JD woke to the gentle pattering of rain on the hotel roof; unfortunately every drop felt like a nail was being driven into his skull. Moaning he opened bloodshot eye's to reveal dark rain clouds through the hotel room's dirty window. He looked over at the figure sleeping beside him as Chris clutched his own blanket tighter to his chin, fighting to keep out the cool dampness.
Grimacing, JD rolled up to a sitting position cradling his sore arm, while trying not to wake Chris. He remembered having a good time last night, but really wished Reno hadn't felt the need to shove him down the steps during their altercation, or that he had so much to drink later in the bar.
"Rough morning kid?" Chris's husky morning voice distracted him.
"I feel like something crawled into my mouth and died...how much whiskey did I drink last night?" JD asked sticking out his yucky tasting tongue.
"I drank four bottles of whiskey last night...what the hell was I thinking of! Why didn't you stop me?" JD asked indignantly.
"Not bottles...shot glasses!" Chris gave JD an amused look. "Besides, it's not my job to monitor your drinking habit's. You knew we had to ride hard today, you want to do it with a hangover that's your business."
"Four glasses...no way I can feel this hung over on four glasses?" JD held his pounding head and wished all the racket going on inside it would stop.
"That's the price ya pay for drinking on a empty stomach kid. You've watched me do it enough times...thought you would have figured it out by now on your own. I'm going to make us an appointment to meet with the Governor and then we're going to find you a doctor to look at that arm."
"I don't need no doctor poking and prodding me Chris...I'm fine!"
"Your getting it looked at, so don't argue with me. I don't have time to stop and pick you up off the ground every time you get lightheaded and fall off on the trip home." Chris tossed JD his boots. "Get ready...we've wasted enough time sleeping."
+ + + + + + +
JD thought he was going to lose his stomach all over the front of the doctor, when the man grabbed his arm and snapped the bones back together. Letting out a string of cuss words, JD clutched the table edge in a death grip with his good hand. If his mom had been alive to hear him, she would have washed his mouth out with a whole bar of lye soap. It hadn't hurt that bad when it got broke in the first place.
Chris entered the exam room when he heard JD's tirade. The kid was sitting in a chair, with a white knuckled grip on the table beside him, a clammy sheen to his face and one leg balancing on the ball of his foot vibrated up and down.
"You okay in here?" Chris asked the doctor about his young companion.
"He'll be fine...I reset the bones and with a few days rest he will be right as rain." The doctor answered as he bound JD's forearm in a tight bandage and wrapped a sling around it.
"We have to be back in Four Corners in three...four days max doctor. He don't have time to rest." Chris said as he looked over the doctor's shoulder to examine his handiwork.
"I can't say I would recommend him doing that, but I doubt he will die from the trip, it just won't be very pleasurable. How did you get that wound to your head...you better let me have a look at it as soon as I finish with your young friend here?" The doctor noticed the cut and bruise above Chris's eye.
"It's nothing...don't worry about it!" Chris turned to exit the exam room.
"Freeze Larabee...I don't have time to pick you up every time you get light headed and fall off your horse on the trip home. I have to get looked at...so do you!"
"You picked a peculiar time to have your memory kick in JD," Chris said in a cool detached voice, as his words were flung back in his face.
The doctor visibly cringed under Chris's glare.
"Oh, don't pay him any mind Doc. He's always cranky in the morning before he's had his coffee." JD grinned at the doctor, his arm felt a little better now that the initial pain from being reset was over.
Chris walked over to JD, grabbed his bowler hat in both hands and yanked it down over the kid's eyes. "Lets get this over with doctor, before we waste any more of the valuable time I don't have."
+ + + + + + +
Chris and JD walked the two blocks to the Government building in a fine drizzling rain. It was a nice break from the heat they had been traveling in, but both hoped it would stop before they pulled out later today.
