The Twilight Years

by Patricia

Part Ten
The wick in the single kerosene lantern spilled a soft glow into the room, providing barely enough light for Lou to see the cross-stitch in her lap, but still her deft fingers seem to fly over the pattern. Buck wondered how such a crude, crass old gal could do such fine, exquisite work. However, the stitches in JD’s side spoke of her skill, in spite of her work worn hands.

Buck’s thoughts were interrupted when movement to his right pulled his eyes away from the woman.

"You think they’re out there watching us?" Buck asked, as Vin left his comfortable spot on the floor to sneak a look out the window.

"Can’t rightly tell from in here," Vin answered, as he peeked out into the night through the frosted pane, "but makes no matter to me, I don’t plan on being seen no how." Still, Vin felt an uncomfortable odd prickling at the nape of his neck, as he stared out into the darkness that told him they weren’t alone on Lou’s ranch.

Vin pulled away from the window, and then reached down to pull his boots out from the wooden box by the front door. Sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, he gave Buck a reassuring grin as he tugged his old boots on over two pairs of woolen socks. Regaining his feet, he buttoned his coat tightly beneath his chin before pulling the fleeze collar up snugly against his neck. Lastly he slapped one of Lou’s warm, old sweat-stained hats firmly atop his head.

"I’m still not happy about you going it alone." Buck placed his hand on Vin’s shoulder and through the thick material of the coat gave the younger man a strong squeeze. "You stay to the shadows, and keep your head low. Don’t try to be no damn hero, you hear me?"

Vin gave Buck another crooked grin and then turned his head so the older man couldn’t see the murky shadows that lurked in the back of his eyes, the only give-away sign to the tracker’s true weariness. He glanced over at Rusty, who was sitting on the fireplace hearth, and gave the old-timer a nod. Rusty touched a finger lightly to his eyebrow in way of a farewell salute. Vin then turned to look at JD, watching as the youngest member again lay sleeping, curled up on his blanket with a hand pressed protectively against his wounded side. His young friend’s color was much better now, but he still had dark smudges under his eyes, proof that he was far from healed up. Pulling his eyes up, Vin ran smack dab into Lou’s gaze. She had an almost motherly expression on her face as she returned the tracker’s stare, but Vin didn’t want to deal with the concern her gaze held. He was worried enough about leaving them one man short; he didn’t want to think of them worrying after him. As though she understood his thoughts and feelings, Lou’s face again turned passive as she started to speak.

"The entrance out of the root cellar is in the back of the cabin. I doubt Morrison’s men even knows it’s there, so hopefully they ain’t wastin’ time watching the back." Lou lay her cross-stitching down onto the side table and rose nonchalantly out of her rocking chair. After dragging the rocker away from the center of the room, she then bent over and pulled back a heavy, homespun throw rug to reveal a trap door. "Once you get outside keep low and make your way to the big field near the base of the mountain. I got two old saddle horses wintering back there. We retired them from the work herd last year, but either one of them will still pack you where ya need to go, and they know these mountains even better than me. Do what you have to do and then just drop the reins onto their neck and they will bring ya home safe."

"If you ain’t back here in a day I’m coming looking for you, Tanner!" Buck told Vin as he held up the trap door for Vin to climb through.

"I’m counting on it," Vin said with a grin, and after slipping on his rawhide gloves, he started to climb down into the dirt root cellar.

Lou quietly watched the interaction between the two men, and experienced an unfamiliar feeling of indecision creeping over her as she started questioning the wisdom of their plan.

"You really think this is my best option?" she asked, her voice faltering with uncertainty.

"It’s your only option!" Buck answered, fighting to keep his voice level and not snap at the old woman.

"Don’t waste that tone of voice on me!" Lou huffed her chest out at the tall man. "It’s you all that sucked the rational parts of my brain right out my ear!"

"Look here, you ungrateful…’ Buck bit out, the turmoil and frustration of the last few days finally getting the better of the usually unruffled peacekeeper.

"Ungrateful!" Lou sputtered. "You’re a fine one to call anyone else names. You…you pigheaded, rude, self-centered…"

"Watch it lady," Buck cut in sarcastically. "If you’re not careful, you’ll turn my head with all your compliments!"

"Buck…" Vin said, with the quiet voice of reason. "We’re all on the same side here. Ya both need to let it go."

Buck and Lou shot cross looks in the others direction, before pulling their eyes away.

He thought he had a better chance of predicting spring weather than he had of reading her.

She thought he would always rub her the wrong way, like a loosely cinched saddle on the back of a horse.

"I apologize for my foul temper," Lou muttered, "my brother used to always tell me I didn’t never know when to keep my mouth shut."

