Buck had to give Thorpe credit; the man didnt waste any time dilly-dallying along. He snapped out orders and delegated duties as good as any military general.
Buck sat out on the porch on Lous willow bench with a snow filled handkerchief pressed against his swollen forehead, and watched as the marshal and his two deputies tried to sort out the transpired events between the Morrisons and Lou. The two brothers were belligerent with their adamant denials of wrongdoings. Their cowhands standing in the background kept interrupting the proceedings by yelling out their versions of events. Getting more frustrated by the minute, Thorpe was relieved to see Morrisons foreman ride onto Lous property, who had spent the night chasing down the ranch horses Vin had released. Wanting the large, noisy crowd to disperse as quickly and quietly as possible, Thorpe ordered the foreman to take the cowboys back to the ranch, and to get back to the job of ranching.
For a few minutes, Buck thought the brothers were about to talk themselves out of trouble, but the astute marshal was having none of it. He quickly ended their discussion and told the brothers to save it for the judge who passed through their small town once a month. After doing a temporary patch up on their gunshot wounds, Thorpe and his deputies tied the brothers hands behind their backs and led the two men back towards town.
A sudden silence descended onto Lous ranch, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened there. Yet the ranch yard was trampled down from countless hoof-prints, and the falling snow had not yet covered all signs of splattered blood. Both the cabin and the barn were peppered full of bullet holes, and broken glass from one of the windows crunched under Bucks foot when he shifted his weight. If not for all the upheaval to Lous ranch, Buck might have thought he had dreamt the whole thing. It seemed that the men had left as quickly as they had come, leaving behind questions, but for Lou, very few answers of what was yet to come.
The stairs creaked as Lou slowly walked up onto the porch, and without uttering a word to Buck, entered her home.
Vin stood silently in the doorway, with his hat pulled down low over his eyes. At first glance, Buck thought he was just being his usual relaxed and serene self, but under closer scrutiny, Buck wasnt sure the younger man was even awake on his feet.
With a groan, Buck hauled himself off the bench and rose to his feet. Slapping a startled Vin on the arm, he pointed inside the cabin, and the two men wandered inside.
Wearily, Buck reached up and gingerly touched the welt that ran across his forehead, and the first thought that came to his mind was that he needed to lie down in the worst way. But the cold air that was pouring into the cabin through the broken door and smashed windows quickly chased that thought away. With a sigh, he turned to survey all the damage that would need repairing before any of them could get comfortable for the night. Even though his head was pounding, Buck calculated what he thought needed doing, and in what order. Unfortunately, after looking around the room, the cabin appeared to be in far better shape than any of the humans left standing in it.
Buck knew JD must be in trouble when the youth didnt come out to see what was happening between the Morrisons and Thorpe. It wasnt like JD to not be in the middle of everything.
Sure enough, Buck found JD slumped down onto one of the wooden kitchen chairs with a hand pressed tightly against his side. The fight had completely taken the wind out of the youth, and now that it was over, he had nothing left to give. His face had again taken on an unhealthy sheen, and his shirt was sticking to his skin with both fresh blood and sweat. His wet shirtfront rose and fell with each shallow, rapid breath he took, as he sat staring off into space with glazed-over eyes. He seemed to be melting into a puddle right before them.
Buck instantly knew JD was going to require a lot of care, and the youngster would not be in any position to help with cabin repairs.
"Hes going to need stitching again." Lou spoke out as though she read Bucks thoughts. "You boys get him over by the fire while I get my sewing kit."
Buck nodded his agreement, as Lou wearily shuffled her way over to the cupboard that she used for storing her sewing things. Rusty followed Lou into the kitchen, and reaching up over her shoulder, he brought the kit down for her. Something about the way the two old folks moved across the room made Buck take a closer exam of them. They both almost looked frail, and their skin nearly transparent with signs of wear and tear. They had both fought long, hard, and bravely today, but Buck didnt think they would have lasted much longer if the battle had continued on. For the first time, Buck was brought to mind how elderly the pair actually was, and how little energy either of them would have left to help in the cleanup.
Taking a long, hard look at Vin, he came to the conclusion that none of them would have been able to hold out much longer. If Vin had been tired and hurting when he rode away from Lous ranch the night before, Buck was not sure what word he would use to describe the trackers condition now. Beyond dog-tired, Vin plopped down onto the other kitchen chair and threw his hat towards the coat rack. Placing both elbows on the table, he ran his fingers through his tangled hair and then rubbed his temples. Yawning, he squinted up at Buck with bloodshot eyes.
