A Little Too Late
by Sue M
Ratings/Warnings: Death of a minor
Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em but if I could they'd be on season 10 by now!
Thanks, as always to Phyllis, for beta-ing and so much more, and to the DD posse, my amigos!
As Josiah closed with his final words, the peacekeepers sighed heavily. If only they hadn't been out of town. They had been expertly drawn away, and now someone would pay. Because when they came back, it was just a little too late.
Too late for Mr. and Mrs. Greeley, too late for little Wil Greeley. Oh yes... this gang would pay... with their lives.
Six men stood tall, proud and angry at the gravesides, vowing to do right by these people...and by their own youngest, left alone that day, and his life now hanging in the balance. Now they would ride and justice would be done.
THREE DAYS EARLIER
JD watched dejectedly as his six friends mounted their horses.
"We'll be back by tomorrow, JD" Chris stated, "There shouldn't be any trouble seeing as we're already chasing after it."
"Chris, I don't see why I can't..."
Chris leaned over his saddle horn, hands resting across each other, at the wrists.
"Son, I'm not in the mood for an argument. Your leg's still healing, so for now, no riding."
JD cursed his bad luck and an ill-timed kick from a terrified horse during a storm two nights before. Resigned to his fate, JD nodded.
"Go careful, boys, we'll be fine."
They all nodded to him or tipped their hats. Buck walked his gray up next to his friend.
"You watch your back, kid...no one else will while we're gone, y'hear?"
"Yeah, I hear. You watch yours, too."
"Always do, kid...always do." With a quick wink, Buck turned his gray and joined the others. They were just about to pull out when Chris turned unexpectedly and looked directly into the young man's eyes.
"Don't try to be a hero, kid...think before you act."
With a soft chuckle from Buck at the expression on his 'little brother's' face, the six peacekeepers urged their horses on and galloped out of town.
The Easterner watched his friends ride away from him and the town, his face still reflecting the shock from Chris' words. If Buck had said that to him, he would have probably been annoyed, but it had been Chris, and Larabee was a man of few words...damnit...Chris DID give a damn!
As the six slowed a little a few miles from town, Buck addressed Larabee.
"Care to explain why you said that to the kid before we left?"
The other men listened in, expectantly.
Chris gave Buck a quick glance, "It needed to be said...figured he'd listen more if it came from me."
Buck nodded in agreement. The others following suit as they urged their horses to go faster
From a small hill just outside town, four men watched the six peacekeepers ride out, their leader Polke, smiling to himself.
"See how easy that was, boys? I told you they're just a bunch o' gunslingin' idiots."
"What happens when they catch them fellas ya paid to lead 'em away?" one of his men asked.
"We'll be long gone..." Polke smirked.
"Only six rode out..." the man informed.
"Yep, looks like they left the kid behind...I'm not worried...if he gets in my way...he's dead!"
+ + + + + + +
The afternoon and evening dragged for the youth as he felt increasingly lonely. Usually, at least one of the others would be around somewhere, but this evening he knew he would find no one, so he decided to retire to his room after supper.
Mary spotted him sitting at a table as he had just finished eating, and approached.
"How are you this evening, JD? Is your leg any better?"
JD stood, out of politeness, "Evenin' Mary, yes it's much better now, thank you," he smiled. Mary returned his smile and reaching out, squeezed his arm.
"They'll be back tomorrow," she reminded him.
He nodded, "I know...it's just so...quiet."
"Thank goodness!" She laughed, "Would you be kind enough to escort me home?"
"Sure," he pushed out his elbow, and Mary slipped her arm through, smiling. They left the restaurant and stepped into the cool evening air.
Stopped to make camp for the night, Larabee looked at Tanner as they ate.
"It's not right."
"What's not right, the direction?"
"The horses...they're different...lighter."
Ezra moved closer, "Am I to understand you think we are pursuing the wrong miscreants?"
Buck joined them, soon followed by Josiah and Nathan.
"This ain't right," Tanner repeated, "I think we're being tricked."
"What does that suggest?" Nathan asked.
"A trap?" Josiah wondered.
Buck looked at Chris, "A clear run at an empty town."
Chris was already on his feet and packing..."We won't be able to move fast...but it's better than sitting here."
Josiah gripped Buck's arm, but looked at them all, "JD!"
Chris kept packing as he heard Buck swallow, the blond sighed, "I know."
+ + + + + + +
It was just getting dusk as JD and Mary walked toward the Clarion office. They both smiled as they watched Alice and Mosley Greeley swinging their five year-old, Wil between them as he giggled. Just as they approached the bank, JD was alerted to what looked like movement coming from inside the building. He released Mary's arm, looking at her now confused expression.
"Mary, go into the saloon, quickly."
She went to speak but his returned look stopped her as he drew both his guns, fear now gripping her heart. Mary did as she was told as she looked back over her shoulder and saw where the young man's attention was.
What occurred next would stay with Mary for the rest of her days.
Suspicious about the movement in the bank, JD slowly advanced toward the building. Without warning, the front door to the bank opened, just as the Greeley's were passing. JD's heart thumped hard in his chest as four gunmen exited, guns clearly drawn. He watched in horror as the guns pointed toward the young family.
