The Twilight Years

by Patricia

Part Ten (continued)
The snowflakes were still gently falling to the earth, only there was more of them coming down now than an hour ago. JD hoped they weren’t going to have to contend with adverse weather conditions again, he was having enough trouble focusing on the world outside of the barn door as it was. With the back of his hand he reached up and swiped at the sweat dripping down from his forehead. He didn’t understand how he could be sweating and freezing all at the same time. He was actually wishing the Morrison’s would show up, just so they could get this over with and he could go lay back down in his blankets.

"How you doing down there, boy?" Buck called out to him from the loft.

"I’m fine, Buck." Exasperation lased JD’s voice. That was the third time in the last half hour Buck had asked him that exact question. Not that he would say anything to Buck, but he really wished he had stayed in the house where he would have at least been warm. His side was hurting incessantly, and no matter what he did he couldn’t get the throbbing to subside. Buck’s constant, what JD thought of as harping, wasn’t helping to improve either his pain level or his sour mood. "Would ya please just stop asking me how I feel?"

"Well, pardon me all to heck for caring…!" Buck stopped in mid-sentence, and hastily brought Vin’s spyglass up to his eye. Searching right where the mountain and the skyline met to the left of the ranch, Buck could make out an indistinguishable rider trotting through the pine trees. Buck wondered why someone would be riding that high up. Transfixed on the single rider, he almost missed the six blurred riders who were starting to sneak down off the mountain on the other side of the valley. He started to twitch with edgy apprehensiveness, as he watched the men emerge out of the falling snow to make their way towards the cabin. Guardedly, he whispered down at JD.

"Kid, they’re coming! Keep your eyes open back there." Buck brought his rifle up to his shoulder and tried to judge how far away the men were from them. At the base of the mountain, the riders split up into groups of two and came at the ranch from three different sides. "How many bloody men ride for the Morrison’s brand? They must have sent a skeleton crew after the horses, and saved the majority for us!"

"Buck!" JD hissed urgently up at him. "I got eight more of them coming in from the back!"

"Ah, bloody hell…"Buck muttered under his breath. "Come on Vin, where the heck are you?"

+ + + + + + +*

The sharpshooter pushed the old horse as hard as he could through the snow. He was making better time than he had thought he would, but he still had too far to go. His wind-blown hair was tousled and sprinkled with snow and bits of tree bark, and his steel-blue eyes were watering from the chilling winds. He felt like hell. Mind-numbingly exhausted, Vin centered what was left of his energy on one single thought, and that was getting back to the ranch as fast as he could. He just prayed that Buck and JD would be able to hang on until he returned.

+ + + + + + +

Gunfire erupted, followed by the sound of splintering glass. Then return fire from the two occupants of the cabin could be heard.

Buck sighted his rifle at the riders racing in towards the barn with their pistols blazing. Bullets plowed into the barn frame above his head showering him with wood chips. Patiently, Buck waited, with his finger on the trigger, until he had a perfect shot. With a gentle pull of his finger the rifle recoiled back against his shoulder, and one of the riders cried out as he tumbled from his horse clutching a bloody knee.

JD stood up against the door-jam for balance. He was breathing hard, his face sheening with sweat, as dizzying waves of lightheadedness washed over him. Drawing one of his six-guns out of his holster, the gun barrel wobbled around in a circle in his unsteady hand.

"Easy!" Buck called down to him soothingly from his position up in the loft. "Take it easy, boy. Just point and fire."

JD blinked to clear his head. Four riders were bearing down on his side of the barn. His gun barked twice. A man went down, clinging to his arm. He got up. Then went down again.

Now JD settled down into the battle. His hands steadied, his injuries forgotten for the moment. Another man on a chunky pinto galloped towards him with his smoking gun drawn. JD drew a half bead in the sights, and with the thunder of the report, the man flew off the back of his horse and slid to within four paces of the barn. JD kept his gun on the man, but the cowboy lay unconscious on the cold ground with a streak of red running across his cheekbone.

Having ducked down from the volley of shoots directed at him, Buck now slowly rose up onto his elbows, aimed and fired off three shots. The on-rushing cowboys reined up their mounts and stared in disbelief at the three hats that were now scattered on the ground with a bullet hole in each.

With a roar of anger, one of the men raised his pistol up and fired it at Buck. Buck dropped his head flat against the loft floor until he heard the gun click empty. Then in the blink of an eye, he brought his own pistol up and shot the man off his horse. The other two cowboys hauled their wounded counterpart up across his saddle, and spurred their horses out of the ranch yard as fast as they could go.

Gunshots and shouting from the cabin drew his attention away from the fleeing cowboys. A quick glance in JD’s direction was all Buck needed to see that the youth was holding his own. Buck climbed down the loft ladder two steps at a time and dashed out of the barn and into one of the cattle pens. Using the livestock for cover, Buck worked his way through the nervous animals. Instead of crawling through the rails, he hit the ground on his belly and rolled under them. Regaining his feet, he took off towards the cabin.

With a shout of warning from inside the cabin, the big peacekeeper swung around to face an oncoming horseman, but before he got his shot off, Rusty let go with a round of buckshot.

The horse squealed as a piece of hot buckshot burned a path across his haunches. Then the big animal reared high up on his back legs, and toppled over backwards on top his rider. Buck grimaced, as he heard the cowboy’s leg snap from under the horse and the man’s scream.

