Darcy spent the rest of that day, and most of the night, sitting in JD's room and making sure the youth was calmed down and comfortable. He and Buck had gotten JD settled back in his bed, but it took another half-hour and some of Nathan's tonic to get the boy to sleep, and Darcy predicted that he would be awake again, soon, long before morning. And so, when JD opened his eyes and rolled over at eleven-thirty that night, he saw the lamplit form of Darcy Thomas sitting quietly a few feet away, and rubbed his eyes.
"Evening, Mr. Dunne," Darcy said softly, tucking what JD knew was that daguerreotype back into his pocket. "How are ye feeling?"
JD shrugged, looked at Darcy in puzzlement. "What are you here for?"
"For yer welfare, son," the physician said as he stood and came closer to the bed. "I promised yer friends I'd look out for ye, and fortunately for them I don't charge by the hour. Are ye needin' anything?"
JD batted his eyes to clear them, shifted in the bed, winced as his sore muscles made themselves known. He felt drowsy and only half-there, thought, something happened today, something bad; then he remembered what it was and shrank away from it, down into the sheets.
"I'm all right," he lied, wishing for the millionth time everybody would stop treating him like a big baby, and in the same mental breath wishing his mother was there to calm the heart that was beating in his chest like a runaway horse. He'd yelled at Buck, thought he was Chris. God, that was stupid...but he'd been so scared, thought it was happening again... no, don't want to ever feel like that again, not ever...
Darcy tilted his head, seemed to accept JD's words. "If ye say so, lad, I'll not be troubling ye any further. Get some rest, and I'll see ye in the morning."
JD watched his benefactor turn away, clawed at the desperate fear that suddenly gripped his throat, tried to push it from him, but it came back, stronger. Suddenly he said, "Um, wait a minute."
Darcy turned back.
JD fiddled with the sheets, didn't meet Darcy's eyes. "Um, if you want you could mix me some more of that tonic Nathan gives me sometimes, before you go...just, you know, just in case..."
He'd tried to sound casual about it, like he really didn't care, but Darcy sat back down again, slowly, pulled the chair close and said in a concerned tone, "Is it the nightmares, JD? The ones about Chris?"
Aw, nuts. JD decided not to deny it. Darcy had been in the exercise room - he'd seen the whole thing. Still not meeting the older man's eyes JD said, "Yeah, I guess. It's stupid, but - but you know, when you give me that stuff I don't have them. I sleep so deep I don't dream at all."
Darcy sighed. Rats, he probably thinks I'm some sort of addict or something. I'll bet he won't give me anything to help me sleep. Damn, damn, damn.
But remarkably, after a moment's pause, Darcy rose from the chair and went over to where Nathan kept his herbs and went through the motions that to JD were as familiar now as saddling a horse. His heart eased, and he lay back against the pillows and waited for Darcy to finish making the drink.
"Ye know, JD," Darcy said conversationally as he picked among the herbs and powders. "Ye're the bravest man I know, but so young t'be out here without yer folks. Do they know where ye are?"
JD frowned. "My mama died last year. My pa don't care where I am."
Darcy nodded, said nothing.
JD thought a moment. "You would have liked my mama. She was always talking about Ireland."
Darcy glanced over his shoulder. "From the Isle, was she?"
JD shook his head. "But her mother was. She knew all about it, used to tell me we'd go there someday. She could talk that - Irish language - "
"Ye mean Gaelic," Darcy said with certainty.
JD nodded, smiling at the word. "Mm-hmm. When I was little she spoke it to me all the time."
"And I'll bet ye didn't understand a word," Darcy guessed as he poured water into the glass in front of him.
"No." JD laughed, his hazel eyes half-closing at the memory. He settled back a little more against the pillows, felt himself growing melancholy. "She could sure speak it pretty, though."
"It's a beautiful language." Darcy said appreciatively. "For an elegant, ancient people."
JD nodded again, sighed.
Darcy glanced at JD again. "Does she speak to ye still?"
JD looked up, confused. "Huh? No, I just said she died last year."
Darcy nodded, kept his eyes on the drink he was making. "Mine passed away in the great famine, yet to this day I hear her still." He turned away from the table, glass in hand, and walked toward the bed, speaking softly as he went. "She comes to me, ye see, whenever I'm troubled or in need. An Irish lad's mother is never far away, JD. Even in death."
"I - " JD fumbled for a moment, remembered the darkest, early days after the attack, the feeling he'd had, he was sure she was there, would have sworn it on a stack of Bibles. But - but - he laughed a little, looked down at the quilt. "Sorry, but...that sounds a little crazy."
"Oh, aye, it does," Darcy agreed, setting the glass down on the nightstand. "But it's true. Yer mother knows what ye've suffered, and helped ye when she could. She knows yer nightmares, and the black reason for them. Just like she did when she sang them away for ye, when ye were a child."
JD's eyes opened. "How did you know that?"
Darcy smiled. "For my mother, it was the Connemora cradle song. One verse of that, sung in her Irish lilt, and I couldn't be afraid if Lucifer himself was at my heels."
