The weather outside cast a cold chill in the log cabin. The wind increased in its strength and malice, rattling the windowpanes and whistling through the knotholes. The smoke barely cleared the chimney before being wisped away by powerful winds.
Lou turned from the stove, where she was preparing a late meal, to look at the men who had taken over her home. They were a grimy, whiskered, ragtag bunch of men. Several days had passed since their faces had known the touch of a razor. The three younger men carried bruises, split lips and black eyes, all evidence of some unsavory activity. Their barroom brawl wasnt her business, and she didnt want any of the details to add it to her escalating list of problems.
The longhaired one dressed in dirty buckskins, she thought she heard someone call him Vin, sat in the kitchen fighting a private battle to keep his eyelids from drooping closed. He had both elbows on the table, and his chin resting in his palms to keep his face from falling onto the table.
The tall, foul-tempered one sat on a stool in front of the fireplace to be near the young kid, right where he had been since she had removed the bullet. She wasnt too impressed with his manners, but she couldnt doubt his strong loyalty to the boy. She didnt see that kind of commitment to another human being out here very often, at least not unless they had something to gain from it. Most of the men who rode through this tough country worried about themselves first and others later. His concern for the boy was the only thing that kept her from turning her rifle on him and ordering him out of her home.
The youths skin was dewed with sweat under the peach-fuzz that was trying to grow along his cheeks, causing the long strands of hair around his face curled up from the dampness. Ever since she had removed the bullet, he had been burning up, then freezing, and then burning up again. Tossing and whimpering, he flailed around in fever and nightmares. The cantankerous one wiped the moisture from his young face with a wet cloth, and talked an endless stream of gibberish to him with a tenderness she would never of thought him capable of if she had not heard it for herself.
She dragged her eyes from the pair and had to fight back a smile when she looked at the old man who was setting the table for their meal. Here was a man she thought she could relate to. There wasnt enough meat on him to keep a small dog alive, making his clothes just hang off his bones, but still he had a spark about him. He talked like a lot of the older cowmen she had known over the years, with that same undying passion for the land, lifestyle, and people. But while his skin had the weathered look of a man used to the outdoors, his was pale and frail looking. He did not quite fit in with the other three, but she couldnt quite place where she thought he should be.
The food finally heated through, she looked back down at the two men by the fireplace and then over to the one almost asleep at her table. Her hand reached for the bowls, but she was uncertain how many to bring down from the shelf.
"The boy aint in any shape to eat solids tonight, but these other men need some nourishment. "The old cowboy came and reached up over her shoulder to grab down four bowls. "It has been a hell whoops, excuse my cussin, maam. Its been awhile since I was in the presence of a fine woman. I meant to say it has been a heck of a few days for these men, I know theyll appreciate the food immensely."
"Dont rightly care if they do or not, its all I got to offer." Lou turned to look back at JD, while Rusty set the plates down beside her. "How old is the boy? Seems kind of young to be out riding with the likes of you all, aint he?"
"Hes small in stature, and his baby-face makes him look younger than his years, but that fact is, hes tougher than nails." Rusty told her.
"Younger then what?" she asked again. "You still aint told me how old he is."
"Im not rightly sure, to tell you the truth. Its never come up in conversation that I know of," Rusty said. "But Im pretty sure he will be leaving his teen years behind soon. Like I said, he aint that young."
"Thats still too young," she replied as she started handing him filled bowls of stew.
Rusty grabbed two bowls, setting one down where he thought Lou usually sat and the other he placed in front of Vin, "Hey, your supper is getting cold," He said to the tracker, giving the younger man a shake.
With a start, Vin opened his eyes and blinked at the light shining from the oil lantern, "What? Huh oh, Im awake, Im awake," he mumbled through closed teeth. "I heard ya, I aint sleepin. Just resting my eyes is all."
"Oh really," Rusty grinned, "You had us nearly convinced that you was sleeping, you snoring like you were and all."
"Never you mind, old timer." Vin reached up and knuckled the sleep from his eyes. "I was just saving up my energy for supper."
Vin breathed in a deep smell of steam that rose off the piping-hot stew and then brought a spoonful up to his mouth, "It sure tastes good maam."
At the sincerely spoken compliment, Lou tried to hide the smile that threatened to turn up the sides of her mouth, "Youre not very hard men to please. And son thats just your stomach talking, not your taste buds. I aint never been much of a hand at cookin nothing."
Lou placed a plate of fresh baked bread on the table in front of Vin, "You best eat up."
With her hands on her hips, she then went and stood at the edge of the sitting room, "Hey Mr. Charming," Lou called out to Buck, "This aint a boardinghouse, and I aint waiting on you! You want some vittles you best haul your backside over here before we eat it all."
Buck just waved a tired hand in her direction to indicate that he heard her. With his other hand, he reached out and drew the hair away from JDs eyes with his middle finger. Buck continued to watch the youngest member of the group sleeping. The boy would be sore, weak, and cranky when he woke, but at least he was going to survive. Sitting back up, Buck grunted as he shifted his long legs under him, and ran his hands through his dirty hair. Wishing there was a place where he could soak his grubby body, he tore his weary eyes away from JD and looked at the folks in the cooking room. It almost seemed like more effort than it was worth to rise and wander over that far, but at that instant his stomach grumbled at the tasty smell of food and helped change his mind.
JD mumbled something in his sleep that Buck could not comprehend, but otherwise he seemed to have settled down some, at least the moment. Figuring he had better eat when the opportunity presented itself, Buck rose to his feet, and slowly strolled over to the table.
"Hows he doing?" Vin asked as Buck sat down at the table in the only other vacant chair.
"Whatever that drink was that Lou made for him seems to finally be working. I think maybe his fever is starting to break," Buck said, grabbing a piece of bread off the plate that Lou had set in the middle of the table, breaking off a chunk and popping it into his mouth. "I might even be able to get in a couple hours of sleep tonight with any luck."
