THE QUEST

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Chapter 31

I never will figure out, how them boys made such good time, herding the kids the way they were. It was getting dark, and I didn’t want to risk an injury to my horse, so I made a cold camp.

I stripped the saddle from Ricky, and rubbed him down with grass, I waited a spell to let him cool off, then I led him to the spring to get a drink.

I lay down on the ground, after I staked out Ricky, I was thankful I was alone except for the animals, cause I was close to tears. The mama dog came over and laid her head, on my chest and whined softly. I’d failed, failed my family, and failed myself.

I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out some jerky, and gave the dog a good size chunk, and ate some myself. I concentrated on just swallowing the juice, as I patted the dog’s head. I fought valiantly against the tears, with the dog’s head on my chest I was soon asleep.

I awoke the next morning to a light rain falling, I rose stiffly and saddled Ricky, and called to the dog. Then we set out again in the light rain, and the wind that was sure to pick up.

By midday the rain had stopped, but the wind had picked up with a violent fury. It was all I could do to stay in the saddle, I knew I needed to find shelter. I smiled as I saw the old dilapidated barn in the distance, so I held on as tight as I could and made for the barn. Mama dog running hard and fast with me.

The main house was run down badly, and the barn wasn’t in much better shape. But it would at least provide some shelter, for me and the animals.

Judging by the direction, the outlaws were taking, I knew exactly where they were heading. It was called Echo Canyon, back in the 1850′s several people were held hostage up there.

The law went in, and there was a big shootout, and there were no survivors. Our area had many legends, many of which the younger people didn’t know what to believe.

There was still hushed talk of a war, a war that had been fought in Texas for freedom. But if asked the adults would have a sudden case of amnesia. There was no records at the courthouse, and certain buildings had been burned down. Namely Grand News House.

I explored the barn and found a nest of rats, and as disgusting as it sounds, I knew that I was looking at my next meal. I didn’t want to risk a shot. One: I didn’t know how close, I was to the outlaws camp. Two: I may need all the ammo I had, for the big fight.

I’d already decided that the only ones that were going to come out of this alive were me and my kin.

I stood there staring at them rats, and they were staring back at me. I was hungry, and they were to be my meal, all I had to do was to make a kill, I know it sounds gross, but I’d heard of folks eatin’ worse.

I cut my eyes slightly and saw a shovel, I slowly reached over and grabbed it, and began bashing in the heads of the rats. I killed four of them rodents, and set out to clean them, I checked for parasites and found none. I gave two of them to the mama dog, which she ate in quick bites, even though they were quite large.

I built me a fire in the dirt floor, and made a spit and cooked the remaining rats. I said a quick prayer and ate the rats, to me they tasted a bit like rabbit. Ma would have freaked, had I told her that part. You know how moms are: Always wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident. Which is a bit of a joke, if you get my drift.

The wind continued to pick up, and then the rain came, from what I heard it was the worst we’d had in decades. Even with the protection of the barn (Which wasn’t much) I still got soaked to the skin. The rain continued through the night, and when I awoke the next morning I knew I was in trouble.

I could hear the roar of the river, it was one of my few mistakes that I made on my search. To make matters worse, I felt feverish, and sick to my stomach. I forced myself to saddle Ricky, and I climbed into the saddle. I whistled for the mama dog, who had to go relieve herself. And we made our way to the river.

The river was swollen and the waters looked rough, but it was the only way to get across. I carefully tied myself to the saddle, then I called to the dog. I helped her up into the saddle with me. Ricky didn’t like this much, but after a few minutes I got him under control. I goosed him, and he bolted into the river, like he was shot from a cannon.

My thoughts were to my family, Pa who was fighting for his life, and didn’t need this to worry with. Ma who needed to focus all her thoughts to only Pa.

The kids. . . I knew they had to be frightened, and wondering if I was alive or dead. They had to know if I was alive, I’d be coming for them for it was my way.

Not to be a hero, but because it was out of a code of honor that I’d always felt. You can mess with me all you want, I might forget about it. But never mess with my family.

I should explain this: I know folks look at me differently, I also know that the times are changing. There’s times I wish, we could just shoot all the lawless bastards. Enough is enough already. Right? Sometimes you take a stand, and other times: This Is Where The Cowboy Rides Away.

We were half way across, and I was thinking this is a piece of cake, that was when trouble hit. The waters got even rougher and I felt myself slipping off the saddle. I was hanging onto the dog for all I was worth forgetting to hang onto the horn.

Fear clutched my chest, and I heard a wild scream as I felt myself slip into red darkness. I don’t know how many times I went under, or how much of that red murk I swallowed.

I’d passed out and when I came to it was daytime, I was covered up and I felt a very soft hand caressing my face. I saw a girl’s worried eyes staring down at me.

I could see the small fire, and a man squatting by the fire. My hands were under the blanket, and I checked my pistol, it was still there.

I slowly began to rise up, I felt hands trying to push me back down, “Easy there.” her soft voice said. “You had a rough time out there.”

I knew her voice and I also knew her scent.

I don’t say that to be disgusting or nasty, when you’re a kid and the smells around you are usually dung, you remember sweet smells. Not perfume but scents.

