Disclaimer: I don't own them and I'm not making any money.
Comments: Everyone knows what it is that makes them who
they are. Right?
Warnings: Some mild swearing.
Note: This story was archived on my website until AOL did away with it. Thanks Nancy for taking me in.
The morning breeze blew fresh and soft across the grass-covered plain. The sweet air made the bay gelding frisky. Tossing his head and high stepping he asked to run. The dark haired young man on his back felt as good as the horse. He's been away from home it seemed like forever and today would see him safely back. Giving into his own exuberant feelings he leaned down over the bay's neck to urge him on. Horse and rider flew across the grass in perfect sync neither one seeing the depression up ahead. It was a small sudden drop in the ground hidden by the grass, not serious for a horse traveling at a walk, but to a horse running full out, a spill waiting to happen. The bay's right leg slipped on the edge of the depression sending him to his knees and throwing the rider clear over his head. For a moment the quiet morning was broken by the sounds of bodies hitting the ground and the surprised cry of horse and rider. The bay regained it's footing quickly and stood trembling for a minute. Confused, the horse searched for the rider who should have been there with soothing voice and hands by now. Limping slowly toward the crumpled figure a few feet away, the bay nuzzled him gently. When the young man did not respond the horse moved a short distance away and started grazing. Peace returned to the morning.
His first thought was, damn he hurt. Pain throbbed through every part of his body. Disoriented and groggy he rolled over on his back. The sun overhead was blinding, what had happened? Squinting up at the bright sun a voice in his head told him he had to find shade. It took effort to sit up but finally he managed, causing his head to explode again. After a couple of minutes the pain seemed to be lessening, but he figured it would return when he tried to stand. Gently rubbing his temple he looking around slowly, trying to get his bearings. The dry empty country was confusing. Where was he? Then memories came rushing back along with another type of pain. Mother, she was dead and since there hadn't been enough money for college, he'd decided to go west. Well it looked like he'd made it this sure wasn't New York. So where was he and how did he end up in the middle of nowhere? Last thing he remembered was the train ride from New York to Chicago. After that should have been a stage ride, but there he came up blank. A low nicker and a gentle nudge from behind brought attention to the bay horse standing there. The animal shifted weight, favoring its left front leg. The sight of an injured horse helped shake the cobwebs out of his brain. Catching the reins and using the patient animal as an anchor, he pulled himself up. Standing made the pain worse and for a minute everything whirled. But after a bit, it calmed down. Running his hand over the sleek neck of the friendly horse he looked around. Nearby was a road that, judging by the sun, ran north and south. Was this Texas? That had been his goal, but if he'd made it to Austin and joined the Rangers then why was he alone? Sighing, he shook his head then instantly regretted the sharp movement. The bay asked for attention again by nibbling on the pocket of his jacket. Without even thinking about it, the dazed young man reached in pulling out a piece of carrot. He fed it to the bay then stood stroking the sleek neck.
"You're a friendly fella. I guess you belong to me? You're wearing that old saddle Mr. Walters gave me when I told him I was heading west. And you seem to know where I keep the treats."
Carefully he checked the horse over. The leg wasn't too bad, but he would need to baby it for a day or so. Digging out another treat he fed it to the bay then started scratching between his ears.
"Okay boy, which way? North or South?" The horse's only answer was to push his head against the man's chest asking for more scratches. "I think South. If we're in Texas it won't matter much which way we go and if we're not, then Texas is probably south."
Giving the reins a gentle tug he moved off. The life he craved, with good friends and exciting times was out there somewhere. JD Dunne just had to find it.
Buck walked jauntily toward the saloon tipping his hat to the ladies. It was a beautiful spring morning and the day was bright with promise. Maybe he felt so good cause JD should be back from Phoenix today. Seemed like the kid had been gone forever. <Damn kid sure was excited to make that trip.> Buck shook his head ruefully at the thought. He'd wanted to go along, but they'd been too short-handed. Josiah and Vin had been, and still were, out at the reservation. With them already gone, Chris hadn't wanted to cut the town's defenses any more than necessary. So JD had gotten the chore of delivering some papers for the Judge to the courthouse in Phoenix. If everything had gone well he would be back today. Buck told himself, he wasn't worried, but he knew he wouldn't totally relax until JD rode into town.
Pushing through the saloon doors Buck paused to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light. Spotting Chris and Vin eating breakfast he moved over to join them.
"Vin you ole dog, when'd you get back? Thought you and Josiah weren't due in till tomorrow."
"Got in late last night." Vin replied. "Kojay, sent us back, tole Josiah, he saw in a dream we were needed here."
"Well now, the town's been right quiet, I think that ole medicine man made a mistake." Buck snorted and waved to Inez for some breakfast.
Chris leaned back coffee cup in hand and regarded his oldest friend. The black clad gunfighter looked tired. Being shorthanded had been hard on them all, but especially Chris. He took his responsibility to the town very seriously and had been missing more sleep than the others.
"Probably, but a man never died from being careful." Taking another sip of coffee Chris let a wry grin twitch the edge of his mouth. "Course Kojay could have been talking about JD coming back. That's enough trouble to stir the spirits right there."
Buck laughed, "Now don't you worry about the kid. I'll make sure he don't get into anything his first day back."
"Notice you didn't say nothin, bout the second day." Vin offered, blue eyes twinkling.
"Thing is Buck, you won't be here when the kid gets back. I need you to ride over to Collins Crossing and pick up a prisoner. Judge is due here tomorrow afternoon to arrange the trial."
"Ah Chris," Buck groaned, "why me?"
"Cause Nathan's out helping Mrs. Wagner bring her latest into the world." Chris started ticking off the reasons. "I've been up all night and Josiah an Vin's horse's are tired." The blond man pointed his coffee cup at Buck, "So you're elected."
Buck groaned again, but gave in good-naturedly. He could see how tired Chris was and knew the other man had indeed been up all night watching the jail. Besides the trip would help pass the day more quickly. Buck figured if he hurried he could be back by late afternoon.
Ezra looked at Nathan across the table. "You sir, have a bet."
"Nathan since when do you make bets?" Josiah asked as he joined the two men. He'd heard Ezra's statement, not what prompted it.
"Since I decided that Ezra isn't the only one who knows a sure thing." Nathan took a bite of biscuit and smiled at Ezra.
Josiah thanked Inez as she set his breakfast in front of him then looked back to the table. "What's the bet?"
"Mr. Jackson claims I cannot forego the pleasure of cards shuffling in my hands for a week." Ezra waved his coffee cup at Nathan.
"And Ezra says I can't go a week without criticizing him." Nathan nodded back.
"And the stakes?" Josiah asked mildly.
"One dollar and the pleasure of knowing the other gentleman lost." Ezra supplied the answer, as he dug his ever-present deck of cards out. Holding them out to Josiah he said. "Would you be so kind as to hold onto these for me?"
Shaking his head, Josiah took the deck of cards. For a while all three men were quiet. Ezra kept running his hands over his coffee cup, restlessly. Nathan looked like he was going to say something a couple of times but stopped. Finally Ezra stood up, looking faintly bewildered. "Gentlemen, if you will excuse me, I think I will stretch my legs a bit."
He almost ran Chris down as he went out the door. The blond man moved over to the table and sat down. Jerking his head at the door he asked, "What's wrong with Ezra?"
Nathan opened his mouth, stopped, look confused then shut it. Standing up he grabbed his hat and slammed it on his head. Turning he strode quickly out the door almost knocking over Vin in the process. The lean tracker joined Josiah and Chris asking, "What's with Nathan and Ezra? Both nearly ran me over."
Josiah took a drink of coffee. "The wages of sin are nipping at their heals."
"Hell Josiah, Ezra ain't never run from sin." Vin grinned.
"I do believe the sin of pride is about to take a fall." Josiah chuckled. "They made each other a little bet."
Chris' eyes narrowed, "What kind of bet? We have a trial coming up and I don't need those two messing around."
"Whatever got Nathan to gamble with Ezra?" Vin asked as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Nathan bet that he could go a week without digging at Ezra. Ezra said he could go without cards." Josiah smiled widely. Chris looked pained. Vin chuckled.
The prisoner pickup took longer than expected. It was dusk by the time Buck and his prisoner rode in. Jess Miller had turned out to be a disturbing surprise. Charged with raping and then murdering a young girl, the dark haired kid had reminded Buck very strongly in looks of JD. But there the resemblance ended. Jess was a cold blooded, fast on the draw, and mouth, killer. He'd spent most of the trip telling Buck that he was a dead man and how his father was coming for him. When he wasn't screaming threats he was bragging about the men he'd killed and the women he had. Buck finally told him to shut up or he'd gag him. When the young killer continued to rant, the normally even-tempered man kept his promise.
Chris and Vin were lounging in front of the jail when Buck rode in. One look at the grim set of his face and at the young man, tied and gagged, brought both men to their feet. They watched as Buck dragged Jess off his horse and shoved him, hard, through the jail door.
"Any trouble?" Chris asked giving the furious prisoner a cold glance.
Buck didn't answer, just continued shoving the bound man toward the cell. At the cell door, he used his knife to cut the rope around Miller's hands before throwing him in. Slamming the door and turning the key, he faced the other men. Stepping forward a bit and jerking his thumb toward the figure on the floor he spoke.
"That may look human, but it's not. He makes Maddie look sane."
