A WALKER CHRISTMAS STORY

1870’S STYLE!

 

BY: JIM GRIFFIN

(Keeneyanke@aol.com)

 

"Man, Walker, it's sure gonna be good to get home for Christmas!!"

Jim Griffin, tall, blonde, blue-eyed Lieutenant of the Texas Rangers, remarked heartily to his partner, red-bearded, brown-eyed muscular Lt. Cordell Walker, as they jogged their horses, Yankee and Amigo, homeward bound, the broncs' warm breath steaming from their nostrils in the frosty air.

 

"Sure is, Jim.. especially after this last assignment. Right now, though, I'm just lookin' forward to makin' Ballinger for the night, and gettin' a room, rather than freezin' half to death camped out!!" Walker replied. "Besides, Jim, those bells are startin' to jangle my nerves." Somehow--in the midst of being shot at while tracking down a gang of bank robbers--Jim had managed to come up with a set of sleigh bells, which he had braided into his big Paint's mane, the bells jingling merrily with every step the horse took.

 

"Walker, they remind me of home..and the bells on sleighs. That's the one thing I miss down here, Walker: how little snow we get, compared to New England. The ground would be so pretty, all covered in white, the evergreens wearing a snowy blanket...."

 

“Jim, after you and I nearly didn't make it home last winter, in

the freak blizzard, I would think you'd seen enough snow to last you a lifetime."

 

"No, Walker...GOTTA have snow for Christmas, Pard. Besides, you

can't fool me. You were already in the Christmas spirit, showing the season's colors, back there in Winters...which, by the way, is the season for Christmas."

 

"Not Christmas puns, too, Jim...and, what do you mean, I was

wearing Christmas colors?"

 

Jim glanced at the clean white bandage on Walker's forehead. "Easy, Pard; you wore a white bandage, where that slug creased you, with red blood seepin' through, and you looked pretty green, when the doc worked on you!!"

 

"Enough, Jim...! What are your plans for Christmas, anyway?"

 

"Well, Walker, the kids are old enough now, so we'll go to Midnight Mass this year. The church'll be all decorated, with a manger, and greens. We'll all sing, have refreshments afterwards, then we'll put the kids to bed, until they wake us up, real early, looking for their presents. After that, a big meal, and just being with my family. How about you, Walker?" Jim asked, as they continued to jog along, the horses energized by the cold air.

 

"We'll probably just spend a quiet day at home, Jim. Alex will read from the Bible, and Bobby will surprise me with something he made, or worked hard to buy. I've got to find something for both of them, yet. You know I'm not much of a churchgoer."

 

"I know that, Pard, and, while I wish you were, the Lord is in your heart, and your soul, not in any building. Well, we're getting closer to Ballinger, Pard."

 

"Yeah, Jim, I hope we'd make it before dark. These short days don't help." The sun was already down an hour, and the Rangers still had a good ways to Ballinger.

 

Yankee suddenly snorted violently, shying sideward into Amigo, as a figure suddenly arose from a gully at the side of the road, a Winchester leveled at the two Rangers.

 

"Reach, and get off those hosses...." (end of Chapter 1)

 

"Blast it, Jim! I told you those %$%% bells you tied to your hoss's mane would signal any owlhoot within two miles!" Walker chided his partner, as both Ranger raised their gloved hands level with their Stetson brims.

 

"Like any hombre couldn't hear us trottin' along anyway, Walker!" Jim snorted.

 

"That's enough out of you two! Do what I say, and get down off them hosses." The man in the road waggled his rifle for emphasis.

 

Walker and Jim carefully dismounted, keeping their hands high. With the heavy gloves protecting their fingers and hands against the cold, there was no way they could trigger a sixgun, anyway.

 

"Now, hand over your wallets." The drygulcher, nondescript in

ragged, loose-fitting clothing, a battered Stetson pulled down low over his head, collar lifted against the chill wind, demanded.

 

"Easy, Son...." Jim slowly advanced toward the young man holding

the rifle. The boy couldn't have been more than fifteen. "You don't want to kill us."

 

"Hold it right there, or I'll blast ya!!!"

 

"Son, think about what you're doin'", Walker spoke softly, gently to the boy. "You can't possibly get both of us, anyway." Walker also advanced carefully toward the boy, as the lad's rifle wavered uncertainly, first leveled at Jim's chest, then Walker's.

 

“Stand back!! Just give me your money, and I'll take one of your

hosses. I don't want to hurt you, but I'll shoot...believe me, I

will!!" The boy's voice rose higher in pitch, quavering.

 

"Son, just give me the gun, please." Jim took another step toward the boy.

 

"Mister, I mean it...." The boy levered a shell into the chamber, cocking the rifle, the gun once again pointing for a moment at Walker, then coming back to settle on Jim's chest.

 

"Just give my pard your rifle, Son", Walker urged, as he also

stepped toward the boy. Snow flurries were now starting to spit

fitfully through the cold breeze. "No one's gonna hurt you.."

 

"Mister, please...." Jim was only two steps from the muzzle of the Winchester now, the black barrel aimed menacingly, point blank, at the tall Ranger's chest.

 

"Son, just lower the rifle, and hand it to me." Walker and Jim

could see the fear on the boy's face, the indecision in his eyes.

 

"Please, Son...my pard's name's Jim, and I'm Walker; we've got

families at home. We're goin' home for Christmas. Now, just give Jim the gun, and we'll talk about this. We won't hurt you, I promise."

 

Suddenly, the boy slowly lowered the rifle, Jim, exhaling an

audible sigh of relief, yanked the gun from the boy's grasp. The

teenager stood there in the trail, shoulders shaking as he sobbed silently, tears streaking his cheeks.

 

“It's OK, Son." Walker put an arm comfortingly around the boy's

shoulders. "Now, tell us why you'd want to try and rob two strangers.  You were awfully lucky: Lots of hombres would have killed you, right where you stood." (end of Chapter 2)

 

"Easy, Son...it's all right, now; we're not gonna hurt you."

Walker spoke quietly to the still-sobbing teen.

 

"What's your name, son?" Jim asked.

 

"It's Ben...Ben Chappel, Mister."

 

"Well, Ben, like my pardner there told you, my name's Jim: Jim Griffin...and he's Cordell Walker; goes by Walker. Now, Ben, what in the world are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere, pullin' a gun on strangers?"

 

"I suppose you're gonna turn me over to the Sheriff", Ben answered morosely.

 

"Not necessarily, Son. We don't have to; Jim and I are Texas

Rangers", Walker replied, as the lad jumped slightly. "...but I do need you to answer Jim's questions."

 

"Mister, I mean, Ranger...."

 

"Just call me 'Walker', and my pard 'Jim'", Walker interrupted.

 

"Yessir, Ranger...I mean, Walker. I'm not a thief: I promise you

that", Ben replied. "I'm just trying to get some money for food, and so I can get my two sisters away from my uncle's ranch, before something awful happens to them...and me...."

 

"Walker, what say we head for town, and Ben can tell us his story as we ride? Ben, you look like you could use some warmin' up, and a bellyful of grub", Jim continued. "Let's get you where you can thaw out a little."

 

"Gee, Jim, Walker...! I don't deserve that; I was gonna steal your money, and your hosses."

 

"Ben, you wouldn't have been able to steal our hosses!" Walker

laughed. "They won't let anyone ride 'em but us...and let me 'n Jim be the judge of what you need."

 

"C'mon, Ben, jump up behind me here..and hold onto this rifle

tight." Jim passed the boy's Winchester back to him, as the tall

Ranger swung back into his saddle. He gave Ben a hand, and the lanky teen swung up behind Jim, on Yankee's rump.

 

"Let's go, Pard!" Walker ordered, as he swing back into Amigo's

saddle. As they trotted toward Balinger once again, Ben Chappel arms wrapped around Jim's waist--was almost immediately slumped against Jim's back, fast asleep.

 

"Jim, before we get home, it's gonna be me or those bells, Pard!" Walker grumped, as the sleigh bells in Yankee's mane jingled merrily as the horse jogged along. (end of Chapter 3)

 

"Here we are at last, Jim...and none too soon." The Rangers were

reining up in front of the Ballinger House. "Let's get that room, and see if we can still arrange for a hot bath. Then, we'll get some grub...for the kid and ourselves."

 

"Ben, wake up...." Jim called to the exhausted boy riding behind

him.

 

"Huh...? Oh...where are we...?"

 

“We're in Ballinger. We're gonna get a room, put up our hosses, and get some supper."

 

"What can I do for you fellas?" the proprietor of the Ballinger

House, a gray-haired, grandmotherly type, inquired, as they entered, "I'm Mona Diamond, owner of this fine establishment."

 

“We'd like a room", Walker replied, "with an extra bed. Found this kid on the trail, half-froze to death. Like to arrange for hot baths for all of us, also...and where can we put up our hosses, and get some chuck?"

 

"Room's fine, and I also own the livery stable, across the alley

out back. Best food's across the street, at the Dixie Lunch. Why

don't you boys stoke up there, and by the time you finish, those hot baths'll be ready for you?"

