Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Characters: Josiah, JD, Vin
Ratings/Warnings: Death of a Canon character (not one of the Seven)
My thanks to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home
He opened his eyes, studying the sky above him. His mind was racing, trying to figure out the best way to explain all this to his friends. It was morning when he left to go on a ride. Now, it was late afternoon, he was flat on his back in the dirt, and not a horse in sight.
Josiah sighed, trying to ignore the pain in his leg. He had ridden out of town to escape. The telegram had all but broken him, this was his fault - he should never have joined these men - he should still be doing penance. His aching head made him drowsy, but he fought it by thinking over the past six months and beyond. Crying silent tears, he wondered if his friends could ever forgive him.
EARLIER THAT MORNING
Entering the darkened church, Ernest Corcoran startled as he saw the gun pointing at him.
"S...sorry Mister Sanchez - but I just got this - I think it's important."
Rising sleepily from one of the church pews, Josiah replaced his gun in its holster, scrubbed at his face, stretched and walked toward the telegraph operator. He took the offered paper.
With a nod and acknowledging the money placed into his hand, Ernest left.
With the dawn light peeking through one window, the preacher moved toward it and began to read. In seconds he was sobbing, in minutes he had overturned every seat and candlestick, stopping just before he reached the altar. His eyes wild, Josiah snatched up his gunbelt and coat and headed for the livery.
Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne had just got in off patrol. With a pre- arranged rendezvous with Miss Tallulah weighing heavily on more than just Buck's mind, JD had offered to stable the horses for Buck to head for the saloon girl's room. Hearing a noise, JD looked around to see Josiah enter the stables and begin saddling his horse.
"Hey, Josiah!" he called, cheerily, a little surprised he received no reply. He walked to the man's side.
"Josiah - you okay?" He was taken aback by his friend's demeanor. He knew the ex-preacher could have black moods occasionally, but he'd never seen him quite like this before. He looked like he'd been - crying.
"Josiah, what's wrong?"
Receiving not even a spark of recognition and seeing the man was about to mount his horse, JD grasped his arm.
"Josiah - wait!"
Sanchez was oblivious to his surroundings. His mind was flooded with thoughts and memories and the words of the telegram, which played over and over, adding to his distress as his subconscious actions prepared him to ride out. Something... was getting in his way, holding him back...so he removed the obstruction - and rode out.
Before he had registered what was happening, JD was moving sideways. His feet tangling with a feed bucket, he tripped and crashed into the side of one of the stall supports. His head swimming, JD tried to push himself up off the straw-covered floor, but failed miserably, as the pounding in his skull allowed him to lift his head only long enough to see Josiah ride away.
Vin Tanner patted his stomach as he pushed away from the table. He had enjoyed his breakfast and was now more than ready to set out on patrol. As he sipped his coffee, his eyes tracked the man in black who had just entered the restaurant and taken a seat at his table.
"You 'bout done?"
Vin nodded. "Yup, just gonna finish this here coffee an' I'm headin' out."
Chris Larabee nodded his approval. "You heard from Buck or JD?"
The tracker grinned. "Reckon the noises comin' outta Miss Tallulah's bedroom window pretty much explains why I ain't seen Bucklin - I'm guessin' JD got left to settle the horses."
Chris laughed, softly. "Sounds about right. You going out alone?"
Vin stood. "Yeah - I'll just do a quick sweep, Josiah an' Ezra got the noon patrol, though it's been quieter than a graveyard 'round here lately."
Chris agreed. "Good point. Maybe it's time to cut 'em back a bit."
"Maybe it is." With a touch to his hat, Vin left the restaurant. Outside, the sun was climbing and despite the early hour, it was beginning to get mighty warm. Stepping off the boardwalk and into the street, Tanner couldn't help grinning as Buck approached.
"'Morning, Vin - and isn't it a fine one?"
"Sure is, Buck. JD in the jailhouse?"
"Quite likely, he said he'd head on there once the horses were seen to. Tell him I'm ordering breakfast, would ya?"
Vin nodded and walked on to the jail.
The black healer looked up from his eggs and bacon to smile at Buck as the ladies' man greeted him. "'Morning, Buck. You look fresh for someone who just come off an early morning patrol."
Taking a seat, Wilmington chuckled, flashing a huge smile at Inez as his food was placed on the table before him. "Let's just say my day has had an - interesting start."
Having no doubt as to what Buck was referring to, Nathan shook his head and ate some more of his eggs. "JD gone on to bed?"