"We gotta get the door hung back up, and wood over them windows, pard, or aint none of us going to get to sleep tonight," Buck regrettably spoke to Vin. "Looking at the rest of these sorry bodies, Id say you and me are the work crew, Vin."
"Point me to a hammer," Vin answered, exhaustion mumbling his words. Slowly he started to pull himself to his feet, but nearly keeled over as his bruised ribs suddenly pinched his wind off and sent a spasm shooting through him.
"Crap!" he said, sitting back down onto his chair, and wrapping his arms around himself. "Im thinking maybe I over done it!"
"Ya think?" Buck asked, raising an eyebrow over at the tracker. "You best go lay down, Vin. You aint going to be any help to anyone the way youre feeling now."
Obstinately, Vin shook his head, "Cant. Youd need help even if ya wasnt packing around that big welt on your head. And JDs going take lookin after."
"Lou will look after him," Buck replied. "I dont have the strength to worry about you doing a face plant in the middle of the floor. Please do us both a favor, Vin, go lay down. I promise Ill leave lots of work for you to do tomorrow."
Loud banging stopped their conversation, and they both turned to see Rusty hammering boards over one of the broken windows. And they werent sure how, but Lou had already gotten JD over to his bedroll in front of the fireplace, and was quietly in the process of getting his bloody shirt off.
"See everything is under control," Buck said to Vin, again thankful as heck for the two old-timers and their never-ending work ethic.
Still feeling hesitant to rest while the others cleaned the mess up around him, the young tracker again stood up, but the pain was still more than he was able to bear. Reluctantly, with Bucks help, he walked hunched over his stomach towards his bedroll. Whistling through his teeth, he carefully lay down onto the bedroll, and pulled his wool blanket up to his shoulders. The hard floor underneath him didnt do anything to help make his ribs feel any better, but his fatigued body was just happy to be horizontal again after being awake for the last forty some hours. Not even the sound of hammering could keep him awake. The second his head sank into his pillow, the Texas tracker was asleep.
+ + + + + + +
Buck felt JDs forehead for fever one last time with the back of his hand, but the youth seemed slightly cooler than he had twenty minutes earlier. His slumber seemed more natural as well, as his chest now rose at a slower and steadier rate. Buck had thought the kid would be too tired to make much of a fuss when Lou sewed him up the second time, but that had not been the case. JD had fought them with every stitch that Lou pulled through his tender skin, until the ordeal had become to great for him to handle and he thankfully fainted away.
Vin was also still asleep on his bedroll. Buck shook his head in wonderment at how the young man had not so much as blinked an eye open with all the banging they had made in the cabin, and then with JDs cries. Buck wished he had been asleep through that part. Lord, but he hated seeing his friends hurting.
Rusty and Lou had disappeared into the back bedrooms earlier in the evening, leaving Buck to keep an eye on Vin and JD. Now that they seemed to be resting peacefully, he figured he had better get some shuteye of his own while he could. Retrieving his bedroll from off the rocking chair, Buck spread it out at the side of the fireplace and lay down. With his hands behind his head, he stared at the ceiling above him and listened to his friends regular breathing. Too tired to sleep and too worried about the others, sleep eluded him. He tossed and turned in restless frustration for what seemed like forever until he suddenly opened his eyes and realized it was daylight outside, the fire had burned out, and he had been asleep for close to nine hours.
+ + + + + + +
The winter storm that had hit them the day after the battle with the Morrisons was slowly abating. Outside, the winds that had been gusting so hard that the driving snows nearly blinded them, was finally down to a dull roar. Vin and JD would not have been in any condition to ride anyways, so in spite of the storm Buck had been forced to postpone the rest of their trip to the prison for another three days. After three days of being cabin bound, Buck paced the floor as antsy as a caged cougar. He had told Chris they would be returning to Four Corners by now, but instead they hadnt even arrived at their destination yet.
Knowing how hard the ride ahead would be on his two younger friends, Buck nonetheless made the decision that they had to be leaving by daybreak. He then made the mistake of waking JD and Vin, and telling them they were pulling out in the morning. He wasnt wasting any more time with delays for their injuries, lousy weather, or damsels in distress.
And then the argument started!
"Damnit boy why dont you wait till you feel better before taking me on!" Exasperation was written on every line of his face, as Buck angrily slammed the table with his fist again.
