Justice for Annie

by Angie

JD walked away from the somber ceremony at the cemetery with a heavy heart. He was still in shock over the way Casey had spoken to him. It was bad enough that he accidentally shot the woman, but to have his young girlfriend scolding him was almost too much. He trudged back toward the boarding house, avoiding the eyes of the people he passed. They looked at him with a mixture of anger and disgust.

A few days later, JD was feeling somewhat better about things. He had fought off Achilles Thompson and saved the ladies on the stage. His friends had encouraged him to return to town and stood by him until folks left him alone. He still felt squeamish about his guns but had taken to wearing them again at Buck’s insistence.

The stage rolled to a stop and Chris studied the people who stepped down from the carriage. When a familiar face appeared, he ground out his cheroot and started up the boardwalk.

“Judge Travis, what brings you out here? You weren’t due for another two weeks,” Chris said as he watched the older man accept his bag from the driver.

“I got a wire about my young sheriff killing a woman,” Orin replied, his voice as gritty as the road. “Seems people are thinking that he’s getting away with it. I’m here to do my own investigation.”

“Now, wait a minute! That was an accident, Judge. JD was trying to stop some bank robbers!” Chris protested.

“I heard all about the Thompson gang. Have JD report to me at the jail in half an hour,” Travis said, turning from Chris and heading toward the Clarion office.

“You going to lock him up?” Chris asked.

“Maybe. Depends on what I hear.”

Rage and anxiety churned in his gut as he crossed the road and headed for the saloon. Chris’ mouth was set in a grim line, he didn’t relish telling his oldest friend about the sudden turn of events. He glanced into the saloon over the batwing doors before he pushed them open and stepped inside. JD was at a table with Buck and Ezra, playing cards. The young man wasn’t as animated as he had been, sobered and aged by what had happened the week before. Buck glanced up and saw him and Chris knew he couldn’t put it off any longer.

“We got trouble,” Chris said as he stopped at the table.

“What kind of trouble?” Buck asked.

“Travis is here. He wants to talk to JD down at the jail, about … Annie.”

JD gasped softly as the cards slipped from his hand. Ezra folded his cards and shifted uneasily in his chair. Buck came to his feet, his face coloring with anger.

“You tell him that it was an accident! It could have happened to any of us!” Buck protested.

“But it happened to JD and someone sent a telegram to the judge,” Chris returned angrily. Before he could say anything else, the scrape of a chair on the hardwood floor drew his attention. JD was rising from his seat, unbuckling his guns as he stood. His face, once so full of wide-eyed, eager enthusiasm, a mask of resigned acceptance.

“It’s alright, Buck, I should have known it would come to this,” JD said as he placed the guns on the table.

“Now, you wait a minute! You’re not going to let him put JD in jail are you?” Buck asked.

“He’s a federal judge, Buck, I can’t very well stop him!” Chris snarled.

“Gentlemen, have you given any thought to making an expeditious departure for another locale?” Ezra asked.

“You mean run away?” JD asked, his voice going strident with anger.

“He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day,” Ezra intoned. “I am merely suggesting that you need not walk blithely into a noose.”

Buck turned on Ezra, his meaty hand shooting out to wrap in the conman’s vest. On instinct, Ezra flicked his wrist, catching the derringer and pressing it to Buck’s ribcage.

“Unhand me at once,” Ezra said coldly. Buck’s hand tightened and he pulled Ezra closer, almost daring him to do something about it.

“Buck,” Chris said, his tone patient as he reached for Wilmington’s wrist.

While the mini drama played out, JD slipped from the saloon. He walked down the boardwalk quickly, fighting back the tears that tickled in the corners of his eyes. Vin stepped out of the dry goods store and JD nearly mowed him down. Vin grabbed JD by the shoulders to keep from falling through the plate-glass window.

“Hey, where’s the fire, kid?” Vin asked. Seeing the strange mix of emotions on JD’s face, he let go. JD drew a couple of quick breaths, his mouth opening and closing as if he wanted to speak but nothing came out. Finally, he turned and continued toward the jail.