Vin and Chris shared a look, both remembering the insane young woman who'd shot JD just to prove a point. She'd shown no remorse for that or for the other killings she'd committed. Right then, Jess managed to get the gag off, screaming curses he grabbed the cell bars and shook them. Reaching one hand through, he clawed, desperately trying to reach Buck. The mustached man turned and stepped forward one step, just out of range of the gibbering boy, and glared. Finally realizing he couldn't reach the man he now hated most in the world, Jess returned to shaking the cell bars. His face contorted and ugly he screamed in a high-pitched voice.
"Your dead law man! Your friends too. My Pa is a big man, he won't never let me swing."
Buck turned back to the others, ignoring the threat and the creature making it.
"I need a drink. JD back?"
JD was staring at the campfire he'd just built and wondering where he'd learned the trick he'd used to start it. In fact he was wondering why he suddenly seemed to know a lot of things. All day it had been like that. He would do something then wonder how he knew or where he'd learned to do that. It was all very confusing to say the least. Starting the campfire had put the cap on his confusion. Since thinking about it was making his head hurt, he gave up. Spitting the rabbit he'd killed and cleaned <sure seemed to have a lot of practice doing that> he started it cooking. After dinner JD did what he could for the bay's leg. He'd camped next to a small stream, hoping the cool water would help the swelling go down. From the look of the horse's leg and the aches in his body, JD figured they'd both taken quite a tumble. After eating he rolled up in a blanket, maybe some sleep would make things clearer.
"Ain't back yet." Vin was half sitting on the desk. "Probably got delayed or stopped at Nettie's."
"Nettie and Casey are out of town, remember." Buck wasn't appeased.
"Phoenix is a long ride and you know how JD is about his horse. He won't push him unless it's necessary." Chris offered.
"Yeah, I suppose your right, Kid'll be back tomorrow." Buck agreed, but part of him wondered. Shaking his head, he pushed his worry aside. Time enough for that tomorrow. Phoenix was a long trip and realistically he knew JD would have been pushing it to get back today. "I still need that drink, though." Grinning he slapped Chris on the shoulder and headed to the saloon.
JD felt like a stagecoach had run over him the next morning. His muscles had stiffened during the night causing him to ache like an old man. After a bit of effort he finally got up and moving. Over a breakfast of cold rabbit, he decided that it would be a good idea to rest up a day. By tomorrow hopefully he'd feel better and the bay would be ready to ride.
It felt good to spend the morning goofing off. JD took the bay down to the stream and made it stand in the cool water for about an hour while he lazed on the bank. Returning to camp, he cooked some fish he'd caught for lunch. After lunch JD stretched out under a nearby tree for a nap. The sound of loping horses on the road woke him up. Curious he moved to a nearby rock that gave him a clear view of the area below. Just as he started to peak over he heard a voice in his head. "If you want to stay hidden, it's _best_ to remove your hat." Grimacing a bit, he shook his head. That voice seemed to be popping up all the time. If it wasn't that one, it was another. He'd counted six so far, one of them even sounded southern. He'd never known anyone from the South, so who was it? They'd even invaded his dreams last night. Most of what they said sounded like warnings, but there was other stuff too. Maybe he was going crazy. Ignoring his old mystery in favor of the new one, JD carefully looked over the rock.
He counted five riders plus three packhorses. Dressed in range clothes, every man in the group was armed to the teeth. They had stopped and one cowboy was checking his cinch. As he started to mount, curiosity over-rode good sense. JD stood up waving and yelling. The response was immediate all five men drew their guns. In the back of his mind he heard that voice again, <Kid, never surprise a man with a gun.> Sighing he raised his hands a bit higher and called down.
"Uh sorry, I didn't mean to startle you." It sounded lame even to him and made no impression on the grim faced men below. Fanning out they approached in a wedge formation, guns firmly trained on him. The man on the right leaned forward to whisper something to the leader who nodded sharply. As they got closer JD could see the leader was a stern man in his late fifties, early sixties. Lean and tough looking, he holstered his gun and stared down at JD. Two of the men kept their guns trained on JD, while the other two, rode around him and toward his camp.
"I didn't mean any harm mister, it's just, you're the first folks I've seen and I was wondering if you could tell me where I am." JD trained his gaze on the man in the middle, subconsciously recognizing that he was the one to convince.
There was no answer from the leader, but the man to the right did wave his gun a little at JD. In a Texas drawl he commanded. "You all drop them pistols son, nice an easy." His eyes seemed to bore right through JD. He was shorter than the first man. The lines on his face showed the face he smiled more than frowned. He was dressed in dark clothing and rode a dun horse.
JD unbuckled his gun belt and let it drop. By this time the other two men had returned. One pointed back toward the camp and grunted. "One horse, with a bad leg. Looks like he's alone."
JD was starting to get angry. Okay, he'd been a little rash, but that didn't mean they had to treat him like a criminal. "Look mister, I told you I was sorry ."
The older man cut him off his drawl sharp. "What are you doing out here alone boy? This ain't no country for a tenderfoot dude."
"I not a dude! I can shoot and ride better than most." JD bristled at being spoken to like he was stupid.
The hand, who'd remarked on his horse, leaned forward and whispered to the second in command. He nodded and moved up by the leader. The two held a whispered conference then the dark clad man pealed off waving to one of the ranch hands to follow. The leader smiled slightly then nodded toward JD's camp. "I believe you, but I think we'll share your camp tonight anyway. That is if you have no objections." JD knew it didn't matter if he did or not, he was having company. The other man continued, "This is rough country and a man shouldn't ride it alone." Swing down off his horse he stepped forward and offered his hand. "Name's Jed Miller of the Lazy Quirt ranch, Texas."
JD was up early the next morning, checking over his horse. Talking low and soft he ran his hand down the leg, feeling for heat. The bay stood quietly, lifting his leg when asked, showing total trust in the man touching him. A short distance away, Jed Miller and his foreman, Clint Wilkes stood watching. The two men had known each other almost 30 years. Clint had been with Jed through Indian attacks, the birth of his children, loss of his wife and now he would stand with him as he tried to save his son. But at this moment he was watching a young man who could almost be Jess's double, behave in a way Jess never had. It didn't take a genus to see that Jed thought they looked alike too. Clint knew his boss and old friend was watching JD and wishing Jess would show half as much sense as this young man did. Last night both men had looked at JD in his city clothes and saw a complete dude. His camp had been a surprise to two men expecting the normal mess easterners usually made. Even in his current addled state JD remembered the lessons the rest of the seven had taught him over the last few years. He'd unconsciously picked a camp that was easily defendable for one person. His bedroll was tucked next to a big rock so no one could sneak up behind. Equipment was neatly placed, the campfire circled by rocks, his horse well cared for. Then this "dude" had helped with the unsaddling and setting up of camp like it was something he did all the time. Clint had seen the way Jed watched JD interact with the others last night. Both men had noticed that the ranch hands accepted the young man quicker than most strangers. He'd seen other things as well, JD's supplies were low and he seemed lost. But how did such a competent young man get lost to the point he didn't know where he was? And when the year had been mentioned he'd reacted very strangely. There was a mystery here, but one they didn't have time to solve. Catching his boss's eye, Clint nodded toward JD.
"You could ask him to travel with us. Tell him we'll help him get on with the Rangers."
"I could, but do I have a right to? The words were spoken reluctantly. Jed Miller was a man caught between a rock and a hard place and the sight of JD only aggravated the wound. Still he'd always been a fair man. Hard sometimes, yes, couldn't build one of the biggest ranches in Texas if you were soft. But he'd always been a man people looked to when it was time to stand and fight. Now his son was in trouble, accused of a crime he couldn't possibly have committed. Jed refused to believe he could have done what they said. Cause if Jess had, then his son was no better than an animal. And his father would rather be dead than believe that. Suddenly angry he snapped at Clint, "Do whatever you think's best, you will anyway." before walking back to camp.
JD hadn't even noticed the two men. His mind was still whirling from last night's revelations. How had he managed to lose so much time? Also, what was he doing in Arizona? Had the Rangers refused him? Had he even made it to Texas? Confused and starting to feel very alone, JD wasn't sure where to go or what to do next.
"Nice horse, he all right?" Clint's voice startled him, sending his hand toward his hip in an instinctive reaction. A move Clint made note of. This young feller might look and talk like a dude, but he had a gunman's automatic reaction. He also noted that JD seemed surprised and slightly embarrassed by the move.
"Yes sir, he seems ready to travel." JD ran an appraising hand down the patient bay's leg one last time. "I guess we'll head on."
"I been thinking about that son. Boss has some business in a little town near here, shouldn't take more then a day or so. Why don't you come along, then ride back to Texas with us." Clint waved his hand at the open country. "There's safety in numbers and the boss can put in a good word for you with the Rangers."
"I'd like that sir." JD smiled relieved he wouldn't have to ride off alone again.
"Ain't nothing son. You can drop the sir too, I'm Clint and the boss is Boss or Mr. Miller." Clint tilted his head and studied the young man. "You know son, you really need some decent clothes."
"What's wrong with my clothes?" JD looked down, studying himself.
"Nothin, if you're back east, but out here man needs to dress different. He also needs a hat. Come on, time I'm through, you'll look like a real Texan." Clint steered the young man toward camp. The clothes had been brought for Jess but he figured a couple of shirts and pants wouldn't be missed.
Buck had the afternoon watch at the jail. Unable to stand the ranting of the prisoner he was sitting outside. Sipping coffee and watching the people on the street, and trying to pretend he wasn't waiting for JD to come riding in. Buck kept telling himself that the kid wasn't late, after all Phoenix was a fair ride. So far he hadn't been able to convince himself. His thoughts were interrupted by Ezra's arrival.
