Disclaimer: The boys are not mine. I couldn't afford to house, feed, clothe and mend all seven of them. Though if given the opportunity, I'd do my darnedest. Mistakes are the sole property of the author.
Author's Note: Much love and gratitude to Phyllis for her eagle- eyed beta services; Kay for the wall that's gorgeous beyond belief; and to Sue & Angie for pestering me until the job was done.
There was no life in the room. No space for it. Not with all the memories. They crowded out the breath and smothered everything into one tidy dimension. Jonas let his fingertips wander over them since his mind wouldn't.
The memories were his.
Or they should be.
They used to be.
Now. . .
Now, they were just the tactile artifacts of someone he used to be. Someone he forgot.
"Anything?" Buddy asked, watching from the doorway. He had hovered over Jonas constantly from the moment the younger man arrived at the ranch. Jonas thought it should be comforting. He remembered it being comforting; but something felt off. He thought perhaps the secret lay in the year he'd been away from home; a year that was lost with the rest of his memories.
"Sorry," Jonas shook his head; he'd given up trying to will things into being familiar. The daily exercise had become a source of frustration for them both. Jonas picked up a painted tin soldier and perched on the foot of the bed. "Still nothing. Maybe it won't come back."
Buddy entered the room, barely concealing his impatience. He folded his large frame into the small wooden bench that faced a simple desk. "Do you remember anything at all?" he asked, searching Jonas' face intently; just as he did whenever he asked that question.
For the first time, there was a fragment of memory there when Jonas reached for it. "I . . . I remember leaving." He chuckled ruefully to himself. It figured that the first memory to return would be of fleeing in the first place. At Buddy's confused look, Jonas expounded, "When Mamma died, I couldn't stay. It was too much, I had to . . . had to head west."
Buddy scowled at him and Jonas knew he'd said the wrong thing. He'd done that a lot lately, since his illness. That didn't explain the thrill of fear that traced through him; or why it was so important to say the right thing. He just couldn't seem to keep the right answers straight in his head. JD had gone west, Jonas was born there.
"I mean, I just wanted to travel the west," he tried to cover his error.
Still wrong. Buddy's face fell, betraying a flicker of something dark that was smoothed away at once.
"Jonas, you sure you're up for this?" Buddy was trying to handle Jonas again. Jonas hated when he did that. "You been awful sick."
"'m fine," Jonas insisted, but he knew something was wrong. It was there, just past his reach -- an itch he couldn't scratch. "What'd I say wrong?" He hated how small his voice sounded around the question.
Buddy looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to dodge the topic. "You never knew Mamma, Jonas. She died when you were jus' a baby."
He shook his head again, suddenly stubborn on this point. "Yer' lyin', Buddy. I remember. . ." He let the thought trail off, because he didn't remember. That was the whole point to this exercise. He didn't remember anything. His shoulders drooped under the weight of that admission. He had been fighting it for weeks. Now . . . now he was too tired to fight anymore. Jonas told Buddy that. Not the fighting bit. If he said that, Buddy would send Michael around with his medicine. Anything was better than that. Instead, he told Buddy he was tired. Exhausted and frustrated.
Buddy shook his head, sad when he gave Jonas the answer. "You an' Pa had a fight an' then you took off. He died a couple weeks later."
This time it was Buddy giving the wrong answers. Jonas did remember something; he remembered his mother. Out of the moth-eaten cloth that was his brain, he plucked a solid memory -- her hands. They were gentle and warm, rough from hard work and filled with love. If he listened hard enough, Jonas could almost conjure her voice.
But his Pa?
There ought to be something there -- a memory, an emotion, anything.
Jonas had nothing; not even the memory of a fight fierce enough to drive him from home.
Buddy was watching him, and Jonas realized he'd slipped into that faraway place again. He flashed a grin to reassure his brother. The concern really did touch him. There was something honest in the way he ushered Jonas back to the sun porch, admonishing him to go slow. Impatience slipped into his voice though and a darker note Jonas couldn't quite place.
When he bothered to think on it, Jonas could understand his urgency. He'd been gone for a very long time. All the while, his brothers had received no word of his welfare. And when he had turned up at last, he did not know himself. Nor any of them.
