It was a rainy day. Mud flowed, puddled and clumped along the main street of Four Corners. JD stepped outside the sheriff's office, a smile breaking on his face. Ezra, passing by, found himself irritated at that ever-ready grin, "What is it about this foul weather that makes you so happy, Mr. Dunne?"
"Probably the same thing that makes you so cranky, Ez," JD replied, using the shortened name he knew Ezra detested. Clapping the gambler on the back, he joined him on his way to the saloon.
"I am not cranky, as you so eloquently phrase it, Mr. Dunne. I am merely disappointed that the weather will keep people inside who would otherwise seek solace and companionship over a game of cards."
"Oh, so nobody to fleece, then?" JD grinned and danced away before Ezra could place a well-aimed swat.
It was early evening and most of the other seven were already in the saloon.
As they sat down, Ezra continued, "Well, JD, with this inclement weather, I imagine you will have to forego your fortnightly excursion."
"Ez," JD was about to argue with the loquacious gambler when he realized he didn't have a clue as to what Ezra had just said. "Huh?"
"Your trip to the mining camp? I don't suppose you'll be venturing out in this weather. May I propose a friendly game instead?"
"If by friendly you mean no betting."
"My dear boy, there is no need to insult me just because you find yourself temporarily out of funds."
"I wouldn't be out of funds if you hadn't cleaned me out a couple nights ago," JD sighed.
"Now, now, a gentleman never complains. Perhaps if your skill at cards was just a tad better than your ability to deliver a punchline, your finances would be in better shape."
JD rolled his eyes as the others laughed.
"That's alright, son," Buck comforted, clapping a hand on his shoulder. "Ol' Buck will show ya how it's done. You willin' to take your chances on me, Ezra?"
"I always delight in taking your money, Mr. Wilmington."
"Ha! Watch and learn, JD."
"Actually, Buck, I was thinkin' of ridin' out to the miners' camp tonight."
"In this rain?"
"Buck, I ain't gonna melt," JD laughed.
"JD, the roads might be washed out in parts. Could be flooded." If Buck thought that would dampen the boy's spirits, he was sadly mistaken. JD was always up for an adventure, and he considered almost anything that took him out of town an adventure. The miners' camp was a short ride from Four Corners. Many of the men were Irish and knew the same songs and dances JD had learned growing up back East. He had spent many nights in camp, drinking, singing and dancing. It beat the heck out of watching Buck lose yet another game to Ezra.
While they ate, the light in the saloon had changed. JD went to the doors and looked outside. "A rainbow!" he exclaimed. "See, Buck, it stopped rainin'. I'll be fine."
"I've seen your fine," Buck retorted. "Just do me a favor, kid, try and stay out of trouble."
JD shook his head as he left the saloon and headed towards the livery. Much as he cared for Buck, sometimes that kid stuff got on his nerves.
As he rode, JD thought about the last time he had been in camp. It had been for St. Patrick's Day, and nearly everyone had crowded into the tiny lean-to they called their saloon. Someone had even lain down a floor so they could dance. One of the young men in camp, Michael Noose, was very good at Irish ceili dancing. Even better than me, JD had to admit. Michael was only a couple years older than JD, and the two had taken an immediate liking to each other. It would be good to see him again.
The moon had risen by the time JD rode into camp. He called out so he wouldn't startle the miners. "Rider comin' in. It's me, JD."
A moment later, someone approached. "JD! Welcome, lad. Sure and you picked a fine night to travel."
"Michael! Heck, it's just a little rain. Besides, I thought you might be getting' thirsty out here. There's somethin' for you in my saddlebag."
"Aren't you the thoughtful lad?" Michael laughed, helping himself to the bottle of red eye. "You're welcome to bunk in my tent - it's a little drier than sleeping under the stars."
"'preciate that, Michael. Kinda quiet around here tonight, ain't it?"
Michael laughed. "Boyo, surely you didn't think we had a hoolihan every night now, did ya?"