"Hey " Buck grabbed the bowl of stew that Lou slammed down in front of him, before it bounced onto his lap.
"Damn!" He cussed, pressing his thumb to his mouth, as some of the hot stew spilled over the side of the bowl and burnt him.
"What is the matter with you, woman?" he asked in surprise.
"Seems to only be two chairs at the table for folks to sit on," Lou said walking across into the sitting room, "but dont you fine gentlemen mind, I can eat standing, or maybe Ill just wait in here with the boy until youre done your eating."
"Oh, for Pete sakes!" Buck started to rise to his feet, "If ya wanted to eat at the table first, why the hell did you call me?"
"Manners, Buck," Vin said with a grin in his voice.
"Manners nothing," Buck said, his eyes snapping in a temper. He was too tired, and too sore, and too worried about JD, to put up with some mule of an old woman. Picking up his bowl of stew, he walked over to the peg holding his coat, and with one hand struggled to put it on. Moving his bowl into the other hand, he then slipped the other sleeve on and threw open the door.
"Keep a close eye on him," he said to no one in particular and with his supper in hand, he walked out into the cold night, slamming the door behind him. He started for the barn, but the cold wind that whipped at him turned him back to the protection of the porch. Disgruntled, he sat on the twig bench and watched the snow fall through the railing spindles.
"Whats got in his craw?" Lou asked in surprised innocence looking across the table at Vin and Rusty.
+ + + + + + +
JD lay sleeping on the floor, while Buck stood leaning back against the counter. Vin and Rusty sat at the table as Lou pulled her rocker over closer to the men. If they were to find any peace between them in the cabin, the four decided explanations had to be made.
"You go first," Lou said looking at Rusty.
Rusty nodded at her, his face suddenly taking on a sad expression before he glanced downwards to his boots. In a soft, reluctant voice he started to speak, "These two men, and the kid over there are from Four Corners," he said indicating to Buck and Vin with his forefinger, "Theyre escorting me back to prison."
Rusty looked up at her, expecting to see well he wasnt sure what he expected to see, but somehow her opinion of him mattered a lot more to him than he wanted it to. He was sure there would be horror, or at the very least, intense disapproval on her face.
Instead she just met his stare square on, "What did you do? She asked in the same no nonsense voice she had used on them from the beginning.
"Its a long story, involving discrepancy between the ranch log-book, and missing cattle."
"You the one responsible?" she asked.
"Heck no!" Rusty denied vehemently. "I didnt do it! And I kinda got caught in the middle of a prison escape that wasnt of my doing either, wrong place at the wrong time. I only had me a few months left on my sentence. The convicts that ran forced me come along with them so I could split up the money they made robbing banks. That is how we ended up in their town."
"Then why are these men taking you to the prison?"
"Its our job, maam," Vin said when Lou looked over at him. "It aint our job to figure out if he is guilty or not. We were just told to take him."
"Do you think he is innocent?" she asked him.
"I cant rightly tell," Vin answered. "I would like to think so, but I dont know. JD, over there, sure thinks he is though."
"Kid still aint much of a judge of character," Buck muttered under his breath.
"And what to you think?" Lou asked turning to Buck. "Do you think hes innocent?"
"Im not getting paid to think " Buck started.
"I can believe that!" Lou interrupted and earned another glare from Buck.
"Forget about him," Buck said, feeling like he was losing complete control over every which direction that the conversation drifted tonight. "Now that you know we dont work for the men who are coming after you, maybe you will tell us who the hell they are and why they shot JD?"
"It is the same old problem that ranchers have been fighting for years," Lou said, "Water and the fact that I have a good source, and they want it."
"Theyre willing to shoot you over water?" Buck asked doubtfully. "There has to be five feet of snow on the ground outside. I cant believe you have water problems around here."
"The heat also gets up into the low hundreds and stays there most of the summer. By August there are a lot of dry water holes around here. And now it aint over by a long shot, at least until last night there had never been any gunplay. You men riding in here changed all that," Lou looked at them all, "Youve made it worse."
"Tell us more about these men, Lou." Vin asked in his soft drawl.
"Well, my brother was a trapper, and it was while he was doing that, that he wandered onto this piece of property. The mountains, the grass that grew up past his knees and glittering water pools of water; well it was wild and clean and he fell in love with it at first sight. As soon as he got back to the closest town he filed on it and gave up trapping to become a rancher. By then both our folks had passed on and I was bored to tears with my job working in a passel of frontier towns as a seamstress. So on my twenty-forth birthday, I bought a horse, and seven head of cattle with all the money I had managed to save up, and made my way out here to my brother. Been here ever since."
"You never married or had kids?" Buck asked.
"Nope never met a man I wanted to settle down with. Youre all way too much work for the likes of me. At least living with my brother I could tell him where to stuff it and not have to put up with any male silliness or bossiness."
"Yeah, from what weve seen Id say you mustve inherited all the family bossiness, couldnt have been nothing left over for your brother." Tilting his head back, he flashed her an infectious grin that Lou was sure set the hearts of most women aflutter, but not her.
Ignoring him, Lou continued on, "The Morrisons moved out here about six years ago, two brothers, one just that much meaner than the next. They ran off the few folks who were trying to scrounge out a livelihood here, and then took over the range to the east of us and along the valley to the north. The mountain range is all that keeps them from coming at us from the west. They tried to run off Jake and me, but no way we would budge to the likes of them. They got plenty of water where theyre at, but we have more and they have wanted it since the first day they moved in." Lou turned away from them, but not before they saw her pain. When she turned to face them again, it was replaced with anger. "Not a day went by that they didnt push at Jake to sell to them, and for a pittance of what the place is worth. But Jake wouldnt sell, he loved it here, it was his whole life."