As another rider came barreling down on him, Buck ran the last few steps to the cabin and leaped up the porch steps in a single bound, but caught the top step with the tip of his toe, tripping to his knees. With a curse, he scrambled back to his snow-covered feet and tumbled through the cabin door as a bullet whined past his head.

"Nice entrance, Buck," Rusty grinned, as the tall man burst through the door and ended up sprawled out beside the kitchen table.

"Well, you know what they say…a bad pair of legs will get you an ass kicking!" Buck grumbled, while stretching behind him and kicking the cabin door closed with the toe of his boot. Rising to his feet, he was plumb tickled to find his extremities were all still perfectly intact. "How you holding up, old man?"

"I’ve decided I’m going to live," Rusty answered back.

Lou and Rusty were both standing next to a window, with Lou keeping watch as Rusty reloaded his weapon. Once Rusty was finished, he covered Lou while she reloaded her rifle. Buck untangled his long legs and climbed back to his feet. The two old folks seemed to have sorted out a system that worked between the two of them until another volley of bullets from outside had all three of them ducking.

"They’re trying to surround us!" Lou shouted at Buck. "You best watch out the back bedroom."

"I got me a better idea," Buck answered, while pushing the rocking chair out of the way and opening up the root cellar trapdoor. With a wave at the older couple, he climbed down into the dark, musty space.

Buck lifted up the outside cellar door a crack, so all that was visible were his two dark, blue eyes, and waited patiently. Not disappointed, he could soon hear the sound of footsteps on the crisp snow, as one of the cowhands came creeping around the corner of the cabin. The man was pressed up tightly against the house, while trying to sneak up to the bedroom window undetected. Buck stood completely still, holding his breath until the feet moved past him and came to a rest beside the window. The man was looking through the panel of glass, and was caught completely off guard when Buck threw the door up, leaped out of the cellar and hit him on the back of the head with a stick of firewood. The unconscious man collapsed bonelessly into Buck’s arms, and after a bit of a struggle the tall man was able to drag the cowboy down in to the cellar.

"Wade?" came a voice from the other side of the cabin. Buck quickly reached up and re-closed the door, just as another of the cowhands appeared cautiously around the corner.

‘One down, one to go!’ Buck thought to himself.

"Wade, where are ya?"

"He’s right here!" the big peacekeeper hissed, thrusting up hard on the cellar door. The cowboy turned around in time to have the door connect solidly with his face. Buck could hear cartilage in the man’s nose crunch, and see his blood splatter across the snow.

"Ah…ya broke my nose!" the man cried out, clutching his bleeding face with both hands.

"Oh…that has to hurt," Buck said sympathetically to the man. "Let me see if I can’t make that feel better." Buck swung the piece of firewood he still held in his hand, cuffing the man forcefully across the side of his head.

"That bump on the side of your head should make ya forget all about your nose now," smiling to himself, Buck dragged the second unconscious man down into the root cellar and deposited him on the dirt floor beside the first cowboy. "See how nice I am. I gave you company for each other!"

Buck figured he had fooled around long enough back here, as another round of renewed fighting came from the front of the cabin and out at the barn. Pulling the outside door closed behind him, Buck raced up the few steps of the root cellar and crawled back into the sitting room.

"I ain’t spreading bullshit…I intend to shoot ya!" Buck immerged from the hole just in time to hear Lou yelling loudly over the sound of gunfire at someone looming outside the cabin.

Buck hustled over to stand beside the woman, and carefully stuck his head out from behind the protection of the log wall to steal a glance out through the broken pane of glass. Buck saw the smaller of the Morrison brothers darting across the ranch yard at a run and then diving behind a water trough.

"Come on, Morrison," Lou muttered under her breath. "Stick your scrawny, little chicken neck up where’s I can see it. Give me something to shoot at."

"Yes!" Lou suddenly exclaimed, and pulled the trigger.

"Ohhh…" Buck said grimacing, as he saw Morrison go down into the snow with a screech, and a red bloodstain started to spread across the man’s backside.

"Nice shooting, Lou," Rusty said, as he too watched the cowboy struggle to his feet and grab for the trailing reins of a riderless horse that was trying to head back to the Morrison ranch. With one hand on the saddlehorn and his other gripping his injured buttock, Morrison pulled himself into the saddle, and leaning hunched over, cantered out of the yard.

"I just shot him where I’m convinced his brains are," the woman rancher told the two men in the cabin, a look of serious concentration still on her face. Only when Buck and Rusty burst out laughing, did she allow her mouth to relax into a small, crooked smile.

+ + + + + + +

"Where are ya, Buck?" JD muttered, as another hail of bullets whizzed by his head, the shoots deafening him. He ducked his head and went on re-loading his six-guns. The smell of gunpowder burned his nostrils and stung his eyes.

As soon as there was a lull in the firing, JD stuck his guns out the door and fired them both at the cowboys hiding behind a small toolshed, until they were empty. "Come on, Buck. I need some help out here!" the youth again mumbled to himself, pulling out the last eight bullets he had left in his holster. Cupping the cold metal in his hands, he bounced the bullets up and down, and then loaded them into his guns.

