Author's Note: Old West fanfic featuring all 7. Set (probably) after the end of the TV series.
Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters in The Magnificent Seven nor do I own the character of John J Dunbar - he belongs to Kevin Costner (Cheers Kev).
Summary: A stranger delivers a gift to JD which has consequences for all of the Seven.
The stranger's arrival was witnessed by a pair of only mildly curious green eyes. From his seat at the raised card table to the side of the bar Ezra Standish noted the tired worn movements of one whose life was lived upon the trail. The rough demeanour and hoarse speech combined with the filthy worn state of the man's clothing indicated that there was little hope of profit to be made by enticing him into a game of chance.
The sea green gaze returned to the study of the brightly painted playing cards being spaced patiently and evenly on the green baize surface of the table. Then Ezra heard the stranger ask Inez a question that made him prick up his ears and listen more carefully.
"I'm looking for someone. I was told he lived in this town."
"There are lots of men in this town senor," the young Hispanic woman answered carelessly.
"This one is the sheriff?" The man upended his small shot glass and looked longingly at its empty liquor coated surface. "His name is John Dunbar Dunne."
Moving with deceptively casual grace Ezra pocketed his deck of cards, straightened the cuffs and lapels of his scarlet wool jacket and sauntered casually over to the bar.
"Miss Recillos this gentleman's glass is empty." The gambler smiled disarmingly and the gold tooth in the corner of his smile glinted in the afternoon light.
"He only paid for one shot," came the sullen answer.
A quick glare was bestowed upon the young woman who shrugged and refilled the glass.
"I'll put it on your tab," she said before Ezra could issue the instruction.
Pouring a drink for himself The Southerner leaned his back against the polished wood of the bar and said,
"Why are you looking for this Mr. Dunne?"
The stranger's eyes narrowed.
"Do you know him?"
"It's a common name." Ezra sipped delicately at his drink.
"I was told specific to make sure I found a John Dunbar Dunne. No other."
"Is he talking about JD?" Inez had wandered back to eavesdrop on the conversation. The question earned her another furious glare from the gambler.
"That was what I was endeavouring to ascertain," he snapped. "That and the purpose of this gentleman's need to locate his Mr. Dunne. After all," he bulldozed on. "He could be an assassin or a bounty hunter or a disgruntled relative seeking revenge for some perceived misdeed for all we know!"
The young woman looked suitably abashed and took herself back to polishing glasses.
"So he is here?"
"There is a Mr J D Dunne here, yes, but whether or not he is your Mr Dunne is another matter."
"Well if he is I'll be mighty grateful. I've spent over a year trying to find his sorry hide and all on the strength of a rash promise."
The gambler raised a curious eyebrow but the stranger had had enough.
"Mister," he grumbled. "I'm tired! No, I'm plumb worn out looking for this man. I got something for him, something I promised to get to him and if you want to hear why then you better start telling me where the hell I can find him!"
"Find who?" Vin Tanner had approached on silent tracker feet and was now standing just behind and to one side of the traveller.
"John Dunbar Dunne!" Came the agitated reply. "Now is he here or ain't he?"
"John Dunbar?" Vin muttered the name thoughtfully to himself. "Why's that name sound familiar?"
"Cos it's his Pa's name!" Said the exasperated man. "And what I got for him is from his Pa."
Both peacekeepers opened their eyes wide and stared.
"You have an item for Mr Dunne which is from his Father?"
It was a rare thing to hear Ezra amazed and Vin grinned broadly.
"Reckon we'd best show him the way Ez."
"Indeed Mr Tanner," came the bemused reply. There wasn't even any protest about the shortening of Ezra's name.
"Come on with us." Tanner motioned with his head for the man to follow and they made their way across the street to the sheriff's office.
It took a moment or two for their eyes to adjust to the gloom inside the small building but gradually the form of J D Dunne took shape. The young man was hanging his chair on it's two back legs as he lounged, feet on the desk, and read up on the wanted posters which resided in the desk drawer.
"Visitor for you JD," Vin Tanner announced.
The young man looked puzzled as he swung his legs down to their proper position and his brown eyes peered up in bewilderment from beneath the brim of his bowler hat.
"You John Dunbar Dunne?" The stranger pushed past his escorts and planted himself before the diminutive sheriff.
Ezra and Vin watched fascinated as a slow blush crept up their companions cheeks.
"Ain't heard anyone call me that in a long time," he mumbled. "But yeah, I'm him. I mean that's me."
"Thank the good lord for that!" Exclaimed the traveller. "Here."
He rummaged in the capacious saddle bags slung over one shoulder and brought out a small dusty bundle. Wrapped in cured buffalo hide it was about the size and shape of a book. He laid it on the cluttered surface of the desk then let out an enormous sigh.
