"I told you not to ride her kid. Horse that's been mistreated like that you can't trust her."
Buck almost missed the mumbled comment. He'd been sitting with JD waiting for him to wake up and in typical Buck style holding a one sided conversation. Leaning forward he asked, "You with me kid?"
"Not a kid." JD still hadn't opened his eyes but he did turn his head toward Buck.
"Well if you aren't you'll do till one comes along." Buck answered.
"NOT a kid!" JD stated emphatically growing more agitated.
"Okay, okay," Buck soothed, "You're not a kid. Just relax back down there."
"Cold." JD whispered drawing away from the hand Buck had tried to lay on his shoulder.
"Yeah I suppose so." Buck said a bit sadly as he drew the blanket up further. "Go back to sleep now." Waiting until sure JD was asleep he slipped out of the room. Downstairs the others were gathered in the library, Josiah and Ezra each reading a journal.
"How is he?" Nathan asked.
"He sort of woke up for a minute." Buck answered. "Wait!" He put out a hand to stop Nathan from leaving the room. "There's more."
"More?" Josiah moved closer noticing for the first time that Buck seemed strangely excited.
"Yeah. He spoke to me." Buck ran a nervous hand through his hair.
"He spoke to you?" Ezra stressed the spoke.
"I was kind of talking to him and he answered." Buck snorted, "Darn kid argued with me. Said he wasn't a kid. That's good right?" He looked to Nathan for confirmation.
"Could be." The other man shrugged. "It's hard to know. I'd better go check on him." Everyone followed Nathan upstairs. Crowding into the room they watched as Nathan and Buck tried to rouse JD again.
"JD can you hear me?" Nathan leaned forward.
"JD, son, wake up." Buck yelled in his ear. The youth stirred, groaning softly.
"Go way, you're a dream." JD grumbled.
Nathan and Buck exchanged confused looks before Buck leaned back over. "Come on kid, wake up."
"I'm not a kid." JD twisted agitatedly his face troubled. "Leave me alone. Go haunt someone else."
Nathan and Buck tried a couple more times to rouse him with no luck. Finally Nathan stood shaking his head. Catching Buck's shoulder he drew the other man back. "Let him be Buck."
"But he hears us." Buck protested.
"He hears us, but he thinks it's a dream." Nathan looked back at Josiah for confirmation. The older man nodded, moving forward.
"It's likely the only reason he can hear you." Josiah confirmed. "Once he truly wakes up he probably won't be able to."
"I don't know." Vin drawled from the doorway, "I think all Buck's yammering's starting to wear on him. Have you seen the twitch he's developing?"
JD woke up with the worst headache of his life. Groaning he tried to sit up only to fall back gasping as the pain made the room swim. Gradually the pain settled down to a dull throb and the room stopped spinning. Moving slowly he sat up on the edge of the bed. Cradling his aching head in his hands JD tried to remember what happened. He'd been working with the mare, then what. Thinking that finding some aspirin might help his memory JD stood up and almost fell to the floor when his legs refused to coordinate. The darkness that hovered with its promise of oblivion was inviting but JD forced himself to move. Staggering towards the bathroom he didn't question where the bottle of Tylenol next to the sink had come from. Popping three of the pills he studied his face in the mirror. The right cheek was pretty badly bruised but his eye was unblemished. When JD lifted his right hand the movement was painful and there was more bruising on the forearm. With another groan he turned out the light and headed back to the bed. Misjudging the distance between him and the bed, JD missed it and fell to the floor. The last thing he heard was the voice from his dreams.
"Dang kid, you sure are stubborn." Buck motioned to Nathan who had also witnessed the entire journey. Together the two men picked JD up placing him back on the bed. Once they had him settled Nathan left Buck watching while he reported to Chris.
The next time JD woke his head was better and the sun was shining. Standing up still brought on some dizziness but he managed not to fall over. Dressing he popped a few more Tylenol before stumbling downstairs. Coffee seemed to help a bit and soon JD was able to head for the barn. He fully expected to find hungry horses since it was well past noon. Big Red, he knew, would be kicking the stall by now. So ignoring the dull headache, shaky legs and fatigue that gripped him JD went to feed.
Instead of the noise he'd expected, the barn was quiet. Big Red hung his head over the stall and whickered softly. Relieved that his charges hadn't seemed to suffer too much from inattention JD started to reach inside the stall and grab Red's grain bucket. He stopped staring in a puzzled manner. The throb in his head made it hard to think but JD could see that Red had fresh hay. The grain bucket showed signs of a recent feeding and the stall was clean. A check of Molly's stall showed the same things, she also looked to have been groomed. Lady and the bay mare were missing. A check outside showed them back with the other horses all dozing under a tree. Sinking down on a hay bail JD tried to think through the dull ache in his head.
Who turned the horses out? Who had fed Big Red and Molly? Had he done it and just not remembered. No he was pretty sure he'd been bucked off hard. That was the only explanation for the bruises that lined the right side of his body. Had he managed to unsaddle the mare turn her and Lady out after being bucked off? This wasn't the first time JD had been hit in the head and he recognized the signs of a mild concussion. If it was a concussion he should have woken up in the corral instead of his own bed. As he thought about it, it seemed that a lot of things weren't adding up. He ticked off the various things in his head. Houses usually had a musty closed up smell if no one was living in them but not this one. The fence next the barn showed signs of recent repair. The horses all showed signs of good care. But according to the Judge the place hadn't had a caretaker for almost two months. Shaking his head JD stood back up, steadying himself against the barn wall until things stopped whirling. He didn't want to call the Judge and have the other man think he wasn't up to the job. Nettie Wells had seemed like a nice woman, he'd call her. Maybe a few cautious questions were in order.
