The cold month of November bumped its way into an even colder December. The foot high prairie grasses were now burnt brown in color, and freeze-dried under the artic cold front that had invaded the territory from the north.
Every morning, long before sunup, the creaking of chilled saddle leather and the jangle of metal bits could be heard coming from the livery stable. Buck, Vin, Chris, and Josiah would then emerge into the early morning darkness. Each man riding out with an extra pair of dry gloves and socks in their saddlebags, along with a couple chunks of beef jerky and a sourdough biscuit for a midday meal. They would ride four abreast till they hit the edge of town, where they would then split up into pairs and scour the countryside for the elusive escapees until long after the rest of the town folks had returned to their beds for the night.
Cold, exhaustion, and frustration would show on the mens faces at the end of each day when they finally rode back into town.
Ezra spent his days in the jailhouse handling any minor complaints the citizens of Four Corners had. The swelling in his knee resided to the point that he could handle the weight of his boot being back on his foot so he was able walk from one end of town to the other in under twenty minutes if he had to. His black eyes were slower to disappear, and because she felt so bad for hitting him, Miss Sally was seen carrying food down to the jail to Ezra on several occasions.
Nathan complained bitterly about being confined to his bed and not able to help out, but as soon as his room was empty and he was alone, he would contentedly settle back on his plumped up pillows and read the medical journals that he so seldom had time to study. A couple times a day, JD or Ezra would come check on him and make sure the abrasions on his side were not getting infected and Mary would bring him up his meals, often staying to play cards or just chat with him. He felt guilty watching the four men head out on patrol everyday, but it had been such a long time since he had been given this kind of opportunity to rest his tired mind and body, he eventually just came to appreciate the downtime the situation offered him.
JDs headaches slowly disappeared, but the bumps and bruises still remained as a reminder of the encounter he had with Sam in the livery. He took to spending his time at the jailhouse with Rusty, playing cards or checkers together for hours each day. And the whole time they talked. The old cowboy was full of more yarns than even Buck, and JD spent a lot of the time with his arms wrapped around his stomach that was becoming increasingly sore from constant laughter. Occasionally Ezra would poke his head into the cell area to see what all the noise was about, but would never stay, as the humor was suited more to Buck than to his tastes. JD couldnt explain the easy relationship he had formed with the old cowboy; there was just something about his soft drawl and kind mannerisms that appealed to the kid, and JD thought that if Vin ever reached the senior citizen stage of life, he would be a lot like Rusty Hopkins.
Every night while the rest of the town slept, with the exception of Nathan who was still confined to the clinic, the six other men met and discussed if any progress had been made in locating the convicts over a late-night hot meal. The rest of the seven were guarded about JDs association with the old cowboy, especially Buck, but for all that he liked Rusty, JD never forgot he was hired to help protect the people of Four Corners and he listened intently for any slips Rusty might make while they talked. To this point the old man had not given any clues as to the whereabouts of the escaped convicts, and JD was more convinced then ever of his innocence, but the rest of the men still remained doubtful.
It was on the forth day of the manhunt that Ezra received a telegraph from Judge Travis and the prison, and that Chris deemed JD finally fit enough to join in the search for the convicts.
+ + + + + + +
Dawn arrived cold and clear, with a thick fog resting low on the ground.
In the back cell, Josiah handed Rusty a warm, wool winter coat and then quietly worked on locking the chains around Rustys wrists, readying him for transport. Ezra sat at the jail desk filling in some paperwork, and then he handed them off to Vin, who pulled back his sheepskin coat and stuffed them in his shirt pocket.
Chris stood in the doorway, already looking weary and stressed even though his day had just started.
"Roll your bedrolls, and pack as much grub as your saddlebags will hold," Chris said to Vin. "Better pack extra clothes too, itll be damn cold on the trail!"
"Already took care of," Vin answered.
"You alright handling this?" Chris asked.
"Heck yeah!" Vin said with a grin, "I figure the kid and I are pullin the easy shift, while the rest of ya are stuck out scouring the range. Aint that right JD?"
JD stood silently in the corner with his hands dug into his pant pockets, staring moodily at the floor.
After a few seconds of deliberation, he spoke out in a determined whisper. "It aint right, Chris!"
"Damn it JD, you just wanna keep flogging this dead horse over the head! We got our orders from the Judge, and you were given a job to do, so now deal with it!" Chris spared JD one last glance then turned his back to the kid so he could see if Josiah was finished in the cell area yet.
"So thats it, we all give up. Its just that well, there has to be something else we can do. I mean, hes just an old man! How can we send him back to that place?" JD brought his eyes up from the floor, just to meet Chriss back.
