The next day was all bustle and preparation, made only a little more difficult by the fact that Darcy had mysteriously vanished.
Well, not vanished exactly. Everyone knew that he'd gone out of town, that he'd left early that morning after going over some things with Nathan and making a round of the makeshift hospital that had been set up in the church's basement. Someone rather nervously asked him if he was coming back, to which Darcy jokingly replied that there would be at least six guns coming after him if he didn't; therefore, yes, he was coming back, by the next afternoon. And then he'd left.
The town continued to sweep up, build and recover. Emmie was busily trying to decide what color to paint her new window, whether to maybe just paint the whole front of the store, and was very happy to receive a bundle of cleaned goods from Gloria, who'd carefully washed and ironed all of the young woman's ribbons that had fallen and been trampled in the looting. Most of them were fit to sell, and Emmie was so happy she decided to paint the whole front - pink.
True to their word, when the others met with Josiah in JD's room that morning they were acting as if the tense meeting in the church had never happened. Buck in particular seemed to act as if Chris did not exist, and laughed and joshed as he watched JD devour a large breakfast. JD seemed happy to be back in familiar surroundings, but not at all happy at the list of exercises that Nathan held up over his potatoes and eggs.
"I thought I just had to learn to walk." JD moaned as he looked in dismay at the instructions. Nathan smiled at his petulance, and glanced at Buck, who smiled also as he lounged against JD's bureau.
"You will, eventually," Nathan nodded, taking the list back and scanning it with his dark eyes. "But you got at least three weeks before that collarbone is healed up enough for you to put weight on it, and Mr. Thomas says you got to keep up the strength in your legs or they'll atrophy on you."
"Atro-what?" JD asked in confusion.
"He means they'll shrivel up and fall off." Buck joked as he shifted his weight.
JD's eyes bugged. "Oh my God! They will?"
"No." Nathan gave Buck a dirty look. "No, son, but they'll get weak if you don't use 'em. We'll get started as soon as you're done with breakfast."
"Okay," JD said glumly, pushing the eggs around on his plate.
"And you ain't takin' all day about finishin', either."
JD sighed hugely, and picked up another forkful of potatoes. He chewed them thoughtfully, then grumbled, "I don't get what my collarbone has to do with walking, anyway. Why can't I just start now?"
"Because," Nathan said patiently, smiling at his young friend's petulance. "You ain't gonna start off walkin'. You gotta get your walkin' back by learnin' to do it the way a baby does. That means first you gotta get on your stomach an' crawl for a while, an' to do that you're gonna be usin' that collarbone to pull yourself along. We do that too quick, before it's healed, an' it's just gonna sn- "
JD winced, indicating he got the message. But still he shook his head in disbelief. "On my stomach, crawling. That's really going to do it?"
"According to Mr. Thomas it is," Nathan replied.
JD sat still for a moment, looked at Nathan, then at Buck and Josiah, and all of the men saw the uncertainty there, the incredulity battling with desperate hope. "And I'm gonna get better."
Buck nodded, coming to stand behind Nathan with a wide smile. "That's what we're workin' on."
JD blinked, regarded the others in youthful wonder, his eyes shining beneath that angry bruise, those fading marks.
"I don't believe it," he finally said in a low, awestruck voice, shaking his head. "It's - it's almost too much."
"We know, son," Josiah said softly. "But it's true, and it's gonna happen."
"But not if you take all day with them damn eggs," Nathan said sternly.
The others laughed. JD gamely picked up another mouthful of food, looked at the instructions again, and sighed. This was going to be a long haul.
+ + + + + + +
That same morning, Mary came out of her office proudly bearing the latest edition of her newspaper. TOWN SURVIVES ASSAULT, the headline read, SHERIFF ON ROAD TO RECOVERY. She felt the sunlight on her face, ran her hand over the black ink on the white paper, and decided she never felt so happy to be handing out a paper in her whole life.
She had just stepped into the street to begin handing the newspapers out when she heard a voice call her name, and turned to see Mr. Conklin.
"Good morning, Mrs. Travis," the old man said, with a smile slightly more sheepish than his usual sneering one. "Is that the paper?"
"Yes, Mr. Conklin," Mary replied, handing him one automatically. "You'll enjoy this edition. It's good news, for a change."
"Well, that's, ah..that's good, I guess," Conklin stammered, reading the front in a perfunctory manner. Then, suddenly, he folded it up and nervously adjusted his glasses.