Nettie clutched the steering wheel tightly as she climbed the switchback. Young JD had sounded very strange when he'd called. His questions about the previous caretakers and the muddled sound of his voice had her concerned. Though JD had assured her he was fine she had to see. Entering the house it was easier this time to ignore the various men grouped around the living room. The site of JD lying on one of the couches with Buck and Nathan hovering near drew her like a magnet. The fact they both looked relieved to see Nettie kicked her worry into high drive.
"JD, wake up." Nettie laid a hand on JD's shoulder and gave it a gentle shake.
"Go way stupid ghost." JD mumbled.
"Well I'm not a ghost, at least not yet." Nettie said lightly.
"What? Huh, oh." JD rolled over opening his good eye.
"Son what happened?" Nettie gasped as she got a good look at the bruises on JD's face.
"Ma'am?" JD started to sit up only to have Nettie push him back down.
"Just stay there, I'll get some ice." She headed toward the kitchen muttering something about stubborn men.
"You tell him Nettie." Buck crowed. "I told him that mare was wild."
"She is not." JD argued. "Belle just needs someone who understands her."
"Sure kid." Buck shot back, "We'll write that on your tombstone."
"I'm not a kid and I ain't gonna be told what to do by a ghost." JD grumbled.
"Guess he told you." Ezra teased, winking at Vin he added. "I see what you mean about the twitch."
When Nettie came back into the room she could tell from the body language that everyone but Buck and JD were laughing. It was hard to keep from smiling and giving away the fact she could see them. Nettie was pretty sure that JD had to figure out about the others by himself. Sitting down next to the injured boy she placed the ice pack over the right side of his face. Sometimes it strained a witch's patience waiting for things to work out naturally.
"Thanks Ma'am." JD placed a hand over the ice pack to hold it on.
"What happened?" Nettie asked.
Even with the ice pack covering half his face JD's embarrassment was plain. "I tried to ride that mare. At least I think I did. The last thing I remember was trying to saddle her."
"I think we'd better take you to the emergency room." Nettie said. "Make sure everything's okay."
"No!" JD shouted, surging up from the couch a look of total panic on his face. Nettie stared him down not saying a word. He sank back down with a groan putting the pack back to his face. Half muffled his voice pleaded, "No hospital please. I'm okay really."
Nettie had the feeling that there was more to JD's desperation than a dislike of hospitals. She was torn between protecting the boy and doing what she felt was best for him. The fact that Nathan didn't look unduly worried finally decided it for Nettie. She knew the young doctor well. If JD did need a hospital Nathan would have been trying his best to communicate that.
"All right, no hospital, but I'm going to stay here for a while. You take a nap and we'll see how you are after." Nettie stood up to grab a blanket from the back of the couch. Spreading it over JD she smiled. "I'll be in the kitchen. Some homemade soup won't hurt and might help."
"Thanks." The last of the tension left JD's body. Relaxing back he listened to Nettie walk towards the kitchen while trying to block out the sounds of the conversation going on around him. He was glad Nettie hadn't pressed him about the ghost comment. If she knew JD was hearing things he'd be in a hospital for sure. A hospital meant questions about next of kin and that was something to be avoided at all costs. If it were a choice between his uncle and some pushy ghosts, JD would choose the ghosts any day. Still it was hard to sleep with all of them talking. "Excuse me, uh ghosts, would you please shut up? My head hurts enough without you all talking."
JD's words froze the other six men in mid discussion. They all looked at each other before turning to look at the couch.
"Uh ki, JD are you talking to us?" Buck asked barely cutting the familiar kid off. "Can you hear us, me?"
"I'm not talking to the house. Yes, I can hear you but that doesn't mean I want to listen, so shut up." JD felt he had to be firm it wouldn't do to have a ghost giving him orders.
Nathan made shooing motions at the other men. "All right everybody out. JD's right he doesn't need to listen to us." Buck started to argue but Nathan was adamant. He and Josiah drug the protesting ladies man outside. The others followed something Nettie was grateful for. It was hard to be able to see the men and not let them know it.
JD woke up to homemade beef stew, fresh biscuits and cherry cobbler. After checking him over Nettie went home with instructions to call her if he started to feel dizzy or nauseous. The implied 'or else' JD took to heart. Comfortably full, his headache gone and wide-awake JD curled up on one of the big leather couches in front of the fireplace to read. This journal was dark now with the writer talking about killing a woman during a bank robbery. The pages of self accusation tore at JD. The writer went over every what if and even talked about ending it all. The last entry JD had read indicated the writer was leaving town unable to face his failure. JD settled in to read the next one. It was dated the next night.