"Nooo!" the youth screamed as all hell broke loose.
Startled by the family's proximity, two of the gunmen opened fire cutting down the three people instantly. As JD screamed out, the other two turned their guns on him as he ran toward them, firing his own guns.
Several shots rang out, two gunmen screaming and flying backward, JD's body jolting back hard at the same time.
By the time the shooting stopped, two bank robbers lay still on the boardwalk outside the bank, Alice, Mosley and Wil sprawled close to them and JD lying in the dirt, in the center of the street, not moving.
Mary and Inez came running over from the saloon, Mary gasped, "Oh, no, dear Lord...no!"
+ + + + + + +
There was no sound except for pounding hooves across hard dry terrain as six determined men rode as fast as they dared. Moonlight assisted their vision, which was all but blinded due to fear. They were only a few miles away now, hoping, but soon to learn they would be a little too late.
Several townsfolk had rushed to the aide of the Greeleys, sharp cries cutting through the air as they realized the young family was dead, as was one of the robbers, the other clinging on tentatively as his life blood drained into the boardwalk.
Mary's hands were shaking as she tried to assess the unconscious, youngest peacekeeper's condition. As Yosemite approached, she begged for help and the blacksmith scooped the youth up into his powerful arms and followed Inez to the rooms above the saloon. By the time they arrived at a bedroom, JD's limp form was lolling around in the big man's arms. Placing the boy gently on the bed, he acknowledged the ladies and left
Mary and Inez silently set to work stripping off JD's outer clothes to examine his blood-soaked body. They found a right shoulder wound where the bullet had gone clean through, a crease to the left temple and a wound deep into JD's right side, with no exit wound and plenty of blood. By the time dawn broke, both women were exhausted but no nearer stopping the flow of blood, although they had slowed it down.
Mrs. Potter had called in several times, and by early morning, they had done all they could do. JD was still bleeding, still had a bullet in him and was now gripped by a raging fever.
Inez gently wiped down JD's face, neck and chest with a damp cloth as the sun rose. The two women looked at each other, then to Gloria Potter as she entered the room with more towels and water. Mary pushed back a stray lock of blond hair from her face as she sighed,
"I hope Nathan and the others get back soon, maybe I should ride out to find them?"
Inez shook her head, "No...no, there are still two dangerous men out there, somewhere...please, we will wait, yes?"
Mary nodded wearily and began to change the blood-soaked dressings.
Even though it was still early, Chris was not comfortable with how quiet the town appeared as the six men rode in. He heard Buck groan as they approached the bank and noted the blood stains on the boardwalk and in the dirt in the road. They opted to ignore the livery now and headed straight for the rails outside the saloon.
Yosemite greeted them.
"I'll take the horses for ya, Mr. Larabee," he offered.
Chris nodded, as did the others as they dismounted. Chris held Yosemite's forearm.
The blacksmith's eyes misted as he dropped his gaze, "Real bad, Mr. Larabee, sir."
They all turned to see a disheveled Mary walking toward them. Chris halted her as he gripped the tops of her arms and looked into her eyes questioningly.
Mary turned to Nathan,
"Nathan, we need you urgently, JD's with Inez, in a room above the saloon, please hurry."
Nathan unhooked his bag from his horse,
"How bad?" he asked. Mary's wobbling chin told him all he needed to know, Buck too, as he heard the man groaning somewhere behind him.
The two men ran into the saloon.
"That's not all..." she sobbed,
"The bank robbers murdered the Greeleys, all three of them. JD tried to stop them, but..."
As she broke down, Chris pulled her toward him in comfort, looking to the others. He focused on Vin, who instantly knew what was required of him, and went of in search of details.
Ezra stepped forward and took Mary gently by the arm, nodding to Larabee, and escorted her to the restaurant to get her some coffee.
Josiah and Chris went into the saloon,
Inez stood as Buck and Nathan entered the room where JD lay fighting his injuries.
"Aw hell, kid..." Buck dropped to the side of the bed, wincing at the condition of his best friend while listening to Inez give Nathan the details he needed.
Nathan took several minutes to examine the pale, sweaty, bleeding youth, eventually turning to Buck and Inez.
"I need to get that bullet out."
They both nodded their understanding and helped Nathan prepare, Inez running over to the clinic with a list of things needed, briefly nodding to Chris and Josiah, waiting at the door, as she passed them.
The two men stared in shock as they entered the room, noting the blood soaked dressings that littered the floor and dresser, and the pale unconscious form lying on the bed. Swallowing hard and trying to ignore the smell of blood and sweat, Chris stepped toward the bed and gently placed a hand on JD's soaked head.
"Damn," he whispered.
"What did you find out?" Buck asked the blond.
"Waiting on Vin and Ezra," came the reply.
Inez returned and placed the requested items on a small tray and handed them to Nathan. A few minutes later, Vin and Ezra entered the now crowded room, clearly shocked at their friend's condition and the bloody debris strewn around. Chris looked expectantly at the pair; Ezra started.