The shotgun he had brought out from the house under Lou’s duster, now lay on the floor with its chamber emptied, and no more shells to reload it with. The coat lay tossed down beside it on the dirt floor, his movement having been made awkward by the bulky size of it. The youth shivered in the frosty winter air while staring longingly at the duster, and he wished he had at least worn his wool coat out to the barn.

Gunshots, mixed with the sound of galloping hooves, brought JD back to the present. Pushing the door open a crack wider with the barrel of one of his pistols, he looked outside to see several riders galloping towards the barn. JD raised his pistol and aimed carefully to conserve his bullets. His first shot went wide, but his second caught one of the cowhands in the shoulder, sending him to the snow.

Two of the cowhands broke off and disappeared around the side of the barn. JD was about to move over to the front of the barn to see where they were going, but the other oncoming men pinned him down as they emptied their guns at the back door. Switching to rifles, three riders milled around in the snow, hollering at the top of their lungs and shooting huge chunks of wood out of the log structure. Frustration written all over his face, JD tried valiantly to hit them, but even through they were in close range, the three men kept their horses spinning like tops in all directions, making it impossible for him to sight down a target. JD swore as he heard the chamber click empty on both his colts, his bullets now used up.

Tossing the useless guns down to the ground, he frantically searched the barn for another weapon of some sort. He spotted Vin’s saddle hiding in a dark corner of the tack room. Pushing away from the barn wall, he limped over to it as fast as he could.

"Yes…thank you, Vin!" he exclaimed, examining the saddle. His cold fingers fumbled with the leather flap of the rifle scabbard, but he finally managed to grasp the butt and pull Vin’s extra rifle out. In the bottom of the tracker’s saddlebag, he found a few remaining shells, and slipped one into the chamber.

JD looked around the big, dark barn and tried to decide if he should go back to where he had been or if he should try and figure out where those two other men had gone. He thought they had gone around to the front of the barn, in which case he hoped Buck, or Rusty would be able to get them from the cabin. Having made up his mind, he started moving to the back of the barn, when suddenly the back door was thrown open and one of the cowhands rushed in with his gun blazing.

The bullets roared past JD’s shoulder, hitting the loose hay stacked behind him. Before the man got off another shot, JD dove for cover behind one of the tie-stalls, and pressed his back against the wall.

Another blast went into the rafters above his head, covering him in dust and loose straw. Shaking the dirt from his face, JD snuck a peek out from behind the stall’s boards, and saw a bull of a man who seemed to swallow up all the room in the barn.

"Oh crap!" JD muttered under his breath, ducking again when another shot blew the top board off the stall, and left it dangling by a single nail.

JD took three quick puffs of breath, tucked the rifle tight against his shoulder, and prayed he could hit the large target before the man got another shot off at him. On the count of three, he lunged to his feet with a holler and started to squeeze the trigger. He just managed to hold his finger up as blur of red suddenly threw itself across the barn floor and leaped at the big man. With a scream of pain, the large man tried to throw the redbone hound off, but despite the blows being reigned down on him, the dog kept his grip on the man’s upper arm, shaking him ferociously.

JD charged across the room, and gripping the rifle in two hands, he swung it like a club with all his waning strength.

The man stumbled almost to his knees, and then with a roar, he spun around flinging the dog to the ground and faced his new assailant.

JD’s eyes grew big, and he involuntarily stepped back a foot at the expression of rage he saw on the other man’s face. The man shoved JD in the chest and JD shoved him back, but that was all he was able to do. Before he could move again he was backhanded hard, falling spread-eagle to the barn’s dirt floor.

The excruciating pain in his side from tearing stitches nullified the instant swelling of his cheek. It hurt to breathe, but he knew he was going to be dead if he didn’t do something to defend himself and quick. With a loud groan, he fumbled with the weight of the rifle, trying to bring the weapon up in front of him, but before he could get it half way off the ground, he heard the unmistakable click of a gun chamber and looked up to see the cowhand pointing his six-gun right at his head.

JD snapped his eyes closed tight and his heart rode down into the heel of his boot, as he realized he just might die out here on the dirt floor of an old barn.

JD wasn’t sure if it was Buck or the red dog that knocked the big man to his knees, but when he didn’t feel any lead hitting him, and then heard a loud grunt that hadn’t come from him, he pulled his eyes open to see both his friend and the dog tearing at the stout man.

Climbing unsteadily to his feet, relief washed over the youth. The relief was quickly shunned out of the way by the agony pulsating through his side. Looking down, he saw red seeping slowly out across his dirty shirt from his torn stitches. The sound of knuckles connecting with bone drew JD away from his injury.

"Buck…!" he cried out, grabbing the back of his friend’s coat, "I think you got him."

Buck stopped hitting the man who was now passed out on the barn floor, but still in a cat-kicking bad mood, he turned to look at the youth tugging on him.

"I’d say he’s out for the count, Buck. He ain’t going to give us any more trouble today." JD’s fingers slipped from Buck’s coat. "You best call off the dog."

Buck took in JD’s pale face and the red spot spreading across the youth’s baggy shirt, and decided to let the dog keep right on chewing on the man.

"Buck…!" Understanding his friend’s motives, JD reached over to grab the rope that was tied around the dog’s neck.