JD 's eyes dropped to the covers in his hands. "My mama had a whole bunch of songs, but when I got big enough they put me to work in the stables, and she was always asleep when I got through. I don't even remember what she sang to me, except one song had something about a minstrel in it."
Darcy leaned back and with a smile said, "Ye mean 'Minstrel Boy'?"
JD looked up in surprise. "Is that it?"
Darcy cocked his head and sang, "The minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you will find him..."
"Hey, that is it!" JD exclaimed happily, his face lighting up. "Gosh, I thought she was the only person who knew that song. She sang it slower, though."
"And higher too, I'll bet," Darcy said archly, putting his hands on his pockets and turning away. "Well, the tonic is right there, and if there's nothing else - "
"Well, wait a minute!" JD said in exasperation.
Darcy turned back. "Hm?"
"Well - " JD settled back, eyed Darcy petulantly. "Well, how does the rest of it go? Is there any more to it?"
"Oh - oh, the song?" Darcy asked playfully.
JD nodded insistently.
"Oh. Hm." Darcy leaned forward and lowered the flame on the bedside lamp, dimming the room into half-darkness. Then he walked slowly around the bed and sat down in the chair next to JD's bed, cleared his throat and waited until the youth gave a satisfied smile and closed his eyes. Then he sang, slowly, softly, in the gentlest way he knew how:The minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you will find him,
His father's sword he has girded on, and his wild harp slung behind him,
Land of song, said the warrior bard, though all the world betray thee,
One sword at least thy right shall guard, one faithful harp shall praise thee...
The minstrel fell, but the foeman's chains could not bring that proud soul under
The harp he loved never spoke again, for he tore its chords asunder,
And said, no chain shall sully thee, thou soul of love and bravery
Thy songs were meant for the proud and free, they shall never sound in slavery.
+ + + + + + +
Darcy paused, looked through the midnight gloom. JD was asleep, and the tonic sitting next to him untouched.
With a soft smile, the physician slowly rose from the creaking chair and made his way to the door, pausing only a moment as he turned the lamp down to comforting blackness.
Hold him tight, mother, he prayed silently as he looked somberly down at the troubled youth in the narrow bed. His nightmares are very strong...
And quietly left the room.
+ + + + + + +
The next day JD awoke refreshed and rested, and gazed in puzzlement at the full glass of tonic by his bed. He'd had such a peaceful sleep he was sure he'd drunk it, and didn't remember. But it didn't matter. That day went better, and the day after that, and by the end of the week JD was in the best spirits he had been in for a long time, and all the men felt better about that.
Buck and Ezra still brooded, but Vin and Josiah noticed that Nathan didn't seem as edgy as he had been. His forgiveness of Chris would not be easy or all at once, they knew, but as the days wore on the healer seemed to relax some, and constantly asked if Chris was putting on any weight. Josiah took this as a positive sign, and looked for brighter days ahead.
Despite his improving mood, JD's progress was by necessity slow and arduous, and his frustration grew as the weeks passed on. He complained that nothing was happening, that he was just doing the same dumb thing every day while they were all riding off having fun, and all he was getting out of it were sore muscles and a hot bath. But he never said these things to Darcy, because he held the man in a kind of awe. Instead, he groused to Buck, and Nathan, and anyone else who would listen. And they nodded, and said nothing, because they saw the fear in JD's eyes, the unspoken question in them: what if I don't get better? What if, after all of this, I still can't walk?
It didn't matter that Darcy never heard JD complain. It seemed the physician knew his concerns anyway. No one could figure out how he knew, but one night after JD had once again collapsed into his bed in exhaustion and the others had gone to the saloon for some poker, Nathan invited Darcy to join him on his porch for some whiskey and smokes. After a half-glass' worth of conversation, Darcy casually mentioned that the others shouldn't worry if JD didn't seem to be improving, because he himself would be unaware of the improvement, when it happened. But it had already started.
Nathan, who was endlessly intrigued by all of the healing methods this man knew, eyed Darcy inquisitively and asked him what he meant.
"It's this way," Darcy replied, pausing to puff on his pipe and look at the stars. "We do those exercises over and over, get him to use his arms and legs to move, over and over till he's sick of it. But his head, it's memorizin' those movements, and pretty soon it's like a song ye know by heart, and don't have to think about to sing. I noticed it today, he's movin' a little easier, like he's not having to concentrate quite so hard. Pretty soon he won't have to think about it at all."
Nathan nodded, fascinated. "Then what?"
"Well," Darcy said as he lowered his pipe, "then we'll get him up on his knees, so he can learn to crawl and balance himself. And we'll do that till he's sick of it, and knows it by heart."
"And then you'll teach him to walk?" Nathan said hopefully as he brought his cigar up to take a drag on it.
"Unless the boy decides to take me out with one of his Lightnings first," Darcy said dryly, bringing his pipe up again. "Then it will be yer job."
+ + + + + + +
The following days proved Darcy correct. It was agonizingly slow, so gradual it took Buck and the others days to see it, but it was true: JD was moving forward without thinking about it, without the rivulets of sweat running down his face and without the familiar flush of extreme exertion. He noticed he wasn't getting quite as sore as he used to, then he wasn't getting sore at all.