Some days, he couldn't decide who was more frustrated by this.
Michael, who was a doctor and claimed to know such things, said that Jonas created an alternate life for himself. Complete with memories of the man he thought he should be. That Jonas had protected himself with this other man, until this JD, had smothered all traces of Jonas.
Jonas thought Buddy's feelings were hurt that he would rather be an orphan from Boston than his brother from Eagle Creek. Jonas wasn't so sure that he wasn't right. JD's life seemed so much more vivid than Jonas'.
More honorable too, though Jonas wasn't supposed to know that.
He wasn't stupid. He could read the tension in Buddy and Sam whenever they had to venture into town; only to ride back in a day later, looking over their shoulders like they expected Satan himself to be leading the posse. Jonas didn't know what they did while they were away, but he was certain it was nothing good.
He wondered sometimes if shame was why he made JD a sheriff. That too he kept to himself.
In fact, he didn't discuss anything of JD with his brothers. When he first came here, when JD was still the greater part of him he did, at length. And always Michael would come with the bottle of medicine. He fought hard those first weeks, struggling against the combined weight of his older brothers.
Jonas never won. Such wrestling matches ended with the sickly sweet medicine slipping down his throat. And then the dreams came. He would get so lost in them. Drowned in the lives of people he'd never really met. And all the while they were more real to him than his own family.
Sleep was something he'd come to loath. The dark hours of taunting dreams. Dark places where the keys to his past were held just out of reach. Sometimes it was Michael holding his hated bottle that blocked the passage into the light. Other times it was Buddy, his careful concern smothering Jonas. Mostly though, it was men Jonas didn't even remember. They reached out to him, hands just maddeningly beyond reach. He thought they meant something to JD.
Something to him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Jonas limped into the cozy kitchen with a pleased grin that his aches couldn't stifle.
Patience smiled at him as he eased down next to the soothing heat of the hearth. "Have a good day?" she asked, amused.
"Felt good to ride again," he admitted, stretching his legs out and enjoying the familiar burn in muscles that hadn't quite forgotten life in the saddle.
She brought him a biscuit slathered with honey and butter. "It was quiet around here; got used to the company."
He blushed, the faint color camouflaged by the light kiss of sunburn spread across his nose and cheeks. "Liked bein' outside, is all." Jonas wolfed the biscuit in two bites and glanced about hopefully for more. "Think I might be strong enough to ride to town soon," he said it hopefully.
And there it was. He'd said the wrong thing again.
Patience didn't acknowledge the statement. The old black stove suddenly required all her attention, but there was a tension in her movements that hadn't been there a moment before.
"Eventually," he said, backpedaling for all he was worth. "When Buddy and Sam go."
"Go where?" Buddy asked from the doorway. He entered the kitchen, kicking mud from his boots. Sam was hot on his heels.
"To town," Jonas answered before he thought better of it.
"Maybe when you're stronger," Buddy said, dismissing Jonas like he always did. That stung Jonas' pride. He was no babe in swaddling clothes; he'd gotten along just fine without his older brothers during the months on his own.
"I'm fine!" he insisted, adding a hearty exclamation to his declaration. "Just haven't been anywhere in weeks. If I don't get out of here soon, I'm gonna go stir crazy." He grinned at both of them to show he just had cabin fever and nothing more.
Buddy smiled back; indulgent, but unbending. "Kid--"
Jonas did an admirable job of hanging onto his smile. Buddy's voice never sounded right around that particular word.
His brother didn't notice the momentary slip. "--you didn't exactly leave the towns 'round here with a favorable impression. Matter of fact, only reason we got to bring you home is 'cause we promised the sheriff over in Four Corners that you wouldn't be back. Ever."
"Don't have to go to Four Corners," Jonas started, his grin fading. He couldn't name it, but there was something about that town that drew him. "You and Sam. . ."
"Can take care of ourselves," Sam cut in sharply. He gave his younger brother a hard look until Jonas dropped his gaze to the floor. Jonas always found himself unsettled in Sam's presence; there was an undercurrent of anger that simmered behind every word and look sent in his direction. A vague memory of violence lingered uneasily nearby.
"Just a supply run," Jonas mumbled.