"Good morning Buck, how fair you on this bright day?" The southerner looked a bit harried and one eye seemed to be twitching a bit.
"Ezra you look like you just found a skunk in the privy. What's wrong?" Buck leaned back in his chair looking up at the other man.
"Nothing, nothing, I assure you." Ezra tugged nervously on his cuffs. "It seems that I find myself at loose ends today."
"Well pull up a seat, we can play a couple of hands to pass the time." Buck offered.
"Oh well, um, I mean," Ezra looked almost hunted. "As appealing as that sounds, I must decline. I need to check my horse, he seemed to be perambulating a bit stiffly yesterday." Tipping his hat, the gambler hurried off toward the livery.
Buck had been watching Ezra disappear into the stable so missed Chris and Vin's approach. Looking at Chris he answered his question with a question. "What's with Ezra? Seems a mite jumpy."
Chris grimaced slightly and told him. Buck was still chuckling as the stage pulled in. Judge Travis climbed out and headed for the jail.
"Gentlemen, how is our prisoner?"
Buck kind of growled as Chris stepped forward to answer. "He's inside Judge. Not a very pleasant person."
"Considering the crimes he's accused of, I'm not surprised." The Judge and Chris went inside, followed, after a moment's hesitation, by Vin and Buck. Inside, the judge moved into the small area in front of the two cells. He stared at Jess who was sprawled on his bunk glaring at everyone. "My name is Judge Travis and I will be presiding at your trial."
"Fine with me old man, you preside at my trial and I'll preside at your death."
"Don't get too close Judge, he's tried to jump everyone of us." Vin nodded at the cell, adding with a grin. "Including Josiah."
"He's scum. Sooner he's dead, better off the world will be." Buck glared at the cell then turned sharply, throwing an, "I'll be outside", over his shoulder as he headed out the door.
"Oh yeah? Well it'll be a pleasure killing you!" Jess yelled at Buck's back.
Judge Travis shook his head as he walked toward the door. "The trial will start at ten, day after tomorrow." Once on the boardwalk he paused and turned back to Chris. "I want all of you at the trial. Word is that Jess Miller's father is headed this way. He's said he'll do whatever's necessary to keep his son from hanging."
"We'll be there Judge." Chris promised stepping out the door. "All except JD, he hasn't made it back from Phoenix yet."
"Really, that's strange." The Judge looked thoughtful. "I got a telegram six days ago from the capital telling me they'd received the papers I sent."
"Six days?" Buck, who'd returned to his chair, stood up quickly. "Then where is he, Phoenix is only about a four and a half day ride."
"Easy Buck, lots of things could have delayed him." Vin soothed, "Don't mean he's in any trouble."
Buck didn't look convinced and Chris couldn't blame him. JD's attraction to trouble was well known. But they were also facing a possible attack from a force of unknown size. Did he dare risk cutting his forces by sending anyone to look for their missing comrade?
The Judge took the decision out of his hands. "I need every one of you here for the trial. If Miller's father rides in, I want to be prepared. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go see my grandson."
Chris watched the Judge walk off before turning back to a fuming Buck.
"Chris, I ain't.." "Buck, I know.." The two men started to speak at the same time. When both paused Vin inserted a quiet comment.
"Might be a good idea if someone was to ride down the road toward Eagles Bend." He grinned when both men turned their attention to him. "Just to kinda scout around. Miller and his men would be coming from that direction." Unspoken was the point that so would JD.
Buck started to relax and Chris's lips twitched a bit as he told the tracker. "Then I guess you'd better go take a look. Just remember, be back before the trial starts."
JD was beginning to wonder if traveling with the Texan's was such a good idea. While Clint and the hands seemed friendly enough, all kept their distance. He could feel them giving him strange looks. Mr. Miller had ridden out in front all day, his face set in grim lines. It didn't take a smart man to see he was troubled about something. JD sighed and pulled at his hat, the big Stetson felt wrong. In these new clothes he just didn't feel like himself. What JD didn't know was, in his new clothes he didn't look like himself either.
Josiah had that prickly feeling you get when someone is watching you. Turning from where he was hammering a particularly stubborn board down he found Ezra silhouetted in the doorway. "Afternoon Ezra, can I help you?"
The other man ran his hand nervously over the back of a pew. "Actually I was wondering, that is, if I would not be a nuisance..you see I seem to have some time on my hands" Ezra paused as if at a loss what to say then shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "I thought perchance you could use some assistance, but I understand if..."
"Ezra, I'll take all the help I can get." Josiah took pity on the uncomfortable gambler and cut him off "You any good at painting?"
Within five minutes a slightly bewildered Ezra had his coat off and a paintbrush in hand.
Vin eased up training his spyglass on the camp below. He watched the men setting up camp, counting the bedrolls on the ground. Six bedrolls, six men, not bad odds he thought. Two of the men visible were regular hands going by their clothes. One had his back to Vin starting a fire while the other cleaned a couple of rabbits. Two older men stood off to the side talking, figured one was the boss but it was hard to tell which. Probably the men belonging to the other bedrolls were tending the horses. Their clothing and rigs screamed Texas to his trained eye. Vin lowered the glass with a troubled look. Carefully squirming back down the hill, he ran to his waiting horse. Tied to the saddle was a familiar derby hat. Vin had spotted it lying in the grass by the road about two hours ago. He had been following the tracks of a limping horse and a man on foot when he'd heard the gunshots used to kill the rabbits. The handsome tracker was torn, part of him wanted to keep following JD's trail, but he knew he needed to warn the others. If he turned back now he could reach town about midnight. If the men below got up early and rode hard they would be there by late afternoon. Vin knew Chris would need time to prepare so he made the hard decision to return to town. With a last glance back towards the camp he mounted up urging his horse toward home. JD's tracks showed he had been able to move under his own power and there had been no blood. Vin just hoped that whatever had sent JD off in the wrong direction would slow him down enough that he could be found once Jess Miller's father was dealt with. What he hadn't seen was JD's rig tucked behind a rock or JD's horse, which was right now drinking with the others. JD had been starting the fire, but in his new clothes and hat Vin hadn't recognized him.
Ezra had settled into the rhythm of painting. His shirt, hands and face were spattered with little flecks of white but he didn't care. One wall was a quarter done. Blissfully unaware of Josiah's occasional scrutiny and gentle amusement he hummed slightly to himself as he worked. Lost in their thoughts neither man heard Nathan enter. Josiah was the first to notice him standing in the doorway with a slightly surprised look on his face. He waved the healer closer, "Brother Nathan, what brings you here?"
"Mr. Wagner sent you some old nails he couldn't use." Nathan kept darting looks at Ezra as he handed over the bag to Josiah. Ezra smiled back and gave a jaunty wave with his paintbrush.
Josiah accepted the bag with a nod and a smile. It wasn't the first time someone had dropped off something they claimed to have no use for. Many repairs to the church had been made with donated boards, nails, etc. The paint Ezra was so happily applying had been a donation from Mrs. Potter.
"Be sure and thank him for me." Josiah's replied, enjoying the look on Nathan's face.
"Uh, no problem" Nathan gave Ezra one last glance as he turned to go. "Looks good Ezra."
"Thank.., thank you." The gambler replied a slightly quizzical look on his face.
Nathan also looked confused for a moment, then turned suddenly as if making a decision and left. Ezra went back to painting a thoughtful look on his face. Josiah picked up his hammer and started back to work his face amused. He wondered if either man had realized how much certain habits had become part of their lives when they made their bet.
Buck pulled back the curtain looking at the street down below for probably the hundredth time. He tried to tell himself he was just checking the street but inside he knew it was JD and/or Vin he was hoping to see. Out of the corner of his eye, Buck saw a black clad figure detach itself from the shadows and cross the street to the jail. <Guess it's Chris' turn at watch. Worrying about our missing youngins too I bet.> Buck let the curtain fall, turning to put on his boots and gunbelt. He'd go keep ole Chris company.
Chris looked up from his book, not really surprised it was Buck. He'd seen the curtain move as he crossed the street. He was a slightly amazed the other man was still in town. Buck's main weakness, if you didn't count women, was the kid. When Vin hadn't returned by dark Chris figured he was going to have to get Josiah and Nathan to sit on Buck. They had all taken a try at calming the worried man without much success. Finally Ezra had pulled Buck aside and after a short conversation, that involved a lot of arm waving on Buck's part and Ezra finally grabbing the larger man by the shirt, Buck had calmed down enough to agree to wait. Chris would have paid to know what the smooth talking Southerner had said. A focused Buck was harder to stop than a cattle stampede.
Only five words, but they didn't need any more after all these years. Buck poured a cup and sat down next to the stove. Normally he was a talkative man, but tonight he didn't want conversation, just company. Chris recognized the mood and let him be. The two sat in silence both worried but unwilling to discuss it. Also neither man wanted to wake the sleeping prisoner it was the only time he was bearable.
Vin's sudden entrance about an hour later was met with drawn guns. Stumbling slightly he fell more than walked in the door. Chris came around the desk as Buck shoved a chair under the tired, dirty tracker.
"Get the others." Chris took one look at Vin and knew they had trouble.
Buck choked back the questions hovering on his tongue and ran out the door. Seeing Josiah and Ezra exiting the saloon he yelled "Jail" at them, before continuing toward Nathan's.
The two men started running toward the jail. Ezra easily pulled ahead of Josiah and was first to enter. He found Chris and Vin having one of their silent communication moments.