In the saloon, Buck inhaled sharply and pulled Ezra inches closer, so that they were almost breathing in the same space. “Don’t you ever let me hear you mention a noose in front of JD again,” he growled.

“Buck,” Chris repeated, digging his fingers into the muscular wrist and turning, forcing his friend to let go. “We need to go after him.” Buck glanced across the table to where JD had been standing. He shoved Ezra away, swept the guns up and turned on his heel to leave.

Ezra staggered back, catching himself on the edge of the table. When he regained his balance, he jerked roughly at the wrinkled material of his vest, then brushed over it as if sweeping away dirt. It was all an act to conceal the fact that he was shaking right down to his boots. As he was guiding the derringer back into its hiding place, Chris’ voice intruded on him.

“Find the others and meet at the jail.”

Nodding his head to show he’d heard, Ezra tugged at his coat, righting it before he strode toward the still-moving batwing doors. He saw Buck jogging to catch up with JD, who was walking away from Vin. Chris was slowly following them, the tense set of his shoulders adding to his ‘bad element’ persona. Ezra turned in the other direction and walked toward the clinic to get Nathan.

JD flung the door to the jail open and stepped inside before the last of his bravado faded away. He didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed at finding the room empty. Striding over to the desk, he clawed at his lapel until the badge came loose in his hand. He had just yanked the desk drawer open and prepared to drop it in when the door opened again. Buck slammed the door behind him and stood, fists cocked on his hips as he glared at his young friend. The door opened again and Vin timidly slipped in, followed by Chris. JD let the badge drop from his hand and flung the drawer closed.

“What are we gonna do about this, Chris?” Buck asked.

“The judge just wants to talk to him, Buck.”

“Yeah? Then what? Suppose he decides that JD’s guilty of something. You gonna let him lock the kid up for something he didn’t mean to do? He was trying to stop them from robbing the bank!” Buck shouted.

“I killed her, Buck,” JD said. “I deserve to be punished.”

It took less than two strides for Buck to reach JD and take hold of his lapels. “It was an accident! You don’t deserve to be punished for an accident! I’m not gonna stand by and watch you throw your life away! We’ll leave here. They don’t need us here anyway. We’ll go down to Mexico and start a horse ranch or something.”

“Is that how you propose to spend the rest of your life? As a fugitive from the law?” Orin asked, having slipped into the room during Buck’s tirade. “You’d be aiding and abetting a wanted man.”

Josiah, Nathan and Ezra slipped in behind the judge and moved along the wall until they were facing the door. Buck released JD, who slumped into the desk chair as though boneless. Vin remained slouched against the wall next to the gun rack and Chris stood near the small pot-bellied stove. Judge Travis looked slowly around the room, reading the emotionally charged atmosphere before reaching back to close the door behind him.

“I only asked to see JD,” he said.

“We’re only here to provide moral support,” Josiah said.

“All the same, I’d like for all of you to step outside,” Orin said. There was a long moment when he thought that Wilmington might refuse but he finally exhaled loudly under the intensity of the glare Chris was giving him. Buck’s hand fell on JD’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze before he moved toward the door.

When the door closed behind the others, JD raised his eyes to look at the man who had hired him all those long months ago. “It’s true, Sir, I killed Annie. I didn’t mean to do it,” he said. His voice broke and two enormous tears raced down his cheeks.

Buck paced like a caged lion in front of the jail. The others leaned against the wall and the porch posts as they waited for news. Chris studied the faces of the townspeople, wondering which of them had sent the damning telegram to the judge. He suspected it might have been Mr. Conklin but he wondered if it hadn’t been Annie’s husband, Hiram. The young widower had been most vocal about not trusting the young man with guns anymore in spite of all that JD had done in defense of the town. He decided that if the judge wouldn’t tell him who sent the telegram, he was just going to have to sweat it out of the telegraph operator.