"I said no," Buddy snapped, his tone putting an end to the discussion.
"And I say out," Patience shooed. "Go on and wash up." She flapped her apron at them as though she was chasing chickens. "Jonas, go call Michael down."
"Yes'm," Jonas answered, automatically.
Jonas climbed the stairs slowly, the argument still chaffing him. It wasn't as though he wanted to leave the ranch again. No, the ranch was home; even if home didn't quite fit anymore. Jonas was just bored; crawling out of his skin with it. He couldn't shake the feeling that there was supposed to be something more -- anything more.
Michael had finally allowed him to tagalong while Buddy and Sam checked miles of fence. That simple boon had left Jonas beside himself with joy. He had relished every minute of it; finding freedom in the saddle and open air. Roughhousing with Buddy had seemed almost normal; and even Sam had been warmer out there on the range.
Before his long awaited parole, there had been plenty of chores to do around the homestead. Jonas helped Patience wherever he could without getting in the way. Some of the simplest farm tasks were completely foreign to him, but Patience had lived up to her name and calmly banished him to the gardens. Tending the massive plot that fed the household wasn't Jonas' idea of fun; especially when compared to riding. Still, he chipped in cheerfully, attacking every new task assigned to him ferociously.
Jonas welcomed the heavy chores. Physical exhaustion kept him from dreaming. He was getting better, barely an episode in weeks . . . at least during the daylight hours. At night though, when the house was heavy and still, Jonas dreamed another man's life. He woke empty and alone, yearning for something that didn't exist.
He was careful to never mention the dreams to his brothers. He told Patience about them once. She had given him an abrupt hug and whispered a cryptic message about holding on to the truth in his ear. That night the dreams had been worse than ever before. Jonas didn't speak of the dreams again.
Even with the happy life he was settling into, it wasn't enough. When Buddy brought home the odd dime novel, Jonas devoured them. Relishing the adventure, and scoffing at the lack of realism. "That's not how it happened, he declared one day, denouncing a particularly bloody battle. "Chris'd be real angry if he read this.
Who Chris was, he didn't know. The hero had been the ridiculously named Sierra Lightening. But Buddy had got that faintly panicked look in his eye. The look Jonas hadn't seen since his illness. It was an expression that was usually followed by Michael and medicine.
"I mean, I sure would be if they wrote this garbage about me. Who'd ever let the bad guys get the high ground on 'em on purpose? Just don't make no sense. Why he knew that it didn't make sense was another matter. But the answer seemed to satisfy Buddy. That was the last of the dime novels though. Jonas told himself they weren't really that exciting, and he didn't really miss them.
The door of Michael's study swung open startling Jonas. He blushed, sheepish at being caught woolgathering. "Dinner's on," he told his brother.
"Good." Michael smiled. "I'm starving." He caught Jonas' arm as he turned back toward the staircase. "I'll pour your medicine. You may as well take it before dinner." There was firm scolding in his tone that told Jonas he wouldn't hesitate to call Buddy and Sam if need be. Jonas followed Michael into his study, shoulders slumped. It had been a long time since Buddy or Sam's presence had been needed.
Michael filled a small tumbler with a draught of viscous green syrup. He handed the glass to Jonas who slugged it down in one go. It burned his tongue and throat, before spreading warm numbness through his head. Jonas made a show of shuddering at the taste.
"Does Sam hate me?" he asked, surprised at the question that popped unbidden from his mouth.
Michael's pause told Jonas more than his words did. "He doesn't hate you, Jonas. It's just Sam's way."
That was a lie. Jonas had found another memory. It was of Sam, his face twisted with hate -- striking Jonas over and over. The scent of mud and blood mixed with spring grasses. Someone screaming. . . The memory was laced with the same hazy tar that swallowed everything from his life before. There was danger in the half-memory and something terribly important.
Jonas trailed after Michael, trying to fight the drowsy warmth that was replacing his brains with cotton. He had to hang onto the memory of Sam; there was more to it if he could just clear his head. The nagging worry got lost in the din of the evening meal.
"Jonas thinks he's ready for town," Sam announced once the blessings were said and food had been served.
"That's not a good idea," Michael said firmly. "Maybe when you're stronger."
