By the time the golden hues of sunrise had given way to clear blue skies, Chris and JD had been in the saddle three hours. Chris kept them moving in a straight line alternating between walking, trotting and loping as the terrain varied. The higher altitude of the mountains kept them all more comfortable, cooling them with gentle breezes. Occasionally they caught site of the other riders below them on the road, their long striding bays covering the ground effortlessly.
JD stopped and adjusted his saddle frequently, checking the big red horse was not developing saddle sores or girth galls. He could not believe how strong the stallion was still moving considering he had spent the last six years of his life in a pen, without sufficient feed or any exercise.
By noon the rolling mountain they had been riding across, turned into a steep rocky hillside. The sun bore down them and heat radiated off the baron treeless ground. JD found a narrow deer trail to follow down off the mountainside hoping to get them back down riding in the shade of evergreen trees.
The trail was about two and a half feet wide, the rock wall above going straight up and the rock below dropping straight down. Windy moved with sure strong strides along the path stepping nimbly over boulders that lay in the way, unconcerned by the drop off. JD felt the tension start to recede from his body as the animal under him moved along the trail confidently, as sure footed as a mountain goat.
Chris tucked himself behind JD leaving enough room between the horses that if Windy suddenly took a notion to let fly with a hind foot, Pony would be out of range. Chris couldn't get over how willing the stallion had become on the trail, especially considering his very limited training and until a few months ago, his untamed personality.
JD swayed along with his horse's walk, getting ready to swing around a tight bend on the path when Windy stopped so suddenly, Pony ran his head onto the stallion's hindquarters.
"Damn it JD...keep him moving!"
JD clucked and tried to drive the horse forward, but no matter how hard JD tried the stallion would not budge. Chris took off his hat and gently waved it at the horse. He didn't want the animal to spook and go off the ledge, but it was to narrow to turn around, so going forward was the only option they had.
JD gave the horse a small boot with his legs, Windy ducked his head and backed into Pony nearly sending him over the edge. "JD get off, see if you can lead him!" Chris hissed, fighting to keep Pony upright.
JD slid off the saddle, keeping a tight grip on the horn to keep from falling off the ledge himself, until he was able to squirt in front of Windy. "Come on boy, easy now, come on!" JD pulled on the hackamore reins. Chris again waved his hat, this time harder. Windy went up with his front end, almost ripping the reins out of JD's hands, then again moved backwards into Pony. Chris's hand flew down to his holster, if one of them was going to die, it would be the stallion.
"No Chris...don't!" JD yelled. "Easy boy...easy!" JD stopped pulling on the horse, and talking in a steady monotone he let the horse settle.
"Try getting him to move again JD."
JD took the reins and gently asked the horse to come, again he refused. JD could tell Chris was getting madder by the second. Taking a chance he dropped the reins and walked around the corner to see what could be spooking the horse. The sound of a rattlesnake shaking it's coils at him as it sunned itself on the rocks, had JD leaping back to his horse.
"Snake!" He said to Chris at the same time patting his horse's neck, "good boy!" His reins in one hand, JD peeked around the bend; drew out his gun and shot the snake. Windy went up on his hind legs when the gun went off, pulling JD off his feet and under the stallion.
JD threw his arms over his head as the stallion came down, his front hoofs on either side of JD. Snorting, the animal sniffed at JD as he inched his way out from under the horse.
"Ya...who would have thought killing a snake could get so exciting?" JD stuttered as he led his horse past the dead snake.
+ + + + + + +
The two stopped for a ten-minute lunch break, then continued on. They climbed back up to a higher elevation, moving along mostly in a ground-covering trot. The hills were rolling, with groves of trees spreading across their widths. Doe's with spotted fawns at their sides would bind into deeper timber as the horses moved by. They saw a bull moose standing knee deep in a bog, and a huge black bear catching fish in a stream, and still the men kept moving forward. Cantering up draws and ducking under branches, careful not to travel to close together and hit each other with swinging limbs. Chris set a blistering pace that his tough little steed settled into, mile after mile.
Chris moved along the top of a ridge, looking for a way down, when Pony threw his shoe in some deep footing. On the other side of the gully, a narrow road was cut into the hillside.
"Hold up JD." Chris dismounted to check his horse's foot. "We have to get across that gully and on to the road. Just on the other side of that hill is the best cherry cobbler you'll ever sink your teeth into."
"Real food...what are we waiting for?" Chris looked up at the sweaty, dust covered kid and horse.
"I look as bad as you?"
