The four men watched a smoldering Buck pace from the jail to the edge of the boardwalk then back to the jail. Every few strides he would stop and pull his watch out of his breast pocket, look at it, then resume his pacing. Finally the infuriated man stepped off the walkway and made his way across the street, kicking up a small dust storm in his wake.
"Two hours late...where the hell is he? Miss June told me if I was late for one more date, she was through with me!"
"I would hazard a guess your young counterpart is not yet where he should be." Ezra said as he, Chris, Vin and Josiah sat outside the saloon under the covered porch, and enjoyed the late afternoon shade.
"He was supposed to take over for me two hours ago. So, one of you kind souls going to take pity on me and help keep this romance alive?" Buck flashed his eyebrows up and down and looked expectantly at his friends.
"Sorry Buck, he stiffed me yesterday. Said he would help patch a hole in the church roof, but he lost track of time while out riding; it ended up taking me twice as long to get it fixed as it should have. It's hot again today and I'm not feeling in a real giving spirit just yet." Josiah replied.
"I have a game about to start, so my evening is already booked, sorry but I'm also out." Ezra gave his head a negative shake. "Not to mention his being late to relieve me two nights ago; I missed a very profitable game while sitting over at the jailhouse."
"I'm already down for the night watch, sides JD was supposed to meet me at Nettie's to build a chicken coop, but I guess I got stood up too cause of his dang horse." Vin rose to his feet and headed into the saloon. "I'm going to get a bite to eat then try and catch a nap."
"Don't bother asking me partner, you'll be on to your next romance before the bloom of this one even has a chance to wilt!" Chris closed his eyes and settled back deeper into his chair.
"So, you've all noticed the distinct shift in our young colleague interests lately as well?" Ezra posed the question to others.
"You mean his being consistently late, forgetful, or just plain absent from most of our required activities!" Josiah commented.
"Haven't noticed!" Josiah deadpanned.
"If he was chasing some purty, young skirt wearing lady around I could understand his momentary lacks of judgment, but his mind's all wrapped around a horse for god sake! All I can say is he better be lying on the ground somewhere dying, because if he ain't already he will be when I'm through with him...Hey Nathan!" Buck yelled out as Nathan rode by them. "Can I interest you in trading places with me for a while?"
"Can't Buck, I'm needed out at the Scott's place." Nathan pulled up in front of Chris and Buck. "Their boy had a tree fall on him and break his leg. Apparently they sent word they needed me three hours ago; JD was supposed to come get me, but I ain't seen him all day. Their other son just came to see what was takin' me so long. Going to have me some words with that boy when I get back." Nathan spun his horse around and cantered out of town.
"Another disgruntled member of our fellowship rides away. Our Mr. Dunne sure developed a talent for agitating just about everyone around him lately." Remarked Ezra.
"Now I have company...usually he just does that to me." Chris said voicing his opinion on JD's behavior. "My temper's a little worn and plenty short with him right now."
"I tell you Chris since he got to riding that damn horse, that boy's head has been in a cloud. I'd say it's time we rain down on him!"
+ + + + + + +
JD stripped his gear off Seven, ran a quick brush over him then headed off to the livery tack room with his saddle as fast as his legs would carry him. Buck was going to kill him; he was nearly four hours late for his turn at the jail, but his day just wasn't going as planned. Before leaving the livery Yosemite told JD that Nathan had left earlier on his horse, said he had to go doctor some kid who's leg had been hurt. JD was relieved to hear Nathan had gotten the message somehow after all.
JD high-tailed it towards the jail, where he could see Buck and Chris sitting outside on the porch waiting for him, a livid expression on Buck's face and a not much friendlier one on Chris's. JD didn't stop when he hit the boardwalk; he ran right past both men into the jail and slammed the door shut. Chris and Buck leapt to their feet to follow, but as they got to the door they heard a board slid into place on the inside.
Buck grabbed the door handle and gave it a shake. "JD open this damn door right now!"
"I'm sorry I'm late Buck, but I'm here now...so you can go!"
"JD open this door or Chris and I will break it down, and I'm not jokin!" Buck bellowed back, ignoring all the curious stares coming their way from the town folks.
"Forget it Buck. I ain't coming out until you cool off some!"
