Comments: This is my own AU bringing the guys into modern day.
Disclaimer: I don't own them and in real life I'm not sure I'd want them. But they are fun to play with.
Note: This story was archived on my website until AOL did away with it. Thanks Nancy for taking me in.
The late evening sun brushed the top of the mountains, bathing the valley below in its fading glow. Its rays stretched like fingers toward a house perched on a cliff overlooking the valley. Two figures were visible on the front porch, one leaning against a support post the other in a chair. The standing man wore a fringed leather jacket, his long brownish blond hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. The other man was dressed in black from head to toe. The hat he wore was tipped down hiding his face causing him to seem to be asleep.
"Company." The word, spoken in a raspy Texas drawl, came from the man against the post. He tipped his head toward the road that edged the valley below. Just visible at the other end could be seen a cloud of dust.
The man in black raised his head revealing fierce green eyes and blond hair. The two men watched the approaching vehicle in silence. With a few exceptions no one came to the Bar Seven anymore. The dusty red truck, beat-up horse trailer attached, slowly climbing the road to the ranch house was an unknown. Lately the unknown had turned out to be a bad thing for the Bar Seven and its occupants.
The main house of the Bar Seven wasn't actually perched on a cliff. Instead it actually sat at the front of a half mile wide cut. Behind it the land ran back for a couple miles, ending in a box canyon. The mountains surrounding it were still home to all manner of wild creatures. Flanked on one side by a huge barn and on the other by a bunkhouse and chicken coop the house was easily defendable. Corrals and various sheds spread out behind the three structures in a half circle. The men who'd built it, legend said, were ex-gunfighters looking for a haven from their enemies. The last mile of road up to the house was a series of steep switchbacks. Steep and sharp enough to slow any vehicle down, let alone an old truck pulling a horse trailer. The truck was now on the first switchback slowly chugging its way up, the growl of its engine echoing in the early evening. The sound drew the other four occupants of the house outside. Moving to various positions on the porch they all watched the laboring vehicle.
None of the men on the porch saw the two other figures standing behind the chicken coop. An older man and woman peered around the coop also watching the newcomer.
"Are you sure he's the right one?" The man asked the same question he'd been asking since the woman had come to him with her theories and a plan.
"Yes Orin, he's the one. I've checked every way I can. All the signs say he completes the strength of seven. Besides," here she turned to look at the men on the porch. "they don't have much longer. It will be a year next month at the full moon. He's their only chance."
"I know," the man replied testily, "It's just I wish I could do something more."
The woman patted his arm comfortingly. "We've done what we could, now we wait. Come on, we can't let them see us."
The man placed his hand over the woman's. "You're right Nettie, we should go." With those words the two figures simply faded away.
The six men on the porch didn't notice. If he hadn't been concentrating on the truck perhaps the man leaning against the post would have. His name was Vin Tanner and his sharp blue eyes didn't miss much. A quiet man he was often thought shy by strangers but that was far from the truth. His friends knew that he had a keen sense of humor and, when the subject interested him, could talk intelligently and a great length. His upbringing had been unusual. Loosing both parents at an early age, he had been raised on a remote ranch in Texas by his maternal grandfather. The old man and his Apache ranch hand had taught the boy to track and survive off the land. He'd also learned to shoot, a talent used extensively during a stint with the Army. Among his army buddies it was said that if you saw Vin Tanner make a shot it was nothing, the miracle was when he missed one. He'd come to the Bar Seven a little over a year ago after helping the owner save a man from hanging.
The man he'd saved, Nathan Jackson, now stood just outside the front door. He was a tall, dark skinned man with warm brown eyes and a strong talent for healing. It was that talent that had almost gotten him killed. He'd been helping out in a small local clinic in the nearby town. When he'd been unable to save a wounded gang leader, the gang had tried to hang Nathan. Saved by the owner of the Bar Seven and Vin, he'd come to the ranch as well. Recognizing the peaceful stress free qualities of the ranch after only a short time there, he had brought his friend Josiah Sanchez around. Josiah was a strong man, his gentle weathered face set on top of broad shoulders. But he had many demons and had been looking for a place to rebuild his spirit. Finding the remains of a small sanctuary back in the canyon he spent his free time there rebuilding it. Josiah stood just behind a neatly dressed man who was idly shuffling a deck of cards. This was Ezra Standish, a gambler, among other things. Ezra still wasn't sure why or even how he'd ended up at the Bar Seven. One minute he'd been speeding down the highway of life, the next he'd found himself parked, here. He was still unclear as to why the ranch and the men on it held him. What had started as a simple visit to the area had turned into a life sentence.
If Ezra was still confused on why he was at the ranch the man standing at the edge of the porch was not. Buck Wilmington couldn't remember a time he hadn't been there. He'd been friends with the owner since they were kids. Right now he was hoping the truck contained a lady. There was nothing Buck loved more than the ladies. Didn't matter the age, shape or color he treated them all like precious gifts and they loved him for it. His warm nature, dark hair, twinkling eyes and mustache didn't hurt either. Darting a glance back over his shoulder at the black clad man in the chair he commented.
"Don't recognize the truck. You?"
