by Heather F.
Disclaimers: Not mine no money made
Characters: Chris and Ezra and the others of course.
"Gawd damn Standish ." Chris Larabee muttered. His breath crystallized in little puffs as he raced through the forest. He pumped his arms as fast as his legs hurdling windfalls and dodging brush. His lungs burned as his chest fought to expand far enough to drag in air that was too cold to inhale on a good day. His heart hammered almost fluttering, threatening to burst within his chest.
This was far from being a good day.
Branches scratched and tore at his coat working to break his stride. He could hear the beat of horse hooves somewhere behind him, gaining on him. Chris stole a glance over his shoulder trying to gauge just how much of a lead he had on his pursuers.
I get my Gawd damn hands on that greedy lying bastard Ill killim.
Larabee hooked his foot on a root. For a brief moment he stopped breathing, his frantically beating heart seemed to pause and he flew through the air landing hands first onto the frozen ground. Ice-covered dirt and sticks dug and furrowed through the skin of his palms. Red tipped fingers and stretched dried skin curled and bled. Larabee cursed again, his eyes watering from the cold and wind as he scrambled to a three point position.
Hed just about had his fill of running.
The lean gunfighter never lost his forward momentum and quickly regained his feet. He continued onward cursing his luck . Gawd damn gambling fool cant keep his damn fool self out of trouble should have took Vin should have took Vin and left that Southern pansy ass trouble maker at home Ill kill him.
Larabee continued to curse himself and all things related to Ezra P. Standish and wove his way through the thick stand of trees.
The crack of a rifle and the whistle of a bullet had him throwing his arms up around his head and tucking and twisting his upper body to the side and hopefully out of the line of fire.
He found a burst of speed and kept on running.
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Ezra Standish urged his horse onward. He kept his shoulders rolled and hugged his body close to the horses mane. An artic blast of wind seared over the top of his rolled shoulders and down the neck of his coat and shirt. He moaned at the sudden raw chill that gripped his spine and seemingly twisted his nerve endings in its icy grip. With clenched jaw muscles, the gambler silently cursed Chris Larabee.
The sound of muffled shots from the north had him hauling back on the reins and stuttering his horse to a stop. The animal tossed his head to and fro trying to loosen the rein and release the bite of the bit. The chill of the weather had no trouble freezing the metal ringed edges.
Standish sat stock still listening, straining to hear and praying that he would hear a second snap of a rifle report.
The wind tore at his clothing and clawed at his face, causing his eyes to water and nose to run. He sniffled unconsciously ruffling his features as he did so. The skin around his mouth and eyes cracked and folded stiff with the frigid cold.
A second and then a third shot sliced the air, whistling through the wind with its unnatural sound.
The gambler hauled on the reins and legged his horse into a gallop.
The deep chested chestnut lunged from a standstill. Its massive hind quarters bunched under the barrel and propelled them forward. The big quarter horse stretched his legs out giving into a full gallop, its hooves clipped the earth one at a time. A sharp wind cooled his flanks and pulled his mane and forelock away from his hide and toward his withers. With ground swallowing strides, and flared nostrils the chestnut horse surged to the north, into the biting wind, toward a grove of thick trees.
Ezra worked his teeth against one another as his shoulder muscles knotted and cramped from the constant tension that tightened them.
He berated himself for riding into the wind, riding into gunfire.
Mr. Larabee was more trouble than Buck Wilmington on a good day.
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Chris broke from the cover of the forest and cursed himself a fool. He would ring that Gawd damn southerners neck if he ever saw him again. How could one man cause so much trouble in so little time?
Rifle shots tore bark from trees, spewing splinters into the air. Chris covered his head again and continued to run. He sprinted east along the outer perimeter of the small forest in hopes of losing his quarry and maintaining some semblance of coverage.
The razor sharp wind buffeted him, pulling his black duster off his shoulders. His grey shirt billowed under his open coat and back around his arms. The blustering wind threatened to lift his hat from his head. His holster and gun banged against his thigh chaffing his leg and initiating a maddening itch. The gun, like the belt, was devoid of any ammunition.
Only man I know to piss off a whole town full of people .That Gawd damn Son of a Bitch .
