In the Year AU
Main Characters - Vin, Chris
Thanks to Beta's - Sherry & Wendy
Vin Tanner pulled Peso to a halt at the top of the bluff. The view from there was spectacular. He could see for miles. The rough rock walls across from them were snow-covered from the wintery day that was now passing. He was relieved the snow had almost stopped. Just a few large lazy flakes drifted out of the grayish sky. The ground was covered with heavy white flakes over icy patches that made their trek difficult. It was packed hard as a rock under Peso’s iron-clad hooves. As they rested, Vin watched as the slit of orange sun slid behind the dark clouds, casting the land into shadows, so even the freshly fallen snow took on a light gray hue.
Vin patted his black’s neck as Peso shook his horned head and blew in disgust through wide, frost encased nostrils. One foreleg rose and raked the snow in anger; he wanted to be in his warm home not out in this nasty weather in the middle of nowhere. He turned his head and gave his rider a disgruntled look, shaking his head, making the sharp horns glisten in the fading sunlight.
Leaning over, Vin rubbed his horse's nose and brushed away the frost. “I know you’re not happy. None of us are, but we have to check and see if what those men said was true. We’ll go home as soon as we can, now help me look this valley over.”
Peso blew into Vin’s hand, then turned and raised his head to look over the countryside. Vin pulled the old spyglass Nettie Wells gave him for Christmas one year, from the saddlebags behind the cantle and put it to his eye. He hoped they would find what they were out here looking for soon. It was getting colder since the sun, what little they’d seen of it, disappeared, and the wind began to blow harder. The wind made him feel even colder and he pulled his coat tighter against him as he studied the land.
Three days earlier, three strangers rode into town. They were tired. Their mounts were thin from fighting through snow drifts, all of them needed rest and food. The men had stopped by the jail and told Buck Wilmington about seeing a bunch of horses trapped in a valley in a canyon, unable to get out. They were afraid the herd would become wolf bait, and they didn't have anything so the horses could be freed. When Vin and Chris Larabee arrived, they showed them the general area where they thought the canyon lay on a map. The problem; they'd been lost for two days and weren’t quite sure where the valley and canyon was.
After the other men left , the three friends decided what they should do about the trapped horses. Calling for Ezra to take over for Willington, Buck, Chris, and Vin gathered provisions for themselves.
They decided to take along a pack horse to carry their supplies. They hoped to be out no longer than forty-eight hours. However, they packed enough for four or five days. The pack horse also carried enough explosives to free the herd they were looking to find. Then they rode out of town to try and locate the herd before wolves found them. All three carried radio. Larabee and Wilmington also carried binoculars, while Vin had his spyglass. The night before they spent it in a small draw they found, a couple of miles from where he now sat his horse. Several hours ago they'd split up in hopes to cover more ground, and were to meet in an hour for the night and go over what had been found – or not.
Peso edged closer to the edge of the bluff, and Vin was able to see into the small enclosed valley below them. For several moments he saw nothing but brush and snow-covered rocks. A frozen creek wound its way through the brush and rocks towards some trees back along one of the cliff walls. Movement at the south corner near the few snow-laden trees caught his attention. He zoomed in on the area and watched, wondering if all he saw was snow falling off one of the tree branches.
A wild, angry roar sounded from the trees, before two horses charged out at something he couldn’t see in the deep shadows. Several more horses followed the first two and stood in fighting stances, protecting a couple of smaller ones. Vin tried to see what they were attacking, but the bluff where he sat on Peso curved the wrong way, preventing him from seeing down and into more of that part of the valley. He could tell one of the charging horses was a pinto, with a black or brown and white coat.
Pulling his radio from the pouch hanging on his saddle horn, Vin radioed Chris and Buck to let them know he’d found the trapped horses. He kept his eyes on the herd. While he talked he saw them retreat into the trees. He filled his two friends in on where he was and told them he was going to try to find the blocked opening into the canyon. He'd meet them at the south edge of the valley they'd crossed when they arrived in the area.
