A Light to Guide You Home
Ezra rode ahead of the other two horses in silence. Actually, no one had spoken in at least two hours. Frustration was making the southerner edgy and short-tempered. He, along with the towns lothario and the young sheriff, had left their small community five days earlier to take two prisoners to the territorial marshal. It was a trip that should have taken four days at the most. Yet, here they were, five days gone and no sight of home yet. JD had been reluctant to accompany them, fearing he would not get home in time for Christmas. Assurances from Wilmington had finally convinced the young man to join them. Tomorrow was Christmas and by the looks of things, they would not make it home in time to celebrate.
They had run into trouble when one of the prisoners horses came up lame the second day out. It forced the two men to alternate riding, allowing the injured animal relief and time to rest. But it made them arrive late on the third day. While JD understood the delay, he was upset that he would, more than likely, miss Christmas. Buck consoled the young easterner with vows to get them back before noon.
"Dont worry, kid. I know a shortcut."
The words echoed in the gamblers mind. He should have insisted that they stick to the original route. They were familiar with it and all three men knew the landmarks. Standish had played Devils Advocate and pointed out the fact that if anything happened to Wilmington, neither himself nor Dunne would know the way home. But Buck had sworn that he knew the way, like the back of my hand, and that Vin and he had used the shortcut the previous spring and cut their travel time by half. JD had the deciding vote and the young man asked his surrogate brother once again,
"You sure, Buck?"
Wilmington smiled and nodded and the deal was done. They would try the shortcut.
Now, two days later, Ezra berated himself for not standing firm. He had backed down, knowing that the youth had plans with the young woman, Casey Wells. That knowledge swayed his common sense and cautionary nature. Only after they had ridden an entire day, did Buck admit that he was a little confused.
"Seems that them hills ought to be on the other side of us, but Vin and me followed this creek, so I know this is right."
Late that day, Buck confessed that he did not know where they were. The look on Dunnes face almost had them heading back that night, but for once, good sense won out and they set up camp. Ezra quizzed Buck about the landmarks, but nothing new came to light. They turned in for the evening after deciding to return and take the longer, but proper trail.
Ezra pulled his mount up as he heard the mustached mans voice ask, "How ya holding up, JD?"
Just before noon, a rattlesnake had startled the boys mount, tossing the young sheriff to the ground. JD had been last in line as they traveled through a narrow gully and Ezra was the first to reach him. He had pulled his gun and shot the reptile before it could do more harm.
The young sheriff had hit the ground hard and lay curled up, trying to catch his breath. The southerner knelt down next to the dark haired youth and placed a hand on the boys shoulder, asking if he was injured.
Wilmington had taken off after the frightened horse and, upon his return, dismounted and joined the others.
JD had recovered enough by then to sit up and glance over at Ezra, smiling slightly.
"I'm fine. Thanks, Ez." His eyes squeezed closed as he pushed himself off the ground. He swayed slightly and Standish reached out a steadying hand as JD said, "Whoa."
"Are you certain that you are not injured, Mr. Dunne? You appear a bit unsteady on your feet."
Buck sat back, a frown marring his handsome face. "He okay?"
"I'm FINE." JD moved to his horse and placed one hand on the horn and the other on the skirt of the saddle. He just stood for a moment, causing Wilmington to reach over and lay a hand on the dark hair.
"JD, you got a nice little lump on the back of your head."
Pulling his head away, JD leaned his forehead against the saddle. "I know. I landed on a rock."
Ezra approached the youth and examined the dark haired head. JD didn't move, but stood with his head resting on the leather. Finished, the southerner stepped away and looked up at the older man.
"It is a fair sized swelling, but there does not appear to be any bleeding. We just need to keep an eye on him and watch for nausea or light-headedness." Turning back to JD, he asked," You feel capable of continuing our journey, Mr. Dunne?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just got a headache."
Buck and Ezra looked at each other. Buck shrugged. "We don't have a lot of choice here."
Ezra looked questioningly at the taller man and saw Buck's eyes look into the distance. Black thunderclouds were darkening the horizon.
"Wonderful. I assume that is headed in this direction?"
"Fast," was Wilmington's only response.
The three men mounted and moved off, away from the approaching storm.
It had taken the wind and rain three hours to catch up with them, but with no shelter in sight, they continued on. Within a few minutes, all three men were soaked and shivering in the cold rain. Buck stayed close to JD who hung over the saddle horn.
"How ya holding up, kid?"
"I'm fine." Hazel eyes turned to look at the older man and saw the doubt in the man's eyes. Wearily, the young man responded to that doubt. "Really, Buck. I just have a headache. Riding ain't helping."