Chris stumbled over an unseen rock. He tried to prevent his fall, tried to recapture his balance but the ground suddenly sloped away from him. His left foot shot out as he tried to maintain his pace to keep going forward but his foot found only empty air.
Larabee threw his arms out as he fell. His body never stopped its forward drive.
He hit the ground with enough force to rattle his teeth and lose his breath. Somewhere in the midst of flaring limbs and upheaval of color, he felt a bone give. His head slammed off the frozen desert floor, a bright kaleidoscope of color exploded into his vision. The gunslinger found himself tumbling out of control, head over heels picking up momentum.
This was Standishs fault .all his gawd damn fault
He did not feel the individual rocks that dug into his shoulders or sides, didnt feel the stiff frozen arid shrubs that tore at his skin and clothing. The world turned upside down and things flew by at an alarming rate. At one point his own knee smashed him between the eyes. Larabee tried to pull his arms in close to his torso and promised himself he would rip the gambler apart, limb by limb.
It almost brought a smile to his face.
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Ezra leaned over the neck of the straining quarter horse. His eyes watered blurring his vision. The blustering cold scoured a sharp headache between his eyes. The leather reins had become stiff in his frozen fingers chaffing them raw. The wind whipped mane lashed across his reddened hands and wrists leaving tiny bloody furrows in the blanched skin.
The Southerner scanned the tree line a few hundred yards away. The repeated sound of gunshots seemed closer and closer.
Good Lord was there anyone in this great country that Mr. Larabee did not offend? The man has more enemies than mother
Something caught his eye. Standish grimaced, biting his inner cheek and clutching his upper abdomen as he raised his head away from the warmth of the geldings neck.
What the Hell was Mr. Larabee doing now? Rolling down a hill? Playing childrens games while Im run out of town because of my association with him and hes rolling? My Lord hes worse than mother and her scams
Ezra added a little pressure with his calves to the horses heaving sides. The gambler again lowered himself over the saddle, mindful of the horn, and urged the straining chestnut to run just a little harder, just a little further.
Standish closed his eyes for a moment he really had to chose his friends better, though his fellow gamblers were sometimes cut throats and cheats and untrustworthy, at least they understood the basic desire to remain indoors and out of inclement weather. Good Lord his mother might have been onto something when it came to teaching him a trade.
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Chriss wild descent came to an abrupt bone jarring stop. He slammed into something large and unmoving. What little air remained in his lungs escaped with a gasp. The gunslinger lay still for a moment, keeping his eyes closed as the world outside swam by at a nauseating rate. His lungs felt ablaze as the reflexive and burning desire to draw a breath was dutifully ignored by the muscles that controlled respiration. He knew, without a doubt, he was going to suffocate.
The sound of an approaching horse had him snapping his eyes open. He tried to push himself up off the ground but his left arm suddenly gave out. He cried out and toppled to his side clutching his forearm to his chest.
Gawd damn gambler was a dead man.
The horse drew closer. Chris, with unfocused eyes, tried to skid himself away from the horse and rider and seek shelter behind the boulder that had brought him to an abrupt stop.
"Mr. Larabee I appreciate a need to rest and lay about the day, but this is neither the time nor the place for such sundry things." Standishs peeved voice had him snapping his eyes open. Lay about the day? Ill give him laying about gawd damn bastard all his fault
Chris ground his teeth at the sound of the voice, "Gawd damnit Ezra howd you git here?"
"How is not important exiting this vicinity, however is." Standish leaned over the horse and closed his eyes as nausea rolled through him.
Larabee opened his eyes and found himself staring at a pink whiskered muzzle and the dripping nostrils of Standishs horse. Chris shoved the horses face away from him. It reminded him his steed had fled only minutes ago when it had taken a tumble.
A rifle shot split the air kicking up a small tuft of dirt just adjacent to them.
"Mr. Larabee I must insist that we go," Ezras urgency matched the nervous dancing steps of his horse.
The dark gunslinger growled and rolled onto his hand and knees and pushed himself to his feet keeping his left arm tucked in close to his body.
With unsteady steps and stiff movements, he swung up into the saddle behind the gambler.
Standish swung the chestnut around and legged it across the open scrub plain and toward a stand of trees that would eventually lead to Four Corners.