They entered the outer office belonging to the Governor to find Cooper and Spence already waiting. Cooper was dressed in a new suit and polished boots, Spence was still in cowboy garb, but it was clean and neatly pressed. Cooper gave the lawmen a smug look, as the governor's secretary wrinkled his nose and sniffed the air in distain at the two new arrivals.
"We are here to see the Governor." Chris stood in front of the secretary's desk.
"Have a seat...I'll let you know when you can see him." The man answered in a haughty voice while continuing to write notes.
Chris placed both palms flat on the desk, and loomed over the secretary.
"I said sit down and I will call you!" That same voice came back at Chris.
JD tried to hold back a snicker as Chris remained leaning on the desk.
"Look I said..." The secretary finally looked up; his eye's bulged and his Adam's apple bobbed up and down in his throat as he withered under Chris's scathing stare.
"Excuse me a minute!" The man leaped out from behind his desk and nearly ran into the governor's office in his haste to escape Chris. Chris quietly sat down in the chair next to JD and prepared to wait.
"Your middle name most be diplomacy and decorum, Larabee." Cooper said as he straightened his tie and smoothed down his handle bar mustache.
"Chris 'Diplomacy and Decorum' Larabee...kinda has a nice ring to it don't it JD?" Chris shook his slicker out sending raindrops all over the small waiting room, most landing on Cooper and a grinning JD.
The door to the governor's office opened ending the conversation and his secretary announced he would see them all at the same time.
"We were here first and my father and the Governor are in the same social circle's together. I demand to see him alone." Cooper blustered.
"I am sorry sir...the governor is way behind in his work, if you wish to see him alone I can make you an appointment in three days or you can all see him now briefly."
"Oh!" Chris mouthed over to JD. "They're in the same social circle!"
Cooper shot past the secretary, knocking the smaller man into the door jam. JD put his hand out to steady the man, and received a shocked look of gratitude. The secretary straightened his coat and held open the door so the other men could enter the office, he and Chris exchanging polite nods as they passed. Just because Cooper had expensive clothes, it didn't mean he had any manners.
The governor barely glanced up from the stacks of paperwork on his desk. "Hello gentlemen, what is so important that four of you had to interrupt me."
"My father sends his regards sir..."
"Hello Tom...that's nice, what do you need?"
JD fought to hide his smile at the governor's obvious rebuff to cooper.
His face inflamed with humiliation Cooper tossed the papers down onto the desk. "My father needs these to be signed by you. Since I was coming this way I said I would bring them to you personally."
"I see," said the Governor, "But what...they are all so heavy you needed three other men to help carry them here or are they that important?"
"It's along story." Chris interjected trying to hurry the process up.
"And just who would you be?" Asked the governor.
"I'm Chris Larabee, one of seven hired by Judge Travis to watch over Four Corners...this is complicated."
"I've heard of you...and anything involving the Cooper's usually is. Don't interrupt me Tom." The governor added before Cooper could say anything. "These paper's are not of any importance, they could have been sent by stagecoach. I don't know what is going on here...nor do I want to. There...all signed. Now would you all please be so kind as to leave so I can get back to work on real issues."
The four men exited the building together, Chris and JD grinning, Cooper in a smoldering mood.
"Wow Chris...don't you wish we were friends with the Governor too. Did you notice how excited the man was at seeing Tom again, wasn't it touching?" JD intertwined two of his fingers together. "We could all tell how close the two of you are...just like that!" JD waved his fingers under Cooper's nose.
"Get your hand away from my face Dunne...we'll see who has the last laugh." Cooper and Spence moved past, Spence knocking his shoulder against JD on his way by.
"Ahh...good comeback Tom...we shakin in our boots...ain't we Chris...Chris?" JD had to run to catch up with the man in black as he was already walking back to the livery stable.
+ + + + + + +
JD stood in his horse's stall gently brushing the bedding from Wind's gleaming coat and checking his legs. The horse's front leg's had stocked up over night from standing in the stall, but JD could find no heat in them. Once the stallion got moving again JD knew he would be fine. Chris walked across the street to the general store to buy more canteens while JD tacked up the stallion, Pony was already saddled, but it was taking JD longer to get ready with his sore arm.