Mary noticed this, frowned. "Is something wrong, Mr. Conklin?"
"No, well, I mean, there is, but - " Conklin stared at the ground a moment, then looked at Mary and said, "I just wanted to let you know, Mrs. Travis, that I'm...sorry...about some of the things I've said to you this past week." Conklin sounded as if someone was strangling him, but Mary respected his desire to speak enough to let him continue. "In retrospect, I'm willing to admit I might have been...wrong."
Mary smiled. An apology from Conklin was the last thing she expected to get. "Well, thank you for telling me, Mr. Conklin. I accept your apology."
Conklin nodded wordlessly, looked deflated and small in the morning light. Mary almost felt sorry for him, then reminded herself that like as not he'd be back at her heels in a week, nipping at them with some petty complaint, something about the world he didn't like. But this was nice. For now, this was enough.
"Oh - " Conklin said as he folded the paper up and put it under his arm. "Gerald's funeral is this afternoon, in case you want to come. Probably won't be big, he didn't have a family. Just thought I'd let you know."
"Well, thank you, Mr. Conklin," Mary said, and felt a little surge of sadness. "I'll try to attend."
Conklin nodded acknowledgement, and walked on down the street.
Mary watched him go, thought about how insane things had been the past week, and now it seemed that there were small miracles happening all around her. JD would walk again. The town was safe. And Conklin had actually said he was sorry.
Miracles. And maybe they weren't done yet.
With a hopeful glance toward the morning sun, Mary hoisted the newspapers on her arm, and went on down the street.
+ + + + + + +
The day wore on, turned into afternoon, then night. Nathan got JD started on his exercises, much to the boy's dismay, and while they worked together the others went about the town, helping with repairs and patrolling the area. Orin oversaw the burial of the outlaws and the transport of the slain soldiers, and in the middle of the afternoon everythingstopped while Gerald Townsend was laid to rest. It was a grim reminder, nothing comes easy.
Nothing further was said about the meeting at the church, and Josiah could tell when he was around the others, helping with repairs or visiting JD, that they were trying to present a united front, and it seemed to be working, so far. A poker game was held that night in the saloon, to celebrate the town's victory over Concho and JD's imminent recovery. Everyone showed up, and the cards flew through Ezra's fingers as he smiled at the faces gathered around him. It was almost like old times, and Josiah knew they were really trying, for JD. Only time would tell if they would succeed.
The following morning Darcy came back, and not alone. A small girl was riding on his saddle in front of him, a girl of about fourteen with dark eyes and long black hair. The townspeople gaped at her, and rumors flew. She was his daughter, she was some kind of concubine, and a dozen other, more far-fetched tales. Only Chris, who glanced up and saw the Irishman ride by with the girl on his horse, knew the truth, and it stunned him. Stunned him and shamed him, because he'd totally forgotten about the little girl who'd put her too-practiced hand on his arm at the grubby wayside stop that awful first day and said in quiet tones full of submissive resignation, sir, would you like to go to bed with me?
He'd forgotten, in the middle of everything that had happened since. But Darcy had remembered, and gone and rescued her. Chris shook his head, wondered at Darcy's generosity, and his own pigheaded selfishness.
Darcy trotted the girl over to Josiah's, introduced her to him and turned her over to his care. Then it was another round at the hospital, over to JD's, and then it was night again.
The rest of the week saw the emergence of a kind of routine in the mens' lives: Darcy and Nathan spent their days taking care of the wounded, and JD; the other men helped repair the town; Josiah and Darcy sometimes went to see Chris, ignoring the dark looks of the others as they did so; Vin continued to rest up, and insist he was fine, although at Nathan's insistence he'd drank enough fluids and eaten enough red meat to make him never want to see either again; and then at night the men would gather in the saloon and play cards. And then get up the next day, and do it all over again.
By the end of the week the saloon seemed livelier than it had been in a long time. It was as if the town was loosening up again, feeling like its old self. Ezra was dealing poker to some of the bored soldiers, Josiah and Nathan were sharing whiskey and cigars with Darcy in a quiet corner, and Buck was busily sweet-talking one of the working girls and sharing laughs with the bartender as he lounged against the polished wooden counter, at ease with himself and the world.
The only person not at the saloon was Vin. The former buffalo hunter was feeling better, and had subsequently dissappeared. Josiah had hoped his young friend would go to see Chris, but several checks throughout the night showed no familiar-looking chestnut horse tethered outside the jail, and when Josiah checked once more before calling it a night himself he saw the jail dark, Orin gone home, but no sign of Vin.