 

"Sounds fine, Miss Mona", Walker replied, signing the register,

dropping a coin on the counter. "We're headin' home for Christmas, so it'll just be the night. My pard's Jim Griffin, and this is Ben."

 

"Well, the room's not much, but it's clean", Mona replied. "Mort! Start heatin' up some water!" she called to an older man.

 

With Yankee and Amigo comfortably settled in their stalls, the

Rangers and Ben headed across to the Dixie Lunch.

 

"Steak, fried potatoes, and dried apple pie sound good to you,

Ben?" Jim smiled.

 

"Sure does, Jim...but I don't deserve it. I can't pay you...."

 

"You let me and Walker worry about that", Jim replied.

 

"But you wanted me to tell you why I was out there", Ben protested.

 

"Quiet, Kid, and just eat. Plenty of time for that later", Walker replied.

 

Both Rangers smiled to themselves, seeing the prodigious amount of food the teenager put away. It was apparent the boy had been a long time between meals.

 

"Baths are all ready, boys!" Mona announced, as they returned to

the hotel. "Here's your washcloths and towels." She passed them

thick, fluffy, clean white towels, far better than at most frontier hotels.

 

"Jim...", Walker nudged his partner, as he and Jim were undressing. Ben was trying to avoid stripping out of his clothes in front of the two Rangers. "Look at that poor kid."

 

"Ben, come here...." Walker called to the teenager.

 

“Walker, I...."

 

"Ben, you've got to tell us what happened!" The boy's chest and

back were a mass of bruises and welts.

 

"Walker, I--I...can't...."

 

"Ben, we have to know. But you can tell us after you've had your

bath...AND we get you to the Doc's. Some of those cuts are infected."  (end of Chapter 4)

 

The Rangers and Ben had finished their baths, redressed, and were back in the lobby of the Ballnger House.

 

"Miss Mona, where's the Doc's?" Walker inquired.

 

"His office is right in the hotel building here...but he lives

about a half mile up the road, small house on the edge of town.

Name's Doc Kingsley", the hotel owner answered.

 

"Walker, I'll be fine...!" Ben protested.

 

"Ben, you're goin' to the Doc's, to get those cuts and bruises

taken care of: that's final!" Walker's tone left no room for

argument.

 

"Walker, Ben'll never walk that far in his shape. I'll get the

hosses. Meet you out front in ten minutes."

 

"Fine, Jim."

 

Doctor Horatio Kingsley proved to be a veteran frontier physician, his wife a capable nurse. He answered the knock on his door immediately, ushering the men into a small side room used for middle of the night emergencies.

 

"Hmmm...some of these cuts are deep...and badly infected. You got this boy here just in time." He set to work on the wounds. "Tell you what: I'd like to keep him here overnight." As Ben started to protest, the doctor broke in, "Son, it's just so I can clean out these cuts and redress them again in the morning. Then, you can leave. You're plumb wore out anyway, I can see that. "You two," he now addressed the Rangers. "He really shouldn't travel for 48 hours. Do you have to be headed out?"

 

"We've got a couple of days, Doc", Walker replied, with a shrug.

"We'll stay over one more night, anyway."

 

"Fine. I'll see you in the morning."

 

"G'night, Doc. Ben, you do what Doc tells you.."

 

"But, Walker! My sisters...!"

 

"Ben, nothing we can do tonight anyway. Jim and I are worn out, just like you, and our hosses are done in. Now, we'll be here first thing in the morning, and you can tell us everything then. G'night, Ben."

 

"G'night, Walker, Jim."  With a sigh, the teen gave up the fight for the night, exhaustion once again claiming him.

 

"G'night, Ben, night, Doc."  Jim added. (end of Chapter 5)

 

Trotting their horses down Main Street, Walker asked, "Jim, you

want a quick drink?"

 

"Sure do, Pard. I've got this feelin' we might not get home for

Christmas, after all. We'd better wire Headquarters and home in the morning, Pard. I've gotta get my wallet out of our room. Left it there when we took our baths."

 

They dropped Yankee's and Amigo's reins over the hitch rack in front of the Valley Saloon, observed by several men hanging out on the wooden walk in front of the bar.

 

"Clem, ain't those bells just so cute??" one of them remarked,

looking at the bells in Yankee's mane.

 

"Thanks, Mister; I like them", Jim replied, not missing the sarcasm in the speaker's voice.

 

"Trane, wonder what kind of sissified dude puts bells in his hoss's mane?" Clem replied.

 

“Dunno, Clem...but no hoss should have to wear those geegaws."

Trane stepped toward Yankee. "In fact, I'm gonna pull them out for him."

 

"I wouldn't try that, Mister...Trane, your name is?" Jim growled.

 

"That's right." Jack Trane reached for Yankee's mane, stopping

short as the Paint pinned back his ears, baring vicious teeth.

 

"Hey! What is this?!!" Trane sputtered.

 

"My hoss LIKES those bells, Mister. Now, unless you want to lose a chunk of hand or arm, you'd better back off from him...and, as far as what kind of dude puts bells in his hoss's mane, THIS kind does...!" Jim pulled back his jacket, revealing the Ranger badge pinned to his vest.

 

"A Ranger...?!"

 

"Yeah, A Ranger."

 

"Trane, just 'cause this tall jigger's a Ranger, you gonna let him stop you from takin' those bells?" Clem Hatch egged his partner on.

 

"$$%%%, NO!" Trane shouted, and swung wildly for Jim's head. Jim

sidestepped the punch easily, sinking his fist in Trane's middle. The cowpuncher doubled over, and sagged to the walk.

 

"Trane, huh? I've heard of your family." Jim stood over the

retching hombre. "Heard they blow lots of hot air...well, I just

knocked it out of you, Mister. Now, I want to hear you say, 'Merry Christmas, Yankee' to my hoss, and tell him those bells are nice-lookin'!"

 

"Go to blazes, Ranger!!"

 

"Do it, Trane...or else!" Jim's voice was low and menacing.

 

“Better do it, Jack. He means it." Clem was no longer so bold.

 

"All right. Hoss...."

 

"His name's 'Yankee'."

 

"Yankee...Merry Christmas...and those bells look just fine on

you...."

 

"Walker, guess it's not so hard to stop a Trane, after all!" Jim

chuckled, as his partner stood there dumbfounded.

 

Jim reached down, giving Trane a hand up. "C'mon, Mister. It's

almost Christmas. I'll buy you and your pard there a drink."

 

The anger in Trane's eyes faded, replaced by a twinkle. "Sure,

Ranger...why not?"

 

Entering the saloon, Walker told Trane and Clem, "You boys have it lucky! I've got to ride with that pard of mine halfway across

Texas...with those bells janglin' all the time."

 

"Well, Walker", Jim responded, "as Edgar Allen Poe wrote...and I

apologize for not quoting him exactly: 'The bells, bells, bells, the tintinnabulation of the bells.'"

 

"Jim, I think I need that drink, more than ever!" Walker laughed. (end of Chapter 6)

The four men entered the Valley Saloon, hanging their heavy coats on pegs near the door.

 

"Texas Rangers! What are you doin' in Ballinger...and what are you doin' with two hombres like Jack and Clem?" Ted Calison, the

bartender and owner, hadn't missed the silver stars on silver circles pinned to Jim's and Walker's vests. The noisy room quieted for a moment, as patrons, gamblers, and female entertainers glanced in the direction of the no-nonsense lawmen.

 

"Just headin' home for Christmas, Mister", Jim replied, "and givin' Jack here a lesson in not tryin' to mess with my hoss...and how not to be a grinch!" he grinned. "Now, put down a bottle here, for me and my pard, and Jack and Clem here."

 

"Sure, Ranger." The saloonkeeper produced a  bottle and four

glasses.

 

After a couple of drinks, Clem questioned, "Aren't you the two

hombres I saw ridin' into town earlier, with the Chappel kid?"

 

"Sure were, Clem", Walker replied.

 

"How'd you meet up with him, anyway?"

 

"Found him on the trail..half-starved, looked like", Walker

replied. "He'd been hurt somewhere, too. We left him at the Doc's."

 

Staring into the amber liquid in his glass, Jack Trane muttered,

"That 'somewhere' must've been Rob Hick's place: the kid's no-good uncle. Ben must've finally lit out of there. Only reason he stayed there this long, I'm sure, was because of his sisters. If he left them, I hate to think what Hicks' might do to them. And neither one of 'em's over fourteen. Shame what some people will do to their relatives."

 

"Where is this place, anyway? Kid seemed like he'd come a long

way", Jim asked.

 

"He did, Ranger", Ted, the bartender, replied, "if you found him on the road out there. The Old Hickory, his uncle's ranch, is about twenty miles west of here. You say the kid was hurt. I hope not too bad."

 

"Doc says he'll be all right, with some rest", Jim replied.

 

"Rangers, if I were you, I'd look into that place. Talk to Ben, and see what he has to say", Clem Hatch broke in. "I'm not sayin' any more than that; you just ask that boy."

 

"OK, Clem", Walker responded, knowing the two cowpokes would reveal no further information.