JD grinned at Chris. "Not sure how I should answer that. It's kinda like a 'does this dress make me look fat' girl question. Whose place is it we're heading for anyway?" He asked, changing the subject.
"It's a small ranch the stage line uses as a rest stop, they have a couple of rooms they let out and Betty Smith is an unbelievable cook. They're really good people...you'll like them."
"Ah...heck Chris here comes Cooper and Spence, they're going to beat us there, hope they have room for all of us." JD pointed to the riders trotting along the road below them.
"JD, you think you can get there before them, I can't run Pony with a lost shoe. If you can get us a room, we'll get to sleep on a feather bed tonight."
"Let's go Wind!" With a whoop he wheeled the stallion around and plunged down the slope. The stallion sunk onto his powerful haunches and slid down the sandy pine needle covered turf, swerving around trees and leaping over windfalls. JD sat centered over the horse's back, his hands light on the reins. At the bottom of the gully Wind charged through the creek, sending water splashing everywhere, and lunged up the bank on the other side. His front feet dug into the soft ground as his strapping hindquarters propelled them up.
Cooper and Spence had urged their mounts into a lope; around the bend there was good food and a soft bed just waiting for them. Suddenly a red horse catapulted out of the ditch right in front of them, spooking the bays and almost unseating the two riders. The agile horse crossed the road and lunged up the hill on the other side, weaving in and out of trees, and jumping bushes on the turn before disappearing over the top.
"It's Dunne...he thinks he can beat us to Smith's ranch. Let's show him what a good horse can do. Come on!" Cooper cued his bay into a hard gallop towards the ranch.
Coming across the hay fields surrounding the ranch house, JD could feel the stallion start to blow hard under him, but when he checked back on the reins to slow some, the horse fought his hands, pulling hard against the reins. JD didn't know if he even had any steering left, so throw his weight to the outside of the horse and felt him turn in the direction of the ranch. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Cooper and Spence coming hard down the road.
JD bent down low over the horse's neck and lifted his weight up from the horse's back, letting the stallion run full out towards the ranch's main gate. Passing through the gate a mere three strides before Cooper, JD galloped towards a man feeding cattle in a pen. Not sure if the horse was even ready to stop, JD sat down deeper in the saddle, threw some slack into his reins with his hand and yelled whoa. The stallion bunched his hindquarters under himself and slid across the grass turf, sliding past the rancher, then with his hocks still sunk under him JD pivoted Wind's front-end around 90 degrees to face the rancher again.
"Hello sir, would you by any chance have room for two of us here tonight?" JD puffed out while trying to act like he hadn't just raced onto this man's property like a mad man.
"We need a room as well!" Cooper spoke out as his bay danced under him. Cooper shot JD a look of loathing, while trying to remain civil to the rancher.
"Only have one room left tonight, since this young man asked first I guess it's his, but as long as you don't smoke you can bed down out in the barn with the horses." The rancher was on the other side of middle age, but still had muscular build of someone used to working hard, with only a slight thickening around his waist. JD felt an instant liking to the man.
Cooper and Spence grudgingly dismounted and led their horses towards the barn. The rancher watched the interaction between the three with an amused grin on his face.
JD lifted his sweaty crotch off the saddle and slid to the ground. "That was some nice riding you did there, but I take it you aren't traveling with those other two."
"We aren't exactly together, but we are going the same way, if that makes any sense." JD said as he loosened his cinch off. "You have a pen strong enough for me to keep him in, he's still a little uncivilized?"
"All my paddocks have my cows and calves in them right now, but there's a twelve by twenty foaling stall in the barn, you can bed him down there for the night. He won't be able to get in much trouble in it. You look like you been rode hard and put up wet. Why don't you leave your stud horse here with me to put away and go up to the house. My Betty will be more than happy to get some meat on your scrawny self." Mr. Smith invited.
"He kinda don't like anyone, but me and I'm not sure he even likes me. More like tolerates. Thank you for the offer, but I'll just walk him awhile till he cools down then I'll try getting him in the stall. I would like to give em a hot mash if I can?"
"I'll set out your feed, so its ready for him when you need it and bring down some hot water from the house for the mash, those other fellows are probably going to want grain as well." Mr. Smith left the cattle pen, closing the gate behind him and moved into the barn.
JD turned at the sound of hoof beats on the hard packed ground, he could make out the metal clank of three horseshoes and the quiet thud from the shoeless foot. Chris rode into the yard at a walk.
"Are we sleeping on feather beds tonight?"
"Yep!" JD grinned.
"All right kid...knew I picked you to ride this race with me for some reason. We put the horses up in the barn?"