Sipping his coffee, Buck shook his head. "Naw. - he'll be along directly. All he talked about on the way in was how hungry he was." The rogue looked around. "Chris and Josiah up and at 'em, yet?" He knew better than to ask after Ezra Standish, the renowned gambler, notorious for his late nights and even later mornings.
"Chris went to find Vin over at the restaurant - ain't seen Josiah yet." Nathan watched Inez put down another plate of food and a glass of milk. He pointed to them. "That's gonna git cold."
Buck frowned, glancing across at the batwing doors. "I guess JD did go over to the jail after all. Vin's heading there now, JD'll soon be here once he realizes the time."
Tanner got up from the seat at the desk in the jailhouse. "What does it take to git a dang report around here?" He exited the jail, about to go looking for Buck when he changed direction toward the livery, instead.
Chris joined Buck and Nathan in the saloon, nodding his thanks for the beer Inez brought him.
"'Mornin' stud. Vin on patrol?" Buck asked.
"Not yet - he's been looking for either you or JD. I assume your patrol went without a hitch?"
"Hell, yeah - if it were any quieter we'd've heard the grass growing. You seen JD on your way here?"
Chris licked the froth from his beer off his lips. "Nope - should I have?"
Buck shrugged, pushing back his plate and tossing his napkin onto it. "Guess not," he pointed to the cooling plate of food. "Kid said he was hungry, is all. Kinda expected him to be in here eating before I was done with - uh - before me."
Chris grinned and winked at Nathan. "And how is Tallulah this morning?"
All three laughed.
Vin, now carrying the few things he needed for his patrol, glanced around the gloomy stables, noting Josiah's horse was missing, but JD's and Buck's were happily munching on hay. He was just about to leave when a noise drew his attention. Drawing his mare's leg, he scanned the area to catch a glimpse, calling out.
JD groaned, determindly pushing himself upright to lean back against a support pillar. Touching shaky fingers to his head, he winced at the sensitive spot they found and the coating of blood on his fingertips. He tried to rise, but dropped heavily back down on his butt, deciding to give himself a minute. He jerked at a familiar voice.
JD swallowed. "Vin?"
Tanner heard JD call out and replaced his gun as he walked to where the voice had come from.
"Ah hell." Vin looked furtively around checking for danger as he squatted down next to the boy. "You okay, kid? What happened?" Pulling off his bandana, Vin wiped at the trickle of blood down JD's face.
"I'll go get Nathan..."
"NO!" JD was more lucid now, he grasped Vin's wrist. "Have you seen Josiah?"
Tanner shook his head. "Not yet - why?"
"He took off - seemed in an awful hurry to get outta town."
Narrowing his eyes, Vin looked at JD, then around the livery, taking note of the scuffed hay, the overturned pail, Josiah's horse's empty stall, then to where JD was sitting. He spoke, his voice cracking. "Did Josiah do somethin'?"
JD looked at Vin in alarm. "He didn't mean it, Vin - I swear. I don't think he even knew I was talking to him...that I was even with him. He - he pushed me away as he was going for his horse and I fell over the darned feed pail and banged my head." He grasped Tanner's jacket, his expression earnest. "Vin, please - don't say nothing, something's wrong...something real bad, I just know it, I saw his eyes, Vin...he was in...pain. Will you help me find him?"
"You need doctorin'"
JD carefully shook his head. "Later, I promise. It's not as bad as it looks. Vin - please? He needs us."
Tanner pondered the words for a moment, then nodded, helping JD to his feet and offering him a drink from his canteen. "Was goin' out anyway - c'mon."
Entering the saloon, Corcoran approached the peacekeepers' table. "From Judge Travis, Mister Larabee."
Chris nodded his thanks as he took the telegram from the man, narrowing his eyes as he noticed the telegraph operator remained. "Something I can help you with?"
"Just just wanted to say how sorry I was for Mister Sanchez's loss."
All three men sat up, nodding to Ezra as he joined them at the table.
"His what?" Nathan asked.
"His loss - he had a telegram this morning - his sister passed on."
All four men rose, startling Corcoran. With a quick nod of thanks to Inez and taking a large gulp of his just arrived coffee, Ezra followed the others out and to the church.
On seeing the trashed church, it didn't take more than ten minutes to establish not only had Josiah left town, but Vin and JD, too. Each man secretly pondered why the two younger men had left without telling anyone, but they figured it would all become clear when they caught up to them. Five minutes later, all four were heading out.