"Okay…we’ll play it your way this time, peach-fuzz." Exasperated, Buck brushed JD’s hand out of the way and pulled the growling dog off the man. Dragging the dog over to a corner, he made him sit and then gave his ears an affectionate rub. "You stay here and keep a watch on him, fella."

Buck was still blowing hard from his run between the cabin to the barn, and then from his boxing match with the brawny cowhand. He slowly straightened up and made his way across the barn, back to JD.

"You okay, kid?" he asked, his expression still stormy, masking most of his concern over JD’s well being.

"Uh uh. Hey Buck…thanks…you know for…well, you know." JD felt his face turning warm as he stammered with both embarrassment, and the realization of how close he had come to getting killed. "I thought I was dead!"

Buck supposed he shouldn’t, but he let the kid squirm uncomfortably under his scowl for a few seconds before allowing his face to soften. "You keep insisting on scaring the hell out of me, kid. My poor old heart can’t take much more of your shenanigans!" Buck reached over and gave the younger man an affectionate slap on the arm, and looked like he was about to add something else when new gunfire erupted behind the barn and in front of the cabin.

Buck dropped his arm from JD’s and hustled over to the barn door, "Here they come again!" he said in disgust. "There’s too many of them and not enough of us to spread around, kid. You think you can make a run for it back to the cabin?"

JD just nodded that he could, and then hissing through his front teeth, he painstakingly bent over and picked Vin’s spare rifle up out of the dirt. "I dug five shells outta Vin’s saddlebags. It’s all I got, then I’m out!"

"Hopefully, Lou’s still got a supply up at her place." Buck answered, and then cautiously opened the door wider to see how many of Morrison’s men were between them and the cabin. The men riding in seemed to be more caught up on getting the wounded out of the way, than they were at starting a new battle. Buck waited until he noticed Rusty looking over in their direction, and then catching the cowboy’s eye, he indicated they were coming in.

"You set, JD?" Buck pushed the young man in front of him, and waited until Rusty and Lou suddenly laid out a barrage of cover fire for them from the cabin. Throwing the barn door open, the two men dashed across the yard.

Half way to the cabin JD felt his knee give out, but before he could go down, Buck grabbed him up around the waist and packing him under one arm, he continued running while shooting off his pistol with his other hand. They stumbled up onto the porch as bullets thunked into the cabin’s thick logs all around them. Lou threw the door open, and together they fell into the interior, landing at the woman’s feet.

"Move…move!" she shouted at them. Buck jumped to his feet and grabbing JD under his arms, pulled him further into the room so Lou could slam the cabin door closed, and then return to her spot by a window.

"You stay put, JD!" Buck yelled at the spent youth lying on the floor, and then turned to face the woman. "Lou, you got any ammo left?"

Lou risked taking a glance at the two men. Even without a coat on for warmth, Buck looked heated up, but very focused on the task at hand. JD was still sprawled on the floor, with a hand splayed over his wound. Straw clung to the youth’s worn britches and shirt, as well as his to his tousled black hair. His face was flushed nearly as red as the blood that covered his shirt, but something in his eyes, told her not to count him out just yet.

"Last box of shells are on the table," she answered at the same time she turned from them and fired a shot out the window. "My god…how many are there? They just keep coming!"

"Conserve your ammo!" Buck told them as he re-loaded his pistols with his last bullets. "We just gotta hold out until Vin gets back!"

"And when is that going to be?" Lou asked, ducking again for cover behind the log wall.

"Anytime now I’m hoping," Buck answered with more confidence than he felt. "Ain’t a better man alive to do what Vin’s doing…"

His thoughts shattered in an explosion of pinpointed light that burst upon a background of spinning gray.

"Buck!" JD yelled, as his friend’s cowboy hat was blown from his head and he slumped to the floor.

On his hands and knees, JD crawled over to the fallen man.

"How bad?" Rusty yelled at him.

"I don’t know," JD sputtered, turning Buck over onto his back. A nasty welt ran across his forehead and up into his hairline. "I think it just nicked him," JD felt his heart leave his throat until Buck’s eyelids fluttered a little.

"Buck…Buck?" JD called to him urgently, and shook him by his shoulders.

"Ahhh," Buck groaned and rolled his head.

"Damnit…they’re stormin’ the place!" Rusty hollered out. "JD! Quick, grab Buck’s gun, and start shootin’!"

Moaning, Buck pushed JD away from him, "Go!" he told the youth breathlessly.

JD tried to rise painfully to his feet, while searching the room to see where his friend’s weapon had fallen, but his sore knee buckled under his own weight. Spotting the gun under the table, he crawled towards it on his hands and knees, but before he could draw the weapon into his hand, the whole cabin shook.

"Lou…! Watch out!" Rusty yelled out and in an amazing burst of speed, the old cowboy covered the span that separated him from Lou. He pushed the woman to the floor, just as a round of bullets peppered the cabin near where she had been standing.

In the middle of the commotion they heard horses being ridden up onto the porch, with their hooves clattering across the slippery porch, and then another hard thud rumbled inside the cabin. Rusty pushed himself off Lou and rushed to the window to see a cowboy backing his horse up hard against the door. The leather thongs holding the door in place strained to their limits, and then snapped under the horse’s heavy weight. The door slammed to the floor with a resounding bang, and the rider did a flying dismount, right into the cabin with his guns drawn. Two more men followed, flooding into the small cabin through the broken door.