"Nope." Chris Larabee pushed his hat back for a better look. Unlike Buck he didn't see the stranger as a good thing. Strangers meant questions and that was something the owner of the Bar Seven hated. Unfolding out of his chair Chris stepped to the edge of the porch between Buck and Vin. He locked eyes with Vin for a moment seeing the younger man was also cautious about what a stranger might bring. Were they from the Judge or Anderson? Anderson wanted the ranch and in about a month he was going to get it if something didn't happen. The guilt of that fact weighed heavily on Chris. He'd brought the others here and now they were as trapped as he was. Pushing those thoughts down ruthlessly he concentrated instead on the approaching truck. It had disappeared from view as it climbed the final switchback but they could hear it getting closer.
JD peered through the dirty windshield as he topped out of the last switchback onto the cliff. He could see the house and surrounding buildings clearly now. Even as tired as he was it was an impressive site. Most of the buildings were log including the house. It looked inviting thanks to the wrap around porch lined with a variety of chairs. JD reached over and patted the huge dog lying next to him.
"Well boy, we're almost there." The big mixed breed lifted his head but didn't seem too excited. Ignoring the lack of interest JD kept talking. "Can't say the place looks that bad. Way the Judge talked I thought it would be falling apart." JD shrugged, he was wondering why the Judge had been so insistent the place needed a caretaker. "Guess he saw I how badly I needed a place to stop for a while." The words were whispered under his breath. Continuing past the house he parked next to the barn. Turning off the truck the young man looked over at the dog. "This is it Brody, for at least the next month anyway." Giving a tired sigh, JD climbed out of the truck leaving the door open for the dog.
The others had watched the truck drive through the yard to the barn. Chris started off the porch toward the barn to check the stranger out. He didn't have to look behind to know the others were following him. By the time they reached the barn, the boy had opened the trailer and was unloading a horse. The whole group stopped to study the newcomer for a moment. They saw a young man with dark hair that hung in his eyes. He looked to be about sixteen, sturdy if a bit skinny with pale skin. He was unloading a black mare that had clearly seen better days.
"Anybody recognize him?" Chris looked at the others.
A deep "Nope", boisterous "Nah", simple "No" and an "Unfortunately I have not made his acquaintance" plus Vin's negative head shake were his answers.
"Well don't just stand there." Buck slapped Chris on the shoulder. "Let's go say hi."
Chris just glared at him causing Vin to laugh softly.
"How do you propose we accomplish that?" Ezra asked arching an eyebrow.
"Like this." Unfazed Buck walked over to the trailer stopping in front of JD. Looking over at the others he winked before turning back to the young man. "Welcome to the Bar Seven kid." He spread his arms out as if to give a hug.
The kid's response was to walk right through him towards the barn. The mare refused to follow though dancing sideways and snorting. "What is it girl?" Calming her, JD continued into the barn leaving Buck to face the others.
"That went well." Ezra said sarcastically as he walked over to peer inside the trailer.
Chris shook his head, "Buck." The tone implied that the other man was hopeless.
Buck's good natured laugh was interrupted by the arrival of a huge dog. The animal placed himself between the barn and the men growling low and steady. Everyone froze except for Vin. Moving slowly he stepped in front of the others. Kneeling down on one knee, he stretched out his hand toward the mongrel speaking softly. "Hey there fella, we're not gonna hurt you."
"Careful Vin." Nathan cautioned. "You might pull back a stub."
The dog chose that moment to strike. Lunging forward he sunk his teeth into Vin's hand. Well he tried to anyway, his jaws snapped together with a vicious click. Sighing Vin pulled his hand out and stood up. Bewildered the dog sat back on his haunches whining softly as the kid came out of the barn.
"Brody are you fighting with Big Red again?"
Brody whined looking between his master and the strangers torn. The kid unloaded a big sorrel stallion next. This horse snorted, sidestepped, whickered and generally showed off all the way to the barn. Chris and the others followed to the further annoyance of Brody. Vin tried again to try to make friends and was rewarded with another bite.
"I guess there are advantages to being a ghost after all. "Ezra laughed at Vin's disgusted look.
"Ezra we aren't ghosts." Nathan grumbled.
"So you claim. The facts indicate otherwise." Ezra held up a hand and started ticking off fingers. "One, we are invisible to humans, two, are you hungry? Three, people walk right through us. Four,"
"We aren't ghosts!" Nathan cut him off. "We didn't die, we just disappeared. If we had died there would have been bodies. Did you ever find your body?"
"Brothers, brothers." Josiah stepped between the two men and started moving them back toward the door. Chris ignored the argument. Nathan and Ezra had been debating the ghost thing for eleven months. He wasn't sure what they all were. Ghost or invisible men he just knew that the next new moon would make a year since "it" happened. Looking around he saw Buck follow the kid out the door still talking even though the kid couldn't hear a word. Vin had disappeared, Chris found him outside looking over the truck.
"Massachusetts plates on the truck, Kentucky on the trailer." Vin pointed out.
"That stud is pure thoroughbred." Chris replied.
The two men headed for the house grinning slightly as they watched Josiah shepherd Nathan and Ezra towards the house. Those two were always arguing about something the only sure fire way to get them to stop was point that fact out. Or try to interfere.