JD blushed. "'Course not."
"Ah, never you mind. A few rounds o' this fine whiskey and I imagine we'll have our own celebration." They had reached Michael's tent. He dumped the contents from a couple of tin mugs and poured a generous amount from JD's bottle into each. "Slainte," he said, raising his mug.
"Slainte," JD answered, toasting his health.
The next morning, JD woke first. By the time he had a fire going, Michael was up, bringing him the coffee grinder. "D'ya mind? Me head's not up to it this morning." JD laughed. "You sound like Ezra. He's not much for early mornings, either."
"We're a fine pair, aren't we?" Michael laughed. "Me with these miners, you with your regulators. Isn't life wonderfully strange, JD?"
"I guess, Michael. You should meet them next time you come to town. I think you and Josiah would like each other."
"He's the priest?"
"Used to be a preacher. I don't know what he's talkin' about half the time but he sure has interesting stories to tell."
"I'll bet he does. Seems like most of the men you meet out here have left somethin' behind. Me, I want to have no regrets. Be my own man and greet St. Peter with a clear conscience."
JD smiled, "Well, til then can I give you a hand with something around here?"
"Ah, JD, it's far too fine a day for a man to start off working first thing. Why don't I see if I can talk Rory into loanin' me his horse and we'll go for a ride?"
"Sounds like fun!" JD agreed.
By the time JD had curried and saddled Milagro, Michael returned leading a big sorrel, nearly the same color as his hair.
"JD, this is Red."
"Never woulda guessed, Michael."
"Rory may not be the most poetic of men, but he's got a good heart."
The boys rode out into the cool morning, their hearts light with youthful joy and enthusiasm, traits that the older men in their lives had a hard time remembering, traits that endeared them to those same men.
The rain had flooded many areas around the camp, in some places the going was so narrow they had to ride single file. But the air was clean and sharp and the horses were feeling frisky. "C'mon, JD, I'll race ya!" Michael shouted as he sped by JD.
"Hey! No head starts!" JD called after him. Laughing, he urged Milagro into a canter, then a gallop. The horses sped through the brush, the boys laughing with sheer pleasure. JD's little bay soon caught up to Red and was just starting to pass him when JD saw that the flooding had cut a gully in the path ahead. Figuring Michael would fall in behind him, JD raced on. Suddenly, he heard the gelding scream as Michael shouted. He reined in Milagro so hard the horse crow-hopped to a stop. JD turned in time to see Red sliding down the gully. He couldn't see Michael. JD jumped off Milagro and went sliding down the gully after the horse. "Michael? Michael!" he called. Red was thrashing about, Michael lay underneath him, not moving. "No! Michael!" Grabbing the reins, JD struggled with the horse til it found its footing and got up. Dropping the reins, he raced to Michael's side. "Oh my God. Michael. Michael!" he cried, shaking the boy. "Oh, God, please be alright. I'll get you some help."
But the boy was already dead.
Unaware of the tears streaming down his face, JD wrapped Michael in his bedroll. He led Red back over to the boy and struggled to get Michael slung over the horse's back.
All he could think of was to get to Nathan. Nathan would know what to do. Everything would be alright if he could just get to Nathan. But on the long ride back to Four Corners, panic subsided to despair, and he knew there was no point stopping anywhere but the undertaker's.
Dismounting, he stopped for a moment to take a last look at Michael. "I'm so sorry."
Removing his hat, JD stepped into the undertaker's.
Josiah had seen JD ride into town with his burden. Worried, he followed the boy and found him sitting in the front room.
"JD?" he asked, seeing the boy, hat in hand, staring at the floor.
JD looked up, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "He's dead, Josiah. He's dead and I killed him."
"Michael Noose, from the miners' camp."
Josiah knelt beside the boy. "What happened, son?"
"We were racing, there was a gully, the horse fell, Michael...Michael..." JD couldn't continue, he started crying.