"It would appear Mister Dunne discovered a robbery in progress at the bank. As the miscreants exited, The Greeleys stood in their way, and were gunned down in cold blood. JD attempted to draw the gunmen's fire, taking two down with him...but he was, alas, no match for four."
Vin nodded, "One's dead, the other's lyin' in the jail, but he's not lookin' good. Two men got away."
The blond's mood grew dark. He looked at JD one more time then gestured to Vin and Ezra,
"I think we should pay this *miscreant* a little visit, don't you?"
Nodding goodbye, Chris left the room, closely followed by Vin and Ezra. Josiah and Buck took off their jackets and rolled up their sleeves as they attempted to assist Nathan. Inez excused herself and left, walking along the hallway a little until she came to her room. Once she was there, she sat heavily on the bed and wept.
+ + + + + + +
Chris burst into the jail and picked up the keys, nodding to Zach Poppet for watching over the prisoner for them. Zach scurried off, noting the man's black mood.
The man lying on the cot started to shake. Within seconds, Larabee was next to the injured man and had pulled him into a sitting position pushing him back hard against the cell wall.
"Thought you'd have a little fun at our town's expense, did ya?"
Larabee's glare was withering and the already weakened robber cowered.
"I didn't do nuthin'...by the time I got outta the bank, those people were down."
"You forget someone?" Chris growled, increasing his twist hold on the man's shirt.
"How 'bout the kid that's layin' near dead over yonder?" Vin reminded.
The man thought for a second, "*He* shot *me*! It was one o' the guys that got away that got the kid...not me."
The blond got right in the man's face, "I want a name...now!"
"He'll k...kill m...me!"
"It will be hard for him to kill a dead man, for I can assure you, if that young man dies, we will be first in line for that pleasure."
Ezra stepped closer to make his point.
"Ok...ok..." The man swallowed hard, his nose only inches from Chris' as the glaring blond leaned in even closer, "Polke...his name's Joseph Polke. Is the doc comin' now? I don't feel so good."
Chris released his hold as if discarding a piece of trash.
"You ain't a priority," he snarled, and stormed out, handing the keys to Vin.
Locking up and arranging for Poppet to once more guard the prisoner, Ezra and Vin headed back to the saloon, they needed a drink.
Nathan looked to Buck and Josiah to indicate he was ready to begin and the two men held onto the youth's chest and legs. JD hadn't roused once, but they couldn't risk him waking and moving while Nathan held a knife to him.
Buck looked away as Nathan cut into the swollen flesh and started poking around. The healer grew frustrated as the bullet refused to surface. Without warning, JD's eyes flew open and after a few fast breaths, he arched his back and trying to wriggle free, he screamed in agony. Buck leaned his head against the distressed boy's cheek.
"Easy, kid...I know it hurts, but we have to do this...try and relax..."
JD was oblivious to Buck's words and just got louder as he tried desperately to make sense of what was happening to him. Nathan cursed, stopping momentarily as they tried to still the young man.
Down below, in the saloon. Three men looked up as the scream pierced through the chatter in the saloon, stopping it instantly.
"Shit!" Larabee slammed down his whiskey and headed to the stairs, taking them two at a time, Vin held Ezra's arm as he went to follow.
"Best let them handle it, kid don't need no audience."
Ezra nodded and swigged back the whiskey he was nursing, "This is not a good day," he stated. Vin nodded.
Buck was struggling to hold and talk to his friend, Larabee swept in and as he reached JD's side, he cupped the boy's face in his strong hands and looked him in the eyes.
"JD...JD! Listen to me...listen...we need you to be strong here, I want you to let Nathan help you and then I need you to tell me what happened...can you do that for me, son, can you hold on just a little longer?"
JD's head was pounding. His shoulder was burning too, but his side... he felt sure Nathan was trying to tunnel a way through to his heart. He had heard Buck's voice, but couldn't understand what he was saying...now Chris was looking at him...what did he want? All JD wanted was to stop Nathan hurting him. Then some clarity...Chris was saying he wanted to know what happened...oh God...oh God!
"Ch...Chris...I didn't...I...I wasn't...tryin' to be a h...hero...honest."
"I know kid, I know..." Before he could say any more, JD was out. Chris looked at Buck,
"I'll keep hold of him, you be ready to talk to him if he wakes again."
Buck nodded gratefully and Nathan continued.
An hour later, four exhausted men sat back, relieved, as Nathan finally closed the wound and washed his hands.
"Now we wait," he stated, "And I guess I'd best go check on the prisoner."
Larabee nodded and addressed them all,
"Get someone to sit with him; I need to talk to everyone, at the jail, ten minutes."
Josiah stretched and nodded, Buck looked about ready to protest, then nodded also.
"I'll see if one of the ladies can help us out," Josiah promised to Buck, then left.
Buck looked around, then down at the unconscious form on the bed,
"You're gonna be fine kid, and we're gonna get the bastard who did this to you and the Greeleys, I promise." He absently stroked JD's head, then sat back to wait for his relief.
+ + + + + + +
With Inez watching JD, Buck joined the others at the jail. As soon as he entered, Chris began.
"They're burying the Greeleys tomorrow morning. As soon as it's done, I'm riding out to catch up with that bastard Polke, I'd appreciate any help I can get, but I'll understand if any of you want to stay around town." He focused on Buck.