Hearing the same excuse frustrated Jonas. "Can take care of myself, you know," he announced loudly. "Did just fine on my own."
"Sure you did," Michael snapped. "Matter of fact, you were doing such a good job of it, that the sheriff in Four Corners had you locked up tight and was just itching to pack you off to Yuma. Do you have any idea what could have happened to you in prison?" He was yelling by the end of his outburst. "You could have been killed."
"Didn't you ever stop and think how worried we must have been? No, 'course you didn't. All you ever think about is yourself. Damn it, Jonas. I love you, but you're a selfish bastard." Stunned silence filled the dining room. Michael stared at Jonas as though seeing him for the first time, his face drained of color. The others exchanged looks over Jonas' head. Michael shoved his chair back from the table and tossed his napkin on his plate. He stormed out of the dining room, retreating to the sanctuary of his office.
When he was gone, Jonas raised his gaze from his plate. He looked to Buddy, but found no support there. "I am sorry," he finally said in a small voice. "I don't even remember what I did. I've tried. I really have. But it's just not there." He was dangerously close to crying, but he didn't care.
"I know you were worried. But I really was okay. I think. Just want everything to be normal again. I want to make Michael happy. But I can't. I don't He was frantic, hyperventilating and damned near blubbering. It was wrong. All wrong.
Buddy's concerned features blurred, then sharpened. His lips formed words that echoed through Jonas's head like thunder. "JD are you ?
"Wrong, Jonas moaned. Darkness coiled around him, dragging him down into a writhing void. The name Buddy had called was his. And it wasn't. And he finally gave into the nothingness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Jonas clung to the shadows, feeling wicked and alive. The night air breathed him in and exhaled something wild. Even the heavy moon turned her eye from his refuge on the low roof. From inside the house came the soft sounds of nightly rituals. Golden lantern light spilled from the windows, intruding a few feet into the black night. And there, beyond the glow, JD waited.
The foul tang of Michael's medicine wouldn't keep JD still tonight.
The medicine hadn't worked well in a week. Not since Buddy had called out the wrong name. When consciousness had fled Jonas, JD was waiting to greet him. Memories flashed hot and bright. Overwhelmed, Jonas gave in, watched himself in pieces of a stranger's life. When he had awoken, the memories were gone again. But the taste of them lingered.
Wholeness existed in JD that Jonas still lacked. People. Places. There were textures in the easterner's life.
All Jonas had was the ranch. And his brothers.
But JD had brothers too. Even if he couldn't remember them exactly, they existed. That one nebulous certainty seemed more solid than any single other thing Jonas knew.
Jonas slipped his head and arm through the gun belt he'd stolen from Sam, wearing it bandolier style. He started moving before he had a chance to change his mind. He crept along the roof, silent as a whisper. He needed answers, and they were not here. But he knew where to start looking. Buddy and Michael had done everything short of hogtying him to keep him away from Four Corners. Something had happened in that town, something important.
At the edge of the roof, he froze. Boards sighed as someone shifted down below. Straining his ears, Jonas heard the soft scratch of a struck match sizzling to life. Pungent threads of smoke from Sam's cheroot wafted up through the rafters. Jonas held his breath as the acrid vapor teased his nose and throat, trying to sting a sneeze from him.
"Ain't safe anymore." Sam's voice drifted up with the smoke. "He's startin' t' remember. Can see it in his eyes."
"I know." Buddy sounded worn thin. "But what do you want me to do? We can't just put him back. And I won't " His voice dropped into a mumble.
They stood in hushed conference for several minutes, and then moved back inside.
Jonas waited until he was certain they'd both gone inside and then lowered himself over the edge and dropped gracelessly to the garden below. He hugged the dark earth, the skin at his neck prickling as he expected at any moment a cry of discovery to end his adventure. None came.
It was slow going, creeping through the shadows to the barn. Jonas reveled in the forbidden thrill of escape. He reached the red door and slid noiselessly in. Freedom lay at hand, in the form of the little bay in the end stall. A momentary worry teased him, this escape was a lark. It shouldn't feel quite so real.
