Slip of the Tongue
It was perfect. Crystal clear sky. Slight breeze. Late afternoon sun. Just cold enough for a voice to travel miles in the near stillness. Feeding time.
Two hunters lay stock still, waiting for their quarry to come out of the trees, bask in the warmth and eat of the sweet meadow grass.
A slight movement from the hunter on the right, fidgeting just a little. The hunter on the left, barely breathing.
A whispered "Come on, come on," from the hunter on the right. "We know you're in there," he added a breath later.
"He didn't live this long by rushin' things," the seasoned hunter on the left whispered back, knowing the young man was getting impatient.
A few more silent minutes ticked by before the two hunters were rewarded with what they were waiting for . . . and he was definitely worth the wait.
The buck was massive. Two hundred pounds at least. The area of spread between the antlers was impressive. It had at least 11 points on one side and 13 on the other side, with two perfectly matched down tines on either side. A truly magnificent animal.
Warily the animal stepped from behind the trees, ears rotating back and forth, nose in the air, stubby tail flicking, ready to send up the white flag if any unusual scents were detected. Cautiously and slowly, the big animal made his way towards the middle of the meadow where the grass was the longest and greenest.
Stopping midway, he turned and looked directly at where the two hunters lay, hardly breathing, partially hidden behind a log, not more than 100 yards away. The buck snorted and stomped, nose seeking, knowing perhaps something was up, but not being able to pick up any scent nor see anything moving. More time passed, seemingly hours for the hunters, then, finally, the big animal turned to the side and put his head down to rip at the grass.
The experienced hunter on the left waited for the inexperienced hunter on his right to take a shot. When it didnt happen, he took a chance.
Now, he breathed, the word coming through clenched teeth out the side of his mouth.
One shot rang out and another followed right on its heels. The first shot, although a good one, wasnt a killing one, but the second finished the job.
A loud Whoop followed as JD sprang up, rifle raised in celebration.
Oh man! Wow! Did you see that?
Vin shook his head, grinned and stood up. That really wasnt a question that needed answering and both knew it. Besides, he couldnt get a word in edgewise even if he wanted to, the Bostonian rambling on and on.
Hes huge! JD carried on. Oh man! My first buck . . . well, I mean, gotten with your help, he said, taking his eyes off the prize to look at his companion for a second. But we got him! Wow! This is so great! Lets go take a look. Man! Hes just . . . look at those antlers! Buck should be here, hes not gonna believe this.
Still standing behind the fallen log where they'd hidden themselves, the two men looked at the fallen animal. Vin had to admit, it was a beautiful buck. He'd known one was in the area, had seen the rubs on some of the sturdier trees, so he knew the animal was a big one. He and JD had been tracking him for a couple of weeks now and knew he frequented this eating area. Nettie wanted some deer meat before winter set in so the two had picked today because there had been just a dusting of snowfall overnight which made tracking easier. They had lain for hours waiting and hoping for the chance to get the massive beast. And they'd been rewarded.
"You're gonna show me how to dress him out, right?" JD asked, setting his gun against the log and getting ready to head to the meadow.
"Bring yer rifle. Just 'cause he's down, don't make him dead or any less dangerous. Could be playin' possum with us. Seen more'n one man speared thinkin' he'd killed something, and it weren't so."
"Okay," JD said, picking his weapon back up again. He grinned, pointing his rifle at the dead animal. "This was pretty easy. Just think . . . if this were a bounty, we could be maybe five hundred . . ."
The rest of his sentence was cut off as a hand grabbed hold of his jacket and viciously yanked him around to face a pair of angry blue eyes.
"Ain't nothin' fun or easy 'bout takin' down a man, nothin'. You got that kid?" Vin said in a deadly rasp of a voice, punctuating his point by roughly shaking the young man.
"Yeah. Okay. I got it," came the trembling whisper. Blinking his wide eyes, he swallowed hard as Vin let go of him with a slight shove.