Well of all the places I figured to be tonight back here at the boarding house wasn't on the list. As soon as the stage left I knew I'd made the wrong choice. A man should stand and face his mistakes not run from them. I think the hardest thing I've ever done besides bury Ma was say goodbye to B and the others. I guess I owe Achilles some sort of thanks for trying to kill me again. If he hadn't tried and the others hadn't showed up I'd be gone by now. Still don't think I can ever forgive myself for Annie's death. But B is right hanging up my guns isn't going to do any good. Best I can do is dedicate my life to making sure no one else dies needlessly.
"Whatcha reading about?"
Deep in the journal JD jumped, letting out a yell. Even though he knew he wouldn't see anyone he still turned instinctively toward the voice.
"Damn Kid I think you jumped a whole foot." Buck crowed. "What do you think Ezra?"
"A foot at least." A southern voice drawled.
"See Buck I told you, he's starting to twitch." Another voice drawled softly.
Sighing JD cradled his head in his hands. His shoulders started to shake silently.
"Uh you okay kid?" Buck flipped over into worry mode instantly. He sent a frantic look to Josiah. "I think he's crying."
The others gathered closer. Josiah knelt down next to the shaking youth. In a low soothing rumble he said. "Son we're sorry we didn't mean to scare you. Ole Buck's loud but harmless."
JD tipped his head back laughing wildly. There were tears in his eyes all right, tears of laughter. Wiping them away he continued to giggle slightly. "I'm going crazy that's the only explanation. Cause sane people don't hear voices."
"You're not crazy JD." Nathan earnestly assured him. "I know you can't see us but we are here."
"That's right." Buck jumped in. "We can't explain it but we are here."
"Who's we?" JD asked, turning his head from side to side scanning the empty room.
"Well uh," Buck looked at the others desperately. Everyone paused trying to decide how to explain. Then several voices started talking at once.
"Well you see..."
"Kid it's like this..."
"A most unfortunate set "
"The Lord works in "
"Hold it." Chris' voice cut across the others shutting them up. Shooting a glare at Vin who was finding the whole thing funny he growled. "We can't all talk." Turning to JD who was looking a little nervous at this new tough voice he continued in a slightly softer tone. "JD my name is Chris Larabee, I own the Bar Seven. There are "
"But you're supposed to be dead." JD sat up alarmed.
"We are NOT dead." Chris growled. "I'm not sure what happened but I know that." He could see his words hadn't really reassured the younger man. Softening his voice again he moved closer to the couch. "JD you don't have to be afraid of us. We won't hurt you I promise."
"Listen to Chris." Buck jumped in. "He may growl worse than a full grown grizzly but he never says anything he don't mean."
"Gee thanks Buck." Chris snorted.
"So how many of you are there?" JD was starting to relax, his natural curiosity overcoming his fear.
"Beside me there are five other men here." Chris looked at the others. "Everyone introduce yourself."
"Well kid we've already met sort of. I'm Buck Wilmington. I was with you last night when you woke up."
"I'm Josiah Sanchez. You gave us all a scare yesterday son. Nathan was worried you might have a concussion."
"I sure was." Nathan stepped closer. "Nathan Jackson. I'm a doctor and I want to check you over now that you can answer some questions."
"You may wish you couldn't hear us after Nathan gets through pouring one of his concoctions down your throat." JD turned toward the distinctive southern drawl. "Ezra Standish, at your service."
"Guess that just leaves me. Vin Tanner."
"The one who's been making your dog twitch," Ezra inserted dodging the slap Vin aimed at him easily.
"Okay so if I'm not crazy and you're not ghosts, what are you?" JD asked.
Again everyone paused trying to decide how to explain their predicament without scaring JD or pissing off Chris. Chris read the looks Josiah, Buck and Ezra exchanged easily. He knew they were worried about how he would react to another discussion of magic. Shaking his head resignedly Chris walked out the front door. With a shrug and a tip of his hat Vin followed.
JD was a bit startled with the door seemingly opened by itself. "What the?"
"Easy JD, it's just Chris and Vin leaving." Buck explained. "See Chris don't like talking about what's going on here."
"What is going on here?" JD demanded.
This time the pause was shorter. Josiah sat down across from JD and with a glance at the others began to explain.
"Well it started almost a year ago."
JD cleaned stalls the next morning in a thoughtful mood. The story he'd been told last night seemed outlandish, crazy, impossible. But he couldn't ignore the evidence all around him. His abstracted mood irritated Big Red who was used to more attention from his young master. Finally Red draped his head over JD's shoulder blatantly begging for attention. Chuckling JD started to scratch him between the ears and under the throat.
"Am I ignoring you boy?" A whicker and head shake was JD's answer.
"Nice animal." Vin's quiet comment made JD jump a bit. "Sorry didn't mean to startle you."
"That's okay." JD sighed. He continued to pet Red.
"Yeah he wasn't too sure about letting me clean his stall the other day." Vin said. "But when I brought the oats around he decided I was all right."
"I'm surprised the oats worked he doesn't like strangers. That's how I got him you know. His owner was going to shoot him cause he was so mean. I made the guy a bet that I could go in Red's stall put a bridle on him and lead him out." JD suddenly smiled wrapping an arm around Red's nose and speaking to him. "Course he didn't know we were already friends did he boy." Red snorted but didn't pull away.
"If you're still interested in working with Belle I could help you." Vin offered, using JD's name for the bay mare. "I think she'd respond well to blanket training."
