"If you're not gonna sleep, I'll make breakfast."
J.D. Dunne smiled and turned to kiss his wife. "I'm not gonna sleep."
"Could have told you that last night." Sliding from beneath the bedclothes, Casey sighed in mock exasperation. "Just once I'd like to get a night's rest..."
Listening to Casey's movements in the kitchen, J.D stretched his aching muscles in preparation for a long day in the saddle. Eagle Bend was a day and a half ride, and the days when such voyages were a pleasure were far, far behind him. These days he ached.
He was one month from his thirtieth birthday. He was also the marshal of the town of Four Corners.
Climbing from the warm refuge of his bed, J.D. went to comfort his youngest child. Bertrand Dunne was all of two years old, but already he was more trouble than his older three siblings combined. His parents' stubbornness had manifested itself in their second son in a far different fashion than it had their first. Ethan was quiet and deliberate, slow to anger--quite unlike either of his parents. Already, at the tender age of seven, he showed a keen interest in book learning.
The two Dunne girls, Katie and Molly, were also quiet and serious children. Katie--six years old and very much a little lady--was destined to break hearts, or so J.D. bragged to all who would listen. Molly, two years Katie's junior, did not share her sister's ability to wrap all males around her tiny fingers. In both looks and temperament, Molly took after her mother.
Picking up his young son, J.D. soothingly rubbed the child's back, admonishing him to be a good boy. Laughing softly at the boy's haughty glare, Marshal Dunne once again marveled at the appropriateness of Bertrand's name. It was Ethan's good fortune that J.D. had not learned his friend Buck Wilmington's true given name until after the boy had been born. Bertrand, called Little Buck by everyone but his father, had not been as blessed.
"Your Ma's making us something to eat." J.D. lowered his son to the floor, watching him scamper off to wake his brother. Lounging in the kitchen doorway, he turned his attention to his wife, letting his eyes linger on her swollen belly. Six weeks, the doctor had said. Casey thought it would be another son, but, in truth, J.D. didn't care much one way or another. He loved all his children equally, and this child would be no exception..
Casey caught him watching and smiled the contented smile she always wore when she was with child. Pouring a cup of coffee for her husband, she suddenly turned serious. "I wish I were going."
"I wish you were, too." It was the truth. J.D. hated being away from his family, even when the reason was a pleasant one.
"You just get Buck to promise a visit, you hear? We all miss him." Casey's look became distant, lost in a memory. "Make Vin promise, too. You remembered…?"
"Don't worry, it's packed and safe. Vin'll have it tomorrow night. If he shows up..."
"He will. They all will." Casey bit her lower lip, turning back to the stove. " I wish I were going."
Reining in his horse in front of Eagle Bend's largest saloon, J.D. slowly dismounted. The Lucky Seven Saloon had come into existence eight years past, shortly after the town had all but been destroyed during Chris Larabee's quest for vengeance. J.D. had long since quit thinking of it as a quest for justice. What Chris and his friends had done had been necessary, but it had also been vengeful. Still and all, J.D. never lost sleep over the distinction.
During the fighting, the saloon's previous owner had fallen victim to poor judgement when he chose to side with the man responsible for killing Larabee's family. The proprietor's death had left the saloon vacant and abandoned. Ezra Standish, gambler more than gunman, had long hungered for such an opportunity and immediately moved to acquire the property. J.D. had to admit, Ezra had made the Lucky Seven into a class establishment--and a profitable one, at that. Grinning in anticipation, J.D. pushed through the batwing doors.
"An' there he was, just as scared as could be, and me havin' to tell him it was OK to have cold feet. So long as your other parts are warm!" His back to the door, the speaker had not seen J.D.s entrance.
"Good advice. 'Course, you never had occasion to get cold feet." J.D. teased his friend. Buck Wilmington had left Four Corners several years back and, along with Vin Tanner, had opened a freight hauling business in Ridge City. J.D. couldn't remember how long it'd been since they'd seen each other.
Turning with a whoop of joy, Buck closed the distance between them, enfolding the younger man in a tight embrace. Holding J.D. out at arms length, Buck eyed his friend. "Son, let me look at you! Lord knows what that little girl sees in you..."
"Not so little, these days." J.D. grinned broadly, holding his hands in front of his belly to illustrate his wife's condition.
"Just how many younguns you two plan on havin', anyway?"
"As you no doubt have observed, Marshal Dunne, our friend Mr. Wilmington has not incurred any change whatsoever, more is the pity. I fear he shall remain thus."