"I just figured with me being hurt, it would even up the odds." Sitting up on his bedroll, JD answered him smartly back. "You being old and slow and all!"
"You just watch yourself, little britches!" Buck bristled at the youth. "Im just doing what the Judge and Chris told us to do. We were all sent to do a job, and by golly kid, that includes you!"
"Sometimes ya have to look beyond the job, Buck," JD answered pleadingly. "You and Chris are always looking past the rules if they aint right. How come now youre suddenly sticking your feet in and dragging your heels this time? Huh, answer me that. You aint liked Rusty since the day we found him hiding behind the barn!"
"It isnt a matter of like, JD. Its a matter of trust, and while I admit that old rooster has done a lot of good, I still aint convinced hes the angel he makes himself out to be." Buck turned from JD and looked at the man sitting across the table from him. "What do you think?"
"Ah hell, Buck! I aint certain of nothing." Vin sat at the table with a mug of hot coffee in front of him, and listened with half an ear to Buck and JD argue on about Rusty. He was still feeling really rough. He just wanted to go curl back up on his bedroll, and Buck and JD were starting to get on his nerves a little bit. "Do I wanna turn him in no. Do I think we outta let him go free well, that theres the stickler, aint it? Buck is right about one thing though, JD. Chris and the judge gave us a sworn job to do and I aint so sure we should go against them."
"I know we got a job to do," JD responded insistently, trying his hardest to coax Vin over to his way of thinking. "But what about the man? We just spent the last week riding with him and fighting along side of him. How can you stand the thought of him going back to prison? If he goes back inside, you know as well as I do, that he will just wither up and die. All he wants is a chance to be a free riding cowboy again before its too late and he gets too old."
"Gets too old!" Buck looked at him astonished. "JD, the man is already too old!"
"Another reason we should let him go." JD said.
Buck took a deep breath and tried to get control over his fraying frustration at the youth. "Now son, what I cant fathom is this idea you have about us just letting him go wandering off free. He aint like a house-pet you can just set loose. No matter how much you, or we," Buck said pointing to himself and Vin, "like him, hes still a convicted criminal. Therere some nasty consequences to these actions that youre asking Vin and me to participate in. Consequences that wed have to face the minute we set a foot back in Four Corners."
"Yeh and that face is called Chris Larabee and Judge Travis!" Vin tried to interrupt, but Buck just kept on talking.
"Besides all that, even if we said fine, run free, run wild, you old rooster, we couldnt just let him go. Marshal Thorpe knows hes here. The first wanted poster he sees with Rustys picture on it, hell be right back here collecting up the old coot, and then the three of us will have some big time answering to do to the Judge," Buck told him, happy to win that point.
"Nope, Thorpe wont come after Rusty," Vin cut in again before Buck could say anything else.
Surprised, both men turned to look at the tracker.
"How do you know he wont?" Buck asked curiously.
"Because when we was riding back to Lous ranch, he told how much he liked Lou and her brother. He said he wished she would found someone ornery enough to put up with her, especially now that her brother is gone." Vin answered.
"But that doesnt change my point," Buck persisted. "How do we know he wont go after Rusty, even if he does like Lou?"
"I told him a little bit about Rusty and he dont seem all to concerned about him. I think he figured the old guy paid his debt to society, and he wasnt going to cause no one no grief."
"No grief!" Buck exclaimed." How can you sit there and say he didnt cause any grief? I got a bump the size of a mountain on my forehead, youll be riding all hunched over from busted up ribs, and JD damn near got gut shot. None of this would have happened if he had stayed back at the prison like he was suppose to!"
"What you say carries some truth, Buck." JD grinned at him. "But if not for Rusty, we would have missed helping Lou save her ranch, and you wouldnt have meet Dixie, Lily, and Miss Rudy. And you did say that was the best bar room brawl youve fought in years."
"He got ya there, Bucklin," Vin laughed in spite of his sore ribs.
"And to be quite frank, I dont want to have to explain to Chris or the judge why we let Rusty go." Buck put his hands up in the air to ward off any more disputes with JD. He was tired off the squabble and his head was starting to hurt again.
"We could tell Chris that Rusty got shot and killed the same time I got shot!"
"Or or we could tell him he got dragged off by a rogue brown bear!"
"Or better yet! We could tell him "
"JD!" Buck interrupted again. "Do you want to be the one to look Chris and Judge Travis in the eyes, and point blank lie to their faces?"