"Chris Larabee...you old dirty dog...where you been hiding yourself. The missus is going to thrilled seeing you after so long!" Mr. Smith gave Chris a vigorous handshake and thumped him on the back after reappearing from the barn.
"Hey Jeb...you son of a gun. I see Betty's still feeding you three squares a day!" Chris patted the rancher's stomach."
"Well you know that women isn't happy unless she's feeding someone. It's good to see you again, this young fella over here got the last room for tonight, but Betty will tan your hide if you don't at least sit at our table for dinner." Jeb pointed to JD as he was walking the stallion around the barn. "We hardly get any company, any now all of a sudden you're pouring out of the woodwork."
"That's okay...the kid's with me, or I'm with him. Whichever, we are traveling together, so you have me for the whole night. We'll get these horses put away and then clean up for dinner, you tell Betty she better start cooking, cause I'm a hungry man!"
Windy had finally cooled off enough to be put away, so JD joined Chris at the barn. Chris went in first with Pony; Windy balked at following him into the barn's dark interior. The horse snorted and pawed the ground with a foot; his head bobbed up and down as he adjusted to the light change. Seeing the other horses he skittishly entered the barn, then his stall.
JD moved around stiffly as he felt Cooper's eye's on him. Subconsciously he settled Wind in for the evening. He wished he could be more like Chris, who seemed oblivious to the other two men, as he replaced the horseshoe Pony had lost.
Soon he too was preoccupied with caring for his horse until a dandy brush landed at his feet. JD looked up into the scathing face of Tom Cooper, who stood leaning against the stall door. Before either man could say anything Wind snaked his neck out, his mouth wide open and clamped down on the door where Cooper's arm had been resting a second ago. "You crazy %^*&...dad was right we should have shot him the first time we saw him. You think your pretty tough after last night, don't ya Dunne? Well I have news for you, it ain't over by a long shot!" Cooper's eye's were slits of cold blue anger.
"Cooper...I suggest you let it go. I haven't eaten all day and I get real cranky when I'm hungry!" Chris fixed the man with a menacing glare.
"We aren't afraid of you Larabee or your little runt friend. You will be sorry you ever met me!"
"I already am. If not for you I would be in four Corners, minding my own business right now. You two can stay out here all night for all I care, but JD and I are going to eat."
JD had to almost run to keep up with Chris as they made there way to the ranch house; he was sure glad he and the formidable leader of their little group were on the same side.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and JD found a tub of hot water and bar of soap waiting for them on the back porch. Chris yanked off his shirt and dunked his whole head into the water, scrubbing the sweat and dirt out of his hair. JD wished he could jump in and wash his entire body, he had rivulets of sweat running down his chest, and into his pant waistband. Cooper and Spence added to his discomfort as they waited for their turn at washing. JD didn't think he would see the other two men except for occasional glimpses on the trail and now they were about to sit and eat at the same table. He could feel their eye's burning a hole into the back of his head.
JD had just removed his own shirt when the door from the house opened, emitting the wondrous scent of breads and pies cooking. A large matronly woman appeared, with flour smeared on her face and mixed in her all ready gray hair.
"Chris Larabee...as I live and die! Get over here and give me a hug!" Chris with a huge smile on his face was wrapped against a large buxom for a long hug. When he was finally able to pull back, he too was covered in flour from the woman's apron.
"How long can you stay with us?" She asked as she tried wiping off the flour with her hand, but just added more to Chris's face. "Are you all together?"
"It's good to see you too Betty, I could smell your cooking all the way to Four Corners and knew I had to come calling. And no, just arrived at the same time as these two fellows, but this here is JD Dunne. We are colleague's and traveling companions for now."
The large woman turned her attention on the smaller young man standing behind Chris. "Well...don't just stand there, you a friend of Chris's you're a friend of mine...come give me a hug!" JD suddenly found his face buried in between the woman's mounds of breasts, barely able to breath as strong arms crushed him to her. JD felt his face flame red when he was finally released.
"Oh...I made him blush. Where ever did you find this little sweetie Chris, he's a lot different from your usual circle of friends? And speaking of friends where did you hide old Buck?"
"I didn't find him...he found us and now Buck won't let me throw him back! And Buck's still back in Four Corners, I didn't want to have to fight with him over your cooking...I can still take JD!"
"You don't pay no attention to him, he's just teasing you. If Chris Larabee didn't want you riding with him, nothing Buck said would convince him otherwise." Betty gave JD's cheek an affectionate squeeze. "What have you done to yourself boy?" She asked suddenly noticing the bruise on his jaw and the cuts and scrapes on his body from yesterdays run in with Cooper and Spence.
