Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em damnit!
Thanks, to dear Phyllis for betaing this.
Also to Karen and the DD Posse for their amazing insights
And to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home.
For JD Dunne there was nothing quite like riding out on a bright, fresh, early morning cool air in his face and few people around to cause concern. He was just considering heading back to town when something caught his eye.
There in the distance smoke.
A trouble-free period in town saw JD out alone on patrol. As he rode toward the smoke, he considered his friends; their presence would sure feel good right about now. 'They're not gonna like this', he thought, spurring Milagro forward, but he pushed on anyway. He had a feeling he wasn't going to like it, either.
Checking the site over before dismounting, JD pulled out his rifle and walked cautiously toward the smoldering remains of a covered wagon. The area was littered with clothes and possessions. He glanced across the ground to make sense of it all, one particular bundle of rags, on the ground, to the rear of the wagon drawing his attention. A few steps further and he was next to them, squatting down to unravel what appeared to be a heap of clothes. His breath suddenly hitching in his throat, JD dropped to his knees and wept.
"Oh God, oh no "
Shaking fingers reached toward the infant and found its tiny body barely cold it hadn't been dead long. His heart pounding and chest heaving, JD looked a little further along and spotted another body a woman. Her abused remains told their own story. JD couldn't help but reflect on how physically close she had come to being with her baby in death.
But not quite.
Swiping at his eyes, the young sheriff thanked all that was holy that his friends couldn't see him now. He felt humiliated by the fact that the images before him had reduced him to tears. But the scene was horrific and now he was wondering if the mother and baby were traveling alone. It seemed unlikely.
A noise from behind a large nearby rock had him tightening his hold on his rifle before pushing himself up to investigate. Looking warily around, again, JD made his way to the rock, flattening his back against it before peering around to find the source of the sound. The shock of what greeted him caused black spots to dance before his eyes and it was all he could do to stay upright, his whole body trembling, now. Slowly, he walked over to a device made of sturdy branches, positioned over the glowing embers of a dying fire. Hanging from it, upside- down, was the charred body of a white man at least, JD thought it was a white man it was hard to tell. But the worst sight of all was the man's eyes. They were fixed on him, a look that would haunt the youth for the rest of his life.
"P pl ease sh shoot m me."
JD stared at the man, despite wanting to turn away and vomit. "Wh what?"
"P please have merc y."
The man was in great need. By rights, just looking at him, he should have already been dead. Horrified, and in no doubt he could never perform such a request, JD's mind raced to think how the others would handle it. The man's raspy cry dragged him back to reality and he turned to go back to his horse. Reaching into one of the saddlebags, JD took out the Navy Colt .44 he'd found the day he'd signed on as sheriff. Still having the presence of mind to look around and check for danger, JD returned to the dying man.
He'd never felt so helpless, or so disgusted with himself with his inability to do the man's bidding, but, undeterred, JD walked over to him. He stared in horror as his mind raced. JD had thought maybe, with the Colt in his hand, he could just do it, but something embedded into his very soul made him realize now he could not. He turned sad eyes to the man.
"Mister I can't, I'm sorry I just can't."
JD looked on in horror as a blackened hand reached out.
Dazed, the youth handed the weapon over and could only watch as the dying man placed the barrel inside his mouth.
JD jumped when, before he could turn away, the man fired and ended his life and his torture. The kid dropped to his knees and vomited.
Buck yawned as he stared at his cards. "I fold."
"Mister Larabee that just leaves you," Ezra smiled.
Chris stared him down, raised him, and then called. Ezra grinned wider and put down two pairs, Jacks high; he knew his bluff had failed and nodded in appreciation when Chris revealed a full house. Buck stretched.
"I'm ready for some grub," he stated, sniffing the air for signs of anything being cooked.
"Anyone know what time JD left?" Vin asked, sipping on a glass of beer.
"It was pretty early," Josiah answered. "I was just err performing my early morning ablutions when I saw him wave and ride out."
"Didn't Mary ask him to go over to Eagle Bend for her or was that gonna be tomorrow?" Buck wondered out loud, silently berating himself for allowing the drop in activity to dull his senses a little. He checked his pocket watch. He'd give JD a few more hours before getting all concerned. After all, one thing he did recall was JD being keen to get out riding and Chris assuring him there was nothing to rush back for.
Still that little voice in his head had started up now just a few more hours.
There was nothing left but to head home. With no tools, JD decided to take all three bodies back to town for burial. He figured they'd suffered enough, without the indignity of buzzards pecking at them. He had managed to manhandle the two adults over his horse after wrapping them in some blankets that were lying around, gently scooping up the wrapped infant in his arms just before taking Milagro's reins, his forgotten hat and jacket hanging off the saddle horn. It was a good few hours walk, in blistering heat, but it was the least he could do. Clutching the lifeless child in his arms, with a heavy heart and a rolling stomach, JD tugged at the reins and headed off, taking one last look back at all that remained of this little family's hopes and dreams
his own laying fractured before him.
Despite the heat of the afternoon, Yosemite's fire burned brightly as the blacksmith toiled. For no particular reason, as he wiped at his brow, he glanced back toward the edge of town. The sight that greeted him stole his breath as he quickly downed tools and headed off in search of help. Spotting Mary Travis about to go into the Clarion office, he called out.
"Missus Travis ma'am "
Mary stopped and turned toward the sound of the voice calling her name. Seeing Yosemite approaching, she walked to meet him.
The blacksmith pointed up the street. "Shall I go get Mister Larabee?"
Shocked at what she was seeing, Mary shook her head. "No I will, keep an eye on him."
Nodding, the man walked back toward the livery while Mary hurried toward the saloon. As she pushed through the doors, her eyes roamed the gloomy interior until she found her target.
JD had once more become the topic of conversation. Vin was next on patrol and voiced his concern that he should be on his way by now, despite JD not being back yet. Chris agreed, knowing full well Vin's remarks were more to do with JD's tardiness than his desire to get out on patrol. They all looked toward the door as Mary burst in and approached.
"Chris come quickly."
All six men stood and five followed Larabee out. Once on the boardwalk, Mary directed them to a weary figure walking his horse along the street, townsfolk standing and gaping in horror as the little group passed by them.
Chris dropped his cheroot, stomping it out. "Damn."
Various other mumblings and curses came from the men as they made their way quietly toward their youngest. Buck was about to push forward, but Chris held firm.
"Easy, pard look at him."
Buck's heart ached at the sight of the broken boy coming toward them; he was barely able to contain himself as Chris approached the youth.
Despite stopping, JD's eyes remained rooted to the ground.
"JD let me take it, son."
Chris reached out toward the bundle JD was cradling to his chest, taking great care not to take it, but to wait for JD to hand it over. Slowly, hazel eyes rose up to stare through Chris, unnerving the Seven's leader at seeing the lack of recognition. Vin had stepped toward the horse, his hand hovering, ready to take the reins at the appropriate time. The other men had also circled around, cutting off the dramatic scene from those watching, while effectively forming a protective circle around the exhausted youth.
"Give up the baby, son."
Buck's tone was soft and JD's gaze moved to him, then back to Chris, fat tears forming, to drop into the dust below. JD opened his mouth to speak, but no sound was uttered. At that moment, seeing JD's grip loosening slightly on the wrapped bundle, Chris took hold of the infant as Vin's hand closed in around JD's and Buck moved in to take the young sheriff by the shoulders.