"Reckon I should stay, Chris, no telling how this is gonna go for JD right now," Nathan suggested.
"And what if he improves?" Chris asked.
"Then I guess I should be there when you haul that murderer back here to hang."
"I hate the thought of him being alone...that's why he's in this mess now, but if there's one thing I know about that kid, he'd want this guy brought to justice, and he'd want *us* to do it."
Chris nodded, "That's settled then, as soon as the funeral's over...we ride."
As Inez fussed around JD's bed to make him more comfortable, she was aware she was being watched. She looked to see a pair of hooded hazel eyes trying to focus on her.
"Madre de Dias...muchacho, you are awake...would you like a drink?"
JD nodded slightly. Inez carefully lifted his head and helped him take a few sips of water. Placing him gently back onto his pillow, Inez walked over to the window and after searching the street for a moment, spotted her target.
"Buck...Buck!" She gestured him to come and slipped back inside. As they exited the jail, the six peacekeepers looked up as they heard Buck's name called out, and saw Inez at the window waving her arms. Buck went pale,
"Oh, God...no, please no." He ran full speed toward the saloon.
The others felt suddenly afraid and followed.
Buck almost skidded to a halt as he reached the door to the bedroom.
She smiled, and moved to the side to reveal the sleepy but awake young sheriff. Buck felt his eyes fill as he quickly reached the side of the bed.
"Aw kid...thank God." He pulled up a chair and took the young man's hot hand in his as his face lit up with a huge warm grin, turning as the rest of the men arrived at the door and then entered the room, relief evident on their faces.
Chris came into the young man's view as Nathan began his checks.
"Good to see you back with us, son," the blond half smiled.
JD swallowed, "Th...they killed 'em, Chris...a...all three." Tears ran from the corners of JD's eyes, Buck gently brushed them away as
Chris stepped closer.
"Ya did good, kid...you couldn't have done any more for them. This wasn't your fault, you did everything right." Chris leaned in closer, "I'm proud of you, ya hear? Now get well, we need you."
JD sobbed, "You gonna go g...get 'm?"
Chris nodded as Buck said, "Hell, yeah!"
Satisfied with his answer, JD drifted back to sleep as he whispered, "Good."
As the six men walked back to the town from the cemetery, their expressions were hard and determined. By the time they reached the town, Yosemite had their horses saddled and ready to ride out. Buck and Nathan insisted on checking on JD first.
Mary looked at the two men as they entered the room.
"I don't think he's too well," she informed them, "He's very hot."
Buck watched Nathan with concern as the healer checked the wounds and re-dressed them.
"He's fighting an infection, Buck...I don't think it's beating him, but he's really weak right now, maybe I should stay."
"Can you do anything more than the ladies or I can do?" Buck inquired.
"Nope, I guess not, just don't seem right to leave him alone like this."
"He won't be...I'm staying."
"No, my mind's set...I'm staying to take care of him, right now...he needs me more than Chris does. You go, Nathan in case anyone gets hurt. I'll walk ya down so's I can tell Chris."
Nathan nodded, and the two men walked to meet the others.
"I'm sorry, boys, I just can't leave him like this...I'd never forgive myself if..."
Chris leaned over from his saddle, "Buck, I ain't gonna lie to you, I could do with your help, and if things were different, we wouldn't be going either, but we have to, and I respect your decision. Watch your backs, both of you; we'll be back as soon as we can."
Buck faced his friends with a look of pure hatred, "I want that bastard back here alive...I feel obliged to let him know personally, how I feel about murdering families and gunning down kids barely out of short trousers."
Each man nodded, and touching their hats, they rode away. As he turned, Buck bumped in to a man, his hat black and pulled down over his eyes.
"My apologies, sir...I understand there's been some trouble in town... sorry to hear that five people died...my condolences."
Buck narrowed his eyes at the stranger..."Yeah, well...thanks, but it's still four. Excuse me."
Buck walked back in to the saloon as Polke watched, his stomach clenched. He had only asked out of curiosity, he didn't even know if the kid he'd gunned down would even recognize him. But now he felt obliged to make it a priority. He watched Buck from a discreet distance. He needed to find out which room in the town the young man was in and finish this.
+ + + + + + +
The five peacekeepers didn't stop until they came to the town of Rock Ridge, and only then because their horses were tired. News of the deaths and the lawmen's quest had spread and the men found people welcoming and helpful. One such encounter with a helpful townsman, was about to lead them to the second man who escaped that day.
Ezra politely introduced himself and requested to join the poker game. He was acknowledged and took a seat at the table. Knowing now, that one of the men at the table was the robber from Four Corners, Ezra studied and teased information from the gathering while the other four regulators watched.
"...So I'm headin' on up to Yuma...got no real urge ta go back the way I just been...don't reckon I'll be too welcome."
"Oh come now...a gentleman such as yourself would be welcome most anywhere, surely," Ezra coaxed.
"Naw...you'd reckon wrong there, young fella...I might have got me some money, but I ain't about to go back to where I got it from...too many people with revenge in mind, I reckon, still, that's what they get for gettin' in my way."