He's not ready yet, Josiah realized, but tried to hide his disappointment as he bid his friends good night. Hopefully the time would come, and anyway he was happy that Vin was out of jail himself, and recovered from his wounds. As he made his way back to the church that night, Josiah mused that he should not have been surprised that his friend had vanished. Vin was a free man now, and no one expected him to stay in town for long.
+ + + + + + +
The outskirts of Four Corners was quiet as Vin slowly guided his horse back on the road into town some hours later. For the first time in a week, there wasn't any trouble. Concho Charles was taken care of, the town was safe, and his shoulder and head no longer bothered him, except for occasionally. There was nothing to worry about. For the first time in a week, Vin Tanner could relax.
Vin let his horse walk at a leisurely pace as he unhooked his canteen and took a drink. He tilted his head back, gazed up at the stars as the cool liquid coursed down his throat. It was a clear night, and the stars were blazing like pinpoint diamonds, high above him. Vin recorked his canteen, but didn't take his eyes off the heavens above him until he was back in town, and the street fires made them difficult to see. It didn't matter. Vin knew they were there.
A lot to think about. A lot to take in, these last few days. Hell, the whole week. Their world was taken apart, then put back together again, but different. Made a man's head spin, the way things had gone. Need to get out, get to some fresh air and mountains, where things don't change, where a man don't have to reason on things to understand them. Breathe that clean, honest air and just don't think for a while. Feels good, don't it?
But, got to get back. Gettin' late, and the way things have been wouldn't be surprised if they needed me. Go on over to the saloon, see if anyone's still there. Ask on JD, see if he's still riled about doin' those exercises. He probably is.
The street was deserted as Vin rode on, his body slung casually in the saddle, his reins loose and low. Some of the street fires were out, and most of the houses along the dirt path were dark, their inhabitants long since gone to bed. There was a deep silence in the street, it absorbed sound like a thick blanket, and Vin wondered at the peacefulness as his eyes scanned the still-scarred evidences of the week's troubles. So much blood and noise then, the nick in his scalp still troubled him some, but now it seemed, in the darkness and the quiet, as if the town was holding its breath, waiting for something. Something to end, or begin, or continue. It seemed to call to Vin, as the mountains had, and almost unwillingly the young man let his eyes travel to the dark red brick of the jailhouse, and thought.
He'd been thinking on it since the day before, when they'd all stood in the jail together and he saw Chris for the first time in nearly a week. He wasn't sure what he'd expected, but whatever it was, it wasn't what he got. He figured Chris would be sorry, thought he probably would have a tough time facing them, but was unprepared for the almost submissive man who stood in front of Judge Travis and said in his Northern tones that he had beaten JD Dunne. And then walked over and locked himself up for it.
The jail was close now, and Vin slowly reined his horse to a stop, looked thoughtfully at the darkened windowpanes. The judge had locked the place up and gone home a few hours ago, but Vin knew without having to look that Chris was likely still awake in that tormented darkness. It was too early for the Chris he knew to sleep.
A guard sat dozing in the chair outside the door, and Vin was careful not to make any noise to wake him up. He simply sat in his saddle, the smoke from dying fires rising around him like filmy veils, and thought.
It was Chris' eyes. Vin hoped Chris hadn't seen how shocked he was when he looked into those eyes. They had an empty look about them, but not in a bad way; they weren't numb, or dazed, or beaten down. They looked...it reminded Vin of the Indians he'd known, how they looked sometimes after a strenuous hunt, or a wild dance. The eyes, like empty jars waiting to be filled with something better than what was cleansed out, a willing draining of the soul.
Exorcism, Vin thought suddenly, remembering his conversation with Josiah at the rock the night before. An exorcism.
Vin sat in his saddle a moment, regarded the locked and darkened jail as the mists of the street swirled about him. Then he quietly dismounted and tethered the animal, so silently the guard never stirred. Vin smiled to himself. He knew what he was doing.
The alley next to the jail was dark and narrow. Vin felt his way along the wall, thought sadly that if the sun were shining, he would see where JD's blood was caked into the rough brick, where it had seeped and stained into the mortar, the soft sand beneath. Smoke from the street drifted by, suffusing the air with a ghostly otherworldliness, and Vin felt oddly choked by it, could almost see Chris, staggering, drunk, and JD, his white shirt stained with blood, frantically trying to protect himself as Chris slammed him into the unyielding, jagged brick, once, then again, until the boy slumped to the ground and didn't move anymore...
