Nineteen years old and brimming with enthusiasm at the job he had fallen into, in the kind of country he loved, and riding with the best group of men he had ever had the privilege of meeting. JD was sitting on the top of the world, and he didn't think it could possibly get any better.
The spring sun was shining in a vibrant blue sky, the day was warm with just a hint of wind, and the birds were singing from groves of cottonwood tree's The horse under JD was feeling his oats and ready to go, just like his young rider. JD fought the urge to burst out of the pack and head hell-bent across the open plain in a race with the wind. Sunday had finally arrived and in a show of support all six other men joined JD in the ride to Flying Bar X ranch. He could barely contain the excitement that pulsated through his body; this was one of the reasons he had come out west. He chattered nonstop from the moment he had appeared at the breakfast table till now, working himself and his horse into a nervous frenzy.
"Jumpin' jellybeans boy, would ya settle down some, ya keep this pace up and your going to be nothing but a puddle of sweat by the time we get there." Buck reached over and clamped a hand over JD's mouth. "Your lucky Chris ain't shot ya yet."
Josiah spoke out from the back of the group. "Come on Buck, you must remember what it is like to be JD's age, when you're young you think you are blazing the trail, as you get older you look down and realize you've been on a beaten path the whole time."
The land they were riding over was a mixture of prairie grasses and sand, a country where you could see a long ways even if you didn't see too much. A cloud of dust hung on the horizon, right where the Flying Bar X was located.
The seven men passed under a new lodge pole entrance, a large sign hung in the middle with the ranch logo branded on it. The old log cabin the previous owner had spent most of his life in was gone. In its place now stood a huge wood framed house, with glass windows in every room, and a veranda running on three sides. It still had a lot of work to be done before it would be completed, but was still the fanciest house any of the seven had seen in this area. All the barns and corrals had also been replaced with new log structures.
A grumpy bull-legged old-timer appeared out of a barn as the seven riders approached. "Ya here to watch, or ya got business ya want to do? If ya here to watch bring them jugheads in this barn, ifin' ya're here for business ya mite as well turn an' leave now. The boss-man don't do no business on the Lords day."
"And you people have the audacity to say I talk funny." Ezra whispered to Vin.
"You do!" Vin whispered back.
"The kid here has been invited out to try his luck riding," Chris pointed in JD's direction. "The rest of us are just moral support."
The old man checked the boy over; he had heard that a kid from town had been asked out to ride. He and every other cowhand on the place know it was done as a joke, but the old man felt a tinge of guilt. The young man before him was obvious a greenhorn, he wore a white shirt buttoned to the top of his neck, covered by a tweed vest. On his legs was a pair of rough rawhide chaps with the bottoms folded up to keep from dragging on the ground, were he walking. Sitting crooked on his head was a goofy bowler hat he only saw rich easterners wear when they came out west to play at being cowboys. But it was the eye's that got him; they were open and honest, brimming with life. The old man hoped he left the same way.
+ + + + + + +
The seven men made their way towards the dust cloud, the squeals of angry stallions and the nicker's of scared mares and foals suddenly separated from each other almost drowned out the shouts of the cowboys. Except for JD, all the men had at least once in their lives seen a wild horse round up. They all had their own feelings on the event, but for today they were here to help keep JD out of trouble.
A large bull of a man with a neatly trimmed gray beard made his way over to them, oozing a brash, and pompous attitude. He tossed them a distasteful look, like he had just stepped in something foul and decaying that the dog had dragged home. "I am Louis Cooper, can I help you gentlemen?"
"I'm Chris Larabee." He said, returning the look with a steely glare of his own. So far this was going about as well as he figured it would. "Your son invited JD here, to come out and see your place, said you were planning on breaking some of these mustangs today."
"I see, then please make yourselves at home." Cooper replied, a cold smile on his thin lips that never made it to his eyes.
"Hey kid, I see you brought your babysitter with you, oh well I am glad you came. Hi, I'm Tom Cooper." He removed his work gloves and stuck a hand out to shake. "JD is one of the peacekeepers in Four Corners dad, he was admiring that gray gelding I rode to town, so I asked him out. We should have us quite the competition this afternoon."