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Vin and Buck stared at one another from across the table. JD watched them while sitting on his own hands trying to warm them. The wood stove crackled and snapped as unseen embers bounced and skidded their way up the black tin pipe. Nathan kept his overcoat on and blew into his hands while Josiah leaned back seemingly unaffected by the cold.
Dunne wondered how the big preacher managed it to not feel the bone cracking raw freeze of a blistery winter night. Even though the sun had not quiet disappeared from the horizon the skies had already started to darken. Stars peered down from a cloudless sky, once again promising another bitter cold night.
The saloon suffered under the misery of the weather. Few people ventured out into the weather and fewer still stayed out for long. The wood stove popped and cracked with the promise of heat.
The five men sat at the round table closest to the stove. Occasionally Nathan would raise his eyes to the darkening window when a gust of window rattled the glass.
The cold alone seemed unbearable but the wind cast its own bitter form of torture.
Dunne watched the tracker and the Ladies man and wondered what thoughts those two shared. If pushed, JD would hazard a guess that they were worried about Chris and Ezra.
On a good day all five of them would be worried about Chris and Ezra. Those two mixed about as well as a feral cat and a feral dog. There would be no peace between the two if they showed their true colors. Ezra couldnt help but pester Chris but JD had observed that Larabee on occasion would goad the gambler. They were like two brothers that needled each other mercilessly for the pure enjoyment of making the other miserable. A contest of sorts.
It was the only thing that made sense to JD, except unlike himself and Buck, Chris and Ezra had an underlying sense of tension.
The two were explosive on a good day.
Why the Judge sent them both to Spring Creek yesterday was anyones guess. Why it had to be that combination was another mystery. But the Judge had been adamant that they go. The Judge was more adamant than Ezra. Of course, Standish didnt wish to "Venture out on such an arduous journey in such disagreeable weather." He was after all "a son of the South and unaccustomed to such inclement inhospitable conditions."
If Ezra was saying he didnt want to go outside because it was just down right freezing well then Dunne had to agree with him.
Buck had laughed and patted Ezra on the back, "Better you than me pard " Buck had missed the sneer and disgruntled look that Standish had mimicked behind his back but JD hadnt. Dunne had laughed. Ezra sure could act like a little kid when he didnt get his way.
JD eyed his mug of beer. He really wanted to take a drink of it but that would mean he would have to take one of his hands out from under his leg. It was just too damn cold for that right now. Maybe he would ask Inez for coffee
Nathan hunched forward in his chair and stared out the window at the darkening skies, "I sure hope Ezra and Chris are staying inside tonight and off the trail."
Josiah laughed into his mug, "I would almost guarantee it brother Nathan."
"Those two aint stupid enough to be caught out in this weather." Vin pointed out quietly laughing to himself at the idea of Chris being stuck in the same room with Ezra.
"Hell it would take a miracle to git Ezras ass out in this wind."
Josiah held up his shot glass and ducked his head, "Amen brother, amen."
+ + + + + + +
Chris groaned as Standish curled tighter into himself and closer to his horses neck. The wind cut over the Southerners coat and pierced Larabee full in the chest. It stole his breath and sharpened his dull headache.
Chris shivered. Gawd Damn that hurts Ezra sit up
Larabee hunched his shoulders drawing them closer to his chest and tucked in his chin. The wind threatened to lift his hat if he raised his head too far from his chest.
It left Standish to direct the trotting horse. Larabees legs and butt ached and itched from the cold and the chaffing of leather against his pants. The stiff, frozen leather of the saddle bags occasionally caught small slivers of skin and pants and pinched them between the leather of the saddle. The Cheyenne roll rubbed mercilessly against the front of his pelvis if he relaxed too much or shifted in the wrong direction.
Larabee once again cursed the Southerner for getting them into this fix but gave up on vocalizing his anger. The wind made speech impossible and the posse that dogged their trail persistently some distance behind them made it unwise to start something now.
Chris kept his broken arm tucked tight to his middle, keeping it warm and protected. His toes suffered the most. The incessant ache had morphed into a strange kind of burning sensation that slowly worked its way to becoming numb. Somehow his toes still ached. He feared that if he should bang his feet or walk, his toes would simply shatter from his foot.