Vin put his back to the wall for a moment, and ran his hands over his face, glad the darkness was hiding him. So much, it was so much to forgive. The man that hurt JD was no friend of his, no friend of anyone's, just a snarling, vicious beast, and the fact that JD would probably recover did nothing to ease the sickness in Vin's heart as he sat against the bloodstained wall, his hat off and dangling in his hands. The man that hurt JD deserved to die.
But maybe he had died. Vin studied the wall opposite him, its craggy surface only just visible in the dim moonlight, and remembered what he had said to Josiah. If Chris comes back, he's admitting he's going to have to live with this for the rest of his life. And now Chris was back, the empty vessel, no arrogant swagger, no denials or accusations, but words, I attacked JD. I'm responsible. And locked himself in jail, sleeping against the wall that was stained with JD's blood,and he would be in that cell for a long time probably. No longer a snarling beast, but not anyone Vin was sure he knew either. But he wanted to.
Vin tilted his head up, saw the stars shining above the narrow alleyway. Gazing at their crystalline brilliance, he put up one hand and fished around in his jacket pocket for a moment, found what he was looking for. And smiled.
He played softly, so as not to wake the guard outside the front door. He wasn't playing for an audience at all really, just felt somber and melancholy in that haunted alley where their miseries had all started, his and his friends'. So Vin played his harmonica for them, a nameless tune, sad and soft and low, and on the other side of the brick wall Chris Larabee sat up in the blue-black darkness, and listened, and also thanked God for the darkness. And wept.
+ + + + + + +
The days passed swiftly, turned into weeks. Darcy declared his intention to stay in Four Corners for as long as it took to get JD well again, and took a room in the boarding house. This made the curious townspeople insane with speculation - who was this man? Why was he going so far out of his way to help somebody he didn't even know? And what was his connection with Chris? The answers were too common, too unexciting for the nosy folk, so before long a host of wild stories sprang up, including that Darcy was JD's uncle, and or maybe father. This Darcy laughed off with the comment that the only Dunnes he knew lived in Cork and were much too good for him, and that JD couldn't possibly be his son because he'd heard it from Buck Wilmington himself that the boy's singing voice was terrible.
JD continued to grumble and do his exercises, waiting for his collarbone to heal. A few days after Darcy's return, Nathan took the stitches from JD's scalp, declaring that the would could heal the rest of the way on its own. As much as JD squirmed and complained during the procedure, it was a significant occasion for the five men gathered around him - the first visible, undeniable sign that JD would get better, recover, and come back to himself again. JD didn't see the relief on their faces, only groused that his head hurt, but when Nathan grinned and turned to Buck, he saw a mist in the gunslinger's eyes, knew that he was looking at a youth who a short time before was broken, bruised, and unconscious. And now - the bruises were fading, the broken collarbone healing nicely, and the once-horrible stitches reduced to a neat red line just behind JD's hairline over his left eye. JD was pouting, but the others in the room knew the truth. It was very nearly a miracle.
The town continued to rebuild itself. The scars of Concho Charles' visit began to fade, and Mary noticed the townspeople treating her, and the hired guns, with a new kind of grudging respect. Even Mr. Conklin, their most ardent critic, kept his silence, which to Mary was an astonishment. And a blessed relief.
Chris continued to sit in the jail. The townspeople seemed to be even more confused about him than they were about Darcy, and the onetime leader of the Seven was the subject over many laundry lines and mugs of beer. Was he a hero or a monster? Did he think that saving the town from Concho Charles would erase what he did to that poor boy? He almost ran, you know. That Darcy just brought him in to collect the bounty. They're running a scam together, Chris Larabee would never sit in jail, he's too wild for that, he'll break out, you'll see. You'll see...
But Chris stayed in the jail, not once complaining or even speaking to anyone outside of Orin, Josiah, and Vin. Josiah was glad to see Vin talking to Chris again. It seemed to ease the gunslinger's loneliness tremendously, to have that calm, understanding presence to talk to, and Vin's straightforward, clear-eyed acceptance of Chris' guilt and sorrow appeared to strengthen Chris' resolve. The others knew about Vin's forgiveness of Chris, but it wasn't talked about, and in JD's room it seemed as if nothing had changed. But Josiah noticed Buck and Ezra keeping company with Nathan more, and Vin less. And worried about it.
