by MMW

Part of The Friendship Collection

Notes: Many thanks to Phyllis for her help with this.

1) Many thanks to Marnie for her help with this.
2) This is an epilogue to "Wagon Train"
3) The quote on friendship used in this story was listed as having been said by "Unknown."

Warning: Some bad words - more than usual for me.

JD took off his hat and slapped it against his leg. He had had enough of this situation. This whole wagon train experience had been nothing but a nightmare and now he was forced to watch a good friend bleed to death, not from a physical wound, but from an emotional one. He knew it as surely as he knew the tense line of Vin's shoulders and back had to be paining the Texan. Thinking over the time since the sharpshooter's return to the wagon train, Dunne tried and failed to remember even once when his friend didn't look tense, worried and upset.

All of the others had told him to give Vin time, to let him work things out for himself, but it had been too long, in his opinion, and no one seemed willing to approach the man who had risked everything to come back for them. Young as he was, Dunne had known the danger to Tanner when he returned to camp with Charlotte to warn them of the coming danger. He had seen what happened to men who took to other men's wives in Boston. Duels may have been outlawed for years, but that didn't mean they didn't still happen.

Ignoring the looks and movements of the others, JD strode out to join his friend and find out, once and for all, what was going on with Vin.

Though he had strode boldly from the others that had been more of a show than his actual attitude. In truth he was nervous and worried that he would just end up pushing his friend further away. Still, he hadn't wanted anyone to follow and the boldness and determination in his stride let the others know that.

Having reached his intended target, he stood silently by Tanner until the tracker nodded for him to sit down. The two continued to sit in silence. After several minutes, Dunne became aware of his friend's eyes on him and knew it was because he was so still and quiet. Such things were not usually associated with the young sheriff and he knew it, but he needed to make sure he got his words right.

"Looks like some deep pondering you're doing there," Vin finally said, breaking the silence.

"Yep," JD replied, his voice serious. The two sat for several more minutes in silence before Dunne finally began expressing what was on his mind. "Took a lot of courage to come back and warn us about O'Shea's additional men."

Vin looked at his young friend, obviously puzzled by where this talk might be going. "Wasn't about courage," the Texan informed. "Was just the right thing to do. Couldn't leave you all to ride in there blind." Then turning his eyes out toward the horizon he added in a barely audible whisper, "Couldn't let y'all down again."

The Easterner frowned at that last sentence. He had guessed that Tanner had come back to help them, but there was some thing else going on here, something that seemed unrelated to Charlotte. Sighing in frustration at his inability to work it out, he figured he would just have to ask straight out what was going on. "Vin," he began. "I know that Josiah would know the right way to say this, or, hell, even Buck could come up with a way to say this without hurting you, and Ezra," he let out a chuff of laughter, "by the time you figured out what he asked you would have agreed to finance his next saloon." He received a small smirk for his efforts. "I ain't as ... as eloquent," he said, smiling at the raised eyebrow he received for the use of the large word, "as any of them, but I am your friend and I hate to see you tearing yourself up like this. I don't have a lot of experience with women, well, there's Casey, but she's not really a woman, but... Charlotte wasn't right for you, not the way she treated you at the end."

Looking down at the toes of his boots, Vin couldn't help but smile. The kid may not be as eloquent as the others , but he did have a way of asking a tough question without making it hurt too much. "Ain't worried about Charlotte. She's happier where she is. She likes farming and the settled life. I was just fooling myself with her." With a shrug of his shoulders, he added, "I'll get over her sooner or later."

JD listened carefully to the words and nodded his understanding, but his face grew even more puzzled. "Then what is it, Vin?" he asked softly. "What's got you so wound up you can't relax, can't eat and ain't sleeping? What happened that's got you looking over your shoulder and all over the countryside?"

Vin let out a deep sigh. "I failed, y'all," he admitted softly, a slight catch in his voice.

Blinking in confusion, JD couldn't make sense of that statement. "When? You never failed us, Vin."

"Yeah, I did, Kid," Tanner insisted. Turning to meet the hazel eyes, he read the very real confusion and suppressed another sigh at the knowledge he would have to explain. "All that time before Richmond ran me off, before Charlotte took it in her head to meet me out there, I was distracted. I let her and her situation, her feelings and my feelings get in the way of what I should have been doing - keeping an eye out and keeping us safe." Seeing the denial rising in the youth's eyes, he continued hastily, "The night of the dance, when the explosions happened. If I'd been paying attention to the camp, to the surroundings, rather than dancing and making eyes at Charlotte, I might have caught on about the dynamite and kept people from getting hurt."

"Vin," JD interrupted. "Even if you had been paying more attention, you still might have missed it."

The Texan shook his head in denial and looked back out at the horizon, his eyes never still as they scanned for approaching danger. He gathered himself to reveal even more of his shameful secret to his friend and was thankful when Dunne sat quietly waiting. "When I came back to warn you, Chris... hell, Chris let me know what a fool I was and how useless I'd been. He's right not to trust me, not to depend on me. What kind of man does it make me that I run off with some other man's wife first chance I get? Hell. I can't even depend on me anymore, can't expect you to."

JD stared at his friend, his mouth hanging open slightly in disbelief. He closed his mouth and opened it again, searching for something to say, some way to ease the pain and self-accusation he saw so clearly now. Vin wasn't bleeding from a broken heart, he was bleeding from broken confidence and from an inability to for give himself. Taking a breath and easing back slightly, JD looked over the land and tried to figure out what he could say to help his friend. Finally it came to him. "Vin," he said, waiting for the hurting blue eyes to meet his own. "I know that wasn't the real you out there. I forgive you." He paused, wondering if that would be enough or if he would have to come up with something more.