"Vin, are you all right?" Ezra figured if the other man was actually hurt Chris wouldn't be just sitting there, but good manners decreed he ask.
"I'm fine, just tired. Been riding hard." Vin shrugged tiredly. "Need a drink more than anything else."
Pulling out his flask Ezra offered it to the other man. "Never let it be said I failed a fellow comrade."
"Thanks pard." Vin took a long pull.
"Ezra, go get Josiah." Chris ordered.
"He was right behind me." Ezra replied looking behind him. Out on the street he could see the back of Josiah's head. The other man was standing next to Vin's horse looking at something. "He's examining your steed."
Vin groaned, "Get him in here before Buck comes back an tell him to bring the hat." Ezra gave him a rather startled look before turning to do so.
"Hat?" Chris had a hard light in his eyes. "Who's hat?" His voice held a "I do not want bad news right now' tone.
Vin didn't say anything just locked eyes with the blond man for a moment then nodded toward the cells. Chris swung a grim look toward the now awake prisoner then returned the nod with one of his own. Chris sat back on the desk, trying to figure out what to tell Buck while Vin wondered if he'd made the right decision to turn back.
"Vin said to come inside and bring the hat." Ezra stepped close enough to see the big man's hands. An anguished whispered "No" burst out when he spotted the item Josiah was slowly turning in his hands. The gambler actually stumbled back a step as if to deny what the hat meant.
"Strength brother, Buck is going to need our support." Josiah clapped a heavy hand on Ezra's shoulder using it to guide him inside. He had a feeling that the next few hours were going to be some of the worst the seven had ever faced.
Chris took in the familiar derby in Josiah's hand, the devastated look in Ezra's eyes and came to his feet. Stepping forward he took the familiar derby from Josiah a dark look on his face. Before he could ask Vin any questions Buck and Nathan charged back through the door. Nathan started straight for Vin but Buck froze his eyes centered on Chris' hands. He moved close enough to take the derby from Chris, clutching it in one hand he turned toward Vin.
"Where?" One word yet it conveyed utter despair and deadly intent all at the same time.
Vin shot a glance toward the cells, not surprised to see Jess was watching everything with intent eyes. Standing up, he gestured toward the door. "Outside." Suiting action to words, he walked out, Buck right on his heels like a hound on a scent. The others followed, sharing worried glances with each other. Outside, Vin turned to lean against the hitching post, bracing himself for the upcoming explosion.
"Where?" Buck couldn't seem to force anything more past the lump in his throat.
"About a half days ride from here along the trail." Vin paused to gather his thoughts not sure if he should offer hope or not. One look at Buck's face and he decided to take the chance. "I don't think he's dead or bad hurt. I found some tracks, showed where a horse took a tumble. Found some others of a limping horse and a man walking south. Looked like JD's."
"Why didn't you follow them?" Buck demanded his temper starting to rise.
"I did." Vin shot back, "Followed em till I heard some gunfire. Went to check that out and found something I figured Chris needed to know about."
"So you left JD out there wandering around, hurt?" Buck stepped forward a grim, sad look on his face.
Josiah stepped forward, putting himself between Buck and Vin. "Calm down Buck, let's hear it all." The big man enforced his request with a hand on Buck's chest.
"Tell the rest." Chris seemed to have his attention on the tracker but he kept Buck visible in the corner of his eye. Buck would never intentionally hurt Vin, but if the big man had a blind spot it was JD.
Vin was still leaning against the rail staring at Buck. A part of him had wanted Buck to hit him. Wanting some form of punishment for the decision he'd made, even though it was the best choice. "Found Miller's pa. He has five of his men with him, should be here tomorrow afternoon." Directing his attention to Chris now, he continued. "He's gonna be trouble Chris. I know Texas hands. Everyone of em will fight AN die for their boss. Not fer money, cause a loyalty and honor."
Chris nodded in agreement. The men were more dangerous than any regular outlaw gang. He'd seen first hand what a true Texan could do during the war. He'd never forget the "Yeeagh" cry of the Texas Light Brigade or a small Rebel Captain walking into a Union encampment in the name of honor.
Vin moved in front of Buck who had gone silent and still, his eyes on the hat in his hands. "Buck I followed the tracks fer about 2 hours. He never fell, was walking okay and I didn't find no blood. Expect he took his horse somewhere to rest." The trackers voice was harsh with regret.
"If there weren't no blood and he was walking, he's probably all right." Nathan agreed with Vin.
"Buck?" Chris laid his hand on top of JD's hat letting the other man know silently he wouldn't stop him if he wanted to ride out.
Buck raised his eyes, they were still dark, but some of the light was back. "Vin's right Miller and his men are going to be trouble. We'll handle them, then Vin and I will go find the Kid." He paused to give Chris a wry grin. "Way he attracts trouble maybe this is for the best. Won't have to worry about him getting shot during the gunfight."
As a joke it wasn't much but the other five men laughed a bit anyway.
Vin offered his hand to Buck, clasping his forearm the same way he often did with Chris. A silent promise between the two men that no matter what, they would find their missing friend.
Four o'clock the next afternoon found six tense men sick of waiting. The morning had gone quickly enough. The trial had started promptly at 10:00 and by 11:30 Jess Miller was sentenced to death. Judge Travis had scheduled the hanging for tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM. The unstable young man had ranted and screamed all the way back to the jail. It took both Josiah and Nathan to control him. It had wisely been decided to keep Buck as far as possible from the insane killer. Chris was glad the Judge had chosen the early time. Buck and Vin planned to ride out right after the hanging.
The waiting was starting to get on everyone's nerves, especially Buck and Vin's. Chris wasn't sure what Buck would do if Miller didn't show soon. Right now the dark haired man was sitting in front of the jail, nursing his rifle and watching the street. Vin crouched near him, a constant shadow the guilt at abandoning the search eating at him. Add in Nathan and Ezra's strange behavior and Chris felt like he was sitting on a powder keg. Something had to break. Chris watched Nathan walk toward the church. He and Ezra sure seemed to be spending a lot of time there the last couple of days.
As Nathan opened the church door a gust of wind blew up, tearing it out of his hands to bang against the wall. Stepping inside he was a bit startled to find Ezra's derringer pointed at him. The southerner lowered his weapon an embarrassed look on his face, quickly replaced with his normal poker face.
"Ezra, you " Nathan cut the words off and stood there.
"My apologies, I seem to be .. I thought " Ezra let the sentence trail off, the embarrassed look back. "I, I think I'll go over to the saloon for a drink." He brushed past his head down. Nathan turned to watch him noticing how tense he looked.
"Looking for me?" Josiah's voice boomed in his ear, causing Nathan to jump. Turning he gave the other man a dirty look. Josiah gave him an unholy grin and started back toward the front of the church.
"What's wrong with him?" Nathan jerked his head back toward the door. Josiah's inquiring look prompted him to add, "Ezra, he's been acting strange lately even for him."
"I think he's getting too much sleep."
Nathan decided to ignore that. Sometimes he thought Josiah came up with this stuff just to drive him crazy. Still he couldn't help worrying about the other man. After all if Ezra was getting sick it was his job to help him. "Maybe I should check on him?"
"I wouldn't worry." Josiah offered. "He'll be fine in three days."
"Now how can you know that?" Nathan asked in an exasperated tone. "If he's sick " The healer cut the rest of the sentence off. "You mean to tell me not shuffling cards is doing this to him?"
Josiah picked up a board turning it in his hands. Looking at Nathan he smiled "Gotta get this board back in the window before it falls apart. Some times the smallest things are what holds everything together."
Whatever Nathan was going to say was cut off when Vin stuck his head in the door. "Looks like Miller's here." Both men hurried to follow him outside and take their positions.
Jed Miller and Clint Wilkes rode side by side down the center of the street. Clint kept shooting glances at his boss. He knew the man beside him had just seen his entire world destroyed in the space of a half hour. That's how long it had taken for the parents of the girl Jess murdered to tell their story. The two parties ran into each other a few miles out of town. The Texans had stopped to water their horses and found the Edwards were already there, resting before continuing home. One look at JD and Mrs. Edwards had started screaming. She'd thought at first he was Jess intending to kill them all. JD had been horrified at her reaction. Clint sent him to water the horses and then, with his boss listening, had slowly coaxed the story out. By the time the Edwards were ready to continue their journey, Jed Miller had every horrifying detail etched in his brain. He hadn't told the couple who he was and he knew they had no reason to lie to a stranger. He'd been numb ever since, only speaking long enough to tell the others to wait outside of town. Clint was afraid the shock of finding out about his son had sent the man over the edge.
Now as they rode toward the jail, Clint wished he had a feel for his boss' state of mind. He'd noticed the sharpshooter on the roof across from the jail and the man in black sitting outside. He hoped this wasn't going to become a suicide mission.
Chris watched the two men approach from under the brim of his hat. Where were the other four men Vin has said to expect? Was Miller planning some sort of diversion, hoping to free his son during? Chris stood up as the two men dismounted. Making sure to stay out of Vin's line of fire he stepped closer. He too the measure of the two men standing in front of him, noticing how beaten and tired the one man looked. The other man reminded him of a hawk, checking everything out with sharp eyes that missed little. Of the two Chris figured he was the most dangerous and if it came to a fight, the one he'd need to take out.
Clint saw the way the other man's eyes, sized him up. He didn't bother to hide an amused grin. He knew gunfighters, wasn't slow himself, but this man would kill him at the first sign of trouble. He was fast enough to take the other man with him he thought, but he hoped he wouldn't have to find out. His eyes flickered to the mustached man standing nearby in the shadows then back. Yep if it came to a fight, he was a dead man.