Mary wanted to talk to Chris too, just for a few minutes, but Orin gently discouraged it, took her aside one evening and told her, the man's been through something that he's still dealing with. You just want to make sure he's all right, but he thinks he let you down, and you go to him too fast and you'll just tear his wounds open again. Give it time, Mary. He knows how you feel.
Three weeks after the battle, the last of the wounded walked out of the church, and the crisis was declared officially over. Satisfied that town would do all right without him, Orin gathered the remaining soldiers together and pulled out of town, leaving Vin and Josiah primarily responsible for watching the jail, and Mr. Dwight in charge of helping them if they needed it. He stopped by JD's room, where the men were lounging, and said his goodbyes, wishing JD a swift recovery. It was later agreed to by all that the boy was sure to get better now, just to impress the judge. Mary shed a few tears, and bid her father-in-law goodbye.
The townspeople began to notice that although Josiah and Vin talked to Chris, the others continued to keep their distance from their former friend. Nathan continued to look after JD, Buck busied himself helping out the townsfolk and JD, and Ezra had his poker games to keep himself occupied, and a cold eye for any conversation that hinted at Chris Larabee's name. It was generally agreed among the townsfolk that, if and when Chris was ever let out, either he or Buck and Ezra would immediately leave town, rather than share breathing space with him. If they didn't just outright lynch him first.
+ + + + + + +
One afternoon, Mary was on her way over to pay the JD a visit when the stagecoach arrived, and a passenger disembarked that made Mary stop, and gasp in surprise. Finally she found her voice and stammered, "Mr. Worthington!"
The jeweler turned at her voice, smiled and tipped his hat as she approached. "hello, Mrs. Travis." He said politely, but his huge grin revealed how glad he was to have taken her by surprise.
"Well - how nice to see you again," Mary said, remembering their last conversation, when he was hurrying out of town before the approaching outlaws. "Are you here for a visit?"
"Oh, no, Mrs. Travis," he said, waving at the luggage the driver was tossing onto the street. "I'm back to stay. Got the good news from a neighbor of mine, said the town was doing all right again." He looked around, nodded in satisfaction. "Looks like he was telling me the truth."
Mary glanced around herself, at the new glass windows, the repaired buildings, and smiled. "Yes, Orin came with some soldiers, and the hired guns were quite a help. I don't think the town will be quite so quick to judge them again."
"Well, that's great," Mr. Worthington said, leaning forward a bit. "Say, I heard that the sheriff is going to be all right too, or is that just a rumor? "
"No, it's true," Mary said happily. "A doctor came, from Europe, who's going to help him walk again. In fact, I'm going to see him right now."
"That's splendid!" Mr. Worthington exulted, and seemed to mean it. "I heard about everything that happened, and me and Jennie just knew we had to come back. Any place that can get through everything that this town's been through has just got to be a survivor, don't you think?"
Mary nodded, felt her heart swell with pride. Survivors, that was a good word. The right word.
"Well, I have to run," Mr. Worthington said, reaching over to pick up his suitcase. "I told Jennie I'd wire her when I got in. I'll be by later, Mrs. Travis, I want to place some advertisements and talk about maybe doing an article about the store reopening. I've got a feeling things are really going to pick up."
Mary smiled. Mr. Worthington's confidence lifting up her own, making it soar. She waved him off and went to see JD, her heart as light as a child's.
+ + + + + + +
Finally JD's collarbone finished mending, and Nathan removed the constricting bandage from the boy's arm. JD was exuberant at finally having two hands again, but his happiness was dampened when he discovered that his left arm was weak and stiff from being held in one place for so long.
"Don't worry about that," Nathan said with a reassuring smile as he balled up the last of the bandages to throw away. "You just got to get the strength back, that's all."
JD groaned, and threw the healer a weary look. "I gotta do more exercises?"
"Only if you want to ride a horse again," Nathan said slyly, and stood up to discard the bandages.
JD rolled his eyes in exasperation, but was happy enough about finally being free to invite everyone over to his room for poker that night. Everyone came.
By this time the town had renewed itself, fixed every shattered window and mended every broken door, and for the casual traveler it would have been impossible to tell that anything out of the ordinary had happened in Four Corners in the last month. Even looking at JD provided no clue, unless you looked very close. The bruises were gone, the broken collarbone reduced to mere soreness, and if he was sitting down there was no reason to think he wasn't completely well. Except for a certain weariness around the eyes that hadn't been there before, a few creases in the once-smooth face. And a small, almost unnoticeable scar above his left eye, right against his hairline. That was all.