Wilmington looked on in sympathy. The storm continued to rage around them as the day's light disappeared behind the horizon. They needed to make camp, but there was no place that offered shelter of any kind.
Ezra's call drew Buck's attention from the youth. The normally immaculately dressed gambler looked as miserable as Buck had ever seen as water ran off the brim of his hat and his shirt clung to his chest.
"Look." Ezra pointed into the distance. Buck looked in the direction indicated and squinted. The lightening made it difficult to make out, but off in the distance, barely visible was a flicker of light. Wilmington didn't remember any dwelling in the area, but he didn't really care.
Nodding in acknowledgement to the southerner, Buck looked at JD and said encouragingly, "Looks like there's a house up here, kid. Maybe we can get off these horses and get dry. How's that sound?"
JD smiled weakly in response. And the three horsemen moved on.
They pulled up to the front of the small house, a candle burning in the window. Ezra dismounted and approached the door. Buck sat next to JD, a steadying hand at his elbow.
After receiving no answer to his knock, Ezra tried lifting the latch. Meeting no resistance, the sodden gambler pulled his pistol and pushed the door open slowly. Wilmington had dismounted and now stood on the porch in front of Dunne's horse.
Light drenched the porch as the door swung open. Besides the candle in the window, a fire blazed in the hearth and three lanterns sat around the room. Ezra ventured across the threshold, his gun ready at waist level. He disappeared and Buck tensed, ready to spring through the doorway if the southerner called out.
Ezra reappeared and vanished again, twice, as he moved around the interior of the small cabin. Buck turned to see that JD had drawn his gun and, though he lay across the neck of his mount, his eyes were riveted on the doorway. The tall man saw the kid relax even as his ear picked up the footfall behind him. He turned to see Standish standing in the doorway, a perplexed look on his face.
Holstering his pistol, Ezra stepped forward.
"It appears that no one is in residence at the moment. There is a note, supposedly left by the homeowner. Why don't we get Mr. Dunne in, out of the weather?"
JD slid off his horse and fell back into the gambler's grasp as his legs gave way. The young man insisted he was fine, as the two men grasped each of his arms and lifted him onto the porch and into the house.
Once the wobbly sheriff was placed in a chair, Standish picked up a piece of paper that had been lying on the table when he first entered the abode and handed it to Buck.
Due to an urgent family crisis, we have had to leave our home. Please, make use of the larder left. I would hate that they go to waste. The linens are fresh and water and firewood have been recently refilled.
God go with you
Buck looked at the others after he finished reading. "I wonder how long they plan on being gone?" he asked.
"How long they been gone? House looks like it was just cleaned." JD commented.
He sat at the table, his head in his hand.
Buck walked around, studying the room. As he passed behind JD, he placed a hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Mr. Wilmington? I noticed a shed to the side of the house. I'll tend to the animals while you get Mr. Dunne dry and settled."
"Ezra? Would you mind?" Buck moved to the door, stopping the southerner from exiting. "We all need to eat and you know I can't boil water without burning it, so how about I get the horses settled in and you find something to eat?"
Ezra glanced at the young sheriff and nodded.
"JD? I'll right back. You get out of those wet clothes." And went out the door.
"Yes, mom," the boy mumbled. But he stood and slowly began to pull his coat off.
Wilmington reentered the door and dropped the three saddlebags onto the floor. He glanced over at JD as he hung his coat over a chair.and back at Ezra, who nodded once. Buck quickly went through the door, latching it behind him and Ezra moved to the larder to see what he could find to cook up for supper. JD shuffled to the fire as he stripped off his vest and held his hands out, basking in the warmth.
Ezra stared in amazement at the food stored in the cabin. He quickly pulled down some cans and tossed something together for the meal. Pouring some coffee, he took a cup to the huddled form in front of the fire.
"Is your head still bothering you, Mr. Dunne?'
Hazel eyes looked up at him as the head nodded. "Thanks, Ezra." JD wrapped his hands around the hot cup. "Sitting still is about the best thing for my head. It's a lot better, now."
"Good. The evening meal will be done in a bit." Ezra left the sheriff sitting and returned to the kitchen.
Minutes later, Buck came back through the door in a cold blast of air and rain.
"Dang. It ain't let up at all, out there." He slapped his hat against his leg before tossing it on the floor near the door. He took off his coat and draped it over the back of a chair. Heading into the kitchen, he took a deep breath.
"Smells good, Ezra. I appreciate your doing this." He took a cup and poured himself some coffee. He took a sip and then took down some plates and set the table. "JD, let's eat, kid."
Slowly, he stood and moved to the table. Ezra brought over the stew he had put together and the three men sat down and to eat.