There was nothing condescending in Chris' tone, just pure concern as he watched Buck and Nathan guide JD toward the clinic. The blond looked at Vin, Josiah and Ezra, none of the men able to speak. With Chris cradling the precious bundle, Vin guided the horse and his friends toward the undertakers.
Once inside, the horror unfolded. Ezra's eyes glistened with tears as he surveyed the three bodies, sickened to the core at what these three poor souls had endured. Josiah wept openly while chanting a soft prayer. Vin and Chris' jaw nerves jumped as the tension coiled their bodies until it became too much to bear. Chris' voice cut through the silence like a gunshot.
"Vin go saddle the horses. I'm gonna go check on JD then we'll ride out and scout this out."
Nodding, Vin left. He was about to head out either way, confident JD's trail would be easy to follow. Chris, Josiah and Ezra headed for the clinic, all three minds in turmoil.
"Ease him down onto the bed, Buck."
Nathan's tone was soft as he put water on to boil and set out some clean rags. Buck sat JD down and started pulling off the compliant boy's boots, wincing at the blood-soaked socks and nodding his thanks as Nathan handed over a mug of water.
"Drink this, kid." Even as he spoke, Buck was holding the cup to JD's lips. Slowly, JD began to sip, suddenly snatching at the mug to take it in faster.
"No no, easy now, you'll get sick."
"Th thirsty "
"I know I know, just ease up."
Buck glanced toward the healer, both men relieved to hear the boy's first sound since he arrived back. While JD drank, Nathan eased off his shirt, he and Buck maneuvering the garment around the tightly held mug. Soon, JD was in a clean nightshirt and was now drinking a mix of herbs Nathan had brewed while the healer had bathed his blistered feet and Buck ran a cool rag over the youth's dirty face. JD startled as Chris, Ezra and Josiah entered though he didn't acknowledge them.
Hating his next actions, but considering them necessary, Chris squatted down to speak to the boy.
"Are you able to tell me anything, JD?" His heart lurched as fresh tears formed on the youth's lower lashes. It took a good minute for JD to speak, his chin wobbling as he worked at swallowing the emotion tightening his throat.
"I know. You found them like that?"
JD nodded, then his eyes widened in horror as his gaze met Chris', his head slowly shaking. "No no not not him Oh God " He began trembling uncontrollably as his breath came in short gasps.
"Chris," Nathan warned, "he's in shock give him a little time."
Nodding, the blond sighed heavily and stood, turning to leave.
The man in black turned back to his youngest peacekeeper.
"There was no shovel I couldn' t leave 'em."
"I can see that." He squeezed JD's shoulder, "You did good, son."
Acknowledging Chris' need to leave, the others took up seats as they watched Buck and Nathan ease the distraught youth into bed to quickly fall asleep.
All they could do for now was wait.
Chris scrutinized the area, glancing occasionally toward Vin as the Texan studied every inch of ground. There was no doubt in his mind of how the tracker was feeling about what he was finding. Finally, Vin walked toward him, something in his hand. Chris frowned.
"That JD's Colt?"
Vin nodded. "Reckon so. That explains the bullet hole in the fella's head."
Tanner shrugged. "Hard to be sure, though I reckon by the blood spatter on the wood overhead, maybe not. The angle's all wrong."
Chris nodded, looking around. "Long time since we've had Indian trouble 'round these parts." He was a little shocked at the cold glare he received.
"This weren't Indians, Chris."
Larabee looked around, finding that statement hard to take in. "Okay, let's head for Eagle Bend, maybe we'll get some answers there."
Several times over the next few hours, Buck had to calm JD down, the boy sleeping heavily, but trapped in a hell only he could see. The boy's self-appointed 'big brother' and mentor, hoped Chris and Vin would have some luck in finding out what the hell happened out there, because, right now, JD was in bad shape, and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it.
Four of the five men left in town were in and out of the clinic all day and night but JD slept, fitfully, but without waking. When Chris and Vin finally rode back into town, the six gathered on the veranda outside the clinic
"The first attacks were between Shadow Falls and Eagle Bend," Chris added, his voice soft.
"Rich or poor bastards ain't fussy who they hit," Vin stated.
"There were more?" Josiah asked.
"Hard to comprehend," Ezra sighed.
"Apache?" Buck guessed.
Vin shook his head. "Weren't no Indians killed 'em."
The four men looked stunned, their shock interrupted by a cry from inside.
"We need to find 'em," Buck glared, just before hurrying back into the clinic.
They all agreed, each man following him in.
Blackened features with eyes of white stared back at him through the wispy smoke. JD was rooted to the spot, unable to move or turn his head away from the sight.
"Help me, boy have mercy "
Tears fell as the youth shook his head. "I can't, I'm sorry I can't "
A charred, bloody arm reached out trying to touch him, but JD still couldn't move and it was getting closer.
"Kill me, boy do it don't be a coward KILL ME!"
"I CAN'T! LEAVE ME ALONE I JUST " he sobbed, " can't." JD's trembling body turned to see a bloodied woman nursing a child, standing behind him.
"What sort of a man leaves another to die in agony?"
Tears ran down the young sheriff's face unchecked. "I did what I could please forgive me I'm sorry, I'm *so* sorry."
The woman started weeping and the baby cried, pitifully. JD's sobs matched their own as the man's raw and bloody fingers grabbed his lapel.
"Look what you've done my pain is their pain, kill me NOW!"
Finally JD's feet moved and he started scrabbling in the dust to escape the death grip on his jacket. "NO! LET GO LEAVE ME ALONE I CAN'T, I CAN'T, STOP, PLEASE PLEASE STOP!"
Buck could barely hang on to the boy thrashing and yelling in the bed. Pressing his lips to JD's ear as he crushed him to his chest, Buck spoke, his voice hoarse with emotion.
"JD wherever you are, boy, I've got you Buck's got you. Stay with us kid, you're safe, y'hear? You're safe."
Emotion won out as the youth held against him cried hard, his sobs buried in Buck's chest. As hot tears penetrated the tall man's shirt, the struggle and weeping ceased and JD's body went slack. Easing the youth back down on the bed, Buck touched his hand to the boy's sweaty forehead then stood, not bothering to wipe away his own tears. He watched Nathan as the healer checked his charge over, wiping a cool cloth over the youth's face and neck. The black man looked up and toward Wilmington.
"I don't think he's even awake, Buck. The stuff I gave him would keep a horse out for hours. He's dreaming."
"That weren't no dream," Buck hissed, "that was purgatory itself. What the hell did he see out there?"
Tanner just managed to wipe away a lone tear before they all turned to him and Chris, both men's jaws clenched tight. Vin spoke, his voice soft and raspy.
"I can't be sure but " he looked at Chris, who nodded, once. "Looks like the guy killed himself with JD's Navy Colt we found it just beneath where he was hangin'"
Buck frowned, checking JD was still asleep before answering. "You saying JD saw him do that?"
"Likely but I'm thinkin' he might'a asked JD to do it for him."
All eyes flicked to Josiah before moving back to Vin. Ezra spoke.
"How can you possibly make a distinction between JD's hand committing such an act, or that poor unfortunate soul's?"