"Well, I’m a might cranky myself," Buck answered back, while extending his hand to the older woman.

"Alright then, I guess we should get back at it," Lou said stepping back from the trapdoor and grasping Buck’s hand. "You boys seem to know what you’re doing,"

"I wonder whatever we could’ve said that gave her that notion!" Vin said laughing at Buck but looking at Lou, his big blue eyes sparkling, giving her a glimpse of the man he only shared with close friends. But immediately his shy defense fell back in place and he quickly became business like.

"You folks watch out for yourselves," Vin told them, his voice sounding strangely husky as he descended the rest of the way down into the root cellar.

"You just watch your own self, and get your ugly mug back here in one piece," Buck called down into the dank, dark hole beneath the cabin, his own voice gruff with emotion.

"We’ll get through this alright, boys," Lou spoke loud enough for both Buck and Vin to hear her, her voice again filling up with the authority they associated as being part of her. "Even if it’s only so we can look them Morrison’s right in the face and spit in their eyes!"

Buck could only nod at the old woman, as he held the trapdoor open until he heard Vin slip out of the root cellar. Then, with a troubled heart, he dropped the heavy wooden door back down into place and covered it back up with the rug.

+ + + + + + +

With his rifle firmly griped in his hand, Vin creeped out of the root cellar and keeping as low as he could, floundered through deep snowdrifts for several feet to the cover of a grove of birch trees. It was dark outside, but if he was not careful his shadow could still be seen against the white snow. From the cover of the trees, he checked the surrounding area for any sign of Morrison’s men. His keen eyesight caught the shadowy image of a man sitting atop a horse in the tree line left of the cabin. The red-boned hound dog sat silently in the barn entrance and nonchalantly watched the intruder as well. He seemed to sense that the people inside the cabin did not want the man watching them to know they knew he was there. The dog whimpered when he caught Vin’s scent from behind the cabin, but instead of going to the tracker, he just lay down with his head resting on his paws and waited.

From under a tree Vin shivered. In spite of his coat’s thick lining, the freezing cold seeped inward, quickly spreading through his body until a dull ache throbbed in every joint, and he hadn’t even left sight of the cabin yet. Vin shuddered as he realized how tough and miserable the job in front of him was going to be. Biting back the negative thoughts, Vin shrugged the cold off, and making sure the cowboy watching the cabin did not see him, worked his way to the pasture furthest from Lou’s living quarters.

Vin had just ducked under the fence when he heard the sound of hooves on the other side of a rise, walking across the crusty snow in his direction. Minutes later, two old sway-backed geldings appeared over the small ridge and made their way to him. Curious white haired muzzles that had once been a solid red color sniffed him over, the puffs of white from their nostrils warming Vin’s hands through his gloves. With the quick eye of a true horseman, Vin sized the two animals up for soundness. Taking a thin piece twine from his pocket, Vin slipped the rope around the neck of the smaller gelding. The little horse snorted at the unexpected feel of a rope once again being placed around his neck, but stood perfectly still while Vin grabbed a piece of his mane and swung a leg across the horse’s broad back. Vin grimaced from the effort and rubbed a hand against his bruised ribs, and not for the first time cursed the cowhands who had used him for a punching bag back at the jail. Taking as deep a breath as he could without hurting himself more, Vin settled his thighs onto the horse’s warm back and then gently nudged him forward with his seat.

The bigger gelding nickered out once as his friend was ridden away, but he then turned and made his way towards the neighboring fence-line and the company of Lou’s yearling herd.

Vin missed the presence of Peso, but they didn’t want Morrison to know any of them had left the ranch, so Vin’s black horse was left out in the corral in plain view with the other three men’s horses. The little chestnut gelding was nowhere near as smooth as Peso to ride, but he was surefooted over the unforgiving terrain and turned on a dime with just the twine wrapped around his neck. Vin thought Lou and her brother had certainly known how to put a handle on a horse, if this gelding was anything to go by. Vin kept the horse to a walk until he left the small valley behind and found the path that led to Morrison’s ranch, and then he put the gelding into a steady trot.

Vin cursed the absence of moonlight as unseen tree branches snuck up to catch him across his body, nearly knocking him from the horse. After the second branch hit him on him his left cheek drawing blood, he tucked himself flat on the horse, pushed his face down into the gelding’s mane and just let the horse wind his way through the trees unaided.

