"Rise and shine sleepy head!" Chris shook the body lying on the floor with his foot.
"Five more minutes...then I'll get up!" Came a sleepy murmur.
"Don't make me come down there JD...let's go. I've smelt Betty's cooking for half an hour already, so move it!"
Chris finished buttoning his shirt and pulling on his boots as a rumpled JD appeared from under his bedroll and tried finding the clothes he had removed for bed last night in the dark room.
"What time is it?"
"Don't know for sure. It is still dark out and I haven't heard the rooster crowing yet."
"That means we should still be sleeping."
"You want to win this race or not?"
"Can I think on it in bed?"
+ + + + + + +
Spence and Cooper didn't look like they got any more sleep out in the barn then JD had, as they joined the rest for breakfast.
"When do you think you will back this way Chris?" Jeb asked as he nursed his second cup of coffee.
"Not sure...four nights maybe?"
"Betty and I promised another couple we would go to Albuquerque with them for a few days, so chances are we'll miss each other, but you know were the key is, make yourselves at home."
"Ah heck...I'll miss not seeing ya." JD was surprised at the disappointment he felt.
"You've corrupted another one Betty...he'll never look at food again with out wishing it was you cooking it."
Betty and JD exchanged smiles knowing that was only part of it.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had fed the two horses before breakfast so now they just had to saddle up. JD entered the barn and fumbled around till he got the lantern lit so he could see. The sounds of contented chewing reached his ears and the barn's warmth from the four horses body heat held back the early morning chill. The smells of sweet hay and horses permeated the barn's wooden floor and walls.
JD had spotted a sheepskin in the tack room and after some hot and heavy negotiations, managed to buy it to use as a saddle pad and cinch cover. He was still concerned about Windy getting sores from the saddle. JD handed the money over to Jed, who in turn quietly passed it back to Chris to return to JD at a later date.
Betty hugged the two men as though she would never see them again, this time JD really hugged back. She made enough food for all four men to eat for the next couple of days, then she and Jeb stood on their porch, arms around each other and watched the receding backs of horses and riders.
+ + + + + + +
The four rode together without speaking for about a mile then Chris and JD turned off and made their way back up into the hills. The horses felt refreshed and strong after yesterday's hard ride, but JD kept finding himself yawning as the dark sky gave way to the morning light. The landscape was getting dryer and the ground more hard packed as they continued along, and the temperature rose steadily as the day progressed.
By noon both men's stomachs were grumbling and their mouths were watering at the thought of the lunch Betty had packed them. JD unsaddled their mounts and gathered up a few armfuls of swamp grass for them to eat while Chris set out the food.
With their stomachs full of beef sandwiches and the warm rays beating down on them, they fought the pull of sleep.
Chris jerked awake when he felt a shadow cross his body and heard the uneasy snorting of Windy. Standing above him was a foul smelling bull of a man. An old brown hat covered hair so greasy Chris couldn't even fathom a guess as to what color it was. Two others stood behind him, each as dirty as the next, and the forth was squatting down beside JD.
Chris cursed at himself for being so lax, but they had been tired and had seen no sign of anyone else on the trail since splitting up with Cooper, not even tracks.
"Ahh!" JD suddenly woke and bolted upright, but the man beside him put a hand on his chest and pushed him hard back to the ground.
"Well looky what we have here boy's...two sleeping beauties!"
"If your looking for money, I hate to disappoint you but you won't find much on us." Chris said in a frosty voice.
"We'll take all's ya got and them mustangs too!" The man squatting over JD spoke exposing rotting yellow teeth.
JD turned his head away from the man's rank odor; here was definitely a fella you wanted to meet on the upwind side.
At JD's action the man grabbed him up off the ground by his shirt and buried a fist into his gut. "Ya stunted piece of dog droppings, ya ain't any better then me boy!" JD doubled over grasping to catch his breath.
Chris lunged up to help JD, but stopped as three guns were pointed at him.