Vin was now checking JD was still out of it before answering, his voice low as his hand moved to his head to illustrate his next words.
"Bullet's exit hole was at the back of the fella's head. Don't seem likely JD put the gun in the man's mouth and then pulled the trigger."
Four men inhaled deeply, nodding their agreement. Chris' expression was one of resignation; he and Vin had already discussed this.
Buck ran a hand over his face. "So apart from finding them, you think JD might have been unable to end the man's agony, only to watch him shoot his brains out?"
Josiah sighed, heavily. "No wonder the boy has demons."
"We gotta help him," Buck stated.
"We will," Chris assured. "But you'd better be prepared for a long, hard ride. I've seen tougher men than JD lost 'cause of something like this."
"We ain't losing him."
Everyone nodded at Buck's statement, while secretly hoping they were up to the challenge. Right now, each one of them was struggling to comprehend all that had happened; they couldn't even begin to imagine what JD was going through.
"Buck, you staying?" Chris asked, despite already knowing the answer.
The brunet nodded.
He looked at the group. "Boys, what say we take this to the saloon and Vin can fill us in." Larabee glanced at Buck. "We'll be back."
As Buck took a seat next to JD's bed, the five peacekeepers left the room to head for the saloon.
"What gives you the notion they weren't Indians?" Nathan asked as the five men sat around a table toward the back of the saloon.
Vin twisted the whiskey glass in his hands as he pondered the question. "Hard t'explain. Whoever did this is real good, but no Indians I ever knew of would rape an' murder a white woman that way, or leave a child to die."
"The child may have already been deceased," Ezra cut in.
Vin nodded. "True, but it felt all wrong. The contraption set up over the fire was lashed all wrong the way the fire was set footprints all around just little things."
"Very circumstantial ," Ezra began, " but I bow to your expertise in such matters."
Tanner acknowledged the sincerity with which he spoke. "I just know, it weren't no Indians did that, but whoever did sure wanted folks to think it was."
"Why?" Nathan wondered out loud.
"People fear Indians," Josiah answered, "fear makes folks closed in less likely to consider other options."
"So, chances are we're looking for white men, with a good knowledge of Indian customs," Chris reasoned.
Vin's statement cut through the tension like a knife.
"Renegades?" Ezra inquired.
"Army would make some sense," Josiah agreed, "they'd likely have more knowledge than most."
"Well, it's something to consider," Chris stated, taking a shot of whiskey followed by a long draw of his beer, while glancing toward the direction of the clinic. "We got other things to concern ourselves with, too." He stood. "I'll go send a few neighboring towns a telegram let them know what they may need to look out for."
Larabee turned back to Josiah.
"We're burying the folks JD brought in, later," the preacher informed.
Chris nodded and left.
By the time Chris turned up at the clinic, Nathan was back. Taking off his hat and pushing back his hair, the blond couldn't help but smile as he saw Buck sitting on the bed, snoring, his back up against the wrought iron bedstead. JD was lying protectively under Buck's arm and across his chest. Nathan passed him a mug of coffee as Chris took a seat.
"JD was having another nightmare," Nathan whispered. "He seems more settled since Buck did this."
Larabee stared at the pair on the bed as he sipped on the strong, dark, steaming brew. He sighed softly, glancing up at the healer.
"How do we do this?" he asked.
Nathan walked around the bed to sit next to him, his voice remaining low. "Tricky. There's gonna be times yer gonna wanna shake him something fierce to snap him out of it "
"But, you know as well as I do, ain't no shame in feeling the way he does. Hell, Chris, I was only with them bodies but a minute and it about broke my heart."
"You took another look?"
Nathan nodded. "Vin's right. Can't see JD firing his gun like that. Another thing is I reckon the baby just died from exposure."
"Exposure?" Chris asked.
Nathan sipped his coffee as he looked back at the man in black. "Weren't no marks on him. I'm guessin' while his mamma was bein' attacked, he just lay there. Gets cold at night out here "
Chris raised his hand, swallowing hard. "Enough I get the picture." He sighed. "So, what next?"
"It's gonna be hell, but we need JD to tell us what happened."
Chris agreed. Yeah, it was gonna be hell.
"Does it need to be soon?"
Both men looked at the bed from where the whisper had come from, their gazes matching the concern in Buck's eyes.
"Soonest is best," Nathan replied. "I'm gonna leave out the herbs in his tea next time he wakes. Once his mind is clearer we can look at helping him through this."
"Whatever it takes, Nathan," Buck assured, shifting JD into a more comfortable position.
"Same here," Chris agreed, green eyes meeting deep blue in a moment of compassion and understanding.
Buck smiled a sad smile. "Thanks, stud."
Chris nodded, knowing four other men would be willing to do the same.
Carrying a tray with plates of food and a glass of milk, Buck beamed at the still form wrapped in a blanket and sitting in a rocking chair outside the clinic, while trying hard not to focus on the dullness of JD's usually sparkling eyes.
"Hey, kid, brought you some biscuits 'n honey, and some chicken and mashed p'taters. Missus Potter made the gravy just how you like it, dark 'n thick."
Placing the tray down on the bench next to the rocking chair, Buck absently fussed with the blanket, pulling it up closer to JD's chin. "Don't want you getting a chill in this here shade."
"Not sick, Buck." The quiet tone was flat and devoid of emotion.
"I know, now don't leave this go cold."
JD pulled a face that had been passing for a smile in the past two days. "Thanks." He burrowed down deeper into the blanket.
Buck took up a seat next to him, sighing to himself. "You ain't eaten since " He caught himself. " in three days, ya gotta eat, kid."
Anticipating more of Buck's 'encouragement' , JD closed his eyes and tucked his chin down into the warm material. In a few minutes he was genuinely asleep. Coming out of the clinic, Nathan nodded to Buck, glancing down at the plates. "He eat anything?"
Buck shook his head, his eyes firmly on JD's sleeping form. The kid's complexion was sallow, dark rings had settled under his eyes giving them a sunken appearance. His last meal had been a biscuit and a glass of milk the morning he had set out on patrol, three days ago, and the small amount of weight loss was starting to show.
"He ain't gonna get his strength back iffen he don't eat."
"Don't you think I know that?" Buck hissed. "Each day that goes by I see a little bit more of him slipping away. I won't lose him, Nathan not to something like this."
Buck looked to see Chris, Vin, Ezra and Josiah climbing the clinic stairs.
"Still not eating?" Chris gestured toward the food.
"Nope and he can't seem to stay awake all that long, either," Buck answered.
"He's still in shock," Josiah reminded, watching Nathan nod. "We need to get him to talk about it."
"I know," Buck said softly, "but I can't bear to see him have to live through whatever it is he went through all over again."
"Neither one of us wants that, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra assured, "but this hideous affair has a hold akin to a death grip on him, and I for one fear for his health should he continue on this destructive path."
"Either way, we can't force it," Nathan insisted, as each man took seats around the sleeping youth. "Just have to help him when he finally feels up to talking."
His eyes remaining closed as he drifted out of his slumber, JD could hear the clink of glasses, picturing in his mind the upturned crate they were likely using as a table as his friends passed round a whiskey bottle, while he sat there in his misery-filled loathing of himself. These last few months since arriving in the west, JD had fought, not just alongside them against the bad element, but for himself, to prove time and time again if only *to* himself, that he deserved his place with these men.