The horse reacted fondly to him as usual, butting his head against Jonas' chest, checking for treats. When he'd first been deemed well enough to ride, Jonas had naturally gravitated toward the bay. In fact, he had assumed the horse was his own. Buddy claimed it wasn't, that they'd bought the gelding off a drifter and intended to sell him at market in the fall. In the meantime, Jonas rode him every chance he got, marveling at the easy familiarity between them. It was just another of piece of the jigsaw puzzle that Jonas couldn't make fit.
He saddled the bay quickly and silently, with proficiency that spoke of a lifetime of experience. Not unusual for someone born to a ranching life, but that small detail niggled at the back of his mind. Again, he sensed he was missing something important.
The house was dark when he exited the barn, leading rather than riding. He walked the first full mile until he was certain he was well away. The moon was full, bright enough to illuminate the path toward Four Corners. Jonas set a comfortable pace, whistling a jaunty tune that carried through the night.
It was late by the time he reached the outskirts of Four Corners. The streets were quiet and only a handful of windows still glowed dimly. Jonas felt vaguely disappointed by the peaceful night. He'd somehow expected more.
Among the half-memories he couldn't quite grasp, there was an impression of this place. He supposed he'd romanticized it some, but it had been the place of legends in his dreams. Gun fights. Sword fights. Righting wrongs and defending the defenseless. This town had been what he'd envisioned while reading the dime novels Buddy gave him.
And it was this town. Jonas knew the layout of all the streets and alleys. He knew the best vantage points during a gunfight and where to find cover. He knew that the Wells Fargo wagon would bring a deposit to the bank every third Thursday. For the first time since setting out, Jonas was uneasy with his decision to come here. The things he knew about Four Corners, weren't the sorts of things an everyday citizen should think about and he still couldn't remember why the sheriff had locked him up.
Music and voices still drifted from the saloon. Jonas tied his horse to the rail out front. He lingered on the boardwalk, struck by sudden shyness. Buddy said he had caused trouble here. His welcome might not be warm. Unconsciously, his right hand found the butt of his borrowed six-gun. It was cold comfort, but he braced himself and pushed the swinging doors open.
The taproom did slow trade and at first no one seemed to mark his entrance. Instinctively, Jonas flicked glances toward specific locations. In a dark corner of his mind, JD whispered disappointment. Whoever he expected to occupy those seats, they weren't present.
The woman behind the bar was darkly beautiful. She looked toward the door with a welcoming smile for a newly arrived patron. Her smile froze when her eyes met his. The glass she held slipped from numb fingers and shattered on the floor with a crash that startled the occupants of the bar. Her hand flew to her mouth and a cry that was less than a scream set everyone else into motion.
Moving with the instincts of a bar accustomed to trouble, some people scattered while others hid. At least one slipped through the door behind Jonas yelling for reinforcements. From the shadowed table buried so far in the corner it was practically in the alley out back, came the roar of a hung-over monster. The man, who up until this point had been resting with his head buried on folded arms, came surging to his feet. The bottle of rotgut keeping him company upset and sloshed across the small table before smashing to the floor.
The man just kept standing. He seemed impossibly tall, the potent anger around him taking up what room his actual mass didn't. A pair of bloodshot eyes settled on Jonas and raked him.
Jonas backpedaled, scrambling for the exit behind him. Stupid, this was stupid.
The tall man surged forward. His roar turned into a joyous cry. When the smile crinkled his eyes, he looked so much like Buddy that Jonas stumbled. He swept down on Jonas; his eyes wide, unbelieving and impossibly blue. Jonas knew him.
"Kid," he said, his voice cracking over the word. Everything that was right in the world was contained in that one word from a stranger. When he spoke again, it was at full bellow. "Kid!" There was disbelief, joy, and . . . and home in his voice. Jonas stood numb before the force of it.
He was on Jonas before the younger man could regain himself, sweeping him up in an unabashed embrace. "Thought you were dead," he growled against Jonas' ear. There was a tremor in there somewhere, but Jonas couldn't say if it were from himself or the stranger.
Other voices cried out, filling the night with urgent demands for answers.
Overwhelmed, Jonas twisted free and stumbled blindly backward onto the boardwalk.
There were confused voices calling out in bewilderment and recognition. The tall man chased after him, demanding something Jonas couldn't give. Other strangers descended from all quarters, their voices blurring into a crushing din.