JD stared at Buck for a few seconds as his friends words penetrated his brain, and then with a very discouraged and ashamed expression, he dropped his eyes to the floor. He had been so concerned with ways of keeping Rusty from returning to prison, he had not thought through how he would feel about lying to two men he had the up-most respect for.
"I hadnt thought about that," JD said in a small voice.
Buck walked over and dropped a hand on JDs shoulder, giving him a comforting shake. "JD kid you got a big heart where your friends are concerned, and I know that as well as anyone. Why do you think you are still riding with us? It just aint because youre game in a fight, its because we trust that youll stand beside us no matter what. Rusty is a lucky man to count you amongst his friends, and I expect he knows it too."
"That dont mean I have to like what were going to do to him," JD said dejectedly, his voice softening as the fight drained out of him.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was still too restless to go to sleep.
Worn out after their disagreement, JD had fallen right back to sleep. Vin had soon followed suit, leaving Buck awake and alone in the middle of the night. Moodily, he stared at the glowing flames that rose out of the fireplace until he could stand it no longer. With a grunt, he pushed himself out of Lous rocker and headed to the door. He was just reaching for his coat when a soft, Texas drawl made him turn around.
"Where ya goin, pard?" Vin raised his head off his pillow to look at Buck.
"Cant sleep," Buck told him, as he reached and pulled his coat down off the coat rack. "Thought Id go out and check on the horses. Make sure theyre eating enough and ready to go in the morning."
"Give me a minute to pull my boots on, and Ill meet ya out there," Vin said, shoving his top blanket off and rising from the floor.
"Youre tired, Vin," Buck told him kindly. "I can handle it."
"I know ya can, but Im sleeping my life away," Vin answered. "I need to get me some air."
Buck nodded at him, and then pulled his coat on, leaving it unbuttoned, and quietly let himself out of the cabin. The cold wind and driving snow quickly made him wrap his coat up around his ears and had him almost running to the barn. He fought against the wind to get the barn door closed behind him and then brushed the snow off his coat with a gloved hand.
The welcoming nicker of their horses met his ears, and the red-bone hound left his bed of hay to walk over and greet him with a wagging tail.
"Hey boy," Buck said, fondly scratching the dog behind his ears." How come youre they only one to come out of this whole week unscathed, huh?"
Buck looked up into the rafters as another gust of wind shook the barn, and sent loose flakes of hay and dust raining down on his head.
Buck was dusting off the hay from his shoulder when Vin entered the barn and struggled to close the barn door against the gusting winds.
"Its almost down to a spring breeze out there," Vin said grinning at Buck. "Sad thing is, it aint blowin near as hard as it was this afternoon."
The noise from the wind pounding against the barn made conversation hard, so instead of shouting loudly at each other, the two men went quietly about their chores. Buck wanted to make sure the horses were well feed before they started out in the morning. The tall man threw Seven the last of the hay left on the barn floor. Gesturing at Vin up to the loft with a finger, Buck started to climb up the ladder. Buck was nearly at the top when he heard the sound of voices.
"You say something to me?" Buck asked looking down at Vin.
"I didnt say nothing," the tracker shrugged at him. "Why?"
"I must be tired," Buck said shaking his head. "I could swear I heard voices." Buck looked at Vin again, and not hearing anything else, he scrambled the rest of the way up.
Curious, Vin held his sore ribs with one hand and followed Buck up the ladder. Standing in the loft, they both paused to listen, but they didnt hear anything. Buck shrugged the noises off and bent down to scoop up hay.
The two men grabbed an armful each of hay and were about to head back down when they heard the voices again. Dropping the hay, both men drew their guns from their holsters and made they way towards the sound.
Pushing back some hay that had been stacked in a corner of the loft, they brought their weapons up and peeked around the hay. The men were only slightly taken aback at seeing Lou and Rusty lying huddled together on a faded green blanket. Vin and Buck quickly pulled their heads back before they were spotted.
Buck nudged Vin gently with his elbow, "Why them wily, old coots," he whispered laughingly at Vin, "I saw them go into their separate bedrooms hours ago. They must have snuck out of the windows. I wonder how long this has been going on under our noses?"
"Theyre old enough not to be needing our consent," Vin said, tugging on Bucks coat, trying to pull his friends prying eyes and ears away from the couple.