Carefully Peso and Vin made their way off the bluff, cutting across the top before turning to go down a slick, long, rocky slant. It carried him more than a mile from the hidden canyon. Once off the icy rocks, they began to work their way through a cut in the rocks towards the closed off valley that lay in the canyon at the end of the larger valley. It was beginning to get darker in the cut and the temperature dropped more as the walls closed in on the trail. Their breaths came out in icy puffs. Vin wasn’t sure they could get the horses out until the next day and hoped he would find the other two men before long.
Peso stumbled and nearly went to his knees. Vin managed to jerk him back up and ducked as Peso threw his head up barely missing impaling his master with his horns. Halting Peso, Vin let the horse calm down and relax for a few minutes before urging him on again. He had to get out of this cut so he could see where they were.
As the dark settled more over the land, Vin and Peso moved out of the narrow cut into a large open area. In the dark gray light, Vin couldn’t tell how large an area it was, but figured it was a couple thousand acres. He knew it was the large valley where he planned to meet the others. Snow crunched under Peso’s hooves as they trotted across the edge of the field towards a flickering light about a mile away. Peso’s nostrils flared, as he let out a loud roar that echoed around the area and was answered immediately by three other horses. Peso quickened his gait and Vin relaxed in the saddle as his mount cantered through the crusted, snow-covered field. Large clods of snow were kicked into the air by the horses hooves.
It wasn’t long before they arrived at the camp set up against a rocky cliff. They were greeted, not only by the three horses, but Chris and Buck. Vin could smell something cooking and his stomach growled. After nodding to the others, Vin unsaddled Peso, gave him some grain, and turned him loose with the others. He put his tack and bedroll in the tent Chris and Buck erected earlier. Standing close to the fire to get warm, he accepted the plate of stew and biscuits and began to eat. He hadn’t realized how cold he'd gotten until the warmth of the fire began to thaw him out.
Moving to a stump near the fire, Vin sat down and continued to eat as he told the two where he’d seen the horses. He added he hoped they weren’t too late.
“Could you see what they were fighting? Or hear anything?” Chris asked pouring them all cups of coffee.
“Nope, just could see two of the larger ones, males I reckon, attacking something and hear their roars. I didn’t see anything looking like a way to get into the valley. By my guess it might have been wolves, but I'm not sure.”
“We’ll look at this side tomorrow. There has to be some way to get to those horses,” Buck stated as he blew on his hot cup of coffee.
“There’s a way in. we just have to find it. And we will. Good meal,” Vin said finishing his second helping. He cleaned the plate with a handful of snow. With a jaw cracking yawn, Vin handed the plate and cup to Chris who put it away. Larabee grinned as another yawn over took his friend.
“Nothing else we can do tonight so might as well hit the hay. We'll get an early start in the morning. I feel it’s going to take us awhile to find a way to get in to those horses.” Buck wiped his cup out and sat it near the coffee pot.
"Well I’m going to bed. I'm too cold and tired to stand out here talking while you old men decide what to do tomorrow,” Vin grinned as he turned towards the tent. “One of ya doing guard duty?”
“Pony, Peso, and Lady, they’ll watch while we sleep,” Chris said as he whistled for his black.
When the stallion came to him he told him ‘Guard’ and the horse moved to one side of the tent. Peso, having followed Pony, took his place on the other side. Chris shook his head at how well the horses responded to him and the other men he worked with. The horses would alert them if anything came close. After tying the pack horse to a downed tree, he and Buck followed Vin into the tent and found the young man buried under his blankets and fast asleep.
With grins at each other, the two got ready for bed and quickly rolled into their own blankets. Silence fell over the small camp.
Morning broke with a gray cloudy sky and a cold wind blowing. Snowflakes dripped from the sky now and then but were whisked away by the wind. The three men worked together, quickly making something to eat, and breaking camp. Within a short time they had the pack horse and their horses ready to leave. Bundled against the cold, they mounted and headed out to try to find a way into the valley.