"What happened to Jake?" Vin asked.
Lou blinked to hide the moisture that threatened to flow from her eyes, "They killed him," She said, "Oh, not with a gun, but by hounding the man mercilessly every day. One day we would ride across a few dead calf carcasses, a few days later they would poison a spring and we would have to move the cattle off that range and onto another. Fences were cut, and we found our best bull castrated right in the corral closest to the barn, in the middle of broad daylight. Jake worked twenty hours a day, trying to keep his herd safe from them, and in the end it killed him. He was sixty-eight years old, too old to be dealing with this kind of riffraff at a time in his life when he should have been sitting on his rocking chair out on the porch. His heart just gave out one night. He was watching over the herd instead of sleeping, but I was beat, so I came back to the cabin for a few hours sleep. When Jake didnt show up in the morning, I went out to check on him, and I found him dead, still sitting on his favorite horse and looking over the herd."
"Why dont you sell out?" Vin asked her, "If not to them, then to someone else."
"This is my home, has been going on purty near forty years. I aint about to let two pot-bellied bushwhackers who aint done a three day run of honest work in their lives, chase me away from it! No sir I just aint! This here parcel of land probably aint much when put up against what some other folks have in this world, but it is free and clear of debt, and mostly because my brother put his life up to keep it ours!"
Lou got up and walked over to the window and peeked out through the shutter into the night, " Most of the men who work for them now aint even cowboys, most are gun-hands, and now they think that I went and hired myself the same! They were never this aggressive when Jake was alive. I dont know how this is going to end."
"Well be gone in a day or two," Buck told her. "As soon as JD can ride, well be out of your hair, and then you can go back to feuding the same way you have for the last six years."
+ + + + + + +
Vin doffed his hat and knocked the snow off the brim before entering the cabin. He shuffled in from the barn carrying their bed-rolls under one arm, and his other arm wrapped around his sore ribs, looking like a walking corpse.
"All is quiet out there for now. I could barely see to find my way from the barn to the house," Vin said as he wearily dropped his bedroll down near JD. "I doubt we have to worry about Morrison or his men coming back tonight, we got us a full blown blizzard outside."
Exhaustion washing over him, he barely even tasted the bite of cookie that Lou had left set out on the table for him. Fighting off the urge to lie down, he instead sat on his bedding and rested his rifle across his lap, "But just in case they fool me, Ill take first watch while ya get some sleep."
"Get some rest yourself before you keel over, Tanner," Buck shook his head at him, "JD is still restless, so Im going to sit up with him for a piece yet anyway."
"Okay, just give me a shake when ya want to bed down, sos I can take a turn watching the kid." Vin pulled his buckskin boots from his feet, and tossed his wet coat over a chair to dry, before sinking into his bedding. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
"Buck?" Rusty still sat at the kitchen table with his elbows resting on his knees, just staring down at his hands.
"What?" Buck answered, the irritation clear in his voice. He wasnt in the mood to talk any more to night, especially to the cowboy he felt was responsible for their being here, or that mean-tempered old woman. Hopefully all the old man was going to ask was where he should bed down for the night.
Rusty got up from the chair in the kitchen and came to sit in the rocker Lou had vacated a few minutes earlier when she went to bed.
"You know what you said about leaving in a day or two?" Rusty finally asked after a pause, in his long drawn-out Texas drawl.
"Look you, old coot, would ya just spit out what youre trying to say, or leave me the hell alone!" Buck shifted his weight uncomfortably on the wooden stool. His back hurt and his backside was numb from the hard stool. Seeing a cushion laying on the floor in a corner, he stretched out with his long reach and gabbed it. He puffed up the pillow and then stuffed it under his derriere.
"Were you listening when she said our coming here has made things worse for her?" Rusty asked, trying to get Bucks attention back on the conversation.
"Yeah I was listening to her. Didnt you hear me tell her we would leave just as soon as JD can ride, so they can get back to the way they were feuding before we came along?" Buck shifted his seat around until he found a well-padded spot.
"Damn you, Willington!" Rusty struggled out of the chair and dropped to the floor beside Buck, grabbing his arm. "Ive been riding with you for five days now, and I dont believe you are that stupid!"
"Just who the heck are you calling stupid, rooster?" Buck narrowed his eyes and glared at the older man.
"You!" Rusty answered testily. "Right to your face!"
Buck shook the old cowboys hand off his arm, and swung around angrily to face him," Whatever your problem is, Hopkins, I dont want to hear about it. Im looking after this here boy the best I can, and then Im hauling your butt back to prison. Thats it! So unless you want me to rearrange your features, I suggest you get as far away from me that you can."
"Just like that," Rusty snarled back, "We ride into her life, she digs a bullet out of JD for you, feeds us, lets us bed down in her home, and then you just get to ride away without as much as a backwards glance, and leave her to face the Morrisons all on her own!"
"I would worry more about the Morrison brothers than her, if I was you. And dont give me no damn lectures on helping damsels in distress, old man, I wrote that book. She could solve all her problems just by leaving here. In case you havent noticed, she is a big girl who seems to take care of herself just fine!"
"I dont believe you, Willington. Ive watched you; you arent the type to just walk away when someone needs your help, especially a woman. And she does need it, shes just too proud to ask for it."
"Dont play the hero with me, you dont care if we help her. You just want us to postpone your return to jail; maybe give you a few more opportunities to escape from us." Buck pushed the cowboy away from him. "This conversation is closed, Hopkins. I would suggest you go to bed. I aint the safest person for you to be nagging on tonight!"
+ + + + + + +
JD spent a miserable night, all of yesterdays pain returning in its intensity. He lay half awake, half asleep, half dreaming for most of the night.