As he got closer to the Morrison ranch, Vin pulled the horse back down to a walk. The snow finally had stopped falling and the clouds opened up to let some moonlight through to reflect off the white vastness of snow. While it made it easier for Vin to see, it also made it easier for any of Morrison’s men to spot him if they were out riding. Vin quietly neck-reined the chestnut to the edge of the trail closest to the dark trees while keeping a sharp lookout. About a mile from the main house, Vin turned and made his way towards a large pasture that he and Buck had come across that morning. A grin touched his cold lips as he came to the fence line and saw the large herd of ranch horses eating hay.

Cautiously, Vin slipped from the horse and dropped the twine to the ground. The horse took one step to follow Vin, but at a whispered whoa he stopped and watched his rider melt into the landscape.

Keeping to the trees, Vin worked his way towards the herd while staying down wind of them. Coming up against the log fence, Vin squatted down onto his heels and pulled off his wet woolen gloves. He cupped his wrinkled hands to his mouth and warmed them with a misty puff of breath while his blue eyes scanned the field. He could make out one rider slowly circling the band of horses, a firearm strapped to each of his hips and a Winchester rifle resting in his scabbard. Vin wondered if any of Morrison’s men were actual cowhands. They all packed guns everywhere they went and adopted a shoot first, ask questions later, attitude.

Vin started to make his way back to his horse when he suddenly had to dive behind a tree. He had almost missed the cowhand standing in a grove of trees just on the other side of where Vin had left his horse. The man stood with his back to him, holding his reins and a bottle of whiskey in one hand, and juggling his twelve-gauge shotgun in the other, all while trying not to wet on himself at the same time.

"Where are the clouds when ya need them?" Vin mouthed softly, as he peeked out between the tree branches.

Figuring this was as good a time as any, with the cowhand distracted by his own needs, Vin moved through the trees to his horse, silent as a shadow. Vin again thanked Lou for her training job on the little chestnut, as the horse had not moved a foot from where Vin had left him. Grabbing a handful of mane, Vin again swung himself up onto the horse’s back and nudged the animal along the fence line away from the cowhands until he found a section of fence that had a broken top rail. Vin rode the horse back and forth to pack down the snow along the fence, and then backing several feet away he turned gelding to face the fence. With a cluck, he sent the horse into a lope straight at the lower section of fencing. Not sure what he was expected of him, the horse slammed on his brakes almost sending Vin over his ears, but the experienced horseman managed to stay astride. He again turned the horse to the fence, and this time riding with a stronger leg, sent the horse flying over the two remaining rails and into the pasture.

Vin dropped the twine to the pony’s neck and nudged the animal into a rocking gallop through the snow, steering him with just his knees as he held his rifle up in front. The cowboy watching the horse herd was on the other side of the animals when Vin came out of nowhere. The horses threw up their heads and started to mill around at the unexpected appearance of the rushing horse and man. Vin fired off a single shot, and as one the spooked herd took off running. The horses were past the cowhand before he could get his own horse under control and even try to make any attempt at stopping the headlong rush of animals. He shouted at his friend back in the trees and then pulled a gun from his holster, pointing it at Vin. At his first shot, his horse reared high onto his back legs, throwing the shot well off his target.

Vin kept coming, riding hard as he dangled off the side of the little red gelding, riding Comanche style. The cowhand turned his horse and charged towards them, firing with both his pistols. Vin waited patiently as the wild shots went wide. In a full out gallop now, Vin held onto the mane with a single hand while he held his rifle-butt tight against his shoulder and squeezed off two shots. The first one sent the cowboy’s hat flying into the air; the second shot blew another hole in it before it touched the ground.

The cowboy’s horse slammed to a dead halt as though it had hit a solid fence. The cowboy stared stunned and disbelieving at his hat now lying upon the snow. With a shout, he spun his horse around and took off in the opposite direction as fast as his broom-tailed mustang would carry him through the snow.

Vin started to pull up the gelding when a shot kicked up snow to the left of them. In a glance, he saw the other cowhand emerge from the trees, minus the bottle, and with the shotgun pointed straight at him. Vin heeled the gelding back into a gallop, running parallel to the shooter. With just one leg gripping the gelding’s back he slid back down onto the horse’s side, keeping the chestnut between him and the shotgun. Dangling off the side, he swung his rifle under his horse’s neck and sighted down the barrel. The gelding stumbled a step when the shotgun pointed at him roared again, this time barely missing as it threw up snow and stung Vin with frozen ice chips.

Vin muttered a soft word to steady the old horse, and then squeezed the trigger. A snow-laden tree branch above the cowhand’s head snapped as the bullet penetrated the cold, brittle wood. Already bending under the heavy weight of all the snow, the branch crashed down on the cowboy’s head, knocking him out cold before he hit the ground. Vin pulled himself back up so he was riding astride again, and checked the headlong rush of the old gelding.