"I strongly recommend you men ride out of here right now!" Chris backed off, moving his hands away from his holster, but let his coat fall open to reveal his guns.
Nervously the three dirty men looked closer at Chris. The cold steel glare in his eyes and the confident ease with which he wore his guns around his waist, told them he was no ordinary cowhand.
"If I was you, I would shut up!" The man beside JD said to Chris, the only one seemingly not intimidated by the gunslinger's daunting presence.
"If you were Chris, you would be a whole lot better looking!" JD said straightening up with an arm still pressed against his midriff.
As a snake strikes, a hand shot out, backhanding JD across the face. JD was nearly lifted off his feet by the blow. Shaking the cobwebs out of his brain he opened and closed his jaw to make sure it still functioned, then wiped the blood from his lip with the back of his hand.
"Boone...stop hitting him! Let's just git them ponies and git out of here!" One of the men holding a gun on Chris said in a panicky voice as Chris stared daggers through his heart.
The one named Boone pulled JD to him and with one hand undid the kid's holster, and threw it into some brushes, then shoved JD to his knee's. "You...real slow take that there holster off. Don't make no fast moves or I'll shoot the runt here!"
Chris reluctantly complied, tossing his guns into the bush as well, and then Boone shoved him on the ground beside JD.
"You two git on our horses and watch them, shot em if they move, Hank and me'll git their horses."
Picking up Chris´s saddle from the ground, the man called Hank made his way towards Pony. Chris and JD could hear Windy start stomping around as the strange men came near him. His head went straight up and the whites around his eyes showed, as short blowing puffs of sound emanated from his nostrils.
"Boone...I'm thinking that red horse is as crazy as that guy in black." Hank skirted around the stallion to get to Pony.
"I'll show him who wears the pants!" Boone picked up a lariat off JD's saddle and struck it down hard on the stallion´s hindquarters.
"Hey...Stop It!" JD yelled out, furious.
Distracted by JD's voice Boone turned his back to the stallion for a second when powerful teeth clamped down on his shoulder, shaking him right off his feet.
"Oh god...get em off me...shoot em!" Boone screamed out!"
Chris and JD lunged to their feet, running at the two men on horseback, screaming and waving their arms. In terror the two horses whirled and bolted off, dumping both men to the ground. Before they could recover their feet Chris was on them, yanking their guns from their hands. Hank was about to make a play on Chris, when Chris fired a shot off just inches from Hanks face. Hank dropped his gun and throw up his hands.
With his ears plastered flat against his head Windy continued to swing a screaming Boone around.
"Whoa Wind...easy now boy...that's it!" JD reached for the stallions lead shank and gave it a light shake, to get the stallion to concentrate on him. JD ripped the man from his horse's mouth and pushed him out of further harms way.
"This is your lucky day, any other time and I would have busted your butts to jail so fast you would think it was still yesterday." Chris sat the four men together and relieved them of all their weapons. JD struggled to get the still excited stallion tacked up, then got Pony ready for Chris.
Handing Chris Pony's reins JD prepared to get on Wind, when an afterthought hit, he approached Boone. "I owe you for the split lip." As hard as he could he flicked his finger, connecting with the underside of Boone's nose. "Take that!" Then he kicked the man in the shins. "That's for hitting my horse!" JD swung up onto his prancing horse's back and with his head held high rode away.
"Wow...you really told him off." Chris said sarcastically after catching up. "What the hell do you call that kind of fighting?"
"With the kind of day I've had so far, I figured I would probably break my hand if I hit him."
Chris laughed, "Ya kid with your luck that's probably exactly what would have happened."
+ + + + + + +
As the day progressed the junipers had again given way to mesquite and blackbrush. The mountains were once more above them as they maneuvered their way across the stony, uneven ground. The main roadway was miles to the east along the Rio Grande; Chris hoped they would be crossing it tomorrow morning if all went well. The mid afternoon sun was directly above them, sending penetrating rays of heat down on them; that were then reflected back up off the glaring sand. Both men had removed their coats and tied them to the back of their saddles, but wore their hats pulled down low to help keep the sun and glare off their faces.
