and I always understood one another," Rusty answered as he opened the big barn door and slipped outside, letting the wind slam the door behind him.

‘Lordy, but this feels way better than it should!’ Vin thought to himself, as he let his tired eyes close and his body sag back into the hay. Even the warm dog curling up against him felt good. Just five minutes of rest, that’s all he was asking for, then he would get up and go outside to help Rusty feed.

The barn door opened with a bang. Vin’s eyes snapped open a split second slower than his hand had his gun drawn from its holster. The red-bone hound growled and let out a loud bark as Rusty struggled to get the barn door closed behind him.

"Them riders are back!" He puffed out. "Looks to be six or seven of them, but it is getting dark so I can’t tell for sure."

Vin leapt to his feet, almost tripping over the dog, which was whining and jumping nervously about them, "Where are they? Are they ridin’ or on foot?"

"Coming up fast from the other side of the valley from where we rode in," Rusty slowly opened the door and took a quick peek out. "Must be another pass leading into this valley."

"Did they see ya come in here?"

"I don’t know how they could’ve." Rusty shook his head. "I could just make out their heads over top of the snow banks, I doubt they saw me in a corral full of cows.

Vin came and stood sideways beside Rusty, opening the door another inch so he could see over the cowboy’s head. Through the darkness he counted six men loping up to the cabin, he recognized the mounts and the men from this afternoon’s chase. All six of the men’s body posture looked cocky and self-assured. Vin instantly wondered if Lou was involved with these men after all. They had to know that the four of them were holed up in the old woman’s cabin, but they didn’t seem the least bit intimidated with the fact. Vin wondered if they were as good as they thought they were. Many an over-confident man had died before from making stupid mistakes.

None of the six even looked towards the barn, so Vin assumed Rusty had been correct about not being spotted. He hoped that element of surprise was going to be enough to get them out of this scrape.

"Hey, Lou!" One of the men yelled at the cabin, "We see ya went and got yourself some armed reinforcements. Now, was that the neighbourly thing to do? We told you, all you had to do was pack up and leave and you wouldn’t get hurt. I don’t think I can offer you the same deal now that you included some strangers into our private dealings!"

Inside the cabin, Buck had his Colt drawn, and was quickly going through his saddlebags to find all his extra ammunition.

"Who are they?" he asked the woman, but she didn’t bother answering.

For the first time since they had arrived on the ranch, Buck noticed Lou wore an uncertain expression on her face as she looked back and forth between the door and him.

"Lou…" Buck said trying to keep his voice steady, "You’re safe with us. I don’t know what this feud is about, but those men out there shot JD, so I know for a fact that whatever your dispute is, we ain’t about to side with them!"

Lou turned away from the door to face him, her stance challenging, "How do I know he didn’t get shot in that barroom brawl you said you all got into, and not by the Morrison’s men at all? They’re just smart enough, and low-handed enough to use some poor dumb kid as an excuse to get into my home and make me lower my guard down!"

Buck bristled at her tone, "He might be a lot of things," he said, pointing at JD, "but he ain’t some poor, dumb kid…"

"Hey, Lou…we’re talking to you!" came the voice from outside again, interrupting Buck. "Come on out and talk to me. We’ve been good neighbours for might awhile now, and we’re all reasonable folk here. Maybe if you don’t mess around with us no more we’ll just kill your new friends, but still let you leave free and clear."

"Morrison, you lousy son of a…" Seething in anger, Lou started to yell back when a rifle blast from outside blew some snow off the cabin roof.

"Come on, Lou. We gave ya all the chances we’re gonna…times up and we want you off this land now!" the man yelled out.

Buck ducked when he heard more shots thunk into the deep snow on Lou’s roof, "Just what the hell did we land in the middle of here?" He hissed at Lou.

Infuriated, her face red with emotion Lou rushed over to the fireplace and grabbed an old carbine rifle down from above the mantle.

"You landed in the middle of my life!" Lou snarled back at him as she filled the rifle with buckshot. "And I sure as hell didn’t invite ya!"

Not getting any answers that made sense to him from the woman, Buck hastily dragged a couple of chairs over beside JD and laid them down in an attempt to offer the youth some extra protection in case lead started to fly at the cabin. With his gun loaded he made his way to a window and peaked out through the shutters, "You stay put in here and keep an eye on JD. Vin and me will take care of these peckerwoods!"

"You keep an eye on him yourself," she shushed back at him. "I still ain’t so sure I should be in a hurry to turn my back on you either."

Reaching the door, she yanked the bar off and headed out onto the veranda with the rifle resting against her shoulder.

Buck reached for her, but she was too quick. Cursing silently to himself, Buck lunged back against the window frame. That had to be the most obnoxious, annoying woman he had ever had the displeasure of meeting. She was going to get them all killed if he didn’t come up with a plan to stop her. He looked over to the barn and thought he saw Vin looking back at him through a crack in the barn door. Buck was grateful Vin and Rusty had not been caught out in the open coming back from the barn when the six men rode in.

Now, if only that idiot woman had not gone out onto the veranda, they could have the men caught in crossfire, but instead she stood in right in the middle of harms way.