"What's that?" With a final pat JD exited Red's stall and headed into Molly's.
"Something I learned from one of the fellers that raised me." Vin picked up the wheelbarrow and moved it over. "I could teach you, if you want."
"I'd like that." JD smiled.
The rest of the week passed quickly. Now that JD could hear the others he found himself drawn into their activities. Over Buck's objections he and Vin worked with Belle. There were fences and tack to repair with Josiah and Nathan. Fixing a broken water tank with Chris took half a day. And everywhere he went Buck seemed to follow. JD blossomed under the attention. Life had not been kind since his mother's death. The men challenged his mind with new skills and made him feel a part of their group.
After spending one day of jumping every time he was spoken to JD asked the others to wear something he could see. Vin wore a red bandana; Josiah a cross; Nathan his favorite vest; Ezra stuck an Ace of Spades in his hat; Chris chose a black bandana and Buck took to wearing his Stetson again. At night when they gambled the floating and flying cards and poker chips make it look even stranger.
Josiah had warned the others not to tell JD what the final journal revealed. He had quietly stuck that journal back behind the secret panel. The preacher had explained about the spell but not what he suspected regarding JD's involvement. Like Nettie Josiah knew that some spells had to work themselves out. If messed with too much you ran the risk of dooming yourself. Since no one wanted to drag JD down with them everyone kept quiet willingly.
JD was in the barn trimming Big Red's hooves. For a change he was alone having sought the safety of the barn after breakfast. The others seemed tense and snappish this morning. He couldn't know today was the one year anniversary of the disappearance. The sound of a vehicle drew him outside. A white Cadillac SUV pulled up in front of the barn and a gray haired man in a gray suit exited the passenger door.
"Who are you?" The older man demanded harshly.
"JD Dunne, I'm the caretaker." JD didn't like this man something about him was creepy. The eyes seemed a bit glazed yet wild looking. "Can I help you?"
"You can pack up and leave now." The gray man ordered.
"And you are?" JD bristled.
"I am Colonel Anderson. If you know what is good for you boy, you'll get off this property by nightfall."
"Don't you threaten him."
Chris' challenge right in front of him caused JD to jump a bit. The other man had removed his black bandana making him invisible again to JD.
"So you've adopted the welp, hey Larabee. Going to doom him just like the others?" Anderson taunted.
"Somehow, some way I will kill you." Chris threatened. "Even if I have to come back from the grave to do it."
"Well I'm not too worried, first you would have to die." Anderson's laugh cut off quickly at the sound of guns cocking. Turning he focused on Vin and the rifle in his hands. Behind Vin Josiah, Buck and Ezra also stood holding various weapons.
"Don't have to touch you to kill you Anderson." Vin drawled. "Think it's time you left."
JD was the only one who couldn't see the savage threat in Chris' eyes as he stepped closer to Anderson. "You heard him, get out of here."
"Fine, enjoy your last few hours. But if you do care for the boy you'll send him away" Anderson said as he climbed back in the SUV. Leaning out the window he offered one final taunt. "After all at midnight one way or another this is all over. Do you want his death on your hands?"
The silence was like a living weight as everyone watched Anderson leave. Chris broke it with a muttered curse. Turning to JD he growled. "Anderson is right, you're in danger here. I want you gone by dark."
"No arguments Buck." Chris cut the other man off. "I won't be responsible for his death too. JD leaves now."
JD couldn't see the concern on the men's faces but he could sense the tension, sadness and even fear. The men, who in one short week had become close, wanted only the best for him. He had always been a bit nervous of Chris. Of all the men Chris was the only one who hadn't sought him out over the last week. Now he was ordering JD away because of what some crazy man had said.
"Chris what if sending him away is exactly what Anderson wants?" Josiah tried the voice of reason.
"Damn it Josiah I won't drag him down with us." Chris shot back desperately. "Anderson has no reason to hurt him if he's gone."
"Doesn't he?" Ezra asked. "If the Colonel wants him gone, odds are there is a reason."
"This isn't something to bet on." Chris yelled.
As the argument continued JD stepped quietly back from the voices. He needed to think and it wasn't going to be possible with everyone talking. Turning back into the barn he grabbed a bridle and entered Big Red's stall. It wouldn't take long for Chris to notice he was gone. JD didn't want a confrontation with the other man till he had time to think. Leading the stallion out to the pasture he slipped up on his back urging him forward at a run. As horse and rider streaked across the pasture he heard Buck calling after him.
JD let Red run enjoying the feel of the wind against his face. A shady tree next to a small crick offered a comfortable place to stop and think. JD turned Red loose to graze knowing the horse would stick close. Buck found him there about an hour later. JD smiled at the site of Lady with a hat bouncing in mid air over her saddle. He waited while the hat dismounted and moved to sit in the air next to him.
"JD are you crazy taking off on that hell horse without a saddle?" Buck harassed.
"I wish you and Big Red would learn to get along." JD teased. Buck and the stallion had been feuding since JD was hurt. In fact Vin was still the only one besides JD Red would tolerate.
"Didn't come here to discuss that horse." Buck snorted. "He's just jealous cause of my animal magnetism." Turning serious he gently chided JD. "You shouldn't have run off kid. Chris feels real bad."