"Can I help you?" Chris just wanted all this to be over with so they could go find JD. He directed his comment to Clint and was a bit surprised when the other man answered instead.
"I'm Jed Miller, I understand you have my boy in jail?" Jed forced the words out. A part of him was still praying that it wouldn't be Jess in there. "I'd like to see him."
"You'll have to leave your guns here and be searched." Chris was a bit surprised by Miller's easy compliance. Stripping off his gunbelt he handed it to the other man telling him to wait outside. Chris quickly patted him down before opening the door and waving him in. He then turned his attention back to the other man who was leaning against the rail and rolling a cigarette. Josiah and Nathan were inside with Miller. A quick glance confirmed that Ezra was across the street watching.
Clint lit his cigarette eyeing the other man through the smoke. "Clint Wilkes." Clint wanted to know who this black clad man was.
Clint smiled, he could almost read Larabee's mind. Where were the rest of his men? Was this a trap, an elaborate ruse? This man reminded him of the boss, hard, tough and didn't know the meaning of quit. Taking a deep draw of tobacco he waved the cigarette at the jail. "Always knew that boy would hang. Even as a kid he had a mean streak." Clint paused to take another puff. "Blame myself some, if'n I'd a forced the boss to see it, well maybe he could have done something."
Chris shook his head, "Doubt it."
Clint gave a heavy sigh, "S'pect your right, sure glad his momma didn't live to see this day. Finding out the truth's, damn near killed his pa."
"Staying for the hanging?" Chris was still expecting a trap.
"Reckon that'll be up to the boss."
Blasted Texans, Chris thought.
The jail door opened ending the conversation. Miller walked straight to his horse a grim defeated look on his face. Mounting up he looked down at Chris. "My men and I are headed back to Texas. I left money with the man inside to see my son buried." Jerking his horse around he kicked it into a lope. Clint tipped his hat and followed leaving two very confused gunslingers.
"That is a troubled man."
Chris turned to look at Josiah. "What did he say in there?"
"We couldn't hear much." Nathan was shaking his head sadly, "Whatever it was sure set the boy off. You can still hear him screaming."
It was true, Jess was making an unholy racket, rattling his bars and screaming obscenities.
"Do you think he meant it?" Buck asked Chris, referring to Miller's statement. If he had then there was no reason to delay looking for JD.
Chris didn't answer at first as he watched the two riders disappear. "Josiah, did he leave any money?"
"Fifty dollars, told me to bury his son and give the rest to the church."
"What'd he say pard?" Vin had joined the group, Ezra right behind him.
Chris looked at the group. He knew Buck and Vin, if asked, would wait, but if Miller told the truth then they'd be wasting time. Turning a feral smile on the waiting men he made his decision. "Buck, Vin we can handle this, you go hunting."
The group broke apart, Josiah staying with the prisoner. Nathan went to pack some bandages and herbs while Ezra went to Potter's for supplies. Chris followed Buck and Vin down to the livery for some last minute planning. Twenty minutes later the two men galloped out of town. Vin figured they could make it back to where he'd left JD's tracks by nightfall. They would start tracking from there in the morning.
The two hard riding men didn't bother to follow the road. If they had they would have met up with Miller and JD as the Texas party started home. Nor did Miller follow the same route home, Clint convinced him to take an easier way with more water. It would take longer, but time wasn't a factor now.
JD could feel Mr. Miller's eyes on him again. It was beginning to make him uncomfortable the way the other man kept watching him. He wished he knew what was going on. That afternoon the boss and Clint had left for about an hour. When they returned instead of camping for the night they had started back towards Texas. Miller had seemed driven, riding until it was almost to dark to see. JD's head hurt and he was tired. The last couple of days were starting to catch up with him. Questions and voices kept running through his head. When he tried to sleep faces of people he'd never seen danced in his dreams. It was all so confusing and thinking about it gave him a headache. With a sigh he turned his back to the fire and closed his eyes. Hopefully tomorrow would be a better day.
Three hours later found the entire camp sound asleep. Even the night guard had dropped off. No one saw the shadow creeping through the brush toward the horses. The figure was a young Indian boy who had run away from the reservation in search of the old glory. His plan was to steal a horse from the white men and ride it back to the reservation. Dreaming of the admiration that would soon be his he edged closer to the big dun horse on the end. He couldn't have picked a worse target. Never very friendly to strangers anyway, Clint's gelding laid back its ears and lunged at the boy, squealing its dislike. This other horses joined in, pulling on the tie rope and fussing. Abandoning his plan the youth turned to run, even as the Texans rolled out of their bedrolls, grabbing their guns. One of the hands raised his rifle intending to put a bullet into the back of the fleeing figure. JD didn't think just reacted. Lunging forward he shoved the rifle barrel up just as the other man fired.
"What the hell you think your doing boy?" Johnny Evers was only a couple of years older than JD, but he figured he knew more than any dude.
"You don't shoot nobody in the back!" JD had no idea how much he sounded like a certain blond gunslinger.
"It was just a stinking thief. He deserved it." was the snarled reply. "I'll shoot who I want, when I want."
"You won't shoot anybody in the back while I'm around." JD didn't know why this was important to him, but it was.
"You think you can stop me?" Johnny challenged. Stepping back he tightened his grip on the rifle.
JD didn't want a fight. He'd grabbed his pistol rolling out of bed, but wasn't sure how it would fare against the rifle. In the back of his mind he could hear a voice saying 'Don't matter how fast you are if you miss your shot.' He felt himself steady. He could do this if he had to.
Miller had been watching the scene intently. Jess would never have stopped Johnny unless he wanted the shot himself. The thoughts that had been hovering in the back of his mind all afternoon crystallized. This young man was everything he own son should have been. The sight of JD facing down Johnny helped him make the final decision. God had given him a son to replace the one he'd lost. A son any man would be proud to have. Miller stepped between the two young men. "Enough!" He barked, "Johnny I've warned you before about your reckless shooting. Pack your gear, Clint pay him off."
Johnny looked stunned then furious. The other hands exchanged relieved looks they had long ago grown tired of his hot temper. Clint took over, giving the ex-hand no chance to say anything more. He had one of the others saddle Johnny's horse while he paid him. JD watched, wondering why Miller would take his side against one of the established hands. Miller waited until Johnny disappeared then walked over and patted JD on the shoulder.
"You did right son, I'm proud of you. Better get some sleep now we have a long ride back to Texas." Tomorrow though, maybe you can ride with me for a time. I want to talk, get to know you better.
JD lay back down and stared up at the stars. He kept thinking about Mr. Miller's words. The man had pretty much ignored him till now. What had changed? He knew the words of praise should have made him feel good, but all he felt was empty. Empty and a little scared. The other man's eyes had glittered with a strange light. Closing his eyes he his last thoughts before falling asleep were troubled. As he slept he dreamed again, this time there was no gun battle, he was lost. He could feel someone else there but no matter how hard he tried he'd couldn't find him.
Several miles away Buck woke up. He'd been dreaming. In the dream he could hear JD calling his name but he couldn't find him anywhere. Turning over he whispered quietly to himself. "Hang on kid, I'm coming."
Nathan stood in the doorway of his clinic watching the jail with troubled eyes. Ezra had the midnight watch and was sitting out front. The gambler seemed, well twitchy was the best word for it. Nathan had been watching him for ten minutes and in that time the gambler had changed positions in his chair at least 6 times. The healer knew that normally Ezra enjoyed the late watch. If weather permitted he would sit outside, shuffling his ever present deck of cards and enjoying the night. Ezra said he was always at his best after midnight. The other plus, Chris didn't care if he slept till noon the next day. Shaking his head Nathan stepped back and shut the door. He knew if he stayed out there much longer the urge to tell Ezra to put his jacket on would overwhelm him. He'd almost lost the bet earlier that day. He'd been on his way over to talk to Josiah. The sound of hammering drew him around to the west side of the church. He had expected to find Josiah repairing something on the roof. Instead he'd found Ezra, standing, not sitting mind you, on the roof hammering away. He'd been wearing those slick soled boots of his not even thinking about what might happen. Nathan had been hard pressed not to yell at the man. It had taken every ounce of self-discipline he had to walk away.
Ezra watched the door close out of the corner of his eye. He'd been beginning to think Nathan was going to watch him all night. <Probably trying to catch me out.> Ezra shook his head negatively as soon as the thought popped into it. No, Nathan wouldn't do something like that. Maybe in the beginning they hadn't trusted each other, but now. Ezra believed that the healer understood him enough now to know he wouldn't cheat on this. In a way Ezra wanted to thank the other man. When they had made the bet, he had thought it would be easy to put down his cards. It had taken only half a day for him to realize how mistaken he was. Perhaps if the peacekeepers had been busier he wouldn't have noticed. But except for the trial and watching the jail the town had been deadly quiet. Normally Ezra would have enjoyed the down time, spending it in the saloon, playing cards. Instead he'd almost gone stir crazy that first day. Sighing he shifted in the chair again. A cool breeze blew in off the desert, giving him a slight shiver. The gambler smiled slightly. He'd removed his coat when he noticed Nathan watching him. He'd been baiting the healer all day. Doing stupid, slightly dangerous things just to watch the other man's reaction. Ezra knew the hardest thing for Nathan was keeping quiet when he thought someone might get hurt. A soft chuckle escaped his lips as he remembered the look on Nathan's face when he found Ezra on the church roof, nailing shingles. It had been worth the manual labor just to see Nathan's eyes widen. It hadn't produced the desired effect though. "Damn bet." Ezra said softly under his breath as he wiggled in the chair once more.