J.D.'s quick grin was tempered momentarily by the sight of Ezra in his chair--imported from New York, it was the latest model of wheeled chairs. The two years since his crippling accident had been difficult for Standish, but he remained outwardly cheerful, hiding his pain from all but those whom knew him best.
Raising a hand to halt J.D.'s approach, Ezra backed his chair away from the table where he'd been sitting. Struggling to gain his feet, the gambler began, with the aid of two canes, to slowly and painfully work his way towards J.D.. It wasn't yet a walk, but it would be.
"Ezra?" J.D. repeated, sorting through a variety of emotions as he realized Ezra had made good on his promise to walk. Shaking his head in amazement, he stood mute.
"I believe, sir, that you owe me a vast sum of money? Twenty dollars, was it not? As you can see, I am once again ambulatory." His face breaking into sweat from his effort, Ezra gratefully lowered himself into his chair, which had suddenly appeared behind him. He did not need to look to know who had moved it.
Ginny Standish smiled broadly and left her husband's side to plant a kiss on J.D.'s cheek. "J.D.."
"Ginny. Thanks for settin' all this up." J.D. grinned at the couple. Never would he have guessed that Ezra would fall in love with anything that wasn't minted. He was glad to have been proven wrong.
The former Virginia Moore had been hired five years earlier to manage Ezra's hotel, "The Standish Inn," and had very quickly made up her mind to marry its ambitious and handsome owner. It was Ginny who had single-handedly kept Ezra from sinking into despair following his accident. Ezra's legs had been badly broken by an overturned wagon, and he'd lain pinned beneath it for over a day before a search party found him. It was Ginny who had sent the searchers, and Ginny who nursed him back to health.
Ezra had fallen in love with her during his convalescence, but it wasn't until eight months earlier that she had agreed to marry him. The last thing Ginny wanted was for Ezra to marry her out of gratitude--she accepted his marriage proposal shortly after their third major quarrel, once the swelling on Ezra's cheek had gone down.
"Ezra set it up, I just took care of a few details." Returning to Ezra's side, she squeezed his shoulder gently. "Didn't you dear?"
"You can see why I chose to marry her." Ezra smiled, glancing with affection at his wife.
"Yeah, but that don't explain why she married you. 'Specially since I was available...." Buck shook his head in feigned disbelief. Glancing toward J.D., he caught the younger man's furtive glances around the barroom. "Nathan's due on the afternoon stage. Vin might be here tonight, might not--hard to say. Chris'll be here any time now." Buck ran down the list.
"Josiah had to stay for a funeral. He'll be here tomorrow." J.D. answered Buck's look. "No one you know. Just some drifter. Josiah wanted to bury him proper anyhow."
Buck grinned. "Sounds like Josiah."
"What sounds like Josiah?" A familiar voice asked.
"Chris!" J.D.'s face lit up as he set eyes on his fellow lawman.
Chris Larabee had relocated to Eagle Bend soon after Mary Travis had wed James Whitford, a newspaper editor from Denver, some six years before. Whitford had written Mary a series of letters praising her editorials, and Mary had returned the favor in kind.
In the following months the two had met, fallen in love, and finally married. Chris had seen no reason to stay in Four Corners after her departure. Initially hired as the county sheriff, Eagle Bend had been eager to hire Larabee as town marshal, and Chris had elected to accept their offer. He had even rebuilt his house, long ago destroyed in the fire that claimed the lives of his wife and child.
"How's Casey and the kids?" Chris asked as he clasped the younger man's hand. "How's my godson?"
Ethan Dunne had been named after Chris' father, and Ethan had also been the middle name of Chris' murdered son, Adam. J.D. had struggled long and hard over whether to chose Buck or Chris for his eldest's godfather. Buck was J.D.'s best friend-the older brother he'd never had, but Chris was, for want of a better word, J.D.'s hero. Buck had decided the matter by asking J.D. to give Chris the honor.
"Everyone's fine. Ethan keeps askin' when you're gonna come visit. You better show up 'fore I run out of excuses. And Casey'd love to see you." J.D. paused, grinning widely. "And Katie's decided she's gonna marry you when she's grown up. Just thought I'd warn you."
Not for the first time, Dunne marveled at the transformation Larabee had undergone. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Chris Larabee had rejoined the living. When J.D. had first met him, ten years earlier, Larabee had been a cold, hard mankiller--a hired gunman. It didn't take too long to see that Chris' coldness was a way to keep others out, and keep his pain in. In those early days, Chris had drank too much, angered too quickly, and courted death with a passion. J.D. had spent more time than he cared to remember worrying over his friend. It seemed so long ago. It seemed like yesterday.