But now, he had come to realize he didn't even have the strength of character to care how weak he must look to them. So he kept his eyes closed and lost another little piece of himself to his mounting shroud of despair as the images of that day stayed as fresh in his mind as if it had just happened.
JD could see the door to his life slowly closing trapping him in a place he knew, without hesitation, he couldn't survive.
Day four was the day Nathan decided to put JD back to bed, much to the despair of the other peacekeepers. And now Chris understood Nathan's words when he had said they'd likely want to shake the boy to within an inch of his life. The kid was going backwards and he felt as if they were just letting it happen.
Day five and Nathan finally forced some broth into JD, only to see it all come back up. With a heavy heart, Chris made a decision and urged the others to join JD and the ever-present Buck in the clinic.
Vin had been out with the posse from Eagle Bend and Shadow Falls for two days, returning with the news that the men they were chasing had simply vanished. Despite Buck's growing anxiety and concerned glances toward a sleeping JD, Chris continued with the group's discussion of events as the group sat around the small room.
At one point, the debate became heated at the real threat that these men could be in town, under their very noses, and they concluded they needed to step up their vigilance. In the ruckus, they almost missed the soft words that cut through their conversation like a sword.
"What makes men do such things?"
All eyes turned to see JD lying on his side and looking back at them, his eyes showing the first spark of life in days. Chris leaned his elbows on his knees and looked the boy straight in the eyes.
"Nothing *makes* them do anything, son. And not all men are that way. Some may be driven by a need to survive, others act out of pure greed. They prey on anyone too weak to fight back. What's theirs is theirs and what's anyone else's is up for grabs." Sensing he was getting through, he continued.
"What you found, JD, it happens; but not often. Settlers travel in large groups, for safety. Vin followed the trail, the folks you found got cut off from their train. It gave those... men, the opportunity they were waiting for."
Vin took over, JD's eyes tracking from Chris to look at him.
"They're cowards, kid they stalk their targets and single 'em out like a mountain lion, waitin' for them to get separated weakened and then they pounce. Ain't nothin' as noble in it, though, and there sure as hell ain't no glory. Just evil and what makes these men worse, is they tried to make it look like Indians attacked those folk."
Buck had helped JD sit up and was now sitting on the bed with him, one large comforting hand resting on the youth's blanketed knee. Tears ran unchecked as JD absorbed the information, his own mind sorting through what he needed to say to help lift the unbearable burden he had been carrying in his heart.
They all waited patiently, sensing a breakthrough was coming.
"I'm a coward, too. When I found that man still alive " JD swallowed and Nathan leaned across and offered him some water, which he gratefully sipped at before handing it back and continuing.
" I he oh God "
Buck squeezed JD's knee. "In your own time, kid."
JD nodded. He could feel the sobs trying to overtake him, but he was ready to do this needed to do this.
"He he begged me to kill him to end his pain but I couldn't do it God help me I couldn't do it " He was gulping in air but waved off any assistance as he finally broke through the guilt.
"I made him take his own life because I was too much of a coward to do it for him. I'm sorry I'm so sorry "
And the floodgates opened. Buck swept up the youth in a tight embrace, his own tears forming as the boy's body was wracked with sobs as he cried hard and long. Buck looked at the others, comforted to see not one man was unaffected; something this boy seemed able to stir up in these once hardened gunslingers.
And it hadn't diminished them in any way.
Feeling JD's body relax, Buck rested the spent youth back down in the bed, pushing back hair from JD's tear-stained face. He looked at Nathan, to see the healer smiling, while passing him a cloth.
"I reckon we got the step forward we needed."
Buck spoke, his voice hoarse with emotion. "I sure hope you're right, Nathan."
Seeing JD sleeping, Chris gestured with his head and they all stepped outside. He looked at each man.
"Once JD's on his feet, he sticks with one of us each day, for now. No patrols " he looked at Vin, " but maybe a ride out won't be a bad thing not too far "
Tanner nodded, a small smile creeping to his lips.
"You really think he will be alright now, Chris?"
Larabee nodded to Ezra. "Yeah, yeah I do. JD's a tough kid, but there's only so much a man can take before he finds his breaking point. JD found it, but I reckon he's broken through the worst of it he just needs mending now." He spoke with the authority of a man who had been there, and each man nodded.
"He needs his friends, 'cause he still has a long journey ahead of him." Chris finished, proud as each man straightened and acknowledged him.
"It would be my honor to take first watch," Ezra offered.
Chris looked at Nathan, the healer nodding and addressing the gambler. "I'll let you know when he's awake."
Standish flashed a genuine smile. "Thank you."
"Mind if I sit with him a spell while he's sleepin'?" Vin asked, looking at Buck almost apologetically.
"I reckon he'd like that," Buck grinned back.
Chris straightened. "Okay boys, we got a town to protect let's get to it."
He surprised them all by returning to the clinic, closing the door behind him. Buck chuckled, his first in days.
With soft laughs, the lawmen dispersed. Vin and Nathan hovered on the veranda for Chris to leave. Inside the room the man in black approached the sleeping youth, leaning in.
"You did good, kid I'm proud of you." With one last look, he left.
Day seven and JD watched in fascination as Ezra shuffled, cut and performed card tricks with an easy dexterity. Allowed back on the clinic veranda in the rocker and with the blanket, the youth had slept a whole day after the 'expunging of his guilt' as Ezra put it, and was now very much wide awake.
"Care for a game, JD?"
The youth shook his head. "No thanks, Ezra, don't feel clear- headed enough just yet." He sighed. "Do you think I could go back to my own room, soon?"
Standish smiled. "I'm sure that is in the cards, my friend, as soon as your appetite improves."
JD pulled a face. "I'm just not hungry."
"Be that as it may, your lack of appetite is enough cause for concern to warrant Mister Jackson's decision to keep you here for the interim." He leaned in. "If it were to be seen that you ate something of your next meal, it would aid your case considerably. "
"I am trying, Ezra. Never was too keen on broth, though."
Standish nodded. "Understandable. Unfortunately, your lack of intake of solid food dictates this course of action. Perhaps if I suggest some bread be added to the menu?"
JD shrugged. "Guess it might help." He attempted a smile. "Thanks."
"My pleasure. Now, I have something for you." He reached into his inside jacket pocket and produced a small paper book, smiling widely at the first genuine grin from JD in days. The youth brought a hand from under the blanket and took the dime novel.
"You are very welcome. I have never understood the attraction, myself, but maybe if you were to read some of it to me I might be persuaded to change my mind."
Sitting up and letting the blanket drop from his shoulders, JD ran his finger over the front cover, opened it and began to read aloud, soon too absorbed to see the southerner's wide grin.
Day eight brought another smile to JD's face as he flopped down onto his own bed. Buck grinned.
"Got us a spot waiting for us in the restaurant. Miss Fanny's made up a batch of beef stew and dumplings, thought you might be up to trying some real grub."
JD sat up, attempting to look interested. "Sure, sounds good." He stood and as Buck opened his room door, JD walked through, missing the sad look from his best friend and mentor. Buck wasn't fooled for an instant, but loved the kid for trying. With a wave of emotion washing over him, Buck gently caught JD's arm, causing the youth to turn and look up at him.
"Thank you for not giving up on us, kid."