In the middle of the night he woke feeling muddled and disorientated until a sharp twitch in his side reminded him of where he was. Curiously, he rolled his head on his pillow searching for anyone who was familiar to him and not surprising, he saw Buck in the muted light of the dying fire. The tall man sat hunched awkwardly in the rocking chair, wrapped in a quilt that someone had draped over his lanky frame, his quiet snores drifting through the room.
He could hear soft mutterings down by his feet. Lifting his head, he could just make out Vins restless form twitching on the floor, as the tracker was actively dreaming. If he had been feeling better, JD would have found it amusing. Vin usually said so little when he was awake, but asleep, he was carrying on quite an animated conversation with some unknown person.
Exhausted, JD let his head drop back onto his pillow. He had to grit his teeth to keep from crying out, as even that small a movement tore at the stitches in his side.
"Can I get you something, son?"
Rusty left the kitchen table and coming into the sitting room, squatted down in front of JD.
The young man opened his mouth to say no, but all that came out was a moan.
"Still feeling pretty rough, hey," Rusty pulled the blanket back and looked at the bandage that covered half of JDs stomach. A small amount of fresh blood had seeped through, but Rusty thought it would be morning before it needed changing.
"Maybe could use some water," JD managed to drag out through parched lips.
"Sure thing, kid." Rusty pulled the blanket back up to cover JDs chest, and went into the kitchen. When he returned he carried a glass of pale green liquid.
"Lou said if you woke up, you were supposed to drink this down." Rusty slowly slipped an arm under JDs head, and lifted it up towards the glass." I aint rightly sure what she all has in here, but she seems to know what she is doing. Close your eyes, it might not taste as bad if you cant see what it is youre drinking and just gulp it down."
JD took a sip of the strange liquid and nearly gagged on the bitter taste.
"Chug-a-lug it, kid," Rusty said tipping the glass up more, "Thats the only way youre going to get it down."
JD closed his eyes and made a scrunched-up face as he gulped the rest of the drink down the back of his throat. It seared all the way down into his insides. He immediately swallowed several times to keep the stuff from coming right back up.
"Tastes like crap!" he finally managed to sputter out.
Rusty chuckled as he lay JDs head back onto the pillow, "Well, if medicine has to taste bad to work, this foul smelling stuff should cure all of mans woes."
Rusty placed a bony hand first on JDs forehead and then pressed it against his cheeks, but his fever seemed to finally be abating as the youth felt relatively cool to the touch.
Rusty sat on the floor with his arthritic knees stretched out in front of him, and watched as JD closed his eyes and seemed to drift off again. He waited a couple of minutes to make sure and then struggled to rise.
"Yeah, JD," Rusty dropped back down to the floor when JD softly called out his name.
"Would ya stay with me for just a few minutes? I want to fall asleep, but I cant and I dont want to wake Buck up." JD asked the cowboy, suddenly not wanting to be alone in his pain in the deep hours of night.
"Guess that wont hurt me overly much," Rusty settled down beside the youth. The kid sounded too young to be laying there with a bullet wound in him; he should be outside building snowmen and going on sleigh rides with girls. If the youth managed to live long enough out in the west without getting himself killed, he would probably become a hell of a man. The old cowboy could see all the potential in the young man, and why the other six men were willing to let him learn under their tutelage. For a brief second, he almost felt sorry for Buck, for it was a grave responsibility to guide a youngster to adulthood, especially in the dangerous world that these men traveled. He had to give the fun-loving gunslinger a lot of credit; JD would be a tough case for even a more willing, and possible mature person, but Buck took the job very seriously. Rusty thought he had had a rough enough time keeping track of the numerous inexperienced young cowboys that had been placed in his care over the years. His biggest problems had been keeping the young fools away from dangerous horses, or going after a ranchers daughter. He had never had to worry about his underlings getting shot by some outlaws like Buck did.
Rusty looked down at the injured kid again, and in the firelight noticed he looked a little flushed. Rusty figured it was just from the heat that radiated from the fire, but he took the damp cloth that Buck had used earlier and wiped JDs face with it anyway.
"What would you like to do?" Rusty asked as he patted down JDs cheeks, "You want to talk for awhile?"
"Yeah talk," JD answered with a thick tongue, as Lous medicine was making him feel dozy.
Rusty smiled at the kid, "Maybe I should do all the talking and you should just do the listening."
JD nodded groggily.
"Okay, did I ever tell you about the time I rode with a nephew of Chief Hollow Horn Bear? We called him Sticks Like a Burr. I dont know what his Indian name was, but we called him that because we never met a horse that could throw him. Anyways, we brought in a herd from the Texas panhandle, it was the worst drive I ever had the misfortune of being talked into. Pestilence, drought, renegade Indians, inexperienced cowhands and as wild a herd of longhorns as God ever saw fit to put on this earth. Anyway, at the end of the trail we collected up our pay and found ourselves at the fanciest whorehouse this side of St. Louis. Now me and Sticky, only his closest friends could call him that and stay living, we went upstairs and for ten dollars they gave us each one of the ladies for an hour. Now Sticky, being the most persuasive person I have ever met, he talks them managers into letting us have both girls together for two hours at the same price "
Rusty stopped talking as a funny look appeared on JDs face.
"Maybe I best be leaving that tale until youre feeling a might healthier," Rusty grinned. "Its too good a story to waste telling on someone who is not feeling right up to snuff. Come morning you probably wont even remember me telling it to you. I got me another one I can tell you though, happened in the same town, at the end of the same drive. I had money burning a hole in my britches, so after visiting the ladies we made our way down to the nearest saloon. Ended up playing cards with a man called Five Aces in the Deck Dickson, turns out he is the meanest, cheatinest card player to ever pull out a chair at a poker table. Your good friend Ezra probably will know whom I am talking about, if you ever think to ask him. So anyway, Sticks, he went out broke right away, but I was drunk as a skunk, could hardly see my cards and I was winning every hand. Didnt matter what game we played. We played a few hands of twenty-one, Id have twenty showing on the table and Id say hit me, and damn if I wouldnt win. Anyways, around midnight I had enough of cards and wanted to cash out. The next thing I knows, the whole darn saloon starts leaping behind tables and the over the bar, and what have you. Bodies flying every which a way. One brave soul got the courage to whisper at me from behind a card table that Ol Ace" would most likely kill me if I tried to quit while he was losing. Well, the sun had came up and was over our heads by the time I lost enough back to him that he didnt feel honor bound to kill me."