"JD you got my canteen on your saddle?"
"Then when you saddled the horses back there, what did you do with my canteen?"
"JD...I'm talking to you!" Chris watched as JD looked on both sides of his saddle.
"JD...damn it, where's my canteen?" Chris spoke in his quiet understated growl.
"I think I left them on the ground where I was saddling up." JD said, avoiding Chris's eyes.
"Hells Fire JD!!!"
"I'm sorry! Windy was acting up and I was keeping an eye on those guys in case you got into any more trouble with them and when I set the canteens on the ground I must have forgotten to pick them up."
"You knew we were heading into the desert again, you didn't learn nothing from riding without enough water three days ago? I did! I learned I don't want to go through it again!"
"There's a path over to your left with lots of animal tracks, maybe it will lead us to water." JD said tentatively.
Chris left JD's side to ride alone out in front, every few minutes turning in his saddle to barrage JD with a tongue whopping; the longer the silence in between, the harsher the words that were spoken. This part of the country was already too hot for Chris's liking; now he was really steaming under the collar. He had been watching their would be assailants back in the trees, he had hoped JD could handle the rest without screwing up, yet here he was with a parched throat again and no water in sight! He knew JD had to learn as the others had learned, by life experience, but for not the first time on this trip he wished he were riding with one of the other seven.
JD had not said a word since the missing canteens were discovered. He looked Chris in the eye as he was yelled at, but wisely for once kept his mouth shut, forlornly riding behind.
The path led them up onto a large flat mesa that extended at least two miles in front of them, and then suddenly dropped off into nothing. Following a well-worn path covered now in human as well as animal tracks, they rode closer until they could see a chasm separated the mesa into two parts. Carefully they rode near the edge before dismounting and tying the horses to a lone tree. The land ascended in a long gradually pitch of shale rock before plummeting straight down two hundred feet to a raging creek that tore through the gulch below.
"Chris...look at this!" JD said, speaking for the first time. An old rope was tied to root that stuck out of the ground and extended nearly all the way to the bottom of the gulch. An equally old pail lay on the ground beside the rope.
"Someone's been getting water here for a long time." JD said trying to break some of the tension he was feeling with Chris.
Chris grunted at him as he started to inspect the condition of the rope. Finding it secure he picked up the pail and made his way to the edge and tied the rope around his waist.
"Chris I'll go...I'm lighter than you!"
"Just stay out of my way right now JD." Chris answered in an unyielding voice, as he slowly dropped from JD's view.
Miserable, JD plopped down onto his backside on the hard dusty ground, his knees up to his chin. He thought Chris was actually starting to enjoy his company before he screwed up...again! It wasn't for lack of trying, but JD just couldn't seem to put many back-to- back non-mess up days together in a roll. Just when he worked his way back into Chris's good graces, something unexpected would come up, and it was back to the doghouse for JD.
The squeaking of the rope as Chris descended the cliff walls suddenly took on a new sound. Looking over his shoulder to where the rope was attached, JD could see the root being pulled from the earth's grasp inch by inch.
"Chris!" A frantic JD yelled. "Get a foothold into something, the roots coming out!"
JD lunged for the rope just as the root flew out of the ground. Grabbing it with both hands, the rope zinged through his hands as he fought to stop Chris's downward spiral. He could smell the skin burning off his palms, as he struggled to get a tighter grip on the rope. Suddenly he found himself being propelled to the gulches edge when the root hit him in the back, and Chris's falling momentum pulled them both along. Sticking his feet in front of him JD dragged his heels in the hard packed ground and rock, bouncing on his rump, but could not get any traction to slow the descent down.
The edge loomed closer as JD fought to slow down, panic rushing at him as fast as the cliff's approach. The thought of letting go never occurring to him, he angled his body towards a boulder a couple of feet from the edge. JD took the brunt of the boulder with his stomach, as he wrapped his body around the rock. His arms felt as they were ripping from his body as he finally caught Chris's full weight on the end of the rope. JD cried out in pain, the same instant he heard Chris also yell out.