Through the center of the maelstrom flew Buddy. Buddy, who was safe. Buddy, who was known. Buddy, who grabbed Jonas by the arm and swung him up into the saddle behind him as they raced out of town. Sam trailed, sending a few parting shots after them to discourage pursuit.
The ride back to the ranch was silent, down and dirty. Buddy and Sam pushed their horses hard. Jonas held on, eyes squeezed tight and wished desperately that he'd never heard of Four Corners.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Jonas' feet barely touched dirt before Michael was on him. He grabbed his youngest brother by the nape of the neck and spun him. Buddy's pie-faced roan started and for a sick moment Jonas thought he would end up beneath the dancing hooves. Michael yanked him clear and slammed him up against the barn wall with a force that unfocused Jonas' eyes.
"What did you do?" Michael's normal tight control was fractured. Raw anger seethed, seeping through the cracks. "What did you do?" he screamed, shaking Jonas violently. His head collided with the wall with a hollow thud.
The blow staggered Jonas, tilted his world violently. Rapid-fire images overwhelmed him . . . the stagecoach west . . . the tall man from the saloon . . . the other men, his friends . . . his mother . . . No longer half-glimpsed ghosts, a lifetime of memories burst into vivid light. There were other memories flooding in . . . getting shot . . . getting kissed . . . Sam's face twisted in rage, his bruising hands pulling Jonas -- no, pulling JD from his horse . . . scrambling in the choking dust . . . blow after blow hailing down on him . . . Buddy yelling, frantic . . . darkness . . .
Jonas slipped away beneath the torrent of JD's memories bursting forth.
Patience stilled Michael's assault with a gentle touch. Her cool hand wrapped around the fist Michael had twisted in JD's shirtfront. She stepped between her husband and the stunned man; her dark eyes pleading.
"Michael," her voice was soft, meant for him alone. "He's just a boy."
"Jonas was just a boy," Michael seethed, his breath hitching on pent-up grief. His drawn back fist trembled, still cocked with a blow that would never land. His eyes were locked, unseeing on the limp form beyond Patience's shoulder. "Jonas was . . . just . . ."
He released JD to enfold his wife in a sobbing embrace.
Without the support of Michael's arm pinning him against the barn, JD crumpled. He slid down the rough wall and lay in a heap in the dust.
Buddy looked on, torn between his brother's anguish and the young man he'd come to care for. His guilt won out, and he carefully hoisted JD over one shoulder. "C'mon, kid," he murmured. "Let's get you cleaned up."
He tensed at the sound of an approaching rider, relaxing only slightly when Sam thundered into the farmyard.
Sam leapt from his horse without waiting for it to stop. Both man and animal panted with exertion, foam flecked the horse's dark hide. Sam's gaze flicked between his brothers and Patience, sensing instinctively that something important had passed in the small farmyard.
Buddy broke the silence first. "You lose 'em?" he asked, though he already knew the answer.
Sam shook his head no. "I laid a trail a blind man could see, but it didn't even slow Tanner down. They're riding straight here."
"How long?" Michael asked his voice as raw as a fresh-milled plank. He still held Patience in his arms, but stood straighter, no longer clinging like a man afraid of drowning.
"Minutes, if we're lucky," Sam answered, gruff as he turned his attention to freeing the rifle still in its saddle holster. His shoulders were hunched, drawn tight and defensive.
Michael absorbed the information with a firm nod, as though something were decided. "When they come," he said, his words carefully measured with his authority as head of the family, "we won't fight. There's been enough trouble and I won't lose another brother."
"May not have a choice, Michael," Sam said, a wild note creeping into his words. "That's Chris Larabee leadin' the posse. He's not known for his mercy." He laughed; a dry, bitter sound in the back of his throat. "Hell, like as not, they'll hang us all for this."
"Sam," Buddy said in as soothing a tone as he could muster. He'd caught the promise of violence in Sam's stance. "There are six of them. It'd be a massacre. Maybe it won't come to a hanging."