Rusty chuckled at the memory, and then waited for JDs response.
"JD ?" Rusty asked the young man softly, but received no answer.
JD lay with his eyes shut and his breathing rhythmic, as sleep found him again.
"Youre a good audience, JD," Rusty said tucking the blanket back under JDs chin. "Sleep tight, kid,"
Grabbing the back of a chair, Rusty pulled himself to his feet and shuffled over to the far wall, where his bedroll lay spread out already. Kicking off his boots, he climbed under the blanket and immediately gave into the sleep that was calling him.
From the rocker, Buck worked hard to keep his breathing level as he listened to the end of Rustys story. As much as he hated to admit it, the old man was awfully good with their youngest. Within minutes of Rusty going to bed, Buck heard nothing but gentle snoring from all three of the men around him. Under the influence of Lous medicine, JD was having a peaceful moment of rest, so Buck was content to return back to his own slumber for a while longer. Still a grin broke out on his face as he shifted around for a more comfortable position on the rocking chair. The story about the card player was good fare for JD, but darn if he didnt wish the old geezer had finished his story about the whorehouse first.
+ + + + + + +
JD woke hearing voices. He tried to sort them out, but he was too tired and instead fell back into comforting darkness.
+ + + + + + +
Sometime during the morning, shafts of light penetrated JDs consciousness. His thoughts garbled, he tried but could not hold his eyes open, or shape any words. His tongue felt as dry as a mud-hole in the middle of a summer drought. Groggily, he finally managed to force his eyes open and tried to focus them. A room made out of logs finally settled in his view. He scanned the room, but none of it seemed familiar. A sharp burning pain in his side reminded him of getting shot, but he could not think how he got to be here. Unnerved, he realized he was alone in the cabin, and that the big bandage wrapped tightly around his stomach was all he wore. Uneasy now, he wondered where Buck and Vin were, and if either of them was hurt.
Setting his teeth tightly in a clench, he forced himself to sit. Kicking off the blankets that had been covering him, he stood shakily, weaving back and forth like a drunk, his muscles feeling leaden. He glanced around the room, searching for his clothes, his gun belt, and mostly, a familiar face.
JD jumped as the cabin door was suddenly flung open and a figure he did not recognize entered, along with a blast of frigid air. In that instant, across the room he noticed his holster hanging over the back of a chair. He took several stumbling steps before he gasped and grabbed hold of his side with both hands. It was all he could do to keep from falling to his knees, as excoriating pain shot through him from the top of his head to the tips of his toes.
"Oh God!" he lamented through quivering lips, pushing harder into his side with his fists to try and slow down the agony that was washing over him. Death at the hands of this stranger could be upon him any second, but he was too overwhelmed by the stabbing torment in his side to put up a fight. In fact, he thought death might be a blessing at that second.
"What in tarnation are you doing up, boy?" the woman by the door dropped her armload of firewood to the floor and rushed across the room. Cold hands touched his chest to help keep him from falling flat onto his face.
JD turned his pain filled eyes towards the voice and saw a gray haired lady. Relief flooded through him; he felt he had to be relatively safe with a grandma. But the feeling of relief was quickly pushed aside when the pain didnt abate, and his head started to spin.
"Get your hide back onto your bed where ya belong." she ordered him.
There was nothing JD wanted to do more as the woman started pulling him the short distance towards his pile of bedding, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldnt get his feet to cooperate. Before either of them could react, he tripped over himself and crashed to the floor with a howl.
A little squeak escaped from Lou as she fought to stay on her feet and not get pulled down with the youth.
"Oh Ow damn it !" JD muttered, clutching his side and rolling into a ball, "Ow, that hurts that hurts!"
"Of course it hurts, ya foolish pup!" Lou reached down and grabbed the young man under his armpits, being careful not to dig her nails into his soft skin, and started to pull him towards his bed, "Thats what happens when you let yourself get shot it hurts!"
"Ouch!" He cried out as she stretched him across the floor, "Stop that stop!"
Breathing hard, she let him settle back onto the floor, "This aint fair, I got enough problems on my plate as it is. I sure as heck didnt ask for yours to be added. Why didnt you just stay put on your bed like any normal person?"
"Im sorry," JD moaned, "just leave me alone."
"Leave you alone?" She snapped at him, "Youre lying in the middle of the floor! Im going to be tripping over your sorry hide every time I need to come in to my own sitting room."
Lying on his back, and hissing through his teeth, JD started to wiggle his way over to his bedding. Lou stood with her arms crossed and watched until he collapsed his head back on his pillow.
JDs skin again glistened with sweat from the effort it took to get back onto his blanket. Trying to slow his breathing down, he willed the pain to stop.
He opened his eyes when he felt cold hands touch his forehead. Looking up, he saw the woman sitting beside him, a slight smile on her face.
"The old one said you had backbone," she said to him, "Guess you proved him right this time."
JD just stared blankly at her. Even if he could get some words out of his mouth, his mind didnt seem capable of forming any that would make sense at that moment.
Seeing how completely spent the youth was, Lou reached down to check the bandage that covered the bullet wound.
He moaned and covered his hand over hers when she started to pull the bandage back, "Hush yourself, and lie still," she told him, setting his hand back on his chest.
Self-confidently, she pulled off the bandage and with gentle fingers probed the wound. It looked clean and the stitches were all holding. He should heal quickly. Once his friends returned, he would be able to ride away with them, even if it did hurt. His pain wasnt none of her concern.