"Then you are going to spend the rest of your life in there kid...it's hot in the summer with these doors locked and even colder in the winter with no wood to burn." Buck was really inflamed now.
"JD stop this nonsense now and open the door. I want to talk to you and I am not standing out on the street yelling to do it!" Chris's quiet voice broached no room for an argument; the two men stepped back as they heard the board being pulled back and the door slowly opened to reveal JD.
JD yelped and tried to close the door on Buck's arm, as Buck reached into the doorway to grab him. Pushing his weight on the door it flew open sending JD scrambling back against the desk.
"Buck!" Chris laid a hand against Buck's chest. "JD we have to talk about your newly developed undependability."
+ + + + + + +
JD sat at the table by himself a forlorn look on his face, he hadn't meant for everyone to be mad at him when the day started. He had taken Seven out for a run, and then while he was brushing Windy a boy of about ten ran past the corral in a big hurry. JD called out to him as the kid looked really upset; he told JD his brother had a tree fall on him, hurting his leg real bad, and that he had been sent to get Nathan. JD told the little boy he would get Nathan and then ride out to their farm.
JD headed to the clinic, but when he got there found it empty. He was just heading to the saloon to look when Mary Travis came out of the Clarion and told him Nathan had been called out of town in the opposite direction, but she wasn't sure as to where.
JD ran back to the livery and quickly threw his tack back on Seven and went off searching. At the first farm he came to they hadn't seen Nathan, but asked since JD was there would he mind giving the farmer a hand to fix a fence his bull had knocked over. JD tried to explain he had an emergency, but the farmer begged him to help, as he couldn't fix the fence and keep the bull from escaping out at the same time.
JD finally got back on the road when he heard some kids screaming; turning off the road he followed a path down to a small pond. Out on the middle of the pond sat two little boys on a rotting raft, tearfully screaming for help. JD stopped long enough to tie up Seven, throw off his boots and coat before diving in to pull the raft to the shore. Giving the boys heck for going on the raft in the first place, he sent them off in the direction of their homes, and then ran back to retrieve his horse.
A few people said they saw Nathan go by during the morning, but no one knew for sure just where he had been going. JD finally completed a huge loop riding all over the country before returning to Four Corners, three hours late for his shift and still no Nathan. Chris had been really choked at him, even called him undependable. JD had to admit since he had two horses going he had been late for his share of the workload often, but today he had a legitimate reason, just no one wanted to hear it. Nathan had even given him hell when he returned from the Scott's farm. Told him next time to leave a note, said he could have been out to the little boy an hour and half sooner if JD had. JD sat shame faced through Nathan's lecture; he had never made Nathan mad before and had felt very abashed. The other six lawmen were now letting him wallow in some humble pie this evening, by basically ignoring him.
JD had been so wrapped up in his own little world of self- inflicted misery he never heard the noise level go up around him until the gun blast went off. JD went to slap his guns out of his holster when he remembered he had taken it off earlier in his room and with all that was going on in his mind he had forgot to put it back on. Keeping low he ducked down at the end of the bar, so not to catch any flying lead while Chris and the others worked at breaking up the fight between two drunk cowboys, suddenly fists started to fly and in seconds the whole saloon broke out in a huge brawl. JD sprang out from the end of the bar and started throwing roundhouse punches; after the day he had it felt good to blow off steam, even if that meant taking someone's knuckles across his face.
+ + + + + + +
After order had been restored the two offending cowboys were hauled off to sober up at the jail. The saloon looked like a war zone; with chairs broken, tables overturned, and the mirror behind the bar now lay in shrouds of glass slivers on the dirt floor. Two cowboys were thrown through the big plate glass window at the front of the saloon and were now bleeding all over the street. Chris made everyone else in the fight empty their pockets to pay restitution to the saloon owner for damages done.
Judge Cooper and his son pulled into town as the fight was ending. Cooper smiled...these men were almost as good as gone!
+ + + + + + +
Josiah pushed open the glass doors to the restaurant and searched for his friends in the breakfast crowd. Spotting Vin and Chris hiding in the corner he made his way to their table. Nathan was still at the clinic patching up last nights casualties and Ezra seldom made an appearance before lunch was served.
"You need to have a look at this Chris, it came in on the early morning stage. Who's watching the jail now?" Josiah handed Chris the latest wanted posters.