Neither man saw Josiah and Chris standing nearby in the shadows.
"Heard you got a talking to." Chris's tone was amused.
"Yes," Josiah chuckled. "Nathan was a mite upset I let Ezra up on the roof and near a saw."
"How many more days is this bet?"
"Too many brother, too many."
"He camped here a couple of nights." Vin was squatted by the remains of JD's campfire. "First night he was alone, second he had company."
"How many?" Buck was scanning the surrounding area even as he told himself JD was long gone.
"Eight horses, but there were only five riders." Vin stood up and moved around the camp.
"Did they hurt him?" Buck had to ask even though he knew Vin wouldn't be so calm if there were signs of a struggle.
"Don't look like it. He rode out with em in the morning."
Vin swung back up into his saddle. Gathering the reins he turned his horse back the way they'd come. "North." Kicking Peso into a lope he took off. Nine horses left an easy trail.
Buck followed silently praying to himself.
Jess Miller went to his death kicking and screaming, as unpleasant in life as he had been in death. Chris couldn't relax his guard even after they cut the dead man down and hauled him off to the undertakers. He even followed the wagon out to the cemetery watching as it was lowered into the ground. Josiah was there and Chris briefly wondered what sort of words the ex-preacher would use to send a soul on when he knew it was going to Hell.
"As ye sow so shall ye reap." Josiah rode up and turned his horse to stand beside Chris'. Together they watched the undertaker and his helper shovel dirt into the grave. "It's a good thing you didn't make Buck stay for the hanging. Even thought I knew that wasn't JD, the resemblance made it hard."
Chris turned his horse back towards town. Josiah fell in beside him, "So, what do we do now?"
"We wait." Chris kicked his horse into a lope ending any chance for conversation.
Ezra entered the saloon slowly. He was frustrated after spending the last hour looking for Nathan. Only two days remained to win the bet. With the trial and hanging over it was time to take extreme measures. He had a plan, now all he had to do was find Nathan. Looking around he groaned, there was Nathan sitting at the table Ezra usually used to conduct his poker games shuffling a deck of cards. The look on the healers face was contemplative. Ezra approached cautiously, watching Nathan's hands the entire time. Nathan waited until the gambler was standing beside the table before looking up.
"Ezra." Nathan nodded.
"Nathan." Ezra slid into a chair. "Lovely morning isn't it."
Nathan grinned at the obvious attempt at normalcy. Tapping the deck of cards on the table, he started shuffling again. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Ezra. Nathan could almost see the wheels turning as the other man tried to work out what was going on.
"Are you taking up gambling?" Ezra fired the first salvo.
"Nope, but this is a soothing activity." Nathan wasn't giving in that easily. "I'm beginning to see why you like it."
"Yes, well " Ezra let the words trail off studying Nathan curiously.
"You know I've discovered something these last few days." Nathan started to deal a hand to himself and Ezra.
"What pray tell is that?" Ezra was eyeing the cards like they were going to bite him.
"I tend to speak sometimes before I think." Nathan set down the deck and picked up his hand.
"Indeed, well," Ezra cleared his throat reaching a tentative hand toward his cards.
Nathan saw his hesitation "Go ahead, bet was you can't shuffle, nothing about playing."
Ezra's gold tooth gleamed in the sunlight as he picked up the cards. Eyes intent on them he also offered an olive branch. "I also learned something."
"Yeah?" Nathan prompted.
"Yes." Ezra threw three cards down. "Three."
Nathan dealt the required cards and took one. The two men studied their cards in silence for a moment before Ezra cleared his throat again.
"I discovered that sometimes the manner others use to show their concern is by pointing out their faults. After all Jesus yelled the loudest at his apostles."
"Sounds like you've been talking to Josiah." Nathan was grinning. "He told me sometimes it's the smallest part of ourselves that holds everything together."
"Seems our esteemed comrade has been working on more than the church lately." Ezra locked his gaze with Nathan's and flashed another one of his trademark grins. "It would be a shame to ignore his efforts. I, for one, have no wish to attract his ire."
"Certainly don't want him going Old Testament on us." Nathan nodded. Both men laughed as Nathan spread his cards out. "Two pair."
Ezra turned his cards over to showing a lone pair. "Your hand." Reaching over he gathered up Nathan's cards adding them to the deck. Shuffling the deck a few times he reached into his pocket. Drawing out a dollar Ezra slid it across the table. "I believe this is yours. I find it will be more beneficial to my financial well being to concede this contest. Participation in our little game has kept me from engaging in my normal more profitable endeavors. Can I interest you in a few hands?"
Nathan picked up the coin and shook his head at the other man. "Might have known you'd come up with a reason to loose." The words were harsh, but the tone, like Ezra's has been, was teasing. Standing up Nathan held up the coin. "I'll put this toward the bandages your gonna need next time someone accuses you of cheating. Ezra grinned, tipping his hat slightly at the other man.
Nathan had barely cleared the saloon door before Ezra has his first customer of the day.
"You just shuffling gambler, or do you want to play?" A young man dressed in the clothes of a Texas trail hand stood by the table.
"Sit down sir, if it's a game you are after, I will be happy to oblige." Ezra's gold tooth winked in the sunlight. "Your name?"
"Johnny Evers." Johnny sat down his eyes intent on the cards already flying across the table.
"Ezra Standish at your service."
The two men settled into play.
Vin sat on his horse at the edge of a familiar clearing and swore in English, Spanish, Commanche and Kiowa.
"What?" Buck couldn't figure out what had set the tracker off.
"This is the Texan's camp." Vin dismounted and started prowling around.
"So?" Buck still wasn't sure what was wrong.
"I stopped tracking JD cause of I found this camp and decided I needed to warn Chris."
"I know that Vin, don't blame you for it neither. They could have caused some serious damage if we hadn't been ready."
"Buck," Vin turned to look at the other man. "It's their tracks we've been following since yesterday. JD's with em. He was here, I was that close."
"WHAT?" Buck jumped off his gray. "Did they hurt him? Was he tied up?"
"Like I said, he's traveling with them cause he wants." Vin waved his hand around the clearing. "His tracks are all over the camp and he bedded down over by that rock. We'd better water the horses." Turning he started towards the creek, Buck on his heels. While the horses drank Vin prowled the banks. Stopping suddenly he motioned Buck over. Squatting down Vin pointed to some tracks. "See here, JD watered his horse and another at some point. He was alone, could have run if he'd wanted."
Buck stepped back and looked around. "What's going on Vin?" The words were soft and troubled.
"Not sure, but at least we know where they're headed. Let's start back, maybe they left JD in town."
"And if they didn't?" Buck mounted his horse turning it to face the tracker. His voice was as dark as his eyes.
"We get the others and go after them." Vin pushed his horse into a lope as soon as he was in the saddle. He was eager to get back to town. If JD wasn't there Vin wanted Chris around when Buck found out. People said Chris was scary. Vin figured they had never seen Buck when someone he cared about was in danger.
"Did you watch the hanging?" Johnny was concentrating on his cards so missed Ezra's curious glance.
"I was present." Ezra offered noncommittally.
"Bet ole Jess kicked and screamed all the way." Johnny looked up his eyes gloating. When Ezra didn't offer any immediate information he continued. "Did he? Jess was always bragging about how bad he was, but I always figured he was nothing but a coward." Throwing down a couple of cards he waited for Ezra to deal the replacements before continuing. "I would have paid money to see the look on his face when Daddy left him in jail. Course he didn't know the old man had already found new son."
"A new son?" Ezra prompted his eyes suddenly sharp. "You were with Mr. Miller?
"Yep I came up from Texas with him. We found some milk-faced dude wandering around lost a couple of days ride from here. Boss took a real liking to him. Hell he even looked like Jess." Johnny looked up.
"How interesting." Ezra folded his hand. "I believe the pot is yours." Gathering up the cards the gambler continued in a prompting tone of voice. "This gentleman looked like Jess Miller?"
"I see Ezra's back at the tables." Chris propped one foot on the bottom step of the church. "He win or Nathan?"
Josiah smiled from his seat on the top step. "Nathan says Ezra won, Ezra says Nathan did."
Chris chuckled. "Can't those two agree on anything?"
"Senor Chris, you must come to the saloon now." Josiah's response was interrupted by Inez' arrival. The lovely saloon manager's face was marred by the worried expression it currently sported. Her hair was tangled and it was obvious she had run all the way from the saloon.
"What's wrong?" Chris stepped forward.
"Ezra pulled a gun on the young man he's playing poker with. He told me to run for you." Inez tugged on Chris' arm. "Please hurry, Ezra, it is muy malo, very bad."
Chris and Josiah entered the saloon at a run sliding to a stop at the scene in front of them. Ezra had a young man draped face down over the rail that ran beside his table. Everyone else in the room stood frozen in place. Seeing the two new men, the stranger yelled. "Get him off me."
"Ezra," Chris stepped forward "want to tell me what's going on?"
"Chris." Ezra poked the man in front of him with his gun. "Meet Mr. Evers, he has an interesting tale to tell. I know you will find it as engrossing as I did."
"Well?" Chris turned his attention to Johnny.
"I don't know what he's talking about." Johnny shouted. "We were just playing poker, then he went crazy. Get him off me!"
"Ezra?" Chris looked at the gambler.
"He knows where JD is." Ezra growled the words a deadly look on his face. "He tried to kill him last night."