The stage arrived nearly on time, which was a rarity in Eagle Bend. Buck, Chris, and J.D. stood waiting for the passengers to disembark. Two women, one man, and the guest-of-honor of their gathering. Nathan Jackson, MD swung down from the stage and greeted his friends warmly.
"So now can we call you Doc?" Buck asked.
"I reckon so." Nathan smilingly agreed as he turned to accept his bags from the stage driver. "I reckon so."
"So Doc, I've got this boil on my backside..."
"C'mon Buck. Let's get the man inside." Chris grabbed one piece of Nathan's luggage, J.D. another. Buck shrugged, as if to say 'well, there ain't no more bags'.
Nathan stopped just inside the doors to the Lucky Seven. He stood and stared at Ezra for a long, quiet moment. Ezra returned the look, waiting. Slowly walking forward, Nathan stopped in front of the wheelchair.
"Thank you don't seem enough."
Ezra fidgeted, uncomfortable with Nathan's gratitude. "And it's not. You do recall our agreement? Medical college in return for opening a local practice and the eventual repayment of your educational expenses?"
Nathan grinned, happy to slip into the easy friendships he'd left behind. "Sure do. Seem to remember some talk about a clinic?"
"Indeed. Your office, Dr. Jackson, awaits you. If you'd like, my wife will gladly show you the way."
"You'd be Virginia? Ezra wrote me 'bout you. Had to read his letter over an' over for it to seem real. Never thought he'd marry! If I may say so, ma'am, I now see why he done it." Nathan smiled warmly at Mrs. Standish.
"I would imagine, Dr. Jackson, that no one was more surprised than Ezra himself." Ginny stooped to kiss her husband. "Isn't that right, dear?"
Vin Tanner halted the freight wagon in front of the livery, and eased himself gingerly to the ground. Greeting the hostler warmly, he gratefully left the horses and wagon in the man's care, and walked wearily to the bathhouse.
He smiled slightly, knowing it was likely Nathan had already arrived in town, making it a true reunion of the seven. Vin couldn't remember the last time they'd all been together, it might well have been going on six years now. The fact that they all still drew breath, was reason enough to celebrate.
Dr. Jackson, having toured his new facility, returned to the saloon to offer his profuse thanks to Ezra for providing quality instruments and medicines. His new clinic rivaled many in the East, and that was no small feat.
"Haven't you heard? I've decided to embrace politics by entering into the mayoral race. It would seem prudent to ensure the town's physician is adequately provided for. I shall be forced to kiss infants, no doubt, but I suspect your clinic shall garner both attention and votes."
"Whatever you say, Ezra. Thanks anyhow." Nathan smiled delightedly at his friend.
'Indeed." Ezra looked at his gathering of friends. "What say you all? Shall we adjourn to more private accommodations? I have
just the place...but I require assistance..." He looked pointedly at the door to the basement.
Buck looked from Ezra to J.D., and back. "Stairs."
"About twenty, I believe." Ezra grimaced.
Buck and J.D. joined forces to convey both the saloonkeeper and his chair down into the bowels of the Lucky Seven. Neither man had been beyond the cellar door prior to this--and it soon became obvious as to why. The basement of the saloon was set up
for high-stakes poker games. The best in accouterments, in libations, and far removed from the drunken riff-raff which all too frequently made up the saloon's clientele.
"Nice." Buck looked around appreciatively.
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. I was entirely unsure if you could distinguish between the gaudy trappings one normally encounters in such establishments as mine, and the tasteful decor instituted in this enclave." Ezra gestured at the felt tables and crystal glassware.
"Uh-huh. What you got to drink?" Buck asked.
"Heathens. I am surrounded by heathens." Ezra shook his head sadly.
A soft laugh came from the base of the stairs. Chris Larabee surveyed the pair of tables, which constituted the high stakes arena. "So this is where you make your money."
"The vast majority of it." Ezra agreed.
"I like it." Chris grinned.
"So do I, my friend." Ezra concurred. "It's my piece of heaven."
"Don't know. Always thought heaven'd be some brighter." Vin descended the last of the stairs. He'd been in the room before. He'd helped Ezra build it. Exchanging a long look with Chris, the two men shook hands.