"JD pulled night shift to help make up for yesterday. Well, would you look at that; gentleman we pulled off a hell of a coup last night without even trying. Either of you even heard of this guy?" Chris asked as he handed the poster to Vin. It was the picture of one of the cowboys involved in last nights fight.
"Slim Perth. I never heard of him...wanted in three states for murder. What's a guy who has an $800.00 bounty on his head, doing starting bar room brawls? That kind of cash on your head ya usually avoid attracting attention to yourself."
"Josiah, you head over to the telegraph office and send a message to Judge Travis, tell him we are holding Perth here, then meet us back at the jail."
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Vin entered the jail to find Buck cleaning out the cells. "Mornin' gents, what brings you out so early?" He asked cheerfully.
"Buck it's after nine...ain't been early for awhile. Where are the prisoners from last night?" Chris asked, a sinking feeling building in the pit of his stomach.
"I don't think I would call them prisoners Chris, they were just some rowdy, drunk cowboys in here sobering up."
"Where are they Buck?"
"JD let them go this morning, but don't worry he got all their money to help cover damages from last night."
"Son of a...where is he?" Chris asked in a deadly tone
"He's gone to look after his horses then catch some shut eye, what the heck you so mad about, even I'm not mad anymore? Kid went to Miss June and told her why I was late for our date and she has forgiven all!"
Chris slammed out of the jail and headed down the path to the corral. "JD!!!" he hollered.
Buck looked at Vin in total confusion. "What's going on, we always let the drunks go in the morning...who peed in his porridge this morning?"
"That one fella is wanted for murder, the poster just came in on him this morning. Ain't JD's fault ya let him go, but we better make sure Chris don't do something he's going to regret!" Vin grabbed Bucks sleeve and pulled him out through the jail door.
JD flinched as he heard Chris bellow out his name. What the heck had he done wrong now?
Chris found him sitting on a bale of hay beside the corral, braiding up a rope, with a big orange tomcat curled up in his lap. JD looked at the leader, a quizzical expression on his face.
"Damn it JD...you are in such a hurry to get back to this bloody horse, you don't stop and think for even a second. Do you have any idea how much trouble you have just caused us?...Well do you?"
JD's mouth moved, but no sound came out.
"Ease off Chris...this ain't the kid's fault. If he hadn't let them go, when I came to replace him I would have. We had no way of knowing that guy's wanted. Taking it out on JD isn't going to help and you know it!" Buck placed a hand on Chris's chest, positioning himself between the two.
Chris looked away from the two of them towards Vin. Vin gave a slight shrug of agreement. Chris drew in a long breath of air through his nose, then shook Buck's hand off. "Buck, Vin get ready to leave. How big a head start does he have on us JD?"
"I released them at eight o'clock like we always do." JD finally found his voice. "I'll get the horses tacked up." JD jumped off the hay, dropping his rope on the ground and scaring the cat.
"You can get the horses ready, but you ain't coming with us."
"But why? I let him out. I didn't know he was wanted, but I guess I'm responsible for letting him go."
"I said you aren't coming. I'm sorry I yelled at you, but I still need men in town and this time you are one of them!"
"Chris...bad news!" Josiah came puffing up the path to join them. "This message was at the telegraph office when I got there, Judge Travis had a heart attack yesterday, it say's he's going to make it, but till further notice Judge Cooper is in charge out here."
"That's just great...we better catch up with this guy before Cooper catches wind of his escape, we don't need to give him any more ammo against us then he already has. I'll go tell Mary the news, I'm sure she will want to make plans to go see the Judge herself."
A downcast JD stood on the steps in front of the jail, with Nathan and watched his friends ride away.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was not having fun, nor were any of the other men on this search party. Sweat dripped down his face from under his hat, as the sun's midday rays beat down on him. They moved slowly across the rocky desolate terrain that hadn't seen rain since Noah. They had been riding about ninety minutes when hot desert winds started blowing, kicking up sand and covering any tracks. Vin was having a heck of a time keeping on the trail, frequently stopping to check rocks that looked to have been overturned or at branches broken off water starved mesquite.
"It's hotter and dustier than the hub's of hell out here!" Buck complained as he tied his bandana over his face. "And every time I open my canteen to get a drink more dust fills in it."