The door opened nearly a half hour later and JD stepped out, his eyes red and swollen from crying. He kept staring at the ground to hide his lack of control from the others. Judge Travis stepped out behind him, his jaw set and his expression grim.

“I’m going to have to convene a trial tomorrow. Can I count on you to contact the witnesses while I round up a jury?” Orin asked.

“A trial!” Buck exclaimed. “Damn it, Judge Travis, it was an accident!”

“You’ll have your chance to say your piece at the trial. Now, I’m counting on all of you to do the right thing, not go running off in the night,” Orin said, directing his comments toward Chris.

“We’ll be here,” JD replied. “I ain’t gonna run.”

That evening, seven very serious men sat around a table in the saloon. They gave off such a seriously bad vibe that no one would even sit near them. Inez kept their glasses full, resisting the urge to offer empty platitudes. They knew that it wouldn’t ‘be all right’ any time soon. She also kept putting food on the table in the hope of keeping them at least partially sober.

They decided that Josiah would represent JD, as he had done for Nathan’s father some months earlier. Travis wouldn’t tell them who had sent the telegram and the operator had disappeared on ‘family business.’ Ezra had gone out to tell Hiram about the trial and returned in a very quiet mood. He had been deeply affected by the way the little family was grieving. Josiah and Nathan had contacted the rest of the witnesses. The crowd in the saloon thinned until it was just the seven men and Inez. Chris nudged Buck, telling him that they needed to put JD to bed. The young man had been tossing back shots until they stopped him, then he switched to beer. He had finally reached his saturation point, staggering out to puke up his guts in the alley. Afterwards, he returned to his chair next to Buck and promptly passed out.

Buck released JD’s arm, letting the young man slide bonelessly to the bed. He knelt in front of him and began to chaff his face. “Come on, kid, I need to talk to you,” he said.

“N-n-n … l-l-lea me ‘lone,” JD moaned.

“I can’t! Come on, kid. Stay with me here,” Buck said as he let his friend slump back on the bed. He began rifling through JD’s dresser, pulling out clothes and stuffing them in his saddlebags. When he had both bags full, he returned to the bed and hauled JD to his feet. “You can hate me for this but you’ll be a free man,” Buck said as he struggled with the dead-weight body. He managed to get hold of the doorknob and opened the door.

“What are you doing, Buck?” Chris asked softly.

Buck was startled and nearly dropped JD as he glared at his oldest friend. “I’m not gonna let Travis hang the kid, Chris. Now, you best get out of my way.”

“Can’t do that and you know it. JD wouldn’t want you to throw your life away with his.”

Reluctantly, Buck allowed Chris to help him put JD to bed. He even went so far as to sit in the floor next to Buck the rest of the night, knowing that his big-hearted friend wouldn’t sleep.

Morning came and with it came the penalty for consuming large amounts of alcohol. JD moaned as he rolled over. Someone pressed a cool cloth to his face and he praised God for the relief it brought.

“Come on, sit up here and drink this,” Nathan said. He helped JD to lever his body upright and steadied him as he held the tin cup to his lips. JD flinched from the bitter brew but Nathan firmly urged him to drink it. “I know it smells bad but it’ll help,” he said.

Breakfast was as somber as the evening before had been. News of the trial had traveled fast and the restaurant was filled with people gawking at the peacekeepers. Just as they were finishing up, Casey burst in, scanning the room until she spotted JD.

“Oh, JD, I just heard! I can’t believe it’s really true!” she exclaimed as she stood fidgeting beside the table. “Annie was my friend but I know she wouldn’t want this.”

“Casey, you better go on home,” JD said when he recovered his voice.

“But I want to stay! I want to speak to the judge!”

“Go home, Casey. Please,” JD said as he looked up at her. Casey made a frustrated sound before throwing her arms around JD’s neck and hugging him with all her strength. She pulled away, staring at JD’s face as if to memorize the moment, then turned and fled but not before they heard her burst into tears.