JD's eyes saddened. "Is that what you thought?"
"That's what I feared."
A nod. "I won't lie to you, Buck, there was a time back there when I truly couldn't have cared less. I couldn't forgive myself for "
The brunet halted him. "No matter, now. I just wanted you to know how good it is to see you up and about."
JD gave a tight smile. "Feels kinda good, too." The pair continued on to get lunch.
That evening, in the saloon, the six men were thinking they had made a mistake, encouraging JD to sit with them a while. Despite his lack of alcohol intake, JD had become withdrawn, barely joining in the conversations. He clearly wasn't as well as they'd thought.
JD was focusing on a conversation at the bar. Two men were discussing the passing of the family, speculating on what they knew of the woman's demise. JD could feel himself getting hot and light-headed, one particular and unsavory path the men were pursuing sending him over the edge. Pushing himself back from the table with a loud scrape of his chair, JD stood and spun on his heels to face the men, pinning one of them painfully against the bar.
"What gives you the right to talk about an innocent woman like that?"
The man yelped as the wooden edge of the bar bit into the center of his back.
JD leaned in. "You got nothing better to do than pray on others' misery and tragedy? People like you make me sick!"
Despite the man being a good head and shoulders above him, JD's anger drove him on. The only reason the second man had stayed out of it was due to the six gunslingers, who were now on their feet and surrounding the three of them. JD was oblivious, only focusing on the man in his grip, when a strong hand on his shoulder caused him to yell out but not break his hold.
"JD take your own advice, son."
Buck's words were soft but carried an underlying tone JD recognized instantly.
"Don't start, Buck " JD spat out.
"Now, you just hold on I'll have none of your blather, boy " Before Buck's fear-fuelled anger could escalate, Chris touched his arm and Buck stood down, the blond then gripping JD's arm.
Hearing Chris' voice, JD's anger wilted as he turned to face his hero and a stare that relayed a message JD knew he could never contest. While Ezra and Nathan watched the room, Buck and Chris maneuvered the kid out into the street, Vin and Josiah stepping forward to block any retaliation the two would-be antagonists might have considered.
"We don't want no trouble, mister," the one JD had challenged, stated. "Not our fault the kid's crazy as a loon."
Vin stepped right into the man's face. "I sure hope that's bottled courage talkin' mister, we don't take kindly to our friends' good names bein' slandered."
Both men gulped as Josiah stepped forward, reached past them and picked up their whiskey bottle, taking a long pull before placing it back on the bar as he smiled.
"Much obliged for the drink, fellas."
With that, Vin and Josiah walked away, Ezra and Nathan turning to follow them. Ezra touched his hat.
Outside, Buck's shove into JD's chest caused the unprepared and still shaky youth to topple and land on his butt in the dirt. He sat there glaring back, defiantly, while shivering in his vest and shirtsleeves, his hat and jacket still in the saloon.
"Are you looking to get yourself shot, boy?"
JD's eyes glistened with unshed tears. "What was I supposed to do, Buck? Let 'em talk about that poor lady that way? What right do they have? They weren't there they don't know what she went through " he swallowed, hard. "They had no right no one does." Angrily, he pushed himself up, not bothering to dust himself off and turning, strode away.
"JD, get back here we need to talk" Buck called, already regretting letting his frustration win through.
"Stay the hell away from me," JD yelled back, his hunched, retreating form barely visible in the sporadic light from the bonfires lining the street. They watched him head for the livery and Buck began to get flustered, turning as he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Let me, Bucklin."
Something in the Texan's eyes calmed Buck and he nodded and Vin went after JD.
Buck sighed, heavily. "This just gets worse."
"It's always darkest before the dawn, brother."
Buck frowned, looking to Chris, Ezra and Nathan before his gaze drifted back to Josiah.
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"He's angry, now and that's good," Sanchez explained. "He's working through it, Buck, he's getting there."
"Sure wish he'd hurry up, it's killin' me almost as much as it is him." Buck pulled off his hat to rake his fingers through his hair.
They all nodded, fully sympathizing with their troubled friend.
"And we still don't have a clue who we're chasing," Chris added.
With that sobering thought, they glanced at each other and headed back into the saloon.
It was impossible to see clearly in the poorly lit stable, so Vin located another lamp and lit it. Spying JD hunched up in the corner of Milagro's stall, the tracker approached, hung up the lantern on a hook on a nearby wall and leaned against a wooden support post.
"Please, Vin just leave me," JD begged.
"Don't reckon I can do that," Vin answered, "at least not until I tell you what I came here for."
Hugging his knees to his chest, JD looked back at him. Vin continued.
"Got this real nice place I found th'other day, thought you might like to ride out with me tomorrow take a look at it."
JD sucked in a breath. He hadn't ridden since the morning of that horrific day. "Is is it far?"
Vin bit back a grin. "'bout an hour's ride. You up for it?"
Closing his eyes for a moment, JD considered the offer. It sure would feel good to get away for a little while. "When?"
"Need to head out before dawn, place has one hell of a sunrise."
JD paused for a moment. "Sure, okay thanks."
Straightening, Vin extended his hand and JD took it, the tracker easily pulling him to his feet. "Tomorrow, then."
"Tomorrow," JD agreed.
In silence, Vin doused the lantern and the pair left the livery. As they stepped outside, they saw Buck mid-pace. He and JD stared at each other. Vin nodded and moved on to his wagon to get some sleep.
"Kid I I'm sorry I "
JD moved closer. "Me too."
"I never meant I, aww hell, I got so scared for you, boy."
"I know, Buck." He sighed. "It's just, when I heard what they were saying " Without realizing, he and Buck were standing directly in front of each other. The big man pulled his young friend in tight, both men grateful for the comfort.
"Stay with us," Buck breathed. JD clung tighter.
"Ain't going anywhere, Buck."
A few moments later, they moved apart and, exhausted, walked together to the boarding house to get some sleep. ~~~ The fresh morning air was bracing as day nine teetered on the brink of daybreak, but, despite shivering a little when they had dismounted, JD had found the ride exhilarating. He and Vin were now sitting on a ridge, legs dangling over the edge of a deep arroyo while they waited. As the sun rose, JD's breath caught in his throat, his hazel eyes reflecting the scene in all its glory.
"Oh God " he breathed.
Not breaking his own gaze, Vin grinned. "Pretty good, huh?"
JD nodded, absently, his eyes never moving from the vision. "It it's one of the most wonderful sights I've ever seen. I never knew this land could look so beautiful from up here."
Vin smiled, sadly. "This land *is* beautiful, kid. Sometimes, the ugly things make us forget that."
JD nodded again, still staring at the glowing horizon and the wildflowers below them that the sunlight was now highlighting. "I guess."
The pair sat in contemplative silence, Vin risking a glance to see a myriad of emotions washing over the youth's face. The tracker inwardly heaved a soft sigh, his frustration of not yet finding the men responsible for the murders weighing heavily on his heart.
It looked like the men they were hunting for had somehow leaked into the landscape, and yet Vin's gut was telling him they were still close.
These men were good, he'd give 'em that, strengthening his belief they were ex-soldiers, skilled at covering their tracks.