Vin led the way to a point where they were between the canyon walls hiding the valley. Peso and Pony tossed their heads and grumbled while Lady danced in place. The horses could sense the others but obeyed their riders and didn’t try to take off to hunt them.
Studying the cliffs, Vin saw a way to get to the top but saw nothing where an opening should have been. With a shake of his head, he rode close to the wall and dismounted.
“I’ll climb up and see what I can see. Maybe from there I’ll be able to locate where the opening's supposed to be.” Vin dug in his saddlebags and pulled out a pair of thin gloves lined with rabbit fur. He changed into them, hooked the bagged radio over his shoulder then turned and walk the few feet to the rock wall.
“Be careful Vin.” Chris stated taking Peso's reins.
Vin smiled over his shoulder as he worked his way up the first rocks. “Like licking butter off a knife.”
Chris shook his head, and he and Buck settled back to watch their friend climb the rock cliff.
“Damn, Junior is good doing that! Even in this cold. I'm sure those rocks are iced.” Buick commented a short while later when Vin reached the top of the cliff wall.
They watched as Vin rubbed his arms and hands as he made his way across the top they could see before they lost sight of him. They waited in silence and hoped he could find a way into the valley.
It was a half hour before the radio on Chris’s saddle crackled to life. He grabbed it and flipped it on.
“Found where the opening used to be. Ride to the left, there's a wider one beyond that big boulder. Go about a quarter mile and you’ll see me.” They heard Vin say.
Chris answered and he and Buck turned their horses toward the area Tanner had indicated. Leading Peso and the pack horse, they rode around some boulders and found the wide opening. The snow-covered trail through the mess of scrub brush and trees appeared inside the opening and they followed it, looking around and up to see if they could see Vin.
Chris thought to Vin, "Are we getting close? Hate the thought we might have to blow all of this mess."
"You're almost there. Keep coming." Came Vin's response in his head.
Pony’s head dropped and he scented the trail, then lifted his head with a loud growl. Before Chris could silence him he let out a loud, roaring challenge that echoed off the cliffs and rocks.
Peso was grumbling behind Chris and he turned in the saddle and told him, “Don’t you dare roar, we don’t need any fighting, be quiet.” Dark eyes stared at Chris for a moment before Peso turned them to where he’d caught a flash of movement above them.
Vin watched the horsemen make their way through the boulders and waited until they stopped and waved at him.
He clicked the radio on. "I'll meet you over there in a few minutes. I can cross over what used to be the opening. The rocks came down recently."
He made his way to the piled rocks blocking the entrance of the valley and worked his way across the expanse. As he went, he looked for the weakest places where they could set the charges. Below and to his right Vin heard the loud challenge roar of a horse and glanced that way.
A chestnut pinto stallion watched from below. One hoof pawed the ground before he reared up to strike at the air while several of the other horses stood around. Snow-covered trees were a hundred yards behind them. A couple colorful foals stood near their mothers. One of the mares stayed between them and the stallion, she also stared up at Vin. All of the horses looked in fair condition Vin thought as he eased the rest of the way across the rocks.
On the opposite side of the piled rocks, Chris and Buck dismounted and took the dynamite out of the pannier on the pack horse. Chris studied the rocks Vin was walking on, figuring out spots to place the charges that would clear the opening. Buck stepped to his side and pointed out several more areas. Chris nodded, they would set the charges and see what happened.
When Vin reached a spot above, the two men climbed up the rocks to place the explosives. The wild stallion roared out a loud challenge and whirled around. More roars echoed around the small valley. The mares moved together, protecting the two foals. All the horses' heads moved side to side as they watched for whatever the stallion challenged.