"Its good to know that even under all that gray snow, a man can still perform his duties," Buck said laughing, shaking off Vins hand.
"Somehow, Buck, youre the last man Id worry about losing his ability to perform with the ladies. Regardless of how old you get," Vin again pulled on Bucks sleeve to leave. "Lets give them a little privacy here."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah! Im right behind ya." Buck snickered to himself as he took one last peak at the couple, and started to follow Vin down the ladder.
Suddenly their voices reached him again, clearer this time.
"Buck!" Vin hissed at him from down below.
"Shush!" Buck put a finger to his lips and shushed Vin. Dropping to his hands and knees, he snuck back to the pile of hay to eavesdrop better.
Annoyed, Vin shook the ladder and then paced back and forth under it, until Buck finally climbed back down.
Buck had a shell-shocked expression on his face as he turned and looked at Vin.
"What?" the tracker asked, waving a hand in front of Bucks glossy stare.
"Ah damn it all to hell!" Buck blurted out.
"Would ya just tell me?"
"I heard it that time!" Buck told his friend in a frustrated tone.
"Heard what, Buck?" Vin asked, looking questioningly at Buck.
"That wasnt the voice of an ugly thunderstorm." Buck told his confused friend, as Vin stared at him. "That was the voice as mild as a springtime shower blowing on an afternoon breeze."
Exasperated at Vins apparent lack of understanding, or his inability to explain it better, Buck pointed at the loft. "That was the voice of a woman in love!"
"You just figuring this all out now, Bucklin?" Vin asked surprised. "Youre usually quicker at pickin up on them lovin feelings!"
"I didnt think they were really in love," Buck said in his defense, "I mean, look at them. Hes old as time and shes just plain mean. I thought she was just lonely and he was looking for any place to lite that aint jail!"
"Buck, we got a long ride ahead of us come morning," Vin said to his baffling riding companion. "And ya just aint making any sense."
"I know "Buck muttered under his breath. "I know Im not making any sense."
"You think her loving him changes anything?" Vin asked.
"No!" Buck adamantly replied. "No, her being in love doesnt change nothing. I just wish I hadnt heard her!"
"Thats what you get for sticking your nose where it dont belong," the tracker grinned at him, and then made his way to the barn door. "Ya keep it up and one of these days someones goin bloody it for ya." He told him over his shoulder before exiting out into the cold night.
Buck took one last look up at the loft, "Nope sorry Lou. But it dont mean a thing!" Buck whispered under his breath to himself, and then he too left the barn to go out into the cold night.
+ + + + + + +
Buck deftly pulled the latigo through the saddle ring for a second wrap, and then waited patiently for Polecat to exhale so he could finish tightening up the cinch. In the stall next to him, JD was gingerly bent over picking out Sevens hooves. With a hiss escaping through his front teeth, the youth dropped the last hoof down to the floor, and slowly straightened up holding his wounded side. Out in the alleyway, Vin slipped a silver bit into Pesos mouth and pulled the headstall over the fidgeting horses ears. Snorting and pawing the dirt floor, the high-strung animal was anxious to get moving out in the cold morning air. Vin did not share his horses enthusiasm.
After a final tug on his cinch, Buck slapped the saddle fender down against Polecats side, and gave the horse an affectionate pat on the neck. Leaning his head against the soft hide, he drew in a breath of the horses earthy scent and tried to clear his mind. He had not slept a wink last night, and he was sure his tired eyes showed it.
Polecat rubbed his head roughly up and down Bucks chest, snapping the ladies man out of his daydream. Unwrapping his reins from the hitching rail, he backed the horse out of the tie stall.
"Time to move em out, boys," Buck called to the two others, as he grabbed Muds leadshank and lead the two horses down the barn alleyway and past his friends.
JD looked like hell warmed over, but Buck was doing his best to ignore that fact. He was not sure if it was JDs wounded side, or his wounded heart that was making him look so rough this morning, but Buck didnt have the time or patience to deal with either. The physical part was already starting to be cured. Some more of Lous foul tasting herb teas had gotten JDs fever back under control, but while he no longer looked flushed, he still had little appetite. This morning was the first time the youth had climbed out of his bedroll since the fight with the Morrisons, and he was not looking forward to the long ride still ahead of them.