 

"Clem, have another drink!" Jim grinned, filling the cowpoke's

glass. "C’mon, down the Hatch!!" (end of Chapter 7)

 

Walker and Jim were awakened early the next morning, by a pounding on their hotel room door. Both of them threw back their blankets, reaching for a pistol from the gunbelts hanging, as always, close at hand.

 

"Who is it?" Walker called out, his pistol aimed at the door.

 

"Sheriff Joe Tucker", came the reply.

 

"C'mon in, Sheriff." Walker strode over to the door, opening it

carefully, both Rangers lowering their Colts, as the lawman entered.

 

"Howdy, Sheriff. I'm Cordell Walker...and my pard, Jim Griffin."

 

“Howdy yourselves; glad to meet you."

 

"Sheriff, excuse me while I shave." Jim, as always, headed over to the washstand, pulling off his shirt, even in the chilly room, and lathering up, scraping away at his face.

 

"What can we do for you, Sheriff?" Walker questioned.

 

"I pulled into town late last night". Tucker replied. "Calison over to the saloon tells me you brought in the Chappel boy."

 

"That's true, Sheriff. Why are you interested?"

 

"Because, Ranger, that boy's had it rough, since his folks died.

That Rob Hicks is a no-good polecat. I know he's been whippin' the boy, and the two girls. You know how the law is, though. Mebbe some day kids'll have more protection. Plus, Hicks's place is just outside my jurisdiction."

 

"Sheriff, if you don't mind my asking, why are you telling us all this?" Jim queried.

 

"Guess I'm kinda hopin' mebbe you'll take the boy's part, mebbe

even find some way to get him and his sisters outta there. Heard you were headin' home, though...."

 

"Well, Sheriff...we are", Walker replied. "But Jim and I thought we might just take a little detour on the way. Past the Hicks place, you understand." In fact, as soon as Jim and I finish dressin', we're gonna head for the Doc's, and check on Ben. You can come with us, if you'd like."

 

"That's fine, Ranger. I'm gonna get some shut-eye, though...been up most of the night. Can you stop by my office later, though, and let me know how he's doin'?"

 

"Sure thing, Sheriff."

 

"Thanks, both of you. Adios, for now."

 

"Adios to you, too, Sheriff. We'll see you later." (end of Chapter 8)

 

"Ranger Walker...Ranger Griffin...come in." Miriam Kingsley greeted the pair, as they arrived at Doctor Kingsley's house, to check on Ben.

 

"Rangers! Good to see you again...!"

 

"You too, Doc", Jim replied. "How's Ben?"

 

"Well, he should be ready to leave here this afternoon. He's still sleeping, and I don't want to disturb him."

 

"Us either, Doc", Walker answered. "If he awakens before we come

back, tell him we'll see him this afternoon...and not to worry about his sisters."

 

"Where to now, Walker?" Jim asked, as they left the physician's.

 

"Well, Jim, since we've checked on the hosses, and had breakfast, how about the General Store, to do some Christmas shopping?"

 

"Sounds good to me, Pard...."

 

"How's this, Jim?" Walker was holding up a lacy, sheer powder blue negligee.

 

"Lovely, Walker.. but the color clashes with your eyes, Pard. It's just not you."

 

"It's not for me, you idiot!! It's for Alex."

 

"Well, Pard, then it does work: that material in that thing's so

thin, you'll be holding her all night long, just to keep her warm."

 

"That's the idea, Jim. Hey, who's all that stuff for?" Walker

noticed a pile of clothes and other items Jim had piled on the

counter.

 

"For Ben, Walker; I'm sure you noticed his clothes were rags, and his boots were held together with spit and string. Other things, I hope, will be for his sisters. I'm guessin' what they could use."

 

"Jim, soon as we finish here, we've gotta figure out just WHAT

we're gonna do with Ben...." (end of Chapter 9, Part 1)

 

"Will that be all, Rangers?" Mort Levine, proprietor of the Ballinger General Store, had finished wrapping up Jim's and Walker's purchases.

 

"Yes, sir...that'll do."

 

"Thank you, very much, and have a Happy Christmas."

 

"You too, Mr. Levine."

 

Jim and Walker were somewhat somber, though, heading to the Western Union, after leaving their packages at the hotel.

 

"Jim, we still should get home with time to spare for Christmas", Walker comforted his partner.

 

"Yeah, I know, Walker...and we can't just walk away from Ben, that's for sure. Just hope we can solve this real quick, Pard."

 

After wiring Ranger Headquarters of their delay, and sending messages to their families, they headed back to the Dixie Lunch.

 

"Jim, even if we CAN get Ben and his sisters away from here, what do we do with them? They have no family, from what we know."

 

"Dunno, Pard. I could take 'em in for awhile."

 

"Jim, thinkin' about that kept me up all night. I want--in the worst way--to take these kids home to Alex...even without meeting the girls. But, Jim, I just can't.

 

"I've got the best wife in the world, and son, in Alex and Bobby. But, I can't ask Alex to worry about three more kids, while I'm on the trail, never knowing when, or if, I'll come back."

 

"Yeah, I know, Walker; it's really not fair, the way we treat our families sometimes...Yet, Pard, that's what makes them so wonderful, and so special, that they love us, despite what we are."

 

"Well, Jim, let's think on it awhile." Walker pushed his way back from the table. "Let's go see if Ben is awake." (end of Chapter 9,Part 2)

 

"Walker, I've got it...!!"

 

"Got what, Jim?"  The two Rangers were strolling to Doctor

Kingsley's.

 

"Where to take Ben and his sisters...at least for a while, Pard."

 

"Where, Jim...?" Seeing the excited look in Jim's eyes, Walker

suddenly knew exactly where Jim meant.

 

"Jim, you mean...?"

 

"Yup, Walker...."

 

"Jim, you're a genius!! That's the perfect home for those kids!!"

 

"About time you admitted that, Pard. Well, here we are; let's hope Ben's awake...Doggone it, though, too bad we forgot those new clothes!"

 

"Well, Jim, we can surprise him back at the hotel with 'em. He'll be staying with us tonight, anyway. You know the Doc said no travellin' until tomorrow for the kid," Walker replied, knocking on the physician's door.

 

"Rangers, come in. Ben's awake, and asking for you", Miriam

Kingsley greeted them warmly. "I'll get you some coffee." 

 

"Walker, Jim.. I didn't know if you'd come back, or not." Ben's

expression was one of pure joy at seeing the two men who had rescued him, despite his attempting to rob them...but the joy could not quite hide the fear in the teenager's brown eyes.

 

"Doc, how's Ben; ready to leave...?" Walker asked.

 

"Walker, I've been ready for hours!!"

 

"Whoa, Son! That's up to the Doc", Walker told the lad, firmly.

 

"Ranger Walker, as long as you make sure his wounds are coated with the antiseptic I'll give you, he should be fine. I'd like to check him once again, though, before he goes back home."

 

"I'll never go back there, except to get my sisters!" Ben's voice rose in anger.

 

"Easy, Ben", Jim broke in. "You're gonna come with us for the

night, to the hotel. You can tell me and Walker all about what's

happened to you and your sisters. Then, Walker and I'll help you, Son."

 

"Here's your coffee, Rangers...." Miriam Kingsley entered the room, two steaming cups in her hands.

 

"Thank you, Miriam", Walker replied. "Ben, Jim's right. He and I

will ride out to your uncle's place, first thing n the morning. Now, though, with Doc's permission, why don't you get dressed. The Dixie Lunch has lemon pie today."

 

"Walker, you and Jim can't keep feedin' me...not after what I did to you, pointin' a gun at you, and trying to steal your money and hosses. I nearly plugged you, Jim, and you're both being too good to me. I don't deserve this."

 

"Doc, Miriam, you never heard that!" Walker stated flatly. "Ben,

you never mention that again, Son. You never would have pulled that trigger, and we all know it."

 

"That's right, Ben" Jim broke in, "and let me and Walker decide

what you need. If you keep insistin' that you don't want us to help you, then we'll just take you into custody, for attempted robbery." Jim's smile told the teenager all he needed to know. "Now, get dressed, before that pie's all gone." (end of Chapter 9, Part 3)

 

"Ben, those cuts are coming along just fine." Walker had just

smeared salve, once again--per Doctor Kingsley's instructions—over the welts covering the boy's upper torso. Ben's back, chest, stomach, and belly were one mass of cuts and bruises. In addition, the underfed teenager's ribs were showing, two of them clearly showing they had been broken. "Now, get dressed...."

 

"Ben, these are for you." Jim tossed a wrapped bundle to the

fifteen-year-old, as Ben picked up his tattered shirt. He, Walker and Sheriff Joe Tucker, along with Ben, were in the Rangers' room at the Ballinger House. Mona Diamond had insisted--seeing the boy with them--on sending up a whole chocolate cake from the hotel kitchen.

 

"What...what's in here?" Ben stammered out.

 

"Just a couple things you'll need, Ben", Walker stated.

 

With fingers trembling from his overwhelming emotions, Ben could

barely untie the string wrapping the package. 

 

"Go ahead...try 'em on, Ben", Sheriff Joe Tucker urged, seeing even the two tough Rangers had glistening eyes, and seemed to have lost their voices.