Josiah awoke with a jerk. The sun had moved and was no longer directly over him. But it was still mighty hot. His head was now resting on his coat, part of the material draped over his head and forehead for protection. He was so dry and in a moment of forgetfulness he attempted to move, only to feel the agony of a busted leg.
He cast his mind back to earlier that morning, and the pain the telegram had brought with it. He could barely remember anything from that point on, except one thing - the memory of a familiar voice calling his name.
But - where had his friend gone after that? Josiah's breathing quickened as he recalled pushing aside something solid - a door? Something had clattered - then a bump - but he had ridden away, not looking back. What was he missing? Reaching into his vest pocket, the preacher pulled out the crumpled telegram, emotions rising as he stared at it. He didn't need to read it; its words were seared into his brain;
"Senor Sanchez stop
Regret to inform the passing of sister Hannah stop
Sincere condolences stop
May she rest in peace stop
Sister Mary Theresa."
The preacher caught a sob. "My sweet Hannah - how I have failed you. Please forgive me." His body too dry to release the tears that wanted to fall, Josiah reflected on his predicament and lack of transport and slowly drifted into a restless sleep.
It was evident to Vin that JD was struggling a little, but he had to admire the kid's grit as they pushed on. Half an hour later, they found Josiah's horse standing quietly under a shade tree. Both men looked at each other as Vin dismounted to check the animal over.
"He looks okay." Tanner stared back along the trail. Mounting up, he took up the loose horse's reins as he did so. "This way," he pointed.
Vin was now berating himself for not going for Nathan - this didn't look good. Twenty more minutes of fast riding had the pair swallowing hard at the prone form on the ground ahead of them. JD was off his horse long before it had stopped, skidding to a halt in the dust next to Sanchez, his hat flying off and rolling along the dusty ground as he did so.
In seconds Vin had joined them, canteen in hand. Taking his spare bandana, Tanner wet the material and handed it to JD, who eagerly ran the cool rag over Josiah's face and neck. They both heaved relieved sighs as the big man groaned.
Josiah was dreaming - he was at home, and his ma was wiping his fevered brow while Hannah watched over him, hugging her doll to her chest. Josiah reached out, grasping his sister's arm.
JD leaned in, his own hand resting atop the preacher's as it clung to his arm. "Josiah? Hey - Josiah, it's me - JD, and Vin's here, too."
Swallowing, Josiah frowned as he tried to open his eyes. "JD?" he croaked.
Vin positioned himself to support his injured friend and help him to drink from the canteen, careful not to let the man gulp down the much needed refreshment. Finally, piercing blue eyes opened and he saw JD gazing at him with concern. He reached out and touched the younger man's face where it was bruised, almost sure he had something to do with it.
"JD - son, I - I'm so sorry."
Placing his hand over Josiah's, JD smiled. "Nothing to be sorry for, preacher. I did what I do best - fell over my own feet."
Josiah smiled weakly. He knew that wasn't totally true, but he loved the boy for saying so. He vowed then and there to make it up to him - providing the others would forgive him his indiscretion as easily as JD had.
Vin eased Josiah back down and checked him over. "Yup, reckon you're right...banged your head, too. We're gonna need a wagon."
"I'll go." JD started to rise when a wave of dizziness hit, causing him to sit back down, sharply.
"Reckon I'll go," Vin stated. He handed JD his duster from behind the cantle. "Use this for shade. It ain't ideal, but we can't move Josiah until his leg's splinted." Taking a swig from his canteen, Vin unhooked Josiah's from his horse and passed it to JD. "You're gonna need this, too. I'll be right back."
Nodding, JD watched the tracker ride away. Using his head as the main prop, JD draped the duster over him and Josiah, grateful for the shade it offered. It wasn't ideal, but it would do, for now.
Josiah was no longer awake. Placing his palm on the big man's chest, JD was relieved to feel the steady movement of the man breathing. He smiled as Josiah's hand reached up and lay on top of JD's as they sat - and waited.
Tanner smiled as four familiar riders came toward him, all five halting as they met.
"Did'ya find him?"
Vin nodded, knowing instinctively who Chris was referring to. "I left JD with him - kid's had a knock to the head, thought it best he quit ridin', for now."
"When did this happen?" Buck asked, rising a little in his saddle.
Vin shrugged. "Sometime 'tween you leavin' him an' Josiah ridin' out. Kid seemed to think Josiah was upset - wanted to ride after him to check it out, but a feed pail got in his way an' he took a knock."
