Happy 13th Anniversary, Boys! Long may you ride!
Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep `em damnit!
Summary: Trouble comes to the territory and brings an unexpected and dangerous twist.
A teeny nod to The High Chaparral
Buck Wilmington grinned at the easterner he had grown close to over the last few months as the boy exited his room, and joined the ladies' man on the landing of the boarding house they stayed at.
"You look like you could use a few more hours sleep."
JD Dunne yawned, choosing to carry his hat instead of wearing it. "Can't think why, it's not like it's been real lively around here lately."
Buck nodded as they headed out into the street and over to the restaurant for breakfast. "Yup, can't argue with that. I'm even kinda hoping I get to ride a patrol today."
On entering the establishment, both men acknowledged four of their partners and joined them at their table. It came as no surprise that Ezra had yet to join them. The gambler had likely been in a poker game until the early hours.
"Hey fellas," JD smiled, placing his hat on the table when he took a seat. All four men nodded to him and Buck.
"The pancakes are especially good," Josiah Sanchez pointed out around a mouthful of the syrup-laden treats.
"Don't take too long over breakfast, Kid."
Vin Tanner's soft instruction caught both JD's and Buck's attention. Buck glanced between Chris and Vin. "Problem?"
Larabee shrugged. "Call it a hunch." He gestured toward Vin. "Last patrol, Vin noticed coupla things. Figured we'd double up for now. Vin's going out soon, JD, you're up, too."
JD nodded as he sipped his freshly arrived milk. On the outside, he hoped he appeared calm, because on the inside, he was silently `whooping'. Vin rarely took a patrol with company, so JD felt honored he was asked to go with the tracker. When Molly came to take his and Buck's breakfast order, JD almost declined, but Vin caught his eye.
"You got time to eat, Kid. Just keep it simple."
Nodding, JD requested oatmeal and syrup, and sat back to hear what had caught Vin's attention.
The Texan sipped his coffee. "Trouble `tween the army and the Indians has drifted this way. Cavalry troops have been attacked and whole wagons of weapons taken, from here to Tucson. That's a whole lot `a guns missin'. I wanted to ride out a ways, maybe into the hills and take a good look around. They ain't attacked towns yet, but if the army passes through one, they just might."
JD's eyes widened. "Indians?"
The swallow from the younger man was audible. The only Indians JD knew of were on a reservation in the mountains close to the town, though he'd read about Apaches, and if what he'd read was true, the thought of meeting one face to face scared him.
"Been comin' for some time," Vin explained. "The Chiricahua Apache uprisings've brought raids on outposts and settlements all over. Geronimo ain't gonna rest `til he sees justice is done for the Peoples."
JD stopped mid bite. "G Geronimo?"
"Uh huh. Been ongoing battles between the Apache and the army for years now. Have to wonder what's been settin' them off in these parts."
The rest of breakfast was in near silence as each man considered Vin's concerns.
Later, as the mounted pair exited the livery, Buck and Chris approached. "Watch your backs," Larabee warned. He and the others knew Vin had good instincts. He also knew Vin was worried that trouble was heading for town.
Buck tapped JD's knee. "Do as you're told, and if there's shooting, keep your head down." He grinned at JD's exasperated stare.
"Don't I always?"
"Just reminding you is all. That's what `big brothers' do."
"I can list a few other things `big brothers' seem to like to do, too," JD cracked wise. Chris raised a hand as Vin's head dropped to hide his grin.
"Alright, get going before this gets any uglier."
As the pair rode out, they could just hear Buck's reply to Chris, "Stud, I don't do ugly, ain't a word in my vocabulary."
Along the trail, Vin stopped frequently to dismount and check the ground, or a bush, often squatting, checking, and then glancing around before re-mounting. JD looked at the tracker.
"What is it?"
Tanner turned to him, hesitating before answering, almost as if he didn't want to say aloud what was bugging him. "Signs are invisible to most, but I'd expect that from Indians." He looked toward the East. "What say we ride to the Cavalry outpost out yonder?"
JD nodded, already wheeling his horse in that direction. "Sure." He looked at Vin. "You think trouble's already here?"
Seconds before urging his horse into a gallop, Vin nodded. "Yeah."
Fiddling with the lace cuffs peeking out beneath the sleeves of his jacket, Ezra Standish joined his four fellow peacekeepers at their table in the saloon. "Gentlemen."
"Good afternoon Ezra," Nathan Jackson grinned, puffing on a fat, well smoked cigar.
"One lives in hope that it will be," Ezra smiled, extracting a deck of cards from his top jacket pocket. "Game, anyone?"