"Hey Tom, can I get closer to the horses?"
"Sure JD, we're just sorting them out and running them into different corrals. The old stallion we will keep separate for now until we get the chance to cut him, then we will sell him as a riding horse. The young stallions will also be gelded. We'll wean the foals off the mares and just give them away; some of the mares will be sold as broodmares, some as riding mounts.
"Where did they all come from?"
"The old guy who we bought the place from used to breed them for resale, but the last several years he got to old and just left them running wild on his range, didn't bother feeding them or handling them. We have an imported stallion from England coming to breed to some of this countries best thoroughbred and Arabian mares, so all this stunted inbred stock has to go."
JD ventured over to the corrals to have a closer look, while trying to stay out of the way of all the cowhands. The ranch was a whirlwind of activity as men on horseback sorted the horses and other men on the ground started roping individual mustangs.
Cowboys of all ages worked the ranch. It was hard dirty work where a young cowboy received no special attention for his youthfulness, nor did they expect to be treated differently. They worked like a man, were paid like a man, and expected to be treated like a man, as long as they did the job like a man. JD hoped a few of his friends took note.
The first pen held the foals, some were this years, others coming yearlings born last spring, all wide eyed and panicked. None had ever seen a man before, let alone been herded into a mile long run that ended in this fenced area amongst such mass confusion. JD felt his heart split at the sight of them, Tom said they were giving the foals away maybe he and the guys could take a couple of them out to Chris's cabin to raise.
"Hey sheriff, why don't ya come watch the boys over in the arena, then you can pick out the cayuse you want to ride." JD turned to find the older man from town standing behind him.
"Okay, but call me JD, and I'm not a sheriff, my friends and I were hired to protect Four Corners in a kinda' informal manner, Chris Larabee is in charge."
"Alright, ya can call me Pepper, I'm the foreman for the Flying Bar X." The foreman shook his head as he watched JD climb off the fence and make his way to the arena. The kid was so green the horses would chew on him if he stood in one spot to long, mistaking him for grass.
JD joined his friends as they all leaned over the stout pole arena, men and animals all kicking up a choking dust storm. What first appeared to be total bedlam, JD soon saw was all perfectly orchestrated activity. Each man knew exactly what his job was and how to do it. At one end of the arena a wrangler had a mare snubbed up to his saddle horn, while a young cowhand grabbed the bronc by her ear and chomped down hard on it. A bronc buster then moved up to her and set his riggin' down, cinched her up tight, and then stepped aboard. Settling down deep into the saddle he pulled down his hat picked up the shank with his riding hand and says grim like "let me have her."
Gut jarring hell broke loose as the mare ducked her head and took off crow hopping around the arena, blindly running into other horses and anyone else that got in her way. Buck had been right, these horses didn't buck in big ground covering bounds, they ducked and spun and kicked, with the buster riding her for every stride, dip and turn. Soon the little mare stopped bucking and turned her head into the fence, trying to rub the halter from her face. A steam of sweat rose up from her hide, her nostrils wide and pink in color, her flanks heaving as she struggled to get air back into her lungs.
All around the arena similar events were taking place. JD had to really admire the skill these men had in the handling of the wild mustangs, but the more he watched the sadder he felt. It wasn't like riding Buddy at the livery. These horses were mostly on the small side, their coats dry and bleached out from the sun. Ribs still stuck out on most of them from the hard winter, and were just now filling out as the lush spring prairie grass started growing again.
"What's the matter kid, ya looking a little pale around the gills, ya havin' second thoughts about climbing up on the back's of one of these?" Vin asked as he noticed JD's excitement level drop off drastically.
"No, riding them not the problem...it's just...I don't know, I feel...ya know!"
"Ya kid I know, it's not like riding a horse that grew up with people. The wild horse is going the way of the buffalo, won't be much longer before we don't see them running wild and free anymore."