Gravel and small rocks and dust rushed past JD, falling into the gulch below, narrowly missing Chris. JD coughed on the dust; the pressure on his back from the root pressing against him, making it hard to get in enough air.
"Chris!" JD gasped out. "Chris...can you hear me?"
"Chris...Please answer me...I can't hold ya much longer!" JD's muscles vibrated under the strain of holding the larger man. "Can you get a foothold somewhere till I get a better grip to pull you up?"
"CHRIS!!!" JD screamed petrified.
The sound of a squawking hawk out hunting was the only noise to reach JD's ears. There was no way he was going to be able to pull Chris up alone, terror momentarily blocking out organized thoughts from his brain.
"Plan...I need a plan quick!" JD thought, as he felt his own body's reserves fading fast. "What would Vin do ? Not be in this mess in the first place, but that doesn't help me right now."
JD was scared to move, in case he could not handle Chris's weight, but knew he had no other choice. Gritting his teeth and digging in deep within himself, he sat up and started to pull for all he was worth. Ignoring the pain in his shoulders and his bloody burnt palms he grunted, and heaved on the rope, making an inch of slack with each tug. When he finally had enough slack rope he wrapped it around the boulder and tied it. There was no way he could physically lift Chris out alone; he prayed the boulder would hold Chris until he got back.
Struggling to his feet, JD scrambled up the slippery loose shale to where the horses were tied. JD fumbled to untie Pony from the tree, but his bloody fingers were unable to loosen the knot the horse had pulled tight. In frustration JD kicked the tree. Not having time to unbridle Pony, JD yanked on Windy's reins, which instantly fell from around the tree.
Windy balked at getting close to the edge, locking his feet he jerked on JD's sore shoulder as JD pulled on the reins.
"Damn it Windy...not now...don't do this!" JD pulled again. "Windy...COME ON!!!" In frustration JD raised his hand to slap the horse, but instead threw his arm across the stallion's massive neck and buried his face in the long mane. Hanging against the powerful horse JD willed his breathing to settle and his impatience settle.
In a soft soothing voice he gently moved towards the cliff edge again, this time the horse nervously following him.
"Chris...can you hear me?" JD yelled down softly, trying not to spook the horse any further.
"JD breathed a huge sigh of relief as Chris finally hollered back up at him. "JD I'm hanging upside down here! Where the hell you been?"
"Hang on Chris...I had to bring one of the horses to pull you up. I'll have you out of there in no time!"
"Well hurry up...all my bloods rushing to my head."
JD grabbed his lariat off his saddle horn and cautiously made his way to the edge. There was no way he could hold Chris's weight while he untied the rope from the boulder, so he ran the lariat between the rope and boulder then tied the two ropes together.
JD stepped up onto Windy and dallied his lariat around the saddle horn. He carefully moved ahead until all the slack was out of the rope then gave the stallion a strong cue to move. The rope on the boulder whipped off as the lariat pulled up on it. JD heard Chris cry out as he dropped several more feet then hit the end of the rope again. JD urged Windy back up the slope.
The powerful stallion took a couple of strides until the rope rubbed up against his side. Like a shot the horse spun sideways almost out from under JD, as he tried to escape what was attacking him. JD slapped leather as he was thrown backwards, and ended up sprawled behind his saddle. Windy ducked his head and crowhopped into the sky. JD went up and came back down landing in his saddle and found himself in the middle of a bucking storm as Windy tried for more altitude.
"JD...what the hell's going on up there?"
JD fought valiantly to stay on, if Windy bolted Chris would be dragged behind the spooked horse to his death. Just when he thought he couldn't last another jump, the horse's hind- end slipped on the loose shale and all four feet went out from under him. Fortunately JD landed on the high side of the wreck and never even got a bruise.
"OW ! Damn it! Are you trying to get me killed?" Chris screeched at him after being yanked up and down on the end of the rope.