"I promised your Pa I'd get that to you and now I'm done. My life is mine again."
"My, my Pa?" Gulped the young man in disbelief. "But my Pa is dead."
The dusty man bestowed a look of genuine compassion on JD. The lad before him was barely more than a boy and knowing what he did of the man who had given him the parcel to deliver he could understand why he might have been told that he had no living father.
"Well, son, for all I know that may well be the case by now but all I can tell you is that the man who gave this to me was very much alive and he made me swear I wouldn't rest until I found you."
With trembling fingers Dunne reached out for the object and drew it towards him.
"What is it?"
"Couldn't say for sure. He sealed it and it would've taken a braver man than me to open it up."
Turning the package over in his hands the young peacekeeper saw that the folds of hide were indeed held shut by blobs of brown wax which had been pressed by the fingers of someone wishing to keep it's contents a secret.
Swallowing hard he managed to croak,
"I'm much obliged to you for your trouble. Do I owe you anything?"
"Nope." The man shook his head vigorously and Ezra moved back sharply to avoid the small cloud of dust and detritus that flew from him. "Your Pa saved my life. This was the price he asked of me. Now we're even and if you good folks will excuse me I intend to push straight on to Bitter Creek. I hear there's a vein of silver there that can feed a man for life"
He gave a final tug at the brim of his battered hat once he had replaced it on his head and strode from the office leaving a pregnant silence amongst the three lawmen.
JD stared at his two friends like a rabbit in the sights of gun.
"Aren't ya gonna open it?" Vin asked at last.
"I, I'm not sure," the younger man stammered.
"Perhaps JD would prefer the moment to be a private one," Ezra suggested in an uncharacteristically sympathetic voice. "After all it isn't every day one discovers a parent resurrected from the grave."
The words seemed to sting the young lawman into movement. Leaping to his feet he clutched the parcel to his chest and pushed past his two friends without a word. They turned to watch in astonishment as he meted out the same treatment to his mentor Buck Wilmington whose greeting died on his lips as he watched his friend flee to the shelter of the livery stable.
"What the hell's bitten JD?" He demanded as his tall rangy frame negotiated the doorway of the town jail. "He damn near ran me off the sidewalk."
"He's had something of a shock," Ezra said.
Never having known his own Father the smart dressing, smart talking gambler could only imagine the turmoil that must be spinning around in his friend's head. He almost felt that he should follow the boy and offer his ear, if nothing else, but the idea became moot as the doors of the livery barn swung open and JD appeared leading his nimble bay horse. In one smooth movement he leapt onto the creatures back and without even bothering to fit his feet to the stirrups he headed out of town in a flurry of dust.
"Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?" Buck asked scratching his head. His dark moustache was twitching with annoyance and the movement intensified as Ezra wandered away muttering something about it being JD's place to explain whilst Vin simply stood staring into the middle distance with a concentrated frown on his face.
"I know I've heard that name somewhere before," he murmured at last before dogging Ezra's steps and leaving the tall dark ladies man alone and bewildered outside the door of the jail.
As the evening gave way to darkness the remaining three peacekeepers returned to the town. Chris Larrabee the unspoken leader of the small force slouched like a shadow in his saddle. Dust clung to his dark coat and pants and his face was hidden beneath the dark brim of his hat making him a ghost in the twilight.
To one side of him rode the burly serape clad figure of Josiah Sanchez the former priest who had forsaken the cloth for a gun and on his other side rode the figure of Nathan Jackson who had fought in the war to win and defend his freedom and exercised it by healing those in the small town who came looking for his help.
He also tendered treatment to the Seminole Indian tribe who had taken up residence on the small reservation a days ride from the town. He had been there for the last two days not only treating wounds and ailments but also visiting with Rain, the young woman who was fast on the way to stealing his heart.
Larabee and Sanchez had swung by to escort him home as they returned from Sweetwater, a small settlement which - thanks to their efforts - now no longer had a cattle rustling problem.
"What's been happening?" Chris asked Buck laconically as he swung down from his tired horse. The gunslingers oldest friend was fairly hopping with agitation as he paced up and down outside the door of the livery.
"Did you see JD on your way in?" He asked.
"Why no," Josiah's bass voice rumbled. "Should we have?"
"He lit out of here hours ago like a pup with its tail on fire!" Larrabee could tell that the tall man was worried, very worried. He clucked and bullied Dunne like an older brother but deep down he cared deeply for the boy and Chris could understand why. JD's enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him and he had a tendency to get himself into, at times, life threatening scrapes.
"What was up with him?"
