Incoming hot winds rolled over New Austin, sending a wave of unbearable heat through Hennigan's Stead and hitting the plains like a coal train. The air was almost choking. Summer was the most unkind to the residents of the area, especially in New Austin. The last of green foliage drooped under the severe heat, spots of brown dotting the once healthy plants.
The foot of a horse crushed a dying flower under its massive weight. Joshua Dun was letting his mind wander as he patrolled the ranch outskirts. Coyotes loved to hang in the fields surrounding Douglas Ranch, and it was one of his duties to make sure they never came back. The saddle creaked at every step, and Joshua slumped down in his seat.
He ran a hand through his mop of sweaty brown hair, letting out a deep sigh.
"Damned coyotes. You can hear their wails all the way in Blackwater." Joshua complained, trying to track down the high pitched howls by ear. He would have to leave the trails he usually followed, but Joshua had enough of their awful screeches.
Joshua was unsure of why the wails were much louder than normal today, but it was the middle of mating season for most animals. A couple must have been having quite the party. Only God knew.
Tugging the reins sharply with one hand, he steered Friday off the dusty path and into the grass. "Now you're gunna' have cockleburrs all over ya'." Joshua huffed in frustration, the pulsing heat only making him more irritable.
He took a second away from focusing on the horrible screams of coyotes to take in the surrounding area. He knew this land by heart, and he'd patrolled the same way almost every day of his life since he was just a boy. Every rock and every plant was memorized. The steady creak, creak, creak of the saddle only lulled Joshua closer to his dreamland.
Everything seemed to disappear as he began to simply clear his mind and think. The feeling of his heels pressing into the stirrups was the only thing he felt at this point of thought. Each crunch of dead grass was drawing him closer to the source of the wails.
A particularly loud wail made Joshua crane his sore neck to see. Friday's ears perked up, swiveling forward in interest. "Where are the bastards?" He rumbled under his breath, drawing his repeater rifle from the holster on his back.
He clicked his tongue, making Friday speed up a little into a slow trot. Joshua scanned for any movement. "Woah, woah, woah." Joshua mumbled, tugging with his free hand on the reins. Friday came to a quick stop, nostrils flared.
Joshua just listened.
He lifted his rifle back up and held it properly in both his hands, one eye closed to sharpen his accuracy. "C'mon little buggers." He murmured to himself, a smile pulling at his lips. He liked his job.
A loud scream that definitely was not a coyote echoed in Joshua's ears. Joshua furrowed his brow in confusion, and Friday took a couple steps back. A boy suddenly barreled out of the brush. Bruises battered his body and his clothes were torn in multiple places.
"Help me!" He screeched, panic wild in his dark eyes. Blood streamed from a wound in his arm, a nasty bite mark from some dog-like creature.
Joshua was utterly shocked when he saw what the boy was running from. At least five coyotes pelted out behind him in hot pursuit. Joshua raised his gun quickly and fired at one. He heard an ear-piercing yip following the bang, and a coyote rolled on the ground. The boy dropped to his knees and covered his ears. Joshua shot another time, sending a second coyote into the dust. Finally, the others scattered away, howling in terror with bushy tails streaming behind them as they ran.
"Jesus Christ my Lord," Joshua exclaimed, exasperated, "What in the devil happened for you to be chased by wild coyotes?" He slid his rifle into the holster on his back swiftly.
The strange boy didn't even try to get to his feet, he was hyperventilating out of fear and looked rather dazed. "I-I... I was r-robbed o-of my horse and I w-was t-t-trying to walk to Thieves L-Landing because th-that's where I saw t-the thief go. B-but I g-got attacked b-by some wild c-coyotes." He explained.
"Thieves Landing would have treated you as bad as the coyotes, mister." Joshua snorted. Thinking quickly, Joshua dismounted Friday and approached the boy. "Here, lemmie' take you back to Douglas Ranch. Judy will fix you right up." He lended a hand.
"O-okay. Th-thank you, s-sir." The crumpled boy grabbed Joshua's hand with a weak grip, grunting with effort as he was heaved to his feet. Immediately, he leaned on Joshua heavily, gasping for breath. "A-aah." He winced, "That h-hurts."
Joshua let the boy lean on Friday as he remounted, then he helped the boy up too. Joshua knew it wasn't the greatest way, but the stranger was bleeding and needed to get back as quickly as possible.
The boy rested his head on Joshua's back, clinging on for dear life as Joshua clicked for Friday to go faster. "Let's go." Joshua whispered under his breath, spurring Friday to speed up. At a steady canter, Joshua rode back to the ranch.
"What's your name, sir?" Joshua asked, keeping his eyes on the road ahead as he rode closer to the ranch.
"T-Tyler Joseph." He replied sluggishly.
"I'm Joshua." Joshua stated, his voice growing quiet as he crossed the train tracks. He passed the train station, but his eyes were focused on the house of the Poppy household. He slowed Friday to a walk, letting his heartbeat slow down from the rush of adrenaline. Joshua could feel Tyler's racing heart through the back of his flannel shirt, and Joshua didn't blame him. Coyotes were scary if you didn't have a gun.