"Vin." Chris looked closely at his friend. Vin had suffered the loss of a fiancé a few years past and, more recently, Nettie Welles. Nettie had been a surrogate mother for Tanner, and her death, several months back, had taken its toll.
"I see Eagle Bend got its Doc back." Vin peered at Nathan, taking in the expensive clothes and the confidant stance. "Damn Nathan. Don't know as schoolin' was such a good idea. Ya look...hell, ya look different."
"Don't let no suit fool you, Vin. I ain't changed none. Just 'cause I know how to talk like Ezra, don't mean I will." Nathan grinned.
Vin and Chris exchanged amused glances. "Just as well. I'd a had to shoot one of you." Chris smiled and walked over the to the bar, pouring himself a whiskey and one for each of his companions. Dispensing the drinks, Chris raised his shotglass. "To Dr.
"To Nathan." Four voices chorused.
Nathan looked both proud and embarrassed, unaccustomed to taking center stage in this particular group of men. "I missed y'all. Every day."
Ezra wheeled himself to the bar, refilled his glass, and Nathan's, before handing the bottle to Larabee. "I believe the sentiment is mutual. I have no doubt that each of us missed your presence Dr. Jackson. Both as friend and physician. Buck there had an embarrassing..."
"Ezra, don't think that chair'll stop me from hurtin' you...." Buck hissed.
"Why Mr. Wilmington, are you threatening me?" Eyebrows raised, Ezra waited.
"I believe I am." Buck growled. "No one's business but my own."
"Indeed. And the young lady's, I suspect.." Ezra smiled charmingly.
Watching the interplay between his friends, JD ducked his head, grinning. Nothing had changed. Ten years had passed, and nothing had really changed. Glancing over at Vin, JD amended his thoughts. Vin had changed. He suddenly recalled the package he was honor-bound to deliver to Tanner, and hastily brushed past his friends, taking the stairs two at a time.
Ezra stared at the retreating figure. "Was is something I said?"
JD all but ran to the livery, startling the hosteler with his sudden appearance.
"The package I left..."
"'s right here, Marshal. Don't you worry none." The man retrieved the bundle, handing it to JD. He smiled broadly. "So how's the new doc?"
JD returned the smile. "Fine, but I'd stay healthy a while longer. Me and the boys are going to get him good and drunk 'fore the night's done." He tossed the man a coin, and headed back to the saloon.
"Course, that don't mean we didn't maybe charge a little extra for the...." Buck stopped mid-story, hearing JD's boots on the stair.
"JD? Where'd you run off to?"
"Sorry, Buck. I needed to collect something at the livery." JD crossed the room, stopping in front of Vin. "Nettie...Nettie wanted you to have this, Vin." He handed over the cloth wrapped package.
Vin's tan face paled, and for a moment he could only stare at the bundle. By it's shape and feel, he knew what he'd find inside, and it both moved and angered him. Nettie Welles had lived a long life, but to Vin's way of thinking, it hadn't been long enough. Cutting the twine and unrolling the cloth, Vin gazed quietly at Nettie's Spencer carbine.
"Thanks, JD." Vin ran a hand lovingly over the forestock before covering it again with the cloth. He set it on the felt covered table before him, and raised his eyes to meet Larabee's. Chris and Nettie were the only two people who knew exactly what depths Vin had traveled to, and how close he'd come to drowning in them.
"JD." Chris caught the younger man's attention. "Understand Rafe Mosely and Alice Danton got hitched.."
JD tore his gaze from Vin's pain-filled face. "That's right." JD snorted. "Rafe's a hell of a deputy, and friend, but husband? Alice sticks with him a year and I'll be surprised."
Vin forced himself back to the present. "Don't know 'bout that. Seems like we all thought the same 'bout you and Casey. An' what's this I hear y'all are expectin' another youngin'? How you feedin' all them kids?"
"Casey feeds 'em, I just go to work." JD flashed a grin.
"All the same, that's a lot of mouths to feed." Chris teased. "Maybe you two oughta..."
"Thanks, Chris. We'll manage. 'Sides, I always wanted a bunch of kids."
"Thought bein' a Texas Ranger was what you wanted?" Buck's eyes twinkled.
"That was before...." JD guiltily glanced at Chris and Vin.
Buck realized his mistake, and colored slightly. "So it was, kid. So it was."
"Gentleman. At the risk of restoring good humor and high spirits, may I offer a toast to my lovely wife, Virginia?" Ezra looked around at the gathering of friends.
: "To Ginny." Buck clinked glassed with Ezra, before downing his whiskey.