Vin grinned to himself as he pulled the gelding down to a walk and gave the sweaty horse a gentle pat with his gloved hand. "How’s that for a lucky shot?" he asked the little horse while gasping to catch his own breath, "Lucky for him anyways…I was aiming right for the fool!"

Not able to risk any time resting, Vin turned the old horse in the direction that the horse herd had run off in and picked up a strong trot to follow them. The first cowboy would be riding into the ranch yard by now and soon would have all available hands coming after him. He needed to finish this job and get the hell out of here before they came.

Sighting the herd, Vin set off a volley of shots and got the horses running in mass again. The pasture fence was coming up fast, but Vin kept pushing the animals. Frightened, the horses ran against the fence, pushing and mulling against it until one of the rails snapped. Vin fired another shot into the air and the horses smashed their way through the remaining rails and took off running into the night.

Hearing the fast approaching footsteps of the ranch-hands running down the path towards the pasture, Vin spun the gelding around to follow the herd into the night. Racing bareback through the trees, he was quickly swallowed up by the wilderness.

+ + + + + + +*

JD shivered from the cold that pored in through the single pane of glass in Lou’s back bedroom. He set his rifle down against the bed and pulled the quilt up tighter around his shoulders, while keeping his eyes peeled to the window. For awhile he had been sitting on his knees on the floor, but soon the swelling in his sore knee got to be too much for him and he had to stretch the leg out in front of him. Now he sat on two pillows, so he was propped up just high enough to see above the windowsill and keep watch for any of Morrison’s men who might want to sneak up on them from the back of the cabin. Absentmindedly, he let his fingers touch the bandage that was wrapped around the wound on his side, flinching as the contact sent a burning pain deep into his abdomen.

With a slight moan of frustration that the pain was not subsiding fast enough to suit him, JD closed his eyes and banged his head lightly against the wall. Lost in his own thoughts, JD didn’t hear when someone entered the bedroom.

"Whoa there, son!" From the doorway, Buck put his hands in the air in a mock surrender when JD suddenly grabbed up his rifle and whirled around pointing it at him.

"Don’t shoot kid, it’s me," Buck said looming up behind him. "Sorry, I didn’t mean to spook you. You hear anything out there?"

"Naw." Relieved it was just Buck, JD shook his head at his best friend and let his shoulders drop back down to relax before turning back to face the window.

"Soon it will be light enough to actually see." Buck said softly, as he stared at the bandage that was bulky beneath JD’s loose-fitting shirt.

"Yep." the youth muttered quietly.

"You go ahead and lay down, JD, " Buck said, looking at the bags under JD’s eyes and hearing the monotone answers, "Might as well catch up on sleep when you can. I can’t sleep no how."

"You’re worse than an old grandma, Buck. I’m fine," JD said, without turning to face his friend. "Someone needs to watch the back. I know you’re good, but even you can’t be here and watching out of the front room at the same time."

"Lou’s up already and watching the front with the old rooster, so we got it covered." Buck took JD’s rifle from his hands and hunkered down on the floor beside the window, forcing the smaller youth to move out of the way. JD opened his mouth to argue he could do his job, but then snapped it shut knowing it would be fruitless against Buck. In one last show of defiance, he wrestled his rifle out of Buck’s hand, and then he scooted over to lean back against the wall. In spite of the fact he had slept most of yesterday away, he was tired, maybe as tired as he had ever felt in his life. With his rifle across his lap, he let his head fall back against the wall and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, it was daylight and he was alone.

+ + + + + + +

"Why did you let me sleep so long?" JD limped out of the back bedroom to find Rusty standing over the stove cooking, and Buck leaning with his elbows on either side of the windowpane, watching the snow come down. "Anything happen that I should know about?"

"Not a thing, sleepy-head," Buck grinned at the slowly waking youth, and then turned back to the window. "Heads up…here comes Lou in from the barn now."

Rusty moved silently to stand beside Buck and peek out the window.

"Ain’t she beautiful!" Rusty mumbled, a dreamy look on his weathered face.

"What?" Buck asked, searching the field in front of him, but seeing only Lou exiting the barn. "Who are you talking about, rooster? I think your advancing age is playing games with your mind."

"She smells like bluebells." Rusty said in a hushed voice, not even hearing Buck.

"She smells like what!" Buck asked, trying to not laugh as he watched the older woman marching back to the cabin through the deep drifts dressed only in a long, worn nightgown, cowboy boots, and an over-sized wool coat that must have belonged to her brother at one time. "You can’t be talking about that old crow?"

Rusty jumped as he suddenly realized he had spoken his private thoughts out loud. He heard himself bluster a bunch of nothing to the two younger men, as he tried valiantly to cover up his comments, but soon gave up the pretence as the two men watched him with amused expressions.