The betrayed look in Sam's eyes cut Buddy and he involuntarily took a half step back. "You think Larabee'll let this go? Wilmington? He damn near killed the James' foreman looking for the kid. Only question is if any of us live long enough to see the Judge." For the first time, Sam seemed to recognize JD hanging limp as a flour sack over his brother's shoulder. The rifle came up to bear; there was little need to aim at such close range. "You shoulda let me finish him on the trail that day, Bud. Put him down and I'll fix him now."
Buddy turned toward his brother, sheltering JD with his own body as best he could. "You willing to put a bullet in me too, Sammy?" The question hung poisonous in the air between them.
The rifle muzzle wavered, but didn't turn aside. "He's not kin, Bud. He's not Jonas. He got Jonas killed."
The dagger-edged comment struck home, Buddy recoiled as though struck. He opened his mouth, chewing open air for an answer. "I'm not putting him down, so you're gonna have to shoot me too. Best decide what's most important to you, little brother."
"Sam," Michael cut in, "put the gun down. You're not shooting anyone. Whatever happens, we'll handle it. But not like this."
Sensing that no one was likely to commit fratricide, Buddy carried JD over to hand pump. He carefully lowered JD to the ground, propping the young man up against the water trough. He knelt next to JD and gently lifted his lolling head to assess the forming bruises.
Patience appeared at his side, lantern in hand. She held out her shawl to Buddy, who accepted it gratefully. He dipped the corner of the light fabric into the cold water and dabbed at the blood and dust that streaked JD's face.
The cold roused JD. He cringed away from the probing touch, batting weakly.
"Just take it easy, kid," Buddy said, catching JD's hand and placing it in his lap. "You took a pretty good knock on the head. What do you remember?" Buddy asked gently.
JD shook his head, a slight, tightly controlled gesture. "I know I'm not Jonas."
Buddy closed his eyes and nodded slightly, grief playing clearly across his features. "No," he agreed softly, "you're not Jonas. Do you remember him?"
"I--" JD's memories were as rusty as a thrown shoe in a mud puddle. "I arrested him," JD answered at last. "He shot a man during a poker game. A farmer."
"Judge gave him a year in Yuma," Buddy supplied.
JD grimaced, his scrambled brains slowly making connections. "There was a fight at the prison." He locked eyes with Buddy. "I'm sorry."
"Wasn't your fault," Buddy said sadly. "Jonas always did have more temper than sense."
"How . . ." JD struggled to sit up a little straighter. "How'd I wind up here?"
Buddy looked embarrassed. "I ain't proud of what we done. Jonas isn't the only one of us with a temper. The day after we buried Jonas, Sam and I ran across you on the eastern edge of our spread. Sam . . . hurt you bad." Buddy's gaze was on everything except JD. "I thought for sure you were dead. If I took you to Four Corners and you died, they'd hang Sam certain. I'd just buried one brother, wasn't in a hurry to plant another one."
He cleared his throat and busied himself cleaning JD's injuries. "Michael's a doctor, so I brought you here. Figured if he patched you up, it might keep Sam alive."
"And if I'd died?"
"I'd have taken you back to town, told your friends we'd found you like that."
"Oh." JD winced as Buddy probed the knot on the back of his head.
"Like I said, I ain't proud of it." He dipped the shawl into the water again and dabbed at the forming goose egg. "Damned near did die. Burned for a week before Michael got your fever to break. And when you woke up, you didn't remember a blessed thing."
"Why didn't you take me home then? Take me back to my family?"
"Couldn't be sure you wouldn't remember what happened and put us right back in it. Michael did some reading and he thought he could keep your memories from ever coming back." Buddy gave him a sad smile. "That wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world, would it?"
Thundering hooves from several directions cut off JD's reply. Buddy grabbed him by the shoulders and said, "I don't expect your forgiveness, we don't deserve it. But I'm begging you for my family. It hasn't been all bad, has it? We took care of you, made you family." He was searching JD's face for any sign of understanding, of hope.
"Hello the house," Chris' voice rang out clearly from the dark. "Throw down your guns and grab some sky."
"Please," Buddy mouthed, as he raised his arms high overhead.
A dark shape materialized over Buddy's shoulder and tossed him easily away from JD. Josiah was there to cover him, flattening the big man out prone. He didn't offer any resistance.