Chris was across the street when he noticed the three deputy's walk cautiously down the street and pause outside the livery. Setting the canteens on the counter he exited the store and stood on the porch watching the deputies; Cooper and Spence had already mounted up outside the livery, and were watching the deputy's as well. Chris had an uneasy feeling at the vindictive way Cooper watched the barn door.
JD gave the latigo one last tug, tied it around the rigging ring and was about to pull the saddle fender back down when he noticed the men behind him, all with stars pinned to their chests.
"Are you JD Dunne?" The largest of the three men asked.
"Yes?" JD answered curiously.
"We have a warrant sworn for your arrest...slowly turn away from your horse and put your hands up where I can see them!" The three deputy's had drawn their guns and stood with them pointed them at JD.
JD started to laugh. "We played this game already...doesn't Mac ever give up? Where is he hiding this time?"
JD was grabbed by the scruff of his neck, spun around, and pulled away from his horse as he was thrown forcefully against a log wall. "You so much as twitch and I'll leave your brains all over this wall...you got that!" The cold barrel of a gun pushed up against the back of his neck and hot breath washed over his face as the burly deputy squished him against the rough wood.
JD nodded his head, at the same time struggling to push the heavier man back and relieve the pressure off his broken arm, when the butt of a rifle caught him in the small of his back and he slid to the floor with a yell.
Chris burst into the barn, his own guns drawn. "You better have a real good explanation as to why your beating on that kid!" He said in a deep commanding voice as he bent to help JD to his feet.
The three deputy's pulled back from JD, but two kept their guns pointed at him, the third brought his up towards Chris.
"I would advise you to keep your hands from my prisoner, mister. We have a warrant out on him...and if he ain't careful I might add resisting arrest. I don't know who you are, but unless you plan on hanging with this kid I suggest you put your guns down and ride away. I won't give you a second chance to pull a gun on me!"
"Me and the kid sitting at your feet were hired by Judge Travis to protect a small place called Four Corners, we're on our way back there right now...and I don't plan on either of us hanging."
"You're going to have to ride back all by your lonesome. We had a gentleman come in this morning and lay horse thieving charges against your kid here. Unless I have proof to the contrary, I got to arrest him."
"I didn't steal anyone's horse!" JD nervously gasped out, gripping his sore arm tight to his stomach and stretching out his back.
"Who filed this claim?" Chris asked.
"That's confidential, on a need to know basis only."
"Well, I need to know! You can send a message to Judge Travis's office, he's been sick, but someone in his office will verify who we are."
"Fine, but he waits in jail while we sort this out." The man reached down and wrapped his beefy hand around JD's good arm and hauled the smaller kid out of the dirt to his feet. JD sent Chris a look of desperation as he was shoved out of the barn.
"Don't worry kid..." Chris started to say as he followed the men out of the barn.
Cooper and Spence sat on their horses laughing as JD was brought out of the building and into the drizzle. Cooper gave a mock salute with his hat and flashed intertwined fingers at him. "Look Spence...Dunne and them deputy's are close like this to each other."
Chris hurried after the departing deputy. "That the man who filed the charge?" He asked.
"I told you...that's confidential." The deputy shook off Chris's hand and kept walking.
"Deputy let me tell you a story!" The cold, confident voice brought the deputy up short. With a nod the deputy pointed to the jail.
+ + + + + + +
JD sat on the bunk in the cold jail cell shivering. Chris and the deputy sat in the front office and talked, JD could see them through a crack in the door between the two rooms, but couldn't hear what they were saying. He had spent a lot of time in a jailhouse this past six months, but never on this side of the bars. He knew the charge was fake and had all the confidence in the world that Chris would have him out in no time, but he could still not avoid the little tremors of fear that ran down his spine. They still hung men out west for stealing horses, and JD had seen enough hangings in his short life to know he didn't want a noose stretching anywhere near his neck.