The morning dawned bright and clear, but it wasn't until noon that the six friends gathered once again inside the Lucky Seven. Nathan had been the last to rise, no longer used to late nights spent drinking.
"Damn Ezra. You serve good grub." Buck happily attacked his beefsteak.
"Coming from an Epicurean such as yourself, I am all but flattered. " Ezra proclaimed.
Chris chuckled, sipping his coffee. He'd been up since dawn, and had watched with amusement as his friends had staggered and stumbled from their homes and hotel rooms. Not too many years past, Chris himself would've been one of the late risers.
"Mighty charitable of you, Ezra." The deep, rumbling voice heralded the arrival of the last of their company--Josiah Sanchez. All six pairs of eyes turned toward the saloon door, and all widened in shock at the sight of who stood beside their friend.
Chris Larabee stood slowly, his face a careful mask. "Mary."
Mary Whitford stood just inside the batwing doors, as beautiful as the last time they had seen her. Her eyes were on Chris, and she blushed slightly as he spoke her name.
JD looked back and forth between the two, a slow delighted grin spreading across his face. He wasn't sure what had happened to James, but by the look on Mary's face, she was a free woman.
Josiah cleared his throat. "Chris, I'd appreciate you escortin' Mrs. Whitford to the hotel, I am in desperate need a meal and a drink."
Chris walked slowly toward the doors, almost as if he was afraid Mary was an apparition and would fade at his approach. He held the door for her, following her out without a backward glance.
Buck shook his head, laughing silently.
JD was the one to pose the inevitable question. "What about James?"
Josiah's expression grew somber. "He passed on a few years back. Mary decided it was time to visit old friends. She wired me a few weeks ago, asking what had become of all of us."
Ezra looked hurt. "Wired you?"
"It seemed, and rightly so, that she couldn't be sure the rest of you hadn't moved on." Josiah smiled slightly. "She arrived on yesterday's stage."
JD sighed. "Your funeral."
"My funeral, although I did bury the man proper. Mary wanted her coming to be a surprise."
Vin looked at the doors. "I'd say ol' Chris was surprised all right." Pushing back his chair, he stood and quietly exited the saloon. He never once looked at Josiah as he pushed past the preacher.
Joining his friends at the table, Josiah sat wearily in the seat Vin had surrendered. "Hard to get over the loss of a loved one." He looked across the table at Nathan. "Nathan. I don't suppose that medical school of yours taught you anything about curin' the pains of old age?"
"Some. Not so sure what I can do for somebody as old as you." Nathan smiled broadly. Despite the separation of years, he and Josiah had picked up where they'd left off, as if time had not passed for them. The preacher had stayed on in Four Corners, becoming one of the town's more popular citizens. Whether it was counsel or a service that was required, Josiah never refused aid to those in need. In Josiah's eyes, all men were truly equal.
"Welcome home, my friend." Josiah toasted Nathan with Vin's abandoned coffee.
J.D. looked mischievously at the big man. His thoughts were still on Chris and Mary, and the almost certain outcome of their meeting. "Hey Josiah, you gonna marry 'em?"
Josiah's grin nearly split his grizzled face. "I think I might at that, John Dunne."
Chris Larabee walked in silence beside the woman he loved. He had denied the feeling for long years, but the moment she had walked through the doors to Ezra's saloon, he had known it had been in vain. He loved her now, as he had loved her then.
The hotel was still a few yards distant when Mary suddenly halted. Biting her lower lip, she turned to face Chris. "Chris, James died over three years ago. It was his heart." She lowered her eyes briefly, before again meeting his gaze. "I needed to see you again. I needed to explain..."
Chris brought his fingers to her lips, stopping the flow of words. "Nothin' to explain. James was a good man. I'm sorry to hear he's gone." His eyes drank her in, amazed how time had not yet touched her. She looked as she always had to him, a golden goddess of light.
Mary pushed his hand aside. "I need to explain why I married him. I did love him, but for the wrong reasons. For Billy. For a safe life, with a safe man. For appearances. I never loved him the way…" The look on Chris' face cut short her words..
Chris had froze, unable to believe what he was hearing. Slowly, gently, he brushed back the loose strands of Mary's hair, watching in awe as she closed her eyes. His fingers traced her cheek, her jaw-line, and slowly crept behind her neck. Tilting her head back, Chris lowered his lips to hers in a lingering kiss that sealed both their fates. With a pain that was nearly as sweet as it was sharp, the last vestige of darkness fled from Chris Larabee's soul.