Five wolves trotted into the open area, eyes fixed on the horses, open mouths dripping saliva. The men above pulled their guns as the wolves made a rush towards the stallion. As the first wolf jumped at the horse, Vin's bullet struck it in its head and the lifeless body dropped to the ground in front of the stallion. The pinto promptly stomped on it as his head turned towards the other wolves. More gunshots rang out as the wolves continued to come at the imprisoned horses. Three more wolves fell before they reached the herd. The last one continued towards the mares, mouth open, sharp teeth snapping together. It suddenly crashed to the ground not four feet from the five mares.
Panicked, the horses broke for the end of the valley, away from the gunshots and dead wolves. Four mares crowded the foals together, galloping across the slick ground, dodging large rocks as they headed for the trees. The stallion and lead mare ran behind them, throwing their heads back and forth watching for more attackers.
The three men holstered their guns and moved farther onto the rocks, wanting to get the job done. After discussing placement of the dynamite with Vin, they agreed and set about setting the explosives in the chosen places. Once done they got off the rocks, moved to their horses, mounted, and rode back the way they'd come, away from the wall of rocks. Halting, Vin turned Peso around and took aim. He only needed to hit the first charge, the other four were connected to it.
Buck covered his ears as Vin fired.
As planned, the first explosion set off the other four. Each explosion came almost on top of the other as they went off. The horses jumped but reins were gripped tightly in hands and they couldn't break free. Rock and debris fell all around the area in front of them. Dust and snow rose and the noise of falling rocks filled the men's ears.
It took ten minutes before everything settled and the men could see where the blockage used to be and assess what the explosions accomplished. They looked where the fallen rocks use to block the opening.
There was a gap in the rocks that used to block the throat of the valley. The three men thought the horses could get out, but only if they scrambled over a lot of the remaining large rocks. They studied the rocks, knowing there was no way they could clear enough of them to give the horses safe passage through to freedom.
They made their way back to the area as far as they dared to go, and debated where to plant the next set of charges, wondering if another explosion would bring the whole hillside down. They studied the situation for some time before Buck made the decision. He pointed out two places he thought would work to open the 'trail' more.
"I think if we planted a charge here, and there, it should blow out into the valley and open this up more. We have to take the chance. If we can't get it open so the horses can get out, we might as well shoot them, so they won't have to fight wolves until they are all killed." He straightened and looked at Chris then Vin.
For a moment the three looked at each other, then at the rocks. With a shake of his head, Chris said, "Let's do it. We can either save the horses, get them out of here, or this is the end of them."
They worked in silence, planting the dynamite, and setting the first one so Vin could see it. Once they were set, they made their way back to where their horses waited, mounted and rode away from the opening. Buck and Chris held the horses as Vin readied to shoot. When he pulled the trigger, a split second later the explosion shook the rocks near where they stood. The horses stepped nervously for a moment before they settled. Ahead of them the rocks and boulders disappeared in rock dust. The men waited in silence for the air to clear. Once the dust settled, they made their way to where they could see into the opening.
A gap had appeared. It wasn't as wide as they would have liked, but horses could get through it in single file. Rocks had blown into the valley thirty feet from the opening, peppering the ground in stones ranging from pebble to boulders.
The men decided to see if they could chase the horses out of the valley. Otherwise it might be days before the animals realized they could escape. Or they'd never find the opening.
Mounting their steeds they rode back a ways and tied the pack horse in a place where it would be safe and the wild ones wouldn't scent it. Then they worked their way through the rocks to the opening. With care they rode through the gap. They found it to be sound, the cliff walls looked stable, for the time being. Once in the valley they rode in the direction the small herd had gone, cutting across the snow covered ground.
It took them fifteen minutes to find the wild horses. They were hidden in a small alcove behind the trees. Nearby them was a small, frozen stream. The lead mare, the men saw, was pawing at the frozen water, trying to break some of the ice so that the herd could drink. The stallion whirled and roared a challenge, his head shook in a threatening movement. The men didn't let their horses answer though their mounts growled and pranced.
Using their ropes they slapped them against their legs and yelled to get the horses moving away from the vicinity, to move them out into the open.