“Where’s my dog, and horse?” I asked in a hoarse voice.

The girl smiled, as she pushed me back to the ground, “They’re fine, the dog came to our camp, and got us to follow her. Your horse got you out of the river, and stood waiting for us, that was pretty smart tying yourself in the way you did. But it was very stupid to even try to cross the river.”

The man came over and knelt close by me, “You think you can handle some stew boy?” he asked roughly.

I nodded quickly and slowly sat up, and I took that time to check things out, I could clearly see Ricky staked out not far away. The mama dog saw me sitting up, and rushed to my side. She licked my face, and whined softly. “Yeah girl, I’m okay.” I said as I patted her head.

The man returned with a bowl of stew, he wore an annoyed expression on his face, “What’s a boy your age, doing out here in no-man’s land?”

I studied on the question for a moment, as I took a mouth full of stew, “I’m hunting the men, that took my brothers, and my sister.” I said between bites of stew.

The girl looked to the older man, a worried expression on her face. “I told you, them boys looked out of place with those kids.”

I dropped my bowl, and jumped to my feet, “When did you see them? Which way were they going?” I asked impatiently.

“Yesterday before the storm hit.” the girl answered. “They seem to be going to Echo Canyon. If they actually do get there you’ll never find them.”

“I’ll find them.” I said sternly. “Thank you for the stew, and your kindness. Could you get word to my kin?”

The large man knew that it would do no good to try talking me out of anything. The girl nodded, and looked to the man, who also nodded his head.

“My father is in the hospital in town, Name’s Rob Macalister, tell em I’m on the trail, and I’ll be bringing the kids home.”

The man hailed me and gave me his saddlebags, and a canteen “There will be things in there to eat, and perhaps to help you out.”

I looked into the face of the girl, “I’ll see you at the next dance Joanna. Save a spot for me on your dance card, and maybe I’ll even be the one to buy your basket at the Box Social.”

Joanna smiled and as she took a short step towards me, her father Joe smiled as he gently pulled her back.

I gave a quick wink, and called to the dog, and just like that we were gone.

Me the dog and Ricky, rode most of the day, and traveled a little bit after dark. I made a dry camp and settled in for the night, the mama dog suddenly rose, and growled, I pulled my pistol and waited.

“I’m friendly, it’s me Joanna.” the voice called out.

“Come-on in.” I said in a low voice.

Joanna came into my camp leading her horse, “Thought I could be of some help.” she said with a smile.

Avoiding the real reasons I told her: “Go Home! I don’t need any tag-along girl. You’ll slow me down, and get in the way. . .” I stopped when I heard what sounded like the beginning of tears.

If she knew the real reason. . . it would put very crazy ideas in her head, and I’d be in more trouble than I could handle.

“Do you realize what I’m going to do, when I do find them bastards that took the children?” I asked in a hard voice.

She slowly nodded her head, “Yes. . . and it don’t bother me none. They’ll be gettin’ what they deserve.”

“When we pull out, we will go for hours before we rest, there won’t be any fires to keep warm. There will only be cold camps.” I said hoping to discourage her. She looked very pretty, but I’d figured her to be way too soft for what was ahead.

She smiled as she nodded her head. Damn! I thought for sure she’d turn-tail

and, head back to her father. But as I really thought about it, I knew I couldn’t just send her away now. What if they were close and caught her? Then it would be on my head. Dammit! I’m too young for all this shit. Too damn young to be responsible for this many people’s lives.

I went to sleep, with my dog beside me, and a girl a few feet away from me. I knew that when this was over I’d see her at the next dance. But that one weird kid Jerome Slate, who would bully anybody that came within ten feet of her. I’d decided that was going to end as far as I was concerned. If I had to. . . I’d meet him over in Carter’s field.

I awoke with a pressure on my chest, thinking it was the dog, I patted where her head should have been. To my surprise, it was Joanna’s arm, and we both came up off the ground, like our pants were on fire.

“I got cold, so I moved over here by you.” she said with a shy smile.

I just nodded quickly, I turned my back to her and asked her to go tend to the horses. I told the dog to stay with Joanna, while I went to see mother nature.

When I returned the horses were ready to go, and the camp hardly looked as if anyone had even been there. We ate a very quick breakfast, of biscuits and ham, the dog had caught a rabbit, and was eating right there with us. If this upset Joanna, she never said a word.

We mounted up and rode for several miles, before I said anything. “What did your father say about you coming with me?” I asked.

“I knew he would be against it, so I waited till he went to send your message, and then I took off.” she said with a grin.

I shook my head in disgust. Girls do the most illogical things, her father would figure it out, and send out the mother friggin’ Marines and the US Marshals, thinking that I’d returned, and just took his daughter away.

“Of all the stupidest stunts!” I almost shouted. “Do you know, what he’s going to do, when he catches up with us?” I knew I had hurt her feelings, but right then I was so mad, I wasn’t thinking right. “He’s gonna want to geld me. Christ!Come-on!” I shouted.

Even the dog seemed to give her a dirty look. Maybe she did.

I was in so much deep shit that there was no hope to ever shovel my way back to the top. Hunting bad guys, and now I’d be dodging a pissed off father. DAMN!

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