 

"Walker...! Jim...!" the boy stammered out, then, suddenly, pulled off his old clothes, pulling on the new jeans, socks, and shirts Jim and Walker had purchased.

 

"I don't know how I can ever thank you." Ben almost whispered,

buttoning the new blue shirt.

 

"You don't have to, Son", Jim replied. "Here, these are for you,

too." Jim produced a new pair of boots, and Walker passed the

teenager a new, tan Stetson. Ben sat on the edge of his bed, eagerly pulling on the new boots.

 

"Walker...Jim...."

 

"Easy, Ben. Now, you want us to help you. We're doin' just that", Walker responded.

 

"Not like this, Walker. I just want to get far away from my Uncle Rob."

"Ben, the Rangers here have told me they're gonna try and help you do just that," Sheriff Tucker told the lad. 

 

"That's right, Ben", Walker continued. "Now, the Sheriff here has told us some about your Uncle. Jim and I need you to tell us

everything, though, Ben. Take your time."

 

Slowly, Ben started to relate the tragedy that had befallen the

Chappel family, his voice getting stronger as he continued.

 

"Walker, Jim...my folks had a small ranch about fifteen miles from here. I have two younger sisters: May, who's fourteen, a year younger'n me, and Janey, who's nine. Ma gave us some schoolin', and I helped my Pa work the ranch."

 

"Rangers, you couldn't find finer folks than Scott and Gail

Chappel...they were the salt of the earth", Joe Tucker interrupted.

 

"Thanks, Sheriff", Ben replied. "A little more than two years ago, a night like this, real cold, Pa must've built the fire up in the stove a little too much. Our house caught fire. Pa got me, May, and Janey out...but Ma was still inside. Pa went back in for her." Ben stopped, breaking down, crying. "He never came back out.

 

"I'm sorry, Rangers...."

 

"That's all right, Son", Jim answered, reassuringly.

 

"Well, we had no kinfolk anywhere, except our Uncle, Rob Hicks.

He's not really our blood uncle. He was married to Ma's sister, who left him and moved back East. She died of the fever back there, before Janey was a year old."

 

"Rangers, Hicks has a little place, like you've been told, about

twenty miles west of here. Real run-down. Until he took his

sister-in-law's kids in, just him and his pardner, Troy Blakeman, lived there. Always suspected him of rustlin', but he's a lazy skunk. Any stealin' he did was just enough to keep him and Blakeman in likker and grub."  Sheriff Tucker filled in some details.

 

"Go ahead, Ben...I know it's hard, but we need to know everything you can tell us, if we have a chance of gettin' you and your sisters away from him. It helps some that he's not blood kin", Walker urged, "but, he still might fight us, in court or otherwise, Son."

 

"OK, Walker. Uncle Rob took us in, and right away, started treatin' me like his slave. Whippin's if I did the least thing wrong, no food, sleepin' in the corner of the barn, all that stuff. He makes May and Janey work like dogs, too, and whips 'em. And, now that May's gettin' older, and startin' to fill out some--you know what I mean--I don't like the way Uncle Rob looks at her.

 

"We tried to run away a couple of times, but Uncle Rob and Troy

always caught us, and brought us back. Then, we'd get whipped even worse. Sheriff Tucker tried to help us, but he couldn't do nothin', and no one wanted us anyway." Ben stopped, trembling.

 

"Walker, I don't know about you, but I've heard enough." 

 

"Me too, Jim." Walker placed a kind hand on Ben's shoulder. "Son, that's enough for tonight. Tomorrow, Jim and I'll ride out to your Uncle's place, and bring back your sisters."

 

“Not without me, you're not!!!" Ben's eyes blazed with sudden fury.

 

"Son, best you stay here with me, where it's safe, until the

Rangers get back", Sheriff Tucker replied.

 

“No, Sheriff!! I'm going to get May and Janey!!!"

 

"We'll see in the morning, Son", Jim told the youngster, softly.

"Right now, though, we'd all better get some shut-eye."

 

"Jim's right, Ben."

 

"Time for me to make my patrol of town one last time anyway.

G'night, men."

 

"G'night, Sheriff. We'll try and see you before we leave, but we'll be ridin' out early", Walker replied. "Gotta figure a way to bring those girls back. Livery has a wagon and team to rent, I hope."

 

"No, Walker: Merle rented his last wagon to Pepe Ramirez day before yesterday."

 

"Well, worst comes to worst, they can ride double with me and Jim."

 

"Time for bed, Ben", Jim ordered, after the sheriff left.

Ben--still excited over the new clothes the Rangers had purchased for him--just pulled off his boots before crawling under the blankets, even leaving his new Stetson on his head, pulling it low over his eyes.

 

"Brrr, Walker!! Mebbe I don't miss New England winters as much as I thought!" Jim remarked to his partner, shivering, as he and Walker stripped to their long underwear, and dove under the covers on their beds. "I'm turning blue here."

 

"Well, Jim, it may turn hot, tomorrow, if Rob Hicks gives us any

trouble. G'night, Pard."

 

"G'night, Walker...." (end of Chapter 9, Pt. 4)

 

"Ben, it's against both Jim and my better judgment, but--as long

as you promise to listen to us--we'll let you come along." Bundled in their heavy sheepskin coats, gunbelts buckled on the outside, Jim and Walker were saddling up Yankee and Amigo, the horses stamping restlessly against the cold, their warm breath steaming in the frosty air.

 

"This is a good hoss for the boy, Rangers." Al Torneau, the livery stable owner, was leading a chunky Appaloosa, saddled and bridled, out of its stall. "And, don't try to give me any money for rentin' this hoss, either", the roly-poly hostler continued. "About time somebody did somethin' to get those kids away from here. Would've tried it myself, if I were twenty years younger, and still had both arms." Torneau had lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh. "You goin' after those gals is payment enough for me." (end of Chapter 10, Pt. 1)

 

The horses were full of energy, after nearly two days' rest, and

the cold air. Jim and Walker let them buck a few times, then settled them into a mile-long gallop, then eased the Paints back to a ground- covering lope, then finally a mile-eating fast walk.

 

"Easy, Yank!" Jim soothed his gelding. "We've got a long way to go, Pal, and you may need to outrun some other cayuse later on. Besides, Ben's hoss there ain't as fast as you or Amigo, Pard." Jim smiled back at the teenager, who was riding huddled against the cold.

The Rangers had formulated their plans while Ben was at Doctor

Kingsley's, finalizing them that morning in the livery stable. Now, they rode silently across the prairie, noses and chins coated with the frozen moisture condensed from their breath, the horses' whiskers coated in white.

 

"That's Uncle Rob's place down below: that's the "Old Hickory." The threesome had topped a final rise, and were gazing down at a

ramshackle cabin, a thin wisp of smoke curling lazily from the

chimney. A barn leaned to the northward, looking as if it would

collapse in the slightest breeze, a few tumbledown fences making up the corrals.

 

"Walker...!!"

 

"Jim, just remember what we're here for." The red-bearded Ranger, his rime-encrusted beard now turning his appearance to some kind of cowboy Santa Claus, warned his tall partner. Those tumbledown fences enclosed several emaciated, head-drooped horses.

 

"I know, Walker--and those girls are our first consideration--but, Pard, we're not leavin' without those hosses!"

 

Walker gave a huge sigh. He knew his partner, only too well. "OK, Jim...but AFTER we make sure the kids are all safe."

 

"Let's head down there, Pard." (end of Chapter 10, Pt. 2

 

"Ben, you make sure you stay behind us", Walker warned the boy, one last time as they dismounted, Walker and Jim ground-hitching their horses, Ben tying the livery Appaloosa to a rotting porch post.

 

As the Rangers climbed the steps, badges pinned prominently to

their coats, the cabin door was flung open. 

 

"What d'you want here?" A skinny man, stringy blonde hair growing over the ragged collar of his shirt, washed-out blue eyes staring malevolently at the Rangers, demanded.

 

"I'm Cordell Walker, and this is my pard, Jim Griffin, of the Texas Rangers." Troy Blakeman dropped his eyes, unable to meet Walker's steady gaze. "We're here about Ben Chappel."

 

"Rob!! Couple of Texas Rangers out here...and they brought Ben

back." Blakeman had finally noticed the teenager, standing behind the lawmen.

 

"Well, bring 'em in!!" a voice roared from inside the shack.

 

Jim and Walker were totally unprepared for what they saw, as they entered the cabin. The stench of the fetid air crinkled their nostrils. Half-eaten food, dirty plates were just strewn

helter-skelter around the kitchen, rags tossed over wooden frames for crude chairs. 

 

"In there." Blakeman indicated the sole room that comprised the

rest of the cabin.

 

"'Bout time someone brought this no-good kid back: the ingrate,

after I give him and his useless sisters a home, a roof over their heads, and food in their bellies." Rob Hicks, greasy black hair plastered on his head, a tobacco-stained mustache drooping over his upper lip, a week's stubble of beard on his face, stood up from what passed for a couch. In the far corner of the room, two blonde girls, both underweight, dressed in filthy rags, huddled, obviously terrified.

 

"Ben!!!" the older shouted, starting to run to her brother.