He was getting better. Really getting better. And the night Darcy announced that JD was well enough to begin crawling, Buck threw a party in JD's room so boisterous the landlord asked them to tone it down. When Buck explained the cause of the uproar, however, the landlord relented, and was sent away with a handful of cigars and an apology to the other tenants, who suddenly didn't mind so much either.
Chris continued to sit in the jail. The town had actually gotten used to it, used to the dim lamp glowing in the window at all hours, used to Vin or Josiah being at the jail all day. Bets had been made in the saloon as to how long Chris would last in the jail, all cooped up and unable to drink or escape. Ezra knew about these bets, related them to the others with an amused air but did not hide his own skepticism. Chris Larabee and forced confinement did not mix, he said to Josiah after a night of poker and liquor. Even the best of intentions often fade in the glaring light of reality. Mr. Larabee will soon be begging to be released.
For a while Ezra's doubting had many others to keep it company, for not many in the town thought Chris would last a week locked in a small room without whiskey or women. Certainly he'd demand his release before JD was walking again, that would take months. The people in the town who never cared for Chris nodded their heads sagely, and knew: it was all an act.
But then a month had gone by, and Chris remained in jail. The bandage had come off JD's arm, and Chris remained in jail. Two more weeks, while his arm regained its strength, and Chris had remained in jail. And then, another month, while JD labored to master the most basic acts of life. And still Chris had remained in the jail.
The town was flabbergasted. Mary reported on JD's progress in her paper, and began keeping track of Chris' time after a dozen people asked if it wasn't too much trouble. She knew she had no right to feel proud of Chris as she added new numbers to each edition, but she didn't care. She quietly supported Chris' fight for redemption in her own way, and smiled as she watched the townspeople point to the freshly inked numerals in wonder. And felt proud.
Her pride was somewhat checked, however, when she noticed that the men Chris once led seemed to have different reactions to his continued incarceration. Josiah seemed pleased when she handed him the morning paper, and asked how JD was doing. Vin tipped his hat and thanked her, smiling that mysterious cat's smile that he always did. Nathan took the paper with its eye-catching numbers as well, not as enthusiastic perhaps, but pleased in his own way. They all seemed to understand the significance of what Chris was doing, and accepted it.
But why did Ezra accept the issue with cool politeness, only to set it down nearby and ignore it? And Buck, normally the very embodiment of joyous good nature, took her paper but quickly folded it down, so the numbers were not visible, all the while frowning at it as if it had insulted him. It was as if knowing Chris' progress hurt them. They wanted to pretend it didn't exist.
If JD noticed any dissension among his friends, he didn't let on. Instead he put his entire youthful heart and soul into walking again, pushing himself until the others became somewhat alarmed. Crawling was more difficult than walking, Darcy warned JD, and cautioned the boy that it would have to be taken slowly. But it was a plea that fell on willfully deaf ears. Every day, as Buck or Nathan or Ezra watched, JD would carefully balance himself on his hands and knees and try, really try, to move without falling. He fell a lot, as Darcy predicted, tumbling onto the soft quilts when his awkward body failed to compensate for the lifted leg or arm. And JD would grunt, or grind his teeth in frustration, and do it again. And again, his hazel eyes blazing with determination, his face red with exertion and dripping with sweat. He tried until Darcy had to practically haul him off the floor, and still he wanted to try some more. Then he was helped to bed, to fall into an exhausted slumber, wake up the next day, and try again.
The days stretched on, and slowly, painfully, JD's movements became easier, his posture less tottering, his breathing less labored as he pushed himself along. Darcy smiled his encouragement, bought everyone in the saloon a round of drinks, and told the others it would not be long; JD would be on his feet again, and walking. The men exchanged smiles of relief, and Ezra quietly ordered a bottle of champagne from San Francisco. And prepared to celebrate.
+ + + + + + +
The next day, Vin was sitting quietly at the sheriff's desk polishing his sawed-off Winchester and occasionally talking to Chris, who was sitting on the cot, idly flipping through a weathered Bible that Josiah had loaned him.
"How many men did you say were after you?" Chris was asking incredulously, looking up from the battered book.
"Six," Vin answered lazily, running the cloth over the barrel of his gun to watch it glint in the afternoon sunlight.
Chris shot his friend a quizzical look. "But you said you had eight horses after you."
Vin smiled. "Two of the riders were women."
Chris smiled and looked down.
Vin set his eyes back on his gun. "Damn good shots too."
Chris grunted and shook his head. "You're gonna get that curly head taken clean off your shoulders before you ever get to Tascosa and clear your name."
Vin grinned a little, kept polishing. "Maybe so. If that's what's meant to be."
Chris shook his head, went back to flipping through the book. Vin eyed him for a moment, then quietly set the gun down and got up, walking slowly toward the cell that Chris had called home for the past three months.
Chris looked up at Vin's approach, saw the look of concern on the ex-bounty hunter's face as he eclipsed the afternoon sunlight, cast a long shadow into Chris' cell as he stood before the bars.
