Note: Mistakes should be overlooked, corrections welcome
Jasper reached down and swept Reuben up on the horse, swiftly turning the animal around and riding back towards the ridge they had just cleared. Going behind a large rock he asked Reuben to dismount, "Git behind 'em chaparral" he commanded in an urgent voice, "an' stay 'ere."
"Bu... but what 'bout ye?" Reuben asked; his heart beating fast as he saw the cloud of dust draw near.
"Don' worry 'bout me," Jasper replied as he guided the horse on higher ground, "jus' stay 'ere and don' move out."
"Is... is that Mo... Morris?" asked Reuben in a low voice, already quivering.
"Wha... what 'bout ye, `ey can see ye over 'ere..." Reuben whispered up at Jasper, "don' ye wanna stay with me?" he asked, watching the young cowboy in awe and admiration, his heart once more slamming wildly... But he wasn't scared anymore, not like he had been over the past two days. He knew that he could depend on Jasper, sure that Jasper would handle the situation, would take care of him, even if it was Morris and his gang of longriders.
Crouching low behind the thicket, Reuben watched Jasper expertly clamber over the steep rock face and then stand up tall, the heavy rifle firmly held in one hand...
Jasper was all that Reuben was not... Shy and timid, Reuben had always wanted to be bold and confident, but having spent most of his life under the protective and loving care of his parents, he was a product of his conditioning... while Jasper was the product of his circumstances.
Within decades of the serendipitous discovery of the vast expanse of land where cattle could be left, without shelter or interference from man, to forage and fatten themselves on the open range, and then be driven out once ready for shipment to the cattle market, cowboys had become an integral part of the feral west and the cattle trade. Excellent horsemen, and skilled in the use of firearms, these men protected the frontiers, the cattle and the ranches - against predatory incursions, plundering and massacres. Courageous, trusty, and with a tremendous power of endurance, they were also reckless, giving a free vent to their worst passions, and always liberal with the gun.
But harshness need not always breed evil... Having run away from home at the early age of sixteen, and learning life first-hand in the ruthless and unmerciful world of the untamed west, Jasper had seen it all. Doing odd jobs at posts and township till he was spotted and taken to Al's ranch... Jasper had grown to be the very epitome of the perfect cowboy. Handsome and brave, honest and hard working, generous and heroic.
Oh, how Reuben would love to be like him... be with him, forever...
"It's the cavalry..." shouted down Jasper, squinting his eyes against the blazing noon sun, "it's the cavalry..." he repeated once more, scrambling down from the ledge. "Ye remain 'ere..." he shouted out to Reuben as he rode out into the open.
Cautiously peeking from his hiding place Reuben watched the group draw closer... about fifty men on horseback, and open wagons... And as they drew closer, Reuben could make out the blue uniform with the yellow trims. The lead rider had his black hat set at an angle, the golden tassels of the cord rising and falling in time with the horse's trot. The soldiers rode behind him, the wagons in the center. Reuben could see more men through the dust cloud... men straggling behind the wagon, dirty and ragged, hands bound behind their backs, and ropes around their waist, tied to the wagon. And there were other men, prone on the wagons... lying still... tossed and jerked as the carts bumped over the uneven ground.
The colonel spotted Jasper and hollered out, and the cowboy responded with a warm greeting.
"Isn't that one of Al's ranny?" the colonel asked.
Jasper rode closer to the man, nodding, "Aye..."
"What yer doin' 'ere?" the man asked, reining in his horse, the men too stopping behind him.
"Was on my way yonder..." Jasper answered with a shrug.
The colonel eyed him suspiciously.
"Wat 'ave ye 'ere?" asked Jasper looking at the train of men and wagon, and then let out a whistle, "seems ye 'ave the catwagon rollin'," he finally said with a laugh.
The colonel turned back in his saddle and smiled with satisfaction, "Yea, got 'em longriders, and that's the biggest toad in the puddle."
Jasper eyed the man the colonel had pointed out, and he let out another whistle, "Morris `Cut-Throat' Young!" he exclaimed.