There was a crowd gathered in front of the grain exchange when the time for the trial drew near. JD sat in the saloon, pushing the food around on the plate that Nathan had insisted he get. Josiah had taken him to the church and listened to his confession, giving him an appropriate penance. Afterward, he had coached JD on what to say when the judge asked him about the day Annie died. Ezra cleared his throat and JD realized that he was looking at his watch.

“It’s time, JD,” Chris said. They stood as a group and moved toward the doors. On the boardwalk, they moved to surround JD. Chris walked in front, with Vin at his side. Both of them kept their hands on their weapons as they glared at anyone who might get in their way. Josiah and Buck walked on either side of JD. Josiah kept his hand on JD’s shoulder, steering him more than comforting him. Buck was as nervous as a bridegroom, wanting desperately to head for the livery and ride out for parts unknown rather than face what was coming. Ezra and Nathan brought up the rear, creating an imposing air as they watched for anyone who might try to take a shot at their young friend.

The trial was mercifully quick. The witnesses recounted what they had seen and scurried out of the building. More than one horse was heard galloping away. JD freely admitted that it had been his bullet that killed the young wife and mother. Josiah patiently led him to also confess the sorrow and anguish he felt over his mistake. In his closing, the former priest reminded the judge that they were all sinners in the eyes of God. He spoke of the people who crucified God’s only son and how even they had been forgiven. With his final words, he invoked Christ’s own words ‘Let you who are without sin cast the first stone.’

Orin Travis stared at the thick legal tome lying before him. The facts were as clear as a summer sky and yet as muddled as a winter storm. There was no disputing that JD had taken a life and that he was remorseful about it but there was no precedent for letting him off without punishment. The jury had told him that they couldn’t find him guilty but they wouldn’t go so far as to say he was innocent. He knew that he would lose all of the peacekeepers if he sentenced JD to prison. He also knew that without the peacekeepers, the town would soon find itself as wild and lawless as it had been after his son was killed.

They filed into the grain exchange and took their seats. An oppressive silence hung over the room as the townspeople jockeyed around so they could see JD as he took his seat next to Josiah. The jury came in, studiously avoiding making eye contact with the peacekeepers as they took their seats. Judge Travis came in behind them, moving to his bench and sinking wearily into the chair. He began without preamble.

“This is one of the most difficult cases I have ever had to preside over. I, personally, hired JD Dunne when I first came to town because he was the only man willing to step up and take the job as sheriff. At the time, I thought he was too young to do a good job. But I was wrong. A lot has happened since then and JD has grown and changed. Which makes what I have to do all the more difficult.”

When the judge paused, Buck leaned forward to rest a hand on JD’s shoulder.

“While I have no doubt that JD feels remorse over Annie’s death, he must bear responsibility for his actions. Therefore, I am finding him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentencing him to six months in Yuma prison.”

The room exploded with protests and scattered cheering. JD’s mouth hung open as he gasped for air. Buck and the others had come to their feet, shoulder to shoulder to protect him. The judge pounded his gavel on the block and shouted for order. Slowly, the furor died down and the people took their seats. Buck and JD alone stood, Buck’s arms crushing JD to his chest. Buck was murmuring softly to JD as the young man shook his head ‘no’ repeatedly. Josiah was stricken by both the verdict and the sentence. Nathan was also stunned. His father had willingly beaten a man to death and had been allowed to remain in town until he died rather than go to prison or hang. Vin sank to his seat, his heart beating wildly in his chest. Ezra reached over and touched the tracker to distract him.

As the people left the grain exchange, JD sobs grew louder. Buck held on to him, trying to assure him that he would be alright while he was treading close to losing control himself. The others rose again, pressing in to touch JD. The table was jostled out of the way as Josiah wrapped his arms around JD and Buck from one side and Chris pressed them from the other side. Orin dropped his glasses on the table in front of him and pinched the bridge of his nose to try and hold back the moisture he could feel gathering in his eyes. When JD stopped crying, Travis spoke again.