Leaping to his feet JD took a tight grip on Windy's reins as the horse slowly regained his feet. Boy and horse stood blowing from the exertion. JD raised a shaking hand up to soothe the quivering horse.
JD led the horse back up the hill, with Windy jogging sideways to keep the rope from touching him again. As soon as Chris appeared over the cliff edge, JD released the lariat from the horn and took Windy back to the tree to tie up.
Sliding down the slope JD frantically ran to Chris's side. A thin river of blood flowed down the man's cheek from a cut above his left eye
"You okay Chris?" JD ripped the bottom of his shirt and raised it to the cut on Chris's forehead.
Chris snatched the material out of JD's hand. "Thanks, but I don't think my body can handle any more help from you today."
Disheartened JD stiffly stood up and left Chris to tend his wound. Picking up the two ropes JD made his way to the edge. Looking at the ropes in his sore hands JD shook his head, how stupid were they? With the lariat tied to the rope it reached all the way to the creek below, if they had been using their heads no one would have had to climb down, and Chris wouldn't have gotten hurt. JD tied the bucket on and tossed it down, with one little swoop the bucket was full and JD just had to pull it back up.
He did that five times as the horses drank all they needed, then he and Chris quenched their thirst.
+ + + + + + +
The horses had been feed and watered again. The campfire was banked and the night supply of firewood stacked beside it. Staying hot, the coffee pot sat on a flat rock waiting to be drank. A fool hen was cooking in the fire, its juices splattering against the red- hot coals, making hissing noises. And Chris still sat silently on his bedroll, where he had been since his accident!
JD sat huddled by the fire, directing anxious glances at the older man. He had done everything he could think of and still the man was silent. JD's eye's wandered out over the desolate plains; he had never felt so isolated in his short life, as he did at that moment.
Stars started to peak out in the gray sky, as dusk became night, the campfire casting a flickering glow on Chris's sallow complexion. The extreme hot temperatures of daytime quickly evaporated into a cold chill; JD placed his bedroll over Chris for extra warmth and stoked the fire with more wood. And still the man sat silent.
JD wrapped his own shivering body in Pony's saddle blanket, his raw hands stinging painfully as they made contact with the rough material. JD removed the ointment Nathan had sent with them from the saddlebags and smothered his own hands in it, as the rope burned skin tightened up.
"The faith you have in your horse is touching JD, and I don't think any of us could ever have done with him what you accomplished, but you damn near got us both killed today!" Chris's softly spoken words finally broke the silence.
Though softly spoken, JD could feel the steel behind their meaning. It was JD's turn to now sit quiet. He was not sure what to say to Chris, should he try to defend his actions, or accept in Chris's book he messed up one more time. He know Chris was talking about his forgetting the water behind, as well as his choice of which horse he used to pull Chris up with. The water mistake he took full responsibility for, even with all that was going on at the time, none of the others would have ridden away without the canteens. When that guy hit Windy, JD got so mad he let his emotions dictate his actions, and Chris had almost paid the ultimate price with his life. Any words of argument stuck in his throat, JD nodded his head dejectedly at Chris.
"We have a whole lot of ground to make up tomorrow, if we hope to have any chance taking this race. We better eat and get some sleep...you think I woke you early today, wait till tomorrow morning!"
+ + + + + + +
Chris woke with a dulled down version of the headache he had the night before. Stiffly he sat up from under his doubled up blankets, the late night and early morning air had a biting chill to it. Chris looked over to where the kid had sat huddled by the fire under a horse blanket last night. Both the boy and the blanket were now gone. The campfire had been newly stoked and the smell of fresh brewing coffee sifted through the air. Chris scanned the area for JD, but the brightness of the campfire accented the darkness surrounding him and he couldn't make anything out.