His only consolation lay in the fact that Standish must be suffering the same discomfort.
Chris closed his eyes as another gust of wind lashed over the horses neck, across Standishs hunched back, only to slam full force into Larabees torso.
Chris shut his watering eyes and cursed all gamblers and their cheating ways.
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Buck stretched his long legs out under the table as he enjoyed a second steaming helping of Inezs cooking. The table was quiet as the others ate without interruption.
The saloon walls creaked and groaned under the onslaught of the wind.
Buck watched as Nathan once again gazed out the window. Wilmington smiled. Nathan was going to have to learn to relax. There was no way Chris and Ezra would be out in this weather.
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Chris lifted his head slightly, risking losing his hat in the wind, when he heard water splashing. Larabee peered over the gamblers curled back and noticed that Chaucer had stepped into a creek. A fledgling river really. Opossums Creek circumvented Four Corners from the north side.
Once they crossed Opossums creek they were almost home.
The posse was relentless in their pursuit but were not foolish enough to run their horses to death this far from home and in this weather. Chris figured the posse that chased them planned to keep enough pressure on their prey to keep them moving prevent Chris and Ezra from making a camp. Force them to move through the night and freezing weather.
Wear their prey down.
It was an old trick. It was still around because it worked more times than not, but this time it would fail. If Ezra kept Chaucer going then they would make Four Corners within the hour.
What the Hell did Standish do that warranted this kind of attention? Chris glared at the gamblers hunched back.
The posse could have at them in Four Corners, or at least take their chances.
Larabee tightened his hold on the back of the saddle as Chaucer suddenly misstepped in the shallow running water. The big horse stumbled forward dropping his neck and shoulder.
Chris felt rather than witnessed Standish start to slide from the saddle.
With one arm tucked in close to his chest, Larabee struggled to reach around for the sliding gambler.
"Shit Ezra .Shit .." With one hand, Larabee struggled to keep a grown man upright. He tightened his legs around Chaucers flanks as a counter balance.
Chaucer felt the cue and hunched his hindquarters under himself and lunged forward.
Unbalanced, the two men toppled from the saddle into the black churning waters of the creek.
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Josiah leaned back in his chair sipping a cup of steaming coffee and staring at his cards. He had a chance to win a pot tonight. JD had already folded, boys hands were just too cold to hang onto his cards for any length of time. Nathan worried his lip not truly concentrating on what he held in his hands, and couldnt seem to keep his eyes off the window, though now all Jackson could see was his own reflection. Occasionally the wind would buffer the building enough to cause his reflection to flutter.
Buck kept scanning the room looking for a warm body to keep him comfortable for the evening, so that left Vin as his only true source of competition.
Sanchez sipped his steaming mug, he stood a fair shot of beating the young Texan. Josiah, himself, was after all, older and more experienced.
A toothy grin split his face.
Tanner matched it.
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Larabee shot from the water, eyes wide and mouth open, gasping for air that wouldnt come. He floundered and fell again. Water splashed once more up over his head and face squeezing the air from his chest and freezing the blood in his veins.
With a strangled cry he leaped up breaking the surface.
The icy fingers of the water brought a crystal clarity to his surroundings. Chaucer waited on the far bank, the reins dangling on the ground like twin tethers. Sage brush bent and twisted in the clear night. A few larger rocks peeked up through the creek bed.
Water rushed and gurgled over and around Larabees calves feeling as though it were flaying the hide and meat off his cramping legs.
Larabee started splashing to shore, moving his shoulders and both arms in exaggerated motion to keep his legs moving. The broken bones of his forearm were forgotten in the blinding fight for immediate survival.
He made one and a half steps and tripped , falling back into the water for a third time.
He scrambled to his feet fighting the burning cold and trying to recapture his breath. They had to get back on Chaucer .had to get going again. Somewhere behind them in the falling darkness the posse dogged their heels like plodding bloodhounds on the scent.
Ezra and he needed to keep moving. The fear of freezing and the urgency not to fail, had Larabee trying to lift a painfully numb leg and take another step. The water sucked at his boots, pulled at his spurs and tried to slice his toes from his foot. With narrowed vision, spurned by sheer determination and prodded by fierce anger Larabee dragged a leg forward despite the drag of the current and the bite of the water.