The clank of the steel door opening brought JD back to the present, one of the deputy's stood at the opening. "Get up and come with me!"
JD followed him into the office where the others were waiting; Chris shot him as look of encouragement.
"Supposedly the red stud you rode into town on is yours...you have any papers of ownership?" The burly deputy, who Chris had spent most of his time with, asked JD.
"The deal with the judge was I had to ride him, if I could I got to keep him, but the judge never gave me any papers...no!" JD truthfully answered.
"And you can ride him?"
"Yes sir...at least most of the time!"
"Who else heard you make this deal besides Mr. Larabee?"
"The other five men we ride with and a lot of Cooper's crew, we were at his ranch when the whole thing took place."
"So it's his word against yours that the horse belongs to you?"
"I guess...I doubt Cooper even has papers that the horse belonged to him in the first place."
"There seems to be bad blood between you all and I'm not sure I want to be in the middle...let's head down to the barn and see if we can't come to some kind of compromise."
"Cooper and Spence are probably long gone, we'll never beat them back to Four Corners now...I'm really sorry Chris!"
"Not your fault JD, we'll run the best race we can...that's all we can do."
"Our other deputy asked Mr. Cooper to wait while you and I had this discussion, they're still at the livery waiting on us."
+ + + + + + +
The four men entered the dark interior of the barn, water dripping off them as the rain increased in it's intensity. Chris and Cooper exchanged heated glances, but JD was too nervous to even take much notice of the other men's presence.
"According to both of you, you both own the horse, but neither of you have any proof. So we have to come up with a way to prove ownership...how should we do that?" The deputy asked the men surrounding him.
"Why don't we ask the horse?" Chris suggested. "Cooper, Spence...why don't one of you bring the horse out of the stall?"
"This is ridicules...that kid is riding one of our horse's and he didn't pay us for him, and he has no bill of sale, so I want him arrested!" Cooper stormed at the deputy.
"No I kinda' like Mr. Larabee's idea of asking the horse. Would one of you please bring the horse out of his stall?"
"Spence get the damn horse out here." Cooper spit out at the man beside him.
"This was your idea...you want that horse out here, be my guest cause ya don't pay me enough to go in there."
With a roar of disgust Cooper approached the stall door. Cooper jumped back as Windy let fly with both hind feet, kicking a stall plank and snapping it in two. "That horse is a menace...do you know how many people he's hurt over the years. He should be destroyed!"
"No one's shooting my horse!" JD snapped, picking up his hackamore and entering the stall. Keeping a weary eye on the men in the barn alleyway Windy lowered his head into the hackamore. JD reached into his coat pocket and brought out a chunk of carrot to offer the horse. Windy ran soft lips over JD's burnt palm as he gently scooped the carrot into his mouth. Bringing his head back around he nervously looked at the men again, then nudged JD with his head and searched JD's pocket for more carrot chunks.
"Well I don't know which of you two owns the horse, but I can tell who the horse thinks he owns. You are going to have to settle this back in Four Corners on your own. We're out of it." The deputy's trailed out of the barn, shaking Chris's hand as they filed by.
Angrily, Cooper and Spence mounted their two geldings, but before Cooper could back away from the hitching post Chris grabbed hold of the man's reins. "Stay away from us the rest of the way back Cooper...you over stepped the line this time. You get no more slack from me!"
Cooper spun his horse over his haunches, and then backed him up yanking the reins from Chris's hand. The pompous younger man straightened his shoulders and glared down at Chris, his cold blue eyes full of loathing. "Rot in hell Larabee...you and your puny smart- aleck friend!"
Cooper jerked on his reins, jabbing his gelding viciously in the mouth with the long shanked spade bit. The gelding then reared as cooper dug his spur rowels deep into the animal's sensitive sides, almost catching Chris with a front hoof. Pedestrians and other riders frantically scattered to get out of the way of the two bay gelding's as they were galloped hard down the main street heading out of town.