 

"Don't you move, Sister!!!" Hicks ordered, May stopping in her

tracks.

 

"Thanks, Rangers, for bringing that kid back to me. I'll teach him to run out on his kin...." Hicks started to advance toward Ben, his arm raised to strike the teenager. Involuntarily, Ben flinched.

 

"Hold it, Hicks!!!" Walker's voice crackled through the cabin, as he grabbed the rancher's wrist, twisting it backwards.

 

"Don't you move either, Blakeman!!" Jim warned, his blue eyes

flaming, holding the other man frozen in place.

 

"What's the meaning of this, Ranger?" Hicks' breath nearly

overpowered Walker as he yelled, revealing crooked, yellow stumps of teeth.

 

"Just this, Hicks: We found Ben out on the trail, half-starved."

 

"Not my fault he ran out!!" Hicks snarled.

 

"Appears to us it was" Jim growled, trying to control his growing anger. "Looks like you haven't fed these kids, or your hosses, for weeks."

 

"Easy, Pard." Walker tried to calm Jim. "Hicks, we had to take your nephew to the Doctor, since you beat him so bad. Sheriff Tucker's told us about what you've done out here, and the only reason he hasn't come after you is you're out of his jurisdiction."

 

"That meddlin' law dog should mind his own business!" Blakeman

broke in.

 

"You just shut up, and keep that mouth shut", Jim warned him,

"before I smash it in for you."

 

"Jim!" Walker warned him, again. "Hicks, we didn't bring Ben back to you: We came to take his sisters away from here. You're not gonna be whipping these youngsters ever again."

 

"You can't take 'em.. they're my kin."

 

"Hicks, I wouldn't treat a hog the way you've treated these kids." Walker' s voice was flat, menacing. "Now, you've been using these kids as free labor...and I know what you're thinking about doing to that girl!!!" Walker snapped.

 

"None of your business what I do to her, Ranger!!"

 

Walker's left hand shot out, grabbing Hicks by the shirtfront, the ragged material tearing as he yanked Hicks toward him, the Ranger's right hand slashing across Hicks' mouth in a vicious slap. A trickle of blood appeared at one corner of Hicks' mouth.

 

"Listen, Mister...and listen good: I could--and probably

should--arrest you right now, for what you've done to these kids." May and Janey were standing bolt upright in their corner of the room, May's arms protectively around her younger sister. Ben stood behind the two Rangers, trembling in anger and fear. "Only reason I don't is because it's almost Christmas. But, we're taking these kids to where they'll have a chance, Mister.. and you' better not try to stop us, if you know what's good for you.. Do I make myself clear?"

 

"Ranger, you'd better...."

 

"DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR, HICKS??!!!" Walker's hand tightened on the shirtfront.

 

Rob Hicks started to protest, then shrugged. "Take the no-good

brats, Ranger, if you want 'em so bad. I'm tired of 'em eatin' me and Troy out of house and home and complainin' all the time, and never doin' a lick of work, anyway."

 

Without taking his hands off Hicks's shirt, or his eyes off the

rancher, Walker told Ben, "Son, get your sisters." Ben raced to the girls, hugging them.

 

"Don't waste time, Ben!" Jim ordered.

 

"All right, Jim. May, Janey, hurry! There's nothing you want from here."

 

"I've got to take Miss Penny." Janey spoke up, in a small voice,

darting into the other corner of the room, coming up with a tattered rag doll. It was the only thing she had left from her parents, and somehow she had kept the doll away from Rob Hicks.

 

"Take those brats and get off my property, now, Ranger...." Hicks showed a small sign of defiance.

 

"Gladly, Hicks!" Walker retorted. "And remember what I'm tellin'

you: You and your partner there forget you ever laid eyes on these kids."

 

"Don't worry about that, Ranger...."

 

Walker and Jim took the girls outside, to place them on Amigo and Yankee. They would ride double, the Rangers walking alongside their horses, if need be. Blakeman and Hicks stood on the porch, saying nothing, just sending surly looks at the two lawmen.

 

"One more thing, Rangers...!" Hicks called, just as the Rangers

were ready to swing into saddle. Walker and Jim whirled toward the porch, and Walker's Colt leapt into his hand, as he saw Troy Blakeman bring up a knife. The Colt roared, and Blakeman was slammed back against the cabin wall, Walker's bullet in his chest.

 

As if in a nightmare, everything in slow motion, Walker heard the screams of fright from the two girls. He swung his Colt to cover Rob Hicks, wondering--as he did so--why his partner hadn't fired his gun.

 

Walker's Colt bucked in his hand twice, and Hicks spun, crashing

face-first into the cabin wall, sliding to the porch floor, with two Ranger slugs in his stomach.

 

"Jim...!!" Walker turned to his partner, then stopped, in horrified disbelief.

 

"Yeah: He stuck me, Pard...." Jim, clutching his middle, sagged

sideways against his gelding, moaning in agony. Crimson was covering Jim's hands, and staining his coat, crimson coming from where a knife was protruding from Jim's belly, just above his belt. The tall Ranger slowly slumped to the frozen ground, Yankee dancing sideways to avoid stepping on his fallen friend. end of Chapter 10, Pt. 3)

 

"Jim...!" Walker was kneeling over his downed partner, calling to him, as Yankee nuzzled his human friend's head, whickering softly.  Jim's unfired sixgun was lying in the dirt, next to the Ranger.

 

Ben Chappel had dismounted from his horse, standing stunned next to Walker. His sisters, May and Janey, had scrambled off the Rangers' horses, and were now huddled in the ranch yard, May protectively holding her younger sister. Troy Blakeman and Rob Hicks were crumpled on the cabin porch, their bodies contorted awkwardly in death.

 

"Jim..." Walker spoke to his compadre again. "I've gotta pull that knife out of your gut, Pard." Jim's hands were clamped convulsively around the handle of the knife. "It's gonna hurt like H#%%." 

 

"Ben, see if there's any clean rags in that cabin!" Walker urgently ordered the boy, knowing it was a hopeless order.

 

"Walker, there's NOTHING clean in THAT place!!" Ben managed to

stammer out.

 

"Easy, Jim." Walker gently removed Jim's hand from the knife.

"Yank, back off, just a little." Instinctively knowing Walker was trying to help his friend, the big Paint backed away, snorting his protests.

 

"Auugghh!!! Unnnhhh!!!" Jim screamed in agony, as Walker pulled out the knife.

 

"Sorry, Jim...!" Walker opened Jim's coat and shirt, tore open

Jim's long undershirt, revealing the wound in Jim's belly, oozing scarlet, the blood thickening in the cold air.

 

"Walker...couldn't...couldn't shoot", Jim choked out. "Would've

hit...the little girl...."

 

"Just lie quiet, Jim. I've gotta try and slow that bleedin'."

Walker shrugged out of his heavy coat, pulling off his shirt. "Ben, give me a hand here", he called the teenager. "I need you to give me a hand slidin' this under Jim, so I can use it for a bandage."

 

"Walker, I can lift myself, some", Jim weakly spoke up. "Just let Ben lift me a little." Jim groaned in pain, as--with Ben's help—he lifted his shoulder off the ground, and Walker got the shirt in place around Jim's back, tying the shirt tightly around Jim's middle after the tall Ranger was lying flat again.

 

"Walker, don't forget to take the hosses with you...." Jim's voice was almost a whisper.

 

"Jim, we're not gonna worry about those ##$$$ hosses!" Walker

retorted, sorry as soon as he said it.

 

"Pard, you’ve gotta!" Jim responded, "They'll starve out here.

Hicks and Blakeman deserved what they got, just for what they did to those hosses, not feedin' 'em."

 

"OK, Jim...don't worry: we'll take the hosses. And I said WE'LL,

Pard, not I'LL take 'em. You're gonna be just fine, Pard."

 

"Walker, promise me one thing, will you?"

 

"Sure, Jim, whatever you want." Walker had rebuttoned Jim's bloody shirt and coat, and was now buttoning his own coat back on.

 

"Just get me home for Christmas, will ya, Pard? I ...promised

Marcy...when...we got married...that I'd never miss bein'

bein'...home for Christmas, Walker. Just...get me to my family for Christmas, please...please, Walker...." Jim's voice was fading, his eyes half-closed.

 

"Jim, you'll be home by Christmas; I promise you, Pard."

 

"Thanks, Walker. Knew...I could count on...you; that's what...pards are for...."

 

"Listen, Walker...." Yankee had come back up to Jim again,

nuzzling his friend. Jim smiled up at the gelding, reaching up to weakly rub the horse's muzzle. "Listen to the...bells on Yank, Pard. Don't they sound nice...?"

 

"Sure do, Jim. I'll never complain about those bells again."

 

"Walker, leave them on...Yank...until we get...home...."

 

"Sure, Jim. They'll be on him, when you ride him into your

yard...."

 

"Not sure...about ridin' him...this time, Pard...."

 

"Jim, you'll ride him...." Walker stopped, as Jim's eyes closed,

his head turning sideways to the ground, as his body relaxed. (end of Chapter 11)

 

"Jim, don't die, please!!!!" Ben Chappel--seeing one of the Rangers who had rescued him and his sisters slipping away, blood soaking through his coat--threw himself across the tall Ranger.