Joshua stopped Friday and threw the reins over the fence that surrounded the house to fool the horse into thinking he was hitched, then dismounted. He practically had to hoist Tyler off Friday himself; the boy was so weak from blood loss and the state of shock wearing off.
Joshua helped Tyler hobble to the front door, swinging Tyler's arm over his shoulders. Joshua knocked with his free hand. "Judy!" Joshua called out, his voice hoarse. Tyler looked almost like he had blacked out, and Joshua knew he didn't have much time.
"Judy!" Joshua hissed, knocking a second time.
A lady opened the door. She had fiery red hair that reached down to her lower back all bunned up, and deep brown eyes full of care.
"Oh sweet heavens! What happened here, JJ?" She exclaimed, eyes wide in surprise.
"I was patrolling and I found the kid being chased and ripped apart by a pack of coyotes. I shot a couple and they ran off. He said his name was Tyler Joseph." Joshua informed.
Her expression changed dramatically, "Godforsaken animals! I hate coyotes. Come in, I'll see what I can do." Judy came forward and opened the door wider, allowing Joshua to come in with the half-conscious stranger.
"Lay him there." Judy ordered, pointing to an old couch with fabric ripping out on the arm rests. Joshua complied, resting the rather light boy on the couch. He moaned in pain, his dark eyes rolling back into the sockets. Every muscle in his body was trembling from the adrenaline rush.
Judy's gaze turned stern, and she looked over to Joshua. "I'll take care of him. You can finish up your patrol. We don't want the coyotes getting anyone else." Judy said, ushering Joshua out the door. Joshua opened his mouth to object, but he was already three footsteps out onto the porch.
Judy closed the door before Joshua could even turn back around. He rolled his eyes, that lady always was a hoot to be around. She took her role very seriously as the only medical professional, if you would call her that.
Blowing out a large breath from between his lips, Joshua stepped off the porch, shoving his hands deep into his jean pockets. He'd already had quite the day. Friday's loud whinny broke Joshua out of whatever trance he was in. He walked over to Friday and untangled the reins from around the fence. He used the fence to his advantage and sprung up back onto the saddle. Judy was right, he'd have to finish his patrol from where he last left off, or he'd get his head chewed off by her husband over it. Judy's husband owned the ranch, and already didn't have quite the best relationship with Joshua. Joshua didn't want to make it any worse.
Joshua heaved a sigh of defeat, steering Friday to the left, breaking into a canter. As he passed a few other riders, Joshua found himself back in a dreamlike state. He often got lost in his own thoughts, especially on patrols. There was rarely any trouble anyway, he didn't ever have to pay much attention. Friday knew the route by heart, so he could navigate it on his own.
Joshua leaned forward in the saddle slightly, hunching his aching back. Sometimes patrols were lonely, but Friday provided company. And for the day, the ranch collie Baker decided to accompany Joshua on patrol.
As the day progressed, it grew cooler and more manageable. Baker lead the way in front of Friday, his white-tipped tail high in the air. His bent ears pricked in interest at every noise.
Joshua was swallowed by seemingly hundreds of questions about the stranger he'd saved --hopefully-- today. What idiot would it take to go to Thieves Landing? What idiot would stroll around New Austin without a gun? Why would someone who looked well dressed be in Hennigan's Stead? Nothing made sense to Joshua.
His brooding was cut off when Joshua realized that he had already made his round around the whole ranch. The same train tracks he had crossed an hour prior clicked under Friday's horseshoes, and he passed the train station again. Keeping the steady walk, Joshua let Friday continue to the house at the end of the dusty road. Joshua pulled the reins back a smudge, and Friday took the message to stop. Joshua hopped off the saddle and tossed the reins over the same fence. Ducking under Friday's head, Joshua began to approach the door.
He knocked lightly, rocking back and forth on his heels.
"Joo-udy?" Joshua dragged out the name purposefully. After about thirty seconds of calling out Judy's name, the red-headed woman finally answered the door.
"Lord, Joshua." She sighed, opening the door and inviting Joshua inside.
"How'd the boy do?" Joshua inquired, cocking his head to one side.
Judy sighed again, "He's doin' fine. He lost quite a lot of blood from that nasty bite wound, but that was the only serious altercation." She replied, eyes dull with sleepiness.
"Did you tucker yourself out with this one?" Joshua asked jokingly, a smile tugging at his lips.
Judy chuckled. "Yep. The boy's quite a fighter. He has to rest so his wound won't get infected however." She informed, hands on her hips.
"Is he awake?"
"Sure he is, just a little drowsy." Judy shrugged. "He wouldn't tell me much though, you can try if you like." The woman sighed again, "I need to lay down for a moment, make sure he doesn't go nowhere." She turned and headed upstairs.
Joshua watched until she disappeared around the corner. He slowly walked into the living room of the house, his boots making loud steps on the hardwood floors. Joshua peeked around the corner, spotting the sleeping boy laying on the couch.