JD waved his hand tiredly at the fly buzzing in his left ear. It had been bothering him since the barn. That coupled with the strange way Brody was acting had him on edge. The Judge had warned him that he was the seventh caretaker hired. JD hadn't cared the prospect of having a place to stay even for a short time was too tempting. Fishing out the key to the front door he shivered as a cold feeling washed over him. He'd felt the same cold sensation down at the barn while unloading Molly. He began to shiver, as wave after wave of cold seemed to surround him. It made unlocking the door difficult but he finally managed, pushing through and into the house. The cold seemed to flow around and past him. Resting his duffle bag on the floor he looked around. The room in front of him was huge. To the right a staircase led up to a second floor landing that edged three walls of the great room. It was dotted with doors and opposite of where he stood he could see a hallway leading off. A stone fireplace dominated the north wall of the great room. It looked big enough to roast half a beef in it if desired. Around the fireplace was a grouping of comfy sofas and chairs. He was already looking forward to cozying up there at night to read. Reading reminded him of something the Judge had asked him to do. It had sounded crazy then and it still did, but JD had promised and he never broke a promise if he could help it. Clearing his throat he fished a piece of paper out of his back pocket and unfolded it. Looking up at the ceiling he spoke quickly to get the task over with.
"My name is JD Dunne." JD looked down at the paper in his hand. "I was supposed to read this out loud when I got here." A bit self-consciously he continued. "Judge Travis has hired me to take care of the ranch until a decision has been made on who owns it. He gave me specific instructions about not changing anything. I'm just supposed to watch the place." Looking over at Brody he shrugged his shoulders. "Well now I feel stupid, talking to a house. Come on boy, lets find our room."
The six men scattered in chairs around the room watched him until he disappeared into the guest bedroom.
"Interesting." Josiah looked at the others. "The Judge has never let on he could see us, but why have the boy do that otherwise."
"Maybe he's starting to believe the ghost rumors." Buck laughed.
"If he is, it's probably because of Ezra and you." Chris growled. "I know it was you two rattling chains in the attic that drove off the last caretaker."
"The miscreant was a slob and sleeping in my room." Ezra huffed.
"You've driven off one too." Buck reminded Chris.
"He took a whip to Night." Chris' face grew grim as he remembered finding the second caretaker drunk and whipping the black gelding Chris normally rode. Imagine the man's surprise when the whip had been jerked out of his hand and used on him. After that they had turned the horses loose into the pasture behind the house. None of the other caretakers had cared enough to get them back.
Buck stood up. "Well I think I'm gonna go check on the kid." He started up the stairs.
Vin looked over at Chris. "Think I'll go look that truck over a little more."
"I'll help you." Ezra stated.
"Use the back door, don't want this JD to see doors opening and closing by themselves." Chris cautioned.
As the two men left Nathan yelled after them. "That's another reason we ain't ghosts Ezra. Ghosts don't have to use a door." Shaking his head the left the room.
Josiah looked over at Chris. "I think I'll go spend another couple of hours in the library."
"You find anything yet?"
"Maybe, I've started on the last journal."
"How much time do you think we have left." Chris leaned toward the other man.
"Next month at the full moon will make a year since Anderson cast the spell." Josiah's face was grave. "I think we have till then."
Chris waited until Josiah was gone before swearing under his breath. He had brought the others here. That made him responsible for what was happening to them. He just wished he could be sure what was going on. A little over a year ago Chris had started to dig his way out of the black despair he'd lived with since the death of his wife and child. Meeting Vin and saving Nathan had helped him feel alive again. It had evolved from there, before he knew it Buck was back and Josiah was hauling rock to repair the little sanctuary back up the canyon. And Ezra, Chris grinned slightly remembering how they had all met Ezra. The tricky southerner had been hustling pool at the local bar on a Friday night. When some of the locals decided to see how well he played with a broken arm Vin and Buck had stepped into help. When the fight was over there wasn't a chair left except for the one Chris was sitting in and most of the tables were destroyed. But Vin, Buck and Ezra were all still standing or rather leaning on each other. They'd brought the southerner home with them to recover and he'd stayed. Chris wondered if that should have been their first warning. Ezra had tried several times to continue his journey, each time something interfered. He'd been trying to leave again the night Anderson attacked. It was his sudden return that had thrown off the spell. Well that was what Anderson seemed to believe anyway. Josiah wasn't so sure, he thought it was the Indian spirits that helped them.
Indian spirits. That was why Anderson had tried to kill them in the first place. Vin found out that Anderson intended to destroy a burial ground set between the Bar Seven and Anderson's Dixie Pride ranch. Chris went before the county board of directors to point out that the land they were re-zoning was an old Indian burial ground. The council hadn't known and the proposal was defeated much to the disgust of Colonel Anderson. He'd wanted the land for years and, if not for Chris' intervention, would have gotten it. Furious Anderson had threatened Chris.
Chris shook his head, he'd expected Anderson to sue, not turn all of them invisible. He'd had no idea his neighbor was some kind of crazy warlock. Of course Chris was pretty sure the spell was supposed to have killed them. Instead they were caught somehow in this halfway point. In fact they hadn't realized anything was wrong until the next day. It wasn't until Nathan asked why no one was eating. Then the Judge had stopped by and no matter what any of them tried he didn't seem to hear or see them. They had tried everything, even writing notes. The words had been invisible to the Judge. In frustration Buck had finally thrown a coffee cup causing the Judge to leave hurriedly. Further such activities had only fueled the ghost rumors. Only Anderson seemed to be able to see and hear them. He still stopped by occasionally to taunt them.
Chris shook his head and stood up. There seemed to be nothing he could do right now. Josiah was the only one of them who seemed to have any ideas. Chris just hoped he came up with something soon. He hated all this mumbo jumbo. Warlocks were supposed to be fantasy creatures, not neighbors.