With the slightest of nods to his partners, Ezra stood, "Well, gentlemen, I'll take my leave and thank you for your company, it's been a pleasure."
"Ya goin'? We ain't done yet."
"Yes...you are," Chris growled from over the man's shoulder. Five guns clicked and the man paled.
"You gonna rob me?" he addressed the other patrons in the saloon, "Are y'all seein' this...?"
Larabee lifted the man out of his chair and slammed him down backward onto the poker table, scattering cards and money everywhere as the patrons clambered away.
"Let's see if they're still keen to help you when we tell 'em how you murdered a young married couple and their five year old boy, not to mention leaving a good friend of ours fighting for his life, and him not even full-grown yet."
The man on the table started squirming as the people around him murmured and whispered as they realized who this man was.
"I...it wasn't m...me," the man choked out a stammer as Chris' grip on his throat tightened.
"Yeah, that's what the other guy said, so this time, we ain't buyin' it."
"I...I swear...ok, ok...I may have shot at the kid...'coz he was shootin' at me, but I never killed that family...that was Polke."
"And where's Polke?" Vin insisted, pointing his gun in the man's face.
The man swallowed, "Said he had some unfinished business...said he was goin' back...to the town."
The blond pulled his prisoner up quickly, getting into his face, "If you're lyin' to me, you piece of shit, so help me I'll..."
"No...I swear, mister...he said he was goin' back!"
Chris practically threw the man toward the town's sheriff who had been alerted to the situation and was hovering near the batwing doors.
"Keep him locked up for us...we need to be somewhere."
"I know...good luck." The sheriff nodded, and took the robber away.
Five sober-faced men were soon heading away from Rock Ridge and back to Four Corners.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was wiping JD down for...well, he'd lost count at this point. For three days, the young man had been feverish and mumbling, as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Buck grew more concerned for his friend's state of mind as he occasionally listened to him calling out to the murdered family, so much anguish in his young voice. Once again he attempted to soothe the healing youth.
"Hey, kid...try and relax for ol' Buck huh? Yeah, that's good, nice and relaxed now."
JD was fighting sleep; he tried to focus on his friend's voice, eventually dragging himself through the fog.
"B...Buck...am...am I gonna die?"
"No, uh uh...you're doin' real good, kid. Here, take some water." JD gratefully sipped on the offered water and looked at his best friend, his eyes much clearer now.
"I'm sorry, Buck."
The ladies' man leaned in closer, "Sorry, what the hell are ya sorry for?"
"I...I couldn't save them, I tried...I'm so stupid."
Buck took the boy's face firmly in his large hand and looked him in the eyes.
"Don't you ever let me hear you say you're stupid...ya ain't stupid. None of this was your doin'. You did your best for those folks, just you remember that."
JD swallowed, keeping his eyes on Buck.
"Didn't save them though, did it?"
"By what I heard they were dead seconds after the robbers got out of the bank, no one's that fast, JD."
"N...not even Chris?"
Buck chuckled, "No, kid...not even Chris."
"Guess I was a little too late..."
Buck sighed and watched the youth drift back off to sleep.
"Yeah, kid, I guess you were, and that makes what you did all the braver for tryin', and you can't even hear me now, can ya?"
Suddenly, screaming from the street below had Buck on his feet and racing out of the door to locate the problem.
A few minutes later, the door to JD's room creaked open and Polke stepped inside. He walked over to the bed and watched the injured sheriff sleeping for a while.
As if whatever was holding him back disappeared, he pulled a pillow from under JD's head and as the youth's eyes popped open in fright, Polke placed the pillow over the now struggling boy's face and applied pressure.
As Buck hit the street his gun was drawn as his head twisted left and right to locate the problem. He saw Gloria Potter outside her shop looking decidedly uncomfortable.
"Is everything alright, Mrs. Potter?"
"Oh, Mr. Wilmington, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to alarm you, it's just that when the gentleman said he'd seen the rat run from the storeroom it kind of upset me."
Buck was looking around, "Man...what man?"
"The man in a black hat, he was just here. He went into the saloon, I think."
The ladies man nodded to Gloria and headed back to the saloon. As he entered he called to Inez as she was serving some men at the bar.
"Did you see a man in a black hat come in here in the last ten minutes?"
"Si, he went upstairs just after you came down."
"Is he staying here, was he with one of the girls?"
"I don't think so..." she watched Buck leap up the stairs, "What is it... what is wrong?"
Receiving no reply, she walked around the bar and followed him.
Buck's heart thudded in his chest, his stomach tight with fear, as he raced up the stairs to JD's room. On reaching the door, the sight that greeted him froze him momentarily to the spot.
"Nooo!" he bellowed. Regaining his composure, he launched himself at the man holding a pillow over his friend's face, hitting him hard with a body-check and sending them both to the floor, rolling around as they fought.
Inez arrived to see the scene but her eyes were drawn to the boy on the bed, gasping as she noticed him hanging to one side. She quickly reached him and pulled him straight and onto his back as she examined him for life signs.
"Muchacho, please, please breathe for me..." she begged, as she sat next to him now cradling him in her arms. Inez glanced across at the two men for a moment then placed her ear to JD's lips and listened.