The emotional feelings were going to take longer for the young man to recover from. Even though he had come to accept the fact Rusty was going to be returned to prison and there was nothing any of them could really do about it, JD was still slightly miffed at Buck. JD was sure there had to be someway they could let Rusty stay here, but Buck wasnt even willing to listen any more of his suggestions. He knew he was being unreasonable to feel mad at Buck, but he needed some outlet for his disappointment, and his old friend was going to be his prime candidate.
After getting nothing but curt, short responses from JD this morning, Buck decided to just stay out of the kids space as best he could. He thought they had worked it out last night, but JD had woken up with a mad on again. It wasnt fair that JD was making him out to be the bad guy in this whole ordeal. He understood the young mans feelings and knew that he would eventually get it sorted out in his mind, but for now Buck felt a little resentment of his own in JDs direction. He had looked at the situation rationally and maturely, and he kept coming up with the same answer. He was not about to let JDs adolescent feelings change the correct, but tough decision that he had made.
Vin eyed Buck sympathetically as the older man led the horses by. This thing with Rusty was twisting his guts around too; they were all torn in different directions of what they thought was right or wrong. Vin just wished his two friends could disagree without taking it personal, but JD was too good at making Buck feel guilty, and Buck was too practiced at ignoring JDs opinions. Vin just knew it was going to be a long, long, silent ride if they did not come to some kind of settlement. Vin didnt have the energy to deal with any of it; he was still tired beyond anything he had ever experienced before. Even after the three days of rest, his bruised ribs still burned with every breath and step he took. His sky-blue eyes had dark bags under them, and were deeper set in his handsome face than usual. He would be happy if he had just an ounce of his horses seemingly boundless energy.
"Were burning daylight," Buck called out to the two others again, and pushed open the barn door. It was still dark when they led their horses through the falling snow, towards the lantern lit porch steps of the log cabin.
Half way across the yard, Buck stepped aboard Polecat and waited for his friends to mount up as well. Both Vin and JD tentatively placed a foot into a stirrup, and each holding a palm against their injuries, awkwardly pulled themselves up onto their saddles.
Ignoring their collective moans and groans, and ashen colored faces, Buck slowly walked Polecat towards the porch, while leading Mud behind him.
Lou stood quietly beside Rusty, leaning against the railing.
Buck had to do a double take of the woman. For the first time since they had met her, she stood before them in a plain calico dress instead of her usual overalls and flannel shirts. Buck hated to admit it, but for an old girl she could be a fine figure of a woman.
JD had to turn his face away as Lou stretched out a hand towards the old cowboy. He couldnt stand it it was ripping his heart out to watch the old couple say good-bye to one another.
Rusty reached out and lightly held her hand, feeling the rough calluses across her palm. Lou leaned closer, pressing against his shoulder with her chest as she wrapped her fingers around a strand of his hair, and squeezed out the wet snow.
Closing his eyes, he inhaled the sweet musky scent of her skin and was again reminded of pretty bluebells. Her fingers gently traced their way across his face. He squeezed his eyes tighter, wishing she had left the melting snow on his cheeks, so his tears would have a place to hide.
Tears blurred her vision and clogged her voice as she let Rusty go for the last time. She hugged her arms around herself to hold the last remnants of his warmth, and the memory of it. The parting tore deeply at her and every fiber inside her cried out in despair. The tears she fought from coming to the surface froze in her throat as he slowly started to pull his hand away.
Rusty took one step down from the porch and then turned to face Lou again.
Anguish washed over his weathered face as he stared at her, burning her memory into his brain. She was somebody, who just by being near her, made you want to live your life over and over again. Somebody who made you feel like you were the fastest, smartest, most handsome man to ever draw in a breath. Somebody who could turn your life topsy-turvy, inside out, and upside down, with just a sideways glance. Lou did all that to him, and more.
Buck, being in love with being in love, recognized that look better than anyone.
Ah hell Rusty really was in love too! And seriously in love, if his heart-wrenching expression was anything to go by.
Buck had tried to convince himself that it had just been lust that Rusty was feeling for Lou. After all the man had been locked up in prison for going on ten years. Any woman could have looked appealing after that, even Lou. Heck, the woman even came complete with her own ranch, but deep down Buck knew it was not the land that the old cowboy coveted. Quite simply, he wanted the woman.
Silently, Buck turned Polecat and Mud in the opposite direction and rode away from the porch.
"Son of a gun!" Buck said pulling up beside Vin. "I tried to fight it, Vin, I truly did. But it does matter!"