JD scrambled for Buck’s gun, but one of the cowhands kicked it out of his reach, and then grabbed the youth up by the back of his shirt and dragged him yelping out in pain, to his feet.

"Put down your rifle, old man," the larger Morrison brother stomped into the room and shouted at Rusty, "Before someone else gets hurt."

Aggressively, the rancher marched over to the old man and ripped the rifle out of his hand, then tossed it to one of his men.

"Lou…you crazy, old biddy." Morrison turned to the woman. "Why didn’t ya just leave when we gave ya the chance?"

"Morrison, if you just ain’t the world’s biggest waste of skin!" Lou hissed at him, her eyes growing smoky with venom.

A red imprint of his hand immediately appeared on her cheek from Morrison’s hard slap, but even though her head snapped back, her stolid expression gave him little satisfaction.

"Lou…" Enraged, Rusty lunged at the bigger man, but was met head on with Morrison’s fist burying deep into his stomach. The wind whooshed out of the cowboy’s lungs, and with his hands pressed against himself, he dropped to his knees on the floor.

"Oh yeah, you’re real tough beating on old people!" JD struggled to get out of the grip Morrison’s man had on him.

"Not just old people." Morrison turned to the youth, and as he had done with Rusty, he buried his fist deep into JD’s stomach.

JD cried out as the rest of his stitches in his side ripped through his skin, and doubling over, he would have dropped to the floor if not for the grip on the back of his shirt holding him up.

"Stop!" Lou screamed at Morrison. "Stop it! You can have my ranch. You got no cause to hurt them!"

"That’s right neighborly of you to offer us your land, Lou," Morrison turned back to face her, "but if ya take a close look around, you’d notice we already have it."

"I rue the day I would see any Morrison on our land. My brother must be turning over in his grave right now. All I can hope is he’ll haunt you every day for the rest of your useless lives!" Lou said softly, fighting to keep from sounding as old and defeated as she now felt. "You got what you came for, just let us go, Morrison."

"Can’t rightly see that happening now. You see, Lou, you made two mistakes. The first was bringing these men here, the second was they didn’t kill us when they had the chance." Morrison pulled his gun from his holster and opened the cylinder to see how many bullets he had left in it. Drawing the hammer back to full cock, he rested his dirty nailed finger lightly on the trigger. "Now, you got to know we can’t let you walk out of here alive."

"This is between us. They didn’t have anything to do with…"Lou started to say, when from behind them, the cowboy holding JD suddenly screamed out in agony and crumbled to the floor clutching his knee.

Behind them, Buck swayed unsteadily on his knees, trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head so he could hit someone else with the piece of firewood he had managed to get hold of when no one was watching him.

At the distraction, Rusty jumped up from the floor and grabbed an astounded Lou by her arms and threw her out of the broken window onto the porch, "Run, Lou!" he hollered at her.

JD leaped at the gun in Morrison’s hand and grabbing it with both hands, the two men wrestled for control of it. The youth fought like a tenacious terrier, but even if he had not been injured, he was no match for Morrison’s strength. JD felt his feet leave the ground, as he was swung up in an arch and sent flying across the room, landing into the back of Lou’s rocker.

"Kill them all!" Morrison yelled at his men, now all cocky and full of trigger itch. With feelings of victory sweeping over him, at the triumphant ending of the bloody gunfight and Lou’s land now in his grasp, he turned and pointed his gun at Buck.

From down on his knees, and through the fog that cluttered his mind, Buck saw the gun coming around to stop at him. What he couldn’t figure out was why the old cowboy in his thread-worn red shirt had moved to stand between him and the weapon.

"Why, that crazy old fool," was the only thought he could muster through his head’s gray haze before he heard the blast.

+ + + + + + +

Dread tore at Vin as he drove the ancient gelding through the snow drifts and down the narrow gulch that led to Lou’s ranch, with the sounds of gunfire ricocheting off the steep, rock walls. The tracker snatched up on the reins as the tired horse nearly stumbled to his knees. He was now merely feet from entering the valley when the sudden sound of silence sent cold talons of anxiety gripping his chest. Bringing the reins down on the horse’s rump, he urged the animal to even greater speed.

The horse plunged through the creek, sending frigid water out in a wide arch, and lunged up the small ditch on the other side, his hooves searching for firm footing under the icy snow. Again, Vin put his spurs into the animal’s side, and pushed him back up into a gallop across the hay field, but now he could feel the game horse faltering under him with each stride. Ahead of him, he could now make out the cabin clearly and see a few of the inhabitants near the doorway. From within the crowded cabin, Lou suddenly came flying out through a broken window and rolled across the porch. She was up on her feet in an instant and dashing down the steps toward the barn.

One of the Morrisons, from this distance Vin couldn’t tell which one, stood framing the doorway with his pistol pointed at someone inside. Instinctively, Vin knew he had too much ground to cover to reach the cabin, and the old horse was already spent with nothing left to give. Urgently, he reined the horse to a stop, and felt the gelding sink down onto his unsteady haunches to slide. Vin threw a leg over the horse’s neck and was on the ground before the gelding came to a halt.