Larabbee pushed gently past Buck and led his mount to its stall.
"That's just it," Buck snapped. "For once in his life that goddamn southern dandy has decided to keep his mouth shut tight and Vin took off for the reservation before I could get anything out of him sayin' he'd be back tomorrow."
"He didn't pass us," Nathan Jackson spoke from where he was unsaddling his own horse.
"Well, begging your pardon Nathan but if Vin didn't want you to you wouldn't see him if he was stealing your teeth in the dark."
"Brother Buck, I think you need to calm down." Josiah rested a bear-like arm across his friend's shoulders and steered him out into the burgeoning moonlight.
"JD will be back as soon as he's ready," the preacher soothed. "And if Vin needed to speak to Chanu or Kojay then I'm sure he had his reasons for rushing off. He'll be back shortly too."
"Which still leaves us one source of knowledge." Larrabee grinned meanly joining his friends. "Let's go see if we can shake up some southern tongue."
Ezra saw his companions came in from the corner of his eye and from the look on Chris's face he could guess exactly what their intention would be. He felt somewhat annoyed with Vin for leaving him to face the music alone but that feeling was tempered by a good degree by concern for JD. He had expected the young man to return by now and his continued absence was worrying.
As the four men approached the card table the gambler held up one placatory hand in a gesture of resistance.
"I'm not going to tell you anything," he said resolutely.
"Haven't asked you anything yet." Chris Larabbee planted his knuckles on the smooth baize and gave Ezra one of his coolest stares.
"Good. Then I'll save you the trouble."
The Southerner made as if to gather up his game of solitaire but was pressed back down into his seat by the immovable force of Josiah Sanchez's hands being placed heavily on his shoulders.
"Don't be in such a hurry to leave brother."
Ezra could hear the grin in the big man's voice and subsided with good grace.
"Look," he said in his most reasonable tone. "What happened today is Mr Dunne's concern and I will not divulge anything unless he tells me I may do so."
"We ain't asking you to tell us any kind of private stuff." Nathan said impatiently. "We just want to know why JD rode out like Buck says he did."
The gambler sighed.
"But that is my point Mr Jackson. There is nothing I can tell you that will not infringe upon Mr Dunne's privacy."
"Privacy's one thing," Chris growled. "But you know what a nose that boy has for trouble."
"It's alright Ezra. I appreciate you not telling but I got nothing to hide anymore."
Five sets of eyes turned to stare at the dishevelled figure of JD Dunne standing in the doorway of the saloon. The young man looked as if every ounce of stuffing had been knocked from him. His dark tangled hair fell over eyes which looked suspiciously red rimmed and streaks of white showed through the dirt which liberally coated his face. Still clutched in his hand was the battered gift which had been delivered to him that afternoon.
"Where the hell you been boy?"
Buck's anger made his words fiercer than he had intended and he didn't know whether to shake the boy till his teeth rattled or to hug him till he begged for breath.
"I needed some time alone," came the subdued reply. "To read this."
He flung the package onto the table and the folds of hide fell open to reveal a stained and water damaged journal bound in faded red leather.
"No wonder she told me he was dead," he said bitterly.
Turning on his heel the young man punched open the bat wing doors and strode away into the night. Buck made to follow him but was pulled up short by Larabbee's fingers biting into his arm.
"Leave him Buck. He needs some space."
"How the hell would you know what he needs?"
Hurt and anguish burned in Buck's dark eyes as he saw his young friend in pain and was powerless to do anything to stop it.
"What in the lord's name is that anyway?" Josiah lifted his chin and gestured towards the book.
"I believe it belonged to his father," Ezra said quietly.
All four of the gambler's companions looked with astonishment at the tatty red book.
"But JD said his Father was dead." Nathan frowned.
"I believe he did," said Ezra sadly.
"Well I'm going to look for him." Buck pulled free of his friend angrily. "You all may want to keep your distance but I think the boy needs a friend right now."
The doors swung to and fro for several seconds after the rangy peacekeeper had loped from the bar.
"What should we do with this?" Larabbee returned his gaze to the journal.
"Keep it safe for him," Ezra spoke. "I know he's angry right now but when he calms down and sees things a little more dispassionately, I believe JD will want his Father's book."
"Here, you look after it then." Chris pushed it across the green baize towards Ezra.
"Oh, no, I really don't think..."
"I'll take it." Josiah leaned down over his friends shoulder and picked the book up. It looked significantly smaller in his great hands. "Tell him I have it."
Sanchez made his way out of the saloon.
"That was real honourable of you Ezra, not wanting to tell us about JD." Nathan studied the cardsharp with narrowed eyes. "Sometimes I almost believe there's a heart buried under all that fancy silk and ruffles."