"These horses were not all wild once, but the old guy who used to live here let them go when he got too old, but they are so scared, I just feel bad for them."
"You don't have to do this JD, staying isn't going to prove your a big man to us, we'll go if you want." Chris said stepping back from the fence.
JD looked at the rest of the men with him. "They're all God's creatures JD, don't feel bad about not staying." Josiah said dropping an arm across JD's shoulder.
"I have lots to do back at the clinic, enjoyed the ride out here, but don't mind getting back." Nathan said.
"I've eaten enough dust to fill Mrs. Potter vegetable garden over again, and the Judge has some asinine rule against wagering on his ranch, so I have no problem vacating these premises early." Ezra added, as he was already thoroughly bored.
"So Ezra, were you going to bet for or against JD?" Buck asked.
"I think even you could figure out JD was a long shot, no offense to you Mr. Dunne or your riding abilities, but you all saw the way those men could ride."
"None takin' Ezra...thanks guys, I think I'm going to stick with riding Seven. How do you guys feel about bringing a couple of foals home with us though? Do you think we could keep them at your place Chris?"
"Lets go look at what he's got...it's been along time since I've raised any colts." Chris answered as the seven headed away from the arena.
"Hey sheriff, where ya going, ya haven't had your ride yet. I told all my men about you, they were looking forward to riding against ya."
"I just bet they were!" Buck moved to stand between his young friend and a smirking Tom Cooper.
JD stepped out from behind Buck, punching him in the arm as he did. "Thanks Tom, but it just don't feel right, I think I'm going to pass this time." JD turned and resumed walking.
"Funny, watching you the other night I never took ya for a coward. Inept as all get out, if that damn fool hadn't knocked his own self out on that sign, you would still be chasing after him. But I didn't think you would chicken out, no I surely didn't expect that."
JD stopped walking and dropped his chin towards his chest, anger flashed in his eyes.
Buck pushed him forwards. "Keep walking, he's just trying to goad you in to doing something you don't want or need to do."
"Yep little boy, ya better listen to your babysitter there, we wouldn't want ya to break a finger nail, or get them fancy chaps ya got rolled up around your ankles dirty."
Chris turned a glare on the younger Cooper "I think this would be a good time to stop flapping that mouth of yours."
"Chris its okay...get me one of your damn horses so I can ride and then we can get the hell out of here."
+ + + + + + +
Tom led them back behind one of the barns. Seeing where the boss's son was heading, all the cowhands that could get away followed. Chris had a real sinking feeling when he noticed the crowd starting to build behind them; this guy was up to no good.
Another corral built out of thick heavy logs stood behind the barn; the only occupant a lone horse wearily watched them.
"His name is Red Devil. This was that old rancher's idea of a breeding stallion, apparently he caught him as a six year old, we think he's about twelve now, craziest damn horse that ever stood on four legs. No ones ever been able to ride him, if the old man's story can be believed, I keep him around cause I love a challenge. You think your man enough to try him out JD, just to show you how fair I am, I'll have my top rough string rider sit on him first. Wear him down some for ya." Tom shot a look of dare at the younger man.
JD felt trapped, if he said no he would be branded a coward, not by any of the seven, but by all the other men watching. If he said yes, he figured he would, quite possibly get himself killed. At this time in his life neither was an appealing situation.
Josiah stepped foreword to talk to the obnoxious man who put their kid in this predicament. "You asked him to come try riding one of the little mustangs you brought in off the range, nothing I believe, was ever said about JD trying to buck out Mr. Wilson's old stud horse."
"My men fight over who gets to try him...but if he's not man enough, I'm sure we can find a pony around here for him to ride."
"Just put a saddle on him would ya." JD said, nervous as a green colt.
Vin pulled JD aside. "Kid, there are two kinds of buckers, the wild ones and the outlaw. Now a wild one can be broken, it just takes time, but an outlaw...well an outlaw can be subdued, but not conquered. My guess would be that stud is probably a real rank outlaw."