"Her voice is as soft as a cloud floating in the sky," Rusty sighed as he watched Lou stomp up the snow-covered steps and onto the porch, pausing long enough outside to knock the snow from her boots against the banister. "She makes me feel like I’m wrapped close to a warm fire on a cold winter night."

JD felt a little loss for words at the old man’s admission, so he shrugged at Rusty, "I thought she smelt more like lye soap and fresh air myself."

Buck gave them both quizzical looks and shook his head in disbelief at what he was hearing, "I’ll tell you what she smells like! Either of you notice the brown and green stain on the bottom of her nightshirt; it ain’t from wild meadow flowers, you two knotheads. She smells like cow dung and a wet saddle blanket hung up after a long, hard ride. And the only way her voice is remotely like a fluffy cloud is if you’re talking about a thundercloud. The woman is nasty and mean."

"You can say whatever you want, Wilmington, you being young and foolish still," Rusty said turning back to the stove just before the door opened, "But she’s all woman, more than you could ever handle!"

Buck shot Rusty a dirty look that had JD burst out laughing.

"Just backup the haywagon, old rooster!" Buck said huffily. "I don’t ever want to see the inside of no prison cell, not if after ya get out you think someone who ain’t even as attractive as the backside of a cow smells like bluebells!"

"What’s so funny?" Lou asked as she stepped into the cabin with an arm full of firewood.

"Nothing," Buck snapped, hoping Lou had not heard the last of their conversation, "Just men talk."

"Well, men will be boys," Lou said, kicking off her boots and missing the surly glance Buck sent her way.

"Buck keeps proving that!" Rusty said, getting in a last dig.

"Okay, okay if you’ve all had enough merriment for now, we could get company any time and I want to make sure we’re ready." Buck turned away from the window so he could face the cabin’s other three occupants. "JD, you sure you’re okay watching from the barn?"

"Ready, willing and able," JD told him, nodding his head enthusiastically, while ignoring the biting pain in his side and knee.

Buck sighed deeply at the look of anticipation on the youth’s face, but he couldn’t justify giving the kid heck. They both shared a restless spirit that was always impatient to see what adventure lay on the other side of a hill. Reluctantly, but knowing they would need every available hand before the day was over, Buck gave JD his orders before turning to the others.

"We best throw back some food first. Might be the last chance we have to eat for a while. Lou, I want you to make sure your guns are all loaded and you got lots of spare ammunition. I’m going to be moving all over the yard area like I am doing your regular chores," Buck said, as he reached for his coat. "JD, before you come out to the barn, I want you to stick your head out the door a few times wearing Vin’s hat. I’m hoping Vin got away with Morrison’s horses without being seen. I want the man watching us to think we still got four men here to defend the place."

"Where do ya want me posted?" Rusty asked, as he served up four bowls of the hot porridge he had just made.

"You can watch out the back, and let Lou know if you spot anyone coming." Buck told the old cowboy, while spooning some molasses into his oatmeal.

"And I’ll need me a weapon of some sort." Rusty interrupted him.

Buck stared at Rusty in disbelief, "I wouldn’t trust you with a peashooter in a strong wind!" Buck shook his head as though the old cowboy had lost his mind. "You’re lucky I don’t just tie you to the stove. JD and me will handle any trouble Morrison’s send our way! You’ve already caused me enough grief for one life time."

"Hanging around with you three ain’t been no picnic for me either!" Rusty answered back annoyed.

"Well, I’d like to know what is it about you men, even the half growed and the well-done ones, that seems to make you the happiest when you’re in the middle of doing some tom-foolery?" Lou shook her head in wonder at the willingness of these four men to jump into this battle that was not even theirs to fight.

JD’s mouth dropped open at Lou’s comment, "It better be Buck you’re calling half growed. I’m a man!" JD tried to stretch himself up to his full height, but the wound in his side tugged painfully at him and with a small gasp he rounded around his stomach down, becoming smaller instead.

"You’re not a man yet…not quite," Lou gave the youth a pat on the arm and a supportive smile. She just hoped the youngster still had a chance of becoming a man after what today was probably going to bring.

"Any questions?" Buck asked the three other people seriously. "Everybody knows what is expected of them? Good, then lets eat fast and get ready."

Tensely, Lou nodded her understanding, and started to eat her meal. The porridge tasted like sawdust to her, but she shoveled it down anyway.

The mood in the room had become silent and heavy, as each of them got lost in their own private thoughts and feelings. Buck pushed his porridge absently around his bowl with his spoon, his spirit restless and unsettled.