"You okay Chris?" JD led the two horses out of the barn just in time to see Cooper's horse rear over top of Chris.
Chris reached for Pony's reins, grabbed his saddle horn and stepped easily onto the horse. "They're already ahead of us...let's ride!"
+ + + + + + +
The rhythmic drumming of pounding hoofs echoed off the sloppy loam as the two men moved at a ground covering, but mind numbing trot. A fine misty rain dripped of their hat brims and slickers, before falling to quench the desert sands under their feet.
The lights of Santa Fe had dissipated into the dismal overcast shadowy night. JD didn't know how Windy could see the ground in front of him as they trotted steadily beside Chris and Pony. JD held his reins lightly in his good hand, letting the stallion choose the route they traveled on; his broken arm he tucked tight against his body to minimize the jostling.
Chris was beat. He was a leader of men, protector of an entire town, a pillar of strength. And well damn it...he had a headache. A small trickle of rain ran down his neck soaking the back of his shirt, giving him chilly quivers. He would love nothing better then to call it a night and roll up in his warm bedroll, but he kept pushing them through the soggy landscape. JD tucked in beside him and just followed the pace and direction Chris set. Chris wished he could let himself go and have someone else make the decisions so he could rest awhile, but he knew JD didn't trust himself enough yet to take over from Chris.
The first beams of sunlight were touching the hilltops when they approached the Rio Grande for the second time.
"What do you think the guys are doing back in Four Corners, Chris?"
"What they always do JD...sleeping, eating, working."
"I wonder how Vin's leg is...bet he's driving Nathan crazy about now, the two of them stuck in the clinic all this time?"
"I wonder if Buck's still seeing Miss June...I can't remember him ever dating one lady so long, can you Chris?"
"Wonder how much money Ezra's lost since we left or if Josiah has finished any more work on the church? I hope they have been exercising Seven for me everyday...they all said they would, but you know how things are if they get too busy?"
"You think Mary's back yet from seeing Judge Travis...I hope he is going to be okay, it wouldn't be the same without the judge coming to town. What do you think will happen to us if the judge can't...?"
Chris pulled Pony up, looking and sounding exasperated. Chris closed his tired eyes and with his thumb and index finger rubbed the bridge of his nose and forehead trying to slow the onslaught of his still building headache.
"Do you have a death wish?"
"Then I suggest you stop talking...if you have so much energy, why don't you help me figure out the best way back to Four Corners instead of distracting me a whole bunch of worthless yammerin'!"
Chastised, JD snapped his mouth shut and urged Windy past the other horse to lead the way down to the river.
JD stood staring out over the wide expanse of the Rio Grande for the second time in two days. He thought he would be okay crossing back through the river, but as they got closer he suddenly felt his apprehension building. He kept seeing the log coming at them, then panic as he tried to surface out of the murky blackness, only to have the log above him keep him submerged. Like he always did when he was nervous, JD let his mouth run off with him, but with Chris it always proved to be the wrong solution.
Chris pulled Pony up beside him and JD hazard a glance at the sullen man. Lines of exhaustion and stress were etched in Chris's face as he too examined the river before them. JD suddenly realized how much this trip was taking out of Chris, with a pang of guilt JD thought of how readily he let Chris make all their choices.
"It looks narrower upstream a bit." JD told Chris over his shoulder as he took the lead and moved Windy cautiously along the rocky riverbed.
Chris examined the river in front of him and then glanced at where JD wanted to cross. It was like comparing apples to apples as far as Chris could tell, but if JD wanted to take some of the load of responsibility Chris was happy to follow along for the time being.
JD slipped off Windy and loosened his cinch, then loosened Pony's so Chris wouldn't have to dismount. Remounting JD rode to the river's edge, worry in his eyes, then taking a big breath he then urged Wind into the surging currant.
Chris followed the big red horse into the water and in two strides his horse was swimming as the water swirled over the saddle, partially floating Chris.