The gambler turned a vacuous smile to the tall ex-slave standing over him.
"I wouldn't be too quick to believe such a thing Mr Jackson," he quipped.
"Have it your own way Ezra." The healer smiled and shook his head as he took his leave of the saloon too.
That left only Chris Larabbee to interrupt Ezra's solitaire.
"Still here Chris?" the pretended joviality was turned onto the man in black.
"Don't come that with me Ezra," he said returning the false smile with one of his own. "I know why you didn't want to tell us but JD could have been lying hurt somewhere. It was too big a chance to take."
"Mr Dunne is very capable of looking after himself." Ezra's deck was now being shuffled with expert lightening fast fingers. "But since we're talking of chance, may I interest you in a game?"
"Not tonight Ezra." Chris walked away, his spurs jingling with every step and the gambler relaxed a little in his seat as he waited for Dunne to return. Soon the saloon began to wind down for the night. The last of the stragglers left to wend their weary and inebriated ways home and Inez fussed around behind the bar until she could no longer stifle the yawns of exhaustion that came over her every few minutes.
"Oh I do beg your pardon, Inez, I didn't mean to keep you." Ezra barely looked up as he spoke but kept his attention on the cards moving from one hand to the other. "I'm expecting some company so if you would like to retire for the night I would be more than happy to lock up for you."
"Well..." She hesitated but looked longingly at the stairs which led to her room and the soft comfort of her bed.
"I have performed the task on previous occasions," he reminded her. "When I owned the place."
The young woman had the grace to look just a little discomforted.
"I guess it would be ok."
She placed her keys on the table beside the whisky bottle that had accompanied the gambler for most of the evening. She had thought that it would be empty but in fact Inez could see that the level had hardly dropped at all.
"Are you waiting for JD?"
"Good night Miss Recillos. Sleep well."
She had rarely been dismissed so charmingly but the young woman grumbled to herself as she climbed the stairs. She had a feeling that she had not been entirely forgiven for her carelessness earlier in the day and allowing Ezra to have the keys was a conciliatory gesture.
The scarlet coated man poured himself a drink and leaned back to savour the silence around him. Very soon the creaks and ticks of settling timbers began sound and he could see through the window that the moon was fully risen. He was about to admit to himself that he might just have been mistaken with regard to JD's return when they doors squealed open and the youngest of the seven peacekeepers crept back into the saloon.
Without a word he joined Ezra at the card table and accepted the small glass of whisky placed before him.
"Thanks for waiting," he mumbled. "How did you know."
"It is my business to second guess the actions of others Mr Dunne." Ezra swallowed his drink and poured another. "Besides, you and I share some circumstances of our backgrounds."
"I don't know what hurts worse." There was a wobble in the youngster's voice that made him gulp his drink in an effort to control it. "The fact that my Mom lied to me or the reason why she did it."
"If you wish to relieve yourself of some of your burden I am more than willing to listen."
For a while JD did not reply then as if coming to a decision he sniffed loudly and began to speak so quietly that the gambler had to strain to make out some of the words.
"My Mom always said my Pa was a soldier. That he'd been injured in the war. He came to the attention of the man she worked for when he did some heroic ride across a field of battle and roused the beaten army to rise up and fight back."
JD took another swallow of his whisky and did not object when Ezra topped up his glass.
"Because of his bravery the Colonel brought him back to his house and had him treated there by his very own physician."
Ezra could just about make out his companion's earnest stare in the darkness.
"They were going to cut his foot off before then. He told my Mom that was why he took the horse and charged across the field. He figured he'd rather die a whole hero in one of the last battles than live with bits of him missing."
The Southerner nodded silently recalling tales told to him by a favourite uncle, who had fought in the war, of his own brothers in arms who had elected to depart on wings of glory rather than remain maimed or crippled men.
"Anyway, while he was at the Colonel's house they kind of got to know one another. My Mom always said she loved him more than anyone in the world till she had me so I guess that's why she..."
The young man's voice trailed into embarrassed silence.
"There is no shame in what your Mother did JD. Where there is true love there will always be honour."
"So much for his honour!" Spat the angry young man. "He was posted to the frontier when he was recovered enough and even though my Mom wrote to tell him that she was, well, you know...expecting me, he never came back for her."
"Perhaps he did not receive her letter," Ezra suggested.
"He got it alright. He got it the day before he was due to leave for his posting at Fort Sedgwick. He wrote back saying he'd stand by her and marry her as soon as he was able to come back but later she got word that the fort had been wiped out by Indians and my Mom ended up alone with me to feed and care for."
"And an excellent job she made of it too."