"JD, you going to keep asking questions that you dont want the answers to, you best learn to except the answers that you dont want to hear!" Chris said over his shoulder in a tired voice. Just five days ago they had all been sitting around in the saloon feeling quite bored with their quiet little town. Now here he was with his men all tired or hurt, and in JDs case, being difficult as well.
"Go get the horses tacked up, JD," Vin lightly tapped JD on the chest and pushed the younger man out of the jail, as Chris let out an aggravated sigh.
"Vin !" JD started.
Vin shook his head, and after taking one last look at Chriss fired up expression, JD stormed off to the livery.
"Dont you start in on me now, pard!" Chris said before Vin could open his mouth. "Hopkins could be as innocent as the fresh, driven snow, or he could have been the one who came up with the whole prison escape and bank robbery scheme in the first place. I dont know, and you dont know, and not JD, and neither does the warden back at the prison. Thats why they want him back for questioning. And we are in no position to argue with them about it. The Judge says were to take him back, so we take him back!"
"I aint disagreeing with ya about all that. Im just wondering why you are sending JD with me to return Hopkins to the prison?" Vin asked calmly, as he finished buttoning up his coat.
"You got a problem traveling with JD?" Chris asked surprised. "You know were short on man power, but I guess I could send Buck with you instead."
"Thats not it," Vin shook his head. "I dont have a problem with hitting the trail with any of you its just that JD has gotten real close to that old grandpa. Its going to be real hard on him when we get to the prison, and have to turn Hopkins over to them."
"If JD wants to stay riding with us, he is going to have to grow up. We all have to do things we dont like its called being an adult. Hell, even Buck has to pretend to be one once in awhile." Chris opened the door wide to let Josiah and Hopkins exit the jail, and with a two-finger salute back at Ezra, the four men walked towards the livery stable.
"Speaking of Buck I heard him tell Ezra he was going with Vin and JD anyway!" Josiah said as they were half way to the livery.
Chris stopped in mid stride.
"You might want to wait out here for a minute!" Chris said in a clipped voice before proceeding on to the livery.
"I think you might be right!" Josiah said to Vin as they watched their leader march to the livery, his steps full of fuming determination.
+ + + + + + +
JD watched as his trimmed legged bay gelding pranced around the corral, with his head and tail tossed high in the air. The shiny, compact horse whirled and kicked up his heels, until JD put two fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly. The horse planted all four feet into the ground and with his ears pricked forward, stood snorting and blowing until JD whistled a second time. This time the horse flew to the fence, and just about knocked JD over as he rubbed his short muzzle up and down roughly on JDs chest.
"After spending the last five days locked in a stall, that ball of fire looks like he might be too much for ya, kid. Bet Yosemite has something nice and quiet that you could borrow to ride!" Buck quipped. "Or maybe ya want me to take some of his rough edges off for you?"
"Thanks Buck, but Seven, why he dont have any rough edges do ya fella." JD grinned affectionately at his small horse, as he slipped his halter over the geldings head and led him into the barn. "I gotta replace a loose horseshoe before I can ride anywhere though."
"Buck ?" JD asked as he picked up his horses right hind foot.
"Yeah, kid?" Buck answered as he ran a currycomb under his gray geldings belly.
"What do you have against Rusty?"
"I aint got nothin against him." Buck straightened up, and stood leaning against his horse, with his arms draped over the grays broad back. "But sometimes youre just too trusting for your own good, kid."
"Thats what Rusty says too!"
"Maybe hes smarter than I gave him credit for."
"Funny, Buck! Im serious, I really like him."
"I know you do, kid. Maybe thats part of the reason I dont like him so much," Buck surprised them both by saying.
"Buck hes just a really interesting man, I wish you would give him a chance. I bet he would grow on you too, if you did."
"Buck come on! Hes funny, and smart, and really interesting. Hes been to all sorts of places and done just about everything there is that can be done from the back of a horse."
"Hes old, JD. Hes had lots of time to do everything and be everywhere!"
"Thats just it, Buck. He is old, and I dont think he should have to go back to prison. And I sure hate being the one who has to take him there!" JD dropped Sevens foot to the floor and stood up to stretch out his aching back. "I dont know how to help him, or how to get out of taking him back to that place."
"This is our job, JD. No one said it would be easy. I hope you aint thinking of quitting us!" Buck pushed away from his gelding as the thought suddenly hit him.
"Nah, I cant quit. Whod look out for you, if I did that?" JDs cheek dimpled as his face broke out in a smile. "I just hate this part "
"Boys!" Chris suddenly cut in from the liverys front entrance.
"Howdy Chris," Buck and JD said in unison, even though they realized from his expression, Chris was not in the mood for pleasantries. He was looking even angrier than he had at the jailhouse!