Josiah sighed. "JD," he said gently, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder, "it was an accident."
"No! I was in front. I thought he would see it, but he didn't. If I had stopped, if I had warned him, but I just kept on riding." JD seemed to pull himself together. "I have to go, Josiah. I have to let them know back at the camp."
"I'll go with you."
"No, it's my job."
Josiah watched JD leave, sending him a silent prayer of comfort. Michael's body had already been taken inside. JD mounted Milagro and headed back toward the camp, leading Red.
Telling Rory and the others about Michael felt like the hardest thing JD had done since burying his mother. He couldn't help but feel responsible for Michael's death, and was sure he saw accusation in the miners' eyes even as they grieved.
Later that evening, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan looked up from their card game to see a disheveled JD standing in front of them with a bottle.
"Sorry about your friend, JD," Nathan said. Remembering what Josiah had told them earlier, he added, "There was nothin' you could have done."
Sitting down, JD filled all their glasses. Raising his, he said, "To Michael. May his soul be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows he's dead." He drank the fiery whiskey in one gulp and rose from the table.
"JD?" Ezra said. "Won't you stay? I was just preparing to deal a new game." In fact, he had been about to raise the stakes on his hand.
"No thanks, Ezra, I wouldn't be very good company tonight." JD walked wearily from the bar.
"That boy is hurtin' bad," Nathan said. "Think we should ride out to Eagle Bend and look for Buck?"
"Brother Buck'll be back in a day or two. I think the boy just wants to be alone for awhile."
Ezra knew that was how Josiah chose to deal with his pain, but his instincts told him JD wouldn't do so well on his own. Still, he had offered, and the boy had turned him down. He didn't know how else to reach him.
They didn't see much of JD in the next couple of days. He showed up for Michael's funeral, and for his patrol, but he would escape at the end of his shift and ride Milagro for hours. He didn't take his meals with them. Most telling of all, none of them could get him to talk beyond the shortest answers to their queries. He was quieter than Vin, and that had them worried.
On the morning of the third day after Michael's death, he showed up at the saloon for breakfast.
"JD, you alright?" Nathan asked, noting how pale the boy was and the dark circles under his eyes.
"Fine, Nathan," JD answered.
"You sleepin' alright? I know you ain't eatin' right."
JD turned on him. "Dammit, Nathan. Ain't a man got a right to some privacy around here?"
"We're just worried about you, is all."
"I'm fine. Worry about someone who deserves it." And pushing himself away from the table, JD left.
"That could have gone better," Ezra observed.
Buck returned to Four Corners that afternoon, showing up in the saloon. "Where's JD?" he asked Vin, sitting down to dinner. "I can't find that boy anywhere."
"There was an accident. The Noose boy died. He's takin' it pretty hard."
"I better go look for him," Buck started to get up.
"He's out ridin'," Nathan offered. "When you do see him, try and get him to eat something."
"I leave and the place goes all to hell," Buck complained, finishing his dinner and ordering a box lunch for JD. As he was leaving the saloon, he saw JD ride up to the livery.
Buck called out to him, "Hey, kid, miss me?"
JD looked at him with an empty stare and continued on his way.
This wasn't going to be easy, Buck thought. He caught up to JD as Yosemite took his horse.
"I heard about what happened. How ya doin', kid?"
"I'm alright," JD answered him angrily. "I'm still alive."
"That's right - you just remember that," Buck said. "Brought you some supper," he smiled, handing the box to JD. He looked at the boy closely. He was even paler than usual, and so thin. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he had clearly been crying. "JD," Buck said softly, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder. For a moment, JD's shoulders sagged, his expression softened, and Buck thought he had gotten through. But then the boy's face hardened, and the wall was back. "Thanks for supper, Buck," JD said, shaking off his hand. "I'll see ya later."
"JD," Buck said, but he was gone.