The wind tore at his wet hat and hair, it seared the tips of his ears and crushed his head in its icy grip.
Chris managed to move his leg forward. His shin and perhaps the toe of his boot, hooked something, undermining his precarious balance. Water threatened to swallow him whole again. Panic nearly seized him at the thought of submerging once again under the water.
The thought of a posse besting him had Chris flailing his soaked arms, fighting for his balance. He would be damned to be beat.
The current worked mercilessly against his legs and his feet in which he had no more sensory control over. Larabee felt himself tumble toward the black churning waters.
This time, however something broke his fall, kept him from completely submerging under the dark frigid waters.
Chris slammed his forearm against something relatively softer than a rock. Pain shot up and down his arm like a lightening bolt. He cried out as he pushed himself off the malleable object.
With club like hands and stiffening joints the gunslinger wrestled for a grip on the Southerners coat. "Come on Standish!" Though he meant to shout, wanted to holler out his anger, frustration and terror his voice was nothing more than a strangled rasp.
With little cooperation from the gambler, the two men thrashed to shore. In the blackness of night, under a crisp clear starry sky, the two men weakly wrestled one another onto dry land.
Chris and Ezra crawled and struggled over frozen mud. The harsh sting of the wind seemed to fade as the cold enveloped them. The hard bite of land did not register as wet knees, forearms and hands skidded over the hardened dirt.
Larabee let go of Standishs coat collar. The gunslinger wanted nothing more than to curl up on himself and huddle his knees as close to his chest as possible. Hed do anything to get warm.
Chris pushed himself to his hands and knees, fighting to make it to his feet.
The posse. It was out there somewhere, taking its time. Searching for them, hunting them down with their slow methodical pace.
His muscles ached with constant contractions in their attempt to ward off the cold. Chris let his gaze fall to the shivering gambler who attempted to curl onto his knees and shoulders in an attempt to make his feet. Larabee watched as the gambler toppled to the side, his knees drawn up protectively to his chest, his head tucked in low and close to .a dark wide stain on the white ruffled shirt Blood?
Shit was that blood? Gawd damn Southern gamblers and their inability to keep out of trouble
With a stubborn streak and an anger to match the devil himself, Larabee staggered toward the horse, and the stuffed saddle bags that lay across its flanks.
Chris hobbled and lurched reaching desperately for Chaucer.
Chaucer snorted and side stepped, dragging the reins on the ground.
Larabee cursed the horse, as much as the unmoving gambler that lay on the frozen ground, and the bitter weather that threatened to kill them.
Chris stalked toward the quarter horse on legs that threatened to shatter with every step.
Chaucer shook his head and skittered a step or two keeping his distance.
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Vin stoked the fire in the wood stove as he watched as the others continued to play a lazy game of bridge. Occasionally they kept score. A few hands were tallied and then a few more ignored.
Poker had been abandoned after Josiah lost his fourth straight hand and it looked as if he might lose his temper.
A blast of wind forced air down the black stove pipe stirring the embers and blowing smoke into the room.
Vin shut the heavy insulated door and latched it.
It was indeed a bitter night.
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Larabee shivered and tightened his arm around the gamblers midsection. The two rode bareback. The horse blanket was wrapped around Larabees shoulders and Standish hugged it tight to the front of his chest the best he could with numbed lifeless fingers.
Both rode with their legs tucked up higher than normal on the horse. Leg muscles refused to relax and feet would not fall any distance from the central warmth of the torso.
Chaucers body heat worked to keep their legs and backsides warm, hopefully sparing their feet any loss of circulation.
The warm oozing of blood from the slashing knife wound in the gamblers chest had eased. Though the amount of liquid that snailed its way over Chris forearm had disturbed him, the warmth had been welcoming.
The knife wounds had been a surprise finding when he had helped Standish peel off his frozen clothing.
No conversation had been exchanged. No explanations were asked or offered. Both men had worked in disjointed halting movements in an effort to stave off a freezing death.
The wet clothes were abandoned as were the boots. Larabee stripped the saddle off, fumbling with the leather cinch and cursing his near useless fingers. He left the saddle on the ground next to the small river. No cover or trees were about to hide the gear.