Vin was a man on a mission. Not normally open with his emotions, he had ached for his young friend, remembering all too well how it felt to come into contact with pure evil. Alone at such times,to survive, Vin had learned to grow hardened to these things. But having to become that way had strengthened his own resolve to insure bitterness didn't take hold of JD and change the boy that had reminded six tough gunslingers, it was never too late to take life by the scruff of the neck and shake every adventure out of it.
And have the time of your life doing so.
Day ten had been mostly uneventful, save for Nathan's insistence JD attend the clinic for a check-up, much to the boy's chagrin. It had not gone unnoticed his appetite had not fully picked up, or that JD had not yet been to visit the family's graves. But despite these things, the boy they all knew was slowly returning to them and now Nathan was satisfied JD's physical health was reasonably good, Chris had allowed the youth to take up some of his duties around town again.
The jail empty for the night, JD locked up and dropped the key to Chris at the saloon. As he wearily crossed the street to head for bed, JD just missed the three men heading in from the outskirts of town.
Josiah smiled across at his young 'apprentice' . Day eleven and Nathan was out of town, bringing a baby into the world at the Seminole Village. While Chris and Vin had never shown much interest in fixing the church, Buck was 'fixing' himself up with a lady friend and Ezra was surprised he'd even been asked. That had left just Josiah and JD to continue on with the church's restoration, the latter, in his usual inimitable way, jumping in with both feet, or in this case hands to help out the ex-preacher.
Always keen to learn, JD had watched and listened, then followed Josiah's teachings to the letter, finding it hard work, but very fulfilling. Josiah beamed at the boy. He had come through a terrible ordeal, but the very fact his so-called 'big brother' was once more arranging dalliances with the fair ladies of the town spoke volumes as to how JD was recovering.
"So I guess I got asked 'cause everyone else ducked out, huh?"
Josiah had to smile as he glanced across at the youth. Working in his wool vest and shirtsleeves, JD's hair constantly fell in his eyes as he toiled. Josiah wondered how the boy hadn't taken half his fingers off already. Not wishing to be seen as a liar, Sanchez nodded.
"Yes, in a way. Not because I think of you least, I assumed you had duties and worked from there. It was mighty nice of Vin and Chris to step in for you at the jailhouse today."
JD chuckled. "As we're in church, I guess I'll have to answer that, later."
Grinning widely at the answer and the sheer joy of hearing the youth joking again, Josiah turned to the wall he was working on and continued rubbing at the grain, all the while watching over his young friend. He sensed there was more to JD being here than just his willingness to help. Josiah wasn't disappointed.
Wiping a trickle of sweat from his brow, JD glanced up at the preacher. There was something he needed to get clear in his mind. Deciding the time was right, straightening, JD sucked in a breath.
JD swallowed, he needed to do this and he couldn't afford to let his emotions get the better of him.
There was something he desperately needed to know.
The big man looked around and across at JD, his heart melting on seeing the boy's expression. He had been right in thinking the kid was building toward something
"What is it, son?" Moving closer, he leaned against the rail below the altar, looking slightly up at his young friend.
JD took another deep breath. "Do do you think God can tell the difference between someone committing a sin and taking their own life, and someone in so much need that that they *have* to take it? Do you think he forgives them so so they don't burn in hell for all eternity?"
Josiah smiled, kindly, pausing to find the right words. "Yes I do. God is all seeing and all knowing, compassionate and caring. If one of his lambs needed to make such a terrible choice, I believe they would be received with a loving embrace and an absolving of all they had endured on their journey to their final resting place."
Trying and failing to fight back tears, JD took a step forward. "Do you think he can also forgive the person that left a man to make such a decision?"
Josiah moved a little closer, his voice soft and low. "He already has, son he already has." Extending his arms, Josiah wrapped them around the youth before him, cradling the trembling body with the tenderness of a man who truly understood.
"How how can you be sure?" JD asked, his voice muffled by the embrace.
Tears formed as Josiah looked to the Heavens. "Because he kept you safe and gave you the resolve to fight. And he gave us your friends the strength to see you through the pain and the darkness." He pushed JD back a little, smiling at him.
"God works hard to protect the good and the innocent, and you are both, John Dunne."
JD blushed, sighing softly. "Sounds like he maybe feels that way about all of us."
Josiah laughed. "Well maybe the good, not so sure about the innocent." He gazed at the boy. "Did I help you find your answers?"
JD nodded. "Yeah, yeah I think you did, thank you."
With a grateful smile bright enough to light the church, JD swiped at his face with the back of his hand and went back to his sanding, Josiah soon following, the pair feeling lighter of heart than they had for a long time.
Having spent an eventful two hours in the company of Mildred, a new saloon girl, Buck was positively jaunty as he joined Chris, Vin and Ezra in the saloon, instantly noting Vin's interest in three men drinking at the bar, one white the other two, black.
"New in town?" the brunet asked of no one in particular as he took his seat.
Vin nodded. "Buffalo soldiers once, I reckon. They're still wearin' cavalry britches."
Buck took a longer look, observing the three men's interactions before speaking. "Would seem the white fella's the biggest toad in the puddle."
Standish spluttered on his whiskey. "Would it be too much trouble to request a translation, Buck?"
"He's saying the white fella looks to be the leader," Chris explained.
"If anyone would know 'bout Indians they would."
All three men stared at Vin, puzzled by his words.
"Buffalo soldiers," he repeated, as an explanation of his deliberations.
"You think ?" Ezra started, quickly picking up Tanner's train of thought. " only, I always heard tell they were considered to be men of honor."
"Most were, though I don't reckon the Colorado Cheyenne or Arapaho would agree with you there," Vin stated quietly, pausing for thought. After a few moments, he continued.
"Cain't be sure yet," the tracker answered honestly, taking back a whiskey as the four peacekeepers made no secret now of their interest in the men.
Hank Clampitt, Zeke Cole and Moseley Higgson were getting nervous. The posse trailing them had forced them into this little backwater town and now they realized it was *that* backwater town the one watched over by seven men, and it looked like four of them may already be on to them. When the one in buckskins eventually got up and approached, it was too much for an already twitchy Cole and he drew his gun. All hell broke loose as weapons were drawn and peacekeepers and clientele alike dove for cover. In a hail of bullets, the three men backed out of the saloon and into the street.
Gunshots from the street alerted the two peacekeepers in the church, but before they could react, the door to the place of worship flew open and three men bundled in, slamming and barricading the door with pews and chairs instantly, while wrapping a length of hemp around the door handles to prevent the door being pulled open. JD glanced to where his gun belt hung. Josiah and he were unarmed, something the preacher insisted on when working in the church, which had suited JD fine, he still wasn't fully comfortable wearing them. He watched Josiah step toward the gunmen who were now taking an interest in the pair.
"Now then, friends, this is a house of worship. I'd be real obliged if you'd remove your guns while you're here" As he spoke, he moved sideways toward the lectern where he hid a spare gun, stopping as the man trained his weapon on him.
"Stand still, preacher. This gun stays with me." Hank called to one of his partners. "Cole, watch the kid, if he moves, shoot 'im."
A voice from outside called to them.
"I always thought people who run off like that in broad daylight are mighty stupid or guilty as hell of something goin' in there just proved me right."
JD's heart soared to hear Chris' voice. If Chris was out there, it was a safe bet Vin, Buck and Ezra were too.