“I’ve wired for the prison to send the wagon. JD is remanded to the jail until they arrive some time tomorrow.” Six very cold, angry glares burned into him and Orin began to wonder if he wasn’t getting too old to be doing this anymore. “I’ll escort him down to the jail,” he said as he rose from the chair.

“You don’t have to do that,” Buck said angrily.

“Yes … yes I do. I know that you wouldn’t go and do anything as foolish as to try to run off with him but I’m still going to escort him to the jail,” Orin said as he rested his fists on his hips. “You can either cooperate or join him in a cell.”

“Don’t,” JD said. “Don’t do anything, Buck, I’ll go with him.”

It was like a funeral procession, watching the other six peacekeepers following Travis and JD down the boardwalk. The street was as empty as it would have been during a gunfight … or a bank robbery. Orin opened the door to the jail and stepped back to allow JD to pass. The young former sheriff went directly to the cells. He chose the one that had the window in the wall and turned to face the open doorway. Travis looked him in the eyes and apologized softly.

“I’m so sorry, JD. But I did what I had to do,” Orin said as he closed and locked the cell. Even though he was fairly certain that the young man wouldn’t break out and run, he took the keys with him when he left the jail.

Buck moved to the space between the two rows of bars and slid down the wall, drawing his long legs up and resting his elbows on them as his hat hung loosely from his fingers. Vin joined him, putting his back against the outer bars. Josiah went into the other cell and sat on the bunk, leaning heavily against the bars. Nathan moved to sit, cross legged on the floor near Josiah’s feet. Ezra hung back, his distinct dislike for anything related to jail cells making him uncomfortable. Chris sat on the corner of the desk, staring at his friends and aching for a bottle of Red Eye or three to dull his senses.

“I’ll … uh … go see if I can acquire some … something for all of us to drink,” Ezra said as he backed toward the door.

They spent the entire night there with JD. One by one, they tried to strike up a conversation, only to fall silent moments later. JD slid to the floor next to Buck for a while, then moved to sit on the bunk next to Josiah. They prayed together in the wee hours of the early morning.

The prisoner transport wagon arrived just after daylight. Travis had asked them to make camp outside of the town and come in early. He hoped to spare JD the humiliation of being seen by all of the townspeople when he was taken away. The four prison guards stood warily beside the wagon, none of them wanting to be the first to cross the threshold into the jail, none of them brave enough to be the one to try to claim one of The Magnificent Seven as a common criminal.

Orin stepped out of the Clarion office and made his way to the jail. He hadn’t gotten much sleep during the night, spending most of it up and pacing the floors. The prison guards looked uneasy as they contemplated the jail. He knew he would have to go in and bring JD out to them.

They had heard the transport arrive. JD leapt to his feet, his heart in his throat as he stared toward the dirty windows at the front of the jail. All of the others had come to their feet and were glancing between JD and the door. Judge Travis’ footfalls sounded almost inhumanly loud as he walked up to the door.

Even as his hand closed on the key-ring in his pocket, Orin mentally argued with himself. But he knew that he had made the only decision he could. “JD, it’s time, son,” he said as he fitted the steel key into the door and turned the heavy lock. The other men had backed up to form a semi-circle around the outer bars. JD stepped out, still fighting back the sudden rush of tears. He took a step toward the others and was immediately swept into a bone-crushing embrace by Buck.

“I’ll be waiting for you kid. You just keep your head down and you’ll be all right. I’ll visit,” Buck promised, “As often as I can.” JD only nodded, unable to speak because of the massive lump in his throat. Vin was next to draw the young man to his chest, murmuring an old Indian blessing as he gripped the back of JD’s neck and gave it a squeeze.

JD moved along the line, collecting hugs and words of support and encouragement from each of his friends. Even Ezra, who was so adverse to physical contact, had given him a hug and promised to be there if JD needed him. Finally, he found himself standing in front of Chris.

“Take care of yourself, Kid,” Larabee said.

“Keep an eye on Buck for me, would you?” JD said, his voice forced and tightly controlled. Chris nodded before pulling JD to his chest and giving him a resounding thump on his back.