No one would be out to pilfer it in this weather. Except maybe the posse that hounded their heels.
Larabee promised himself that he would be back this way with Vin and the others in the morning, not only to gather up the saddle but to chase down the Sons of Bitches who took his horse and slashed a few layers off Standish.
The thought of revenge almost warmed Larabee and nearly cracked a smile on his frozen features.
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The wind screamed as it whipped over the open landscape. Sage brush bent sideways leaning close to the ground, battered into submission by the relentless wind.
Chris swore he would never disparage Standish for hauling around so much frivolous clothing. For the first time since meeting the cardsharp, Larabee was pleased that the damn fool southerner carried a change of clothes for everyday of a short trip.
Though the pants and shirt were short, and the girth loose, the fit was workable.
A sharp gust of wind had Larabee ducking his head down next to Ezras neck.
The gambler groaned and fisted the blanket edges together, knotting them about his hands.
He still had hands, Ezra realized .they hurt too much to have fallen off.
"Mr. Larabee .you ..have ..got stop .angering everyone ..meet "
Ezras stammering statement was almost lost on the gunslinger as he ducked in close to the gambler to shield himself from the wind.
Larabee closed his eyes and shivered, tightening his muscles even more and never truly relaxing them.
Ill killim Im gonna ring his cheating neck
+ + + + + + +
Josiah sipped his whiskey and thought about heading down the street back to the church. There was no moon but the night was clear.
The preacher surveyed the room. Buck leaned against the bar bantering with Inez. Vin and Nathan continued to play cards while JD slouched in his chair half a sleep.
The heat of the wood stove enveloped the room making it almost impossible to willingly stand up and move away from it.
The little room at the back of the church would be frosty tonight. His blankets and sheets would take some time to warm up after he climbed into them. Josiah was not sure he wanted to risk that kind of discomfort.
Staying in the saloon all night did not seem so terrible.
Sanchez was brought from his musings when Vin suddenly sat up, dropping all four legs of his tilted chair back to the floor. The tracker slid his hand down his hip toward his mares leg.
Buck and Nathan noticed the sudden change in Tanner and followed his gaze to the batwing doors that lay blocked by heavy sheets of oiled tarp.
Josiah tapped JDs leg. The young man quickly snapped to attention sitting up straight and blinking while resting his hands on his twin colts. He gazed around the room staring owl eyed trying to discern what caused the sudden tension.
All five men watched the saloon front while Inez made a discreet exit toward the store room, shotgun in hand, just in case.
The persistent wind camouflaged any distinct sounds.
The tarp wavered, billowed slightly, as if someone or something tested it.
The five men slowly slid their weapons from holsters as they fanned out and kept clear of windows.
The tarp bulged again but this time whatever pressed on it did not back away. Instead, the oiled coarse material moved inward pushing against the batwing doors. The doors creaked and whined as they were forced opened, as if in complaint about having to move on such a cold night.
Vin cleared his Mares leg from the holster.
Buck nodded to Josiah to pull JD back, to keep the young sheriff from stepping into the center of the room.
The batwing doors separated as the tarps were shoved inward. No one moved as people held their breath.
The wind whistled as it tore through town.
+ + + + + + +
Chris could not fathom how the side of his head came to rest on Chaucers mane but the warmth felt good.
He closed his eyes, promising himself and Ezra that he would rest his eyes only for a short while.
At least it wasnt as cold anymore. He could feel Standishs labored breathing under him, could almost feel the gamblers shoulder pressed into his gut.
Chris couldnt wrap his mind around the peculiarity of that dilemma.
He would just close his eyes for just a second and then figure out why Ezras shoulder would be digging into his midsection.
+ + + + + + +
The oil tarps lifted as Chaucer stepped through the saloon door. He dragged one rein on the ground, the other one was missing. The broken leather nub near the bit attachment suggested he had stepped on it and had snapped it earlier in the evening.
The big quarter horse clopped all the way into the lighted room and stopped.
He gave his head a shake, then his neck, and then relished in a full body shake.
His two riders slid unceremoniously from his back. One slipped left while another toppled right.
The big quarter horse stood still as people rushed at him. He let out a sigh and shook himself again.
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