The colonel nodded with a satisfied smile.
"By Jiminy!" Jasper exclaimed once more, studying the defeated man keenly, " 'ere did ye git 'im?"
The colonel laughed, his colossal form shaking with mirth, "We were campin' down 'ere, near Hiram Levi's farm, on our way to Little Creek. `Ere's been reporting of Indian attacks on the town over the past several weeks and we were goin' 'ere. And this mornin' as we break camp, headed for Little Creek, all-standin' we see 'ese 'ere men riding down, full split, yellin' and shootin', maybe to funkify poor Hiram, and git whatever 'ey can take... "
Jasper nodded, looking over Morris one more time, instantly understanding Morris' reasons for the attack, and also realizing that the colonel didn't know about Reuben's kidnapping.
"We stopped and turned back..." continued the colonel, "an' afore 'ey realized, we 'ad three down, and fer all 'eir bluster, 'ey turned tail. An' in all the flusteration, `is 'orse folded up an' ol' `Cut-Throat' got grassed.
Jasper nodded his appreciation as the colonel continued, "Gyp 'ere, swooped in and euchered 'im, and so's prehended 'im. We made 'im talk, gummy, we did, and then went to 'eir lair an' bagged 'em other men, and t'at boy."
"Bully for you!" exclaimed Jasper, shaking the colonel's hand.
"Yea," replied the leader with a smug smile, "I do my job dandy, not like giv it a lick and a promise."
"Where ye takin' 'im?" asked Jasper, "to the big pasture?"
The man nodded.
"Atween us," replied the colonel, leaning closer, "I'd love to do 'at, but we got to giv 'ose men in the towns some pleasure too," he grinned, turning back to look at the tied and defeated outlaw and then looking back at Jasper added with a broad grin, "'e's bin among the willow fer long, so, don't ye worry, he'll 'ave 'is California collar awright, an' I'll be only glad to put it roun' his neck!"
"Whoa, mighty grum," observed Jasper with a snigger.
Just then Jasper heard the gasps and the low whistles, soon followed by hushed exclamations, "Luddy Mussy!" And even before he could comprehend he saw the colonel's eyes leave him and stare beyond...
Surprised, Jasper quickly turned around to where the men were staring and saw Reuben emerge from behind the boulder... in all his amazing, juvenile beauty... and slowly walk towards them.
Reuben had still been sitting behind the thicket, watching, and listening to the exchange... eyeing his one-time tormentor. He saw the corpses on the wagon, bodies of the men that had gang raped him just the night before... and Morris, Eldon and two more men that he didn't know the names of, now battered and bruised, and tied. And there was Josiah; torn shirt, face caked with dried blood and one eye swollen shut... no doubt, in punishment for aiding Reuben's escape.
He slowly walked over to where Jasper was, standing by the horse, conscious of the roving eyes of the men...
" `E wit ye?" asked the colonel finally, tearing his eyes away.
"Um, t'is 'ere is Reuben," replied Jasper, getting off his horse and standing in front of Reuben, as if shielding him from the ravenous gaze of the men.
"Reuben?" asked the colonel.
"Yea," replied Jasper, "Hiram's son..."
"Hiram's son?" asked the colonel in surprise, once more eyeing the teen, "why, 'e never mentioned his boy gone!" And then getting off his own horse came forward, " 'Ere 'ave ye been, boy?"
The colonel stopped and looked up into Jasper's eye and then slowly smiled, before softly whispering so that only Reuben and Jasper could hear him, "Stretchin' the blanket..."
"You know good'n well," Jasper hissed, "you jest tryin' to make sump'm outa nuthin'."
The colonel grinned once more, eyeing both Jasper and Reuben before turning and swiftly getting back on his horse. He nodded, "I ain't deef..." he said as he tugged at the reins, "now ye go and git him back to 'is 'ome," and then with a broad smile, and a wink, set the horse in motion...
The train moved on behind him, the soldiers and the wagons... and Morris... trudging along...
End of Part Eleven