JD quickly picked up Sevens foot again, hoping Chriss anger was not still directed at him.
"Morning, Chris. Nice day for a ride," Buck said pleasantly anyway. The livery echoed with Chriss silence.
"Chris ?" Buck asked questioningly.
"I got Vin and JD taking Hopkins back. It doesnt take three men to get one old man from here to there, Buck!" Chris walked over to Bucks gear and pulled away his bulging saddlebags. "I dont need you riding off and leaving me or the town shorthanded!"
A surprised JD threw Buck a quick glance from under his horse, but he didnt say anything as his older friends look told him to stay out of it.
"Chris I aint sure I savvy right what it is youre trying to tell me?" Buck asked in a low voice.
JD struggled to control his snicker as Buck tried to stall for more time to try and outwit Chris about going along with Vin and JD.
"Shut up, JD!" Both men snapped in unison to their youngest.
Snorting, JD placed the horseshoe against the bottom of Sevens foot, and pulling the nails out one at a time from between his lips, started to tap them into the hoof.
"I figured you and Josiah could keep the search up, riding northeast. While Vin, the kid, and me could keep a lookout while we ride northwest to the prison. With me along, Vins freed up to keep trackin and I can help JD watch over the prisoner," Buck smiled to himself at his quick, perfectly thought up plan.
"Hes nearly seventy years old, Buck. How much watching do you really think hes going to need?" Chris asked. "Fine, Im tired of fighting with you all. If you want to spend a bunch of nights out on the trail in this weather, be my guest. I dont imagine Miss Sally will miss you too badly either, she seems quite happy to spend time with Ezra."
"Hey hey! Thats hitting below the belt, pard! She just feels bad for bopping him in the nose, dont you be trying to make trouble where there isnt any, thats not the best way to influence your friends! Besides, in case you aint noticed, these two pups are both tripping over themselves walking around coughing and sneezing. Someone healthy has to tag along to make sure they dont sneeze themselves right off the trail, and end up drinking tequila down in Mexico with the senoritas, for medicinal purposes only, of course."
"Theyre getting sick? Why didnt they say something to me wait a minute! What the hell are you trying to pull on me, Buck? The only thing around here sick is me. Im sick of this rotten job and this lousy weather, and of my men arguing with me every time I turn around!" With a disgusted grunt, Chris turned from Buck. "God Buck, even JD is making more sense than you today "
"Hey !" JD spit out between nails.
"I think weve both just been insulted, kid!" Buck said indignantly.
Chris shot them both a look of disgust and headed out of the barn, "When youre done with your horse, JD, get Mud ready. You shouldve been heading out of town an hour ago."
+ + + + + + +
"Chris wait up a sec!" Buck rushed from the livery and pulled Chris to the side of the building before he had a chance to meet back up with Vin, Josiah and their prisoner.
"I know I am leaving you in a bit of a lurch here." Buck raised his open palm up in surrender and started to speak before Chris could cut him off. "Just give me second to explain. I know Vin, and heck even JD, can handle that old man just fine by themselves, and there aint none of us better on the trail than ol Vin, but !"
"But what, Buck?" Chris looked over to where Hopkins stood with his hands chained, and then with a tired sigh turned back to face Buck. "Im getting a might cranky, and I still have to put in another full day in the saddle. The Judge is taking heat because we let four murderers slip through our fingers, and hes passing it along to me! They could still be holed up somewhere around here, and until they show their ugly mugs somewhere else were stuck searching for them. Now to top it off, youre about to make me a man short. So just what do you think you can tell me, that will make my job get any easier?"
"Ive been out there, riding by your side for the last four days so I know nothing I say will make your job any easier! But, damn it, Chris I just got this gut feeling I gotta go with them. I dont know why, I just do."
"You think those convicts are going to come looking for Hopkins?"
"I dont know what I think. Maybe. I dunno, I just feel I have to go!"
"Fine, papa bear, go with them!"
"This has nothing to do with looking out for them "
"I said fine Buck. Go hit the trail. Just make sure you keep your eyes open."
"No hard feelings!"
"God, Buck! Just saddle up and get the hell out of here would you. You got your way. You arent helping to improve my mood by standing out here jawing at me!"
"Youre making me feel guilty here. Im getting pulled in all sorts of directions and I just want to do whats right by all of you "
"Buck, your timing is a mite inconvenient, but well manage somehow to get by without you."
"We should be back in about a week and a half "
"Not if you dont get your butts out of here in the first place."
"I guess all that is left to say then is bye!"
"Buck, if you aint the most exasperating man I know. Suddenly a week without you under foot doesnt seem so bad!"