Cole and Higgson looked nervous. As the latter kept watch on the street, the former, his gun still trained on JD, spoke. "Hank they got us outnumbered. What're we gonna do?"
Hank smiled. "By four to three? I'm shaking in m'boots, 'sides, these two even out the odds some." He saw Josiah take another step. "I said DON'T MOVE PREACHER!"
Josiah smiled, holding his hands up just in front of him. "I have nowhere to go, friend, you're just gonna have to trust me."
Hank cocked his gun. "I don't trust no one."
Vin was already on the roof of the church, cursing at the repairs that made access from there impossible. Buck and Ezra looked over from their covert positions, anxiously waiting on instructions. Chris called again.
"Last chance to give yourselves up before we come in and get you."
"You can try," Hank called back, "but we got us two hostages, here. Ain't sure yet who we'll shoot first the preacher or the kid."
Larabee looked up optimistically at Tanner, disappointed as Vin shook his head. He just hoped that, when they went in, JD and Josiah got clear. All he needed was a sign from them to make his move.
Two shots coming from inside the church startled him.
Sanchez was two steps away from a weapon. He took one tentative step, stopping the instant Hank saw the movement.
"If you won't keep still, I'll have to make you." He fired at Josiah's left leg and the big man went down in agony.
Totally swept away in the moment, a shocked JD moved toward his downed friend. "JOSIAH!"
Cole followed orders and fired. Stumbling, JD grabbed his shoulder. He tried to look at Josiah, but it was all he could do to fight the pain as his knees buckled and he hit the floor. Hank moved to the window and called out.
"Don't reckon you got much time before these two bleed out your call, lawman."
Larabee was seething and struggling now to hold back Buck. "That was your last mistake, mister; you're coming out of there in pine boxes if you've harmed those men!"
"Better make it five boxes then," Hank called back, "'cause if you come in here gunning for us the first thing we'll do is shoot these two dead."
Again looking up to the church roof, Chris gestured for Vin to join them. This needed re-thinking.
Gritting his teeth against the pain in his thigh, his large hand covering the bleeding wound, Josiah glanced at JD. The youth was lying a foot or so away, his shaking, sweaty body curled up as he clutched his bleeding right shoulder. But he was still awake.
Josiah cursed inwardly. The six had only just brought the kid back from the abyss that had threatened to destroy him. And now the fear was back as he had to wonder was JD strong enough to hold on?
JD had been watching Josiah's movements before the shooting started. He vaguely remembered, when they were in the hayloft, the working girl, Emily, had told him that she had seen a gun hidden in the church podium when Josiah had been hiding her there from Wickes' men. He hoped now, that he was guessing right and that it was what Josiah had been going for, 'cause he figured with Josiah unable to walk right now, he might be the only one able to get them out of this.
Buck paced as Chris stood still, green eyes probing every part of the little church. Vin was looking through his spy glass in the hope it might reveal something anything. He pointed, causing Buck and Ezra to look at him.
"There are some rotten boards at the back of the church. I might be able to get under the floorboards and find a way in."
Chris stared at where Vin was pointing. "Well, it's all we got so far."
With a nod, Vin disappeared into the shadows, reappearing at the back of the church. In minutes he had squeezed through the rotten planks and was gone.
Buck's pacing was wearing Chris down. He had two men injured and no way of knowing if they were alive or dead. Equally bad, the men holding JD and Josiah now appeared to be the murdering bastards that had hit three different wagon trains over the last few months, the result of which had caused mental anguish for one of his closest friends. The last thing he needed now was Buck coming undone. And Ezra hadn't taken a concerned-filled gaze off the church since it all began which was no less unsettling.
Vin tried not to think of the things that might be lying in wait for him beneath the cool, dark foundations of an old church, as he inched his way across the dusty ground. Spotting a sliver of light above him, he maneuvered the floorboard until he had succeeded in removing it. A second one gone, revealed he was in the small room just off the altar toward the back of the church. Quietly hoisting himself up, he pulled his mare's leg close he was ready.
JD watched the three men closely. They seemed a hell of a lot more nervous than they were letting on to Chris, especially one of the black fellas. Glancing at Josiah, he realized the big man was watching him. He looked awful so pale and clearly in terrible pain.
The lectern was just a few inches away JD took a deep breath, he could do this providing they didn't shoot his dang head off, first. He struggled to his feet, moaning and swaying.
"I shouldn't be here I'll be in trouble for this I gotta go " He staggered toward the podium.
Surprised, Josiah looked at Hank, whose gun was already aiming at JD and had just been cocked.
"No wait!" Josiah begged. "Please he's been sick can't you see? He's not thinking straight."
Before Hank could answer, JD crashed into the lectern, sending it and himself over with a bang. Landing on the floor with a heavy thud, JD cried out in pain as his shoulder was jostled from the impact. Clampitt had watched the boy go down, to now lie unconscious and sprawled across the floor. With a shake of his head, the outlaw uncocked his gun and turned back to the window.
Hearing the crash Vin risked a peek out of the room, to see JD lying still on the floor. "Aww hell." He steeled himself; waiting was no longer an option as recent events were now taking control.
Josiah was distraught. JD had finally let go of his sanity and there was little the preacher could do to help him right now. His grip on his leg was weakening, making it difficult to stop the blood flow and he feared he might lose consciousness soon. His gaze switched between JD and the men holding them as he shuffled into a position against one of the wooden walls, all three captors more interested in watching the street now, than them. While watching JD, Josiah's eye caught the tiniest glimpse of Vin's determined features.
Chris looked toward Buck and Ezra, moving a little closer to them. "I reckon Vin's in, or he'd a' been back by now."
"We waiting on him?" Buck asked.
"Yeah. Anytime now, get ready."
With renewed hope and grim determination, the three resumed their vigil.
The overturned lectern was easily within JD's reach, the gun visible, now. Biting back the pain and mindful of their captors, he inched his good hand closer until his fingers curled around the butt. Adjusting his grip to the weight in his hand, JD slowly moved it toward him, all the while watching. He tried to regulate his breathing. He had one shot at this once he cocked the hammer, the men would be aware of him he had to get this right.
Luck was with him when Higgson moved, placing all three men within a foot of each other. Lying on his back, JD raised his left arm, aimed the gun and drew back the hammer, the click sounding like a branch snapping in the silent church.
Hank spun on hearing the familiar sound, firing instantly and alerting the other two men who also aimed their weapons.
JD fired, watching Hank go down a split-second after the man fired back, the bullet hitting the wooden lectern and sending splinters into the youth's face. JD didn't even notice, already firing off two more shots, each one making holes in the two black men's foreheads. He aimed and fired again as Hank dragged himself up, once again directing his firearm at JD, a sadistic grin forming as he realized JD was out of bullets.
Totally taken by surprise, Josiah could only watch the unfolding drama with bated breath, howling out a 'NO ' as JD's gun clicked on empty chambers and Hank aimed for the youth.
"That was your last ever mistake, boy."
JD closed his eyes, waiting on the inevitable sound of a gunshot and the pain of lead ripping through his flesh. Jerking violently as a single shot rang out, he opened one eye to see Vin standing close by, his mare's leg still smoking.
"Wrong " the Texan rasped out. " that was *your* last ever mistake, fella."