Buck didn't see JD again until he came back to their room late that night. Buck had been sleeping, but woke up when he heard JD stumbling around the room. The kid smelled like a brewery. Well, he had a right, after what he'd been through. Still, Buck had a disturbing sense of déjà vu. Dark memories of Chris haunted him. But JD wasn't Chris, he wouldn't go down that same road. Then why couldn't Buck get back to sleep?
A few hours later, Buck left the room to get some breakfast. JD was still sleeping it off. He did manage to show up at the sheriff's office for his shift, though. He even seemed in good spirits. Buck smiled, laughing at himself for worrying. Things always seemed worse in the middle of the night. "Hey, kid!"
"Hey, Buck." JD helped himself to coffee. Buck was surprised to see him pull a flask from his vest pocket. Buck frowned. "You pickin' up Ezra's bad habits, boy?"
JD ignored him.
"You been drinkin' a lot lately, JD?"
"Don't see what business that is of yours."
"Just askin'. 'Member that hangover you had the first time you drank red eye? Like to puke your guts out," Buck laughed. "Wouldn't wanna see that again."
"I'm fine. And I sure don't need you preachin' to me about drinkin'."
"Just lookin' out for you is all, kid."
"Well, stop it!" JD yelled, slamming his fists down on the desk. "Nobody asked you to look out for me!"
"Shut up, Buck. Just shut up and leave me alone."
Buck looked as if JD had just punched him in the gut.
"Fine, I'll leave, if that's what you want." JD ignored him. Buck stepped out of the jail, and into the past. He could hear Chris saying those very words to him not all that long ago. Not knowing what else to do, he headed to the saloon. Chris was sitting alone at a table, and Buck found himself sitting down, telling him what had just happened, hoping Chris would go to JD and pull him back from the edge.
But Chris just looked at his oldest friend. "He didn't mean it, Buck. Once he sobers up, I expect he'll apologize."
"I hope you're right, Chris." But Buck knew he wasn't.
JD didn't apologize, and he only sobered up when he had to be on duty. The rest of the time he kept to himself, riding off on Milagro, returning in no condition to take care of himself or his horse. Buck wondered he didn't break his neck. It frightened him that maybe that's exactly what JD was trying to do.
The next morning Vin followed Buck out of town. He knew Buck had taken to shadowing JD. He had never seen the big man look so haggard. The damn kid was driving everybody crazy.
"Hey, Bucklin. Join ya?"
"Not out for a ride, Vin. "
They rode in silence for a while. Memory of another ride came to him, and Vin's mouth quirked up in a small grin. "'Member when you caught JD buyin' that potion from the Chinaman? I never could understand how you managed to sneak up on the kid. It ain't like you're light on your feet."
Buck smiled. "Hell, Vin, the kid gets so wrapped up in whatever he's doin' he shuts out everything else." The smile faded. "Just like he's shuttin' me out now."
"He still needs you, Bucklin. Don't give up on him yet."
"I haven't, Vin. But I think he's given up on himself."
JD walked listlessly into the jail. "Chris," he nodded.
"JD." His shift over, Chris started to leave. At the door, he turned and looked at the boy he had come to care for in spite of himself. "Are you and Buck ever gonna talk to each other again?" he asked softly. "He misses you, JD. We all do."
"I'm right here."
"Uh-huh. Just don't keep pushing him away. One day he might not come back." Chris left the jail.
JD felt his heart breaking. He reached for the flask.
It was quiet in the jail. Josiah couldn't remember any place ever being quiet when Buck was around. "I know you're hurting, Brother Buck. But so is JD."
"Then why won't he let me help him, Josiah? Every time he sees me he just runs the other way."
"When JD came out here, he'd just lost the only person who cared about him. Then we took him in."
"Took him hell. He shoved his way in," Buck argued.
Josiah laughed. "So he did. But losing Michael made him take another look at how fragile life is. He doesn't want to lose his family again."
"He ain't hangin' on very hard."