"Hey this ain't so bad Bucklin, in Texas I've had to lick filthy water out of a hoof print just to stay alive and been glad of it." Vin grinned over at the masked man.
"Oh...oh, pretty soon they are going to start swapping the fish that got away stories Chris, I think for our own sanity we should pick the pace up." Josiah said urging his horse to walk on faster.
The men soon found themselves on an old cattle trail winding up into a twisting coulee with steep walls and numerous rock formations. In this land a single man could hide from view and never be found, or what was making Chris increasingly uneasy; pick them off one at a time if he had any talent with a long gun.
"Buck, you and Josiah stay on the south side of the gorge, Vin and I will stay on the north. Keep your eye's and ears open." Chris reined his horse over beside Vin. "Stick close to the walls and in the shadow's as much as you can. You find anymore tracks?"
"Even with no wind blowing through here, I can't found nothing on this landscape to tell me where he is. Lets get to the other end, I feel safer out in the open."
The men spread out, scanning the walls above them for any movement, and watching the each other's back. Buck sighed a breath of relief as he and Josiah came to the end of the coulee and emerged back out into the open. Even with the blowing sand it was easier to see all around them. Chris and Vin made it out on the other side and cut across to join up.
The gunshot came out of a small grove of trees in front of them; Vin was thrown out of his saddle, and onto the hard gravel. Grunting, he pulled himself towards a large boulder for cover, scratching his way across the ground, leaving a thin line of blood behind him. Buck and Josiah baled off their mounts and dived behind some rocks, while throwing down cover fire for Vin. They could hear the young tracker cry out in pain as he struggled towards safety. Chris jumped off his horse, keeping Pony between himself and the shooter and made his way to Vin. Letting go of his horse's reins he grabbed Vin under his arms and dragged him behind the boulder.
"God Chris, ya trying to finish off what this guy started?" Vin hissed through clenched teeth as his leg bounced on the hard ground.
"Stay down, I know it hurts." Chris ripped off his bandana and wrapped it around Vin's bleeding leg.
Vin screamed out as soon as Chris moved his leg. "Damn, that scrawny son of a gun broke my knee. That dirty dog, even a rattlesnake will warn ya before he strikes!" Vin banged his fist against the ground, almost overwhelmed by the pain.
"Vin don't move, you hear me. Just stay right here, I'm going to try getting behind him." Chris gestured to Buck and Josiah he was going to climb around the boulders, and try getting to the shooter from a different angle.
Buck and Josiah again threw down more cover fire. For once the black clothing Chris wore came in handy as he blended in the shadows of the rock.
"Perth...throw down your weapons and this will go a whole lot easier on ya!" Buck yelled out to distract the gunman.
"Ya mean it will go a lot easier on you. Thanks, but no thanks!" A volley of bullets ricocheted off the rocks around them, one coming so close to Buck it threw embankment dirt into his mouth and nose. Buck and Josiah returned shot for shot before noticing an additional shotgun going off.
Vin, ignoring the agony in his knee drew himself upright and placed his rifle on the boulder to steady his sights. "Don't move!" Chris tells him. "In a pig's eye, this jerk shot me in the leg...think I'll just return the favor!"
The gunman suddenly noticed Chris making his way across the rocks. He brought the rifle up to his shoulder and drew a bead on Chris's head when the blast hit him, slamming him against a tree, then to the ground. Chris whipped around to see which of his men made the shot, just in time to see Vin and his mare's leg disappear behind the boulder again.
"Damn it Tanner, I'm going to have your ass for that, I told ya to stay put!" Chris hollered as he cautiously made his way to where Perth lay.
"He still alive?" Buck asked appearing at Chris's side.
"Yeah, looks like a shoulder wound. Good...you could get to hang yet Perth."
+ + + + + + +
The ride back to Four Corners was hell on them all, but especially Vin. The pain in his leg became unbearable as he was bounced and jostled on the make shift travois Josiah had fashioned together. Chris kept an anxious watch on him, his guts churning at each groan of agony that escaped his friend's lips. A sheen of perspiration covered Vin's face as he rolled his head back and forth, grinding his teeth. His hands kept clenching and unclenching into fists as he fought down the spasm's ripping through his leg.
"Hey...I have to rest, I've been shot ya know, it's killing me!" Perth whined from the back of his horse, a crude bandage wrapped around his chest and shoulder.