The meal was consumed in silence, after which Buck insisted JD go to bed. The protest was half hearted at best.
"I'm fine, Buck. Just tired."
"Good. That means there ain't no reason for ya to stay up"
The young sheriff opened his mouth but had no comeback, so he simply headed to the nearest bed. He was asleep within moments of laying down. Ezra and Buck sat at the fireplace, drying the last moisture from the folds in their clothing.
"What do you suppose happened?" Wilmington asked.
"The circumstances are extremely odd. Why would the family leave and not take their supplies. Who built the fire? It certainly had not been burning for a very long time before we made our appearance."
Buck sat back, stretching. "It's strange, Ez, very strange." The man yawned and pushed up out of the chair. "Think I'll hit the hay, Ezra. See ya in the morning."
Buck peeked out the window and shook his head. "Nah, we're the only fools out in this. Bolt the door and rest, Ezra. It's been a long day. No telling what we'll run into tomorrow."
Wilmington moved toward the curtained off area, but paused and turned back. "Merry Christmas, Ezra."
The southerner's eyes twinkled in the firelight as a smile dimpled his cheeks. "The same to you, Mr. Wilmington."
+ + + + + + +
The next morning, Buck woke to the smell of fresh coffee. He swung his legs off the cot and reached for his shirt as he stood. He pushed the curtain back and blinked to find JD sitting at the table, sipping the brew.
"Hey, kid., how ya feeling?" the tall man asked as he pulled the shirt up over his shoulders and started buttoning it.
JD cut his eyes around at the voice and smiled. "Morning, Buck. I feel fine. Head hurts some, but not near as bad as yesterday. Where are we?"
Buck frowned at the question. "Don't you remember last night?"
The young man shrugged. "Some, but it's kind of fuzzy. My head hurt so bad last night, I couldn't think."
Wilmington grabbed a cup and poured some coffee before joining his young friend at the table. "Ez still in bed?'
"Yeah, but I heard some noise a couple of minutes ago. He may be getting up."
The words were no sooner spoken than Standish appeared, fully dressed and yawning. "I found that it is exceedingly difficult to resist the fragrant aroma that is permeating the atmosphere of our shelter."
He poured a cup of the strong coffee and moved to the doorway, where he stood and gazed out at the early morning mist. Finally, he turned and asked the two men, "Anyone interested in some light breakfast?"
JD shrugged as Wilmington looked on. The big man replied, "Yeah, I could use some grub." He stood and moved to the cupboard to see what was available.
"Well, we don't have many choices, but I think we can make a meal."
JD stood up and helped to make some breakfast. There was no milk or eggs, no bacon or biscuits, but they managed with some help from their saddlebags. In an hour's time, they had eaten and cleaned up. Closing the door securely behind them, they headed to the shed to saddle the horses and soon were on the trail once again.
They had been riding only thirty minutes when Buck suddenly pulled up and began to look around, smiling.
"What's going on, Buck?"
"I know where we are!" the man stated excitedly.
"It's not that I doubt your conviction, Mr. Wilmington, but are you certain?"
"Yeah." Buck stated. "We ain't but about an hour's ride from Chris' place."
JD's eyes lit up for the first time in two days. "Buck, you sure?"
The man grinned at the others. "As sure as I am that Josiah snores and Nathan is going to take a look at you as soon as we get into town."
The easterner groaned as Ezra laughed out loud.
"JD, I swear, if Nathan says your head is okay, I'll escort you to Casey's place myself.."
The boy huffed. "That's supposed to encourage me? I don't think so." With a kick and flick of the reins, the young sheriff set off in the direction Wilmington had pointed in as the way to Larabee's.
Buck and Ezra momentarily watched as the young man rode away. They kicked their mounts and set off in pursuit. Soon, the three were riding along at a comfortable, but mile-eating gait. They rode in silence as the sun began to warm the cool morning.
They had been riding for almost an hour when two riders crested a rise in front of them.
"Well, I will be most interested to see how our proficient tracker has managed to track us from the direction that we are heading."
JD turned to the others, grinning. "He's good. He's really good."
They continued their trek and soon the groups met and all five men brought their mounts to a stop.
"Boys" Chris greeted. Vin merely nodded. "Kind 'a the long way home, don't you think?"
Ezra and JD both looked at Wilmington who, in turn, dropped his head.
Vin's quiet voice drew the man's head up. "Took the shortcut we used last spring, didn't you?"
Buck cocked his head to one side. "Yeah, but it didn't work too well."
Tanner grinned. "Spring rains rerouted the creek. Shortcut landmarks all moved."