"You know, Chris," Vin said softly, "lot of folk are talkin' about how you're handlin' this."
Chris shifted on his cot uncomfortably, then shrugged. "Only way I knew how, Vin."
"I know, but - " Vin looped his thumbs through his belt, looked at the floor. "I know it ain't easy sometimes. You ain't seen the sun except to go to the outhouse in three months, and I know how it can wear on a man, that kind of life."
Chris' eyes clouded, and he gazed at some faraway place behind Vin, that the tracker couldn't see. "JD would have had that kind of life. Worse than that."
Vin looked up, met stern blue eyes.
"Don't feel sorry for me," Chris said reproachfully. "I mean it."
"I don't," Vin replied evenly, his face serious and open as the prairie sky. "I just wanted you to know, I respect what you're doin', and when you feel like you've paid your debt...well, the women in Tascosa are still the liveliest around."
Chris' expression changed to mild shock. He blinked at Vin, amazed at what he was hearing. Did Vin just say he'd ride with him again? They'd talked some since his return, mostly about JD and Darcy, but Chris had just assumed that after his attack on JD, none of the men would ever want to associate with him again, once he was a free man.
And now, here was Vin. Solid, steadfast, dependable Vin. Vin, who had risked his life to look after Four Corners after Chris had so thoroughly botched up everything. Vin, who according to Josiah had not taken sides, had looked out for everyone, been everyone's friend. His friend, whom he wouldn't deserve if he sat in the jail for twenty lifetimes, and gave his soul to be burned in the bargain. Vin, whom he had unforgivably betrayed.
Saying let's ride. Saying I still want to be your friend. Saying, I forgive you.
But no, this was wrong, this was -
It was out of Chris' mouth before he could stop it. "I can't. Not after this."
Vin tilted his head, regarded Chris with those calm, unswerving eyes. "After this? You mean after admittin' you done wrong, and settin' yourself behind bars? After takin' care of Concho and savin' the whole town? After bringin' that doctor fella to get JD walkin' again?"
Chris stared at the floor, didn't speak.
"After this," Vin said quietly, not moving from the bars, "I reckon I'd be proud to ride with you."
"You might be the only one," Chris muttered sourly, almost to himself.
Vin just shrugged. "Just be less crowded is all. Wouldn't make me less proud."
"You don't mean that," Chris said insistently, looking at his friend with eyes that reflected the self-imposed agony of three long months. "Unless ridin' with a convicted criminal makes you proud."
"Well, hell, pard," Vin said with a tiny smile. "It didn't bother you none."
Chris started, gazed for a moment at that gently mocking grin in chagrined shock. Then he caught the gleam in Vin's eye, knew he was stuck. With an annoyed grin he said, "I'm never going to win an argument with you, am I?"
"Nope," Vin said laconically, and turning away from the bars went back to the desk and sat down, giving Chris one more small grin before his pulled out his harmonica and began to play it.
Chris sighed, and leaned back against the cot, closing his eyes to listen to the music, drift off to sleep, and wonder at the simplicity of the friendship that he couldn't destroy.
+ + + + + + +
Two weeks later Darcy came into the saloon with the news that everyone had been waiting to hear: JD was ready to start walking.
He would need everyone's help, Darcy cautioned, because learning to walk would be more arduous than anything JD had ever done before. Not only to walk, but to walk unaided, would be a very high mountain indeed, and JD needed everyone's help to climb it.
"What can we do?" Josiah asked, putting down his cards.
"We have the pews set up." Darcy explained, "But when the lad uses them for balance, he'll be puttin' his hands on the backs and throwin' every ounce of his weight on them. They'll tip over if there isn't anything keepin' 'em down. I'll need yer gentlemens' help gettin' some stones or bricks to set on the seats, and anchor them down."
"We can handle that, huh, Josiah?" Buck asked in a teasing voice, slapping his friend on the back. "Josiah here's real good at movin' rocks."
Josiah grinned at the gunslinger. "Shut up, Buck."
Darcy smiled gently and waited for the joshing to quiet before he said softly, "And I'll need you gentlemen to look after Mr. Dunne while he's navigating the pews, to catch him if he falls. And he will, I'm afraid, many times before he masters it."
The men nodded, their faces understanding the solemnity of Darcy's words; but their eyes were bright with promise and hope.
Nathan shook his head, clapped Darcy on the back. "You're a miracle worker, doc. No doubt about it."
"No, Mr. Dunne is working the miracles," Darcy said depreciatively. "I'm just tellin' him how to do it."
The following morning, and five morning after that, JD found himself standing precariously in between the two heavily-weighted pews from the church, his hands firmly resting on the curved backs, gripping them tightly. One of his friends stood behind him, another in front, and one on either side. Josiah was there as well, having talked Dwight into looking over the jail. Darcy stood a short distance away, his calm Irish lilt instructing JD on how to move himself so he wouldn't fall. JD listened, nodded, looked up and locked eyes with Buck, saw the desperate intensity there. JD looked back, his own eyes grim and determined. I'm going to do this, they said. No help.