A light rustling of blankets and a soft moan drew Bucks attention to the youth asleep on the floor. From here he could still see the shine of sweaty dew that was covering the kid’s skin. That mulish woman should have done as he asked and been in here keeping a watchful eye over the boy. Then he and Vin could take care of these back-shooting scumbags themselves properly. Maybe he should shoot her himself, then he wouldn’t have to worry about whether she got in the way or not. She didn’t know him well enough to realize there was no way in hell he would let these men get by him alive and get anywhere near the wounded JD. He didn’t care whom he had to take out to keep his friend alive.

Except JD might not even be alive if that old woman hadn’t taken the bullet out of the kid’s side. Now they owed her, and that thought did not make Buck happy, not one little bit!

"Morrison, I told ya I never wanted to see either you or your mangy brother on my property again!" Buck was brought out of his musing when he heard her yelling at a man sitting on a stout blue roan mare.

Buck peeked out the window and saw her ease back the hammer on the old carbine.

"We told you it was time you moved on, " another one of the men shouted at her. "Who are these men you sent away for anyways? Can’t have any guts seeing how they sent you out here to face us down alone? I guess it is hard for a woman to find help that ain’t all chicken livered. But then a real man only works for real men, not some grey-haired old woman!"

The hackles on the back of Buck’s neck rose. Real men don’t shoot unsuspecting boys and hassle old woman. He would show these pot-lickers who the real men were. Buck carefully yanked the pane of glass out of the window letting cold winter air roar into the room, but now with a just push of his hand he could open the shutter and see his opponents.

"One, two," Buck heard her yell at the cowboys over top of their mirth.

‘Damn’ He thought urgently, ‘She’s going to fire at them!’

"Three!" he hollered out, beating her to the punch, and slamming the shutter open with his fist. His gun roared twice, and two cowboy hats were blown off heads and went flying up into the air.

Lou let go with a blast of her rifle into the ground right in front of the horse’s hooves. The six men fought to keep their seats as their horses reared and whirled around. One of the riders went flying off the back of his horse and landed on the top of his head, while another horse bolted sideways carrying his rider off in the direction they had just come from. Snow flew up from his hooves as he galloped across the meadow with the cowboy sawing on both sides of his mouth with the reins trying to get him stopped.

The four remaining cowboys managed to get their horses under control, and their guns pointed at Lou.

Morrison pulled back on the hammer of his six-gun and hollered at Buck, "Drop it mister, or I’ll pump this old hag full of lead, and you’ll be next!"

"No, I don’t think that is what is going to happen at all," Buck said speaking softly from the window, but the sternness in his tone got their full attention. "You’re going to turn around and ride the hell away from here. If you ain’t past the corrals by the time I count to three, I am going to let Lou here shoot your backsides full of lead. Then we will see how much fun you have sitting on that fancy little roan horse of yours."

The cowboy pulled back for a second. He didn’t like the unruffled sound of the stranger’s voice. The way the strangers had run from them this afternoon, he figured they would be gutless in a fight, but this man didn’t sound gutless or afraid. His voice was laced with hard-edged steel, and he didn’t want to guess if those two shots that had been fired at his men’s heads had been near misses, or if he aimed for the hats and was truly that good a marksman. When he himself shot, it was to kill; he couldn’t fathom someone shooting like that just as a warning.

With an ugly sneer creeping up onto his face, the cowboy decided to test which it was and raised his gun to the woman, but before he could get his shot off a bullet from behind him creased his horse’s rump. The animal reared high and then leaped forward, almost sending Morrison to the ground.

Roaring in anger, he swung around and saw the end of a rifle sticking out of the barn door.

"Get them!" he yelled at two of his men.

Whooping, the two cowboys chased across the yard towards the barn, both firing their guns at the barn door.

A boom from the barn, and one of the cowboys tumbled backwards off his horse, somersaulting into the snow. Crimson red started to spread across his arm, and drip down his finger. The other cowboy kept coming, his hand poised in front of him for the shot, when another blast came from the rifle and the man screamed. His gun flew out of his grip and disappeared in the snow. Pulling up his horse, he grabbed his hand and stared down to see two fingers missing. Spinning his horse around, he raced after the other horse that had bolted towards home.

"He shot my blame fingers off!" he yelled over his shoulder to the other men as he galloped by them.

"Had enough yet, Morrison?" Lou yelled to the angry cowboy.

"This ain’t over, lady!" Morrison hissed at her, "Not by a long shot. When we get done, all that will be left here of you is five unmarked graves!"

With that he spun his roan around and galloped after his retreating men. The last man stopped and helped the wounded man up onto his horse and they galloped off as well.

Vin and Rusty came out of the barn. Buck came out onto the veranda and stood beside Lou.

The old woman looked up at him, "My guess would be, if you had been on Morrison’s payroll up to this point, ya ain’t on it any more. And you broke my shutter, I expect it to be fixed before you ride out of here in the morning!" Was all she said to him before walking back into the cabin, and closing the door behind her.

"You’re welcome, Lou," Buck hollered into the cabin at her. "Wasn’t no problem for us at all."


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