Josiah opened the last book slowly. For almost two weeks he'd been reading these journals. Written by the one of original builders of the ranch they fascinated him. Covering a space of about seventy years the books chronicled the life of the writer and his six friends. From what Josiah had pieced together so far the writer had started the first journal at seventeen after his mother died. It spoke of heading west and meeting the six men who would change his life and become a second family. Those first few years he'd been a prolific writer, chronicling his adventures as a lawman and part of "The Seven". That was how he always referred to himself and his friends, "The Seven". Josiah'd watched the young man grow up in the books over the years. He'd read of marriages, births, life altering events, and in the last couple of journals, the deaths of friends. He'd shed a silent tear for each man. Even though he didn't know their names.
The young man was old now, his writing not quite as steady as it once was. Josiah started reading, he hadn't told the others what he hoped to find in these journals because he wasn't sure himself. Ezra had found them one day hidden behind a false panel in the library. Chris had been as surprised as the rest of them, claiming no knowledge of the hiding place.
Josiah read for about an hour. This was the last journal and the entries were spaced farther apart than ever. Halfway down a page, the big man suddenly straightened as what he was reading sank in. "Heavenly Father?" The big man looked towards heaven before hurrying out of the library calling for the others.
"Okay Josiah we're all here, what have you found." Chris said.
It was almost eleven before everyone could gather in the library. They'd had to wait until JD and a growling Brody, went to bed much to Josiah's frustration. Facing the others he waved toward the pile of journals.
"You know I've been reading through these looking for a clue as to why Anderson might want this land."
"One may assume from your demeanor you found something." Ezra drawled.
"I did. I want to read a couple of entries to you, but before I do you need a little background information." Josiah perched on the edge of the desk pausing for effect..
"Spill it Josiah." The squirmy feeling in the pit of his stomach told Chris this was going to be another trip down fantasy lane. He hated these trips with a passion the others couldn't fathom.
Josiah laid his hand on top of the first stack of journals. "These were written in the late eighteen, early nineteen hundreds by one of the founders of this ranch. The story about this place being built by seven gunfighters and their families is true. This man was the youngest of the bunch and lived the longest." Looking up at the others he smiled, "They make a fascinating read."
"So they're a good read, what do they have to say about what's happening to us?" Buck asked.
"All the time he was writing the man never put down his own name or the names of his friends. He always used initials for them. B this, C that, etc." Picking up a battered leather bound book, Josiah opened it carefully. "This is the first book." Clearing his throat he began.
I'm not sure of the date anymore, what with the stage ride and then everything else I lost track. V says it's easy to do that out here. Pretty sure it's late September though.
There hasn't been much time to write the last few days. Now that I have the time my head is so full I am not sure what to say. Still can't believe I'm even alive. Back home reading stories about the West I thought it sounded so exciting. It is, but not the kind of excitement I was expecting. I've never been so scared in my life as I was when I thought we were all going to die. But we survived. Anderson is dead and the Seminole village is safe. Just like in one of my dime novels, the seven of us faced off against forty outlaws. Course the dime novels don't say anything about how it feels to watch people around you bleed and die. Still I feel like I've done something important, right. I think the others would laugh at me if I told them that. They probably think saving an entire village is nothing. After all C and V took on a whole gang to save N and they didn't even know him then.
We're camped by a spring about a days ride from the village today. N wants to give B and J a little more time to heal so we'll stay here for a few days at least. I was kind of surprised when C agreed but I guess he just wanted to get out of the village and away from all the thanks. C doesn't like too many people around him. He's a hard man, scary too. I still can't believe I'm riding with him and the others.
B's asleep, so I decided to slip away by myself and catch up on my writing. Can't do it when he's awake cause he would want to read everything. He's a great guy though, I mean how many men would take a saber slash to the chest for you?
I should write more, but I think I'll wait until later. V said something about going hunting or maybe I can talk E into showing me a card trick.
When he finished Josiah looked up expectantly.
"So there was an Anderson before this one. So?" Chris growled, "It's not that unusual a name.
"True, I didn't think much about it either, until the last journal. I want to read you the final entry." Josiah picked up another book and started to read.
May 4, 1939
Went to the Doctor yesterday. He told me what I already knew my time is about done. I haven't told anyone, no sense when there's nothing they can do.
When did I get old? In my mind, I'm still that seventeen year old jumping off a stage looking for a fight. Never figured I'd see this side of seventy the way I lived back then. Course my body is quick to point out all the old wounds and broken bones these days. I guess B was right when he told me to just wait, I'd see. Bet he's looking down right now and laughing at me. I sure do miss him and the others, more lately than I have in a long time. Wonder what they'd say about the war in Europe? Only a matter of time I suppose till we're in it.
I hope for young CJ's sake that Roosevelt keeps us out of it. He's a good boy, course he has to be, has my blood and C's. Still remember how C's boy stammered through asking for my Nettie's hand. A man couldn't ask for a better son-in-law than young Tanner.
Who knew I'd, get sentimental in my old age. Can't afford that right now. I have to finish this entry and hide this book with the others before CJ, his mama or Nettie come looking for me. Those three act like if they can wrap me in cotton wool, I won't die. Hate to disillusion them as E would say, but I know I haven't got much time left. Even N couldn't help me now and he sure worked some miracles in his time. Can't get everyone to see that it's what I want. I'm tired and I miss Casey. When I dream I can see her and the others waiting on me. Sides, I've seen enough of fighting and war. I'd just as soon not be around for this one coming up.