JD stood stock still, rooted to the spot, watching with an open mouth, as his friend picked up and shook, with a resounding snap, the saddle blanket that he'd been laying on using it as a buffer between himself and the cold ground.
Thinking Vin was going to walk away and leave him there alone, he finally found his voice, at least he thought it was his voice . . . it sounded strange even to him.
"I'm sorry, Vin. I mean, I didn't mean it the way it sounded. It just slipped out. I didn't mean it," he said again and then cursed himself for the repeat.
He felt stupid, and he knew he deserved the tongue lashing by his friend. He really didn't mean to say what he had said, it just came out. He wasn't thinking. He'd been so enthused about tracking and getting his first buck and really, aside from lying in wait for so many hours, it was easy. He'd just pulled the trigger and that was that, the animal went down . . . he didn't mean that it would be just as easy to kill a man, but that's what he had implied and he knew he had a stupid grin on his face when he said it too. And then the five hundred dollar bit . . . just what Vin was wanted for. He mentally kicked himself. He could already hear Buck's exasperated voice telling him that he needed to be sure his brain was connected to his mouth before spouting off about something.
Vin walked back over to him and in a move that startled him, whipped his bowie knife out then flipped it in one smooth motion and handed it to him butt first.
"Let's do it," came the command as Vin handed his knife over to JD, drawing the spare he'd gone and gotten from his saddle bag.
JD nodded although it was to nothing but air, Vin already headed to their prey. Heaving a big sigh, he stepped over the log and followed the tracker, his knife in one hand, rifle in the other. He didn't want to make any more mistakes, knowing Vin was upset with him already.
He watched, learned and kept his mouth shut as Vin taught him how to gut the deer and how to dispose of the remains. Then they'd hung the carcass on a sturdy branch high enough that predators couldn't reach it. That in itself took them quite a while because it was so heavy. It definitely was a two man job, or so JD told himself it was. Obviously, Vin had done this many times before and probably by himself, but he didn't chance any conversation, wanting instead, to show that he could work and keep quiet.
Once finished, they gathered their things, JD following Vin's lead. When they were mounted up, only then did Vin look and talk directly to him. He was to give a message to Nathan and be back here at dawn tomorrow and they'd take the deer to Netties and cut it up there. It was obvious that Vin was still angry with him and that their time together for the day was over.
JD apologized one last time, getting a curt nod before the tracker turned his mount and headed west. Shoulders slumped and disgusted with himself, the young man rode back to Four Corners.
+ + + + + + +
Five men sat around a table at the local Saloon, eating their supper meal of roast beef, potatoes and beans. Buck Wilmington would take a few bites and then look up at the batwing doors, obviously waiting on someone.
Watching the door every five seconds will not cause Mr. Dunne to materialize any quicker, Ezra told the anxious man.
A watched pot never boils, Josiahs voice rumbled, giving his sage advice.
'Sides, we wont know if JD got the buck until he tells us, Nathan added.
Oh, well know alright, Buck said with a nod, his fork pointing to the entrance. Minute he comes through that door, hell have the biggest damn . . . , his sentence cut off as the batwing doors opened and the subject of their conversation strode in and headed directly to the bar, a definite solemn look on his face.
Was that perhaps the look you were alluding to? Ezra drawled, eyes tracking the young mans progress to the bar.
Not exactly, came the absent reply, Buck too engrossed in his young friends demeanor as JD slapped his hand on the bar impatiently.
I would hazard a guess that the big buck lives on to forage another day.
Maybe missed an easy shot, Nathan put in, eyes studying JD, looking for anything that might indicate an injury.
Could be it wasnt like what he was expecting, Josiah said. Killin something thats innocent can weigh on a mans conscience, he added, pursing his lips, mind wandering back in time.