Buck shook his head. Tanner's voice drew his attention. "You didn't notice that the hills were on the wrong side?"
Ezra chuckled at the expression on Wilmington's face, JD rolled his eyes, and Chris merely wheeled his black around and headed back the way he had come. Tanner just shook his head as he turned to follow Larabee. Buck shrugged and took off after Larabee and Tanner with the two younger men following slowly behind.
+ + + + + + +
The five men arrived back in town midday. After taking care of their animals, they left the livery with Ezra, Chris, and Vin heading for the saloon. JD started to the boarding house, but Buck took him by the shoulders and headed him in the direction of Nathan's.
"Buck, I'm fine. How many times do I have to tell you?" the young man protested.
"Well, it doesn't matter how many times YOU tell me. It's what Nathan tells me, that counts."
They had reached the stairs and JD hesitated. "Buck, I promised Casey that I'd take her to church this evening and then we were going to the party. I been riding for a whole day. I'd know if I was hurt."
"JD, I understand about your plans with Casey, but how would she feel if you passed out or got sick on her cause you didn't let Nathan check you out?"
"I ain't going to do that."
Buck turned the young man to face him as he leaned down and looked straight into his eyes. "JD, please. Do this for me."
Buck felt the shoulders under his hands rise in a sigh and knew he had won. The two of them headed up the stairs.
An hour later, they walked into the saloon, along with Nathan and found the other four peacekeepers seated at a table. They joined them after ordering a drink.
"So, how is your head, Mr. Dunne?"
"He's fine," Buck answered.
"Same as I've been telling him all day long."
"Well, you ain't Nathan." Buck turned to the others. "Nathan checked him and he's fine."
Chris snorted as Vin, Ezra, and Josiah laughed. Nathan shook his head as the exchange.
Wilmington leaned forward, his elbows on the table. "Chris, you know of a spread north of you? About an hour's ride?"
Larabee leaned back as he thought about it. He looked at his old friend as he answered. "There used to be a spread out there. Family of four, named Fayette. Jacque and Maria, and well, I can't remember the two little girl's names. Why?"
Buck told about the candle in the window, the food, the clean appearance of the home. Ezra and JD jumped in, adding details that Wilmington forget or left out. The southerner asked if Larabee knew of an emergency that would have the family leaving their homestead.
Chris frowned. "They left years ago. You remember, Buck."
"No. Not really," the mustached man responded. "Why did they leave?"
"Jacque died, 'bout six years ago. He was decided to run some cattle on his place. He headed to Arizona to get a fancy bull he had heard about and never came back. I remember Sarah going to stay while he was gone, to help Maria. She told me that every night, Maria would light a candle and place it in the window. Said it was to help guide her husband home." Chris' thoughts turned to his wife and the conversations they had about the family that was now without a man. He shook his head to clear the thought and continued. "Maria packed up the kids and I drove them to Eagle Pass. They caught the stage there. Maria told me that she had family in Louisiana, so they were headed there."
Larabee stopped and leaned forward, his brow furrowed as he rested his forearms on the table. "Seems Sarah got a letter from Maria's sister. She said the Maria had died right after they arrived and the girls were safe with the sister."
The men looked around the table at each other and wondered. Josiah broke the silence.
"Perhaps, brothers, Maria is still waiting for her husband's return."
"I have been to the state of Louisiana and have seen many things that defy explanation. The French people, the Cajuns, are a highly superstitious people. They believe it spirits and magic." Seeing doubt on some faces, the southerner retorted, "I have seen things that are beyond a logical explanation, gentlemen."
"I seen some things when I 's a child; some of them people got powers." Nathan seemed to shiver slightly as he spoke.
"Maybe she's an angel, now." JD spoke softly and without looking up. "Sometimes I feel like Mama is watching over me."
Wilmington reached out and placed a big hand on the young man's shoulder. "I know what 'cha mean, kid. I get this feeling sometimes, all warm and comfortable like. I always figured someone had to watching out for me."
The dark haired youth looked up and into the eyes of his friend and he could see the sincerity in the blue fields. The young easterner smiled.
The blonde sat, shaking his head. He looked at the three men that claimed to have spent a comfortable night, with a fire and supplies, in a house that Larabee knew for a fact had the door and windows missing. The last time he had passed the desolate place, a portion on the roof had collapsed into the interior. He studied the faces around the table, the men that had somehow found a way into his heart. He wrapped his hand around the glass in front of him.
"I don't care where you stayed the night or what led you there. I'm just glad that ya back safe and in time for Christmas." He lifted the glass in a toast. "Merry Christmas, boys."
The six raised their glasses and the words, 'Merry Christmas', rang out six more times.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS, EVERYONE
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