Buck tore into Polke with a fury he had been holding onto ever since the six peacekeepers had returned to town and discovered the deaths of the family and JD's condition, further fuelled by his intense fear of what his friend's condition was right at this moment.
Polke was equally driven, he had no desire to hang and all he wanted now was to get away from this crazy man and leave town. The men traded hefty blows as they continued to roll around on the floor
Inez slapped JD's face in desperation, her efforts rewarded when JD inhaled sharply.
"Oh, Madre de Dias...gracias...thank you, thank you..." she hugged the youth to her chest as she rocked him.
Momentarily distracted, Buck looked toward his two friends. Polke seized his chance, and reaching out, he found a small footstool and smashed it into the side of Buck's head. Inez screamed as the ladies' man grunted and rolled over, unconscious.
Polke jumped to his feet and looked at the pair on the bed. Despite her fear, Inez cradled JD protectively toward her, a defiant look aimed at Polke, momentarily slipping as she quickly looked to Buck in an attempt to assess his condition, paling slightly as she saw the blood beginning to cover one side of his face.
Polke was about to approach her when a noise on the street below alerted him. He looked out to see dust rising from the hasty arrival of five horses.
He pointed his gun at her and instructed her to stand near the door. Reluctant to leave JD, she stayed seated, still holding the youth.
Polke slapped her.
"I said get up!"
Just gaining some clarity, JD looked angrily at Polke, "Hey!" he croaked. The robber stepped forward and grabbed at the boy's hair.
"Shut the hell up and get dressed, we three are going for a little walk."
"He is too weak..." Inez begun, Polke raised his gun.
"He gets dressed or he dies here...which is it to be?"
"May I help him, por favor?"
Polke nodded, "Hurry up." The barmaid helped JD pull on his pants that had been lying over a chair since the shooting.
"We will have to leave your nightshirt on," she advised. JD nodded his understanding; he had no desire to put on the bloody shirt from the day he had been shot. For the first time, he noticed Buck's still form on the floor.
"Buck?...Buck...oh God!" He went to go to him. Polke pulled back the hammer on the gun. Inez restrained the young sheriff, placing her small hands on his face.
"No, muchacho...we do as the man says...yes?"
She could see how torn the boy was, but relaxed a little as he nodded once, dropping his gaze in defeat. She kissed him on the head and helped him to his feet.
"Is there a back stairs outta here?"
A quick nod.
"Get goin'," Polke ordered and the three left the room, JD looking back misty-eyed at his motionless, bleeding friend, the man he looked to as a brother, silently praying he was alive, as he painfully walked out.
+ + + + + + +
Chris dismounted and searched the street with his eyes. He turned to the others.
"Ezra, you go to JD's room and check on him," he held the Southerner's arm, "Use the back stairs, and be careful."
Ezra saluted and disappeared.
"Vin, pick a rooftop opposite the saloon, I get the feeling this may be where he might've headed."
Vin nodded once and crossed the street.
"Josiah, go to the hotel, see who's checked in recently, Nathan, come with me."
The men separated, Chris and Nathan entered the saloon and looked around. Approaching one of the tables, the blond addressed one of the men sitting there.
"Have you seen Buck around here?"
The man shrugged, "No, an' fer that matter ain't seen no dang barmaid either, we're dyin' o' thirst here."
Chris and Nathan glanced at each other but before they could comment, a gunshot alerted them and they headed for the stairs.
Ezra was at the back of the saloon and had started to carefully make his way up the stairwell on the outside of the building. He was half- way up when the door at the top opened and he saw Inez and JD stumble through. He was just about to speak when JD looked panicked toward him and called in a shaky voice.
Before he could react, there was a belch of gunfire and the gambler jolted and tumbled over the stair rail and down to the ground below.
"No!" the youth yelled as Inez gasped and fought the tears pooling in her eyes.
Polke yanked them both hard, back inside the building and returned the way they had come. Halfway down the corridor, the three came face to face with a running Larabee and Jackson. Polke kicked open another bedroom door and as he hustled his captives inside, he fired off two rounds, satisfied on hearing a yelp from the hallway as he slammed the bedroom door closed.
Chris and Nathan reached the top of the stairs and as they looked to their left they saw a very pale JD and distressed Inez just in front of an armed stranger. Their hesitation to fire for fear of hitting their friends gave Polke the opportunity to react first and two shots whistled toward them. As Chris watched the stranger push his two friends into a bedroom, he became aware of a cry from behind and turned to see Nathan clutching his arm. Larabee pulled the healer into the room where JD had originally been.
"Not too bad, bullet's gone straight through," Nathan gasped, then something on the floor of the bedroom caught his attention, "Ah hell!"
Chris followed his gaze and saw Buck sprawled out and bleeding on the floor.
Chris helped Nathan down onto the bed and passed him a towel to staunch the flow of blood. Instructing Nathan to watch the door, he then dropped down onto the floor to check on Buck. He checked for a pulse. Satisfied, he gently rolled the big man over onto his back and gently tapped his face.
"Buck...hey, Buck...wake up...can you hear me?...Wake up, big guy."
