Chris lay on his bedroll watching the campfire's flames licking at the coffeepot, and listened to the hoots of owls and howls of coyotes under the starlit sky.
With stout hobbles wrapped around their legs, Pony and Wind grazed on the dry prairie grass that covered the meadow. JD knew he was taking a risk letting the stallion go, but so far the big red horse didn't show any inclination to leave Pony, and JD didn't have the strength to haul grass to the horse tonight.
JD awkwardly dished sourdough biscuits and beans onto their tin plates with his one hand, then passed a plate over to Chris, before slumping to the ground, to sit with his legs crossed and his plate resting in his lap while tiredly lifting his fork to his mouth.
Chris shifted to get more comfortable before eating, not that any position felt good right now. He couldn't believe how badly buggered up two men could get on a trail ride. He blamed it on JD; never had this kind of bad luck riding with Vin. Course riding with Buck was another story...that man always managed to get them in some sort of mess. Well, now he had ridden alone with both Buck and JD, and as soon as they got back to Four Corners he was going to announce that the two of them were never to ride alone together again. The two of them were just magnets for trouble; how they had managed to survive their brief friendship this long was a mystery to Chris.
"Why ya staring at me like that Chris?"
"Just wondering which spirit looks after crazy people like you and Buck!"
Chris cracked the barest whisper of a smile. "Never mind JD...you know you just missed getting us killed again by the flicker of an eyelash when you ran back into that gulch today. You ever use your head for anything other than a place to hang your hat?"
"Don't go and start with me again...I couldn't just leave the horses there to get killed without trying to do something...besides we all got out okay!" Chris raised his eyebrows at JD. "Well...almost all okay."
"JD you are giving me another headache...I feel like I am beating my head against a rock wall when I talk to you." A sad expression came over Chris's face. "You young people are all alike...you have this blind faith nothing bad is ever going to happen to you or those you love, but bad things do happen to good people JD. You need to slow down...learn from our mistakes, before you get yourself or one of us killed. I carry enough guilt around with me...I don't want to have to beat on you again!"
"You didn't beat me up...you're the one with the fat lip!" JD grinned. "Besides, I couldn't let any thing happen to Windy...next time you decide to take me on, I'm going to sic em' on you!"
+ + + + + + +
One more hill to climb and a hay field to cross. Chris's head snapped as he fought against the pull of sleep and felt Pony stumble under him as the fatigued horse slopped through another mud puddle.
Chris dropped back beside the sorrel as the kid swayed in the saddle, his shoulder's slumped and head bobbing, having lost his battle to stay awake.
"JD...wake up. We're almost at Betty's and Jeb's, you can sleep when we get there." Chris shook the startled kid. "Just another mile to go."
"What a beautiful sight." Chris thought as the ranch finally came into view. If two men and their horses ever needed a rest it was them. They had pushed as hard and as fast the horses could handle, giving little mind to JD's arm or the blood that still seeped through the bandage on Chris's posterior.
All Chris wanted was a soft bed and something other than beef jerky and biscuits to eat.
"HELP US SOMEBODY...STOP THEM!!!"
The high-pitched sounds of hysterical screaming suddenly split the air.
"Oh damn it!" Chris mumbled as buggy came careening around the curve on the road below them. A woman bounced on the front seat, fighting to bring the run-away team back under control, while another woman was tossed about on the back of the buggy, screaming the whole time.
Chris booted Pony into a gallop after the quickly retreating carriage, with JD hot on his trail.
Chris galloped along side of the buggy and leaping off Pony, clutched the outside of it. JD gasped in fear as Chris was nearly torn from his unstable position as the buggy bounced over potholes and through puddles, his feet dragging on the road in the direct path of the back tire. Chris's sinewy muscles bulged as he pulled himself from almost certain death, and dragged himself up onto the floor of the buggy. Reins were thrust into his hands before he could even sit up.
JD moved up to gallop along side the team, yelling at his stallion as the large animal flattened his ears and attempted to bite the closest harness horse. Placing his own reins into his injured hand, JD reached over to grasp the buggy's long lines and between he and Chris they managed to bring the team back down to a walk.
"Oh my god...oh my god!!!
"Are you ladies okay?" Chris asked the woman sitting beside him, her hands tightly gripping the seat. Moving her scared eyes over to Chris, she gave a relieved nod and loosened her hold on the seat.
"Thanks to you we are...Ruthie...knock off all the howling would ya, before ya scare these animals into running again!"
JD slid off Windy and made his way to the back of the buggy. A woman with shocking red hair appeared from the floor and peeked over the buggy's backboards, her mouth wide open to let out another scream. She instantly shut her mouth as a pair of big hazel eyes peaking out from under long coal black lashes and dark bangs stared at her.
"Oh my...!" She said while trying to straighten her wind swept hair from her face. Glancing over her shoulder she noticed the blond man with cool green eyes also watching her.
"Oh my, my, my!" She giggled, her heavy rouged lips breaking into a wide smile. "I've never been rescued by such handsome gentlemen before!"
The woman sitting on the seat with Chris raised her eyebrows to the sky, as Chris took his first long look at her. She was probably a few years younger than him, with long wavy blond hair loosely tied back except for some curly wisps that framed her attractive face. A lace shawl was draped over her otherwise revealing, royal blue silk gown. "Thank you doesn't seem adequate enough for coming to our aid, Mr....?"
"Chris...Chris Larabee ma'am."
"Well Chris...Chris Larabee, we are forever in your debt. Friends call me Amber and that's Ruthie. I hate to think what could have happened to us if you didn't come along when you did. A rattlesnake scared our team back up the road a way's...I couldn't have hung onto them much longer."
"You did just fine ma'am, better then a lot of people would have."
"Excuse me...would one of you fine gentlemen mind helping me down!" The red haired woman stood up slowly, her vibrant, low-cut, purple satin dress clinging tightly to her voluptuous curves.
JD tried hard to keep his jaw from dropping open as he extended a hand in her direction. She ignored the offered hand, instead placing her hands on either side of JD's shoulders, forcing the kid to grasp her tiny waist with his one arm to lift her out. Once her feet were on the ground JD quickly dropped his hand, but she slowly let hers slide down the young man's arm and across his sling.
"Oh...your so strong!" She cooed.
Chris fought bursting out loud at the kid's red face, and sputtered response.
"Ruthie...back off and leave the boy alone. They just saved our bacon and your already trying to embarrass the heck out of them."
"I'm not embarrassed!" Laughed Chris. "You embarrassed JD."
"No!" He mumbled under their scrutiny.
"See, we're not embarrassed." Chris beamed at the lady beside him, suddenly aware of his filthy attire and rank smell from days on the trail. But he didn't feel tired any more.
+ + + + + + +
JD couldn't believe how Chris was acting. Sitting up there on the front seat of the buggy, sandwiched between those two women and giggling like a schoolboy. JD was having a hard time keeping up with all the different faces and moods that went along with being Chris Larabee. There was the longtime friend, the good old boy, the temperamental leader that JD saw all to often, and now this smiling flirtatious man who would give Buck a run for his money with the ladies.
Chris drove the team through the gate to Jeb's ranch, happily listening to the ladies jabber beside him. Once he looked back to check on Pony, who was tied to the back of the buggy, and see how JD was surviving the last little jog to the ranch. Unfortunately at that moment he neglected to steer the team around a large mud puddle and ended up sending a huge spray of mud off the tires, and soaking JD and Windy.
Jeb said he and Betty would be gone several days to Albuquerque, and by the silence that emanated from the barn and house Chris guessed they were still away.
Pulling the team up to the house, Chris leaped off the buggy and offered his hand to help the women down. "Why don't you go inside and relax...JD and I'll bed down your team for the night."
"You sure the owners won't mind us staying here tonight...we don't want to put anyone out."
"The more the merrier at Betty's, besides it will be dark in under an hour, you need to stay somewhere...why don't you go pick out which room you want and we'll bring your bags up."
Chris and JD watched the two females saunter up the stairs to the house, their hips swaying with each step. Chris's face read appreciation...JD's shocked bewilderment.
"Chris...I think those ladies are dancehall girls or something!"
"Oh...their something alright JD. Come on...lets get these animals bedded down, I´m tired of staring at your ugly mug, when I can be dining with the likes of them!"
+ + + + + + +
JD nervously picked at the meal Amber and Ruthie had prepared. The food was simple, but surprisingly delicious, and the conversation much more animated then when Chris and he were alone together. Chris was easy going and funny as he swapped tales and shared Jeb's wine with the two women. He and Buck must have made quite the lady killing pair before Sarah caught Chris's heart and made an honest man out of him.
And compared to the two men after days on the trail, the women smelt like wildflowers growing on a mountain meadow, glowing in the sunshine after a spring shower.
"So, your sort of peacekeepers...maybe we could persuade you to move to Albuquerque, they are always short of good men there." Amber commented.
"Yeah...how much they pay in Albuquerque for lawmen?" JD asked, attempting to add to the conversation.
"Three and a half a day, Sugar!" Ruthie answered him.
"Three and a half dollars a day...that's a lot more money than we make in Four Corners!"
"Not dollars Sugar...three meals a day and half a bed!" Ruthie threw JD a suggestive wink.
"Huh...oh!" JD felt his face go red to his roots as he suddenly realized what she was talking about.
Chris laughed at the kid's discomfort. "Throw in board for our horses and we could have a deal."
JD squirmed as Ruthie touched his hand again. Slowly she picked it up and turned it over so his palm faced upwards. "Darling...what did you do to your poor little hands? They are all raw."
"Uh...it's just a rope burn." JD tried tugging his hand away, but Ruthie just tightened her grasp.
"Oh...it looks sore. Let me kiss it better." To JD's mortification, she bent her head and dropped soft butterfly kisses across his palm.
JD snatched his hand back. "Oh...um...thanks...it's um...!"
"Better now!" Ruthie supplied the words for him.
"Yeah." JD stammered.
"Way to go JD...Chris sitting over there, cool as a cucumber and I can't even get half a sentence out," thought JD, as he pulled at his shirt collar with a finger. "Anybody else finding it hot in here?"
"Now that you mention it, it is a little warm, Sugar. I think I will go slip into something a little more comfortable." Ruthie slinked out of her chair, trailing her fingers across JD's lips, then with a husky laugh climbed the stairs to her room.
JD grabbed his wine glass and took a gulping swallow, the burn of his face finally receding with the departure of Ruthie.
Chris lounged back comfortably on his wooden chair, with his arm casually draped over the back of Amber's; his finger's just barely touching the blonde's shoulder. The two of them were buried too deep in conversation to notice JD's humiliating exchange with Ruthie, or so he hoped.
"This Judge forced you into a horse race, just to see how committed you are to protecting Four Corners?" Amber questioned. "Sounds like he should be the one committed...to a home for crazy people!"
"Yup...but it ain't been all bad. I got to meet you. You're the silver lining on a cloudy night." Chris had leaned over and whispered in Amber's ear.
JD tried not to choke on his wine...he was sure he had heard Buck use that line on Inez a couple of weeks before, he couldn't believe Chris would say it too...Amber just laughed though and didn't look at all insulted like Inez had.
"And where are these other two men that you are racing against...we never met up with anyone on the road except you today. Not to toot my own horn...but...men generally don't ride by me without stopping. Maybe they went a different route."
"As long as they aren't here or back in Four Corners yet, I don't give a dry cow dung, where they are. We've wasted enough time talking about our race...let's talk about a nicer subject...like you!"
JD was starting to feel like a broken third spoke on a wheel. "Chris...I think I'm going to wash up and hit the hay. I'm feeling kinda' tired."
"Good night kid...I'll be up in awhile." Chris said never taking his eye's off Amber, he didn't think the kid would ever get the hint and leave.
"Good, I'm back just in time...I'll make sure he gets to bed in one piece." Ruthie sashayed down the stairs, a vision in red. A red satin robe partially covered her matching satin nightgown, and her effervescent red hair flowed loosely down the length of her back.
Gently, as though she was afraid she would cause him more pain, she intertwined their fingers and led the young man towards the stairs.
Looking up, Chris and Amber smiled at the range of emotions crossing the youth's face as he was slowly led upstairs, fear, trepidation, and uncertainty mixed in with a certain excitement.
+ + + + + + +
"I can put myself to bed...been doing it by myself for years now." JD stood just inside his bedroom door, poised to flee like a fawn in the woods.
"Of course you can...a man such as yourself doesn't need anyone hovering over him. I knew you could take care of yourself the first second I laid eye's on you." Ruthie spoke in a soft soothing voice.
This was how she wanted to say thank you after the two men had risked their own safety to save them this afternoon, the fact the youth was such a fine example of the male species was just a bonus. Ruthie figured she was only five or so years older then the boy before her, but she couldn't remember when she last allowed herself to show such openness or honesty in her own expressions as he did. Her parents said she had been born wild, and men had been quick to exploit that streak of wildness in her. Now she was not welcome in any of her family's lives, her only friends the other girls at the saloon in Albuquerque where she worked and lived. Maybe this boy would be different and grow up to be a good, kind man. Ruthie was sure decent men existed; she just never got to meet any.
Confidently she reached for the buttons on JD's vest and started to unbutton them, when JD's hand stopped her. "JD you've been hurt...you helped us earlier today, let me help you now. It's no big deal...honest!"
"You don't owe me or Chris nothing Ruthie...we just did what was right. What anyone would have done." JD stared down into the girl's bold blue eyes. Startled, she dropped her gaze; amazed a male would be willing to walk away from what she freely offered. Silently she sorted out her thoughts, then with her bright smile returning, she pulled JD out of his room.
"Come on...Amber and I filled the tub up for a bath when we first got here, I haven't emptied it out yet. It will be tepid now, but we can still wash some of this mud off you."
JD was about to decline when he realized how bad he smelt and the thought of soaking the dirt off his whole body suddenly sounded to good to turn down.
The tub sat in the middle of the girl´s room near the fireplace that already had a pleasant fire burning. Fancy girl clothes laid scattered all about the room, including some frilly undergarments that JD tried to avoid staring at.
With a start, JD jumped as Ruthie brought her hands down to unbutton his britches, "It's easier for my two hands to do this, then you struggling with one."
JD stood frozen, and his eyes closed as Ruthie undid all his buttons, and then removing his injured arm from the sling, she slipped his shirt and vest off.
"I can get this part myself." JD again stopped her hands as she started working his britches down off his hips. "Would you mind...you know...turning around?"
With a giggle the young woman swung her back to JD so he could finish getting undressed. JD sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off his boots and socks, then stood to wiggle out of his pants. He was just kicking them off and about to remove his longjohns when he glanced up and saw Ruthie watching him in the reflection of the mirror. She smiled and waved at him. With a gasp of protest, JD grabbed the bedspread, knocking more clothes to the floor, and draped it in front of himself.
"Well...if you're ever going to get in that tub, I can tell one of us is going to have to leave. I'll go get you some clean clothes from your room while you wash some of that grime off of yourself." Ruthie set a bar of soap and a facecloth down on the tub's edge and walked past JD to the door, while JD swiveled around to keep the blanket between them.
As fast as he could JD shunned his longjohns and literally dived into the tub. No telling how long he had before Ruthie retuned with his not real clean spare clothes, but cleaner ones then the set he just removed. He soaped up the course facecloth and vigorously scrubbed several days of trail dust, sweat and mud off himself, then lathered up his hair and submerged under the water.
JD slowly came to the surface, checking the room to make sure Ruthie had not snuck back in while he was under the water. Good...coast clear...just need a towel now...no towel in sight...okay, don't panic...just put your dirty clothes back on...oh...she took my dirty clothes when she left...okay...now what...bedspread...get the bedspread!
JD leaped out of the tub, dripping water all over the floor, and swooped up the bedspread just as the bedroom door opened. In his haste to whip the blanket around himself, JD lost his balance on the wet floor and toppled onto the corner of the bed. With his hand caught up in the blanket he bounced off the bed and thumped onto the floor. Sprawled out, the kid struggled to make sure certain body parts were covered while trying to untangle his legs from the blanket and regain his feet in the most dignified manner he could muster.
Ruthie watched the boy struggle in the confines of the bedspread before popping up off the floor. "Did you hurt yourself, JD?"
"No why do you ask?"
"I thought I heard you say 'ow' as I came in." Ruthie made her way over to the dressing table and sat down.
"Nope...I'm fine...how about you?"
With her back to him, JD grabbed his sore arm and tucked it into his body, mouthing, 'ow...ow...ow' while the girl wasn't watching. If Buck could see him now...he would never live this down, not even if he lived forever.
"Call me Ruthie, sugar."
"Ah...Ruthie...you went to get my clothes...where did you put them?"
"Oh, darn it...I knew I forgot something. Why don't you just sit and visit with me for a few minutes JD, then I'll go get them. It's nice to talk to someone other then Amber for awhile."
JD nervously looked at the outrageous redhead, and then at the door, wondering if Chris would catch him on the hallway landing dressed in only a bedspread, should he decide to make a run for it. This was ridicules, a beautiful woman wanted his company and he was contemplating running to his room and locking the door. How many beautiful women ever acted like they wanted to be around him...none...especially when the other seven were with him. He always got the pats on the head and the 'isn't he cute' as they pinched his cheeks, but the other men never seemed to lack female companionship when they wanted it. Even Vin, who could be pretty shy always had ladies taking a second...and third...and forth glance at him.
With what he hoped looked like a manly strut, while still wrapped like a mummy in the blanket, JD moved to the bed and sat down.
"Sure, I can stay and talk with ya for a bit." JD tried to lower his voice and not squeak. "Where ya from?"
Ruthie picked up an ivory handled brush from the vanity and started making deep, slow strokes through her hair.
Mesmerized, JD stared as the flames from the fire threw vibrant red highlights off her lustrous hair and danced across her satin nightgown.
Ruthie softened her voice and started to tell JD what the men in her life wanted to hear, while she seductively continued to brush her locks.
"No...I mean where did you grow up and what kind of kid were ya? What's your family like...are they still alive?"
Ruthie stared into the reflection of hazel eyes that watched her intently. "It's been so long since I've thought back to those times or places. Let's see...where should I start...okay here goes..."
JD laid his head down on the pillow and pulled the blanket around himself and watched and listened; spellbound by the woman at the vanity.
Ruthie shook her hair, then placed her hands under it and lifted it up to the nape of her neck, letting it softly frame her face. With a sigh she dropped it so it cascaded down her back once again. Glancing in the mirror she saw those large hazel eyes still staring back at her, totally captivated in her looks and voice. Knowing she had him, Ruthie continued her seductive dance of brushing and bewitching storytelling.
Finally pushing back the stool, Ruthie rose to her feet and turned towards the bed. She was part way across the room when she realized something wasn't quite right.
Slowly she sunk down to her knees beside the bed and observed the youth laying before her. The first hint of a really honest smile touched her lips, softening her features.
JD's long dark, sooty lashes lay against his pale skin, partially covered by his still damp bangs. The dark bags of exhaustion under his eyes diminished slightly as his body relaxed into a deep slumber and she felt a light brush of his breath on her cheek as his breathing pattern smoothed out.
Tenderly, she brought her fingertips up to his face and pushed a loose strand of hair away, before brushing a whisper of a kiss across his forehead.
"Sleep well, Sugar!"
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Amber watched Ruthie and JD disappear into a bedroom before returning to their own conversation, this time cuddled on a settee in front of the sitting room fire. They looked up as a door squeaked open and the two younger people re-appeared, only to move to the other bedroom.
Chris smiled down at Amber while refilling their wine glasses and she stretched up to brush her lips against his.
The opening of the door drew Chris's face away; light footsteps were heard pattering along the upstairs landing and the other bedroom door closed again.
Amber nestled up against Chris, feeling safe and content in this stranger's arms. Few men in her life had made her feel this comfortable or special, she just knew what ever happened between them, he would never hurt her.
Damn it! They looked up as Ruthie exited the bedroom...again!
Spotting the two curled up together on the couch, Ruthie flashed them a bubbly smile and a wave. She just laughed at the annoyed looks the other two shot at her, as she re-entered the bedroom JD was in.
Chris surly didn't want to take advantage of this woman beside him, but he had immensely enjoyed their first kiss regardless of how short it had been. Or maybe it was because of how short and soft it had been, that he wanted to taste her lips again. Chris bent his head to her upturned face, when they heard a loud thud upstairs and the house shook. "What in god's name are those two doing?"
"I think he's trying to flip her for the bed." The thought suddenly struck Chris. He laughed at the confused look on Amber's face. "You have to know JD better, then you'll understand."
Contentedly, they snuggled into each other and watched the fire die down.
"Hi...so what are you guys up to?"
"That was quick...even for JD."
"Ruthie, we thought you were upstairs with JD...why are you down here now?" Amber asked, fighting to keep the exasperation from her voice.
"My little lamb fell asleep on me...if you can believe it? I know this is personal and none of my business...but has he ever...you know...even been with a woman?" Ruthie felt her face flame...where had that come from; she doubted she had ever blushed before in her life.
Finding himself strangely touched at Ruthie's show of vulnerability, Chris reached out and pulled on one of her little finger's "That issue has been hotly debated and to tell you the truth I still don't know. But I wouldn't take any offense to his falling asleep Ruthie...we've been riding hard for several days without sleep. The kid's just worn right out...in fact as much as I hate to, I have to say good night to you both as well. It has been a pleasure to meet you!" Chris drew the back of his hand softly against Amber's cheek. "You are a remarkable woman...I hope we will meet again soon."
Ruthie and Amber's eyes followed Chris as he climbed the stairs, limping slightly from his recent spur injury. Ruthie took Ambers hand in hers. "I think I finally met my first decent men...now that I know that they really do exist, when I get old like you and want to settle down, I just have to find one."
"I wouldn't advice waiting that long...today was the first time in all my years that I had one leap off a horse and land beside me."
+ + + + + + +*
Chris entered what had been the girl´s bedroom to find JD curled up in a ball, the bedspread tangled around him muffling out his quiet snoring.
The cold bath water that still filled the tub proved to be to great a temptation to Chris, so disrobing he plunged into the cold water and scrubbed as fast as he could and still get half way clean. He wished he had more than wiped himself down before getting close to Amber, but she hadn't seemed to mind his manly sweat.
After drying off Chris rolled out his bedroll and looked for a place on the floor to spread it out that wasn't already covered in clothes. Then he looked at JD curled up on the feather bed, blissfully sound asleep. He didn't look like such a sweet lamb to Chris.
Jabbing an elbow into the kid Chris lay down on the bed and tucked under his bedroll. "Move over stud...I ain't sleeping on any hard floor while you get a feather bed!"
+ + + + + + +
JD lightly stroked Windy's neck as he stood outside the ranch house and waited for Chris to say good-bye to Amber. Ruthie had already planted a long kiss on him out in the barn while he had been tacking up the horses. Now she stood on the porch near the other two, shivering in her nightgown and bare feet, but not seeming to mind.
They all turned to look up the road as out of the early morning darkness a buggy appeared in the ranch yard; the single harness horse pulled to a halt in front of the house. Betty and Jeb glanced first at the scantily dressed women on their porch; their satin nightgowns and wraps were blowing in the cool autumn morning breeze and long tresses twirled around rouged lips and cheeks.
Turning her gaze to JD, Betty took in his deep blush and inability to look at her, as his eye's wandered everywhere else. The kid looked like his hand had been caught in the cookie jar.
Jeb finally managed to pull his eyes off the girls long enough to smirk at Chris.
Chris gave Amber another quick squeeze, then helped Betty out of the buggy and gave her a big embrace. "Nothing happened...they will be leaving for Albuquerque right soon...be nice!" He whispered in her ear.
"I'm always nice!" Betty said indignantly, drawing back. "Besides I'm not your mother. None of my business what you do or who you do it with."
Laughing Jeb just shook his head. "Don't expect me to get in the middle of this!"
She walked over to JD and pinched his red cheeks with her fingers. "Another one of my boy's being led astray." She laughed. "Get out of here...you still have a race to win...and I'm not even going to ask why your britches are ripped and you're limping Chris Larabee or how you hurt your arm JD...cause I ain't your mother!"
Chris stepped aboard Pony and doffed his hat to the four people left standing by the porch. JD grabbed his saddle horn and swung up onto Windy and waved farewell.
Turning their horses away the two men rode down the road away from the ranch. Hearing a loud snort, the four strained to watch Windy as he ducked his head and disappeared into the dark morning in the middle of a bucking hurricane.
+ + + + + + +
Chris again set a punishing pace after leaving his friend's ranch. JD kept his eyes between Wind's ears, his mouth quiet and followed staunchly along. The temperature in the desert was slightly cooler than when they crossed the first time and because of rain that fell recently the water holes were again full.
A day´s ride out of Four Corners they caught their first glimpse of Cooper and Spence since leaving Santa Fe. The two men still stuck to the roadway, covering a longer distance, but on much friendlier terrain making the travel easier on their mounts.
Chris and JD rode hard, keeping the dust from the bays in sight. Kicking their horses up into a canter, they flew across the plains, the horses making puffing noises through their nostrils with each breath. The two men pushed their mounts; fast rough riding along creeks that sent water splashing around them, and skidding down hills on their haunches shortening the distance between themselves and the bay geldings out in front.
Coming from generations of horse's bred in the wild, Windy galloped over the rough ground with an innate sense of the footing under him. His tough unshod hoofs barely seeming to touch the ground as he effortlessly powered on.
"JD...hold up a minute!" Chris hollered, as the red horse started pulling away from his game, but tiring mount.
Chris brought his lathered horse to a walk and yanked the papers signed by the Governor out of his saddle bag, and then stuffed them into JD's breast pocket. "I can't keep pushing Pony like this...you and that horse got enough left to catch Cooper?"
JD looked uncertainly at Chris then at the riders disappearing from view in front of them. As if to answer the question, Windy reared up into the air and pulled on the reins in JD's hand, fighting for his head.
"Yeah...we can catch em!"
"Whatever happens, you may not believe this now...but, it has been an honor riding with you these few days JD. I would ride with you again anytime, even with all our guffaw's!"
"Now go win us a race!" Chris tried to glare at the kid, as JD's shocked emotions started boiling near the surface.
With a nod of his head, JD swung Windy around and with his usual keenness took off at a gallop towards the place he now called home.
+ + + + + + +
"Okay Tanner...give me that eyeglass and get your butt down off this roof!"
Vin spun around to face a very peeved looking Nathan Jackson.
"Damn...I'm losing my touch...never even heard the big guy climb up onto the roof behind me," thought Vin. "And where the hell was the warning shout from my lookouts?"
Vin peaked over the edge of the roof trying to spot his partners in crime. "I didn't spend the last week doctorin' you, to have you fall off a roof and break your fool neck. You can come under your own steam or me and Josiah will pick you up and carry you ourselves.
As his name was mentioned, Josiah looked away from Vin's scathing stare. "Sorry Vin...he came up on me when I had my back turned, I wasn't going to tell him I helped get you up here." Josiah whispered as Nathan looked for the easiest way to descend the roof carrying the cast-packing tracker.
Vin and Josiah glanced over the edge as the sound of soft giggling made its way up to them. Buck and a pretty brunette stood pressed together in the alley below. Disgusted, Vin sat back up, "I can tell I'm going to have to find me some more reliable lookouts...I know I can't count on Buck, but I had higher hopes for you preacher."
"Hey wait a minute...Nathan...give me back my eyeglass, I see a dust storm coming down the road!"
"Can you make out who is it Vin?" Nathan asked excitedly, momentarily forgetting why he was on the roof.
"I can make out two riders coming...can't tell who yet...oh damn...it's a pair of bays." Vin lowered the eyeglass away from his face with a dejected groan.
"Buck...Ezra!" Josiah hollered. "Riders coming in. Vin says it's cooper."
Buck let go of the lady in his arms and joined Ezra, who had just exited the saloon, on the boardwalk where they shared a dejected look with the three men on the roof. All they could do was shake their heads, as they drooped in disappointment.
Judge Cooper exited the hotel were he had been staying the last few days, so he could be on hand to greet the first riders back. As he had no doubts it would be, Cooper could tell it was his son approaching town first, just by the silent forlorn posturing of the five remaining gunslingers. With a smug smile on his face, he contemplated joining the rush of town folks making their way to the outskirts of Four Corners.
"Well it was interesting while it lasted." Josiah spoke to the other two.
Vin suddenly brought his eyeglass back up to his eye. "Rider coming in from the east...coming in real hard." Into his rounded field of vision came a giant red horse, galloping hard across the sun- baked turf. "IT'S JD!!!" Vin shouted out!
"Buck...Ezra!" Josiah hollered down again. "It's JD...he's coming in from over to the left of you."
The town started boiling with excitement as the news spread amongst them. Every man, woman and child pored out on the street to cheer on the incoming riders.
+ + + + + + +
JD bent low over his horse's neck, urging the animal on, a tight small burr half obscured by the mighty stallion's flaming mane. Coming at an angle JD slowly closed the distance between himself and the stretched out bays that still ran in front. His bowler hat caught by the wind went tumbling into the dirt behind him.
Windy really began to run now, his legs and hoofs reaching out, barely skimming the plains sandy surface, and chewing up tufts of prairie grass. JD's hand was feather light as he followed the nod of his horse's head; Wind extending his ground-covering stride even more. Underneath him was power and strength JD could only have imagined in his dreams, as it surged from the horse and into him.
Fully committed to one another, the boy and horse thundered on closing the gap on the bays, JD urging the stallion with a soft voice and hand. A ditch appeared before them. JD tightened his legs and lifted his hand...without a break in stride Wind made a long soaring leap and sailed over it, landing lightly on the other side.
The bays were just a few strides ahead of them now. The wind whistled in JD's ears and filled his eyes and mouth, while whipping at his sweaty cheeks and long hair.
Cooper and Spence turned shocked filled eyes to JD, as they suddenly felt the earth pound behind them. With a shout they pushed their horses to a greater speed.
JD wanted to pass on the outside of the two geldings, but Wind had other ideas. Lengthening his stride he bared down on the horse Cooper was riding, his ears flat against his head and his mouth biting savagely at the bay's hindquarters.
JD screamed at his horse and yanked back on the reins, then hand rode the stallion between the two other horses and at breakneck speed came into the homestretch, Four Corners standing before them.
With a cry of rage Cooper sent his gelding along with Wind, slashing his quirt unmercifully against the sleek bay hide to keep his horse from veering away from the stallion. Spence snuck his horse up on the other side as JD was fighting off Cooper's challenge and ruthlessly brought his quirt down across Winds face, striking the horse's muzzle. Wind faltered a step then regained his stride, as the horses were now three abreast and running headlong towards town.
Cooper reached over and hacked JD's cheek with his quirt, drawing an ugly welt on the boy's face and almost knocking him from his horse. While unbalanced Spence beat on JD's broken arm with a clenched fist, JD cried out in pain, frantically grapping Windy's mane in his battle to stay mounted. Windy snaked his head down and tried to take a bite out of Spence's horse, forcing the bay to move over.
Spencer thrashed at the stallion with his quirt again, before JD managed to reach over and rip it from the man's hand, tossing it uselessly to the ground behind them.
A deafening roar from the onlookers now drowned out all other noise except the pounding of hoofs and ragged breathing of the horses as they again raced three abreast.
Cooper and Spence again closed in on the pair in the middle, trying to knock Windy off his stride. JD asked his valiant stallion for yet more speed and felt the stallion gather himself together and explode out between the other two horses.
With low, long reaching strides he powered away. With incredible speed, going faster with every stride, JD and his horse danced together amongst this thundering torrent of racing horseflesh. Windy...racing ahead of the wind.
The world rushed past him as JD guided Windy into town, past the cheering blurred spectators, and up the main street to the hotel where Judge Cooper stood alone on the boardwalk. Vaguely, he could hear his friend´s familiar voices cheering him on. Two full strides in front of Tom Cooper, JD still raced bent over Windy's neck, preparing to pull him up when the rope hissed through the air and the loop tightened around the stallion's front legs.
Brutally, the stallion's legs were jerked out from under him, and he pitched forward driving his nose deeply into the dusty main street. His neck crushed under the weight of his own body as he somersaulted over and over, before landing up side down between a water trough and the boardwalk.
JD was only able to kick free from one stirrup as the gallant horse went down. Screaming, JD was slapped hard against the ground, and then tumbled along with flailing hoofs; his foot still caught in the one stirrup.
With the rest of the town, his five friends watched in horror as the scene played itself out. Vin let out a string of curse words as Nathan and Josiah left him on the roof and ran to help the kid and his horse.
Windy struggled to get to his feet; wild eyed and panicked with blood and dust running down his lathered coat.
Buck and Ezra shoved through the crowd to get to JD, yelling at the foolish people to get out of their way. JD was laying partially under the horse, trying frantically to keep Windy from moving. Buck grabbed the kid under his armpits and pulled as Ezra released his foot from the stirrup.
Windy made another futile attempt at rising, pathetic little moans emulating from the back of his throat.
JD dropped against Wind's lather soaked neck, holding the stallion down as his friends made a quick evaluation of the situation. Nathan ran to JD, whose arm lay out of the sling and twisted at his side, re-broken in the fall. JD shook Nathan's concerned hands off, blood splashing on the healer from a deep gash on JD's forehead.
"No I'm okay...you have to save Windy!" The distraught youth yelled.
Nathan exchanged looks with the rest of the men. JD sat beside the horse, crooning soft comforting words while gently stroking his neck, tears and blood fell to mix with the lather on Windy's hide.
Buck squatted down next to JD and placed his arm around the quivering youth. "I'm sorry JD..."
"NO...I don't want to hear it Buck...we can save him...I did it once, I can do it again!"
"No Buck...I can...it'll be easier this time cause now he trusts me!"
"JD...he's hurt too bad son...you have to let him go!"
"NO...No...you don't understand...he's hurt because I asked him to run for me...he trusted me...I have to save him!!!"
"GET OUT OF MY WAY!"
Chris thundered into town and leaped off Pony before the horse came to a stop scattering the crowd in several directions.
"Ah damn it all to hell!" Chris took in the extremely agitated kid and badly injured horse, both bleeding profusely. He looked up at his four other friends, they all gave negative shakes with their heads.
"Buck...get JD out of here!"
"NO...Chris...PLEASE...you can't!" JD cried out as Buck hauled him to his feet.
Chris pulled his rifle out of his scabbard, his eye's full of haunting pain for the task at hand.
Grabbing JD's face with his hand, he gave the kid a small shake. "JD...stop this now...we can't let him suffer any more...I want you to go with Buck...now!"
JD turned his tear filled eye's from Chris back to Windy and fighting back a gut wrenching sob let Buck lead him away.
Part way to the clinic JD tried to spin out of Buck's grasp, but the big man was ready for him and just wrapped sympathetic arms around the youth, forcing him to keep moving away.
The two men stumbled against the clinic door jam just as the blast from the rifle exploded through the air. With a cry of anguish JD let his swirling world take his feet out from under him and he crumpled into an oblivious pool of nothing.