And Buck hadn't helped, at least had tried not to smother the boy, but it was hard, watching him try so hard to take that first, infant step, only to lean too far and fall into Buck's outstretched hands. And grunt in anguished disappointment.
But Darcy encouraged JD to keep trying, and every morning for five days JD rose and tried again. And for the same number of nights he went to bed, watched sadly as his friends filed out, not together as they used to but in groups, always Buck and Ezra together, then the others. He tried to swallow his fear, but the taste was bitter. And he didn't have the nerve to ask.
+ + + + + + +
On the fifth night, after Josiah helped Darcy set JD in bed for the night, the doctor made to follow the larger man out and was stopped by JD's sleepy voice calling his name. Turning back, he saw curious hazel eyes staring at him from a face lined with the worry and care of the last three months, and Darcy came back again and sat by JD's bed, framed in the light from the single bedside lamp.
JD waited until Josiah was gone, then shifted himself around in the bed and said, "Am I ever gonna get better?"
Darcy nodded firmly. "Certainly, JD, I see improvement every day, and before long ye'll be walkin' the streets like ye own 'em. And I'll be out of a job."
JD looked down, fiddled with the quilt he clutched in his hands. There was a long pause, and Darcy noticed JD's face was dark with concentration. Leaning forward, he asked softly, "Are ye feeling all right, JD? Are ye in pain?
"No," JD answered quickly, shaking his head and ignoring the long black bangs that fell into his eyes. "No, I'm all right. I just..."
Darcy leaned back again, waited.
JD took a deep breath, let it out again. "They're all still mad at Chris, aren't they?"
Darcy blinked, leaned forward again, looked at JD intently without seeming to. JD kept his eyes on the quilt, but there was a tension in his expression, a bewildered confusion that fluttered over his face like a trapped butterfly.
Darcy hesitated a moment before replying. "Aye, son, some of yer friends are. It scared them a great deal, what Mr. Larabee did."
JD nodded vaguely, lifted his eyes to stare at the wall opposite his bed. "Is anybody talking to Chris?"
"Mr. Sanchez is," Darcy admitted with a small nod. "And Mr. Tanner, and Mr. Jackson."
JD's eyes went to Darcy questioningly. "And you?"
JD nodded again, slightly, sighed long and deep, from his bones. He picked a the quilt sadly, said nothing for so long Darcy considered checking him for a fever. Then he said in a quiet voice, "I wish I could talk to him."
Darcy leaned far forward, because he could see JD's eyelids drooping in the lamplight, knew the boy was close to sleep but really wanted to talk. "What would you say to him, JD?"
JD shrugged, nestled back into the pillows. "I don't know...I'd ask why did he do this to me, I guess. How come he didn't stay. Whether he's really sorry, or if he just wants everybody to pity him and say it's okay."
Darcy nodded. "You'll get yer chance, when it's time."
There was a long pause,
JD stared glumly into the night air for a moment. "No one's really getting along anymore, are they? When they come over, Nathan and Josiah don't talk to Buck and Ezra anymore. Are they really that mad about Chris?"
Darcy sighed a bit, and nodded again. "But don't worry. I'm sure everything will turn out fine."
JD shrugged a little, as if trying to pretend it didn't matter, but as he settled deeper into the covers he muttered, "Everything's so messed up. And it was really great before."
Darcy felt a pang in his heart, saw the worried eyes flutter closed, the frowning lips ease a little, then some more. Speaking low, he leaned close and said, "It'll be all right, JD. Get some rest, now."
JD nodded, barely, and Darcy watched him, knew in a few moments the boy would be asleep. He waited until he saw the head tilt in repose, saw the black bangs fall across tightly closed eyes, to slowly stand from his chair. And so was surprised when he heard JD speak again, half-asleep, as if in a dream.
"I just wish it was over," the boy muttered in a slow, dreamy voice.
Darcy sat down again, as silently as he could.
A low sigh, eyebrows a little creased together, as if worried. "I just wish... it would stop."
Darcy caught the words, put his hand on the covers. "You wish what would stop, JD?"
But the boy was asleep, his face slackening as Darcy looked at it, his head tilting further to one side, the amber lamplight reflecting mellow tones off the pallid face, with its fading scar just above the hairline.
Darcy sighed in resignation and stood once again. Reaching out one hand, he smoothed the errant hair from the damaged forehead, his eyes mournful in the dim golden light.
"Now, why did ye lie to me when I asked if ye were in pain?" he whispered softly. Then, without making a sound, Darcy turned the oil lamp down, and quietly left the room.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning dawned, clear and warm. And it looked like things would be no different.
They had already been there for two and a half hours, and JD hurt all over. The goal was simple: take a step without holding onto the sides of the pews. And he had come so close, so many times that day. And was about to try again.
Buck was still standing in front of him, hands out in case he fell. Josiah was to his left, had been encouraging JD all morning. Buck didn't seem to want to look at the preacher. Vin was at JD's back, and JD noticed Buck throwing tiny little glares over his head, just when he thought JD wasn't looking, and JD was about to say something about it when Darcy quietly told him to concentrate, and the fight to walk began anew.