The stallion in front of him pulled steadily away from him. Chris knew the powerful horse would get across well before him, but still JD seemed to be pushing the horse forward hard against the currant, instead of letting the horse find his own swimming rhythm. At this rate Chris figured the horse could run out of steam at about the half waypoint, and quite possibly sink.
"JD...stop pushing to hard...what's the matter with you?"
Chris thought he saw the horse falter a bit, letting the gap close between the two men, but then JD urged his horse on faster again.
Reaching the far shore the stallion staggered out of the river, his nostrils blowing hard and sides heaving from the strain of the swim.
JD pulled Wind up and slid off before the stallion could stumble on the uneven ground and risk hurting himself.
Chris and Pony exited the river a moment later. Irritation bubbled out of Chris as he dismounted. JD didn't always make the smartest choices in his day-to-day life, but Chris had never seen him pull a thoughtless act with an animal before and didn't know what had possessed him to now.
Dropping his reins on the ground Chris stormed over to where JD stood tightening Windy's saddle. Grapping JD's good arm he yanked the youth around so they were face to face. "You planning on killing your horse before we get even half way home. He didn't deserve the ride you just put on him!" Chris said in a dark, barbed voice.
Red faced JD dropped his eyes from Chris's scrutiny "I...I...I was just...getting across." JD stammered any of his usual bravado had evaporated when he had asked his horse to take that first step into the river on the other side.
Chris let go of JD's arm and stepped back a foot. It had not occurred to him that JD would be nervous crossing the river again; he was such a gung-ho kid normally. That was one of the things that drove Chris crazy about the young man.
"JD...we can't afford to end up on foot out here. Plus I don't think you would be very happy with yourself if you hurt this horse of yours. You not comfortable about doing something let me know, and we'll deal with it together. We have to watch each other's backs because ain't no one else going to. You understand me?"
Chris tried not to smile at the attempt of brashness in JD's voice. To many years had past since Chris had been a young'un and even then he had never been the youngest in his family or group of friends. He imagined trying to make people believe you are all grown up took almost as much energy as having to always be grown up!
"If you think your ready, lets ride to the top of the ridge before we take a rest?"
+ + + + + + +
Chris felt a hand on his shoulder waking him out of his slumber. Chris ducked his head further under his horse blanket to block out the high noon sun and leaned back against his saddle.
"We slept almost three hours Chris." JD said as he kicked out the dying ambers from their campfire and gathered up their dry clothes. The dark gray clouds had parted to let the sun peak through and a fine steam rose off the desert sand as the rainwater evaporated under rising temperatures. The mountain range in the distance, where they were headed, still remained in a mist of falling rain.
With a grumble Chris tumbled out of his blanket, and with eye's squinted against the light loaded his gear on his equally tired horse.
+ + + + + + +
The light breeze blowing down off the hills carried the clean fresh scent rain, as the two men continued to steadily climb upwards off the flat plaza and away from the river. Chris, pushing both men and animals hard, led the way with only brief rest stops for the horses. His head was pounding again from lack of sleep, too much alcohol and from his tumble down the cliff three days ago. He was getting too old for this kind of nonsense. Trips like this were better left to the young and foolish, but after catching a glimpse of JD riding behind him, young and foolish didn't look like he felt any better than Chris.
"You still with me JD?" Chris pulled Pony up and lounged loosely on his gelding's back, thankful for an excuse to stop moving, even temporarily.
"Right behind you." JD answered through gritted teeth as his arm pulsated in pain.
"You need to stop for awhile?" Chris asked noticing the gray pallor under JD's lightly tanned face.
"The sooner we get home the sooner we both get to rest." JD said as he moved Windy out in front of Chris and trotted up yet another hill.
By late afternoon a gentle sprinkle of rain fell on them again as they made their way back into thicker groves of evergreen trees. Chris could feel himself getting more irritable each mile he rode; if it wasn't excessive heat it was rainwater dripping down the back of his neck. Now all his joints had stiffened up from sitting on a hard saddle for way to long; even his callused backside was hurting. Chris wiggled and stretched out his back, trying to limber his body up, but stopped when he felt Pony getting annoyed under him. Chris figured his game little horse was probably feeling pretty sore himself right now.