"Why should he feel bad about me?" JD asked. "It ain't like I'm anyone special. He has a right to tell me to leave."
"Aw JD it's not that way at all." Buck wished he could hug the younger man. The pain underneath that statement tore at his tender heart. "It's cause Chris does care that he yelled."
"Sure Buck." JD shrugged.
"I'm serious. Chris don't bother to yell at people he doesn't care about. You should hear some of the stuff he's said to me." Buck tried for a light touch.
"If you say so." JD still wasn't convinced.
"JD you have to understand." Buck sighed sadly. "See Chris had a son once. Adam and his mama died in a car fire about three years back. It burned half the soul right out of that man. Now this." Buck stopped remembering Josiah's warning.
"What is this?" JD asked stretching the 'this' angrily.
"Today's one year to the day we all disappeared." Buck explained. "Josiah is pretty sure that whatever is wrong with us will be over tonight." He paused then added in a low voice. "One way or another."
"Buck you mean " JD was horrified and frightened.
"Chris don't want you caught up in whatever is going on." Buck said ignoring for the moment JD's comment. "That's why he's so upset."
Buck, I " JD stopped what could he say? The thought that the others might be dead by midnight was tearing him apart.
"Come back to the house." Buck stood up his voice quiet and sad.
The ride was spent in silence both men lost in their own thoughts. Back at the barn Chris was waiting, bandana back in place. JD could see his truck had been hooked up to the horse trailer and Molly was already waiting inside. The sun was just starting to sink behind the mountains bathing everything in an eerie glow. As JD stepped off his horse Chris' bandana moved toward him. A piece of paper floated just below it.
"JD I want you to take this with you." Chris thrust the paper at him. "It may not be visible to anyone else now but I'm hoping by tomorrow it will be."
JD opened the paper reading the few short paragraphs. His eyes widened as the words sunk in. "It's a will, leaving the Bar Seven to me!"
"Ezra says it will stand up in any court of law. Show it to the Judge tomorrow I'm sure he will help you. " Chris said gruffly. "I'd rather you have the place than anyone else. Now get going I want you safe in town by midnight." Turning he started to walk away only to stop and spin around at JD's quiet words.
"I'm not leaving."
"Oh yes you are." Chris stormed back. "All your stuff is packed now get going."
"No." One word but the determination in it was plain.
"I said get out!" Chris shouted.
"No!" JD shouted back. "I'm not leaving. Whatever is happening here I'm staying to see it through and there is nothing you can do about it."
"Aargh." If he could have Chris would have punched the stubborn, to brave for his own good, kid. "Fine then stay if you want." Whirling he stomped off toward the house.
11:30 found everyone grouped in the living room. Ezra, Vin and Nathan were pretending to play cards while Buck hovered near JD who was trying to concentrate on the first journal. Josiah sat thinking on the last journal hoping for a clue of some kind. Chris sat by himself still steaming over JD's latest refusal to leave. It was almost a relief when the front door blew open to reveal Anderson. Chris started to surge forward, Vin and Ezra reached for their guns as the others came to their feet. Anderson waved a hand and everyone froze.
"What? Did you think I would give you the chance to shoot me?" Anderson taunted as he entered the room. "Hardly." Another hand wave brought Vin and Ezra's guns flying through the air toward him. Anderson pointed one at JD. "Now I'm going to release you. Behave or I will shoot the boy."
As soon as they could move six men stepped protectively around JD. "How brave, how touching protect the boy." Anderson laughed at their actions. "You know it's really not fair that he can't see how much you'all are willing to sacrifice for him." The crazed man looked thoughtful. "Not fair at all. Maybe I should do something about that?" Waving his hand again Anderson chanted something. Only JD reacted.
"Hey, I can see you guys!"
"You can see them and you can die with them boy." Anderson crowed.
"Anderson somehow, someway I'm going to kill you." Chris promised.
"Kill me Larabee? Do you think you can frighten me now, when I'm finally so close to what I want."
"What do you want?" Josiah asked.
"Why your complete and utter destruction sir." Anderson cackled.
"Why?" Chris challenged. "Just because I stopped you from destroying some burial grounds?"
"You think this is about that?" Anderson looked surprised then calculating. "You really don't know do you? You have no idea what you've cost me? If it hadn't been for the seven of you I would have been a hero. The man who resurrected the glorious South."
"You're the Anderson from the journal." JD gasped. "But that's impossible he was killed in the village and even if he wasn't you'd be over a hundred years old."
"Amazing what a pact with the devil will gain you isn't it?" Anderson said almost playfully.
"We aren't those men." Josiah pointed out. "They've been dead for years."
"True and if they had gone their separate ways after the fight we wouldn't be here tonight." Anderson explained. "But no, they had to stick together and start saving people. Do you know how many souls they cost my lord? Oh sure they sent him a great many during their lifetimes, but those were the easy ones. The ones who would have been his no matter what, who did his work willingly. No it was the pure souls they saved from him that mattered. Those innocents who would have been his if seven meddlers hadn't gotten involved. I mean they started stealing souls from the devil right there at the Indian village." Anderson was practically frothing at the mouth now. The seven men watched him with a kind of horrified pity. "Francis, my second in command and that indian who helped them climb the rocks. Both men should have turned to the evil eating at their souls. But noooo, those men showed them what was right and saved them. The newspaper woman's son, the Mexican woman, a Chinese boy and girl. I could go on, my lord showed me so many when he offered me his deal. They even saved themselves!" Anderson screamed.