Joshua entered the room, letting down his feet carefully in an effort not to create too much noise. His hands found their way to his pockets, shoulders slumping as he came closer. Joshua hovered beside the couch, looking down at Tyler. He found himself studying every feature, painting a hyper-realistic portrait of the stranger's face in his head. Joshua noted the way Tyler's unkempt hair spilled over his forehead as something interesting. Dark circles lined underneath his round eyes, implying he didn't get a lot of sleep. What would he have to be stressed about? Tyler looked like he had to have been from somewhere nice, Blackwater perhaps judging by his attire. Joshua's heart jumped when Tyler opened his eyes a bit. "Wh-who are you?" Tyler croaked, rubbing his face with both his hands.
"Uh," Joshua began, "Joshua. You met me before, remember?"
Tyler looked confused for a couple seconds more, then his face lit up a bit as he recalled. "Oh, right. J-Josh." His eyes closed again and he yawned. "Everything hurts." He mumbled, wincing as he tried to sit up.
Joshua stood awkwardly, his eyes fixed on the ground.
"I don't remember anything really. What happened?" Tyler inquired, running his fingers through his messy brunette hair.
"When I found you, uh, you said that your horse was stolen and you were following the thief back to Thieves Landing. On the way you were attacked by a passing pack of coyotes." Joshua explained, chewing on the inside of his cheek.
Tyler was staring directly into Joshua's eyes, his wide with focus. Suddenly, Tyler looked away, his breath hitching. "I get it. That's where all the bites came from." He whispered, almost too quiet for Joshua to catch.
Joshua took in a large breath, his head turning to the side slightly. He had no clue what to say. Talking to strangers was not really his strong point. Tyler moved very slowly, sliding his legs out from under the wool blanket thrown over him. He wiggled his toes as they touched the cold floor.
"You're should be resting, mister. You don't want to aggravate the wound any further." Joshua pointed out nervously. He shoved his hands into his pockets, biting his lip. Tyler leaned forward a little, his breathing growing shallower. He seemed almost like he was only partially on Earth, and the other half of his being was somewhere far away. Joshua stared, completely flabbergasted by the stranger.
"I need to get back to Blackwater. My family is there. They need me." Tyler suddenly spoke up, his voice cracking with emotion. His eyes flicked back up and met Joshua's, tears starting to brim the edges.
Joshua was taken aback by the sudden change of mood. "Blackwater? That's much too far for your state. You need rest and time." He said sternly.
"Please." Tyler begged, his fingers grasping the pants that clung to his legs tightly. "I need to go back."
Joshua bit his lip again, letting out a frustrated sigh. "When Judy says you're fit to travel," He paused, shaking his head, "I'll take you back."
Tyler rose to his feet, wincing in pain. Joshua looked up, spooked. "Thank you so much, sir. I cannot express how much gratitude I have." Tyler said quietly. Joshua tensed up as Tyler threw his arms around Joshua's neck and hugged him, sending a sharp shiver up his spine. The hug was definitely unexpected, and Joshua was shocked into it. He forced a smile, patting Tyler's back awkwardly.
"Your welcome." Joshua found it hard to spit the words out.
Tyler had the smallest tug of a smile on his lips as he pulled away. "I'll try not to push myself." He said with a short sigh. "And I'm sorry about... that."
Joshua snorted with laughter. "It's fine." He replied quickly, shrugging a shoulder half-heartedly.
"Hey you two."
Joshua jumped at the sound of Judy's voice in the small room. "How are you feelin'?" Judy asked, her eyes turning to look at Tyler.
"Better, I guess. Everything feels all achy, but nothing is in a lot of pain." Tyler said, scratching at his lower forearm. Long trails of white showed up on his tanned skin from blunt nails.
Judy nodded, "That's all good and well to hear."
"How long do you think I'll be here?" Tyler asked. He fiddled with the bandages on his left forearm, running his fingers along the smooth gauze-like pad.
"Maybe a week? Three at most. You need at least two days of bed rest before you can start to do things," Judy looked over to Joshua, "I heard my friend JJ say that he'd be willing to take you back to Blackwater. So, he'd be more than happy to help you gain back your strength to make such a long journey."
Joshua opened his mouth, but closed it.
"Good boy, JJ. Now once he's had his two days to rest up completely, then you can nurse his strength back on your own time." Judy smiled slyly, "Enjoy your stay here, Tyler. You're welcome anytime."
Joshua was speechless as Judy left the room. He heard her boots against the hard floors as she went back up the stairs.
A low growl erupted in Joshua's throat as he realized the responsibility he'd taken on. He gripped his lower lip between his teeth, hard. Tyler didn't anything in the fear that Joshua would do something stupid. "Well, that's great." Joshua grumbled, tossing his hands up in defeat.
Hurt reflected in Tyler's eyes for a split second, but it was so quick that Joshua wondered if he'd imagined it. "You heard her," Joshua manned up and spoke up, "You get your rest for the next two days and let her baby you. After that, you should be fit to make yourself useful. Keep it up and you'll be back in Blackwater with your folks in no time."
Tyler nodded his head, plopping back down on the couch. He looked a little shocked with what was all happening at once.
Joshua turned around and started to leave. "Don't go nowhere now, or Judy will fry you." Joshua warned, a smirk tugging at his lips as he left through the front door. He didn't even have to look back to know that Tyler's face was priceless.