The sound of a jiggling bit and the squeak of leather drew his attention to where the horses had been tethered for the night. Chris could just make out a small silhouette figure throwing a saddle on the silhouette of a tall horse. Chris figured the kid was going to be working extra hard at making points with him the next little while after yesterday's indiscretions. Chris was contemplating letting JD off the hook till he moved and the pain from where the rope jerked him to a halt twice yesterday reminded him why he was angry with the kid in the first place.
+ + + + + + +
Chris again set a blistering pace; they were far behind where he hoped they would be at this stage of the race. Between men trying to rob them and falling off cliffs they had only covered half of yesterday's mileage. Neither man spoke much, but the speed they were traveling didn't give much opportunity for conversation anyway.
The day was even hotter then the last few had been. Sweat pored across JD's raw palms, making it increasingly difficult to hold onto the hackamore reins. As if sensing JD's discomfort the stallion pulled constantly at the reins with his head. With the heat and flies getting to him, Windy lunged against Pony's side, vigorously rubbing his head on the smaller horse. Under Chris's withering glare JD struggled to pull his horse off, ripping even more skin off his hands in the process.
Chris was busy fighting his own demons as his head pounded intensely and the rope burn on his midriff also burned from the sweat that ran over it. JD had spent the day in a constant battle for control with his horse and Chris was too tired and sore to put up with the prancing and dancing going on beside him. For the hundredth time that day he wished Vin had been able to ride with him, or better yet JD and anyone else, but Chris. His usual sense of fair play got left hanging at the end of a rope yesterday.
By early evening even Windy had finally been worn out as the men were forced to settle into a steady walk by their body´s exhaustion. They rode along the edge of a canyon for several miles watching the approaching sunset. Below them the mighty Rio Grande flowed, with wild meadows of tall native bunchgrass growing along its shores in an ocean of green.
Chris turned Pony down a path that would take them to the river's shore, the horse's feet sliding in the loose sand as he carefully worked his way down. Windy hurled himself over the edge, almost knocking Pony over in his effort to get down the hill. JD's hands were too sore and he was too tired to fight the stallion any longer, so he just hung on as the horse charged headlong down the slope. Windy sank back on his strong hocks and powered through the soft footing, dodging small bushes and boulders and hurdling over little ditches. He hit the flats at a gallop, dragging a now struggling JD along with him.
Chris watched from the side of the hill as Windy ran away with JD, and there was nothing he could do.
JD pulled back on the reins as hard as his injured arms and hands could; Windy stuck his nose in the air and fought against JD's grip. Almost laying back on the horse's rump JD see-sawed on the reins, then gathered as much of the left rein as he could and turned the horse's head. Windy continued his forceful gallop with his head cranked almost to JD's knee, before finally yielding to the rein pressure and coming around in a circle. JD finally rode Windy to a stand still, but before he could get a foot out of the stirrup the horse reared up almost unseating his rider, then ran backwards for several feet, before spinning and rearing again.
JD's heart pounded a mile a minute as the horse quit moving. The stallion was blowing so hard under him; JD's legs were bouncing on and off the animal´s side. JD slid off the saddle and landed on very shaky legs. He knew if the horse had really wanted him gone he would have been walking a long time ago, but these recent confrontations with the horse were taking the toll on JD's already taxed body.
Chris found them standing in the same place, the stallion still breathing hard and JD still leaning against the horse for support.
"You both need a bath...the river crossing should clean you up."
JD pulled his head away from the horse. "You mean in the morning right?" He asked while struggling to get the quiver in his voice under control.
"I want to be on the other side when we start tomorrow. I figure we have about half an hour before it´s to dark, so if you are finished fooling around let's go swimming?"
"Chris...I don't think I can tonight! Can't we please wait and cross in the morning?"
Chris could hear and see how dog-tired the kid was. In the last four days the kid had been beaten up twice and even in his own misery Chris hadn't missed the pain JD was in from his raw, rope burned hands. But Chris was in a relentless mood, his own injuries making him extra ornery. The others were depending on them to get back to Four Corners first and even if meant doing it with their last breath they would be there first.
"Mount up JD...it ain't up for debate, we're crossing tonight!"