"Still doesn't have anything to do with us." Nathan interjected.
"Of course it does!" Anderson shouted back. "Actions like that bind souls together. Eventually those souls are reborn and find each other again. My lord knew that and knew he had to stop it from happening again."
"You are several bananas short of a bunch." Buck snorted.
Anderson turned opening his mouth to yell again then stopped. Taking a deep breath a crafty look settled on his face. "It doesn't matter what you think in a few short minutes you'll all be dead. Of course I might be willing to offer a deal."
"Only a fool makes deals with the devil." Josiah said.
"Oh the deal isn't for you." Anderson chortled. "It's for the boy."
"Me?" JD stepped around Buck who made a futile attempt to grab him.
"Yes, I really have no quarrel with you." Anderson motioned toward the door. "If you want to leave I won't stand in your way."
"What's the catch?" JD asked.
"No catch you just have to leave. NOW!" Anderson snarled.
"JD go." Buck pleaded. "I don't want you to die." The others added their encouragement.
"No." JD gazed at all of them, trying to memorize their faces. "I won't leave you."
"Then I'm faced with no other choice." Anderson leveled his gun at JD's back. Several horrified versions of no rang out. Buck tried to step in front of the gun as Brody attacked. Crouched on the stairs the entire time Brody remembered another man, another gun and reacted. With a growl the huge dog leapt from his perch on the stairs locking his jaws on Anderson's arm. Immediate chaos ensued. Anderson screamed trying to beat Brody off as JD charged. The three went down in a snarling fighting mass. Chris dove over the couch to grab the other gun coming up on his knees he waited for an opening. JD heard Buck yelling at him to get clear. Catching a glimpse of Chris with the gun he let go of Anderson's free arm calling out, "Brody back."
As the three forms broke apart Chris yelled. "Anderson!"
Anderson reacted instinctively, swinging toward Chris the gun still in his hand. Chris fired two shots and it was over. Anderson crumpled to the floor the gun dropping from his hand. The bullet hole in the center of his head indicated he wouldn't be rising any time soon.
"See you haven't lost your touch any pard." Buck said.
"Gentlemen, it's 11:59." Ezra pointed out quietly stopping everyone in their tracks for a moment.
"Damn." Chris swore whirling around. "JD get out of here, now!"
"No, whatever happens I staying to see this through. Cause it don't matter how bad the odds if you stand with friends." The phrase seemed to ripple through the room. "Sides it's too late." JD's words overlaid the start of the clock chiming midnight.
"Aw kid." Buck said sadly reaching out an arm to hug JD. To his surprise this time the arm didn't pass through. It wrapped around the boy's shoulder allowing Buck to complete the action. Pulling JD close he looked over his shoulder at the others in confusion. "Is he dead or are we alive?"
"I can answer that." Judge Travis and Nettie stood in the doorway. "You're all alive."
"Judge?" Chris stepped forward looking a bit stunned.
"You did real well JD." the Judge said. "Just like Nettie said you would."
"I think someone better start explaining." Chris had regained his composure and was moving into command mode again.
The Judge nodded motioning towards the sofas. "Why don't we all sit down. Nettie and I will explain what we know." Waiting until everyone was settled the Judge began. "First, how many of you have read the journals of the original JD Dunne?"
Josiah's "I have." mingled with Ezra's "I've perused a few." and JD's "Original?"
"Are you the Judge in the early journals?" Josiah asked in the silence.
"No, I am his great, great grandson." Judge Travis said. "My great grandfather used to tell me stories about the seven men his father knew as a small boy."
"Then how did you figure out what was going on?" Nathan asked.
"I didn't at first, it's only been these last couple of months that I knew what had happened to you. Nettie was the one who figured everything out." The Judge gestured to the woman.
"Nettie?" Vin turned to the woman next to him.
"Anderson isn't the only one who was offered a deal." Nettie smiled and patted Vin on the knee. "The archangel Michael found out about their deal and offered me one as well. He told me about the first seven."
"Our doubles you mean." Chris growled. He liked to think of himself as an original.
"Not doubles." Nettie soothed. "You may look like the first seven and bear their names. Your lives may parallel to some extent but don't expect that to always be the case. You've been raised in a different time and your outlook on life will reflect that. With Anderson dead again you are free to make your own life paths."
The discussion had to be cut short then. The sounds of approaching sirens warning of the sheriff's arrival. The Judge had called when he heard the shots. Anderson's death needed to be dealt with, a cover story concocted. At first they were stumped over how to explain away a year. Nettie was the one who finally suggested that they just not say where they had been. Chris and Buck had both worked for the DXS in their younger years. There was already a rumor going around indicating that was the reason for their disappearance. It was decided to simply say that the six men had been called away and let people draw their own conclusions. They would say they'd come home that night to find the Judge and Nettie visiting JD. While they were talking Anderson burst in intending to kill the young caretaker. Chris shot him to protect the others. With the Judge's backing the story had been easily accepted. For the most part it was the truth after all. By the time everything was cleaned up all anyone wanted was bed. Any more explanations could wait until morning.