"Oh, this aint right!"
Lou blinked as the young mans stuttering voice brought her back to the present.
"Im naked!" Embarrassment burned at his face as he realized just what his condition was in front of this woman.
Lou looked upon him with exasperation, and in an annoyed gesture pulled one of the blankets he was lying on out from under him and covered him with it. Reaching behind a chair, she tugged at something and when her hand reappeared, she was holding his britches.
"Ive dug bullets out of more embarrassing places than the one I took out of you yesterday," She told him, placing his britches within his reach.
"Yesterday?" JD asked. "You took the bullet out?"
"Yeah, I dug it out yesterday."
JD fought to remember yesterdays events. He remembered riding up a mountain and then shots being fired at them. He could kind of remember racing through the snow with someone or something chasing them. Then through the fog that surrounded his mind, he thought he could remember some lady shooting at them and her angrily yelling at Buck, but that didnt make sense. Women didnt yell at Buck and if she had, why would she then have removed the bullet from him?
"Was it you who shot at us when we rode up yesterday?" he asked, still breathless from standing.
"Yep." The woman nodded at him. "They said you was called JD. Im Lou."
"Oh hi," was all JD could think to say.
"Where are Buck and Vin?" He suddenly thought to ask. He could not believe they would leave him here alone.
"They went to scout around, and see if they could get us some fresh game for dinner. Im running low on supplies."
"Oh " JD said again. For some unknown reason that he couldnt explain, disappointment washed over him. He knew his friends had other things to do besides sit by him and hold his hand; he would have been annoyed if they had, but part of him missed their familiar comfort. JD knew for sure then that he was not in any risk of dying, because no way Buck would have left if he were in any danger.
"If it is any consolation to you, the old man who rode in with you is chained to the bed in the back room," Lou told him, seeing the forlorn look that had crept into his eyes. "That grumpy tall one, with the shaggy mustache put him in there and then took the key with him. I think he thought the cowboy would charm me into letting him go."
JD mustered a grin for her, "Naw I think he was more concerned Rusty would charm me into letting him go. We are opposite sides when it comes to our thoughts on Rustys guilt or innocence."
Lou nodded her understanding, but she doubted that JD noticed. The young mans tired, heavy eyelids dipped closed before he yawned and forced them open again.
"You can barely keep your eyes open," Lou said regaining her feet, "Im going to get you some herb tea to drink and then you get some rest. I want you ready to leave when your friends get back here."
+ + + + + + +*
He cued Peso up the last few feet of the hill, and reined in beside Buck. Snow and wind whipped at the unbound hair that brushed Vins shoulders. He shivered, and huddled down deeper into his coat for warmth, ignoring the discomfort the slouched position caused his ribs.
Buck nodded a greeting to the tracker, "You see anything of interest?"
"The Morrisons aint letting a little snow slow them down. There are tracks all over this dang mountain, a couple of them boys ventured near the head of Lous valley, but none actually rode in. This storm might be to our advantage, I think theyre out here just rounding up all the cattle in case the weather gets worse " Vin told him, and then pointed to the rabbits hanging from Bucks saddle horn. "I see ya managed to find some rabbits that were too old to escape your fine roping technique."
"Glad to see this cold weather, and them sore ribs of yours, aint slowing down your sense of humor none." Buck gave Vin a one eyed steely glare. "There is more than one way into Lous valley. Did you check for tracks on the backside? You dont think they would send a couple of men in there again so soon, do you? We gave them a good pounding last night; youd think theyd want to gather up an army before they hit us again. Goddamnit, maybe they had someone watching the cabin after all and they seen us leave this morning. They have to know all thats left there is Rusty, JD, and that crazy old lady! Come on, Vin, we have to ride. I got me a bad feeling!"
+ + + + + + +
JD woke from his sleep with a start. He felt the floor under him shake from pounding horse hooves, and heard a hound dog baying up a ruckus down by the barn. Lou stepped over him to lift her rifle down from above the fireplace and then silently she stormed outside. His first thought was that Buck and Vin had finally returned, but that didnt explain why Lou went outside to meet them with a rifle in her hands
He lay staring at the ceiling for a few seconds to get his bearings and sort out the voices that were coming from outside. The old womans was the only one he recognized, and she sounded angry.
Unsure of what was happening, JD reached for his britches.
Two men pulled up sharp in front of the cabin and stared down at Lou. A different Morrison brother sat on a tall, rangy, bay gelding. He was bigger and more rawboned than the brother who rode in here last night, but both shared the same craggy, homely face. One of their hired cowhands was sitting mounted to his right on a stocky buckskin mare. Both men had their rifles resting across their laps, not quite pointing them at Lou, but not quite turned away either.
"Come on, Lou," Morrison said, anger spiking his voice, "Even if you could run this place by yourself, itll be a lot healthier for you to pack up and leave!"
"Are you threatening me, Morrison?" Lou did point her rifle at the man. "You and your brother were always a waste of skin! Jake didnt take with you threatening him, and I take to it even less. You and your friend can turn them horses around and ride the hell off my property! Now!"
"And just who is going to make us?" He asked with a sneer. "You? Or maybe them two gunhands you foolishly hired, who are now miles from here following dead-end trails. We like you, Lou, and we liked your brother when he was alive, too. Thats why were giving you a chance to leave peacefully and in one whole piece. If I wanted to shoot you here and now and take over this place, who would ever know? Who could stop me?"
Both men swung their rifles towards the youth exiting the cabin. Morrison started to laugh at the sight of the young man, the cowhand with him immediately joining in.
Lou fought back a groan as she watched the kid weaving out onto the porch shoeless, and with the breeze ruffling his dark, damp tendrils of hair across his cheeks and along the nape of his neck. His chest was still bare and his britches were pulled over his hips, but not buttoned all the way up. One of his big colt revolvers stuck out of his waistband.