Finally Ezra perceived a glimpse of JD's usual smile.
"Thanks Ez but it don't excuse the fact that he let her think he was dead all those years."
Ezra studied his drink intently for some time then at length he said slowly,
"The heart is a most peculiar thing JD. It can lead one astray at the most awkward of times. It can make one undertake actions which make no sense in hindsight yet which seem perfectly natural at the time."
"I know you're talking about that time you came back for us at the Seminole village."
"I was not!"
"It's alright, really it is. We all know deep down how much you really like us."
"Mr Dunne we are discussing your good self not me."
With a grin the young man went on with his story.
"I went out to the water hole and read the journal right through." JD breathed hard. "He was a traitor of the worst kind. No wonder she could never bring herself to tell me the truth. My Pa weren't killed by Indians, he became one."
"Do you mean to say he became assimilated into a tribe?"
The boy nodded slowly.
"Lakota Sioux. He dressed like them, learned to speak like them, even ended up looking enough like one to marry some squaw."
There was a small shocked silence whilst the gambling man took all of the information in. Choosing his words with care he began,
"Well now, you know, our Mr Tanner has lived with both Kiowa and Comanche. If one is inclined towards such a lifestyle it must be quite seductive."
"But Vin never married one and he never turned his back on his own people! All this John Dunbar could write about was how good the Indians were and how awful the whites were. He painted pictures of them, he took an Indian name even!"
"Towards the end of the book he scrawled all across one page 'I have never really known who John J Dunbar was, perhaps the name itself had no meaning.' But it's my name too, the one given to me by my Mom because of him! Does that mean I mean nothing too?"
With a sob JD put his head down on his arms and began to cry.
Not quite sure how to deal with such an open display of emotion Ezra sat beside his young friend patting his shoulder awkwardly and uttering soothing noises.
"You know JD you had a bad shock today," he said gently. "Which would have influenced your mind when reading your..." He hesitated. "Your Father's book. In a day or so when your thoughts have settled perhaps you might wish to read it again. His words or the meaning behind them may become.."
"No!" JD howled savagely. "My father was a traitor! He abandoned my Mom and me and he turned on his own people! I never want to hear about him ever again."
With a final angry sob the boy jerked himself up from the table and hurried away leaving Ezra once again alone with his thoughts.
+ + + + + + +
In the dilapidated church on the far side of the little town Josiah Sanchez was likewise deep in silent contemplation. On the rickety wooden table next to him the red bound journal lay in the flickering amber warmth of the candles that burned constantly since the former preachers arrival in the township. He had not opened or read the book. He did not feel he had that right. But at some time in the past pages had been torn from the spine. This in turn had loosened others and when he had taken the book from his pocket earlier one of the loose leaves had fallen free and floated to the dusty floor.
Bending to retrieve it Sanchez had been unable to help noticing what was on it. In delicate watered inks and pen was a sketch of an Indian. Probably one of the Sioux nation, he had guessed by the costume and unmistakeably a medicine man or shaman of some sort.
Whoever had executed the drawing had undergone expensive tutoring or else possessed the rare gift of true talent. Josiah could tell by the care and attention to detail how important the man on the page must have been to the artist and he could not help remembering Red Cloud the Cherokee medicine man who had helped him to take the first faltering steps towards freedom in his own beliefs and his own love of god.
Josiah sighed heavily and sat back on the hard wooden pew. What JD was feeling towards his father right now, he guessed again, was probably not that different to how his parents had felt when he had announced that he was leaving: Not only his home and his family but also the fold of the god that his own father had used to dominate and tyrannise himself and Hannah for so many years.
Only now with the hindsight of experience could he even begin to understand how scared and inadequate his parent must have felt to abuse the spirits of his wife and children so. The lord had finally granted him a little insight but he had not yet softened his heart enough to grant complete forgiveness. As long as his sister lived Josiah did not think he would ever be able to forgive.
He wondered if this John J Dunbar had sought release in his pictures the way Hannah did? On one of her more lucid days Josiah had asked why she sketched and painted so obsessively and in a moment rare clarity she had answered simply,
"Because when I paint I am god. I can make the world the way I want it instead of how it is."
He had been a broken man for days afterwards. He recalled stumbling from the small convent in Vista City and drinking until he literally could not remember his own name. When he had eventually come round he had found himself sprawled in the ruins of an old church, long abandoned and derelict. Though he could not be sure he thought perhaps he had been fighting and the state of his knuckles appeared to back the idea up. Because of his size and strength he had always feared the harm he might cause someone during one of his out of control episodes and he had wept and prayed to god that he had not killed or permanently injured anyone without knowing.