Looping an arm through the reins, Vin yanked his mare’s leg out of the saddle scabbard and knelt on one knee just as the three other riders who had been following him, galloped past and headed on to the cabin. With more loud shouting coming from inside the cabin, cotton filled his mouth and his heart refused to stop hammering. He put his left elbow on his left knee and held the barrel in his left hand. He squinted down the barrel and then lifted his head and raised the high rear sight. Squinting against the glare of the snow, he held his right cheek against the gunstock and cocked the rifle. With his finger resting lightly on the trigger, Vin took a settling breath, and then squeezed. Ejecting the empty shell from the chamber, he shoved the rifle back into the scabbard, and swung back up onto the old horse.

+ + + + + + +

"Rusty…NO!" JD screamed out, as the old man jumped in front of Morrison’s weapon. "Buck!"

They all heard the gunshot, but stood in stunned silence as Morrison gasped and buckled, a red bloodstain appearing across his shoulder instead of Rusty’s.

Shocked, the big rancher dropped to his knees, with his gun falling out of his slack hand and sliding across the floor.

"Everyone in the cabin…this is marshal Thorpe!" A booming voice came from outside. "I want you to all drop your weapons and come out with your hands up where I can see them."

JD sank against the rocker in relief. Rusty stayed standing, trying to get his bowlegs to stop knocking together at the knees. Buck thought he heard someone from outside identify themselves as a lawman, but his ears were still roaring pretty loudly and things seemed to be happening around him faster than his mind was able to digest.

Morrison’s men looked at the rancher, but wisely he just shook his head at them. Unhitching their gun belts from around their waists, the weapons dropped to the floor and with their hands up they exited the cabin. Morrison reached out to grip the over-turned table and pulling on it, he rose awkwardly to his feet. Even through the pain, his eyes blazed contempt at the three men still left in the cabin. He looked at his weapon lying on the floor, and in a last, thickheaded gesture, staggered towards it.

JD pushed the rocker away from himself, and on hands and knees crawled for the fallen weapon as well.

With his head still swimming, Buck managed to rise, swaying to his feet and stagger a few feet toward the gun before falling face-first onto to the floor again. With his long reach he stretched out his hand, and managed to touch the cold steel barrel with his fingertips.

JD crawled over Buck’s immobile form and reached for the gun just as Morrison also bent down to pick it up, but it was Rusty who beat them all.

Grabbing the butt of the gun, he backed up pointing the weapon at Morrison, "Git your sorry hide out of here before I do something I may live to regret!"

Morrison was mad enough to challenge the man for possession of the gun, but something in the old cowboy’s eyes told him he would probably get pumped with more lead if he tried. He opened his mouth to voice more threats, but realized they would be empty ones, especially with the marshal standing right outside the door. In disgust, the big rancher stumbled out onto the porch and joined the rest of his men.

"The rest of you men in there, come out with your hands up!" the marshal yelled at the cabin again in his authoritative voice.

"Good job, rooster." Buck muttered to the cowboy, before letting his head settle back down onto his arm as another wave of dizziness and the roaring in his ears overtook him.

"Yeah, we did it, Rusty. All of us." With a groan, JD rolled off Buck and slowly rose to his feet clutching his blood soaked side. "Buck? We gotta get out of here."

"Come on, Buck." JD nudged his prone friend with the tip of his boot. When Buck didn’t respond, the youth’s shoulders sagged, giving way to his own fatigue and hurting body.

"This is the last warning I’m givin’ ya!" the marshal’s voice roared at them from outside one more time.

"We’re coming out," JD shouted out with the last of his strength. "Buck’s hurt. I just need a minute to get him on his feet."

Grimacing, JD leaned over, put a hand on Buck’s shoulder and shook him, but his friend remained unresponsive, "Hey, Buck. You gotta get up yourself? I don’t think I got enough strength left to help ya!" JD tugged on the back of Buck’s jacket. "Damn it, Buck! Wake up!"

JD gave one last frustrated pull on the jacket before giving up on the task. "Rusty, come give me a hand, would ya? We’re going to have to drag him out of here."


When he didn’t get an answer from the cowboy, JD looked up to see Rusty backing towards the bedroom, the gun still in the old man’s hand, but this time it was pointed at him and Buck.

JD released his hold on Buck and stood up swaying, "Rusty…"

"I can’t go back to prison, kid." Rusty shook his head, his voice resounding with both regret and fear.

"Rusty…please!" JD took a step towards the old man with a bloody hand extended out in front of him. "You can’t do this. The marshal will shoot you before you get to the pasture fence."

"You still just don’t get it, do ya kid? I’m dead inside whether they shoot me here, or you take me back alive to that place." Rusty shook the gun at the youth to get him to stop coming forward. "Everyday that I was in that hell hole, the only thing that kept me going was knowing that one day I’d be a free man again. Well, for the last week I have been free. I’ve tasted the air, felt the wind on my face, and had a good horse under me. And I got to ride with three good men for one last time. I’d rather die here and get buried under the wide-open sky than face another single day in their brand of eternal darkness."

"Ah Rusty…" JD’s eyes started to fill, giving Rusty a start. Even when he had been shot and was having the bullet dug out of him, the kid had not shed a tear, yet here he stood now, unashamed of the moisture that shimmered from his eyes.