"Ohhh!" Morrison hunched his shoulders and shuddered, while he laughed at the pale youth swaying in front of him. The kid looked like he was going to keel over any second. "And here I was all worried about the two who rode outta of here this morning, when all along I shouldve been worrying about the little one they left behind."
"Looks like someone dug out the bullet I put in him yesterday," the cowhand elbowed Morrison in the ribs and pointed to the bandage covering JDs side. "It wont matter if they take out the next bullet I put into him, because hes about to become dead!"
Lou raised her rifle towards the man, "Your finger so much as twitches, and Ill blow ya right off that fancy dun horse!"
Morrison reached over to his hired hand, and pushed the barrel of his rifle downwards, "Relax mama Lou, we wont hurt the baby minnow, at least not yet. But for now Ive had enough of these games. Weve waited six long years for this property, Lou, and this is the day we take it. Were not giving you any other chances to bring in more hired guns! You got ten minutes to get your wagon hitched and whatever you want to take with you loaded, and then we burn the place to the ground."
"I dont think so!"
Annoyed, Morrison turned back to look at the youth who had just spoken.
JD jerked the colt revolver out of his waistband, and leveling it at Morrison, he employed both his thumbs to pull the hammer back to a full cock. While the young man could hardly stay standing, the gun in his hand never wavered, nor did the hazel eyes of the youth holding it.
"I dont know who you are, mister," JD said, faltering. The gun heavy in his hand, it was taking every ounce of strength in his arms to keep it up in the air and pointed, "but the lady asked you both to leave!"
"Oh, youre in it now, boy! Right up to your backside!" Morrison swung the muzzle of his gun towards JD, but before anyone could fire, the door to the cabin flew open and Rusty dove onto the porch, with a broken bedrail still chained to his wrist, and JDs other colt revolver firing from his hand.
The slug just missed Morrison as his big bay spooked at the gunfire and lunged to the right. Lou fired at the cowhand, grinning as the spray of buckshot nicked one of his buckskins gaskins. The buckskin buried her head between her knees and took off across the yard bucking as hard as she could in the deep snow.
JD was thrown down onto the porch from the recoil of his pistol after taking a single shot at the retreating back of Morrison. Lou ran down the steps and out into the yard to shoot one last time at the two vanishing men, while Rusty scrambled to his feet and hurried over to where JD lay clutching his side.
"Easy there, son," Rusty dropped to his knees, and helped JD sit up. "Put your head between your knees. Itll help stop the spinning before ya try to stand."
"Im fine," JD stuttered through his chattering teeth as snow swirled across his sweat-covered skin, "Did we get them?"
"The little buckskin mare lost a bit of blood, but I dont think we managed to hit either of the men."
"Damn who are they?"
Lou stomped back to the porch through the deepening snow, her rifle now hanging loosely in her hand, "Talk later, lets get inside before we all freeze to death."
Rusty got back to his feet and extended a hand to JD. The youth grabbed it and pulled himself up. With a moan, he doubled over his stomach, and held onto the bandage as Rusty half led, half carried him back inside.
His legs were so shaky it took both Lou and Rusty to keep him from collapsing in a heap on his blankets. Lou immediately covered his shivering body up, while Rusty stoked the fire, sending both sparks and heat across JD.
Lou stood staring down at JD, but Rusty could tell she wasnt really looking at the youth. Reaching out, he placed a hand gently on her shoulder, "You alright, Lou?"
With a start, she turned to face the cowboy, "They will be back, wont they? What am I going to do?" she asked in a frightened voice, as the situation seemed to suddenly overwhelm her.
"Were here," Rusty, said in his soft, comforting drawl, "We wont let anything happen to you."
"Youre leaving as soon as those other two get back here," she reminded him, turning away. "I already told them I wanted you all gone. Besides, this aint your problem. I aint never been beholden to anyone and I am not about to start now. Ill think of something myself."
"Buck is right," Rusty said to her back, "You are the most stubborn woman "
"You got no right to call me anything," she swung around and angrily yelled at him. "You dont know me. And what kind of help can you give me anyway. I got an injured kid, a mean-tempered grump who likes me as much as I like him, and an old man who is headed back to prison, all come to save me. That long-haired buffalo hunter is the only one I aint sure about, cause he aint said more than a dozen words to me since he got here."
"Vin saves his breath for breathing." Rusty told her, while reaching out towards her with an gnarled hand.
"Leave me alone," she said tiredly, heading to the stove. "Look after the youngster, and just leave me alone."
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Vin pushed their horses back to the cabin as hard as they dared, but the geldings were both still tired and stiff from yesterdays tough run.
Buck kept curbing in his desire to cue Polecat into a faster gait, but it wouldnt do him any good if he ended up afoot, so he settled in behind Vin and kept up a steady trot through the snow.
Steam was pouring off the animals when they finally rode onto Lous property. Vin pulled Peso down to a walk and cautiously made his way past the barn and corrals, and up to the cabin. The red-boned hound dog came out of the barn wagging his tail at the two riders and followed them up to the cabin.
The place might have been deserted, but for the smoke that was rising out of the rock chimney in a heavy black plume.
Then they saw the two sets of fresh hoof prints coming from the other side of the valley that were now partly filled in by the falling snow. Right in front of the cabin they could see the signs of spinning horses having trampled down the snow, and drops of red blood splattered on the porch.
"Careful, Buck!" Vin hissed, as the tall man leaped from his saddle with his gun already drawn in his hand.
In three strides, Buck was up the stairs and leaning against the cabin door. Vin threw his leg over Peso and slid to the ground. Reaching behind his saddle, he drew his mares leg out of the scabbard, and with a nod that he was ready; he followed Buck into the cabin.