Buck hauled JD to his feet and straight into a massive embrace. This time, JD knew for certain, that the trembling came from both of them.
"Don't you ever do that to me again," Buck ordered, not relinquishing his grip for a second.
"I won't," JD agreed tearfully, crushed against Buck's collar. "I won't."
The sound of a scuffle finally broke JD's deathgrip on Buck. Chris had hauled Buddy to his feet; one fist was twisted in his shirtfront, the other clenched his Colt revolver.
"Chris, no!" JD's voce was strong, steady despite the nerves that rattled him. JD slipped free of Buck's comforting embrace, he needed to stand on his own for this fight. "Don't," JD layered command and request into that single word.
"JD, stay out of this," Chris growled, his fist still knotted in Buddy's shirtfront.
"They didn't do anything but help me," JD forced the words out in an even tone that betrayed nothing.
"Didn't do anything?" Josiah asked, incredulous. "Son, we've been -- "
JD held his hand up in appeasement, his eyes never leaving Chris. "I got thrown. I hit my head on a rock." His words were bare, deliberate.
Chris clearly didn't believe a word of it. "You got thrown?"
"I got thrown," JD repeated with growing conviction, daring Chris to call him a liar. "Milagro spooked . . . at something. Buddy and Sam found me and brought me to Michael. He's a doctor. When I woke up, I didn't remember anything." He was on firmer footing now, nearly the truth. "They took me in. It's more than most folks'd do."
"They've been to Four Corners before," Buck said. "They didn't know who you were?"
JD broke his stare down with Chris to smile gamely at Buck. "Now who's gonna notice me in a roomful of you giants?" he asked wryly. He turned back to Chris and with iron in his voice said, "I told you what happened." A moment of puzzled understanding flickered between them.
"You got thrown," Chris said, managing to make it a statement of irrefutable fact. He released his hold on Buddy.
"Just hold on now," Nathan demanded, as he tried to edge close enough to examine JD who kept waving him off. "These two," he gestured to Buddy and Sam, "have been skulking around town for months now. There's no way they didn't know you were missing."
"JD told us what happened, right JD?"
JD gave Chris a brilliant smile of gratitude. Chris answered with a pointed look that promised he would get the whole story from JD -- soon.
"I got thrown," JD repeated stubbornly. He turned the smile on Buck and Nathan. "I'd really like to go home now." It felt deliriously good to say home and know where he meant.
Buck's suspicious scowl gave way to a delighted smile. "Sounds good to me, kid. Sounds real good." He settled his arm around JD's shoulders and drew the younger man close.
JD leaned into the companionable embrace, grateful for the anchor. He was content to let Buck lead him across the farmyard; Buck steering their path deliberately so that he created a physical barrier between JD and the remaining members of the Laurence family.
They passed near Vin, who despite the stand down was still maintaining a wary guard stance. He reached out, without taking his eyes from Buddy or Sam, and tugged JD's hair gently. His hand settled against JD's neck briefly and his shit-eating grin matched Buck's perfectly.
Ezra emerged from the barn with a horse already saddled. "I took the liberty of locating you conveyance, Mr. Dunne." His tone was an open invitation for objection from the animal's owners. None was offered. He held the lead while JD hauled himself up into the saddle; handing over the reins with a quick salute.
The others mounted up quickly, and they rode out seven strong. Chris set a brisk pace at first; only slowing once the ranch fell away behind them.
JD twisted in the saddle, casting a last look back toward the place he'd called home for four months. He recalled Buddy's question with a hint of regret. It wouldn't have been the worst thing in the world; but it was nothing close to the best thing either. He settled back in the saddle, basking in the presence of his friends.
"Soon as we get home, I want a look at you," Nathan said, drawing alongside JD. He shifted in his saddle, and JD suspected that he would have started the exam then and there had JD not edged his borrowed horse just out of arms length.
"I'm fine, Nate," he said. Off to his right, Buck laughed; a warm, deep, comforting sound. JD grinned slyly. "sides," he quipped, "I've seen how scruffy you let Buck get."
"Oh," Buck gasped in mock pain, clutching his heart. "Is that how you treat your friends?"
"No," JD answered. "It's how you treat your brothers."
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