To break their somber frame of mind, Rusty reached over and gave JD a slap on the back. "Hey boy, you’re still young and innocent. The good Lord might still be willin’ to listen to ya. What say you chat em up, and put in a good word for me, would ya?"

JD grinned at the old man, as Buck and Lou burst out laughing, "Going to take more than a conversation with JD to put you back in the good books, old rooster." His dimples cutting deep into his cheeks, Buck gratefully felt some of the tension leave the room with Rusty’s simple words.

+ + + + + + +

Buck threw the last of the hay over the fence to the cattle, sneaking a peek over at Morrison’s man at the same time. The cowhand had not moved from his hiding space since Buck had come outside. Several times, JD stuck his head out the cabin door wearing Vin’s hat. Buck hoped it was enough to fool the man watching them that Vin was still at the ranch with them.

Hearing the cabin door slam a forth time, he turned to see that it was JD stepping out on to the cabin’s porch. The youth stood at the top of the stairs turning his collar up higher around his neck and sticking his chin down into it for warmth. With a backwards glance through a shuttered window into the cabin, he slowly climbed down the stairs and nonchalantly hobbled towards the barn. He held a hand over his wounded side to both support his injury and to hold the rifle he had hidden under Lou’s long, canvas duster that he had borrowed to wear.

"I told Lou I needed a speck of air, so she asked me to gather some eggs from the hens roosting in the barn," JD shouted out towards Buck, but loud enough for the man watching them to also hear.

Chuckling, Buck pushed away from the corral fence and joined JD in the middle of the yard. Hooking an arm carefully around the youth’s neck, he gently pulled him into a partial headlock and headed them towards the barn, "Don’t have to yell boy…I ain’t so old yet that I’m deaf,’ Buck hollered back at the youth, as they entered the barn and closed the door behind him.

The heat inside the log building barely took the chill off their bodies.

"You think he heard what I said?" JD asked, ducking out of Buck’s hold and peeking out the door.

"I think Chris could hear you back in Four Corners." Buck grinned. "You watch out the back and I’ll take the loft for a bit."

"You really think Morrison’s are going to come back, Buck?" JD asked, as he opened the single back door a crack, and hunkered down on a bale of hay to keep watch for any one who might try sneaking up on the backside of the place. "We did kick their butts twice already. Maybe they’ve had enough."

"I’d like to say no, JD, but men like them are too greedy to know when to stop. Lou has something they want and they’ve decided now is the time they’re going to try taking it!" Buck answered, as he stiffly climbed up the ladder. "From what I’ve seen of these two brothers, I’d say we’re going to be in for a battle. I just hope they sent most of their cowhands after the horses that Vin was going to chase off, and all we’re going to be left facing is a skeleton crew."

"I just hope Vin got away okay!" JD turned away from the door to face his best friend. "I hate not knowing if he’s safe, or not."

Buck paused at the top of the ladder to look down on JD. "Yeah, I know, kid. But if anyone is going to be fine riding around in these here woods, you gotta know it is that crazy son-of-a-gun!"

Buck’s strong, positive voice spoke volumes to the younger man. With a reassured nod, JD turned back to watch out the door. Buck just wished he felt as confident about the tracker’s well being. It was the not knowing that he was finding the hardest to deal with. It made more sense for Vin to be the one to ride off, but it still didn’t sit right with the handsome peacekeeper.

"Hey, Buck," JD hissed from under the loft.

Buck stuck his head over the edge to see JD standing below him, with Vin’s spyglass in his hand, "Vin left this in his saddlebag. You want it up there with you?"

At Buck’s nod, JD started to climb up the ladder, slowly one rung at a time.

"Just pass it up to me, kid," Buck said, reaching down for the spyglass. The kid already had a bullet hole in his side and a bum knee. Buck didn’t need him taking a header off the ladder as well.

Smiling, JD tucked it inside his coat so it was out of Buck’s reach, "Wait your turn, Buck. I wanna have a look see too." Stepping off the ladder onto the solid wood boards, JD scrambled through the loose hay to the end of the loft. Lifting the spyglass up, he scanned the horizon through the loft door, but didn’t find anything out of the ordinary.

"Cut loose them glasses, JD!" Buck snatched the spyglass out of JD’s hand. "You won’t savvy what you’re looking at anyways!"

"Hey!" the kid exclaimed.

Grinning, Buck stuck a hand up to ward off JD’s attempt at retrieving the glasses back until the irritated youth backed off and let him look through them.

"Ya miserable hog!" Buck pulled the spyglass away from his eye and wiped the lens off with his shirtsleeve. "How do ya work this blasted thing? I can see better without it, then I can with em!"