 

"Ben, he's not gonna die!!!!" Walker gently pulled the boy back up. "We're not gonna let him. He can't make any distance on hossback, though. $$^^ that Merle at the stable, rentin' out the last wagon. We would've had it here."

 

"Walker, there's a buckboard behind the stable!" Ben burst out.

"It's old, and in bad shape, but it should get us to town."

 

"Ben, that'll help. May, Janey, listen carefully, please: I know

this is hard on you, but, I need you to go into the barn, and gather all the straw and hay you can find...the cleanest in there. As soon as Ben and I get the buckboard, I'll need you to fill it with hay.  Can you do that?"

 

"Yes...yessir", came May's brave response. "Come, Janey...hurry!!"

 

"Ben, which of these hosses can pull that buckboard?"

 

"Any of 'em, Walker...the two bays are probably the steadiest." 

"Well, Ben, let's hope and pray they have enough left in 'em to

pull that buckboard." The half-starved horses looked like they barely had strength to move, let alone pull a loaded wagon nearly twenty miles.

 

"Ben, let's round up those two, and hitch 'em up. After we do that, and get Jim in the buckboard, can you haze the rest of the hosses with us? I'll drive the buckboard, May and Janey will ride with me, and my hoss and Jim's will just follow me."

 

"Walker, you really gonna take those hosses?"

 

"Ben, you heard what I promised Jim. Trust me, we've got no choice. Jim'd never forgive me if we left those hosses behind. Hurry, let's move!"

 

Quickly, Ben rounded up Brownie and Blackie, he and Walker hitching them up to the buckboard, rolling it to the stable door.

 

"Good work, girls." Somehow, from the big Ranger's kind voice and smile, Ben's sisters knew they could trust this man. They had a large pile of hay and straw ready, and helped pile it high in the buckboard.

 

Walker lifted the two girls to the seat, wrapping them in ragged

blankets procured from the house. He would have preferred letting them burrow under the hay in the wagon bed, but knew it would be too much on them, riding with the badly wounded Jim. He trotted the team over to where Jim lay, astonished to find Jim looking up at him, through glazed eyes.

 

"Jim...how bad you hurtin'?"

 

"Not at all, Pard...belly's just kind of numb...." Walker frowned at that response.

 

"Jim, Ben and I are gonna lift you into this buckboard."

 

"Walker, just help me...on...Yank's back."

 

"Not this time, Jim...."

 

The tall Ranger flinched, as a sudden pain shot through his body. "Mebbe you're right, this time, Walker...Give me a hand...."

 

Ben and Walker got Jim to his feet, and the tall Ranger somehow

managed to stagger to the back of the wagon, falling backwards into the soft hay and straw. Pulling Jim by the shoulders, Walker got his entire long frame into the buckboard, covering him with more ragged blankets from the shack.

 

"What about Uncle Rob and Troy?" Ben asked, as he swung into the

saddle of the livery Appaloosa, and headed over to drop the corral bars.

 

"We'll have to leave 'em, for now, Son. Let's go."

 

It quickly became apparent, as they headed out, the Appy Ben was

riding was not capable of keeping the six horses loosed from their corrals bunched. Finally, Walker called to his and Jim's Paints. "Amigo!! Yank!! Straighten out those miserable excuses of cayuses, will ya?" Responding instantly to his orders, the two big geldings, ears pinned, teeth bared and flashing, nipping at withers and flanks, drove the squealing broncs ahead. (end of Chapter 12)

 

Snow flurries were spitting on a fitful north wind, as Walker

headed the wagon eastward. May and Janey rode huddled silently beside the red-bearded Ranger, returning his smile, shyly.

 

Walker cringed every time the buckboard lurched over a rut, or

bounced over a pothole. He had to hurry, before Jim bled to death, yet too rough a ride might just kill his partner. In addition, he had to try and make the emaciated animals pulling that wagon last twenty miles, without having them drop dead in their tracks.

 

Jim never lost consciousness again the entire trip, kept awake by the jouncing of the wagon, sending slashing pains through his middle. He groaned in agony, crying out in pain at the occasional, unavoidable extra rough jolt, as the wagon bounced over a rock, or slewed through a frozen rut.

 

"Sorry, Pard." Walker, glancing back to check on Jim, saw his

partner had rolled onto his side, doubled up in agony, clutching his middle. "Better lie back flat, if you can...." With a moan seeping from his gray lips, Jim stretched out once again.

 

The gloom of a cloudy winter's night, descending fast, was

overtaking the group. "Lord, don't let me lose the trail!" Walker prayed, as the road ahead faded into the swirling flakes. "Please, Dear Lord, I promised Jim he'd be home for your Son's birthday." Walker drove the horses grimly onward.

 

Suddenly, as if in answer to Walker's prayer, the setting sun burst golden over the western horizon, breaking through the clouds, illuminating the prairie with a glorious amber and golden glow. In the distance, Walker could see the squat buildings of Ballinger.

 

"Thank you, Lord", the red-bearded Ranger sighed, eyes heavenward. "Heeyah, Brownie!! C'mon, Blackie...get up there!!"

 

"We made it, Ben!!" Walker yelled in triumph, as he pulled the team to a halt in front of the Ballinger Hotel, where Doctor Kingsley was still in his office. (end of Chapter 13)

 

At the sounds of the horses trotting down Main Street, Sheriff

Tucker had emerged from his office, hurrying across the road. Mona Diamond came rushing out of the hotel lobby.

 

"Walker.. what happened?" Tucker cried out.

 

"Ben, get those hosses around back to the livery." Walker called

out. "Make sure they get a good rubdown."

 

"I'll give the boy a hand, Ranger." Al Torneau had observed their arrival, from the door of the stable.

 

"Sheriff, give me a hand gettin' Jim in Doc's office."

 

"Sure, Walker." Clem Hatch and Jack Trane, along with Ted Calison, had emerged from the saloon, and their willing hands swiftly lifted Jim from the buckboard.

 

"Easy, Pard...", Walker spoke softly to Jim, who was still moaning weakly.

 

"Sheriff, Blakeman and Hicks are dead. Hicks put a knife in Jim's belly, though...."

 

"I see you got the Chappel girls, Walker."

 

"Yes, Sheriff...."

 

"...and I'm gonna take care of 'em, for now. Come here, honeys",

Mona Diamond called kindly to the huddled May and Janey, as Mort

Levine--rushing over from his store--helped them down from the seat. "Let me give you something warm to eat, and find you a nice warm bed." Mona took the chilled frightened girls under her wing, as protective as any mother hen.

 

"Bring him in here, quickly!!" Doctor Kingsley had swung open his office door. "Put him down on the table, then get out, all of you."

 

"Doc, how's he gonna...?

 

"Ranger, when I said 'out', I meant you, too. If I'm going to save your partner, I've got to work fast. He's lost a lot of blood, as I'm sure you realize. Now, why don't you head over to the saloon, and have a drink? It'll warm you up, and calm your nerves."

 

"Doc...."

 

"Please, Ranger Walker. We'll call you, as soon as we know

anything. Listen to my husband." With surprising strength, Miriam Kingsley escorted Walker firmly out the door.

 

"Doc's right, Walker", Sheriff Joe Tucker gently chided the worried Ranger. "You'd only be in the way. Let's head over to the Valley, and you can tell us what went on out there."

 

"Walker, how's Jim?" Walker had headed to the livery stable, after checking in with Mona, only to be shooed out of the hotel lobby, as Mona was getting hot baths ready for the two Chappel sisters. Ben was helping Al toss hay to the horses from the Old Hickory, who had been herded into a corral.

 

"Dunno, Ben. Doc's workin' on him now. I've got to go over to the saloon, and meet with the Sheriff. Mona said for you to go into the hotel kitchen after you're done. She'll have some hot grub waitin' for you."

 

"I'll make sure he does, Ranger", Al replied. "And, I'll say a

prayer for your pard, too. Hate to see anything happen to him, this close to Christmas."

 

"DOC!!!!!" Walker burst out, as the physician, after what seemed forever to the big Ranger, entered the saloon. "How's my partner?"

 

"Ted, I need a brandy." Doctor Kingsley leaned tiredly against the bar, with a huge sigh.

 

"Doc...?" 

 

"Ranger Walker, your partner should be fine. He's one very lucky

man. His coat saved him. That sheepskin kept the blade from going in too deep. Had it been warm weather, and he wasn't wearing a heavy coat, Ranger Griffin would have been gutted. As it is, it was still touch and go. Another half hour--an hour at the most--and he would have bled to death."

 

Walker breathed a huge sigh of relief, and said a silent prayer,

right there in the saloon. Sheriff Tucker let out a yell, giving

Walker an overjoyed, hearty slap on the back.

 

"Doc, will Jim be able to get home for Christmas?"

 

"Barring complications, Ranger Walker, I don't see why not." (End of Chapter 14)

 

Five days later, Walker was on the seat of a repaired buckboard,

the same one that had brought Jim to Ballinger. The wagon was piled high with gifts for the Chappel children. Amigo was standing patiently behind the buckboard, his saddle and bridle in the back of the wagon. Brownie and Blackie--still underweight, but in good shape for a leisurely trip--were in the harness.