It seemed like an eternity, standing at those makeshift bars, all eyes on him as JD battled to summon the strength to take that first, terrifying step. His arms ached from holding his body up, his hair trembled in front of his eyes.
"Take yer time, lad," Darcy cautioned. "Whenever you're ready."
Whenever I'm ready? JD asked himself in shock. I've been ready forever! And it's easier now, it's got to be. I can crawl all right, it's not like before when I didn't know what I was doing.
He took a deep breath, gripped the pew a little tighter. Saw Buck tense, wished he'd go away.
I can do this. He heard an echo of that long-ago day when he did think he could walk, but was wrong. He'd fallen then, hard and painfully...
Another deep breath.
...and then asked, hurting from the core of his being, Buck -
Left leg, up. A little. Lean forward, not too far. No, wait, put it down.
- we're never going to ride together again, are we?
Move the hands, you're going to fall...there.
Are we going to ride together again? They're all mad at each other.
"Just take it easy, son." Buck said in a soft voice. JD looked up at him, saw the anger behind the concern and thought pleadingly, I want to ride again, Buck. With all of you.
Bring the right leg up, try that one.
We've got to be all right, Buck. I don't know how, it's so hard, but we've got to. This isn't worth it otherwise. We've got to get past all this, and ride together again.
Lean, a little. Let go of the pews, don't be scared...
JD took a step, trembled, lifted his hands a bit, didn't touch the pews. Concentrate, concentrate. Lifted his other leg, took another hesitant, awkward-
There was a brief moment where all time stopped, and then JD realized what he had just done and let out a startled little laugh. He stared at his foot, planted squarely on the floor, at his hands, hovering over the pews but not touching them, and he lifted his head and looked at Buck with wide eyes that sparkled with dawning joy. Buck was grinning, wider and wider, then as the room erupted around them leaned forward and wrapped JD in a strong hug, lifting him off the floor for a moment before setting him down again.
"Ya did it, JD!" Buck enthused as Nathan clapped him on the back. "God damn, son, ya did it."
"Geez, Buck," JD muttered in embarrassment, looking around while he straightened his shirt.
"Congratulations, Mr. Dunne." Ezra smiled as he came forward, as happy as JD had ever seen him. "Tell me, have you ever tasted champagne?"
JD's eyebrows went up, and he shook his head.
Ezra laughed, and his tone was warm as he said, "You will tonight."
"Good job, pard," came Vin's quiet tone over JD's shoulder, and he felt a pat on his back, and smiled, felt warm all over.
"First step, son. We knew you could do it," Josiah said in his deep tones, solemnly shaking JD's hand. JD gulped, but saw the twinkle in the big man's eyes when he looked up. And grinned.
Darcy approached where the men were clustering around JD, his face bright with happiness as he said, "Well done, my boy. Now if we can clear the way, let's make sure that wasn't a happy chance."
"I know," JD groaned, and rolled his eyes at Darcy. "I gotta do it over and over and over and over..."
"Until you're runnin' out that door." Buck said lightly, and tousled JD's hair.
JD gasped in irritation, and shook his head to clear the hair out of his eyes. He put his hands on the pews as the men took their positions once again, and when he looked at Buck JD felt that surging ache again, the knowledge that something was missing he just had to get back. Just had to, no matter what it took.
"We're gonna ride together again, Buck." JD said in a low, hopeful voice as he locked eyes with his friend, his hands shaking as they gripped the wooden pews. "We are."
Buck nodded, but JD could tell he didn't know what he meant.
Darcy's voice was authoritative and calm. "Once again, Mr. Dunne. If you please."
And JD didn't have time to explain.
+ + + + + + +
The day wore on, turned into night. JD walked, again and again, his face once more beading with the stress of exertion, his eyes shining with sharply focused purpose. It was a long day, demanding and arduous, but at the end of it, when Nathan went to draw a bath for the exhausted youth, the other men in the room exchanged smiles of quiet relief. The worst was over. JD would be completely well again, soon.
JD was so worn out by the day's events that he barely stayed awake long enough to soak his aching muscles, and was asleep not two minutes after his head hit the pillow. Darcy sighed and wiped his forehead; it had been a long day for him too, and Nathan was quick to offer him, on behalf of the group, a cigar and card game at the saloon. Darcy accepted gratefully, and the men quietly left to celebrate.
All except Buck. As soon as the men had filed out into the hallway, the gunslinger stroked his moustache and said quietly, "You know what, this day's just plum wore me out. Think I'll hit the sack early tonight."
"You sure?" Nathan asked as Darcy slowly clicked JD's door closed. "Bartender hired a new barmaid. She just might be your type."
"And what type would that be?" Darcy asked in an amused whisper.
"Upright and breathing." Ezra replied with a smile.
Buck shook his head, glanced at the closed door to JD's room before backing towards his own lodgings. "Nah, think I'll take a pass."
Nathan shrugged. "Your loss." And the men went down the hall one way, and Buck went the other, not noticing Darcy's curious glance as the physician followed the others down the narrow stairs.
+ + + + + + +
It was a beautiful night, warm and full of brilliant stars. Josiah smiled at the balmy evening the men stepped into, paused and took a breath deep into his lungs.