I never used any full names in my journals. Never knew whose hand's they might fall into. I've hidden all the others behind the false panel E had put in, now I'll put this one in there. I don't know if anyone will ever find them but if they do I want to make something clear, it is all true. Every thing I wrote about actually happened. Over a half a century ago I stood in an Indian village with six other men against overwhelming odds. We tamed a town, saved each other's lives and were closer than brothers. Who ever finds this needs to know we were a force for good. And if I have any wisdom to pass on it's this. It don't matter how bad the odds if you stand with friends.
They were amazing men and I thank them for taking a hot headed kid in hand and turning him into a man. Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez, Ezra Standish, Buck Wilmington I was honored to ride with you.
"It's signed, JD Dunne." Josiah looked up into the stunned faces of his friends.
There was utter silence for about a minute while the implications of what Josiah had just read soaked in. Chris broke the spell, standing up with a curse and stomping out. After a quick nod to the others Vin followed him. Ezra walked over and plucked the journal out of Josiah's hand turning it to read the words for himself.
"It's a joke right?" Nathan was still slightly stunned.
"If it is someone went to a lot of expense and time to perpetuate it." Ezra had handed the book to Buck and was now examining the others stacked on the table. "The paper and style of each one is authentic to the time period it is supposed to come from." He looked at Josiah. "You've read all these?"
"Yes." The big man nodded.
"Do you think they're real?" Nathan asked.
"I do brothers and I think they have something to do with what's going on." Josiah walked over to the window. Looking out he could see Vin and Chris standing down by the barn. Turning around he shrugged, "But I haven't figured out what yet."
"Do you mind if I read them?" Ezra asked.
Josiah waved at the books in a go ahead motion. Ezra sat down at the desk and started to read while the other three left.
Chris glared at the man next to him. "Josiah reads our names out of a book more than fifty years old and that's all you come up with?"
"Looks like rain."
For a moment Chris tried to hold his glare but the twinkle in Vin's eyes was too much. Snorting he felt the tension flow out of his body. Turning back to look out over the pasture he asked in a quiet tone. "So what do you think about all this?"
"Not sure yet, kinda gives a man a creepy feeling though." Vin had his back to the pasture leaning back against the fence. "I expect Josiah would have something to say about past lives or fate."
"Probably." Chris grunted.
The two men stood in silence for a while.
"You know I'm named for him." Chris finally broke the silence his voice soft. At Vin's inquiring look he continued. "CJ stands for Christopher John, my grandfather. He did fight in World War II and his grandfather was Tanner Larabee. I never thought about it, but I guess he was named for that other Tanner."
"Guess so." Vin locked eyes with Chris. "Man has to be a powerful friend for another man to name his son after him."
Chris met his gaze evenly his eyes saying more than his words. "Powerful good friend."
"Think this kid can help?"
"I don't know."
"Think anyone can help?"
Tortured green eyes met questioning blue. "I don't know."
JD woke up feeling better than he had in a long time. Over a breakfast of oatmeal with no milk he made a note to go grocery shopping. The kitchen and freezer were well stocked with canned and frozen items but he would need things like bread, milk and eggs. A quick clean up and he was headed to the barn.
JD was amazed at how clean the barn was. Last night he'd been too tired to notice. The desperate way the Judge had acted he'd expected to find plenty of signs of neglect. Instead, except for the two he was using, all the stalls were clean. Pleased he started decided to brush both horses before turning them out. As he ran the brush over Molly's back he hummed to himself a bit. It was a peaceful process except for one fly that kept buzzing in his ear. JD hadn't been able to spot it yet, but when he did it was a dead fly. He figured flies were also the reason Brody kept snapping at thin air. He was beginning to wonder about the big dog. Brody had been snapping and growling since they arrived. If JD hadn't known better he would think there was someone around.
"When are you going to give up on that dog?" Buck was leaning against a stall door watching Vin try to make friends yet again.
"He's wearing down." Vin stood, a mischievous grin on his face. It was true the big dog was showing a definite lack of enthusiasm. He only snapped now with half the force.
"Sure he is." Buck snorted.
"Might ask you the same thing." Chris walked into the barn stopping next to Big Red's stall. The big horse snorted and tried to bite him. Giving the stallion the Larabee glare he continued. "When are you going to stop talking to the kid like he can hear you?"
"Now pard, you know I'm just being friendly."
"You're starting to make him twitch." Vin laughed.
Nettie Wells coaxed her old truck up the steep switchbacks. Despite what she'd told the judge she still wasn't sure how or even if the spell on the Bar Seven could be broken. Giving in to a need to see the young man all her hopes rested on, she'd been planning since dawn. Parking by the kitchen door she honked the horn. Immediately a huge dog ran out of the barn barking loudly, a young man followed. Nettie had to smile at the sight of Buck standing right behind him. When the boy started toward her, Buck followed talking the entire way. Chris and Vin ambled along behind, the welcoming grin on Vin's face reminding her how much she missed the young man. She wished she could hear what they was saying but the spell that allowed her to see the missing men couldn't break that final barrier. Schooling her features into a neutral expression Nettie moved around to the back of her truck.
JD quickened his pace when he saw the woman start to pull a box out of the truck. "Let me take that ma'am."
"Thank you." Nettie stepped back. "I'm Nettie Wells, your neighbor to the east. You would be JD Dunne?"
"Yes ma'am." JD nodded.