"Rusty…please! Don’t do this. You don’t know how long they are going to make you stay in this time. After we tell them all the good things you’ve done in just the short time we’ve known ya, maybe they will let you go free!"

"And maybe they’ve already decided I did have something to do with the breakout, and plan on keeping me there forever!" Rusty’s voice rose with the level of his desperation. "Please understand and forgive me, kid. I can’t take the chance…I just can’t!"

JD again made a move towards the cowboy, but stopped when Rusty cocked the gun.

"JD…don’t make me shoot you!" The color draining from his face, Rusty waved the gun at the youth.

JD froze, indecision written all over his young features. He stood torn between his loyalty to Judge Travis and the six men he rode with, and the despair of a tired, weathered, old cowboy he had come to respect. He didn’t want to be the one to decide Rusty’s fate, but somehow in the back of his mind he had always known it would come down to him. Chris was following the Judge’s orders, Buck and Vin were following their heads, but JD was following his heart and guts. And he now knew what his choice had to be, regardless of the consequences.

JD straightened up his spine and swiped the tear from his face with the back of his hand, "You won’t shoot me, Rusty," JD calmly told the old man, and walking up to Rusty, he pushed the gun out of the way so he could reach up and gave the cowboy an awkward hug.

Self-conscious, Rusty froze for a second and then quickly returned the hug, before pushing the boy away from him.

"Take care of yourself, Rusty." Radiating sadness, JD stepped back from the man. "I’ll never forget the time we spent together as riding pards."

Unable to speak, Rusty just nodded and headed into the back room.

‘Man…Buck is going to kill me for this!’ JD thought to himself, as he watched the old cowboy climb awkwardly out of the bedroom window and drop to the ground.

"Buck…JD!" Vin’s excited voice reached him just before the young tracker came crashing into the cabin all out of breath from his long ride into the valley. "You guys okay?"

Vin looked around the trashed cabin that had been peppered full of bullet holes. Buck was lying stretched out on the floor, but Vin couldn’t tell if he was unconscious or not. JD stood in the middle of the room, his shoulders sagging and head down staring at the floor.

Vin dropped down to his knees beside Buck, and was relieved to hear Buck’s cranky grumbled reply that he was fine.

"You hurt bad, kid?" Vin asked, looking up at JD, and noting his drained face and blood-splattered shirt.

Without answering, JD just shook his head.

"I’d say you’re in need of a little doctorin’ again." Vin stood up and gently pushed JD’s hand away from his wounded side. Drawing the shirt open, he examined the inflamed skin and ripped stitches that Lou would have to redo. "Looks painful."

"Hurts some," JD admitted, "but it’s far from my heart."

"Well, I’ll tell you, my heart damn near stopped when I rode up the valley and heard all the gunfire," Vin told him. "It sounded like a war was being fought here. Hey…where’s Rusty?"

"Gone," JD said in a quiet tone.

Vin paused at the despondency he heard in JD’s voice, "Gone as in, dead gone? Or gone as in, he snuck off gone, JD?"

"Gonna be both, I think," JD confused the tracker with his answer.

With his hand pressed on his bleeding side, JD moved wearily over to the door to watch as the marshal and the same two deputies they had the run in with in Kennedy City, rounded up Morrison and his men. Most of the cowhands had some broken bones or some bullet holes in their hides, but none of the four people defending Lou’s ranch had killed a single one of Morrison’s men.

"You have any trouble talking them two deputies into helping us out?" JD quietly asked the tracker, as he watched the surly deputy called Wilson tie up one of the cowhands.

"None at all," Vin replied grinning. "Lucky for me, the marshal rode into town the same time I did. He didn’t need any persuasion from me. Guess some folks voiced their complaints about the Morrisons to the two deputies, but they didn’t want to do nothing about it so neglected to notify the marshal about the problem whenever he was back in at the jailhouse. Having heard the story from me, the marshal just might be looking for some new deputies some time soon."

JD nodded his head, but Vin was pretty sure the kid never even heard what he had said, as his mind seemed a million miles away. Gently bumping JD’s arm, Vin moved back into the cabin, "Come on kid, let’s see if we can’t get old Buck back onto his feet."

Buck was already sitting up when they got to him, and rubbing a hand gingerly across the welt on his forehead. Through squinty eyes, he looked up at his two friends and grimaced.

"Good thing the bullet hit ya on that hard noggin of yours, Buck. Anywhere else and you could’ve got seriously hurt," JD tried grinning down at his friend, returning the comment Buck had given him when he had been whacked on the head in the barn the night they had first found Rusty.

At the thought of the old cowboy, JD stopped grinning and sadly turned away from the two men.

Buck looked at Vin in confusion.

"Long story," is all Vin deemed to tell him.

"Hey JD," Buck called out to the youth, who was disappearing into one of the bedrooms. "JD…?"

"Best just leave him for a minute, Buck," Vin told the perplexed man.

"What the hell happened to everyone around here?" Buck shook his groggy head. "I remember getting hit with a bullet, but everything else is a fog."

Buck stopped talking as someone from outside suddenly started yelling, and he unexpectedly got an uncomfortable feeling.

"Where’s the old rooster?" he asked Vin.

"Hey…there’s one!" they recognized deputy Wilson voice hollering at the marshal. "He’s trying to make a run for it!"