Confused, the stallion trotted back and forth in front of his band of mares and foals. His breath white in the cold air. When one mare broke and headed off the others followed her. The stallion with an angry roar pursued them, staying between the intruders and his small herd.
The three men followed, staying back far enough so the horses didn't panic and run into something they couldn't get out of. They herded them across the snow towards the opening they'd created. As they got closer the lead mare slowed, unsure where she was going, her growls making the others slow. The land had changed from when they had first been trapped. She stopped and looked around, not liking what she was seeing. The wild ones came to a halt.
Behind the halted herd the three men yelled and tried to get them moving again. The stallion stayed between the riders and his mares. His angry roars echoed off the surrounding cliffs, his head held in an aggressive manner.
Not wanting them to take off in the wrong direction, Vin pulled his Mares leg and fired into the air. The mares whirled towards the new opening but shied away when they got closer. Vin fired again and one of the foals took off running into the new cut. The mares and other foal followed one by one, and a moment later the stallion gave up and raced after them.
The three men followed at a slow gait, letting the wild horses move through the opening and out the other end ahead of them.
Once free of the opening, the lead mare took over and raced through the canyon walls and into the first valley. She ran over the snow covered land with the others right behind her.
The riders rode out of the opening and halted their horses to watch the wild ones race away. The herd ran through the short wide valley, and minutes later were out into the larger valley and wide open space that beckoned them. They smiled at each other and rode to where they'd left the pack horse.
"How about some lunch before we head home?" Vin said as he dismounted beside the pack horse.
Buck looked at Chris and laughed. "I don't think we can ever get Vin filled up."
"I'm a growing boy," Vin grinned as he dug into a pack.
With grins the two men joined Vin by the horse and were surprised when Vin pulled out a package of fried chicken.
"Hey Junior! Where were you hiding this? We didn't find it last night for dinner!" Buck asked as he grabbed a piece and bit into it.
"Got my secrets," Vin said around a mouthful of chicken.
"It's Ms Nettie's. Can tell her Fried Chicken anywhere," Chris stated as he chewed on his piece.
"Yep, she made it. Gave it to me day before we left. Said it would last, due to the weather. Cold enough to keep an' not spoil." Vin said taking another bite.
The three men finished the chicken, cleaned their hands in the snow, then mounted their horses.
"Let's make sure the wild ones didn't go towards the other canyons. Then we can head home." Chris said leading them out of the rocks and into the wider valley the horses passed through.
It took them ten minutes to cross the valley and head out the wide mouth of it on the other side. They followed the tracks of the wild horses across the snowy expanse. Once out of the connecting valleys they spotted the horses in the distance. Their noses were buried in the snow, as they snatched mouthfuls of the dried grass hidden under the wet substance as they walked along.
For a few minutes the men watched the horses. Vin glanced at Chris, "Those foals would be a good addition for your ranch, nice colors."
Chris frowned as he studied the horses. "No, think we have enough horses to work with right now. We'll let them go. If we run across them later, we'll think more on it." He grinned at Vin and Buck, "Let's go find a warm stove and a hot meal. It's already afternoon." He turned his horse and headed west, towards 4C. They knew even riding at a steady pace, they'd still make it home after dark.
Darkness had settled over the town of 4C and snow was falling once more. The tired horses, with their cold and tired riders trudged down the street to the stables. Almost every building was closed down, only a few lights were on in the whole town. They reined in at the livery and dismounted. Buck opened the door and followed the others into the quiet, semi-warm stables. Several gas lanterns lit the aisles, and the men led the horses to their stalls.
Vin took care of his horse and threw a blanket over Peso's back. Back in the aisle he led the pack horse to an empty stall and took the pack off, setting in over the front partition. He wiped the horse's back and threw a blanket over him. Buck and Chris, finished with their mounts and went for feed for all of them. They dumped grain and hay into feeders and made sure water buckets in each stall were filled.
