1Title: "Words"

Written by J. M. McClure

Email address: PG 13 for violence

"Sometimes I forget just how young you are."

Thunder rolled like uneasy heartburn across too early-darkened hillside; it had nothing on the storm that was darkening Adam's face as he stared at his father's bleak expression. "Excuse me?" he growled back.

It had rained for two weeks, Ben Cartwright was tired, sweaty and cold from too many hours on his feet and in the saddle trying to prevent wet rot in winter hay and thrush in horses and cattle mired in muddy fields that never had a chance to dry out, and he had just about had enough cloudy mood from his oldest son. He would later regret that he had not at least made an attempt to temper his words, but at the moment he was just too bone weary to try.

"If you're going to act like a child, son, why don't you go on inside with Little Joe and I'll get Hoss in from the South Pasture to—"

"Oh no! Not this time!" Adam punctuated the angry, ill-thought words by flinging the handful of hopelessly entangled harness leather against the weathered boards of a stall. His still-saddled horse tossed his head and snorted in surprise, dancing as far away as the ground tied reins would allow. "I am so sick and tired of carrying a man's load around here and still being treated like a child whenever it's convenient. Enough's enough!" He spun away and flung himself into the saddle, a hard kick sending the nervous horse lunging out the door and into the sludgy rain.

"Adam, wait…" Ben's protest was lost and he found himself alone in a mildew scented barn, listening to feeble rain and the low grumble of rolling thunder. He sank into a boneless heap on a wet bale of hay and dropped his head into his hands and wondered why it was always so hard some days.

xxxXXXxxx

Days like this were one step closer to bankruptcy.

Nobody but the most hard core drunks would brave the icy, muddy streets of Eagle Station even for whiskey that wasn't watered down. Which must mean that Jack Wolf's place down the street was completely empty. At least Shelby had Moses Walker hunched over his usual stool at the far end of the bar guarding a headless beer like a buzzard protecting a kill. One sort of paying customer. Ruth Orowitz sat at a table near the fire, going over Shelby's receipts for her to see if the wolf could be kept away from the door one more month. But Ruth wasn't a paying customer either.

Shelby leaned against the bar on one elbow, her chin in her hand and surveyed her dismal domain. It was getting late for a no-business kind of day anyway. Might as well close the doors.

Decision made, she had just straightened up to head that way when her favorite citizen of Eagle Station waltzed through the doors: Jack Wolf.

Just what she needed. The perfect end to the perfect day.

If wishes were horses… he would have been run over by a runaway team on his way across the muddy street… instead, here he was, looking as dapper as if mildew wasn't growing out his ears like everyone else in town.

She bypassed the usual pleasantries. "What the Sam Hill do you want, Jack?"

He managed to look mildly hurt. "Why, Shelby, I just thought I'd check to see if you were doing all right in this terrible weather. I've had to close my establishment down. People are feeling poorly with all this rain."

With his usual casual awareness, he doffed his hat and included Ruth in his greeting. "Mrs. Orowitz, I'm surprised to see you out in all this. I would think your husband would keep you close to hearth and home."

Ruth was incapable of discourtesy, and where Shelby would have ignored the open curiosity, she said, "It seemed a good time to work on invoices, Mr. Wolf. There's no business at the store either."

"You're such a generous friend," Jack said. "I'm sure Shelby appreciates you."

Oh for crying out loud. Cabin fever and bone numbing cold was about to end in cold blooded murder if this nonsense kept up. Shelby fired off her mouth instead of the 30 ought 6 she kept under the bar. "As much as we appreciate your checkin' up on us, Jack, why don't you get to the real reason you just happened to stop by."

"Why, Shelby…"

A rush of cold air and the stamp of multiple feet interrupted the less than pleasant exchange. Dumbfounded, Shelby looked up at more traffic than she had seen all week as four blanket and coat clad men stomped their way inside to the relative warmth of the bar. Customers. Real customers. She had a moment of snide satisfaction at the surprised look on Wolf's face as he stared at the newcomers.

Pasting a false smile on her face and forced enthusiasm into her voice, Shelby said, "What can I do for you, fellas?"

A horse of a man, at least 6' 4" who looked like he would have had to turn sideways to get his shoulders through the swinging doors of the bar smiled a gap-toothed grin at her as his companions headed en masse toward the welcome of the fireplace. Shelby noticed that Ruth Orowitz shifted nervously away as the muddy riders crowded near her table in search of the source of warmth.

"Well, ma'am," the first man's deep voice drew Shelby's attention back, "we'll take a bottle and a round of glasses. Nothin' fancy. Can't afford nothin' imported, you know." He laughed at his own raw humor and she found herself smiling back at him.

She turned back to get the requested bottle of 'nothin' fancy' and four shot glasses.

xxxXXXxxx

By the time Adam reached the deserted, night-fallen streets of Eagle Station, his anger had long since fled, icy rain had seeped down the back of his collar, and his horse had slowed to a mud-hampered slog.

He wanted nothing more than to turn around, swallow what was left of his pride, apologize to his infinitely patient father and crawl into the warm blankets of his own bed. Of course, that would necessitate another two hour ride and a good chance at pneumonia.

Shelby's place and a pot of hot coffee were a lot closer and a lot warmer and a lot less likely to deliver a well deserved but dreaded lecture on the evils of disrespect than what awaited him at home though. The thought kicked some of the resentment back into fire and he spared a moment to wonder when his father was going to notice that he was a grown man and no longer a child to be held on a short rope. Of course a man wouldn't have taken off in a full blown tantrum at the outbreak of argument.

Still, it was cold and life was unfair and it was too far to go home this late. There was a flicker of warm yellow in the window of Shelby's saloon, a promise of heat and company, a respite from self-recrimination… and he headed that way. He tethered his weary horse to the rail under enough overhang to provide some protection from the drizzle of rain and started to step up to the walk when he heard a scream from inside. He recognized Ruth Orowitz's voice instantly and spun back to yank his rifle from the saddle scabbard.