"If I were a religious man, I'd call this a blessed night," he said, his low voice a happy purr. "We saw a miracle happen today."
"Amen to that," Nathan said as he fished out his cigars and strode toward the saloon.
Vin glanced toward the jail and said, "Save me a spot, boys. I'm going to see how Mr. Dwight is doing."
The others slowed down for a moment, turned to see Vin amble toward the dimly lit jail.
"Mr. Dwight indeed," Ezra scoffed, his drawl thick with distaste. "Surely Mr. Tanner does not think we would fall for such a thin ruse."
"Aw, leave him alone," Nathan replied, turning back toward the welcoming lights and noise of the saloon. "He wants to talk to Chris, ain't no crime in that."
"No, it's another miracle," Josiah said softly, nodding as he eyed the jail from under his hat. "Chris has been in there for almost four months, without a drink or anything else to sustain him but his own thoughts. Mighty amazing."
Ezra looked like he wanted to reply, make some acid remark, and his green eyes were bitter in the moonlight as he stared at the small brick jail. But when he brought his head around his eyes met Darcy's, and for a moment the man gazed at him, evenly but with a keen awareness that made the gambler visibly uncomfortable.
"This is a night for celebratin'," the Irishman said in calm, confident tones. "And if the bartender has any, I'd like to treat you gentlemen to some real Irish whiskey."
Josiah put his hand out toward the swinging doors. "Lead the way."
Darcy did, Josiah and Nathan joined him, and after watching the distant Vin open the jailhouse door and disappear into its shadowy depths, Ezra slowly turned and followed his friends into the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
Dwight looked up at the sound of the jail door opening, lifting his eyes from the short stack of papers on the desk. It was Vin Tanner, of course, just like it had been for the past five nights, and Dwight nodded at the tracker and let him pass. He knew what was going on, and it was all right with him.
Chris Larabee had been a model prisoner, quiet and undemanding, so Dwight had no problems with filling in for Vin and Josiah while they were helping JD get back on his feet. But it bothered him, when he saw Vin coming through the door this night as he had the five nights previously, because then Chris would get to his feet with a hopeful look in his eye, come to life like he hadn't been alive all day, and ask Vin a one-word question: today?
Dwight knew what he was asking, hell, everybody knew what Chris wanted. When JD was walking again, Chris Larabee was a free man. And who wouldn't want to be free after being holed up for four months? So every night when Vin walked in and Chris sparked to life, Dwight knew what the man was thinking: maybe tonight I'll get out of here. But it had been five nights, and it hadn't happened yet, so Dwight turned his attention back to his work as Vin walked past him, and towards the rearmost cell.
Chris was at the bars immediately, his hands loosely holding the rusting iron rods as he watched Vin walk across the maze of light and shadow toward him. Chris stared at him, his eyes glittering with nervous anxiety as he cleared his throat and asked in a voice that was small and tight with a painful mixture of hope and dread, "Today?"
There was a tiny pause; then Vin smiled, slowly, first a little and then a lot, his eyes gleaming happier and brighter until they seemed to light up the room as he gave a small nod and said, "It happened, Chris. Today."
Chris let out a small gasp, shuddered in his whole body and seemed to Vin to collapse in on himself in joyful shock. Matthew Dwight looked up, surprised, and saw Chris smile, the first smile anyone had seen on him in four months, and for the rest of his life the deputy would swear to God he saw tears come to Larabee's eyes as he stared into Vin Tanner's face, every possible joy cascading from those tortured blue eyes. Then, abruptly, Chris ducked his head down low, so his long blond bangs hid his eyes. And Dwight saw him wipe his face.
Nonplused, Vin paused a little, then continued softly, "You should have seen him, pard. Last time I saw JD that hell-bent on something, we were chasin' him out of the Indian village."
Chris shook his head, leaned a little against the bars.
"He's walkin', Chris," Vin said, slow and carefully, relishing every word. "He's gonna be all right."
Chris coughed, ran one hand roughly through his hair. "Thank God."
Vin turned his head, looked at the large keyring that hung on the peg a few feet behind him. Reaching up, he took the ring in his hand and began to lift it off the hook.
Chris' head came up, his eyes sharp and suddenly forbidding. "Not yet."
Vin stopped, set the keyring back on the peg as he gave Chris a questioning look. "Chris, you done your time. JD's walkin' again. You got nothin' left to prove."
"No." Chris shook his head resolutely. "You know what I said, Vin. When JD walks through that door, you let me out. Not before."
Vin sighed, looked at the floor, golden and melancholy in the low light. "Might be months before JD comes in here. Might be a long time before he's ready - "
"Then I'll wait," Chris said stubbornly, and walked away from the bars. "Until JD pardons me, I won't be free no matter where I go. So I might as well stay here."
Vin brought his head back, his face pained. "Chris, you don't have to - "
"You heard me." Chris' voice was tight, getting louder but still reined in, determined. He stood next to the cot, shook his head as he looked at his friend. "Now dammit, Vin, I'm not going to argue with you."