Once the horses were cared for and their tack put in the tack room, the men left the stable, closing the door and latching it. Together they headed for the Standish Hotel, Restaurant and Saloon. The three hoped there would be something hot to eat when they got there.
Stomping their feet, and brushing the snow off them they entered the hotel and were greeted by Ezra's two large cats, Heather and Flower. The two cats greeted their friends with loud purrs and batted their boots for a moment. Then, in sync the large, colorful cats, shook their tails, turned and led the men into the restaurant area.
Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan were playing cards near the fireplace and looked up when the three entered the room.
"Hey guys, got any hot food for three weary friends?" Buck said slapping Ezra on the shoulder.
"Mr. Wilmington, keep your cold paws to yourself. I will gladly round up food for you. Inez left some dinner on the back of the stove in case you returned tonight." Ezra replied rising from his chair. Heather and Flower watched him a moment then dashed after their human as he headed for the kitchen door.
As Ezra headed for the kitchen, Josiah looked at the tired men. "You were successful?"
Vin dropped into Ezra's vacated chair since it was the closest to the fire, and ran a cold hand through his damp hair. "We found the canyon, and the horses are now running free."
Chris felt Nathan's eyes on him as he sat down. He grinned and looked at their resident doctor.
"We are all fine. Cold and tired, but fine. The wild horses are too."
"It was a small herd, five mares, two foals and a stallion. Stud and the foals were pretty colorful, two of the mares too." Buck added, then asked, "Where's JD?"
Josiah laughed, "Holding down the jail, his turn this evening, and visiting with Casey Wells. Ms Nettie and her came to town for supplies and decided to spend the night."
For a moment no one spoke as the tired men made themselves as comfortable as they could in the chairs and began to soak up the warmth.
Ezra appeared with several large bowls in one hand and a deep pot in the other. "Gentlemen, we had creamed chicken stew tonight. I believe you will enjoy this repast. I will get bread and condiments in a moment." He sat the pot on the table, handed them the silverware he took out of the top bowl and passed the others to the three hungry men.
One after the other, the three ladled several scoops of the rich stew into their bowls and began to eat. Ezra returned with a plate of large, fluffy warm rolls, butter and two kinds of jam.
While the men ate, the others filled them in about what happened with the town in their few days absence. When the others were done with the stew and rolls, Buck helped Ezra gather the used dishes and returned everything to the kitchen.
A loud whoop sounded from the kitchen and a moment later Buck came through the door carrying half a chocolate cake. Before Vin could get out of his chair and go after it, Buck ordered, "Hold off Junior, you'll get some."
He laughed at the look on the younger man's face as he sat the cake down. With the knife he carried, he sliced the dessert into three and placed them on the plates Ezra handed to him.
The three men enjoyed the cake, cleaning their plates of every crumb. With a sigh Vin leaned back in his chair, finally satisfied and warm. In a minute he was asleep. His friends chuckled.
"Shall I pack him to his bed?" Josiah asked.
"No, I'll wake him up. I think we're all ready for bed. Will be nice to have a soft, warm one tonight." Chris said as he rose and stretched. "I'm heading off. It's been a long few days."
"But we did good and those horses are free," Vin said abruptly waking up when Chris shook his shoulder said as he rose from his chair. "Come on old man, I'll follow you upstairs to be sure you make it to your room."
Vin followed Chris from the room. The others grinned at each other.
"Kids!" Josiah stated as they all rose. "I'll see you in the morning."
Buck helped Ezra quickly clear the table and put the used dishes to soak.
With good-nights, the lights were turned out in the restaurant and its door closed. The night desk clerk smiled as Buck headed for his room.
Heather and Flower bounded up the stairs ahead of Buck. At the top they sat and waited as he continued. Ezra checked the saloon, seeing no one in there, he turned for the stairs and his rooms. He smiled seeing his two cats waiting patiently for him. He was happy the horses were free, and the three men had returned without incident.
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