"Judge called me last night, told me he hired a new caretaker. I brought you some fresh supplies." Nettie held the door to the kitchen open finding it was harder than she'd expected to ignore the other men as they hurried through. Following behind JD she continued with her instructions. "Just put that on the table. There's one more in the truck if you wouldn't mind fetching it."
"No ma'am" JD hurried to comply.
Buck groaned as he watched Nettie unpack the box. "She brought him an Apple Crisp."
The others sympathized with him. Nettie's Apple Crisp was a favorite with all the men. By the time JD brought the other box in, she had some dished up and a glass of milk waiting.
"Thank you." Nettie motioned toward the table. "Sit down and have some of my crisp. It's not bad if I do say so myself."
The look of faint bewilderment on JD's face told her he wasn't used to anyone fussing over him. Watching him out of the corner of her eye Nettie started to put things away. She had to steel herself to walk through Vin at one point. He kept following her around the kitchen. Finally she sat deciding it would be better to find out more about the boy she could talk to. Sitting down she pinned JD with a steely gaze.
"How old are you son?"
JD suddenly looked hunted. "Um nineteen, ma'am."
"I know that's what you told the Judge, but I don't believe you." Nettie leaned forward, "You look like you need a friend son. Now how old are you really?"
"Seventeen." JD mumbled.
"How did you end up here? Where are your folks?" Nettie couldn't miss the utter despair that flashed across JD's face.
"My dad died when I was two. My mom died about a year ago." JD blinked his eyes rapidly. He had thought he was all cried out.
"Doesn't tell me how you ended up here." Nettie pushed a bit. "Didn't you have any other family?"
"I had an Uncle, but he didn't want me." JD looked up his face hardening. "So I left. I worked for a while at a horse farm in Kentucky then had to leave there."
Nettie stood up and began to put things away again. She'd been around enough to know when not to push. It was quiet in the room for a little while until finally JD asked.
"Ma'am, did you know the previous owner?" At her inquiring look he hurried on. "I saw a lot of tack in the barn and there are some horses in the back pasture. I just wondered who they belong to."
"Depends on the horse." Nettie smiled if she could interest JD in Chris and the others it had to help. "You want to know about the owners, watch those horses. They act just like their riders. The big black, that's Night, Chris' horse. He keeps all the others in line. The black with the blaze is Cochise, he belongs to Vin and you'll usually find him next to Night. Buck called the gray Lady or whatever the name of his current girlfriend was. Now me," Nettie turned to give JD a pointed look. "I'd be insulted to have a horse named after me. But you won't find a nicer mare, gets along with everyone. The big sorrel was Josiah's his name is Zebulon. Not much fazes him just don't leave any whiskey where he can find it." At JD's incredulous look she laughed. "Damn horse once drank an entire bottle of whiskey Buck was hiding in the barn. Only Josiah would have a horse that needs rehabilitation."
JD's half laugh warmed her heart encouraging her to continue. "The smart stepping bay was Ezra's. Watch Silk and you'll always know where the best grass is. He's also the only one of them that will beg to be brushed. Last is the dark bay, Amos, Nathan's horse. He keeps an eye on all the others and will be the first to know if something's wrong with one of them."
"I saw a bay mare, who did she belong to?" JD had liked the look of the mare a lot.
Nettie frowned, "Chris bought her just before," She paused unsure how to continue.
"Just before he disappeared?" JD prompted.
"Yes." Nettie sighed, "Her previous owner mistreated her. Chris and Vin were just starting to work with her she's pretty flighty. Probably worse now, nobody has touched any of them since the first or second caretaker left. They've been out to pasture all this time." Finding nothing else to put away Nettie picked up her purse. "Well I'd better be going. Put that casserole I left in the oven about an hour and a half before you want to eat. If you need anything, my number is posted over the phone."
JD walked her out and watched until the truck disappeared down the road. Heading back to the barn he was unaware he still had three shadows with him. Brody of course saw them but he was becoming resigned to it. When JD got back to the barn he found the seven horses were down from the pasture getting water. He leaned on the fence studying them. Sure enough Lady came over to check him out. The other mare stuck pretty close but kept Lady between herself and JD. JD crooned to her a bit while he looked the other horses over. There was something about all of them that bothered him but he couldn't put his finger on it. Watching the mare JD decided to bring her and Lady in the next morning. He spent the rest of the day fixing up stalls in the barn, checking the automatic water tanks and cleaning tack. It was pleasant and relaxing work, even the fly that kept bugging him seemed less annoying.
Comfortably sprawled in their favorite chairs Vin and Chris watched JD lay a fire and tried not to laugh at Buck's comments.
"Okay kid, now just crumple up a couple of more of those pieces of newspaper. Stick them under that big log." Buck ordered from his chair next to the fireplace. It was his eighth suggestion so far. The fact that JD had, of course, ignored everything he said hadn't dampened the handsome ladies man enthusiasm.
Lighting the fire JD stood up and headed back into the kitchen. While he was gone Ezra slipped out of the library. The gambler moved to his favorite chair relieved to not have to spend the next two or three hours trapped until JD decided to go to bed. Returning with a bowl of popcorn and a glass of milk JD sat both on the coffee table before curling up on the couch and starting to read. The rest of the men quickly grew bored watching him so when Ezra suggested a game of cards everyone was agreeable. Luckily Ezra had been carrying a deck of cards when he transformed since it wouldn't do to have JD see cards flying around. Anything touching the men at the time of transformation had become invisible with them. Ezra's cards, Josiah's bible and in Vin's case a halter he had been repairing. The invisible cards flew around the table, betting was harder since they couldn't use poker chips without JD seeing. To get around that Nathan kept a sort of score on a piece of paper hidden under the table. Bantering back and forth, concentrating on their cards, the six men sort of forgot about JD.