Wilmington knew he was in trouble as soon as his stomach roiled with a sudden movement. He could hear a familiar voice but couldn't open his eyes. He tried answering but his mouth wouldn't move. A sharp pain to his cheek finally pulled his eyes open.
"Yeah, it's me. What the hell happened?" The blond gently started to bring his friend to a sitting position.
Wincing and struggling to focus, Buck swallowed hard for a moment, eager to suppress the bile rising in his throat. A few seconds later, he finally managed to focus on a pair of green eyes and pinched features.
"What's pissed you off?" Buck grunted, touching his hand to his bloody head. Chris grabbed a towel and placed it against the head wound, guiding Buck's hand to hold it in place.
"Ooh, I don't know...I just heard a gunshot, and I haven't seen Ezra yet, Nathan's taken a bullet to his arm, I found you unconscious on the floor and I've just seen JD and Inez being hustled into a bedroom by an armed man...pick one!"
Buck's eyes widened as he grabbed the blond's arm, "JD...you saw him... he's ok?"
"I'll bet my horse he's been better, what happened?"
"I got distracted and went to check something out. When I got back, some guy was holding a pillow against his face..." Buck's eyes misted as he whispered, "I thought he was dead."
"Well he don't look dead...but he don't look good either."
The door banging open caused Larabee to draw his gun, relaxing a little as he saw Josiah dragging in a bleeding Ezra. Chris closed his eyes and sighed.
+ + + + + + +
Hearing the gunshot, Josiah drew his firearm and made his way to the alley next to the saloon. He carefully peered around the corner to be greeted by the sight of a man in a familiar red coat, lying in a heap just below the external stairs to the saloon. Ensuring the area was safe, Josiah jogged over to the prone figure and gently turned him over. Sweaty features and a pair of green eyes looked up at him.
"Mister Sanchez, it would appear I am a little incapacitated," Ezra gasped.
"Lay still, Ezra, let me see." He gently moved the man's jacket and pulled out the once white, now crimson, shirt to reveal a gouge along the underside of his ribs on the right side.
"Did you hurt anything when you fell?" Josiah asked.
"Only my pride," the Southerner smiled.
"Well then, I'm happy to say...you'll live! Can you walk?"
"Help me up," Standish extended his hand and Josiah clasped it and pulled him to his feet as the younger man inhaled sharply and screwed up his face. Regaining his composure and leaning heavily on Sanchez, Ezra looked back at the stairs.
"It may be prudent to enter from there," he gestured.
"I agree, brother," and the two men made their way slowly back in to the saloon by way of the back stairs.
They heard gunshots and cautiously peered inside, but seeing it was clear they made their way toward JD's room.
+ + + + + + +
From his vantage point just to one side and opposite the saloon, Vin had seen Ezra fall and Josiah help him. He had heard gunfire but had seen no sign of his friends since. He had also observed movement in a window further along from JD's room but the drapes had been drawn and now he could see nothing. He decided to switch positions and climb to the roof of the saloon instead.
From his new position, Vin looked down over the front of the saloon. A small ledge ran along the underside of the windows and he felt confident he could work his way along it to reach the room he was now sure someone close to him was in.
Slowly, he started the precarious climb down, his mare's leg strapped securely over his shoulder by means of its holster and belt. As he reached the window he clung to the wood and waited for an opportunity.
JD sat on the bed in the darkened room, shivering with exhaustion. Inez approached Polke.
"May I put him to bed? He's unwell."
Polke sneered, "No, if it wasn't for his friend and you, he'd be dead. Now sit down and shut up...I need to think."
"You don't need her..." JD whispered, "Please, haven't you killed enough people? Let her leave."
Polke strode toward him, his hand raised as if ready to hit out, "Are you deaf? I thought I told you to..."
Inez pulled JD toward her, "Please, señor ...he's not himself..."
Polke stopped and huffed. He backed away and sat in a chair near the window. He had to think...had to get away. He knew he was up against a formidable force now, but he felt sure he had clipped a few wings, and he had hostages, but where to go from here.
He'd recognized Larabee instantly; there was no way that man was going to let him ride out, with or without hostages. He looked at the two on the bed, should he kill one of them to make his point? The kid was pretty sick, should he be the one? Or the woman...Damn it... well done, Joseph, he berated himself...he'd killed a young family and now he was holding a woman and a kid...perfect...perfectly stupid. They wouldn't just hang him, they'd hang, draw and quarter him.
Maybe it was time to cut his losses...go out in a blaze of glory...and take down as many as he could along the way.
+ + + + + + +
Chris looked around at his injured friends. He was relieved no one was seriously hurt, but he was not happy at the sheer number of casualties, not to mention JD and Inez's predicament. Buck stumbled to his feet.
"Where the hell are you goin'?" the blond asked.
"To get that bastard Polke, are you coming?" Larabee pushed him gently back into a chair, "Sit down and give yourself a minute." Chris suddenly cocked his head to one side, after a moment or two he looked at Josiah.
"Look after them." He moved to the door.
"Mind telling me where you're goin' brother."
Larabee looked into his eyes, "Vin."