Chris meandered through a narrow arroyo before pulling up and dismounting off Pony. "We're bottoming the horses out...we'll let them rest here for a few minutes...I want to climb up to the top of that ridge and make sure I'm still going the right direction. You stay here with the horses." Chris wrapped his reins around a tree and gave Pony a soft apologetic pat.
"I want to come!"
"JD...I'm only going up this little hill...just stay here!" Chris snapped before working his way up the wet, slippery bank. A man should be able to get away by himself for at least a few minutes. JD hadn't been really vocal on this trip, for which Chris was grateful, but he was a constant shadow and that was getting on Chris's nerves. You would think the kid would want some time alone too, but everywhere Chris went, there was the kid right behind him.
Chris was almost at the top when he heard JD struggling up behind him again. Chris paused, resting his hands on his knees, huffing and puffing from the exertion of the climb. With his aching arm, JD was having an even harder time getting up the wet slope. For a brief second Chris contemplated shoving the stubborn, mule-headed kid down the bank, maybe then he would learn to follow orders.
Chris's eyebrows almost collided with each other as they furrowed into a glare.
"Damn it JD...I told you to stay below. I don't need you to get hurt any worse then you all ready are. When I tell you to do something I expect you to it...now get back down there before I toss you down!" Chris stood above JD shooting dagger looks at the youth.
"I came because your hurt too! I can tell your head is bothering you still. I need to know where I'm going in case something happens to you and I have to get us out of here. You said it yourself...no one else will watch our backs for us...we have to look out for each other!" JD shouted up at Chris, his cheeks flushing red with anger. Chris had been snarling at him all day and JD had had enough of the man's foul mood.
"And and you always talk at me...you never talk to me!"
Chris stared at the kid in disbelief...he wants to pick now to have a discussion on their relationship with each other?
In the drizzling rain on a steep slope the two men stood glaring at each other, pain and exhaustion blurring out their normal common sense. Chris let out a growl and moved closer to the kid. JD dug his foot deeper into the hillside for traction in case Chris tried to shove him down and formed a fist with his good hand.
"You going to take a punch at me kid?" Chris asked noticing JD's clenched fist. "You think you have what it takes to beat me?"
Chris put his hands against JD's chest and gave a little shove. "Well go ahead...lets see what you got...what you waiting for? Come on...take your best shot...or are you waiting for Buck to come fight for you?" Chris vision grayed with his unexplained anger; he was just waiting for any excuse to release it.
JD felt his own Irish temper bubble up and with a bellow of rage let fly with his right fist. Chris saw it coming and almost sidestepped most of it, but still felt his lip split open against his teeth as the fist just managed to connect with his mouth.
The momentum of the punch threw JD to his knees on the slippery footing, where he barely got his hand down in time to break the fall. Swearing, Chris reached down and grabbed JD by his coat collar and flipped him over onto his back. With his hands tightly bunched in JD's coat Chris lifted the kid part way off the ground and then smashed him back down, while JD struggled to break free. JD managed to get off a couple of punches to Chris's face, but the man never even felt them with his adrenaline pumping high.
Chris started to lift JD again when he suddenly froze.
"Screw you!" JD threw another punch that Chris felt whish past his left ear.
JD stopped struggling, but could hear nothing, but his own ragged breathing and that of Chris's rasping breath near his ear.
Then he heard what sounded like a locomotive thundering down on them.
"What the hell is that?" His eye's growing wide as he looked at Chris.
"Flash flood...we have to get to higher ground!" Chris removed his weight from the smaller youth and regained his feet. "Come on!"
JD shook Chris's hand off his arm. "Chris...we have to get the horses. We can't leave them down there!" JD plummeted down the slope, half running and half sliding on the slippery pine nettles that covered the forest floor.