Thanks to Chris everyone got up the next morning at the same time. The blond man had decided if he was up everyone was. Even Ezra hadn't complained, much. Trooping downstairs the seven milled around in the kitchen for a bit. It was strange after a year to think about breakfast and coffee. Josiah and Buck finally shooed everyone out promising one of their legendary big breakfasts. Vin and JD decided to use the time to feed the horses. Placated with coffee Ezra, Nathan and Chris went into the living room. Sipping coffee each man sat lost in his thoughts until Nathan finally commented, "Suppose someone should go wake Nettie?"
"Probably." Chris grunted. The night before he had offered the older woman the spare room. Well not so much offered as ordered her to stay over. Chris wanted answers this morning. "Ezra go wake her up."
"I don't think so." Ezra drawled. "Miz Nettie does not like me as it is."
"Ezra," Chris growled warningly.
"I'll go." Nathan offered. It was easier than listening to Chris and Ezra argue. He returned rather quickly a puzzled expression on his face. "She's gone."
"What?" Chris stood up.
"It doesn't even look like the bed's been slept in." Nathan said.
"Perhaps she had to go home for something." Ezra shrugged. "We should at least call her before getting beginning to worry."
Chris glared at him before heading into the library to use the phone. The bare desk raised another question. "Nathan, Ezra did you put the journals away?"
Ezra opened the secret panel, "They aren't here and I know Josiah stuck the last one in here."
"Ezra go ask Josiah or Buck if they moved them. Nathan check with Vin and JD. I'll call Nettie." Chris ordered.
Both men returned with the other four in tow in time to see Chris slam the phone down angrily.
"She not home?" Buck asked.
"It says the phone number does not exist." Chris gritted out.
"What?" Buck moved to try the phone.
"Chris," Josiah looked thoughtful. "Maybe Anderson's death meant Nettie was done here as well."
"But why are the journals gone?" Nathan asked.
"The first one is still here." JD came back from checking the living room, journal in hand.
"I think they are gone for a reason." Ezra drawled. "After all if we know what happened in the past, we might change the future."
"But you and Josiah have read them." Nathan argued. "You will know even if we don't."
"No we won't." Josiah said softly. He shook his head slowly. "I can't remember what they said, it's all a big blur." He looked at Ezra for confirmation.
"I am equally afflicted it seems." Ezra rubbed the back of his neck. "Except for the first book everything has faded."
"All right." Chris took charge. "Lets go have breakfast. We can talk about all this after." The grimace on his face indicated how much Chris was looking forward to any more magic or touchy feely stuff.
But they didn't talk about it, not that day or the next or the next. Everyone seemed to want to avoid the discussion and Chris didn't push it. On the surface life continued as if Anderson's visit had never happened. Oh everyone checked in with their banks, friends, and in Ezra's case family. The others were surprised to find out his mother hadn't even missed him yet. JD thought it strange that a mother wouldn't be concerned that her son hadn't contacted her in a year. Ezra said it just meant her current marriage was going well. But all in all things continued as if the ranch was still caught in some kind of spell.
JD slipped off Belle's back unsaddling her quickly. He had brought a halter and a long lead rope, which he used to stake her out. Unlike Red she couldn't be trusted not to stray. Once Belle was settled JD collapsed next to the creek and let the emotions he'd been holding in finally show. The last three days had been emotionally draining for him. Every morning he expected Chris to finally tell him to leave. After all the Bar Seven sure didn't need a caretaker anymore. But where was he going to go? Drawing up his knees to rest his arms on then cradling his head on them JD fought to keep from crying. He was seventeen and he'd been on his own before. He could do it again. But he didn't want to. It felt so good not to be worried about a roof over his head or enough to eat for himself, Brody or the horses. The tears started to slip past his clenched eyelids as the feeling of loneliness overwhelmed JD. The sounds distressed Brody, causing the big dog to try to burrow under JD's arms. Wrapping the big dog in a hug JD let the tears fall. It wouldn't be the first time Brody had been comforter to the young man. After a bit the tears stopped and JD stretched out on the grass. Exhausted it wasn't long before he was asleep.
"Have you seen JD?" Buck came into the kitchen where Josiah and Chris were talking.
"Not since breakfast." Josiah answered.
"Belle's gone." Vin stuck his head in the door.
"Damn fool kid that horse isn't ready for a solo ride." Buck charged out the door. Chris and Josiah could hear him yelling at Vin. "Do you think you can track them?"
"Buck sure has turned into a mother hen." Josiah chuckled.
"He's always been like that. I'm glad he has JD." Chris smiled, "Gives him another target."
"I've noticed our youngest seems pretty quiet the last couple of days." Josiah watched Chris out of the corner of his eye. "I think he's wondering about his place with us." When Chris didn't comment Josiah pushed a bit more. "I mean we are keeping him right?"
"As if I could get rid of him now." Chris snorted. "Mother Buck has adopted him remember."
"Yes Buck has taken to him, but Buck doesn't own this ranch, you do." Josiah pointed out.
Chris looked up from his papers giving the ex-preacher his full attention for the first time. "Meaning he needs to hear it from me I suppose."
"You are our leader so to speak. JD probably isn't the only one who wonders what's going to happen next."