A hand settled on JD arm. "JD take your spurs off, I don't want you to get hung up in a stirrup with them on. You get on, then get off as quick as you can, once you hit the ground don't stop moving, roll, run whatever it takes to get yourself up on the fence...you got that!" JD nodded up at Chris.
A cowboy in boots, spurs and worn beaten up cowboy hat, picked up a rope that had been dangling off a fence post and entered the corral. JD jumped up on the fence to get a better view. The horse bobbed his head up and down, and his ears twitched back and forth. Dropping his head he pawed the soft ground with a front foot, spraying dirt over all those who stood behind him. JD guessed the horse was a chestnut or sorrel, but it was hard to tell exactly what shade he was under the caked on mud. His long tangled mane and tail were full of cockleburs and scars covered his hide from spurs and whippings. Long guard hairs and a pot belly hung under sprung ribs, and hooves that would have stayed short from running on hard ground when he was free, were now long and flared with chunks missing out of them. An old halter that seemed to have grown into his head had rubbed off most of the hair on his face.
"Maybe this won't be so bad after all." JD thought, this horse is in worse shape then the ones just brought in. He didn't look to have the energy to buck off one rider, let alone two.
As if reading JD's mind Nathan touched the kid's arm. "You can't tell how high a frog can jump just by looking at it, you be sharp out there."
The cowboy stepped to the middle of the corral and shook out a loop, swinging it slowly over his head. The stud horse snorted, then moved away in a big thrusting trot, circling around the corral. The cowboy tried to spread the loop out onto the ground to catch the horse's front feet, but at the last second he sat back on his haunches and spun in the opposite direction, his front hooves skimming over the rope. The cowhands surrounding the corral let out hoots and hollers at the bronc buster's miss. He just shook his head and pointed to his fingers. "Damn rhumatizzum."
With a squeal the stud suddenly came at the man, his ears flat back and mouth open. This time the loop snaked out around his front feet, and the cowboy jerked up the slack, closing the loop and sending the horse ass over teakettle. Keeping the rope taunt he crossed it over the horse's body and held it tightly to the ground, not allowing the horse to get his feet back under himself to get up. Another cowhand jumped off the fence into the corral with a stout pair of hobbles and attached them around the stud's legs. The horse was then allowed to regain his feet, but every time he tried to move forward or rear he was jerked back down to his knees, ripping the hair from them and making them bleed. Two men grabbed hold of his head and eared him down, careful to avoid the stallion's teeth, while yet another throw a saddle on and cinched it up.
The bronc rider then shook out some slack on the rope and undid the hobbles, before stepping up onto the saddle. With a nod the two fellows hanging on let go and ran like hell as the horse exploded into the air, rising straight up and twisting end for end. Coming down stiff legged, and burying his feet into the ground, the landing was spine jarring. Launching back up, his hind feet kicking up so high they almost knocked the hat from the cowboy's head. Dirt flew in every direction as the stud dug deep into the ground to propel himself back up, twisting his hindquarters one way, dropping and rolling his shoulder the other, a hurricane of coiled up bronc. His head reached down between his front legs, with wind exploding out of his nostrils, and his back humped as high as it could go, before suddenly sliding his hind-end under him and rearing up, throwing himself backwards. The rider reached up to pound on top of the horse's head with his fist, to keep the horse from going over on top of him.
Whirling, the stud catapulted skywards, pitching full tilt into the fence before turning a complete somersault over the top rail and landing on his back, with the rider pinned under him. Cowhands scrambled to get out of the way of the stallions flailing hoofs and snapped logs. The rider screamed in agony as the floundering horse rolled on his leg, breaking it. JD grabbed a grain sack off the ground and threw it, and himself over the stallion's head, blocking out the light. The stallion instantly stopped his struggle and lay heaving under the young man.
The cowhands all rushed over and pulled the bronc rider out from under the horse. JD was about to get off the stallion when he noticed the blood starting to pool around his legs. "Hey guys, where is all the blood coming from?" He asked the five men standing above him; Nathan was already looking at setting the bronc rider's leg.