When they stepped back, Orin stepped forward and took hold of JD’s upper arm to lead him outside. The prison guards were waiting with shackles at the open end of the wagon. JD tensed, slowly shaking his head as one of the men came toward him. The guard took JD by the arm and turned him, pulling his hands around and closing the heavy steel manacles around the pale flesh. He turned JD to face him and pushed him back so he was forced to sit on the end-gate. Squatting down, he fastened shackles on JD’s ankles. He then gestured for JD to move back into the enclosed, heavily reinforced wagon. The guard climbed in with him, helping him to sit on the wooden bench along one side. He then took a chain and threaded it through rings in the wall, passing it in front of JD to secure him in place.

Standing on the boardwalk, the six men were stone-faced as they watched their young friend chained up like an animal. Orin handed off an envelope and the other guards climbed back up on the wagon. With a snap of the reins, they were off, moving slowly along the street.

Buck shifted his weight and Chris caught hold of his wrist. “Don’t do it, Buck. They’d be within their rights to shoot you and JD couldn’t live with himself if they did,” he said.

JD’s head bobbed with the motion of the wagon. He was exhausted right down to his toes. Every time he slipped into a light slumber, some pothole in the rode would cause the wagon to lurch and he would be awake again. The guard didn’t speak to him at all, seeming almost intimidated by him even though JD was heavily chained and the man had a good six or eight inches and easily fifty pounds on him. They drove along for several hours before stopping to let the horses rest. JD was allowed to get out of the wagon to relieve himself and was given a drink from one of their canteens. After the brief respite, he was chained up again.

It was late afternoon by the time they reached Yuma prison. The tall, pointed stockade wall was imposing from inside of the wagon. JD’s stomach rolled at the lines of gray-clothed men swinging sledge hammers and pick axes. A long, flat wagon held straight, striped tree trunks for the saw mill where the prisoners would cut it into planks to be sold in the nearby towns. There were also several acres of food plants growing. The prison was fairly self sustaining, with the proceeds from the sale of the wood going to buy what they couldn’t grow or make on site. JD also saw a fenced-in area where several children played. He knew that Yuma held women and that some of them had been forced to bring their children along when they served their sentences.

The wagon came to a stop in front of a rather large building in the middle of the compound. The guard unlocked the chain around JD’s waist and helped him to his feet. JD shuffled along until he reached the end-gate, then he tried to jump down. The chains threw him off balance and he fell, landing in a sprawl in the dirt. JD panicked momentarily and began struggling against the shackles.

“Prisoner John Dunne!” a voice called out. Two of the guards grabbed him by the upper arms and brought him to his feet, steadying him until he could stand on his own. “Hmm, let’s see, six months for manslaughter. Very good. Well, John, welcome to Yuma prison. We don’t tolerate no fighting here. You do as you’re told and stay out of trouble and you’ll do just fine. You might even be able to make something of yourself when you get out of here, a young man like yourself. Officer Clark will see to it that you get a uniform and show you where you’ll sleep. Dismissed.” The warden turned and walked back into his office.

JD was given a gray shirt and pants. The pants were too big and he had to use his belt to keep them on his hips. He was shown into the dormitory and given a bunk. The guard stood over him while he changed clothes, taking his ‘civilian’ things with him when he left. JD collapsed on the rough, pillow tick mattress and fell into an exhausted sleep. He was roused for the evening meal. It was hard to walk, with the chain between his ankles allowing him only mincing, shuffling steps. The food was gray, like the uniforms, and JD barely sniffed at the battered tin plate before dropping it on the ground next to his feet.

The warden had told him that he would be alright if he did as he was told and the guards were there to see that there wasn’t too much bullying going on in the fields and such but they weren’t there at night. In the dormitory, there was no one to protect JD from the other prisoners. He lay in bed at night, listening to the vulgar and disgusting things that they said they were going to do to him, that they did or had done to other prisoners. JD was grateful that he was strong enough to fight off the first few who tried to do things to him at night but he wasn’t sure how much longer he would have the strength.