All four nodded, glad for a distraction from the gloomy, smoky saloon interior, and its mostly drunken clientele. Ezra began shuffling the cards. "I see Misters Tanner and Dunne have yet to join us," the southerner observed as he began dealing. "And judging by the demeanors of Buck and Chris, and our resident El hombre de las señoras' frequent glances toward the street, I would deduce that our young compadres are not in town at this time."
"You would be right," Josiah replied, taking up his cards from the baize-covered tabletop.
Larabee took back a shot of whiskey. "Why, what, Buck?"
"Why JD? Vin's got a nose for trouble, JD ain't not yet, anyhow."
"The kid needs to learn, Pard. He ain't gonna be taught what Vin knows by sitting and jawing with you all day. 'Sides, it's just a scouting mission."
"Vin's rattled, I can tell," Buck defended his frustration.
"Vin's right to be rattled," Chris replied. "But here in town, or out there on the prairie ain't no different when trouble's coming. It'll find us, no matter where we are."
"Trouble?" Ezra pushed.
"Indians." Chris repeated Vin's earlier statement before focusing on his poker hand, and the others knew when not to push. Chris would tell them everything, including what Vin had disclosed to him when he had all the facts, and not a minute sooner.
The two peacekeepers had been riding through the desert for several hours, and Vin had a bad feeling the instant they reached the outpost. Despite the fort being small, he expected it to be bustling with cavalrymen. He hadn't seen a place this quiet since the end of the gold rush, when towns died almost overnight. He glanced at JD, who seemed spooked by what they were seeing or not, as the case may be.
"I reckon we got trouble for sure. Let's head back; I need to figure this out."
JD pointed toward distant hills. "Do you reckon that smoke means anything?"
Vin simply nodded. "JD, I need to do one thing before we leave." He gestured toward the outpost. "Stay here and keep a lookout while I check things over."
JD nodded, more than a little relieved he didn't have to go in there, but couldn't leave it there. "You may need someone to watch your back in there, Vin."
Tanner offered a tight grin. "From here will be better. You see trouble, fire in the air, and I'll do the same."
Agreeing, they separated.
The outpost had become a memorial to the cavalrymen who served there. Leading his horse, Tanner walked through the bodies that littered the courtyard. Halting at one, Vin studied the spear through the army man and nodded to himself. It was decorated with Apache war feathers. Satisfied with his initial suspicions, the tracker mounted up and headed out to meet JD. Their next stop was to check out the smoke in the hills.
"This ain't looking good." Flat on his belly and on a high outcrop overlooking a green valley, Vin lowered his spyglass and looked to JD who was lying next to him. The boy gestured to the Apache encampment below them.
"Do you really think they're getting ready to attack? They just look like they're just going about their business."
Vin nodded. "Word is there's an army troop due through here any day, probably sooner once it's known what happened at Fort Amigo." He raised the glass to his eye and studied the settlement below. Stockpiles of weapons, a lot of which looked like army rifles, suggested the warriors here were doing more than just hunting for food. He explained his concerns as he scanned the area. "The Apache are pretty mad over how natives across the land are bein' treated by the army. This camp wasn't here th'other week, and signs here show they're plannin' on attackin' somethin', and soon. Every town from here to Fort Amigo are at risk while that troop are out there lookin' for Indians." He began to rise. "We need to get word out."
JD looked up. "Now?"
Vin squatted on his haunches. "Yup, and fast." He watched JD about to get up, halting him with the hand holding the spyglass. "One of us needs to stay here and keep watch, in case they look to be on the move. If they hit a town, folks ain't gonna stand a chance 'less they're prepared. The question is, which way they'll head to Eagle Bend or us?"
JD nodded. "You want for me to stay?"
Tanner was torn. If JD rode out, lookouts could spot him. He was fairly sure they hadn't been seen so far, judging by the lack of interest in them; or maybe their arrival had been noted and they were waiting...one man alone would be an easy target. Vin glanced down into the valley. The chances of JD being seen up here were likely less than on horseback but Vin sighed on thinking how the others might take JD being left here alone or then again, riding back by himself.
The tracker looked across at his young partner. "Yeah?"
"I could stay unless unless you don't think I'm the right man for the job."
Vin's gaze locked with JD's "Kid, ain't no way I could ever think that of you. There's a risk in stayin' behind, and a risk to leavin'. Can't rightly figure which is worse."
JD offered a lopsided grin. "Well, you're a whole lot quieter'n me. Chances are the Apache won't hear you leaving. I'll be fine here. I can be still if I need to I can, really."
Vin had to smile. "I reckon you can, too, iffen the need arises." He glanced back at the settlement, and then handed over his spyglass. "You're a good rider, and if they start to movin', you're gonna need to ride faster than ever before." He smiled at JD's grin and nod.
