Stud rode up the hill to the cabin, behind the Sheriff, but next to Kit. They had strength in numbers. The Sheriff would deal with the claim jumper and he and Kit would give backup. It was the closest to a posse that Stud had ever gotten and he was okay with that.
He was beyond glad that Judy was back at the homestead with Sylvia. If anything, he knew Judy would keep them safe. Judy could keep herself safe. She was tough through and through.
The shimmer of satisfaction went through his body. That she would choose to be with him. That she would open her body up to him, hold him close, hold him tight. Then the fear that she didn’t choose him. That she was only with him because it was expedient for the moment. That if they weren’t in frontier Park City, she wouldn’t have a thing to do with him. That if Roscoe hadn’t broken down, she would never have spent a moment with him.
And here he was, stupid enough to fall in love with her.
Should he doubt her? Could he doubt her? He didn’t have any reason to think she was only with him because he was safety. Then again, he didn’t have any reason to think the opposite.
“You think we’ll find Butch?” Kit said.
“I hope so. I don’t want him just out there, you know?” Stud said.
Kit nodded. “Judy’s tough. I have a feeling she’d be able to handle anything back at the homestead.”
A glow of pride filled his chest at that. Judy was amazing. “She would.” He shouldn’t doubt her. But she was amazing. She was so amazing. She would never choose him in real life. In a crisis, sure. But in the mundane I think we need more toilet paper banality of life, would she then?
He didn’t know and he couldn’t answer the question. He didn’t know if he wanted to answer the question. Not now. Not when they were facing a mortal threat to the existence of his family. Not when going back to her was all he wanted now.
Kit looked over the land. “You remember where the vein was?”
Stud nodded. It wouldn’t be too much to find the same place. They could probably just follow his and Judy’s tracks from the vein if it was too hard.
“Stay back,” the Sheriff said as they neared the cabin. He urged his horse on and was at the cabin’s door with his booming Sheriff’s voice. “Sheriff. I want to see who’s here.”
A horse started running from the other side of the cabin. Stud gave his horse a kick and started following. The other horse was riding straight down the hill and they way they’d just come.
The other rider was just flying. It had been a long time since Stud had ridden on a horse. The heels on his shoes were just big enough to catch on the stirrup. He urged the horse on, leaning down and pushing the horse with all his might.
If the man got there before Stud did…
Kit was on his heels and pushing as hard, creeping ahead of him. They should be careful. They should be watching for groundhog holes, for a million things. If the horse turned its leg, they would be in a world of hurt.
But getting to the family was more important.
The Sheriff was behind them now, too. The occasional yell for the man to stop, but he was riding too hard to keep that up.
They neared the homestead and the Deputy from the stable yelled out, but the rider jumped from the horse and scrambled into the house.
Stud’s heart froze and hurt and exploded at the same time.
The rider came out from the cabin holding Judy, a fistful of hair from the nape of her neck holding her head at a strange angle.
“Let her go,” Stud said.
The rider barked a snort of laughter.
The Sheriff dropped off his horse and said, “You’re going to need to rethink this.”
“What’s to think about? I’ve got me a pretty girl,” the rider said.
“You Butch?” the Sheriff asked.
“Butch Stedman, that’s me.”
Stud wondered if O’Keefe knew the extent of Butch’s badness. Although, if they’d have gone to the cabin with Butch there, they probably wouldn’t have left. Butch would have killed him and taken Judy for his own. The sickening feeling washed through him.
For her part, Judy looked remarkably in control and calm. He’d tighten his hand in her hair and she’d wince, but for the most part, she was biding her time.
He had one hand in her hair and the other arm was holding her arm behind her.
She’d been doing a focused job of not looking at Stud, but once she did, that’s when she lost her composure. Her eyes filled with tears when she looked at him.
“Judy—” Stud choked out.
Butch turned to him and said, “You want her back, this is what you do. You tell that Sheriff to put down his gun. And, I don’t want anyone to chase us. I don’t want anything but open road.”
“Us?” Stud said. He was taking Judy with him?
“Well sure. I need a hostage.” Butch said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Before Stud knew quite what happened, Butch was on the ground, Judy had blood on her hands and a shot rang out. Judy turned and was stabbing Butch with the fillet knife. Sylvia was standing in the open doorway holding the shotgun with the barrel smoking. Alex’s thin cry came from inside now.
“Motherfucker,” Judy said, sticking the small knife into his belly.
Sylvia took a step forward and leveled the barrel at Butch’s face.
Butch cried out, but the rest of the men were too shocked to do anything until Stud moved forward and pulled Judy off of him. She dropped the knife on the ground at her feet and he put his arms around her waist, his nose buried in the crook between her neck and shoulder.
She started to shake, a tiny tremor turning into a full body shake accompanied by sobs from her belly.
“I’ve got you. I’ve got you, baby,” he whispered as she turned to him, burying her face in his chest. He had no idea what anyone else was doing, he was just so busy caring for Judy that he didn’t have any attention to spare for anyone else.
Butch groaned and the Sheriff said, “Well, that’s a belly wound you deserve, sumbitch. Begging your pardon, ladies.”
Judy shrugged from Stud’s chest. She was safe. She was safe and that was all that mattered.
“Are you okay?” he whispered.
She finally moved her hands from her chest to around him, holding him as tightly as she could, pressing herself to his chest, trying to join their bodies into one without taking their clothes off.
“Steve,” she whispered back through the tears. “Oh, Steve.”
He kissed her forehead. The simple intimacy of her calling him Steve. Of holding him. Of knowing that she was safe. Of so many things.
He looked up from the top of her sandy head and said, “What do we do?”
Butch was still on the ground, groaning, almost unconscious.
“The shotgun blast hit him square in the chest. The knife wound won’t have time to kill him.”
In the doorway to the cabin, Kit was holding Sylvia tightly to his chest, the shotgun leaned against the frame.
“This is all self-defense. And you’d be justified because these sumbitches were on your property. No offense, ladies,” the Sheriff said again.
“None taken,” Judy called out from Stud’s chest.
Stud laughed once, then kissed her head.
Butch groaned once, then was still.
“You have a place we can bury him?” the Sheriff said. “I’ll fill out the paperwork. It’s all fine.”
Stud was almost disturbed at the Sheriff’s nonchalance, then realized there wasn’t more of a legal system. This was as good as it got.
“There’s space on the other side of the meadow,” Kit said. He kissed Sylvia and let her go, then picked up their squalling son and put him in her arms. “I’ll take you, Sheriff.”
They walked together and Stud just held Judy to his chest. Deputy Smith came out from the stable and saw Butch at the door of the cabin, dead.
He nodded once, then went back into the stable to guard O’Keefe.
O’Keefe’s cry of, “No!” was loud enough that they could all hear it.
“Son of a bitch,” Sylvia said.
Judy raised her head from Stud’s chest and said, “It’s almost over.”
Sylvia nodded. “The neighborhood won’t take kindly to a claim jumper. He’ll be hanged if he goes to trial.”
Judy shivered against Stud’s chest.
“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Stud whispered. The blood was all over her hands and now it was all over their clothes as well.
“Come dress,” Sylvia said, holding Alex. “Come change and we’ll wash your clothes and then you’ll be fine.”
Judy took the step toward Sylvia, then stopped and raced back into Stud’s arms. He put his arm around her and they walked into the house to change.