He was assigned the gardens at first. It was easy work, pulling weeds and tending to the plants, picking the things that were ready to eat. JD worked hard, diligently doing the job they gave him and avoiding the other prisoners as much as possible. After the first few nights, they left him alone in the dormitory, something he was terribly thankful for, and he was able to sleep. The guards kept an eye on him, having heard that he was one of Larabee’s men and not wanting the gunslinger to be angry with them if something happened to him. Buck came that first Sunday, the only day they allowed visitors. JD assured him that he was doing alright, more to ease his friend’s mind than anything else.

Things got tense the second week. Several small fights broke out amongst the prisoners and the guards were busy breaking them up and sending the offenders to solitary. JD kept his head down and made his work in the gardens last all day so that he didn’t have to be moved to another work crew.

It was as he was putting his tools away for the day that the other prisoner confronted him. “I know you, you’re one of Larabee’s men, aren’t you?” the man said as he crowded into JD’s space. “You aren’t so high and mighty now, are you?” The prisoner shook a sharp piece of metal out of his sleeve and pressed it to JD’s throat. “Well, I’m going to have to take you down a notch, you see. I’ll bet you’re still a virgin, ain’t you?”

As the man held JD to the wall of the shed with one arm, he groped between them with his other hand for the belt that held the too-big pants on JD’s hips. When the man’s intentions became clear, JD decided that he would rather go out fighting. He slumped slightly in the man’s grip, causing him to grin at the thought of an easy time. When the prisoner eased back on the choke hold, JD snapped his head forward, breaking the man’s nose and causing him to step back.

They circled each other warily, the other man wiping the blood from his nose with the back of one hand while menacing JD with the shank. The man leapt forward, swinging the metal in an arc that nicked JD’s side. JD lashed out with his fist, catching the man with a glancing blow to his shoulder. As the fight went on, JD noticed that the man seemed weaker on his left side and began to aim all of his punches there.

JD’s fist connected solidly with the man’s left cheek and he dropped the sharpened piece of metal. It landed on the dirt with a soft thud. JD continued to move around, feinting blows and not giving the other man a chance to retrieve his weapon. When the man dove for it, JD dove too. His hand closed over the cloth-wrapped handle and he rolled over, coming up on his knees. Several other prisoners, drawn by the sounds of the fight, crowded around the combatants, defining a half circle against the wall of the shed. JD had never fought with a knife; he didn’t know the first thing about it. Summoning images of Vin, he shifted his grip on the handle and took a tentative swipe at the other man.

Leo Greski hated Sam Cluck. The big, overbearing bully had tormented him ever since he’d arrived in Yuma. It was delightful to see the smaller prisoner besting the bully at his own game. When Sam shuffled to stand in front of him, Leo reached out and gave him a shove. The push caused Sam to trip over a clump of grass, sending him toppling toward the man with the shank.

JD lunged at the other man, determined to keep him away. Suddenly, Sam’s eyes went wide as he began to fall, right into the outstretched blade. JD flinched as his arm was dragged down by the other man’s weight. He fell, landing on top of Sam with his arm trapped beneath him.

“Break it up! Get back! Let us through!” the guards shouted as they pushed their way through the wall of prisoners gathered at the gardening shed. They reached the open space, just as the new prisoner withdrew his hand from under Sam Cluck, holding a bloody, hand-made knife.

Staring in horror at the blood on his hand, JD dropped the blade. He pushed away from the downed man, crab-walking until the shed wall stopped him. One of the guards rolled Sam over, revealing the jagged tear in his gut. Sam gasped, his hands groping his belly and coming away stained with blood. He looked up in surprise at the guard before his eyes glazed over. JD heard his final breath.

The solitary confinement cell was barely six by six. The thick, solid wood door blocked the light. JD was thrown against the wall and the door slammed behind him. He slid to the floor, drawing his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. The guards hadn’t said anything to him, they just dragged him across the compound and shoved him into the cell.