Chris' reaction was swift. Grabbing Johnny off the rail he got right in the terrified man's face. "We're going over to the jail. Then you, him" Chris pointed his head at Ezra." And him," this time he directed attention to Josiah who was wearing his 'am I or am I not sane' look. "are gonna talk."
Vin and Buck tore into town heading for the livery. They found the rest of the seven already there getting ready to ride out.
"JD's with Miller and his men." Buck yelled as soon as he spotted Chris.
"We know." Chris shouted, pulling his black around to face Buck. "You're just in time to join the party."
Nathan and Yosemite hurried to saddle fresh horses for Buck and Vin. Chris introduced a pale, scared Johnny and outlined what they knew. Vin knew the route the Texans were taking and was able to offer a shortcut. Dropping down on one knee he drew a map in the dirt with a stick. Tapping the rough sketch the tracker outlined the route.
"We can cut through the hills here. It'll be rough, but with luck it'll shave about a day off their lead."
"Probably about a day and a half ahead of us." Chris mused.
"If Mr. Evers is correct they'll be traveling slow." Ezra chimed in directing a glance at Johnny who nodded eagerly.
"They probably stop at the river for a day or so to rest the horses." Johnny'd gestured to the map. "I heard Clint talkin to the boss."
"Let's go then." Buck was impatient. He wasn't sure he believed Johnny's fervent assurance of JD's health.
"What about me?" Johnny yelped. Directing his attention to Chris he pleaded. "I tole you all I know, you got to let me go."
Chris looked at the frightened young man, considering. Caught in Chris' glare Johnny physically jumped when Josiah clapped a hand on his shoulder. Chris stepped forward grabbing a fistful of Johnny's shirt. "You can go, but if I find out you've lied to me ." He let the threat hang, turning to mount his black. Leaning down over the saddle he continued, "there won't be anywhere you can hide. Do you understand?"
"Yes sir." was the strangled reply.
"Good, don't be here when we get back." Chris straightened in the saddle and waved his hand. "Let's ride."
JD pushed his hat back rubbing his forehead. The headache he'd had all day was getting worse.
"You okay son?"
JD looked to his right at the man riding there. Mr. Miller's behavior was really starting to bother him. Up until two days ago the man had hardly spoken to him. All that had changed after he'd stood up to Johnny. Now suddenly the other man wanted to know everything about him. Add in the constant 'Son' and JD was feeling extremely uncomfortable. Glancing left he caught Clint's worried look before the other man could mask it.
Sighing softly JD turned his attention back to the other man. "I'm fine sir. As a friend of mine would say, it's hot enough to fry the egg in the hen."
Clint chuckled. "Sounds like a wise man."
"Yeah." JD whispered under his breath. He could see the man in his mind, tall, with dark hair and a mustache, wearing clothing much like Clint's. This mystery man had been in his dreams the last two nights. The dreams were always the same theme, gunfights. The tall dark haired man was usually yelling at him to get down. There were other men as well, but only the one with the mustache really stuck in his mind.
"Sounds good to me, what do you think JD?"
"Uh what?" JD looked up, he'd been so lost in his own thoughts he'd missed most of the ongoing discussion. Mr. Miller was looking at him expectantly, another thing he found strange. The man wanted his input on all decisions.
"There's a river up ahead, thought we'd stop early and rest the horses for the rest of the day." Clint supplied helpfully.
"Oh, yeah, probably be a good idea." JD nodded noticing the pleased expression on Mr. Miller's face as if he'd just solved some huge problem.
"I found their tracks." Vin rode up with the good news.
"Where and how old?" Chris asked.
The sun shone through the leaves of the trees where the others had been resting their horses. It was late afternoon the second day of travel. The shortcut had been a gamble, but it looked like it was about to pay off.
"Not to far from here. I'd say we're less than a half day behind now." Vin was grinning in relief as he swung off his horse.
"How far's the river?" Buck asked.
"Couple more hours." Vin pulled off his hat to wipe the sweat from his forehead. "We can maybe catch up to em by dark."
"Get us as close as possible without letting them know." Chris directed. "I want to wait until morning to ride in."
"Morning!" Buck turned to the other man ready to argue.
Chris cut him off, "Something is wrong here. JD would never have ridden off with these men willingly. Yet Vin says he could have gotten away from them a couple of time."
"And Evers said he didn't mention us at all." Josiah added. "Why?"
"Perhaps he wanted to ascertain if Miller was a danger to us." Ezra mused.
"Then why is he still with them?" Josiah looked thoughtful. "Does he think Miller is still up to something?"
"Could be something else all together." Nathan interrupted then stopped not sure how to continue.
"Nathan?" Chris prompted the healer.
"Could be he has amnesia." Nathan's voice was sad and worried. "Vin you said there were signs his horse fell."
"Yeah." Vin nodded.
"Amnesia?" Buck jumped on the word. "What's that?"
"If he hit his head he may not remember us." Nathan explained.
"Don't remember us?" Buck was shaking his head, there was no way JD wouldn't remember him. "What do you mean?"
"I saw some of it in the war." Nathan continued. "Men with head wounds who didn't know their own names."
"But JD remembers who he is." Josiah countered. "He gave Miller his name."
"It's possible to only forget parts of your life too." Nathan shrugged.
"Either way, we need to be careful how we approach this." Chris said. "I don't want to spook Miller and start a shooting match."
Six sober men rode out of the trees. Each was thinking about their missing friend. Had JD forgotten them or was it something else. Ezra couldn't help remembering the 'new son' comment. Had JD bargained himself for their safety? He hadn't know about Jess Miller, but.. Letting the thought trail off the gambler looked over at Buck. God help Miller if he some sort of hold on JD, cause Buck wouldn't.
"JD? JD you out here?"
Groaning under his breath JD's first inclination was to stay hidden. He'd left camp to think. Mr. Miller's constant attention was really starting to make him crazy.
The tone was more urgent now, JD knew he'd better answer Clint or the whole camp would be looking for him. Sitting up a bit he took off his hat waving it over his head.
The intent on Clint's face was plain as he joined JD. "Been looking for you." Seating himself beside JD the older man studied his face. "I think you and I need to talk."
JD squirmed inwardly he had been expecting this. Mr. Miller might accept anything he said without probing but he'd noticed that Clint was more suspicious. He'd tried to answer all of the rancher's questions but some of them he couldn't. Going by clues he'd picked up from the other hand's JD'd figured out he was missing a very large chunk of his life. So far no one had called him on his confusion, but Clint was about to he thought.
"About?" JD still wasn't sure how much to tell the other man.
"About how someone who looks and talks like they've never been west of the Mississippi can do what you do." Clint knew the boss thought he'd found a son to replace Jess. He wanted to be sure this young man was worthy of the honor.
"Not sure what you mean." JD hedged.
"All right," Clint nodded agreeably. Keeping his eyes on the hills instead of JD he continued. "I'll lay it out for you. When we found you, you looked and talked like the rankest dude there was. I figured you for some kid raised on dime store novels who always wanted to be a gunfighter." Clint didn't know how near he was to the truth but the uncomfortable expression on JD's face said he was close. Of course neither man knew how much JD had changed since then. "Had my first inkling there might be more to you from your camp." Seeing the surprise on JD's face Clint elaborated. "Reminded me of a mountain man or injun camp. So I started watching. You track, ride and shoot better than some Texan's I know. And son that's saying something. Either you were raised in Texas or you had some real good teachers. Then there's the way you buckle on that gun in the morning before you do anything else. That's a habit for men who live by the gun." Clint turned to look JD in the eye. "When you stood up to Johnny, you had the look of someone who's been there before. Makes a puzzle and I hate puzzles. So I want to know, who are you really? Boss thinks you can be the son he never had. I want to be sure he's not getting another Jess." Clint settled back waiting.
JD felt like he'd been run over by a stampede. He had done all those things instinctively, not realizing at the time that it was strange. Looking over he saw Clint was patiently waiting then the second part of the conversation his him. Son! He didn't want to be anyone's son.
"Clint," JD started then paused what could he say, the truth. It would probably be for the best. Taking a deep breath he started over. "I don't know where I learned all that stuff. From what I can tell, I've lost a large part of my life." Seeing the surprise on Clint's face JD hurried to explain. "I woke up the day before you found me in a field. Don't know how I got there. Last thing I remember is deciding to come west. I guess I made it, but I'm not sure why I was in Arizona or where I was headed. I think it'd be best if I just rode off tomorrow. Mr. Miller's offer is real nice, but I don't want to be anyone's son." JD dropped his chin to his chest unsure what else to say.
The two men sat in silence for a while. Clint was a deliberate man he liked to think things through before speaking. "You don't remember anything at all?"
JD shrugged, "Been having some dreams and I keep hearing voices in my head."
"These dreams, can you describe them?"
"Mostly I'm in a gunfight."
"No, there are other men, I can hear them yelling at me and to each other." JD turned to face Clint.
"Can you see any of them?"
"Yeah, but the images are kind of fuzzy, only one really stands out."
"Describe him to me." Clint prompted.
"Tall, dark hair, mustache and dresses like you. He's always yelling at me to be careful or get down. There's one other guy, I can't see his face, but he's almost as tall as the other guy, blond. Has one of those dusters like Mr. Miller's only it's black."
Clint wanted to pound his head on the tree he was really getting too old for this. Larabee had been wearing a long black duster and the fella cradling the rifle in the shadows would fit the other description. He looked at JD, torn. On one hand the boss meant to keep this kid. On the other, come hell or high water, Larabee would be searching. And he was the one stuck in the middle. JD was still looking at him expectantly. Clint knew he should tell him the truth right now, but decided he had to talk to the boss first.