"Some jackasses sure like to bray." JD snorted through his nose. "I might not savvy what I’m looking at, but at least I know which end to look through. Turn them around."

"Never you mind, bed-wetter," Buck gave JD an insolent look, his comment having rubbed the older man’s vanity the wrong way. "And while you’re up here peaking your mouth off at me they could be sneaking in the back way and getting set to shoot us all, right under your tipped-up, girly nose!"

"Or maybe it ain’t the spyglass at all, Buck? Maybe it’s your advanced age causing your eyes to lack some of their sharpness. You know, like they were when you was younger," JD said cheekily, with a grin spreading on his young face. "A lot younger. Maybe instead of looking through Vin’s spyglass, we should get you some of them fancy store bought eyeglasses like bankers and old widow-ladies wear!"

Shaking his head in disgust, and for once not quick with a comeback, Buck watched JD awkwardly straddle the ladder back down to the barn’s dirt floor, and hobble back over to his viewpoint.

"Rest easy, Buck!" JD hollered up at him, as he looked out the door, "it don’t look like they’re getting set to shoot us from back here just yet!"

+ + + + + + +

Lou smiled to herself, while watching through the window she saw Buck grab JD in a headlock and steer him towards the barn. The big man sure had what it took to get on her nerves, like nails on a blackboard, but she couldn’t go as far as to say she disliked him. He was too kind and caring of the younger men he rode with, and he also had a heck of a sense of humor when the mood struck him just right. No…the only thing that kept her from truly liking him was his attitude towards Rusty.

Nonchalantly, she turned from the window to watch the cowboy sitting quietly at her table, braiding her a new headstall. The old-timer was remarkably efficient around the place, and not a big blow-hard showoff like most men she knew. He had the softest eyes, and most soothing voice of any man she had ever met. And there lay the problem. She had a ranch to run. She didn’t have time or energy to waste on a man, especially one who was heading back to a prison cell for god knew how long.

"Stupid, stupid, stubborn, old woman!" She muttered under her breath, and turning away from the window, she stormed past the kitchen table and past a confused Rusty. She was a stubborn old woman, and getting older and more foolish with each passing year. Only a fool would continue to try running a spread of this size alone. Now she didn’t have a brother left alive, or even an available ranch hand to help her out. After all these years, she wondered if she had ever really been woman enough to work the ranch, even when her youth had been on her side. But this was not the time to start doubting herself, this ranch was all she knew anymore, all she wanted to know.

Marching into the sitting room, she took down her old double-barreled shotgun from above the fireplace mantle, and thumb-cocked the weapons two hammers. It was her favorite weapon, the weight felt right in her hands, almost comforting, if you could ever think of a weapon in that term. The wide pattern of buckshot-packed loads eliminated the need for a good aim. She wouldn’t use it to go hunting ducks, but it was a wise choice if you wanted to do some damage to a lot of men spread out over a large area.

"I’m taking the back," she said briskly, and then disappeared into the back bedroom. Rusty could only sit in his chair and stare at the closed door. He thought back to their last conversation and tried to remember something he might have said that would have put her in such a sudden foul mood, but he couldn’t think of a thing. He figured maybe the stress was understandably starting to get to her.

Rusty stood and walked over to the window to see if something, or someone outside could have made her angry. All he could see for a good mile was snow. Everything was covered in the white powder, even the livestock. Turning away from the window, he caught his reflection in the cabin’s only mirror. The haircut and shave had surely improved the appearance of the old man who stared back at him. That, and a week’s worth of regular rations had helped fill out his haggard cheekbones. Still, it was the face of a tired, old man looking back at him.

Mad at himself and even more angry with the unfairness of the world at this moment, Rusty turned away from his reflection. This morning his sixty-plus years weighed heavily on his shoulders. What decent woman would want an old, worn out warhorse like himself, even if he wasn’t heading back to prison. ‘Nobody…that’s who,’ he thought to himself. ‘Especially not a wonderful woman like Lou, who owned her own spread, and probably had a list of admirers an arm long!’

He didn’t have a thing to offer her, or a pot to pee in. With more regret than he thought was possible, Rusty turned and looked at the bedroom door one last time. Then with a sad sigh, he moved the rug from over the trapdoor, climbed down into the root cellar, and snuck out of the cabin without a backwards glance.

+ + + + + + +

With a grunt of discomfort, Buck rolled his head side to side to get rid of the crick in his neck. Looking out over Lou’s ranch yard, he wondered how much longer it was going to be before one or both of the Morrison’s would show up. To him it was not a matter of if, but definitely of when, and with how many men. He again hoped that Vin had accomplished his job and then got away safely. Buck rubbed his tired eyes and then brought the eyeglass back up just as an image darted across the field. He blinked a couple of times to get rid of his blurred vision, and then took another look. Sure enough, someone on foot was dodging across the meadow towards a lone horse. At first, Buck thought it was Morrison’s man, but there was something familiar about his shuffling way of walking.