"Yep, thats what Ive heard!" Vin nodded in agreement with a big grin lighting his face. With another nod of approval at his friend, Vin spun Peso around and followed Buck down past the barn and away from the ranch yard.
Understanding was a little slower coming to JD, but suddenly a huge smile was plastered on his face. JD let out a loud whoop at the confused but hopeful couple.
"JD !" Buck hollered back at him. "Lets ride."
JD looked between his friends retreating backs, and the old couple on the porch. Totally taken aback by Bucks actions, JD felt a complete loss of words, so after shouting out some mundane farewell to the couple, he turned and followed his friends past the barn and corrals.
Excitedly, clutching one of Rustys hands between her two calloused ones, Lou gazed breathlessly up at the cowboy. "I always did like that Wilmington fella," she said, her voice bubbling over with pent up emotion.
Suddenly feeling shy, and unsure of themselves, the couple climbed slowly back up onto the porch, pausing against the railing to watch the three men disappear into the falling snow.
Ignoring the pain in his side, JD cantered Seven through the snow attempting to catch up with Buck and Vin.
"Buck!" he called out excitedly.
"Just ride, JD," Buck cut him off. "I didnt do it for you and I sure dont think I did it for Rusty. Maybe well talk about it one day, but I aint in the mood right now!"
"I guess I can live with that," JD said gratefully, turning to wave another farewell over his shoulder. "But thanks all the same."
"Drop it, JD." Buck urged Polecat ahead of the other two men. He didnt want to hear JDs gratitude, he was too busy wrestling down the urge to turn around and throw Rustys skinny butt up on Mud and finish the job they had set out to do. He put a little more spur on his horses side. He had to keep riding forward strong, if he slowed, or faltered he would lose the conviction to let Rusty go. He felt Polecats strong hindquarters power underneath them, driving them through the deep snow-banks, but even in his haste to get away from Lous ranch he noticed the hoof beats behind him were falling further back. He pulled his gray gelding up, and turned to see Vin and JD stopping.
The two men seemed to be talking together when suddenly JD spun Seven around towards the cabin.
"Ill catch up with ya, but first I gotta know!" JD yelled over his shoulder at his friends and galloped back to the cabin.
Seeing JD riding back quickly towards them, the couple cautiously came down the stairs to meet him. Sliding Seven to a halt, JD looked the old man straight in the eye, "After all weve been through together, I gotta know, Rusty. Are you guilty? Did you help them men break out of prison?"
JD focused hard on the old cowboy, his young face glowing with anticipation and his unwavering virtue.
Rusty looked the youth straight in the eye for a good thirty seconds, not saying a word, just scrutinizing him. Then a slow smile broke out on the mans face and he gave a casual shrug with his shoulders. And then he winked at JD.
JDs eyes opened wide, and his mouth dropped open. Dazed, he looked at Bucks retreating back and then back at the old cowboy.
Snapping his jaw shut, he stared at Rusty, trying to read what the wink meant, until he too was grinning cheek to cheek. Shaking his head in wonderment, he rode after his two friends.
JD caught up with Vin and Buck just as they crossed though the little creek, heading to the narrow gulch opening.
JD reined in beside Vin. The tracker took a quick glance at his young friends perplexed expression.
"Did he tell ya anything, kid?" Vin asked. "Was he telling us the truth or not?"
Mystified, JD turned to face Vin, "I I!" he stammered. "Ah hell, Vin! I dont know what he was telling me!"
Buck turned and looked suspiciously over his shoulder as Vin suddenly burst out laughing.
"Yep, kid," Vin said still laughing, "thats just what Id expect from that old codger."
Wondering what Vin found so amusing, JD rode up beside Buck. The narrow gully leading off Lous property was looming ahead of them, and the closer they got to it, the more relaxed Bucks mood seemed to be getting.
"What are we going to tell Chris and the judge about Rusty?" JD got up the courage to ask.
"The truth, JD," Buck turned his head towards the young man, "Just the truth."
JD gulped at the thought of facing those two men, but he was the one who had pushed so hard to free Rusty.
"Ill tell them, Buck," he said in a faltering voice.
"Dont worry about it, kid. I already got it figured out." Buck grinned at the relieved expression on the youths face. "Were going to let Vin be the one to tell them. They wont kill him Chris likes him the best!"
JD was still laughing when they got to the gulch entrance. With a happy smile on his face, he turned to give a final wave over his shoulder to Lou and Rusty.