It was the sound of the cross brace on the outside of the door being removed that woke him. The early morning sun blinded him after sitting in the dark for so long. JD got his legs under him just in time to feel the shackles being locked around his wrists.

“What’s happening?” he asked. “Where are you taking me?” He began to drag his feet when he realized that they were steering him toward the gallows. “No! No!” he yelled.

The warden was standing at the foot of the steps when they brought JD to a stop. He looked at JD for a long time before he spoke. “John Dunne, you killed another prisoner yesterday. We don’t have the liberty of granting you much leniency, since it clearly was not an accident. You are hereby sentenced to be hanged by the neck until you are dead,” the man said. He didn’t meet JD’s eyes as he turned and stepped aside to allow the guards to drag JD up the stairs.

“No! No! He attacked me! I was just defending myself!” JD screamed. There were two other men on the top of the gallows, one was a large, imposing figure and the other was the mousy little priest who had led the service on Sunday. The large man stepped closer, holding a black pillow slip in his hands. JD fought as the bag was placed over his head. He screamed and begged them to stop, when the thick, coarse rope was draped around his neck. The noose was tightened until he could hardly draw a breath. Peripherally, he was aware that the priest was loudly intoning The Lord’s Prayer. JD heard him say ‘forever and ever. Amen.’ Before he even realized, he heard the squeal of the lever being thrown and felt the floor drop away.


Buck gasped as he came awake. He looked around the darkened room, disoriented for a moment. Suddenly, he realized what had wakened him and slung his long legs over the side of the bed. He snatched the door open and crossed the hall, flinging the other door open. He crossed the room in two quick strides, kneeling to take hold of the thrashing body on the floor.

“No! No! Buck!” he called out as he tried to escape the hold on his arms. “It was an accident!”

“It’s alright, calm down, I’ve got you,” Buck soothed as he restrained the flailing arms. It had been like this every night for the past few nights and he was used to it. Buck drew the trembling body back against his chest and held on until he went limp again.

“You need a hand?” Vin asked.

“Yeah, he’s out,” Buck replied as he scooted around and tried to stand. Vin grabbed the bare ankles and they lifted the unconscious, dead-weight body up onto the bed. Buck shook out the light blanket and draped it over the sleeping form.

“I don’t know how much more of this he can take,” Buck whispered.

“He’s strong, he’ll be alright,” Vin said as he stepped closer to the bed. He reached down and brushed a lock of hair back, letting his hand rest there for a moment. “JD’s strong, he’ll be alright,” Vin repeated. They both moved toward the door, pausing to look back as the moonlight bathed the pale skin in an unearthly glow.

The dreams had been coming every night since Annie’s death. JD’s active imagination wouldn’t let him believe that he wasn’t going to be punished for the accidental shooting. Buck and Vin had tried getting him drunk, in the hope of staving off the nightmare, but it hadn’t worked. Josiah said that the young man would just have to work through it, do his penance, until he could forgive himself.

Vin drew a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, murmuring a few words in Comanche that invoked protection for those on a vision quest. It was all he knew to do for his young friend. Next to him, Buck worried his lower lip for a while before reaching for the doorknob. He quietly closed the door and returned to his own room. Miss Blossom sighed as she snuggled back into the warm curl of his body.

In another room, down the hall, Chris Larabee lay awake. Like JD, he was tormented by dreams. In his dreams, he and Buck rode into Yuma prison and broke JD out. As they were riding away, a guard made a lucky shot, sending his oldest friend toppling from his horse. The vision of Buck lying broken and bloody on the ground drove him out of bed and across the room. He used his teeth to pull the cork from the bottle and took a long pull of the burning alcohol. Goose bumps rose on his skin as the liquor warmed his insides. He’d heard JD cry out, and had incorporated the young man’s pleas into his dreams, making them all the more realistic. He tipped the bottle to his lips again, sucking hungrily on the fiery liquid, seeking the temporary absolution to be found in blissful unconsciousness.