Chris Larabee had kept his thoughts to himself, but had to admit he was curious as to the way JD was acting. Vin, last night, had told him he knew exactly where he was taking the novice hunter and it would be a time JD wouldnt forget. If Chris didnt know any better, hed say the tracker was almost excited as JD was. Something definitely happened between then and now, and maybe it was as Josiah said, he thought, trying to remember back to when he killed his first deer, knowing that for many, the act was kind of a young man's ritual from boyhood to manhood. JD was far passed being a boy, but he'd been raised in Boston by his mother and never had the chance to go on such a hunt. Chris knew he'd really been looking forward to it. Hearing Buck call for JD to join them brought him out of his reverie.
The peacekeepers watched as their youngest turned around slowly at Bucks call, hesitate and then shuffle over to their table. Putting his mug of beer down, he pulled out the empty chair between Chris and Buck. Sitting down heavily, he prepared to do battle with his friends. He could feel their eyes on him and it didnt take long before the questions and comments started. Without looking, he knew Buck was grinning at him, waiting for some kind of an explanation.
Missed did ya? Buck said, leaning over and draping an arm over JD's chair. "Happens to the best of us," he added, nearly whispering in the young man's ear.
Perhaps it wasnt quite as you had anticipated, Ezra said by way of trying to elicit something from the somber young man.
"Ain't nothin' to be ashamed of, son," Josiah's deep voice put in. "Not everyone has that killer instinct in them."
Come on, JD, 'fess up," Buck prodded when the young man didn't utter a word. "Tell ol Buck what happened. Weve probably been there.
Doubt it, came the mumbled reply, JD keeping his head down, fingers rimming the top of his beer mug.
Wheres Vin? came the softly asked question from his left.
JD turned his head and looked into the eyes of a man who was in no mood for games. A man who expected answers when he asked questions. He stayed out there he informed Chris, then looked at Nathan, Wanted me to let you know hed take your patrol tonight.
"The deer?" came the next question from Larabee.
"We got him," JD answered quietly, ignoring the slap on his back from Buck. "He's the one we'd been tracking too," he added, still facing the man in black. "Big. Really big," the young man finished, with a nod of his head, eyes returning to his mug of beer.
The other men sat silent as Larabee quietly asked their youngest about what had happened. Something had taken place and the fact that the young man wasn't celebrating nor their tracker being present alerted them all that somehow, someway, something went awry. They also knew that JD would tell Larabee before letting them in on anything. Least of all Buck, unless the big man really pushed hard and lost his temper like he was threatening to do right now.
"Answer the man," Buck prodded JD when no answer came forth right away.
It wasn't hard to tell that JD was trying to gather his thoughts before speaking.
"Well hell, you didn't shoot him did ya?" Buck asked, his impatience growing.
JD's face blanched, "No! I didn't shoot him. What . . .?"
"Then answer the man's question, boy. What happened?"
The young man looked down, then gave a resigned sigh and blurted out, "I said something."
"You . . . you said something?" Buck needed more. His eyebrows formed into a frown. "Like what?" he asked.
"JD?" Again that voice softly demanding some sort of an answer. Larabee might be a feared gunslinger but JD knew the man had more patience at times that what people gave him credit for. Most times more than Buck. And if anyone deserved an answer, it was Chris. Vin and Chris were good friends, maybe best friends, he didn't know, they didn't talk much most of the time, it was just there. You mess with one you'd have to answer to the other. And since he'd upset Vin, he guessed Chris would want to know. It was best he just spit it out before he choked on it.
Turning his head again to look at Larabee, he told him about what went down, how it all happened, how excited he'd been, and what he had blurted out.
"I didn't mean it," JD told the rest of his friends as he heard their sighs and saw them shake their heads. "It just slipped out. I would never say anything purposely to make Vin mad at me. It just slipped out," he quietly repeated again, seeing a frown on his best friend's face as Buck sat back in his chair. He also didn't miss the look Wilmington gave Larabee. He knew that look; a look of I can't believe he did that, can you?
Hearing the scrap of chair legs on the wooden floor, JD watched as Chris got up and headed for the batwing doors, silent as ever. About ready to open his mouth to tell the gunslinger which direction Vin was headed, because he just knew that's where Larabee was headed, he felt a hand on his arm and looked at Buck.