Chris whipped his horse around in a fury to come up beside the prisoner and grabbed him by the back of his neck, pulling him inches from Chris's face. "The only way you will be resting here is if I kill you now!...I hear as much as a peep out of you from now to Four Corners and I promise you that will happen!" Chris released the man's neck with a shove that almost had him go off his horse on the other side.
+ + + + + + +
JD stepped off the boardwalk in front of the jail when he saw Josiah canter into town and head straight for Nathan's. "He ain't there, he went to sit with old widow Stine's this evening...what's wrong, someone get hurt?" JD asked in a rush.
"Vin took a bullet in the leg, Chris and Buck are behind me with him." Josiah stepped off his chestnut and handed the reins to JD. "Take my horse and go get Nathan, I'll help get Vin inside."
By the time JD got back to the clinic with Nathan, the horses belonging to the other men were tied to the hitching post. Nathan leaped off from behind JD and ran into the clinic. JD looked at the weary horses and knowing he would just be in the way here, he untied them and led them to the livery stable to be put away.
It was a good hour before JD made his way back to the clinic. Taking off his hat he quietly entered the room. Vin lay on one bed with Nathan leaning over his leg, still trying to remove the bullet before he could work on the break. JD could hear soft moans emulating from his close friend and Chris's concerned voice as he helped Vin work through the pain. On the other bed Perth laid with his hands tied to the bed frame as Josiah and Buck cleaned up his wound. Ezra sat by the window and like JD just tried to remain out of the way.
"I got the bullet out, just going to stitch this up, then I'll see about the break. I'm sorry it's hurting so bad Vin, hang in with me." Nathan rested a bloody hand on Vin's chest and gently gave him a pat.
"Anything I can do to help?" JD's quietly asked.
Chris's head snapped up from where he sat beside Vin's bed to focus in on JD. With a growl he launched himself of the chair. JD's eye's flashed wide and he managed a step back before Chris got him by the front of his shirt and shoved him into a corner.
"You see what you're not paying attention caused?" Chris shouted as he slammed JD's back and head against the wall. "Out riding all over the place instead of paying attention to your job...now Vin's paying the price!"
"I didn't...I don't...I!" JD stammered.
"Chris, slack up your hold on the kids shirt...we went over this earlier today. JD had no way of knowing that guy was wanted for murder. You were the one who broke up the fight last night and you didn't know. How was the kid supposed to. Take your anger someplace else, cause I'm not letting you dump it on JD!" Buck stood with his shoulder shoved in between them.
Chris looked down at the youth he held against the wall. JD's eye's were wide and startled, his breathing rapid as he wrapped his smaller hands around Chris's wrists in an attempt to loosen them off. Chris opened his fingers to release the folds of shirt, then tapped JD on the chest with his fingertips.
"I'm sorry JD, I had no right or cause to take this out on you, just seeing Vin hurting so bad...but that's no excuse, I just felt I had to take it out on someone!"
JD nodded his head, the distraught look slowly fading from his eyes as the anger receded from Chris.
Ezra flashed JD a glint of encouragement and Chris a slight look of distain, then pointed with his head to the window seat beside him where he made room for the kid to sit down. It was going to be a long night, Ezra figured they might as well be comfortable.
+ + + + + + +
Early morning dawn found the two injured men resting in a comfortable drug induced slumber. During the night with the exception of Chris, the others left to catch some sleep, returning to take turns watching over the prisoner. Chris stretched to loosen the knots in his back and looked around the clinic for something to rinse his foul tasting mouth out with. Buck slept beside the prisoner in a very uncomfortable looking chair, snoring lightly. Chris shook his head, nice to know Buck was on top of the job. Lucky for them all, Perth was unconscious and not requiring a lot of watching yet.
Soft rapping on the door drew Chris attention away from Buck. The door opened and JD stuck his head in. "Chris, Judge Cooper is down at the jail and he wants to talk to you right now."
"He's the last person I want to see right now...tell him I'll be there in a bit!"
"He said right now Chris, I told him Vin got hurt and you've been sitting up all night, but he didn't care. He said now!" JD looked apologetic.
"Don't worry about it JD, I can barely deal with the guy, I don't expect you to...let's go see what the man wants."
+ + + + + + +
"You let a murderer in your custody get away!"