In the field behind the cabin Thorpe and Wilson watched as a man was about to throw his leg over a red horse.

The marshal and Wilson drew their guns from their holsters and dashed for their mounts. But before they could get mounted up, they both whipped around at the sound of thundering hooves racing out of the barn and coming at them.

"Just you stay put, Thorpe! What’s about to happen over there ain’t none of your concern!" Lou, riding a young bay mare, reined up beside them, her mood as dark as the gray clouds.

The marshal turned to face the older woman, "Lou, don’t tell me how to do my job. I have to find out exactly what went on here and that means no one rides away until I question everyone!"

"And I’m telling ya, the only one going to question that old buzzard is me!" Lou firmly told him again, her voice provoking no more argument.

+ + + + + + +

"Oh hell, Vin!" Buck turned to the tracker when he heard Wilson yell out and realized he didn’t see the old cowboy anywhere in the cabin. Buck didn’t know why, but this time Rusty’s disappearance left him with a bad feeling, "Please don’t tell me that boy did what I think he did? I’ll have his hide for this, and Chris will finish off anything I missed!"

"Don’t rightly know what happened in here, Buck, but don’t go jumping to any sort of conclusions yet," Vin answered back in his soothing drawl. "Guess ya’ll just have to ask the kid for yourself."

JD had warily walked into the bedroom and just made it to the bed’s edge when he heard Wilson’s shout from the front of the cabin. Staggering over to the window, he stuck his head out the shot-out window, and scanned the snowy horizon for a sign of the escaping man.

"Oh…no!" he cried out when he heard the first rifle shot, and then saw snow kick up under Rusty’s feet. Rusty yelled out something undistinguishable at his shooter before he swung up onto the old gelding and spurred him up into a lope.

"Ride cowboy, ride!" JD whispered after the old man, urging him to get away before the marshal’s next shot took him down.

Except it wasn’t the marshal chasing down Rusty. It was Lou who came streaking across the farmyard, riding like the wind with her rifle out in front of her. Her young horse didn’t miss a stride as she flew over the pasture fence and went charging through the snow, hot on the trail of the old horse and man. Baying up a storm, the red-bone hound dove between the fence rails and floundered through the snow after his fleeing mistress.

Rusty spurred the gelding away from the woman, but seemed to lose ground with every stride the old horse took. Finally he spun the horse around as Lou shouted out at him, and waited for her to catch up.

Yelping, JD suddenly found himself yanked none too gently away from the window by Buck. Buck glared a warning of things to come at the kid, and then stuck his own head out of the window.

"Don’t need to hog the whole thing!" JD snapped at Buck and elbowed his way in until he could see the couple on the hillside again. Lou had pulled up beside Rusty and seemed to be having a heated conversation with the cowboy.

"What’re they saying?" JD asked anxiously.

"Even if my ears weren’t still ringing, I couldn’t tell from this far away, JD," an exasperated Buck responded.

They could see the two old people yelling at one another, both gesturing and pointing wildly with their arms. Then Lou leaped from her horse’s back, marched over and pulled a startled Rusty down from his horse, and slapped him across the face as hard as she could with an open palm.

"Ouch!" Buck exclaimed. "That there is one mean woman!"

The couple stood for a few seconds just staring at each other, and then Lou started to holler again. Rusty yelled something back. Lou bent over, scooped up a handful of snow and tossed it in the old man’s face. Rusty shook the snow off, bent over and scooped up his own hand full of snow. Buck and JD could see her shaking her head at him and start to back up. Lou turned to run as Rusty grabbed hold of her pant suspenders to slow her retreat down, and shoved his snowball down the back of her shirt. This time Buck and JD could hear what she shrieked.

Laughing, Buck pulled JD back out of the window and covered the young man’s ears with his big hands, "Maybe we should be giving this particular conversation some privacy," he said and directed JD lightly into the cabin’s outer room.

"You sure you don’t want to keep an eye on Rusty?" JD asked Buck.

"Nope," Buck replied. "She’s keeping the old rooster from running off. Something that I suspect you decided on your own, not to do!"

JD felt the heat run up his neck at being caught out, "what makes you think I let him go free?" JD stammered, as he struggled to come up with at least a half way decent defense for his actions.

"Surprising as this may sound to you, JD, I always knew you would be the one he sweet-talked into letting him go. Did you even try to stop him?"

Blustering, JD faced his two friends, hoping at least Vin would back him up, "Yes! Yes, I did try to stop him, too! But Lou’s got certain attributes that I can’t compete with!"

"Attributes?" Buck asked. "What are you talking about, boy?"

"Why, you of all people should understand the allure of a soft, feminine touch, Buck!" Vin poked the lady’s man in the ribs with his elbow. "Sometimes a woman can be much more persuasive than any man."

JD grinned his thanks over to the tracker, but the grin quickly left his face.

"Don’t think you’re off the hook, peach-fuzz. You and me still are going to have us a talk." Buck told him seriously.

Turning away from the paling youth, Buck looked past the bedroom door and out the back window. Rusty and Lou were still tossing snow and words at each other, but every step led them back closer to Lou’s home.

"Those two are sparkin’, but hell if I get the attraction!" Buck just shook his head in wonderment, "There just ain’t no accounting for taste!"


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