Swallowing hard, Vin nodded and, in a voice thick with emotion, replied, "'Preciate that, JD. More than you'll ever know."

With a warm smile, JD reached out and clapped Vin on the shoulder, relieved he'd done the right thing. Standing and heading back toward camp, he braced himself for the onslaught he was expecting from the five angry men waiting for him. He would meet their anger, though, and not back away, because he knew to the very depths of his heart that, this time, he was right. He would just have to make the others listen.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Buck asked, taking the lead. "Didn't we tell you to leave him be? Let him work it out for himself?"

Setting his jaw, Dunne met Wilmington's eyes with a look of defiance. "Yeah, you told me," he agreed. "And you were wrong." Had the situation been different, he might have laughed at the flummoxed look on his friend's face.

"And you know this from the multitude of years of experience you have in such matters?" Ezra asked, sarcasm dripping from every word.

"No," JD challenged, "I know this because I know Vin and he's my friend. When a friend's hurting you need to be there for him, not walk away." His lips thinned slightly as he saw his words had an impact on the others.

"JD," Nathan began, trying another tact. "We're all worried about Vin and want what's best. He's used to figuring things out on his own and can't do that with all of us hovering."

"Son, there isn't a one of us who doesn't want to be there for him, but it's just not the way he does things," Josiah added.

"And the way he's been acting since we left on this wagon train is the way he does things?" Dunne challenged. He almost regretted his words when he saw protective anger flare in Larabee's eyes, but even that wouldn't get him to back down when he knew he was right, when Vin needed them, needed their forgiveness.

"Listen, son," Buck began, easily reading the danger in the blond's eyes and fearing things might get out of hand.

"No," JD, interrupted, his voice and bearing demanding attention. "You listen. Yes, Vin was wrong to let himself get so distracted by that woman, but there isn't a one of us who hasn't allowed ourselves to be distracted by something since we've been together. When we saw that he wasn't being himself, we should have stepped in then or at least covered for him." Staring each man in the eye, he continued, "Do you know why he's so tense a strong wind would snap him in two? Do you know why he doesn't sleep? Doesn't eat? Do you know why he can't stand to be in our company?"

"He had his heart broken, JD," Josiah informed softly, hoping to keep the volatile situation under control.

"No," Dunne denied. "He's like this because he thinks he failed us out there."

"He did," Chris said simply, never one to sugar-coat the truth. "If he hadn't been so wrapped up in that woman, we might have been able to stop O'Shea before all those people lost their lives."

"Or we might have ridden into a trap where we were severely out-numbered without any warning at all," JD spat back, his voice rising and his cheeks turning pink with anger.

Uneasy silence cloaked the men as each of them absorbed what their young friend was saying. It was very possible that, had Vin not been away from camp and found out about the additional men, they would have led the wagon train and themselves straight to their deaths.

JD watched his friends shift uncomfortably from one foot to the other, unable to meet each other's eyes. Calming somewhat, he continued, "Vin thinks he failed us out there and that we don't trust him and because of that he doesn't trust himself anymore." The Easterner saw Chris wince slightly at that. "Yeah, Chris," he agreed, not holding back. "What you told him hit home. He realized he'd been unreliable and thinks he's lost all of our trust and for that, he can't forgive himself."

"But there's nothing to forgive," Larabee denied, recalling his harsh words to his friend upon Tanner's return with the information. He had only intended them as a way of shaking Vin out of the world he and Charlotte had seemed to create for themselves and back to reality. He had never meant to make his friend doubt himself, doubt his abilities and certainly never intended for Tanner to doubt their friendship.

Looking at the men before him, JD shook his head. "Doesn't matter if we think there's something to forgive or not. What matters is he thinks there's something to forgive." Seeing he still hadn't quite gotten his point across, Dunne tried to think of a way to explain what needed to be done. Something someone once told him came to mind, but he couldn't remember who said it originally. "I once heard, ' When friends truly forgive us, it is so much easier to forgive ourselves.' And that's what we need to do. We need to let Vin know that we truly forgive him even if we don't know what we're forgiving him for. He needs to know he has our forgiveness before he can forgive himself."

"And forgiveness is but the first step on the path to healing," Josiah intoned, nodding his understanding and wondering why he hadn't thought of it before. Reaching out, he rested a hand on JD's shoulder. "The wisdom of youth," he said softly and then looked out at the solitary figure keeping vigil.

The others nodded their understanding, all except Chris whose thoughtful eyes were focused on Tanner. With a purpose in his stride, Larabee headed toward his his hurting friend, ready to forgive whatever sins Vin thought needed forgiving and intending to ask for forgiveness of his own for ever making the man doubt himself this much.

JD looked on with a smile as Chris walked off to make peace with his friend. He knew the others would find their own time and their own way to let Vin know he was forgiven. His attention was drawn back to his current surroundings when Buck's hand came to rest on his shoulder.

"Damn, kid," Buck said, his voice filled with pride. "When'd you get to be so smart?"

JD grinned and took one last look at the two men now sitting side by side away from camp. "Hell, Buck, I've always been smart. I just don't like to show it off since intelligence sure beats animal 'maggotism' when it comes to the ladies."

Buck swatted the hat off JD's head and grinned from ear to ear. "That's animal magnetism , smart boy. And just because you got this situation figured out doesn't mean you're all that smart. Why, you probably wouldn't have even figured it out if it weren't for my expert teaching," Wilmington continued teasing.

"Buck," JD laughed, "you're so full of it."