 

While Jim had been recuperating, the town of Ballinger had poured out its heart for the three orphans. Mort Levine's store had been emptied of anything the children could possibly use. Mona Diamond had provided enough food for the trip to their new home five times over.  Now, the townspeople were gathered to say their farewells.

 

"Jim, I still wish you'd stay in bed a few more days." Doctor

Kingsley was still protesting, having reluctantly released the tall Ranger.

 

"No way, Doc!" Jim retorted, grinning down from his saddle. Yankee was snorting his impatience. "We've got to get these kids where they're goin', then Walker and I will be home just in time for Christmas. These kids will never see Old Hickory or Dickory, Doc, again."

 

"Well, as long as they come back to visit us once in awhile...",

Mona sniffed, a tear giving away her emotions.

 

"We will, Miss Mona!" May promised. She and Janey--dressed up in

new outfits--were on the seat next to Walker.

 

"I promise you that, too, Miss Mona", Ben chimed in. He was mounted on the Appaloosa Al Torneau had loaned the Rangers for the boy, the Appaloosa that now was a gift from the stable owner--Mona's partner in that business--to Ben.

 

"You just take good care of Sky Cloud!" Al shouted up to the

smiling teenager.

 

"I sure will, Mr. Torneau."

 

"Ranger, we've still got some unfinished business", Clem Hatch

growled. He and Jack Trane had sidled up next to Yankee. To just

about everyone's surprise, except Jim's, the big Paint nuzzled the cowpoke's cheek, nipping playfully at his neck. Hatch had visited the gelding every day while Jim had been on his sickbed.  

 

"Jim...?"  Walker looked at his partner, puzzled.

 

"Yeah, Walker: Clem speaks 'Hoss', too!!!" Now, what's this

unfinished business, Clem?"

 

"Just this, Ranger...." Clem backed off, his hand dropping to his side, flashing toward his holster, and jerking out a leather strap, studded with merrily jingling bells. Clem tied the strap around Yankee's neck, the bells lying against the gelding's chest, ringing loud and clear, as Yankee proudly tossed his head.

 

"Thanks, Clem. These are great." 

 

"Got another surprise for you, too, Ranger." Jack Trane had

disappeared, and now came back into view, leading his sorrel and

Clem's chestnut. Both horses were wearing bells in their manes and tails.

 

"Clem...Jack...aw, heck!! I don't know what to say...."

 

"I do, Jim: you're a definite ding-dong!" Walker retorted. "Now,

we've gotta get movin'!!"

 

With many kisses, hugs, and tears, Ballinger said goodbye to the

Chappel siblings. Finally, Jim and Ben pushing the rescued horses from the Old Hickory ahead, Walker clucked to Blackie and Brownie, slapped the reins over their rumps, and sent them trotting smartly toward Austin. (end of Chapter 15)

 

"Ranger Walker, are you sure they'll like us?" Janey Chappel asked apprehensively. Walker, Jim, and the Chappel children had been on the trail four days now, the children facing the hardships of winter camping without complaining. Even a cold camp was paradise, compared to their former home with their Uncle.

 

"Janey, I'm positive. You'll like them, too." The group was almost to their destination, just outside the town of Llano.

 

"Janey, everything will be all right...you'll see!" May tried to

reassure her younger sister. (End Chapter 16, Part 1)

 

"Whoa, Brownie; whoa, Blackie...!" Walker reined the team up on a small rise, just outside Llano.

 

"There it is, kids; that's your new home."

 

"Careful, Ben...keep those hosses bunched!" Jim ordered. In his

eagerness to see his new home, Ben had pushed Snow Cloud ahead of the small herd.

 

"It's...it's so beautiful" May exclaimed, looking down into the

small valley, where smoke curled lazily over a rambling, whitewashed ranch house. Horses and cattle were browsing on the winter-browned pastures.

 

"Is that really where we're going to live?" Janey asked, timidly.

 

"Yes, Janey, it is", Walker replied with a chuckle.

 

Ben had turned to face Jim. "Walker, Jim, you just can't do this! After what I tried to do to you...."

 

"Son, we've been all over that", Jim replied. "And, you helped

Walker get me back to Ballinger, and saved my life. Now, enough of this."

 

"But, Jim...."

 

"OK, Ben, if you insist...." Jim's right hand rested on the butt of his Colt. "Benjamin Davis Chappel, I'm placing you under arrest, for attempted robbery, attempted hoss stealin', and the attempted murder of two Texas Rangers. And, Walker and I hereby pronounce sentence: You're gonna spend the next several years with those fine folks down there, until you head out on your own. And then, you'd better visit your sisters, and those fine folks, every chance you get. "

 

"C'mon, Ben; let's get goin'...before Jim strings you up!" Walker laughed. Clucking to Blackie and Brownie, he sent the team trotting down the hill, into the small, neat yard.

 

A tall, sandy haired man of about forty-five, gray eyes shaded by a huge Stetson, limped onto the porch, as Walker pulled up, while Jim and Ben drove the horse herd into a small corral. Next to him was a slender brunette, her hair showing a touch of gray, her auburn eyes holding a deep sadness, despite her smile.

 

"Walker, Jim! Didn't think you’d ever get here." The rancher's face crinkled into a broad smile. "And you must be Janey, and May."

 

"Yes, sir, we are...", May replied.

 

"Hold it right there, young lady! There'll be none of this 'Sir'

and 'Ma'am' stuff around here. I'm 'Charlie', and this fine lady

standing next to me is 'Cora', my wife."

 

"And this handsome lad on the beautiful Appaloosa must be Ben",

Cora Huggins smiled up at the teenager.

 

"Yes, Ma'am...I mean, Cora."

 

"Ben, take your sisters and get acquainted, while Jim and I put up the hosses", Walker ordered.

 

"Yes, sir, Walker", Ben sputtered out.

 

Janey hid her face on her sister's shoulder, refusing to step down from the buckboard.

 

"Wait right there, child!" Cora Huggins called to her, ducking back into the house, returning a moment later with a small piece of cloth in her hand.

 

"Janey, this is for your doll, Miss Penny." Cora showed the shy

nine year old a dress she had made for Janey's most prized

possession. "When Walker and Jim wired--and asked me and Charlie if we would take you in--they told me about Miss Penny, and how she needed a new dress. Now, how about you bring her down to me, and we'll try this on her?"

 

Smiling shyly, Janey, May at her side, went to Cora, who fussed

over the doll the child had held onto, no matter what.

 

"Jim, we did good." Walker was grinning at his partner, as they

rubbed down the horses.

 

"Sure did, Walker. Look how happy Charlie and Cora are. These

kids'll never bring back Ted, but they're what Charlie and Cora

need...and they need Charlie and Cora."

 

"Yeah, Jim, they've had it rough. First, Charlie had to quit the

Rangers, when he took that Comanche lance in his hip, and it crippled him. Then, Ted joined the Rangers, only to get gunned down by Luke Bass."

 

"Yeah, but Ted wiped out the Bass gang, and shot up Luke too,

before he died. Luke lived just long enough to get hung." Jim

replied.

 

With the horses rubbed down, they headed for the house.

 

"Just in time, Walker, Jim!" Cora greeted them, again. "We're just going to show the kids their rooms."

 

A moment later, May and Janey stood speechless. "This is REALLY our room?" Janey cried out, tears of happiness streaking her cheeks, as she and May took in the cheerful space, the clean covers on the beds, the fresh curtains at the window.

 

"It really is, Janey.. for as long as you'd like."

 

"Ben, I'm sorry...we just didn't have another room right now." Ben was standing at the top of a ladder, which led to a loft over the kitchen, as Charlie showed him his new sleeping area.

 

"Charlie! This is great!!!" A huge grin split the teenager's face, as he dove into the bed against the wall of the loft. "Nice and private. I've never had a space of my own!" Navajo patterned rugs brightened up the rugged loft.

 

"Well, before you get too comfortable, come down here, and get your stuff unloaded", Charlie ordered. Despite himself, as he reached the kitchen floor, Ben burst into tears, his emotions finally getting the better of him. 

 

"There, son...it's all right. You're home, for good." Charlie

hugged the boy tightly, as Ben buried his face in the ex-Ranger's chest, silently sobbing.

 

Over supper, Ben insisted, "Charlie, I'm gonna earn my keep; Janey and May will, too. I can herd cattle and hosses, and build fence."

 

"Ben, that's one reason Walker and Jim told me I'd welcome you

here. This hip of mine won't let me do everything I'd like, and I'll be counting on your help. But, Son, you're still a boy...and that means school, for you and your sisters...and lots of time to do nothing but be a kid."

 

"And if Charlie works you too hard, I'll take a frying pan to him, right quick!!" Cora chuckled, her eyes sparkling as they hadn't for three years, since her son Ted had lost his life.

 

Later, with the three children in bed--even Ben giving into his

exhaustion--Jim, Walker, Charlie, and Cora were talking over coffee, in the living room.