"Oh hell, I think this horse has had it." Vin replied.
"Just stay where ya are JD, one of the rails broke and is sticking half way up his chest, he'll do more damage if he gets up wrong." Chris said bending down to examine the horse.
"What in god's name happened here Tom?" Roared Louis Cooper as he came around the side of the barn and saw a man withering on the ground and blood all over a horse.
"That damn Devil horse went crazy, came right through the fence, and broke Fred's leg."
"Shoot him!" Cooper ordered.
"No wait...ya can't just shoot him, ya might be able to save him, at least someone should look at his injury first." JD pleaded.
"Kid, the horse is hurt real bad, and he's not going to let anyone near him to doctor it." Vin said.
"No come on guys we can't just let them kill him without trying something!"
"JD, Vin's right son. This horse will just hurt himself and anyone who tries to look after him. He's dangerous, there is just no way for this to have a good ending." Buck placed a hand on JD's shoulder.
"I'll take care of him...I'll buy him off ya. How much do ya want for him?" JD asked looking at Louis Cooper.
Cooper stood looking at the men before him, he didn't like how they did things out west. He wanted to see proper law enforcement brought out here, not a bunch of gunslingers. In his opinion you could never tell what side of the law they would stay on. Now he had one of them dare to question an order he had given in front of all his ranch hands.
"Three hundred dollars."
"Three hundred? But you just said ya were going to shoot him anyways!" JD sputtered. "Chris, Buck, Ezra...any of you have any money I could borrow?"
"Borrow! Kid you will never be able to pay back that kind of money, not that I have that kind to lend ya anyway." Buck reached into his pocket and withdrew a silver dollar. "That's all I got."
"I would have had that and more, except someone who shall go nameless, crashed into my card game the other day and ruined my chance at such riches." Ezra held out empty pockets.
"Putting the horse down is the best thing for all involved, JD." He knew that was the right choice, but it was really burning Chris the way the Cooper's was dealing with them, especially the kid.
"Chris please! I won't ever bother ya again about anything, but please help me try and save him. I know he's crazy. I just have this feeling I'm supposed to help him. Besides Buck's crazy and ya still keep him around." JD pleaded.
"Thanks kid...I going to remember you said that!"
"Damn it JD!" Chris felt himself weakening. "You should be paying JD to take the horse off your hands Cooper, and you knew it. Give us a reasonable price."
"This is absurd, and yet at the same time ridiculous!" Ezra muttered under his breath to Vin.
"The price stands Larabee, this horse will never be ridden. For that alone he could have been worth a fortune to me. There is always someone out there willing to pay big dollars for a horse like this."
"Not if said horse is dead, if I may interrupt for just a moment gentlemen. Mr. Cooper you need this horse alive to make any return financially. JD does not possess the cash for you to make any monetary gain from him, but he does possess a great affinity with our equine friends. Let him take the horse and attempt to save its life. If after it recuperates, he can get on and lets say, ride the horse, JD gets to keep him. If he can't ride the horse you get him back, healed without having to lift a finger." Ezra proposed to all three concerned parties.
"Ezra that horse will kill JD if he tries to ride him!" Buck hissed at Ezra.
"I imagine the horse will kill him long before that. Maybe we will get lucky and the log being extracted from his chest will kill the damn horse now."
"I say when he has to make the ride and where. Now you have an hour to get yourselves and that horse off my property. I'm being generous because your healer set Fred's broken leg. Tom you will escort these gentlemen off the ranch." Cooper exchanged heated stares with Chris then returned to the barn area.
"Guys he's bleeding really bad, what are we going to do?"
"JD you stay on his head, Josiah and Buck you pull the post out really slow when I tell ya. One of you men know where some clean rags are? Go find me some!" Nathan snapped out directions.
Chris leaned over the stud horse and undid the cinch, then slid a couple of loops over his head. "Vin, Ezra go grab our horses and meet us back here."
"Josiah, Buck pull slow now." Nathan shoved rags into the huge hole left from the post. He and JD both felt the horse shudder, his pulse thready and too quick.