Buck hit the door hard with his shoulder, slamming it wide open. Vin came in low and darted to the left of Buck.
Rusty and Lou looked calmly at the two men.
"Dont just stand there with the door open," Lou said to them. "Your faces are near frosted white, and youre both stuttering with cold. Get in here!"
Relieved that all seemed normal, Buck moved on from Lou and Rusty, instantly searching out JD and spotted him sitting on his blankets in front of the fire. He looked warm, not the feverish warm he had been the last twelve hours, but cozy warm, and sleepy with mussed up hair. A smile had broke out on his face at the sight of his two friends.
Buck shoved his gun back into his holster and rushed over to JD, accidentally jostling him in his haste to check the young man over.
The smile disappeared as JD grimaced and choked back a low groan.
Buck eased forward slowly this time, "Oops, sorry about that, kid. You in much pain?"
"Not bad until a second ago," JD said, pressing on his wound.
"You look like hell," Buck retorted.
"I feel like hell," JD answered back.
"Oh well. I seen you look better, but no matter, even on a good day you will always be homely."
Barely controlling the urge to stick his tongue out at his closest friend, JD cocked his head to the side and squinted an evil look at Buck, "Thanks for that! Ive been lying in bed so long, I got saddle sores."
Buck laughed and ruffled his hand through the kids hair, "Ah youth! Patience is wasted on you. Youve been in bed for just one day."
"Thats long enough for me."
"Yeah, I bet it is, kid." Buck regained his feet. "Im glad to see you up. Vin was worried about you, werent ya Tanner?" Buck hollered over to the tracker who was still standing in the kitchen.
"I was a pool of twitching nerves, worrying about ya, kid," Vin grinned over at JD. "Bucks right though, its good to see ya up, JD."
"So what happened here?" Buck asked walking into the kitchen and standing beside Vin. "Theres blood on the porch and a couple sets of hoof prints out front. And how the hell did you get loose, ya old rooster? I had you chained to the bedpost."
Rusty raised his hand and showed Buck the broken rail that was still chained to his hand, "I deemed the situation to be in need of my services. You owe Lou for a broken bed."
"Anyone hurt?" Vin asked.
"Just a flesh wound to a horse," Rusty replied.
Buck suddenly took note of the bathing tub that sat in the middle of the kitchen floor. A clean-shaven Rusty sat on a chair with his back to Lou, only half of his limp hair hanging below his shirt collar now, the other half laying on the floor at Lous feet.
"Hey, old man, you dont clean up half bad," Buck told him.
"Give you a run for your money, if he was a few years younger," Vin jostled him.
"He dont need to be any younger," Lou said.
"So thats the way the wind is blowing," Buck wisecracked, trying not to grin at the older couple.
+ + + + + + +
The only sound in the room was the steady squeak of Lous rocker, as she gently bobbed back and forth. Her cross-stitch lay left untouched upon her dirty britches, as stared at the faces of the four men sitting spread out around her main room.
After Buck and Vin had returned, they had a huge battle with her. She insisted they wrap JD up and ride away from her place. She was shocked when it was Buck who told her they werent about to leave her alone in the middle of this range war, especially because their appearance here seemed to have escalated the violence. At the time she had been spitting mad, ready to pull her rifle down and chase them away, but now under the blackness of night, she had to admit she felt more than just a little relief that they ignored her demands.
Now sitting around the room that relief grew as she watched the light from the fireplace dance across their features. Except for the youth, at times they all wore the same worn and world-weary expression with an air of danger about them.
The old man sat near the fire on one of the kitchen chairs. His face was weathered to the texture of old leather, but still full of character and knowledge that could only be brought on by a life spent learning. It would take another month of regular meals to put meat back on his bones, but the shave and haircut had spruced him up to reveal a pleasant face. His eyes had lost some of their sharpness, but at least for now they twinkled with an uncontained contentment of life.
It was the same twinkle that was now shining in Bucks eyes, now that he knew JD was going to be fine. He was a handsome man. A tall, angular westerner with his thick, neatly trimmed mustache, who liked to flirt with both women and life. He sat on the old wooden stool with his long legs stretched out in front of him, and his back leaning against a log wall. He was a smooth tongued-devil, who Lou would normally have little use for, but the obvious concern he had for the men he rode with, especially the youngest, was slowly making inroads at winning her over. Tonight, he entertained them with a light banter and an enjoyment of life that was contagious, even to her.
Vin also leaned against the log wall with his back, except he was sitting on the floor with his legs crossed and eyes half closed. His intense blue eyes and high cheekbones with deep dimples were easy to admire, even is she was old enough to be his grandma. Looking loose-limbed and laid-back, he absentmindedly reached up and pushed a strand of his wind-mussed hair behind his ear with a thumb. Rusty told her the quiet, contemplative tracker saved his breath for breathing, not chattering. She smiled to herself as she watched him. He was the type of man whom she had always been able to relate to well. He radiated health, vitality and the outdoors. He was pungent with the sweet smell of pine and campfire smoke, and while he spoke less than half of what Buck did, his few words spoke volumes.
JD sat at his usual spot in front of the fire. His legs were crossed, with his elbows resting on his knees and his chin sitting in his cupped hands. His big hazel eyes stared out of a face still pale from his injuries. One day, she thought, his face would harden and he would grow into a handsome man, but for now he was still almost too pretty with his up-turned nose and his little-boy lashes. Like the two he rode with, when he became a man he would have to beat the women off.
Sharing the stress of the past few days with these men felt surprisingly up-lifting to her. It reminded her how much she missed sharing her days with her brother. Smiling to herself, she started to gently rock and thank the lucky stars that led these men to her doorstep.
They must light hearts on fire with their spirit, She thought to herself.
Suddenly realizing Vin had just caught her staring, she smiled at the placid looking tracker, hoping he couldnt see into her thoughts, and then hoping maybe he could.
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