Cooper and Spence exchanged uncomfortable glances with each other, before turning embarrassed looks at Chris and JD.
"Tripped over my own durn feet running down a hill yesterday, sometimes I'm not to coordinated." JD avoided everyone's eyes.
"Uh huh...!" Betty said no more, but she had noticed the bruises on his wrists that were definite fingerprints, and the coolness that existed between the four men. What ever was going on, they were keeping it between them, so Betty smartly dropped the subject, "Well let's not stand out here all night...suppers waiting on ya!"
+ + + + + + +
Whatever animosity the four men had for each other was put aside as they all enjoyed the hospitality of the Smiths. Delicious course after delicious course made it's way to the table, until JD thought he was going to explode. At the end of the meal Betty brought out a cherry cobbler for Chris and a double chocolate three-layer cake for JD, because Betty said every young man she had ever met loved chocolate.
The Smiths cordial conversation soon pulled all the men in. Chris and JD told the Smiths of their job in Four Corners and the bad news about Judge Travis, whom the Smith's were also good friends with. Cooper proudly explained his plans for breeding quality horses after Jeb commented on how nice the pair of bays were that they had ridden in on.
Chris put JD on the spot when he urged him to tell how he had come to be the owner of Windy. JD was very diplomatic about Cooper's part of the story, concentrating instead on the work and time involved in the stallion's transformation.
An older gentleman on his way to Eagle Bend to see his grandchildren had booked the first room, but after supper he had retreated to his room for he had an early departure time. Chris, Jeb, Cooper and Spence debated bloodlines and breeding techniques as they enjoyed aged Kentucky brandy that Jeb kept on hand for special quests. Cooper and Spence quickly realized they were only included because Chris was willing to let them be.
JD sat quietly enjoying the conversation, not feeling confident enough to add his opinion, till he noticed Betty making numerous trips back to the kitchen with dirty plates. Feeling guilty sitting while the older lady worked so hard, JD carried a stack of dishes in after her, then fetched her wash water from the well. As he and Betty started washing and drying the dishes JD kept only half an ear on her as he tried to catch bits and pieces of the men's talk. Soon though he was totally enraptured in her tales of starting out young in a wild, untamed land and the struggles they endured to get the ranch up and running. They did not have to take in folks or offer meals now as the ranch paid for itself, but early on they found they were both too sociable, both craving human interaction and this was a good way to keep company frequently visiting. Like Chris and Buck. Two men so different from each other, but who would both be welcome in their home until the Smiths last breath. Betty informed JD he was now on that list as well. Touched beyond words, he gave her a kiss on the cheek and a big hug.
"Now you´re catching on!" Betty smiled at the young man. She and Jeb had not been blessed with children, and now she was past the stage of her life where she thought much about it any more, but sometimes a boy or girl would pass into her life and she would get a sudden feeling of 'what if'. This dark haired boy with the infectious smile did that to her now, "go join the men...I can't entertain you all night, if you want to eat in the morning I have to get to bed." Betty hesitantly reached up and brushed a stray strand of hair out of JD's face, not sure if he was too manly to appreciate the gesture.
JD cupped her chin and dropped another light kiss on her nose, just like he used to do to his mom, and returned to the dining room.
Chris had caught JD yawning for about the tenth time, when he declared it was past bedtime and after wishing Jeb a good night steered JD upstairs to the second bedroom. The two men entered the room to find Betty had left them clean wash water and towels. A bright patchwork quilt covered the feather mattress and down pillows.
"I'll flip you for the bed." Chris said.
"Huh...!" Was all JD got out before Chris grabbed his arm and with a twist flipped JD flat on to his back, where he landed on the floor with a bang.
JD looked up at Chris, his eye's wide and startled.
"Hey you kids up there...stop making that racket or you'll be sleeping in the barn!" Jeb's amused voice carried from downstairs.
"What was that all about?" JD finally managed to get out as Chris helped him to his feet.
"I flipped you for the bed...you lost. You will notice our bedrolls in the corner, have a good sleep."
"That's not fair...that's something Buck would do!"
"Who do you think taught him, I've been around the block you know."
Grumbling, JD spread out his bedroll on the hard floor and flopped around trying to find a comfortable position.
"Because that's the kind of guy I am, you can have the spare pillow." Chris said as he plopped it onto JD's face. "Sleep tight...don't let the bed bugs bite."
"How did I end up on the floor, I'm the one who got us the bedroom?" JD muttered under his breath.
" &^%$^* !"
"What was that JD...don't think I caught all of it?"
"That's what I thought you said!"