While JD healed, Darcy set up a practice of sorts out of his rented room. When not at the hospital tending to the few remaining wounded, or helping JD with his exercises, the physician could often be found there or around the town, helping Nathan tend to the injured and sick, and sometimes taking on problems of his own. There were a few grumblings about the Irishman showing off and trying to push Nathan out of town, but they didn't come from any of the people Darcy helped, or from Nathan himself, who was pleased to have someone to lend him a hand. For his part, Darcy admired Nathan's easy manner and the trust he inspired in people, and only saw people himself if Nathan was busy, or deferred to his knowledge. They got along splendidly, and the objections dwindled, then ceased.
A week and a half after JD's bandaging came off, Darcy performed a final check of his collarbone, then made the happy announcement that it was high time to get the lad back on his feet. He had rented an unfurnished room down the hall from JD's, and in the time that the boy had spent getting strength back in his arm, the others helped Darcy turn the bare room into the place where JD would learn to walk again.
With Buck's help, Josiah brought over two pews from the church, which Darcy instructed them to place so their high backs faced each other, with a long passage down the middle. JD would use them, he explained, to help him balance when he was walking. Ezra and Buck went around asking the townswomen for spare blankets and quilts, to cushion the hard floor against the falls JD would inevitably take. When they found out what the donation was for, the women gladly complied. And they all joined in the construction of a short flight of stairs, four steps high, for the day when JD would need to learn once again how to navigate staircases and the now-treacherous flights of steps outside his own room. The work was completed the same day JD was pronounced fit to begin his therapy, and Darcy warned the excited JD to try to get as much sleep as he could. The following days would be the most challenging yet.
But sleep would be impossible that night, for the youth who wanted to walk, and run, and ride. Buck saw JD's skittishness, suggested another all-night poker game to get rid of some of that energy. Darcy was unsure, but Ezra took him aside and invited him to sit in too, and shuffled his cards with a wicked smile on his face.
Josiah heard of the invitation, wondered if his friends, who were still so at odds over Chris, could truly let loose and enjoy each other's company without tempers flaring, and possibly bottles flying, and all in front of JD. But as the sun was setting that day, he walked down the streets and heard everyone talking about JD's recovery, about how wonderful it was. He shared supper with Mary, and Buck and Vin, and saw it in their faces: JD was getting better, would be fine. Buck was too happy to resent Vin's renewed friendship with Chris, and Vin was too happy to care that Buck still harbored bad feelings. For one night, differences would be set aside. It was time to celebrate.
The poker game that followed would be remembered as one of the rowdiest, loudest, and most exuberant card matches the men had ever set down to. With a whispered warning to Darcy to 'watch your rings and lay low', Ezra let the cards fly with such speed that it was nearly impossible to keep up. Between the energetic card-playing and Buck's endless stream of non-sequitur ramblings and dirty jokes, JD was getting visibly foggy by eleven o'clock, and by midnight had played his last wretched hand and, yawning, curled up without even saying good night.
Without making a sound, the entire group picked itself up and moved to Buck's room, where the festivities continued until well past two. At least, Darcy thought that must be the time; he'd lost his pocket watch to Buck a half-hour earlier, and couldn't be sure.
+ + + + + + +
When at last most everyone had lost their money and developed splitting headaches, the poker game broke up, and Buck at last made his way to his bed, exhausted but determined to hang onto his good mood. He had just brought his suspenders down when he heard a soft knock on the door, and went to see who it was. Thinking quickly, he pulled his gun out of its holster and held it at the ready, just in case.
He sidled up to the door, opened it a crack. A little wider.
Then wider, in surprise. It was Rita.
"Hello, Buck," she said, and smiled at him.
"Well - hello there, darlin'," Buck said softly, dropping his gun arm and opening the door wider. "How you doin'? Is Maria okay?"
"I'm fine," Rita purred, coming into the room and turning to face Buck, her long dark hair tumbling over her shoulders. "We're both very fine."
"I've been trying to find you, you know," Buck said as he set the gun down and pulled his suspender straps back up, "But you two were gone like a Texas whirlwind. I - "
"I know," Rita interrupted, stepping close to Buck and putting a finger on his lips, "We decided to lay low for a while. You were - how you say - "
"Busy?" Buck said around Rita's finger.
Rita smiled up at Buck and nodded, slid her arms around his neck. "I hear Senor Dunne is okay?"