Chris grimaced, "You're going to make me talk about this aren't you."
"Just thinking out loud." Josiah said mildly.
Chris glared at him for half a minute before standing up. "Ezra! Nathan! Get in here." The two men appeared from the living room with questioning looks on their faces.
"You bellowed?" Ezra said.
"Come on we're going for a ride." Chris headed toward the barn at a fast walk. When it looked like Ezra might waver Josiah clapped a heavy hand on the back of his neck.
"Come on, you don't want to miss this."
The three men arrived at the barn to find Buck and Chris talking over the top of Lady's saddle. Vin was leaning against Cochise with a huge grin on his face.
"I know where he is Chris." Buck was saying. "Now if you want to follow that's fine, but I'm going after him now."
"And what if we can't find the two of you?" Chris said.
"You have Vin, he's half wolf. He'll find us." Buck snorted.
"All right, we'll saddle up and follow." Chris agreed stepping back so Buck could mount.
Once in the saddle Buck leaned close to Chris and quietly said. "Ride slow pard, I think JD an I might need some time."
Chris nodded and stepped back watching until Buck had disappeared into the trees before turning back to the others. "Saddle up. We're going for a nice slow ride."
Buck wouldn't have liked to admit it but he breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the sleeping figure under the tree. The fact that Belle was tethered and grazing told him JD was probably okay. Dismounting and loosening Lady's cinch Buck walked over to sit down. Giving JD's shoulder a hard shake he urged. "Come on JD wake up."
"Wha, huh?" JD rolled over coming up like he'd been hit.
"Easy kid." Buck soothed
"I'm not a kid." JD grumbled rubbing at his eyes.
Buck had to suppress a sigh when he saw how red they were. Poor kid out here by himself crying. Pretending to ignore the signs of grief he launched into a typical Buck speech, designed to take JD's mind off feeling sorry for himself. "What were you thinking riding that mare out here by yourself?"
"Ah Buck she's all right." JD defended himself. He didn't want to explain the real reason he'd taken Belle. If Chris told him to leave he might not have another chance to ride her.
"Sure she is." Buck pretended to grouch. Digging out a bandana he tossed it at JD. "You'd better wash your face and wake up. Chris and the others should be here anytime now.
JD took the cloth gratefully crouching down next to the crick to wet it. It was bad enough Buck had seen him like this he didn't want the others to. By the time the rest of the group arrived you would have to look hard to see JD had been crying. He and Buck were lazing by the crick throwing a stick for a very happy Brody. Everyone watered their horses letting them loose to graze before sitting down around the tree. After a few minutes of relaxing Chris stood up to lean against the trunk of the tree. When he still didn't say anything Josiah gently prodded.
"Was there something you wanted to tell everyone Chris?" He got a glare for his troubles, which only amused the older man.
"I talked to the Judge yesterday when I was in town." Chris started. "It seems the Bar Seven didn't suffer to much while we were all gone. He also made an interesting suggestion." Chris stopped.
"Well spit it out." Buck pressed.
"Judge thinks it would be a shame to waste all various talents. He thought we should start a detective agency." Chris paused to survey everyone's faces. "I think he might have a good idea, it could be something we do on the side with the ranching."
JD's heart sank at seventeen he would be too young to included. Besides what talents did he have? He listened as the others talked the idea over hashing out some of the details. When Chris called the others to order the only thing he wanted was escape. Forcing a half smile on his face JD worked at hiding his dismay while he listened to Chris.
"So we start the detective agency on the side and keep on with the plans we had already made before the accident." Chris had finally found a description for the previous year he liked. "Nathan and Josiah do you still want to start that homeopathic medicine business?"
"I still believe it's a good idea." Nathan looked at Josiah to see if he agreed. When the other man nodded he turned back to Chris. "We're in."
"Okay, well Buck and I have been down through the cattle and it looks like the first order of business there is branding. I'd like to start that day after tomorrow." Chris waited for the nods of agreement. "JD,"
JD jumped at the sound of his name. He hadn't really been listening, lost in his misery. Here it comes he thought, my marching orders. "Yes Chris."
"JD, before the accident Vin and I were planning to start raising horses. We intend to specialize in rodeo animals, ropers, barrel racers, things like that." Chris smiled realizing JD still wasn't following him. "Looked that stallion of yours over pretty good this morning. I think he'd be perfect as stud. So if you want in, well he's worth a fourth of the deal."
It took a minute for Chris' offer to sink in but when it did JD's smile threatened to split his face. "You bet I'm in." The fervent reply had the others laughing.
"Good." Chris straightened up. "Well now that's settled, lets go home. I'm starting to get hungry."
As they rode back across the pasture seven abreast JD looked down the line. For the briefest moment instead of the six men he did know there were six men dressed in western costumes riding next to him. He looked down to find his own jeans and t-shirt replaced with a brown suit. A blink of the eye and the vision was gone. JD sighed happily it was good to be home.
So what did
Send me a note: GinaD
I have at least two more stories planned for the AU. I started to set one up in this story, can you guess what it is? The other will be "Excerpts from the Lost Journals of JD Dunne". If something in this story sparked an idea for you please feel free to write a story. Don't wait for me to finish my other two. If you want some more background info. drop me an email. If you just want to run with your idea, that's great too.