"JD let me think on this for a while. Don't do anything right now. We'll talk later okay?"
"All right." JD nodded agreeably. He felt better for having told someone.
Several men that night had trouble sleeping. In the Texan camp Clint lay, trying to figure out how he was going to tell his oldest friend the son he'd chosen, didn't want him. JD tossed and turned, caught in another dream. About a mile away, Buck waited impatiently for morning. JD would know him, he was sure of it. Chris was also thinking. Ezra had pulled him aside after dinner. Was JD with the Texan's in some misguided attempt to protect the seven? Or had he lost him memory like Nathan thought?
JD shivered in the crisp morning air as he led the horses to water. He could see Clint talking to Miller. From the look on their faces and the glances they kept throwing his way he knew they were talking about him. Sighing he turned away to concentrate on the horses.
Vin lowered his glass and grinned.
"Well?" Buck asked impatiently. "Is he there?"
"Yep." Vin offered the glass. "He's watering the horses."
Buck focused on the figure standing by the river. The man had his head down and the Stetson covered his face. Just then JD pulled off his hat. Buck smiled in relief, "He look's okay."
Chris, lying next to him grunted. "We have to handle this just right, so he stays that way."
The three men squirmed back down the hill until they could stand without being seen. Moving fast they returned to where the others waited with the horses.
"Did you see him?" Josiah asked.
"Yeah," Buck grinned, "Kid's dressed like the rest of em. At least he finally got himself a decent hat."
"All right," Chris called everyone's attention to him. "I want to do this quick and easy. They're just starting to move around. I want everyone to spread out and surround them. Wait for my signal before you show yourselves."
"Chris, I think until we know better we should assume that JD doesn't know us." Nathan interjected. "If he don't he might side with them."
Chris shot Nathan a grim look then nodded. "Be careful."
"You can't be sure anyone's looking for him." Jed Miller was being a stubborn fool. "Besides, those men cost me my other son, they owe me this one."
"Boss, we've been friends a long time, but this is wrong." Clint had been trying to talk sense into the other man since dawn without much luck. "The boy don't want what you'er offering. You can't force him to accept."
"He just needs more time." Jed turned on the other man. "Once I get him home, he'll come around."
"And how are you going to do that?" Clint waved a hand towards where JD was returning with the horses. "Tie him up and drag him back? What about Elsie? You do remember your daughter?" He asked. "Are you going to leave the ranch to JD and cut her out?"
"I figure JD can marry her, it'll make everything legal." Jed countered.
"And if he is one of Larabee's men? Then what, you know Larabee will come looking for him."
"If what you say is true, he don't remember those men." Jed had a thoughtful look on his face. "They've got no reason to think JD is with us." Reaching out he gripped Clint's arm. "You help me talk that boy into staying with us. Once he sees the ranch and Elsie I'm sure I can change his mind."
"Boss this is wrong." Clint started only to be interrupted by one of the hands.
Both men turned. Clint swore under his breath, Larabee. That was all he needed right now. A quick glance at the man next to him and his heart sank. "Boss." He started only to be cut off.
"He ain't taking my boy again." Miller's eyes had a strange glint in them.
Chris rode in slow and careful, his eyes everywhere at once. Coming to a stop at the edge of the camp he waited for Miller to approach. He saw JD standing under a tree a curious half confused expression on his face. <Damn looks like Nathan is right> he thought.
"What do you want?" Miller's tone was belligerent.
"I think you know why I'm here." Chris nodded toward JD. "He's one of my men and I want him back."
From there everything went to hell fast.
"Your not taking my son!" Miller yelled pulling his pistol. Aiming at Chris he got off a quick shot which missed completely. Chris dived off his horse rolling away.
"Boss NO!" Clint yelled even as it was too late.
Lost in his own madness Miller took another shot at Chris. Left with no choice, Chris fired back. He meant to wound Miller but the other man stepped into the bullet taking it in the chest. As the older man crumpled, JD stepped forward drawing his pistols.
"Mr. Miller!" Pointing his guns at Chris he prepared to fire only to pause as Clint stepped in his way.
"No JD." Clint commanded arms outstretched. "It's all right son, put the gun down."
So fast had everything happened the other two hands were just starting to draw. They had waited to long. Josiah and Ezra used the distraction to move up behind. They were quickly relieved of their guns and herded toward the ongoing drama.
"What's going on?" JD was confused. Stepping back until he had a tree behind him JD stood holding his gun, loosely pointing it in front of him.
"It's okay son." Clint started then stopped as another man stepped between him and JD.
It was Buck. Trying to look harmless, he moved closer to JD, stopping when the younger man suddenly brought his gun back up. "Easy JD, it's me, Buck?"
JD froze, who was this man? What was going on? Looking around he saw the other hands being guarded by a big man in a poncho and another dressed like a gambler. A black man was crouched over Mr. Miller doing something. Clint was standing there, a man with long hair behind him holding a rifle. The blond man who'd shot Mr. Miller was climbing to his feet. A sudden stabbing pain caused him to drop one gun and grab his head with a sharp cry.
"JD!" Buck's alarmed cry had JD pulling his remaining gun back into line.
"Stay where you are mister." JD paused there was something so familiar about the other man. "Who are you?"
"It's me kid, Buck.
"Do I?" JD shook his head sharply before focusing again on Buck. "Do I know you?"
"Do you know me?" Buck reacted like he'd been hit, actually wincing in pain. "Kid, you and me been friends ever since you came west."
"Why should I believe you?" JD challenged.
Buck looked lost for a minute then his face brightened. Gesturing toward his horse he smiled. "Cause only your best friend would care enough to bring you that poor excuse for a hat."
JD turned to look at the bowler tied to Buck's saddle. As he gazed at it, several scenes played across his memory. In a dusty village, a man throwing his hat in the dirt then chasing him when he picked it up. That same man pulling it off again while he sat at a desk. There were other scenes, all of them involving this man. In a rush those memories triggered others. JD groaned closing his eyes tightly at the sudden pain as everything came rushing back. Opening them he found Buck had moved forward and was now regarding him with a strange half happy half broken hearted expression. Stepping forward JD lowered his gun. "Buck?" He asked softly. "Is that you?"
"Who else would it be kid?" Buck's eyes were misty.
"Buck." JD holstered his pistol as the other man grabbed him in a hug.
The others, minus Nathan who was still working Miller, moved forward to make their own connections with the lost lamb. Josiah pulled him into a bear hug, murmuring something in his ear. Ezra and Vin both clapped him on the shoulder grinning like mad. When Chris stepped forward, JD froze, his eyes widening a horrified expression on his face.
"Oh god, Chris I almost shot you."
"It's all right JD." Chris reassured him. "Just don't make a habit of it."
The reunion was interrupted by Nathan's low voice.
"JD, Miller's asking for you."
"Is he?" JD couldn't finish the question.
"There's nothing I can do."
Turning JD saw that Clint and the other hands were now clustered around the injured man. JD walked over slowly, dropping down on one knee beside the dying man. Clint knelt on the other side, a hand on Miller's shoulder.
"I'm sorry son." Jed gripped JD's hand tightly his voice tight with pain. "I never meant any harm. Can you forgive me."
"Sure Mr. Miller." JD paused unsure what else to say.
"You're a good man, I wish my Jess had been more like you." Miller gasped, arching against the pain. "Clint?"
"Right here boss."
"Take me home, I want," Miller had to pause for breath, "want to be buried next to my Ann."
"Sure boss, you just rest now." Clint's voice was choked.
"Take care," Miller's words were faint. "Take care of Elsie." he begged, just before passing out.
The next morning the two groups were set to part ways. Miller had died in the night his body rested on a travois behind his horse. Toward the end he had called JD Jess begging him for forgiveness. Buck was proud of the way JD had stayed near all night saying whatever he thought would ease the dying man's pain. This morning JD was back in his own clothes and hat. He and Clint stood between the two groups talking. The rest of the seven watched from their horses, ready to ride out.
"Nathan, you get a chance to check him over?" Chris asked, nodding toward JD.
"Yeah, he seems okay. Says things are still a bit fuzzy in places." Nathan shifted in his saddle. "I tole him most likely they would clear up in time. He remembers us, that's the important thing."
"Amen to that." Josiah chimed in.
"I wish they'd hurry up." Buck was keeping a close eye on Wilkes. He still wasn't sure he trusted the other man.
"Ease up Buck." Chris ordered reining his horse around.
"I'm sorry for everything son." Clint offered his hand to JD.
"It's okay." JD replied, shaking hands, "If you hadn't found me I'd probably be in Texas by now. My friends might never have caught up with me then."
Clint shook his head negatively throwing a swift glance at Buck. "You could have gone to Mexico wouldn't have mattered to those men."
"What will you do now?" JD asked.
"I'll take the boss back. His daughter'll need someone to help run things for a while." Clint smiled sadly stepping back. "Take care JD."
JD turned once he was in the saddle and waved to Clint before following his friends who had already started off. Kicking his horse into a run he quickly caught up with the others.
"JD, haven't you learned anything?" Buck yelled at him. "Racing your horse through the grass is what got you into this mess in the first place. What have I told you about that? And what have I told you about..."
"Buck," JD yelled cutting him off, a wicked light in his eyes and a wide smile on his face. "You are so full of crap. Yeaagh." He cried, giving the bay his head.
"JD get back here." Buck charged off after him. The others laughed falling into their accustomed places as they raced across the prairie.