"He's going to be," Buck said softly, shivering at the feel of Rita's arms around him. It felt like it hadbeen ages, but strangely Buck realized that he had not thought of lovemaking once in the past month. Not once. That had to be some kind of record.
"Yes, ma'am, he's going to be just fine." Buck smiled and embraced Rita, brought her lips to his and kissed her. It felt so good, to want a woman again, to be free of worry and anger, just for a night. He didn't even know how tight he'd been wound, till that moment. And then he felt like he could fly forever.
"This is happy, que?" Rita replied softly, holding Buck tighter and stroking his hair. "We going to have a fiesta?"
"Oh, darlin'," Buck said, and laughed heartily as they tumbled toward the bed. "You better believe it."
+ + + + + + +
The following morning when Darcy met Buck outside his room, his only comment to the gunslinger's stiff walk and somewhat bruised neck was a raised eyebrow. Buck gave him a huge grin and genteelly handed the physician his watch.
"You can have it back," he said in a sore gasp as they made their way down the hall, "Didn't get all the way undressed last night. I don't think it works no more."
"Uh - huh," Darcy said knowingly. And pocketed the watch.
Despite the lateness of his retirement, JD was up when the two men knocked on his door, and eager to go to what he would dub 'the room', where Darcy had a good breakfast and a full day of therapy waiting for him.
"How is this stuff gonna help me walk again?" JD asked Darcy, looking dubiously at the pews as he sat on the floor in the large, bare room and ate his eggs and juice. Buck was looking out the curtained alcove windows in the front, drinking some coffee.
Darcy took a sip of coffee and said, "Well, we'll have to start at the beginnin', on the mats. Ye'll learn to walk as a babe does, by creepin' first, then crawlin'. After that, we'll get ye standin' on yer own, and then ye'll walk. It'll be slow, and ye'll need every ounce of patience ye have. But it can be done."
JD eyed the arranged pews, the spread-out quilts and the makeshift stairs, and nodded with a determined gleam in his eyes. "I'm ready."
Darcy took another sip, and smiled. "Then, Mr. Dunne, so am I."
And they got to work.
Buck would later tell his friends that he'd never seen JD sweat as much as he did the first day Darcy worked him out. The physician set JD on the floor, flat on his stomach, and slowly, carefully, patiently, instructed the youth on how to move his arms and legs so he would creep forward, the first stage toward walking. JD looked petrified, but when Darcy told him to try he pursed his lips and, with a glare of determination in his hazel eyes, JD Dunne pushed, and pulled, and concentrated, concentrated, concentrated -
-and finally moved forward, an inch at a time.
It didn't seem like it would be so hard, but from the look of intense concentration on JD's face, from the flush of his cheeks and the glistening sweat on his brow as he struggled to coordinate his legs and arms so they would propel him forward on the smooth floor, it was very hard indeed. The whole day was spent that way, Darcy urging JD on, JD on his stomach pushing forward, so slowly, his face stern and focused, his black hair hanging unheeded in his blank eyes, his whole body shaking with the effort. Buck hovered nearby, gave JD what encouragement he could, and handed the kid a towel and a glass of water when Darcy called a halt to his struggles. JD would rest for a little while, and then they would begin again. And then again, and again, each time the same movements, the same repetition, so it would become ingrained in JD's mind, as it had been before; not a thought of movement, but unconscious, unwilled memory. Struggle, rest, and then struggle. Again and again. Finally, Darcy glanced up after stopping JD yet again, and noticed the sun was slanting its way down the pale walls, and turning amber. "Well, that's it for today I think," he said, sounding as tired as JD, Buck thought as he poured the youth another glass of water, and handed him a towel to wipe the sweat from his skin. Darcy regarded JD with atouch of admiration in his eyes and added, "Ye've worked hard enough."
JD took the water, mopped off his face and shook his head as he sat up, gasping. "I wanna go again."
"Now, Mr. Dunne," Darcy said, accepting the drink Buck was handing him, "ye must take it slow, or ye'll be gettin' sick."
"No, I'm fine," JD insisted, even though his breath was coming in shallow heaves, and he was dripping with sweat. "I can do it again."
"Now don't you go arguin' with the doctor," Buck advised, taking the towel from JD and roughly drying the perspiration from the boy's hair. "He's as bad as Nathan, you ain't gonna win."
"I actually think Mr. Jackson is somewhat worse," Darcy offered plaintively, watching Buck with his arms crossed.
"I don't," JD mumbled, scrunching his eyes shut as Buck tousled his hair in the towel's folds.