Josiah nodded his understanding and closed the door as the blond left.
Vin listened at the window. It had been quiet...too quiet. He knew they were running out of time, this guy must be getting antsy...he gripped his gun, now in his right hand as his left held him close to the wall. Instinctively he knew Larabee was making his move, and he prepared.
JD felt like shit. He was bleeding again and his bandaged head was pounding in time to his accelerated heart beat. He was afraid, but not for himself. He had been unable to save the Greeleys, and he couldn't bear the thought of anything happening to Inez...or Mary for that matter, his thoughts drifted back momentarily to their stroll home that night before all hell broke loose. He had seen his best friend unconscious on the floor, and another tumbling off a stairway from a gunshot. He steeled himself, there was no way this man was going to hurt anyone else...even if he had to die to stop him.
Larabee pressed his ear to the door of the bedroom...he was ready.
Vin sucked in a deep breath...he was ready.
Polke stood and approached the bed, pointing his gun.
"Well, this has been fun, but I have to go..." he cocked the gun. With a strength he didn't think was in him, JD launched himself at the man, the gun firing as it pointed to the ceiling.
"Nooo!" the youth yelled as he landed on the man.
Simultaneously, Larabee kicked in the door and the window shattered, the curtains dropping to the floor as the tracker tumbled through it. Larabee rolled as he flew in and protectively dived onto the bed to cover Inez with his body. JD was quickly overpowered and Polke smashed his gun hand into the boy's face, rendering him unconscious.
Polke was just about to strike again when a feral growl, accompanied by the feel of cold steel at his ear, halted him.
"I'd be obliged if you moved off of him."
Polke rolled onto his back to see a gun in his face and eyes of blue steel piercing him with a look of determination. The robber dropped his gun and yielded.
Buck and Josiah were there in an instant. Buck, seeing Inez was with Chris and seemed fine, his attention went to the floor.
Vin hauled Polke up by his collar. The tracker righted a chair and pushed the man into it. Keeping his gun trained on the outlaw, he watched Buck as he examined JD.
"Is the kid ok?"
Buck turned, his eyes bright. "I think so, he's out cold...I need to get him to a bed."
Josiah put a comforting hand on Buck's hunched shoulder.
"Allow me, friend."
He scooped the boy up into his arms and they all moved back to JD's original room where they found Mary and Mrs. Potter dressing Nathan and Ezra's wounds. Ezra was perched on the end of the bed, his ribs exposed as Mrs. Potter bound them. He watched Josiah place the young sheriff gently down behind him.
"Is he...?" Ezra started.
"Alright? We think so," Josiah finished.
Jackson got up and moved to examine him. Mary sighed.
"Please, ma'am...I need to check on him, I'm fine."
Buck settled close to his friend's head, "It's ok now, kid...it's ok now."
+ + + + + + +
Larabee and Tanner frog-marched Polke to the jail, while townsfolk glowered and stared at the outlaw as he moved through them. As Chris locked the jail door, he glared at the man.
"The Judge is on his way...you'll hang soon...which in my opinion is too good for you. You make me sick."
With that, they locked the outer cell and settled in for guard duty.
Early in the morning two days later, found JD feeling much better. He was still in the room above the saloon and he looked across at the bandaged head of his sleeping friend as he shifted in the bed.
Buck was instantly awake and, sitting upright in his chair, looked at him, smiling.
"Hey...how are you?"
"I'm fine...what's all the banging?"
Buck's face darkened slightly, "Gallows...Polke's hanging this morning."
JD's face saddened, "Oh God...the Greeleys...oh Buck..."
The ladies' man was shocked to see his young friend so overcome with emotion. He sat down on the bed and pulled him close to comfort him.
"Now, we done had this talk already...you did everything you could."
"I know...I'm sorry...it's just..."
"Yeah...I know what you mean," Buck sighed, and the two friends sat together reflecting on the unnecessary loss of three good people.
By midday, Polke had been hanged and laid to rest. Chris looked down at the grave, flanked by the others except for Buck and JD. He spat on the grave.
"I hope you rot in hell, you bastard."
The five peacekeepers turned to walk back to town, they hadn't been able to save the Greeleys, but JD had survived, and the murderer had paid...with his life.
FOUR WEEKS LATER
As the tears fell, JD felt no shame, wiping his sleeve across his face to dry his eyes. He placed the flowers, three small separate bunches on three separate graves, fingering each carved cross as he did so. Mary and Inez stepped next to him, each slipping an arm through his, smiling at him. The three friends turned and walked back down the slight slope to six waiting men. As JD reached Buck, the big man nodded to the ladies as they released their hold on the young sheriff and fell into step with the others.
Buck gave his friend's shoulder a squeeze.
"It's gonna hurt for a while, kid, but just focus on the fact you survived and that you learned from it."
JD nodded. Chris joined them.
"JD, there will be many times in your life like this...one of which may be down to a mistake, another could end your life, but for the here and now, just remember, you did good, and no one can take that away from you."
With a feeling of renewed hope, JD smiled and nodded, looking across at the people he cared for more than life itself.
Nine people walked slowly back to a town they had grown fond of, and seven of them would defend, for as long as they were needed.