 

"Walker, you don't know how happy you and Jim have made me and

Charlie. Those kids are real fine; I can just tell. My heart went out to them, as soon as we received your telegram...." Cora stopped, unable to go on.

 

"Well, Cora, Jim thought of you first. I had to agree with him: We couldn't have found a better home for them", Walker answered.

 

"And maybe, in some way, they'll bring life to this house again,

Walker", Charlie added.

 

“Enough of this! What of all those horses you drove in today?" Cora demanded.

 

"Don't ask me, Cora; ask my pard!" Walker laughed.

 

"Cora, they were bein' starved by the kids' uncle...just like the kids were. I couldn't just leave 'em."

 

"James Joseph Griffin...the last time I heard from your wife, she told me she'd shoot you, if you brought any more stray horses home."  Cora was aghast. "And you've got what...half a dozen of 'em there?"

 

"Plus Blackie and Brownie", Jim corrected. "Marcy will understand. You know her: the minute she sees those ribs showin' on those hosses, and those hipbones, she'll be babyin' them worse than I will."

 

"Jim, that's impossible!!" Walker retorted. "You'd have those

hosses sleepin' in your house, if they'd fit."

 

The happy group talked until the wee hours of the morning, Jim and Walker finally crawling into the hayloft in the barn to sleep.

 

All too soon, the morning came, and they had to say farewell to the Hugginses, and their new family. Janey and May clung to the two Rangers, unwilling to let them go. Finally, however, they went to Cora Huggins's side, still not quite believing their newfound happiness.

 

Ben tried to maintain a man's stoicism, failing miserably as Jim

and Walker went to mount up. He grabbed first Walker, then Jim, in a bear hug.

 

"Jim, Walker, I can't ever thank you...not for what you did for me, but for Janey and May. You saved them with what you did. And to think, I was gonna plug you both...."

 

"Ben, you forget about that; we told you, it's forgotten", Jim

responded.

 

"Besides, Ben, YOU saved your sisters, by being brave enough to

break away from your uncle, and look for help", Walker added.

 

"Ben, soon as Jim and Walker leave, you and I are gonna cut down

the Christmas tree!" Charlie stated.

 

"And we've got lots of popcorn to make and string for the tree,

girls", Cora added.

 

Soon, with tears in everyone's eyes, including one ex-Ranger, and two tough Rangers, Jim and Walker were headed to Austin, and home. (end of Chapter 16, Part 2)

 

"Bob, what the @####$?" Captain William McGuire was looking out his window at Texas Ranger Headquarters, as--in a billow of dust--he saw Jim and Walker drive a herd of eight horses into one of the Headquarters corrals.

 

"Looks like Jim's been rescuin' hosses again, Cap!!" Bob laughed.

 

A few minutes later, two dust-covered Rangers entered the Captain's office.

 

"Howdy, Cap...howdy Bob."

 

"Howdy yourself, Walker...Jim...", Bob answered.

 

"So, you boys had a slight detour on your way home...and YOU nearly got yourself killed, Jim?"

 

"How'd you know that, Cap? We didn't wire you about what we

doin'." Jim was looking at his partner, both of them puzzled.

 

"Sheriff Tucker of Ballinger wired me, then wrote me a long report; I have it right here", Captain McGuire replied. "Always knew you two were both softies underneath...especially after I got this OTHER letter, special delivery, from Charlie and Cora Huggins."

 

Jim and Walker were blushing as red as Christmas poinsettias. "Cap, we...." Walker started to reply.

 

"Quiet, both of you! You did real good: Charlie and Cora haven't

been the same since Ted was killed. You've given them back their

lives again." Captain McGuire paused, then continued, "But just WHAT are all those hosses doin' out there--as if I needed to ask--Jim?"

 

"Cap, they were...."

 

"Don't even tell me, Jim! I know: they were starving, or beat, or just lonely...."

 

Captain McGuire turned to Jim's partner. "Walker, just take this

crazy galoot of a partner of yours--AND his hosses--and get out of here, both of you...and don't come back until next year!!!!" (end of Chapter 17)

 

"DAD'S HOME!!!" Jim, Jr. had spotted his father, as he drove the

herd of horses up the road to the JM Bar. The youngster raced out the door, his sister and younger brother at his heels. It was two days before Christmas.

 

"Jim.. what are you doing with all those horses?" Marcy had come up to the corral where Jim had driven the herd, the tall Ranger now surrounded by three joyful children. "And where have you been? Your wire said you'd be home a week ago...and, I thought we agreed, no more stray horses...!"

 

"Dad, let's cut the Christmas tree down!!" Billy urged.

 

"Let Daddy rest a little while, anyway", Jennifer told her brother.

 

"Marcy those horses weren't strays", Jim replied, "They knew right where they were. But, they WERE bein' starved, and beaten...just like the three kids who lived on the ranch where I got 'em were. Now, let me feed them, and rub down old Yankee here, and I'll tell you all about it. Then, Billy, we'll go get the tree. Now, you kids go get ready." The children raced to the house.

 

"But Jim, we said, no more horses."

 

"Honey...", Jim smiled crookedly, the anger in Marcy's eyes already subsiding, as he flashed her that smile she could never resist, "look at how thin those poor things are...and that's AFTER I've been feedin' 'em. How could I leave them like that?"

 

"You couldn't, Jim...and that's why I love you. Now, hurry up and take care of them. I've got sugar cookies in the oven. And, since you got home for Christmas, like you promised, if you're a REALLY good boy--once the kids are all snuggled in their beds--I just might have some REALLY special sugar plums for you...NOT NOW!!!" Marcy shouted, as Jim kissed her cleavage, nibbling at her throat....

 

"Amigo, we're gonna fool Bobby, for once: We're gonna come in the back way." Somehow, Walker's adopted son always knew the day his Dad would arrive home, and would be waiting, as always, to pretend to shoot down the Ranger, as he had the day Walker first came into his life.

 

Walker swung his big Paint through the southeast pasture. "Well,

not this time, Amigo!" Walker told the Paint, who shook his head, unbelieving. "Oh, you don't think so, huh, hoss...? Well, no grain for you tonight there, Bud."

 

"Gotcha, ya no-good sidewinder!!!" Thought you'd sneak up on me

from behind, and shoot me in the back, didn't ya?" 

 

Walker yanked Amigo to a halt. "I don't believe this!!" There, in a tree--not twenty feet away--was Bobby, a huge grin on his face, his toy rifle pointed directly at Walker. "You were right, Amigo: we can't fool this kid."

 

"Kid, I wasn't... " Walker started.

 

"Just keep quiet, Mister! There's nothing lower than a

back-shootin' coyote...so, I'm gonna give you what you deserve...right in your belly!!! BLAM, BLAM!!!" Bobby pulled the

trigger of the toy Winchester, twice, and Walker, as always, slid from Amigo to the ground. The big Paint stood there patiently, eyeing Walker with equine disdain, as if asking why horses had to put up with these fool humans and their games.

 

"You're never gonna fool me, Cord!!" Bobby had leaped from the

tree, rushing up to his Dad.

 

"Guess you're right, Bobby." Walker stood up, crushing the boy to him. "It's good to be home, Bobby! Let's go find your Mom!"

 

"CORD!!!" Alex spotted him as he led Amigo to the barn, and rushed to Walker's side. "I've missed you, darling, so much...and, after your last message, I was so afraid you'd miss being home for Christmas."

 

"Alex, I promise, that would never happen.. Besides, Jim would

never let me miss Christmas at home. Even a knife in his gut couldn't keep him from gettin' home...not even the three orphans, and the bunch of hosses we rescued...." Walker kissed her gently on the forehead. "Now, I'll tell you all about it...."

 

"Alex, this is one Christmas present I want you to have early."

Walker and Alex were in their bedroom, as he handed her a colorfully wrapped package.

 

"Cord, it's lovely!" Alex held up the powder blue negligee he had purchased in Ballinger. "But, it doesn't match your eyes, Darling!"

"Not you too, Alex?!! That's what Jim told me, when I bought it."

 

"Well, Cord, it matches MY eyes, perfectly. Let me try it on."

Walker watched, hungrily, as Alex slipped the flimsy material over her head.

 

Alex stepped over the mirror. "Oh, Cord, it IS lovely." She

shivered, deliciously. "But, it's so thin. I'll never keep warm in this."

 

"Alex, I have the solution for that: Come over here."

 

"Oh, Cord!!!" Alex sighed, as he ran his hands down her body. "I'm feeling warmer already...!!"

 

THE END

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL

 

The usual legal disclaimers.

 

Denise, when you mentioned eight horses, you inspired me.  This one's for you!!

 

(When will I ever learn? Sorry, ladies...!)

 

Denise

 

 

Just before Jim and Marcy headed into the house, they paused at the corral holding the eight rescued horses.

 

"Jim, do they have names?"

 

They do now, Darling! Since they're Christmas horses, I'll call

them for you. On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer and Vixen. On Comet, and Cupid, and Donder and Blitzen!!!"

 

(With apologies to Clement Moore!!!)

(Eight horses, huh? Well, it's a good thing Ranger Jim didn't re-name them!! Great job, Jim!!