"That son on of a…!" Buck exclaimed, as he suddenly identified the ambling gait of the man. "Hopkins…you old rooster! I knew it, I knew I couldn’t trust you any further than JD could throw ya!"

Buck reached for his rifle and sighted it down on the old cowboy, just at the same time Rusty reached Lou’s other old gelding. Grabbing a handful of mane, the cowboy awkwardly pulled himself up onto the horse’s tall back and started riding away from the ranch. Buck stood up and re-sighted the rifle, drawing a bead on the retreating man’s back. His finger twitched as he debated making the shot.

"What’s going on, Buck?" JD’s young voice called out from below. "Are they coming?"

’Damn!’ thought Buck. He couldn’t shoot the old guy with JD standing right there, especially not in the back, not after all the lectures they had given the youth about fair fighting etiquette.

Grudgingly, Buck lowered his rifle. He was torn between jumping on Polecat, chasing the old goat down and rearranging the cowboy’s nose from its present state. But on the other side of the coin, that would mean leaving JD and Lou alone with the possibility of facing off against the Morrison’s, and that wasn’t an option he was willing to make.

"Oh, to hell with it!" Buck muttered to himself, drawing his rifle back up. Then suddenly, just before disappearing from view over a ridge, the old cowboy pulled up the horse on his own accord and turned to look back at the cabin.

Not sure what he was up to now, Buck again lowered his rifle and just stood watching the lone old man sitting on the ancient horse. It seemed to Buck, the man was fighting some private inner battle of his own.

+ + + + + + +

Rusty felt so old. His mind and body were like termite-eaten wood…brittle and dried out. As little as ten years ago, he would have been able to shake off the cold and wet that now had invaded his bones after just a few minutes of exposure. Also, he would have been able to ride away from the cabin and the woman inside it without so much as a backwards glance. That was how he had chosen to live his life, drop in with a howdy, stay long enough to make a friend or two, and then ride away unencumbered to his next job. Now, what he wanted more than anything else he had ever wanted in his life was to go back inside Lou’s cabin, and eat her cooking in front of a warm fire with her curled up by his side.

Rusty booted the gelding in the side and started to walk away again. Even if he went back, it wasn’t as if he would get to stay with her. A prison cell was all his future held for him, and he didn’t think he would be able to survive that hellhole if he was sent back, not after these few days of blessed freedom.

Rusty pulled up again, this time looking towards the barn. The kid inside the hip-roof barn trusted him. In fact, he had put his faith in him, even when his friends had tried to tell him different. But mostly, he believed in him in a way few on this earth were willing to.

Rusty rode another few steps, then stopped again to let his head drop down to his chest. He couldn’t get the image out of his mind of JD lying shivering against the snow in a expanding circle of his own blood, or the sounds of agony the youth had made while getting the bullet dug out of his tender hide. Rusty couldn’t fathom the grief he would feel if the same thing happened again, or worse, if it happened to Lou.

How had it come down to a choice between his own personal freedom, or the life and possible death of two people he had never even met until a few days ago? How had they gotten under his skin so fast and so deep?

With a holler of frustration, he spun around while digging his heels into the gelding’s side, and galloped as fast as the horse could go back to the ranch. Sliding off the broad back, he climbed through the pasture fence and hobbled around to enter through the front door of the cabin.

"You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you for one of the Morrison’s," Lou said, standing in the middle of the sitting room with her rifle in her hand, and her eyes misty. "Welcome home."

+ + + + + + +

In long strides, Buck swiftly covered the distance between the barn and the cabin.

Lou and Rusty both jumped as the door flew open with a loud bang, and Buck stormed into the cabin, suddenly making the living space feel small.

"Why aren’t you keeping watch?" he bellowed at Lou. "If I was the Morrison’s, I’d have just shot you both dead!"

Not pausing to listen to any comments they tried to make, Buck slammed into the back bedroom and when he came out he carried one of Lou’s spare rifles and a box of shells.

"Here," he said, handing them to Rusty. "Just make sure every shot counts. I don’t know how many are going to come, or how long we’re going to have to hold them off."

Rusty and Lou stared speechless at Buck’s back, as the man stomped out of the cabin.

Pausing on the bottom step, Buck turned and looked back up at Rusty through the door, "I guess wisdom does come with age, old-timer. I still think I have you pegged for trouble, but for now, thanks for coming back, cowboy!"


Comments to: