A Challenge Answered
by Mary Ann

In the Year AU

The little town of 4C was covered in frost, winter promised snow in the future. A few people moved along the boardwalks from a store or home to some destination. The smells of breakfast permeated the air as cooking began.

Ezra Standish stood outside his business for a few minutes taking in the early morning light and wondering if it was going to be a nice day for once. He was getting tired of the cold and the icy frost that coved everything. Movement across the road caught his eye and he watched Buck Wilmington walk out of the jail's office. Buck paused a moment then cross over to him.

"What’s up Ezra?"

"Nothing. Wishing this cursed frost would just leave. You coming in for breakfast?"

"Yep. Need to see Inez."

Ezra cocked a eyebrow at the tall man. "Oh?"

"Well, she makes my day a lot better," Buck answered with a grin.

"Well, come in, breakfast is being served now. Just do not pester her while she is working." Ezra opened the door and waved Buck inside. Two large cats sat side by side watching their man, green and yellow eyes almost smiling.

"Hey girls, how are ya today?" Buck asked.

Both cats moved to Buck and rubbed against his legs, their purrs loud in the quiet entry. Buck bent a little and patted them both on their heads. They were tall enough now that he barely had to bend to touch them.

"I think they grow inches every week."

"No just looks like it. Flower, Heather, let him go he’s hungry," Ezra told them and the two cats moved aside. They sat down near the wall and watched the two men go into the dining room.

A clatter outside drew the cat’s attention and they curiously moved to the door and looked out. A rider on a horned farm horse pulled up in front of the jail and rushed inside. The two large cats exchanged looks then raced into the dining room where Ezra sat drinking a cup of coffee as he talked with Buck who was eating his breakfast.

With nudges and cat growls they got the attention of Ezra who rose and followed them to the outside door. Spotting the heavily breathing horse outside the jail he grabbed his coat and hurried across to see if he was needed.

"They torn down several of my fences, and that stallion took my mare, leaving one of my geldings dead. What are you going to do about this?" The skinny farmer was half shouting at JD Dunne who was trying to get a word in edgewise.

When the man stopped shouting, JD swiftly said, "Mister Roberts, two men are out hunting them, they will find them and take care of the problem."

Ezra listened to the conversation as the man started ranting again. He knew that Chris and Vin were looking for the wild horses that were tearing through the countryside. The stallion was stealing horses from numerous locations, and reportedly killing others. It was only a matter of time before they would catch them.

Finally, between a calm Ezra and angry JD they got the man appeased and he left in a huff. Ezra turned to JD.

"See if you can reach Chris and tell him where the herd was last seen. This might lead them to those horses, now that we have confirmation where they were a couple of hours ago."

JD rolled his eyes over all the words Ezra spoke as he went to the radio in the corner. For several minutes he tried to reach Chris. Static crackled in a long burst before Chris Larabee’s voice came through.

JD quickly passed the information to Chris, and as the static got worse he heard a whisper of sound that sounded like ‘Got it, headed that way.’

With a nod Ezra headed back to the Saloon/Bar/Hotel/Restaurant to finish his coffee and let Buck know what was happening.

Miles away Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner turned their horses to the north and headed for the farmstead Roberts owned. They rode swiftly through the frozen countryside watching for any sign of the renegade herd of horses.

For five days they had been trailing the horses, trying to catch up to the fast moving herd. They stopped at several farms and had to help the farmers retrieve lost horses. At the last farm, they helped bury the farmer and then help his new widow and children pack their wagons to leave. Her husband had tried to stop the herd from taking his horses and had been attacked by the stallion and killed.

It took Chris and Vin most of the day to reach the Roberts farm. The angry man was home when they arrived. He showed them where the stallion had torn down fences and run off his mare, and the dead gelding, that he was butchering for meat. He did not want the meat go to waste, his family would use the meat now.

It didn't take long for Vin to pick up the trail of the wild horses, and they were off. Both men glad to get out of the Roberts place. The man was not happy at all, and let them know it very loudly.

They followed the trail easily through the frost. As dark began to settle the trail got clearer. Topping a raise they spotted the herd a mile ahead of them, moving steadily north.

"Well should we take them on tonight or wait until morning?" Vin asked as he tried to ease the pain in his back. He knew he’d been in the saddle too long.

Chris glanced at Vin and shook his head, knowing the younger man was in pain. "To late now, we’ll get them in the morning. Let’s follow a little ways and see if they stay going north. I see another rise ahead; we can camp there if it looks good."

"Sounds good."

They followed the horses for another mile before stopping, the herd was still a good mile ahead and they knew it would be no problem to pick their trail up in the morning. They quickly made camp. A short time later were lying in their warm blankets, enjoying the warmth, dinner done and tiredness taking over. Their two black stallions were tied nearby and on guard.

Vin wasn’t sure how long he’d slept when he heard a loud roar of a horse, and the challenge answered by their horses. Before he could get out of his blanket both black horses had pulled free of their ties and raced away in the darkness. Glancing at the sky he saw it was beginning to lighten, but it wasn’t dawn. It was the moon trying to cut through the clouds above them. Chris was standing, his gun in hand as he listened to the night and the thunder of hooves.

"Damn, can’t see anything," Chris muttered as he looked for the horses.