In his wretchedness he had heard the lord's voice for the first time in many years. It had told him that his penance would be to rebuild the old church. And when the time came for him to move on he would receive a sign.
The irony had not been lost on him. For so many years he had searched and striven to find the way yet only when he had sunk as low as he could go and had given up all hope had the holy spirit deigned to touch him. It had been a humbling and instantly sobering thought and he had obeyed the call. For nearly two years he had laboured, relying on charity for food and hardly leaving the site until the day Nathan had brought the four men to his door and the lord had sent the crows into his dreams. He had thought he was leaving to face the end not a new beginning.
He shook his head slowly. Each man had a pathway to follow Red Cloud had told him and no other could do it for him. He hoped fervently that young JD might be shown this so that he might at least understand why his father had done whatever he had done. Understanding was not the same as acceptance but it did go some way toward relieving the heartbreak.
Slipping the wafer thin page back between its fellows the burly peacekeeper lay down on his bed, his ice blue eyes wet with unshed tears of compassion.
"Don't test him too hard lord, he's hardly more than a boy." he said softly.
Then his breathing slowed and deepened and his dreams took him back to innocent days when he could still remember the untainted joy of love for his fellow man and Hannah, his beloved sister, was still whole in mind and body and filled with laughter and fun.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington could hardly bear to look at Chris Larabbee. His oldest friend had held him back when he would have gone to JD and now he could not find the boy anywhere. Despite searching in each one of his usual hiding places it seemed JD Dunne had melted from the landscape.
His horse was in the livery so Buck knew that the boy had to be in town somewhere. He had caught Ezra locking up the saloon and the gambler had told him that JD had left only minutes earlier. He had said that the youngster was upset but had refused to enlighten Buck as to why specifically. It had taken every shred of self control not to throttle the reticent conman. Instead he had turned on his heel and gone looking for Larabbee.
"Why the hell did you stop me?" He had raged when he had tracked him to ground in his room. "You jealous or something, huh? Is that it? It's OK for you to go tearing off after your new best friends but you don't like anyone else being centre of attention!"
Chris had looked shocked when the words had spilled out.
"What the hell you talking about Buck?" He had asked in genuine bewilderment.
"I don't know." The ladies man had dragged off his hat and raked his fingers through the luxuriant dark curls of his hair.
"Do you feel that I've not been a true friend to you?"
"No. Yes. Oh, hell Chris! I'm so out of my mind with worry I don't know what I mean."
"You know, maybe I've not said it out loud enough but I always thought you knew how much your friendship meant to me."
"Guilt, you mean."
"You know as well as I do pard' that the biggest reason I dogged you for the last three years is because I kept you away the night Sarah and Adam..."
The tall lanky man stopped abruptly and sat down hard. Snatching up Larrabbee's glass he drained it one swallow grimacing as the liquor burned a fiery path to his stomach.
"I've never been where I should've been," he said quietly. "When my Mother passed away I was a hundred miles away whoring and drinking and getting into all sorts of trouble."
"Yeah," Chris agreed. "Usually with me."
A slow smile spread over Wilmington's face and his moustache twitched with humour.
"We were a team weren't we?"
"We still are aren't we? We just have a few more on the team these days."
Buck refilled his glass.
"You know you were the only one in that god awful kindergarden school who took to me. All the other kids used to whisper behind their hands and make fun of what my Mother did. Yet you and your family.."
"A man ain't made by circumstances of birth Buck. A man is made by his actions and the honour behind them."
Buck's eyes twinkled as he looked across at his oldest friend.
"'Sides," Larabbee went on with a grin. "My family weren't that highly regarded in town either."
"I thought brewing moonshine in those parts was practically tradition."
"Only if you weren't caught. Civilised folks take a very dim view of illicit hooch; especially if someone goes blind 'cos of it and you serve time for it like my Pa did." He took back his glass and swallowed the whisky in the same fashion as his friend. "That's kind of why I wonder if my days here ain't coming to a close."
Buck stared hard but said nothing.
"They like us well enough while we keep the big bad wolf away." the gunslinger's steely eyes saddened. "But when all the wolves are dead and gone how long do you think it will be until they decide they don't want a hired gun or a conman or a wanted man hanging around their town? How long before some ass in a fancy suit gets elected sheriff in JD's place? No-one else will remember how that boy was the only one with guts enough to take on the job!"
"That won't be for a while yet," Buck said softly. "And by then we might be ready to settle down anyway. You've said yourself you have to pick your fights these days."
"I'm as fast as I ever was!"
"No Chris, you ain't." The only man who would be brave enough to say such a thing to Chris Larabbee leaned across the table and grinned. "Oh, you're still fast but I've seen Ezra beat you to the draw more than once even when he ain't relying on that little pea shooter of his."