"He'll know where to find him."
JD nodded. Yeah, he would. "Guess I really blew it this time didn't I?"
"You might say that," Buck said with a nod of his head. "But I wouldn't worry about it. You couldn't have upset Vin too much." When JD threw a disbelieving look at him, he added, "You're still alive."
The table erupted into soft chuckles.
"You didn't see his face. He wouldn't hardly even talk to me after that," JD told them, dejectedly.
"Friendships, good friendships need conflict," Josiah told the table, not looking to single out JD, but wanting to get his point across. "If everything were smooth," he added, running the palms of his hands over one another for emphasis, "a relationship would wear down from boredom. It needs differences to be woven throughout it; to strengthen it," he finished with a nod to the young man hoping that what he shared would help soothe his anxiousness.
"That was . . . was exemplary, Josiah," Ezra told him, giving the ex-preacher a slight nod and appreciative smile.
Nathan looked down and grinned. Leave it to his good friend to say something so meaningful and truthful, not only for JD's sake, but for all of them. It fit.
"I sure hope Vin feels that way," JD said, his expression thoughtful.
"He should," Josiah said, getting up from the table. "Theyre his words."
Buck laughed softly and patted his young friend on the back. "Vin'll be fine, kid. You need help tomorrow with that big, huge buck of yours?"
"No. Vin told me to meet him back there tomorrow morning and we'll take it to Nettie's and finish with it at her place."
"Well, see there? He wouldn't have asked for your help if he was gonna stay mad."
"Guess you're right. I just feel bad for what I said."
"As you should." Ezra said, pushing his plate aside to shuffle his cards. "No man likes to have his inadequacies, true or not, thrown in his face. But I, too, find Mr. Tanner a fair man and as such, feel he will exculpate you."
JD's mouth and eyes opened wide and he looked at Buck from whom he received a shoulder shrug, a raised eyebrow, a nod and a, "It'll be okay, kid," whispered answer.
"Now, anyone for a game of cards?" Ezra asked, swiveling his head to look at his fellow peacekeepers.
+ + + + + + +
Turning his mount, he rode to meet his friend. Seeing the relaxed way Larabee rode told him there was no trouble. He knew why Chris was out tonight and it lightened his heart.
Both men relaxed back in their saddles, wrists crossed over their saddle horns, reins dangling in lax fingers.
Chris studied his friend. You alright? Larabee always got right to the point.
A quick nod but then an escaped sigh. "Lost my temper though," Vin told him, one hand reaching down to pat his horse's neck.
"You had reason."
Another nod in agreement.
"Reckon I scared him."
"He needed it. Get himself killed not watchin' what he says. Anybody else, he might be dead."
Anybody else with a bounty on his head, is what Chris was saying and Vin knew he was right. No doubt about it. But he still felt a little guilty going off on the kid like he did.
Vin nodded again then gathered his reins in both hands. "You headin' somewhere or ya lookin' fer work?"
"Need help with that huge deer?" came the question with a slight quirk of the lips.
"Nope," Vin answered with a shake of his head. "JD's helpin' tomorrow morning with that. Henderson's cows got out again. Just headed out ta bring 'em back." He smiled when he saw the flat brimmed hat dip and heard a whispered curse.
"Somebody's gonna have to build that man a good fence. Third time this week this has happened."
"You offerin'?" Vin asked, the smile turning into a full grin.
"Hell, no. Got my own fences to build. You offerin'?"
"Not me," Vin answered with a chuckle.
"Well, let's go chase us some cows then," Chris said, flashing his friend a smile and grabbing his reins tight, rode off with Vin at his side.
Larabee knew Tanner well enough to know there'd be no hard feelings between him and JD and hearing that the two would be finishing with the deer tomorrow proved it. He just had to ride out and be sure.
'Least thats what he told himself.
Note: Josiahs wisdom about friendships is paraphrased from page 208 in Jane Kirkpatricks Hold Tight the Thread. I just didnt want you all to think I was that wise. :)