The couple was standing side by side near the barn, holding hands, and watching the three men ride away.
+ + + + + + +
The three tired and sore men rode back into the sleepy town of Horse Springs. The pull to go eat at the only saloon tugged at them, but after the lousy reception they had gotten from the barkeep the first time they ate there, they decided to keep on riding. Another day and a half, or two at the most, and they would be back home in their own beds. The draw to Four Corners was even greater than the thought of a hot meal in a warm building.
Buck figured the three of them must be a sight for sore eyes. Bucks head still hurt, so he rode with his hat slung low on his head to lessen the light that flooded into his eyes. Like the other two, he rode with his collar pulled high on his neck to block out the driving winds.
Vin rode slouched over, with a hand pressed against his sore ribs. The reins from his hand to Pesos mouth were hanging extra long, as the dog-tired tracker was unusually inattentive to his unpredictable gelding.
JD also rode leaning forward with an arm resting on his saddlehorn for support. So far all of Lous stitches were holding, but they pulled against his skin with each step Seven took. The cold, winter air provided a rose color to what otherwise would be pale, sallow cheeks.
They all rode staring out at the small, snow-covered town with tired, trail-weary eyes.
Riding at a steady walk down the only street, they were just about at the edge of town when a thin little man in a white shirt and with rolled up sleeves, came running out of an office building yelling at them. Cautiously they turned their horses around and rode back to the now shivering man.
"Is one of you Buck Wilmington?" he asked in a squeaky voice, puffs of breath coming out of his mouth in the cold air.
"Thats me," Buck answered guardedly, wondering how someone in this puny excuse for a town knew his name.
"If you will follow me into the office, I have a telegram for you." The man rushed back to his warm office without waiting for a reply from Buck.
"Whod be sending you a telegram?" Vin asked suspiciously. "And why in blazes would they send it to this hell hole? I dont like this much! JD and me will watch your back from the street. You be careful in there."
Buck stepped off Polecat and handed JD his reins, "These two little towns weve had to ride through aint been the most hospitable, but I think I can hold my own against this squirt of a guy. But if itll keep ya happy, Ill watch out for myself."
Buck grinned a tired grin at his friends before opening the office door and disappearing inside.
Picking up on Vins edgy vibes, JD subtly rested a hand on his holster and flicked the safety off one of his pistols. The two men sat on their horses with their eyes darting back and forth up the street. So far nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be happening in the tiny town. In fact, the few people they did see on the street pretty much ignored them, but Vin was not about to take any chances. He kept up his vigilant watch.
Suddenly a scream from inside the office ripped through the town. Vin and JD snatched their guns from their holsters and started to dismount as fast as their injured, cold bodies could move.
"I dont believe it!" Buck bellowed, exiting the telegraph office and slamming the door hard behind him.
"I dont bloody well believe it!" he screamed again, waving a white piece of paper at them. "I want to kick something!"
"Buck ?" JD asked, startled by Bucks tirade, but the tall ladies man didnt answer him. He was too busy stomping up and down with both feet on the bunched up piece of paper that the message had been printed on, and hollering up at the heavens something about unfairness.
On one of his leaps into the air, Vin stepped into the bigger man and sent him crashing into a snow bank. Before Buck could gain his feet, the speedy tracker retrieved what was left of the message and handed it to JD to read.
The date said it had arrived right after the four men had ridden out of the small town several days previous.
LOOKING FOR FOUR MEN stop SHOULD BE RIDING THROUGH YOUR TOWN ANY TIME NOW stop TELL BUCK WILMINGTON PRISON EXCAPEES HAVE BEEN RECAPTURED AND RETURNED TO PRISON stop PRISON AUTHORITIES STILL UNCERTAIN OF RUSTY HOPKINS INVOLVEMENT stop DECIDED HE SERVED ENOUGH OF SENTENCE stop RELEASE PRISONEER NOW stop RETURN ASAP TO FOUR CORNERS stop CHRIS LARABEE stop
The nervous telegraph operator rushed to lock his doors. A woman grabbed the hand of her small child and hurried into the safety of the mercantile store. A horse tied to a nearby hitching rail reared in fear, and snapping its reins, raced wildly out of town. The door to the only saloon flew open, and several heads wearing cowboy hats poked watchfully out.
All of Horse Springs, population sixty-seven, wondered why three strangers picked the middle of their street to yell up at the sky, and who this Rusty fellow was that was getting called every bad name in the book.
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