He leaned back.
"That's why you ride him so hard all the time ain't it?"
"You're full of it Wilmington." The gunslinger grinned wryly.
"So JD says." The mention of his young friend reignited the worry in the womaniser's blue eyes.
"I've never seen him in such a state Chris."
"I know," Larabbee agreed. "But he'll survive."
"I'll make certain of that."
Chris Larabbee nodded.
"Save someone who's still worth saving."
"Anyone who's breathing is still worth saving."
"Not what you said when you popped that guy coming out of the bank last week."
"Oh now that was different!"
The two friends began to laugh and relax into each other's company. They had come many miles and many years together and despite branches in their respective trails they had always met up again at some point.
As the whisky level in the bottle grew low their memories became more vivid and embellished. To the outside world perhaps they were nothing more than a hired gun and a former Texas ranger gone to the bad but to each other they were so much more.
They put the world to rights as the first fingers of dawn began to crawl over the horizon and mended fences that neither had realised were broken.
+ + + + + + +
An early riser by nature, Nathan Jackson stepped out onto the balcony that fronted his surgery. Breathing in the cool silence he savoured the peace and quiet of the dawn. As the day went on so it would become noisier and busier. People would come looking for him demanding his time, trying his patience. But for these few moments he was alone and free, something he never took for granted.
Picking up his bucket he made for the pump down in the street and almost fell headlong over JD who was sleeping huddled on the tiny landing between the two flights of wooden steps that led up to the healer's practise.
"What in god's name are doing there?" He demanded quite shaken by his near miss with an early morning tumble down the last flight of stairs.
"Sorry Nathan," the boy mumbled sleepily. "I had nowhere else to go."
"Why didn't you go home?"
He looked embarrassed, his cheeks flushing slightly.
"I couldn't face talking to Buck just yet. I have some stuff I need to get straight in my head."
The former slave thrust the bucket at him.
"Well, while you're thinking go fill this up and I'll fix us some breakfast."
He turned and left the boy, knowing that if he did not stay to argue JD's soft heart - if nothing else - would ensure that the bucket got filled. Sure enough footsteps came thumping up the stairs and he heard the soggy clonk of the bucket being set down.
"Don't make any for me," JD began.
"Too late, it's already on," Nathan told him curtly. "Now sit yourself down and eat.
There was already coffee and milk and bread on the table and the younger man felt his mouth begin to water treacherously.
"Well, maybe I'll have just a little," he capitulated.
The dark skinned healer did not speak or pay his colleague any attention until he turned around and set the plates of food down.
"Mm mm, these are as good as Inez makes," Dunne said around a mouthful of eggs.
"Don't let her hear you saying that," Nathan smiled. "Sometimes I just get a hankering for a breakfast like my Momma taught me to make."
"I know what you mean. I haven't had French toast since I came west. No one out here seems keen on it and no one could make it like my Mom anyway."
The young man's face fell abruptly.
"Yeah, I..." JD made as if to leave but Nathan said casually.
"You ain't responsible for anything your dad did you know."
"I know but." He sat back down heavily. "I guess I'd always believed what my Mom told me about him."
"And what was that?"
"That he was a soldier. A hero."
"Any man who found the guts to serve as a soldier deserves to be called a hero. No matter what colours he wore." The dark skinned man glanced up fiercely. "But don't you ever tell Ezra I said that!"
The statement shocked JD whose mouth fell open in astonishment. Gathering his wits he stammered,
"But that's just it. He didn't. Serve as a soldier I mean. He, he..." The smaller man gulped. "He deserted."
Before he knew it the whole story had come tumbling out. Nathan had listened in silence neither asking nor commenting for which JD was grateful. When he finally ran out of things to say his companion said in a quiet voice,
"Seems to me you're letting words get in the way of what's really being said."
Nathan looked at JD his dark eyes serious.
"If you were to have all of us written down on paper what would you see?"
The young man pulled a face and shrugged.
"You'd see a man with a bounty on his head and a reputation as a bloodthirsty murderer. You'd see another who would snuff out other men's lives without a second thought so long as his pride was left intact and you'd see another whose brains are in his britches and who don't spend long enough outside of the bedroom to hold himself down a job."
JD frowned but said nothing so Nathan went on,
"Of course he ain't nothing but the son of a whore anyway so what would you expect?"
"Hey!" A flush of anger sped over JD's face but the healer did not stop.
"And how about the man of god who falls off the wagon and into a bottle at the slightest sign of difficulty not to mention the lying thieving conman who's left a trail of destitution and heartbreak in every town he's been?"