JD closed his book with a sigh wishing he had another. Reading was one of his favorite pastimes and usually a rare treat. Now when he had the time he was out of books. Not really tired enough for bed he wondered how to kill the next couple of hours. There was a big screen TV in the other room but it really didn't sound appealing. Looking around he wondered, a house this big, was there a library? The Judge had said something about one he remembered. The door next to the fireplace, yeah that was probably it. Getting up quietly so as not to disturb Brody JD walked over. He left the door open behind him as he entered the room. The library walls were paneled in pine in the few spots that didn't have shelves. There was another big fireplace back to back with the one in the living room. Comfy chairs were dotted around and an old time banker's desk sat at one end. JD wandered around the room looking at all the books. One section contained medical textbooks, another religious books. The classics were pretty well represented plus a shelf of poetry. All the books looked pretty old. The largest wall was full of western related literature both fact and fiction. This was the only section that had newer books. JD paused there not sure what to start with, a Zane Grey or Louie L'Amour. Or maybe a book on gunfighters, they had always fascinated him. Then he noticed the books on the desk. Walking over he picked up one and started flipping through it.
"Wow." JD whistled after about five minutes. The book in his hands was the actual journal of an old time gunfighter. He flipped back to the front and started to read.
The card game had been going on for about forty-five minutes and even Buck was ignoring the young man curled on the couch. So when JD disappeared into the library at first no one paid attention. It was Vin who finally noticed he was gone.
"Where did the kid go?" Vin scanned the room before looking back at the couch.
Chris turned in his chair to check the couch JD had been sitting on and saw the open door. "Ezra did you leave the library door open?"
"Of course not." was the indignant reply.
"Damn." Chris headed to the library the others close behind. Inside they found JD with his head already buried in a journal. "Which one is he reading?" Chris growled.
Ezra moved to peer over JD's shoulder. "The first one I believe."
Chris swore under his breath before turning to stomp back out the door. When Vin started to follow Buck waved him off and went instead. He found Chris in the family cemetery standing over Sarah and Adam's graves.
"Go away Buck." Chris growled in a deadly tone. "Nothing you can say is going to make this any better."
"Easy now Chris." Buck tried to calm him down. "Maybe it's a good thing if he reads them." Faced with Chris' furious glare he raised both hands in a peace motion. "I mean it's obvious he has something to do with this could be we need him to break the." Buck let his words trail off, not wanting to say the 's' word out loud. Chris tended to react badly to any mention of magic or spells. The others thought it was because Chris had never had any experience with magic before. Buck was the only one who knew the real reasons. Chris' wife Sarah had believed in magic. Chris had always shrugged her references to spells and potions off choosing to avoid the topic. In the early days of their marriage she tried to bring up the subject often. Chris would end the discussion by kissing her senseless stating he loved her and that was magic enough. If Sarah pushed he would grow angry and leave the room. Buck wasn't sure if the other man had ever believed her or not. He also knew that Sarah and Adam's car crash had been no accident no matter what the sheriff said. Something or someone had driven the small car off the road. The death of his family had left Chris with a deep hatred of anything even faintly magical. Their current situation grated like sandpaper on his battered emotions. Buck was worried that all this mystical stuff would push Chris back to the hell he'd been in before Vin and the others came along.
"I hate this!" Chris was staring at the graves again.
The words pulled Buck back from his memories. "I know." He replied quietly.
"I wish I'd never heard of magic." Chris said viciously.
"Do you wish you'd never known her?" Buck stepped closer preparing to duck if need be.
"No." the admission seemed to tear all of Chris' strength away. He sank down to his knees beside the graves reaching out a hand to stroke sad fingers over Sarah's stone. "Why Buck?"
Buck knelt down on the other side of the graves. "I wish I knew pard."
"Did I do something? Was it my fault for not listening when she tried to tell me about magic?" Chris' soft sad tone tore at Buck's tender heart.
"It wasn't you it wasn't anyone's fault." Buck finally said knowing the words wouldn't really help. "Come back to the house." He pleaded.
"You go back." Chris looked up his eyes bright with unshed tears. "I'm going to stay here a bit. It's been a while since Sarah and I talked."
"If that's what you want." Buck stood watching Chris carefully.
"That's what I want."
Buck started back to the house slowly, he didn't like the idea of leaving Chris alone. As he exited the graveyard a shadow moved under a nearby tree. Vin stepped into the moonlight just long enough for Buck to see him before fading back against the tree. Nodding in acknowledgement Buck kept going relieved to know Vin would watch over Chris while he grieved.
Inside the house Buck found JD curled up on the couch devouring the first journal. Ezra, Josiah and Nathan were back at the card table but they were more interested in watching JD than playing cards.
Buck's "Did I miss anything?" overlaid Josiah's "Is Chris okay?"
Both men paused then Josiah nodded encouragingly so Buck answered first.
"He's as fine as he'll probably ever be with all this." Buck looked over at JD. "Should we do something about that?" Referring to the journal the youth was currently devouring.
"I think we have to let the fates play this out." Josiah said.
The men stayed at the table watching JD read until he went to bed.
Three days later, JD was halfway through the journal, Brody had stopped snapping at Vin and the fates were holding. It was late afternoon and everyone had gathered at the main corral to watch JD work with the young mare. So far the men were impressed with the way the young boy handled the skittish animal. But when it looked like he meant to ride her Buck became concerned.