Vin leaned back on one leg, stared at Chris in frustration.
"You can open that door, as wide as you want," Chris said, his blue eyes stern and set, "But I won't walk out of it."
For a long moment Vin stood there, gazing at Chris in a way that made him think, just for a second, that Vin was going to charge into the cell and try to drag him out. But it was just for a second; then Vin took a small step backward, tugged at his hat, and with a smile of farewell turned around, and quietly walked out of the jail, giving Dwight a slight nod as he passed and smiling at the deputy's surprised look as he eyed the man in black, and the keyring still swinging on its rough wooden peg.
+ + + + + + +
Before dawn the next morning, Josiah and Ezra saddled their horses and patrolled around the perimeter of the town, among the low bushes and rocks. It was a cool morning, but bright and clear, the promise of a gorgeous day ahead. As Josiah brought his horse to a stop on the top of a small hill, he gazed around at the quiet, unhurried landscape, the watercolor plains and the distant, violet hills beyond, and smiled in appreciation.
A moment later, Ezra rode up next to him, his own eyes scanning the horizon, but not with the same contentment, that was obvious. Giving his friend a searching look, Josiah fiddled with the reins in his hand and said, "Ezra, it's a beautiful morning to look so sour."
Ezra blinked, glanced at Josiah before rubbing his lip with one gloved hand. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Sanchez, I was - preoccupied."
"So I noticed." Josiah sighed, then took the plunge. "Chris?"
Ezra cocked his head. "Well, surely you realize that with Mr. Dunne nearly recovered, we will soon have Mr. Larabee backin our midst as well. And that is cause for concern, in my opinion."
Josiah shook his head, his eyes on the hazy mountains. "Vin said Chris won't come out till JD forgives him. And if JD does that, seems to me the rest of us should do the same."
"Oh, come now," Ezra said cynically. "Perhaps Mr. Tanner believes Mr. Larabee's professions of guilt, but some of us have a more difficult time rolling over and accepting his tears as genuine. And I doubt Mr. Dunne will ever forgive him."
Josiah scratched his ear. "That's for the boy to decide, but four months of jail time sure looks like sorry to me. And bringing Mr. Thomas to take care of JD."
Ezra opened his mouth, closed it again, then gave a small shrug. "I am still not convinced this is all not some confidence act to beguile the town. I myself have pulled such deceptions."
"Willingly?" Josiah asked archly, tilting back in the saddle in the glowing morning light. "You turned yourself in, Ezra? You locked yourself up for four solid months, no liquor, no women, no card games? When?"
Ezra shifted in the saddle and coughed self-consciously before saying, "Well, my point could not be clearer. Once Larabee is freed, we will all have to decide whether or not to tolerate his continued presence."
"Sounds to me like you've already decided," Josiah noted, turning his eyes to the horizon to watch the first rays of the rising sun edge over the faraway hills.
Ezra scowled at the preacher. "In my instance, there was no decision to make. After the brutality of his assault on Mr. Dunne, I could never trust the man again. His lack of self-control is abhorrent to me."
Josiah leaned forward in his saddle, eyed the rising sun appreciatively as he said, "Well, Ezra, you got a right to be upset. Wasn't one of us who wasn't shocked to our boots at what Chris did to that boy, including me."
"Then how can you possibly find it in your heart to continue to associate with the man?" Ezra asked in a tone dripping with revulsion.
There was a very long pause as Josiah pondered this question, and as Ezra watched his friend the sun began to come up in earnest, washing the landscape around them in a warm, watercolor glow. The light touched Josiah's face, turned it rosy as he scratched his chin and said softly, "Well, Ezra, it's like this. There are times in a man's life when all the good he knows don't amount to a hill of beans, and he just acts on his demons cause it's the easy thing to do. And he runs, and tries to hide and make excuses, and at that point I'd say he's not worth five minutes of any decent man's time."
"Precisely," Ezra said forcefully.
"But then there comes a time in a man's life," Josiah continued, straightening up in the saddle, "When that same man says to himself, I got to face my demons and whip 'em, but more important I got to go back and see what I could do, so's my brothers will see my soul for what it is and not for what I let it be. If a man does that, Ezra, what do you think of him then?"
Ezra's face clouded, and he sat for a long moment and contemplated the question as the rocks and trees around them brightened with the morning sun. But then he shook his head and said, "I believe I'd still find it very difficult to trust Mr. Larabee, after what he's done."
Josiah cocked his head and smiled. "Interesting answer, Ezra, 'cept I wasn't talking about Chris. I was talking about you, when you deserted us in the Indian village."
Ezra started and blinked.
"Now the way I look at it," Josiah said calmly, turning in the saddle and looking his comrade full in the face, "if a man comes back and does his outright damnedest to make amends, he should get that second chance. Because maybe he ain't the man he was. And maybe once we know the man he is, we'll find something there that's mighty worth respecting."
Ezra stared at Josiah, heard the double meaning in his words but didn't reply. Giving his comrade a gentle smile, Josiah turned his horse back down the hill and headed on, leaving Ezra there for a moment to sort through his thoughts, and watch the rising sun.
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