There was a knock at the door, and a moment later it opened and Josiah stood there, his hands together and folded.
"Afternoon, gents," the big man said amiably, walking in and giving the weary JD an encouraging smile.
"Hi, Josiah," JD said, and tried to stretch the soreness out of his arms.
"Sorry to interrupt," Josiah continued, walking up to Darcy and looking at him expectantly, "but I got some folk in the saloon and the newspaper office who're mighty anxious to hear how the first day went."
"Splendid," Darcy enthused.
"Just fine," Buck added.
"I am so damn sore," JD groaned.
"Yeah," Josiah rumbled as he approached JD and helped him to his feet, keeping a tight grip on him so he didn't fall. "We figured on that. Now don't go tellin' the woman that runs the place, but me and Ezra smuggled one of the washtubs out of the bathhouse and into your room, JD, and Nathan found some nice hot water to go in it."
JD was wincing as Josiah hooked the boy's right arm around his neck, but now he was staring at the former preacher in amazement. "You got a bathtub in my room?"
"Yep," Josiah said softly. "Now all we gotta do is get you in it, and you'll be feelin' better in no time."
"Sounds great - ow," JD commented as Josiah slowly helped him out of the room. He was carrying him, really, but it was done in such a surreptitious way it wasn't obvious. And for that, Buck knew as he watched them go, JD was grateful.
Buck turned away from the doorway after the two left and gave Darcy a tired smile, picking up the pitcher and the discarded towels as the two prepared to leave.
"Well, a successful day I think," Darcy sighed, rolling his sleeves back down. "The first of many. Yer Mr. Dunne has a remarkable spirit."
Buck nodded, filial pride bright in his eyes. "He sure does. You comin'?"
Darcy shook his head, reached for his jacket, which lay discarded on the floor. "I have to pay some visits, but Mr. Jackson can look after Mr. Dunne's needs. I'll look in on him tonight, after I've finished."
A darkness flickered across Buck's face for a moment, and he looked down at the pitcher in his hands. "You goin' to the jail?"
Darcy shrugged the jacket on, eyed Buck a little warily. "Aye, among other places."
Buck nodded, looked down quickly, kept his eyes on the floor.
"I'm sorry." Darcy said, "I know yer feelings, but Chris begged me to let him know how Mr. Dunne is faring. I promised him that he would know."
Buck shrugged, looked up but not at Darcy, past him, at the reds and golds of the setting sun. "You're helpin' JD get better, Mr. Thomas, and I'm grateful. Don't suppose I got too much to say about what you do in your spare time."
Darcy paused, tilted his head. "There's room for more, if ye're interested."
Buck winced, shook his head. "Like I said, you're a good man, but you don't understand what's goin' on between Chris and me. I ain't like Vin, or Josiah, I can't just let it go."
Darcy finished pulling on his jacket, looking at Buck in a way that made the gunslinger uneasy, as if he was looking at Buck but seeing someone else.
"Of course," Darcy said apologetically. "I'm very sorry, forget I brought it up."
Buck tried to shrug it off, backed toward the door. "Ain't nothin' to say sorry for, just the way it is. Just got to move on."
Darcy nodded, didn't say anything.
Buck cleared his throat, tried to change the subject. "So - Mr. Thomas, JD's gettin' better?"
Darcy smiled. "Yes, Mr. Wilmington, thanks to yer kind encouragement and his spirit."
"And - he'll be ridin' soon?"
Darcy looked at Buck curiously.
The gunslinger shrugged, smiled apologetically. "Don't mean to push, it's just - it's kinda all the boy wants, you know."
"Yes, I do know," Darcy said wistfully as he looked down to pull out his cuffs. "He told me. He wants ye all t' ride together, the way ye used to. His heart is set on it, it seems - "
Darcy was unprepared for the look on Buck's face when he looked up again. For a moment, a shadow crossed it, full of anguish and a kind of helpless resentment. When Buck met Darcy's eyes again, his expression changed to one of simple resignation.
"Well, I reckon I'd better go help Nathan," the gunslinger said in a husky voice, and tried to smile disarmingly. "That boy's gotten so thin he's liable to squirt right out of the tub and fall through a hole in the floor. 'Scuse me."
With that, Buck backed quickly out the door and was out of sight before Darcy could open his mouth to protest. He looked at the empty air where the young man had been sadly, and with eyes that brimmed with the memory of another long-ago friendship, he looked down once more and finished buttoning up his coat.
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