"You just have to give him time, Buck. He'll find his way back eventually."
"If he don't kill himself first."
Josiah showed up at the jail to relieve JD. As he watched the sullen boy getting ready to leave, he quietly said, "I think you're giving yourself too much credit, JD."
Not sure he'd heard right, JD turned back. "What?"
"Blamin' yourself for what happened to that boy. What makes you think you have the power of life and death over people?"
"Did you make it rain, did you make the horse fall? Things happen beyond our control, John Dunne. What is your fault is that six men who love you are grieving because they see you slipping away every day and don't know how to reach you."
JD was desperate to change the subject.
"That morning, Michael said he wanted to live a life with no regrets. Do you think he was tempting fate by sayin' that?"
"JD, if the good lord took everything we said seriously, there wouldn't be a man left standing. But tell me this, was Michael doing what he wanted that morning?"
"Then I guess you could say he had no regrets."
"But, Josiah, he was so young."
"None of us can know what the day will bring, JD. It's best to appreciate what you have right now. The biggest regret a man can have is turning his back on love."
"You don't know what you're talkin' about," JD muttered as he left.
Lifting his eyes to the ceiling, Josiah said, "Lord, I know that boy has a soft heart but did you have to give him such a hard head?"
JD returned to his room. After his talk with Josiah, he needed a drink. He reached in the closet for the bottle he kept there, but it was gone. He didn't remember finishing it.
"Lookin' for somethin'?"
"Buck! You scared the bejesus out of me."
"Maybe if you were thinkin' about somethin' besides where to get your next drink, you woulda heard me come in."
"If you're gonna start that again, I'm leavin'," JD headed for the door.
A strong pair of hands grabbed him by the shoulders, turning him to face one very angry man. "Now you listen to me, boy," Buck said through gritted teeth. "I know you're hurtin', and you're mad, and you just want us all to go away and leave you be so you can destroy yourself in peace, but I ain't gonna let that happen. I'm not gonna watch another friend send himself to hell, do you understand me? Do you?" Buck was shaking JD, even as the tears tracked down his rough cheeks.
JD laid his hands on Buck's chest to force him away. Buck was right, he was hurting, and he was angry, but mostly he was tired. Tired of not sleeping, of avoiding his friends, of holding so much pain at bay. He was just too tired to fight Buck anymore. He reeled as the exhaustion and sorrow crashed over him. His hands fisted into Buck's shirt. Buck watched the struggle in JD's face, the anger and fear giving way to despair and confusion. He had never seen JD look so lost. "JD," he said, enfolding the boy in his arms. He felt JD resist him for a moment before collapsing against him.
"Buck, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," the boy sobbed into his shirt. "I don't know what to do. Please don't leave me."
Buck held him close. "I'm right here, JD. I'm not going anywhere." He let JD cry himself out, then pulled a nearly clean handkerchief from his pocket.
JD wiped his eyes and nose before noticing the condition of the cloth. "Buck, that's disgusting."
"Well, you ain't makin' it any prettier, boy."
Buck and JD were in the sheriff's office. JD was reading from his newest dime novel. "Hey, Buck, listen to this," he began reading out loud, "'Handing his gun over to the road agent butt first as ordered, Brody suddenly flipped the pistol in his hand, barrel pointing at the surly outlaw. With split second timing, he pulled the trigger of the inverted Colt with his little finger, blasting a bloody hole through the man who would have robbed the stage.' Can you really do that?" JD asked, wide-eyed, going for his pistol to try this new trick.
"Don't even think about it, kid," Buck admonished, reaching over to take the gun from JD. "You'll just end up shootin' something Nathan might not be able to fix."
Silence followed. Buck looked over at JD. The boy was struggling to say something but couldn't find the words. Finally, he just smiled at the older man. "I'm goin' for coffee. You want some?"
"Sure, kid." Buck watched the boy put on that infernal hat and walk out the door.
"I love you too, JD," he said softly to the empty room.