"Hold on a minute, should have some light coming in a minute," Vin stood up his gun in his hand also.

They weren’t sure what was taking place nearby, though they could hear roars and growls. The thunder of hooves and thuds as horses moved swiftly around.

The finally moon broke through the dark clouds, and by its light they could see three horned horses fighting. One was a little lighter than the other two, and they realized it was the wild horse. Lethal horns clashed together then hooves struck bodies, the movements so fast the two men couldn’t follow what all was happening in the half light.

Hearing grumbling nearby they pulled their gazes from the fighting stallions and found that the herd of mares was less than fifty feet from them.

"Damn, build up the fire. If they get too nervous, they could come after us." Vin said as he sheathed his gun and began grabbing the wood they had gathered earlier. Before long the fire was large enough it would deter any of the wild horses from coming closer.

For several minutes they listened to the fight going on barely able to make out the fighting animals anymore. The moon was losing the battle with the clouds. Minutes later they heard two loud roars and one loud grumble before the roars sounded again in triumph.

For a short time Chris and Vin stood there unsure as to what to do. With a shrug Vin whistled for Peso. He heard a warning grumble then the hoof beats of his stallion coming towards them. Another horse followed. Moments later the two blacks walked into the firelight and to their masters. Both men praised their horses and began looking them over for injuries.

Both horses accepted their riders' hands on them as they were look over. They calmed under the men’s attention and words of praise. After almost twenty minutes the horses had calmed down and were gently nuzzling their riders' hair and growling in pleasure from the rubs they were getting.

Vin tied Peso then dug into his saddle bag for a treat which the horse waited for. When Vin pulled out an apple the horse gently took it from his hand and ate it in contentment. Vin turned to Chris’s black, Pony, and gave him an apple too. As the horses ate, the men got some warm water and cleaned off the horses horns, wiping the blood from them, getting rid of the blood smell. Once that was finished they made a pot of coffee and sat at the campfire. They no longer thought of sleep, the mares were still nearby and they weren’t sure what they would do.

With the first light of dawn Chris started making breakfast as Vin fed their horses some of the grain they carried. He heard horses moving a little ways out, and his keen gaze picked up eight mares standing nearby. Most of them were farm horses, as their horns had been trimmed.

Over breakfast they discussed what to do with the horses. There were twenty three horses standing around, a couple with foals. Once they made a decision, they checked their mounts for wounds and doctored a couple scratches on the horses' sides. Nothing was bad and the few cuts wouldn’t interfere with movement or saddle cinches. Putting out the fire they saddled the horses and rode over to where the dead stallion lay.

"Dang, he’s an ugly one!" Vin exclaimed.

"Hope those foals aren’t his," Chris said as he looked at the dark red bay horse.

The stallion had a large heavy head and one of his horns was crooked, going out at an angle. One foreleg had a swollen looking knee and the hoof was broken in several places. His left rear leg was twisted slightly, the hoof pointing out from his body. They could see hoof marks on the horse where their horses had kicked him, and there were several large holes in him from their horns.

"Well, don’t have to worry about him attacking anyone any more. No wonder he was so bad, with that horn, and his legs so crippled. He probably was in constant pain. Guess we better get moving, it’s going to be snowing before too long." Vin said as he pulled his coat tighter around him and turned Peso towards the mares.

They didn’t have any major problems with the herd of mares and foals as they pushed them towards town. Initially a few of the wild mares tried to run off, but were turned back into the herd and they finally settled into a ground eating trot.

It was late afternoon. The snow had began to fall a little earlier. They spotted 4C ahead of them through the falling snow, and both men gave a tired sigh of relief. A hot meal and warm bed wasn’t far off now.

They drove the horses through town to the livery. Yosemite had several large, high walled, corrals that would hold this many animals. Buck and Josiah saw them coming and Buck ran for the stables to get the gate open for them. JD, Ezra and Nathan paced them along the walks and blocked the alley’s to keep the horses going the right way. Josiah stood with Buck to help guide the horses into the corral.

Once the horses were corralled they latched the gates and Chris and Vin rode into the stables with their horses. Ezra took one look at the two tired men and with a, "Come to the Saloon when you finish here. All will be ready." He took off at a jog.

Buck and JD stabled the two blacks, allowing Chris and Vin to head out. After telling JD to contact the farmers, if he could get through the falling snow, to let them know about the mares, the two left. Tiredly they made their way to the saloon through the swirling snow.

Flower and Heather greeted the two men with purrs and swats. They almost pushed them into the dining room where Inez was placing two plates piled high with chicken, stuffing, gravy and vegetables. Cups of hot coffee were already on the table. The cats sat under the table against the men's legs as they ate, offering some warmth to the cold limbs.

The other peacekeepers joined them and they told them about the horses and the challenge that had their horses fighting the wild stallion. They were relieved to have rounded up the horses, and brought them home before the snow worsened. Looking out the window they could see it was coming down heavy enough now they couldn't see lights across the road from them.

Though tired and aching, Chris and Vin sipped the hot coffee and enjoyed the companionship of the others. They let their brothers voices flow over their tired bodies. And enjoyed the warmth that pressed against their legs, as Flower and Heather purred contently.


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