+ + + + + + +
Buck stood outside the livery dressed in his heaviest woolen brown pants and coat, holding the reins to his horse and Vins. "Come on JD, strap on your spurs! Were burning light!"
"That boy is as slow as molasses running uphill in January!" Buck said to Vin as he handed the sharpshooter Pesos reins.
"Id been done sooner if you had helped, Buck." JD exited the livery wearing a faded blue wool shirt under a heavy wool coat and deer-hide chaps for warmth. An eager Seven trailed behind him, followed by a dull, mouse colored, sway-backed gelding with swollen fetlocks and bog spavins. His long, droopy ears would make a mules look short and perky, and he had to be near thirty if he was a day. But his natural running walk covered the ground, and made him a smooth ride to sit on for hours.
Rusty ran his experienced eye over the horse that he was to ride back to the prison.
"Yosemite calls him Mud. He aint much to look at, but hell pack you for as far as you have to go," Josiah said as he took the reins from JD, and brought the old horse over to Rusty.
"Hell do just fine," Rusty said with an affectionate twinkle in his eye, as the horse poked him in the stomach with his muzzle, and then with Josiahs help he put a stiff leg in the stirrup and slapped down in the saddle. "We old-timers have to stick together, dont we fella?"
The old cowboy sat with his chained hands resting on the saddle horn in front of him, and thought how good it felt having a horse under him. He blinked a few times and tilted his head down so his hat covered his face as he felt tears sting the back of his eyes. If he wasnt careful he was going to start crying like a baby in front of all these men hell of a thing for a grown man to have happen.
"Rusty you okay?" JDs soft voice penetrated his private agony. "Im so sorry we got to take you back to prison. Ive tried everything I can, but the Judge says we got to return you. I dont know what else to do, Im just really sorry!"
"Oh JD none of this is your doing, son! I just seemed to have run out of luck the last ten years, and I surely dont hold any blame on you for doing your job. But sitting here on this fine old horse well, youre a softhearted kid talking to an ornery old man whos just feeling a mite sentimental this morning."
"Alright, saddle up the rest of you cowpokes," Buck shouted through the early morning calm to interrupt the conversation his young friend was having with the old man. Putting a foot into a stirrup, he stepped aboard his gray. "Were heading out!"
JD grabbed his trailing reins, looped them over his horses neck, and hopped a toe into the stirrup. Josiah handed him Muds lead-shank, and with his skittish gelding dancing sideways under him, JD headed them down the main street of town. By the time he was in front of the jail, the rest of the men had caught up to him.
"Ezra " Chris hollered to the gambler, who was now standing in the jail doorway, "See that you get the rest of the paperwork done thats been piling up in the office before I get back tonight."
"Ha ha, Ezra!" Buck laughed as he rode by, "I told ya, ya should have faked a head injury to go along with the hurt knee. Then you wouldnt have to do any work for Chris!"
"Dont help, Buck," Chris muttered under his breath.
"You just concentrate on staying aboard your mount, Mr. Wilmington! Ill worry about getting my work done while you are away," Ezra said with his smooth southern drawl, and waved a hand at the departing men.
"Chris ?" JD switched the hand he had Muds lead-shank in so he get up beside Chris on his left. "Are you sure we have to do this? Cant you try talking to the Judge again "
Chris turned with an exasperated glare upon the youngest peacekeeper. JD wilted a little under the look and allowed his horse to drop back.
"That was a wise choice, son," Rusty said from behind him, "You think someone is faster with his colts than you, smile big and walk away. You can look tough again once youre out of his sight!"
"One day I will win an argument with Chris," JD answered over his shoulder.
"But not today! Let it go, kid." Vin said riding up beside him, "Chriss is just doing what hes told to do from Judge Travis. No one asked him if he liked it."
"Well boys, this is where we part company," Chris said pulling his black gelding to a halt at the edge of town. "Youll hit a couple of two-horse towns between here and there, but mostly I doubt you will find anything except trees, snowballs, and hungry animals."
"And hey you boys behave yourselves and mind your manners, you hear!" Chris added as the four other men took the left fork of the road and rode away from him and Josiah. "No fighting, or arguing, and no bragging on each other! You understand me?"
"Yes papa!" Buck and Vin called out in unison, making JD laugh.
"Clear as rainwater, pard!" Buck added.
"And no carousing and hellraisin Buck!" Chris hollered at their backs before the fog swallowed them up. "Just cause I aint watching over you for awhile, you best remember you are all still on Judge Traviss payroll!"
From out of the fog came whooping and hollering. Chris sat motionless on his horse, staring at the sky with a resigned look on his face until the sound disappeared off into the distance, and then wondering what he had just done turning those three loose, he turned and followed Josiah down the other fork in the road.
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