"With all due respect Judge, no one know we had a felon in our custody, he didn't exactly introduce himself that way to us." Chris argued back. "Besides we got him back, you just want to make a mountain out of a mole hill."
"I don't call two men requiring the removal of lead to be a mole hill...I do call it a mountain!. If this had been done right in the first place by legitimate lawmen, this wouldn't have happened; this job should be handled by men who are trained to tell the difference between criminals and rowdy cowpunchers. With Travis out of commission indefinitely I can have you all removed from your duties here, but I am willing to give you one last chance to prove to me you really want this job."
"And how is that?"
"A race...from here to Santa Fe...a horse race!"
"A race? Ya lost me somewhere along the trail...we were hired to protect the people of Four Corners, how the hell do you think some race will prove anything?"
JD nearly jumped out of his drawers when Buck grabbed him from behind, he had had his ear up listening against the back window of the jail. "Buck you trying to get yourself shot...don't do that!"
"Yeah ya got me worried kid...what's going on, Josiah said Cooper showed up to talk to Chris?"
"He said with Judge Travis sick he can fire us all Buck, but he's going to give us a chance in some horse race. It don't make any sense to me, and with you yappin' at me I missed the last of it...oh, come on they're going out the front door."
Chris threw Buck and JD a dirty look as they appeared nonchalantly from the back alley that ran beside the jail. "Go get the rest of the men and meet me at the saloon." Chris said to Buck, with a very unimpressed expression.
"You going to go head to head with the judge...lock horn to horn so to speak?"
"Just go Buck...you'll have to wait to hear at the saloon with the rest of us."
+ + + + + + +
"Cooper is letting us have one more chance to stay employed in this community by challenging us to a horse race from here to Santa Fe and then back. The governor for the territory will be there for the next two weeks before he goes off campaigning, so we're to get some papers signed by him then return them back here to the judge. This all makes perfect sense to him, I'm just the messenger."
"That's an eight, or maybe even a ten day ride. I don't get what a race is going to prove except wear us out and make the legs on our horses shorter...Cooper must be getting feeble- minded Chris." Buck set his beer mug down on the table with an angry bang, splattering alcohol all over the front of Ezra.
"Nice shot Buck!"
"You think I am feeble-minded Mr. Wilmington?" Cooper immerged from the other side of the crowded bar, just catching the last of Buck's statement. "You all tell me you are the right men for the job here...you all say you want to stay in Four Corners and continue to act like guardian angels, but the first time I set a challenge before you, you whine."
"I do not whine...oh, I will have a glass of wine when entertaining the fairer sex, but..."
"I don't whine...Chris tell him I don't whine!"
"Fine...he don't whine!"
"That was not very sincere..."
"Mr. Wilmington is this conversation going anywhere?" Cooper hissed.
"Yep...you already challenged us once. JD accepted the challenge and can now go ride that challenge any time he wants...and that makes you see red!"
"That was personal...this is a professional decision. If you don't think you are men enough, just ride away. I can have replacements here before you get fifty miles from town!"
"Well if we have to ride fifty miles to get away from Four Corners, we might as well go all the way to Santa Fe."
Cooper shot Buck another scathing glare.
"Way to go Buck...and you tell me I'm the one with the big mouth!" JD gloated and received a kick in the shins for the effort.
"We can't all be gone that long, plus I have a wounded man and a prisoner to guard here." Chris interjected before his men pissed Cooper off even more.
"That's okay. The rules are simple so even your men should be able to understand them. There will two of you going from here, my son and one of my ranch hands will be the other participants in this race. Tomorrow morning you will all leave together at six a.m. The first ones back who hand me signed papers from the governor, wins. I will then make my final decision on whether I push for your resignation's or we leave things status quo." Cooper rose to his feet, placed his shot glass on the table and made his way to the batwing doors.
"Well, I wish Vin was able to ride, but he isn't so I guess you better get lots of rest and no wine tonight Buck, we have a long ride in front of us." Chris rose from his chair to start getting ready.
Cooper, with his hands on the batwing doors spoke over his shoulder. "Oh...I missed mentioning the other part. I've decided it will be you going, Mr. Larabee...and the kid with my old horse, and since he can as Mr. Wilmington pointed out 'ride my challenge anytime he wants' for this race...he will!"