Vin and Ezra returned with the horses. Chris took one rope and dallied it around his saddle horn; Vin moved to the other side of the stud and dallied the other rope the same way.
"JD pull the blindfold off and get out of there in a hurry." Chris said as he took up the slack on the rope.
The stallion did not move for a brief second then launched to his feet, almost pulling Vin's horse off his feet when he hit the end of the rope. Chris and Vin circled around, keeping tension on the ropes, working to keep the stallion between them. If they got any slack in their lines the stallion could be on top of the other man in a second. The stallion was oblivious to his injury as he fought the ropes, his ears pinned flat on the top of his head, feet firing in all directions.
He crashed up against the corral, catching Chris's rope on the broken fence post. Chris struggled to get it unhitched, as the stallion got closer to Vin. Chris looked over at Vin who was backing his horse up as fast as he could the stallion almost on top of the him. JD darted up to the fence on foot and lifted the rope out from the post, and Chris again yanked out the slack, almost jerking the stallion to his knees. Before JD could get out of the way, a hind foot flashed out, catching the youth on his butt sending him flying face first in the dirt.
"JD...you okay? Chris yelled as he continued the fight.
"Raise the volume a bit son, I don't speak mumble." Buck grabbed the back of JD's britches and hauled him to his feet. "He's fine Chris...let's get the hell out of here!"
+ + + + + + +
Tom and another cowboy followed them to the end of the property, shouting derogatory comments the whole way. It was a good thing his hands were full or Chris thought he would have shot them both, just to shut them up.
Chris and Vin stayed to either side of the stallion with their ropes taunt, as the other five men yelled and waved their arms and lariats at him to keep him moving forward. Blood pulsated out of the wound with every step, the stallion growing weaker by the minute. As they got closer to town the horse collapsed several times, each time JD hobbled off his horse to beat on the stallion with his hands until the horse would staggered to his feet and walk a little further.
Finally, almost two hours since they left the ranch they pulled up in front of the livery. Yosemite met them by one of the corrals. "That old man Wilson's stud horse, you can't keep him here. I seen him attack a man once, nothing left but mush. This is a place of business; I can't have an animal like that here.
"Yosemite he's hurt real bad, he can't do damage to anyone right now. I don't have any place close to keep him, and I have to cause he needs lots of doctorin'."
"You know any place else that's close, this horse is on his last leg Yosemite?" A weary Vin asked.
"Oh hell ya guys...alright ya can keep him back here where I keep my own horse stabled. I'll move mine up to the livery, there's a corral with a shed just down in the wash, but don't ask me to come anywhere near that outlaw. I don't want anything to do with him."
The tired men slowly made the two-minute trip out to Yosemite's private corral. JD climbed down off Seven's back to open the gate into a large corral made out of rough lumber, a shed enclosed on three sides stood in the corner. Yosemite had even fenced off a portion of the pond that still filled part of the wash, so he didn't have to haul water to any livestock he kept in the corral. Josiah tossed several armloads of straw from a nearby stack, over the fence for JD to spread out in and around the shed.
Chris led the horse into the corral, where he shook the slack out of one rope's to remove, but left the other one still wrapped around the studs neck. "Just leave that rope on him for now JD, otherwise you won't be able to get near him."
"And the bad part of that would be...?" Buck asked.
"I'll get you some herbs to put on his wounds JD, that chest injury should stay open so it can drain, but see if you can change the wad of rags I stuffed in there." Nathan said as he moved off to the clinic.
JD looked with mixed feelings at the stallion that had dropped into the straw pile, and now lay spread out on his side. His hide was drenched in sweat as he made short little panting sounds, with the odd groan coming from the back of his throat. Anxiously JD looked at the horse then at his friends retreating back's.
"Ya want me to stay and give ya a hand JD?" Vin had pulled up Peso, letting the rest of the men ride by.
JD looked at the stud then at Vin, he know he should say no, he brought this on himself, but slowly nodded yes. Relief flooded over him as Vin turned and came back.