Chris sensed more, but let it go - for now. "Josiah okay?"
"Nope. Reckon his leg's busted...an' he's had a knock to his head - I'm goin' back for a wagon."
"Allow me," Ezra insisted, touching his hat brim before wheeling his horse around and galloping back to town.
The others continued on back to Josiah and JD. By the time they reached them, JD was no longer awake; sitting cross-legged, his chin was resting on his chest as he somehow remained upright. Removing the duster, Vin and Buck moved JD away from Josiah while Nathan checked the now conscious preacher over.
JD inhaled sharply, frowning as he felt himself being moved. "Wha...?"
"Hey, kid...you doing okay?"
Blinking hard to focus on a familiar face, JD nodded. "Sure - just got tired sitting in this heat, is all." He turned his head toward the sounds behind him, wincing slightly at the movement. "Is - is Josiah okay?"
"He will be," Vin assured, squatting down to squeeze JD's arm. "His sister died. He had a telegram, this mornin'."
Hazel eyes locked with light blue as JD nodded his understanding of why Josiah had been so distraught that morning. He groaned as Buck touched the sore spot on his head.
"Ow, watch it, Buck."
Buck chuckled. "Guess it'll take a whole lot more to seriously dent this hard head of yours."
JD grinned. "I guess it will."
While Nathan splinted Josiah's leg and bound his head, they all waited patiently for Ezra's return.
Resting in Nathan's clinic later that day, Josiah smiled as six men came in to eat dinner with him. He figured they were looking for an explanation, and he realized he was finally ready to share. After eating, he filled them in.
"Just before we all met up and headed for the Seminole village, I'd received word my sister had been institutionalized in a convent just north of Vista City. She had been living with an aunt, but the woman had remarried and her husband wanted Hannah gone. I'd been to visit her once, to find she had completely lost her mind. All I could think of was my father's words as I left home twenty years previously - 'your sister needs you, boy - her fate is in your hands'. Little did I know just how true that was. When I learned of her illness some years after I had left home, instead of going to her, I stayed away, only writing occassionally and not visiting with her until she entered the convent." Huge tears rolled down the man's face as he sat up in the bed, the only sound, a soft sniff as JD fought back his own tears.
Josiah sighed. "It was obvious my negligence had contributed to her demise - she didn't recognize me and I vowed to punish myself for my shame."
"Penance," Nathan whispered.
"Penance, brother Nathan. I transferred it from the mission, to the church here, but, clearly God did not consider this to be worthy. And now she's gone - hopefully at peace, while I remain in - purgatory."
The room was silent as each man absorbed the heartrending tale. JD swiped at his eyes.
"Josiah," he stuttered for a moment, unsure of sharing his next words, but the despair on Josiah's face spurred JD on.
"Mama once told me that, for everyone, God has a plan. When she died, I got real angry with Him. I mean, what sort of a plan was that? To take away the only person I was close to. But, it brought me here, and I would never have met any of you if my mother had still been alive today." He blushed.
"What I guess I'm trying to say, is...I know you feel you let Hannah down, but, it don't sound likely you could have stopped her getting sick and by not being with her, you found us - and saved a lot of peoples' lives because of it..." he looked at Buck then back to Josiah. "...including your friends'. I don't think God's punishing you - it's just part of his plan. I guess he figured it was time to take care of Hannah for you, the same way he decided to take care of my ma, too."
Suddenly embarrassed he'd said his most private thoughts out loud as the room remained silent, JD blushed again and sank back in his chair, missing the pride that filled the room for putting into words what everyone else was thinking.
"Amen," Ezra whispered, finally, while the others nodded.
Josiah glanced tearfully around, seeing only compassion and understanding reflected in his friends' eyes. He smiled. "Well, I guess it's something to ponder." He pointed to his leg, "And Lord knows, I'll have plenty of time to do so." His eyes met JD's and the moment of madness in the barn was gone, erased for ever.
"Get some rest," Chris insisted, "we'll be back later for a hand or two of poker."
Ezra's face lit up. "Excellent suggestion, Mister Larabee."
They all laughed and stood to leave Josiah to rest. JD reached inside his vest and pushed something into Josiah's large hand. Smiling back at Josiah, JD followed the others out.
Once alone, the preacher uncurled a dime novel, its title - 'The Man of God Who Tamed the West'. With a huge toothy grin, he turned up the lamp and settled back to read.