"JD we don't have time...you stupid fool, get back here!" Chris watched in horror as a wall of water rushed towards them; huge trees were snapping like toothpicks and boulders were rolled along like little pebbles in its wake.
With a curse Chris rushed down after JD to where the horses were tied. JD was frantically trying to untie Windy from the tree as the horse reared and screamed in a blind panic. Chris reached Pony and yanked on his reins just as JD swung up on Wind and galloped up the bank. Chris was just about to put his foot in the stirrup when Pony reared straight up, snatching the reins from Chris's hand and bolted up the slope, his head slightly turned to the side to avoid stepping on his dragging reins.
Chris froze as the huge wall cascaded down on him.
Chris turned to see JD lunging down the slope on Windy and running towards him, water already swirling around the stallion's ankles. JD was bent low over the horse's neck, his good arm outstretched to Chris. Chris stood to face the oncoming rider and as JD swept past, he gripped the kid's arm and swung up onto the stallion's back. Both men fought to maintain their balance as the powerful stallion sprung up the bank with mighty thrusts from his hindquarters. Choking dust rose up from mildewing pine nettles and loose gravel as Windy plunged up the hillside fighting for footholds. Trees crashed behind them under the weight of the rushing water as the horse swerved, and pivoted around bushes while struggling to reach the top of the arroyo before the water and debris could sweep them away.
Wind flew over the edge of the ridge with his hair trigger affinity for running and took off across the meadow in a flat out gallop as JD struggled to regain control of the horse with one hand. Chris hung onto the back of JD, amazed at the strength of the animal surging below him as the speed they were traveling escalated with each stride the horse took. Realizing JD was losing the battle, Chris reached around the kid's waist and grabbed the reins in his strong, sure hands and leaning back for extra leverage pulled the horse around in a big circle until they were almost back at the gully's edge. Blowing hard, the horse finally came to a halt, quivering at the sound of rushing water just below them.
Both men sat still as the shock of what just happened settled over them. Gathering the reins back JD felt Windy's muscles start to bunch up under him.
"Aw Chris...I think you better get off real quick!"
Windy exploded into the air, then landed on stiff legs jarring both men to their core, before sinking low on his haunches and exploding up again. He ripped the reins through JD's hand and ducked his head between his front legs, kicking out high with both back feet while spinning in a tight circle; first to the right then with a lunge, to the left.
Chris was airborne for several seconds before he crashed to the earth, and somersaulted across the dry packed grass.
JD was whipped over the horse's shoulder, where he hung partially up-side down against Windy's neck with his good arm, his left leg almost touching the ground and his right foot bouncing on top of the saddle. The stallion instantly stopped moving and nervously waited for JD to drop his feet to the ground and unwrap his arm from around the stallion's neck.
"Stupid jughead...I don't think your horse likes me yet." Chris mumbled from the ground.
"Yeah...I kind of got that same impression."
"Ow...damn that hurt!" Chris screeched out.
JD rushed over to Chris, leading his hesitant horse closer to the gully's edge and churning water.
"Where are hurt Chris...what can I do for you?" JD asked, concern written all over his face.
"I landed on one of my spurs!"
"On the grass here...where do you think...my leg folded under me and I sat on my spur...and if you so much as smirk I swear I will kill you!" Chris brought his hand away from his backside to find it dripping blood.
JD didn't knew he was capable of displaying such self control as he looked at the blood staining Chris's britches and managed to not crack a smile.
"You want me to doctor that for ya?" JD asked in all seriousness.
"No, I don't want you to doctor it," Chris couldn't help noticing the relieved look on JD's face. "Go find Pony for me, that salve Nathan sent with us is packed in my saddle bags. And JD be careful if you go near the water."
Chris sat back down on the grass, and leaned over onto his uninjured butt cheek. With a groan he watched as JD cantered away in search for Pony.
JD was almost out of sight when Chris heard it. Uncontrollable peals of laughter drifted back to him from across the meadow.