"I don't think this is a good idea." Buck stood between JD and the bay mare his hands held out.
"You tell him Buck." Nathan encouraged from his seat on the fence. The others were also scattered around the top of the corral watching JD saddle the mare. Well trying to saddle the mare, Buck had done everything but yank the saddle away to stop the younger man.
"Buck!" Chris' voice cut sharply across the corral. "You're only making that mare more nervous. Let him try, the worst that can happen is he gets bucked off."
Sighing heavily Buck walked over muttering, "Kid's gonna get himself hurt, thinking he's some kind of bronc rider."
"Relax Buck." Josiah yelled from his seat on the fence. "The young man may surprise you."
"Buck seems to have developed a deep protective streak where our young friend is concerned." Ezra commented from his spot next to Josiah. Josiah and Ezra knew how close the other Buck and JD had been from the journals.
"Does the thought of magic bother you?" Josiah asked the southerner.
"I lived in New Orleans for several years during college. I saw things," Ezra shifted a bit an uncomfortable look on his face. "Let's just say I don't discount it. You?"
"I've done a lot of traveling in my life. Man can see some strange things if he has an open mind." Josiah answered.
"Indeed." Ezra agreed.
The two men turned their attention back to where JD was tightening the cinch on his saddle. Buck was leaning against the fence next to Chris still looking concerned. Vin had gotten down and was now speaking softly to the mare calming her down. Nathan sat on the other side of Chris hoping this wouldn't end like the time Vin tried to ride the mare. He'd been pulling splinters out of the Texan's leg for an hour from where the mare had drug him along the fence.
JD tightened his cinch glad that the mare had calmed down some. He thought he was never going to get her to leave the blanket on. Every time he'd turned around to get the saddle she had shook it off. He'd been about ready to give up when suddenly she settled down. Now she was standing quietly, her ears pricked forward as if listening to something in front of her. Giving the saddle one last check he fed the reins up and taking a deep breath swung into the saddle. For a couple of seconds the mare just stood there. Then she exploded, squealing kicking and bucking around the corral. JD struggled to pull her head up while keeping her from rubbing him off against the corral posts. It was a desperate battle that ended when he lost a stirrup. Sensing an advantage the mare renewed her efforts to unseat him. Flying through the air JD barely had time to register the fence post as it rushed up to meet his head.
The six men, who had been yelling encouragement, froze when JD connected with the fence.
"JD!" Buck was the first to move sprinting toward the fallen youth, Nathan close on his heels. Without thinking the mustached man dropped a hand on JD's shoulder to turn him over, forgetting for the moment that he couldn't touch the other man. When instead of passing through JD his hand actually connected, Buck froze for the vital second needed for Nathan to shout.
"Don't move him." Nathan fell to his knees beside JD. "Let me check him out." Hesitantly he reached out, upon finding his hands also connected with flesh Nathan pressed harder. Carefully he ran skilled hands over JD checking for broken bones. Finally he signaled to Buck to roll the boy over while he held JD's head. Running his fingers over the bruise starting to form Nathan pressed gently. Looking up he met the anxious eyes of the other five men. "I won't know till he wakes up for sure but nothing's broken. If he's got Ezra's luck and Buck's hard head I think he'll be okay. Let's get him up to the house."
"Do you think we should do that?" Chris asked.
"He can't stay here." Nathan said hotly. "Buck take his shoulders."
"Nathan wait," Chris put a restraining hand on the doctor. "What if he wakes up while we're moving him?"
Everyone paused to consider the effect it might have on JD to find himself being carried by invisible people.
"If he wakes up while we're carrying him we might drop him." Josiah said quietly, "I mean if the only reason we can touch him is because he's unconscious." He let the last work trail off thoughtfully.
"We can make objects move though." Vin offered thoughtfully.
"Put him on yon horse blanket and carry him then." Ezra suggested nodding toward the blanket.
"He needs to be in bed." Nathan argued at Chris who was still looking thoughtful. "I don't know how long it will take for him to wake up. It could be dark by then."
"Get the blanket." Chris ordered grimly. He'd known from the first he was going to lose this argument. Buck had a, teeth sunk not gonna let go, look on his face. Chris had lots of experience with that look.
Five minutes later anyone watching would have seen a young man floating across the yard on a blanket. Followed by a growling snapping dog, Brody having decided he didn't like the new developments. Josiah and Buck carried JD up to his room helped along by Nathan's running commentary of; careful, watch his head, legs, etc. They placed JD sort of sprawled on his bed with a blanket thrown haphazardly over him, hoping he would think he had gotten himself there. Leaving Buck to watch over him Josiah and Nathan went back downstairs.
"How is he?" Chris met them at the foot of the stairs.
"Still out." Nathan was obviously worried and frustrated. "He should be in a hospital. There could be internal bleeding."
"I don't think he hit that hard." Chris said. "From where I was sitting it looked like he took the force of the blow on his arm."
"His arm? I'd better go take another look." Nathan retreated upstairs.
"You know if we called emergency and left the phone off the hook eventually someone would come and check." Josiah said.
"I know. It's just," Chris sighed, rubbing the back of his neck, "something tells me to keep him here where we can protect him. Of course what we can do to protect him I have no idea." It was clear that Chris wasn't too happy with his own comment.
"I think we should listen to your gut." Josiah agreed.