As soon as the shots started, Chris, Buck and Ezra charged at the church, howling their frustration at the lack of give in the doors, despite all three men pushing their full weight against them. Chris was just about to launch himself off the step rail and in through a window, when sounds on the other side of the door halted their activities.
JD grunted with pain as Vin bent down to pull him into a sitting position, shuffling him backwards until he was leaning back against the rail in front of the little candle-lit altar.
"Easy now easy." Vin got JD to look him in the eye. "I'm just gonna go check on Josiah stay with me, y'hear?" Seeing the youth nodding, Tanner moved to Josiah. "You okay, preacher?"
Sanchez grinned, or at least, he hoped it was one, he could feel his body slowly shutting down. "It's a good day, brother how can I not be?"
Vin patted his arm as he made his way toward the noise coming from the straining church doors. "Y'know a simple 'yes' woulda done." Tanner's grin lit his handsome face as, pushing aside some chairs, he took his knife from his boot and cut the rope from around the door handles. Pulling one of the pews to one side was just enough to let his three anxious friends in.
"Howdy, boys! Glad ya'll could join us." His grin widened at Chris' disgruntled stare as the blond hurried over to his injured men, stopping first at Josiah. Ezra was already pressing a handkerchief to the big man's wound. Josiah nodded to Chris, who was glancing between him, the three dead outlaws and Vin.
Vin and Josiah shook their heads simultaneously, Vin speaking. "Weren't us."
Kneeling, Buck placed his hands either side of JD's face, smiling when tired hazel eyes looked back at him. "Only you could get in trouble in a church."
"Josiah " JD protested, mildly.
"Aah, he's allowed," Buck grinned, "being a preacher an' all."
JD huffed out a laugh, quickly fading. Buck tightened his hold on JD's head.
"Stay with me," he pleaded.
JD smiled, weakly before passing out. "Ain't goin' nowhere, Buck "
Before Buck could panic, Nathan's voice sounded from somewhere behind him.
"Good Lord I go away for *one* day "
He knew the others were talking, but Buck's focus stayed on JD as he leaned in. "Don't go, kid you just hold on."
FIVE DAYS LATER
Sitting quietly on the boardwalk outside the jail, wrapped in a blanket and weak as a kitten, gave a man time to ponder while quietly watching the world go by well, his little corner of it, anyhow.
There was Nathan, he'd likely be over soon. He'd been concerned earlier that the bandages had come loose and wanted to check on them. JD loved the man's passion for healing took it personally if he thought he might lose someone.
Vin was looking at him now, offering a slight touch to his hat and a wink, his gait loose as he walked toward the livery. Dunne grinned back at the tracker.
Josiah shifted in the seat next to him. The boy shook his head as he watched the big man's arm drop, to hang loose at his side as he dozed, the book he was reading slipping slowly down his chest. He was gonna lose it any second. JD moved his hand out from the blanket and reached toward it.
"Wrap yourself back up, John Dunne."
The kid had jumped slightly, then grinned at the one eye now watching him, twinkling with amusement at the boy's surprise. JD put his hand back inside the blanket.
"You should take your own advice, preacher," JD snapped back, clearly more amused than disgruntled as he heard Josiah chuckle.
Buck joined them, holding the newest edition of the Clarion as he took his seat to then drape an arm around the boy's good shoulder.
"Don't sass your elders," he admonished, chuckling as he saw JD roll his eyes.
Ezra had brought the pair a drink and a sandwich as he sat alongside Josiah just after checking the blankets around rhe pair were not too loose. They both thanked the southerner, who simply grinned and relaxed back in his chair.
Chris had sat with them earlier and was now making his way back, Vin not far behind. Looking around at them once they were all seated, JD frowned.
"What?" he asked, sensing something was brewing.
Chris leaned forward. "The men in the church we went through their things. Vin and Ezra caught up with the wagon train the folks you found belonged to." Chris pursed his lips, hoping he was doing the right thing.
"They confirmed some of the things the men had been carrying belonged to the Baulchers" he smiled sadly as JD's frown deepened. "That was their names Patrick, Aileen and Eli."
JD swallowed hard as the ache in his throat deepened. He sucked in a breath, exhaling softly before he spoke. "You mean the men in the church were the ones that did they they did that?"
Chris nodded, noting how everyone now had closed in to form a tight circle. "It seems likely, yeah. All three served together in the army until six months ago. They up and disappeared and I guess this was how they stayed one step ahead of jail."
"But " JD was struggling, " how could they do such things I don't how...why?"
Vin spoke. "We figured it was partly to throw the army off their trail. If Indians were mountin' an uprisin' and that's what it looked like the army woulda had to make that a priority."
"That's that' s so wrong." JD was shocked. "They murdered innocent people just to stay out of jail?"
Vin nodded. "Yeah, one reason, I reckon."
"I'm afraid that was merely *one* of their motives, JD," Ezra added. "We won't waste time in reflecting on the others."
Silence fell over the seven as each man pondered over the last three weeks. Trying to stay positive, Buck squeezed JD's knee.
"Looks like you got justice for those folks after all, kid."
JD sighed, sad eyes staring back at his friends. "There sure ain't no glory in it."
"Thought you weren't looking for glory," Buck teased, smiling on remembering JD's words from their first days together.
JD accepted the tease, but was unwilling to take a softer line just yet. "I'm not, but, surely justice is supposed to make sense, isn't it...to mean something? I still feel like we lost."
Chris cut in. "We did, kid, because we can't protect everyone and it makes our job tough sometimes, almost too tough." He straightened in his chair. "So, knowing all this, you reckon you're ready to stand with us again?"
JD nodded, honored to still be considered worthy. "With friends like you to help me yeah, you bet." He glanced shyly around at them, needing to confess one thing, while praying it wouldn't be his biggest mistake. "Truthfully, I I don't think I'd've made it...you know...if it weren't for you all."
"Yeah, you would have...you're one of us." Chris' quiet reassurance and pride in JD's honesty made the kid's heart lighter as he smiled at his hero.
"Us being around is a given, kid we sure ain't going nowhere without you not even to hell," Buck stated.
"And we've already been there," Josiah reminded.
Buck nodded, squeezing the youth's neck. "Yeah, we've been there and back."
Catching Vin's eye, JD directed a question at him. "When I can ride again, would you come somewhere with me?"
"Sure kid be happy to."
Two weeks later Vin stood with four men at the edge of the town cemetery. Buck stood alongside JD as he placed armfuls of wildflowers from the valley Vin had shown to him, on each of three graves. He and Vin had collected them that morning.
Now the crosses had names carved into them and JD visited with each one, his fingers tracing the names as he spoke softly. Finally, he got up from his crouched position to face Buck.
"Sorry I took so long just needed to say a few things."
Buck smiled. "No problem, kid. The flowers were a real nice touch." He nudged JD. "Maybe, one day, you can take me to see this place Vin showed you."
JD returned the smile. "How about we get up real early tomorrow?"
They turned to walk back to their friends. "Just how 'early' is early?"
JD's grin widened. "Before sun up."
"Before sun up?" Buck squeaked. "Just how special is this place?"
JD stopped as they reached the others, glancing toward Vin. "It's a place so special, it gives you hope and a yearning to share it with people you care about."
Buck choked. "Well then count me in."
JD looked at Vin and the Texan nodded as the peacemakers turned and headed back to town.
It looked like all seven would be riding out in the morning.