"That's enough Nathan!"
"Or the jumped up darkie who don't know his place and presumes to mix with those born better and higher than him?"
The silence was as fragile as glass and the two men stared at each other as if they were carved of stone.
"But that ain't how we are," JD said in an appalled whisper at last.
"Exactly," Nathan agreed. "But you have to read between the lines a little. Everything I said is true but anyone who knows us, really knows us would see that we are more than the words used to describe us."
"But I don't know anyone who really knew my Pa."
"But I do."
Vin Tanner stood in the doorway, the dust of his ride still caked on his face and clothes.
"That's why I had to go speak with Kojay so urgent. I knew I'd heard your Pa's name somewhere before."
"Come on in Vin," Nathan beckoned. "There's plenty more grub."
The tracker did not asking twice. Pulling up a chair he began to eat in great hungry gulps and only when his immediate need had been sated did he explain what JD was longing to hear.
"John J Dunbar, your Pa, was posted to the frontier at the end of the war at his own request. He'd never even seen an Indian or a buffalo but he wanted to, desperately, before it all disappeared forever. He never planned for it to happen but he met up with a tribe of Lakota Sioux led by Ten Bears."
"I've heard of him," Nathan said. "I think Rain has spoken about him."
"Not surprising," Vin replied. "He's considered a wise man among a lot of the tribes. He took Dunbar in and had his medicine man, Kicking Bird, teach him how to live like an Indian. To respect the animals around him and to live with the land instead of fighting against it all the time like white folks do."
"You sound as if you feel the same way," JD croaked.
"I do," Vin said shortly. "When my Ma died no one else would take me in unless they thought they could get a days work out of me for next to no food and a spot on the floor of a barn. Not one white person offered me the love and security that the Kiowa gave me. Later on when I needed to learn some kind of trade it was the Comanche who taught me to track and find buffalo."
The Texan's face became set and angry.
"You think your Pa betrayed his own kind went he went native? White folks don't need betraying, they betray themselves."
"But why didn't he come back for my Mom? For me?" The young man was stricken and Vin felt his heart twist within his chest.
"He probably would've JD," he said softly. "But when the army finally came to relieve him at Fort Sedgwick they took him for a traitor. They were going to hang him."
His companion's mouth fell open in dismay.
"But he hadn't done anything wrong!"
"No he didn't," the tracker replied with a flicker of a smile. "All he did was fall in love and that makes fools of all of us."
The humility in Vin's face touched Nathan deeply and he laid a comforting hand on the shoulder of his brother in arms.
"There was a white woman with the tribe. Her family had been killed by the Pawnee. Ten Bears had taken her in when she was a child. Your Pa fell in love with her. When the army decided to come looking for him and the rest of the tribe he took her away with him and he travelled from people to people trying to help them. Trying to save them from the white folk who were stealing their land and putting them on reservations."
"Gosh," JD was humbled. "When you put it like that you make him sound almost like some kind of hero."
"To the Indians he is a hero." Vin's smile grew wider. "They talk about him in the same breath as Crazy Horse. They both have yellow hair and blue eyes and they both follow their hearts."
"Yellow hair and blue eyes," JD breathed in wonder. He had never known what his father looked like and his mother had always been reluctant to talk too deeply about him.
"Guess you must take after your Ma," Nathan grinned.
"Yeah," the young man said shyly. "She was dark and awful pretty."
"Well, maybe not that much then," Vin teased.
"But my book, I mean my Pa's book!"
"Josiah has it" Nathan soothed. "He said to send you over for it when you were ready."
The youngest peacekeeper of the town hurried to his feet.
"I have to go get it. I'll see you guys later."
The two remaining men grinned as they listened to the footsteps crashing away down to the street.
+ + + + + + +
Pulling his horse to a halt JD Dunne slid down from his saddle and hitched his mount in the shade. Already the sun was hot but a cool breeze crept over the surface of the nearby water hole. This was his private place, only Casey Wells had been allowed to accompany him here but he knew she would be busy with chores this early in the day.
Settling himself against the big flat rock that cradled him like a chair he unwrapped the precious book from its soft nest of buffalo skin. He held the hide up to his face and breathed in its sharp tang. At some point his father's hands had touched this skin, his father's hands had drawn the vivid sketches that peopled the pages he now turned with the utmost care and his father's heart had formed the words that JD now read with open accepting eyes.
The smile on his face as he scanned the leaves of the book was one of mingled sadness and pride. Tenderly he laid the covers together and re-wrapped the journal in its protective covering.
"I am Dances With Wolves," his Father had written boldly on the final page.
"And I am John Dunbar Dunne," the young man whispered proudly.