"Stay low. If they move, you move." He stood, and taking a spare shirt from his saddlebag, Vin ripped it into four and wrapped each strip around his horse's hooves to muffle them. He then unhooked JD's canteen and handed it to him. "See you in a coupla hours."
JD grinned. "Okay."
"Don't be no hero, now. You can't beat `em on your own, and it ain't bein' a coward to ride away."
"I know, Vin but thanks. Watch yourself."
Staying low, and keeping watch for scouts, Tanner led his horse well away from the outcrop's edge and about a quarter of the way down the incline before riding like a bat out of hell toward town.
After a while of lying there watching what appeared to be little more than mundane day to day activities, JD was baking. Stripping off his jacket, he folded it and placed it to one side, before taking off his hat and running his fingers through the damp, dark tresses. Resting the bowler on top of his coat, JD took a few sips of water, and then checked over the encampment through the spyglass. Satisfied nothing had changed, he was taking another sip of water when something caused him to go rigid. Swallowing hard, he turned his head slowly to one side, feeling his heart thud when his gaze met a pair of moccasins. Seconds later, he was staring up at an armed Apache Brave, who gestured for JD to get up. The boy closed his eyes momentarily before rising shakily to his feet.
From his seat on the boardwalk, Josiah noticed a large, distant dust cloud approaching the town. Leaning to one side, he pushed one of the saloon's batwing doors open to catch Chris's eye. "Rider coming in, fast."
Seconds later, five peacekeepers stood in the center of the street to meet the impending threat. They all visibly relaxed when Vin slowed and jumped from his horse until they realized Vin was alone and in a big hurry. Chris didn't speak; he just stared at a breathless tracker.
"Apaches camped out at Bear Bluff. Fort Amigo was attacked, no survivors, and we got an army troop comin' through here any day now."
Vin's words were clipped, but their meaning clear. Buck stepped forward. "Where's JD?"
Vin finished the swig from his canteen and pointed back. "Keepin' lookout. I'm gonna change horses and go back."
"You you left him alone up there, Vin?"
"I know what you're thinkin', Buck, but he wanted to. It was stay, or ride out alone past Apache lookouts."
Buck stepped closer. "Oh, I'll bet he wanted to stay. He'd walk through fire if you asked him to " Buck ran a wild gaze around them all. "For any of you." He stared at Vin before he strode toward the livery. "You couldn'a rode home together?"
"Sure, but if them Injuns move out, we need to know where they're headed. Can't do that if we both ride out."
"Wait up a minute, Buck, we're all going," Chris called after the ladies' man.
Turning, Buck's face reflected fury and fear as he glared back at the group. "They're A-pach, Chris JD might not have a minute."
"Buck," Vin started after the man. "We hafta have faith in the Kid's decision. He trusted me and I trust him."
Buck stopped walking. "I do but you said a whole outpost been massacred, yet you still left him up there."
Vin looked at the ground in frustration. He knew the risks whichever task they'd undertaken, and so did JD. This was getting them nowhere.
"We're wasting time." Chris's statement rallied them all and they went to mount up prepared to ride into God knows what to retrieve their youngest, and find out what the hell was going on.
The journey down the rocky incline had been difficult. JD slipped several times on the loose shale, lack of practice, and his boots the reasons he was not as surefooted as his captor. His knees were quivering from both the strain, and nervous tension, and the closer they got to the encampment, the drier his throat became. Stumbling again, As he sat there, JD took the opportunity to glance around. Sure, this fella was armed, but it was just one on one. He had to take him out, or maybe never get out of this alive. He was still surprised that the Brave hadn't outright killed him, but then that thought led to what he might have planned instead. JD swallowed again, he had to get away now.
Feeling a nudge to his back, JD began to rise. "Alright, alright." Instead, using one hand on the ground for balance, the young sheriff swung one leg around to take the Brave off his feet. As the Indian fell to the ground, JD leapt up and onto him, punching the Brave hard twice in the face, before scrambling back up the hill. Sheer determination powered his actions and he was climbing much easier than his descent had been. Halfway up, a hand grabbed his ankle and as it pulled, he fell flat on his face, smacking his forehead down hard on the rock. Dazed, JD flipped over and successfully kicked the Brave on the chin, before turning and resuming his hasty ascent.
The Indian tumbled backwards a few feet, but quickly recovered and was back on JD's trail. Being fleet of foot, he soon caught up, and this time threw himself onto the fleeing teen's back. JD fell with a grunt and the pair rolled in the dust and rubble while the easterner fought for his life, straining muscles burning as he desperately tried to push his assailant off. Hazel eyes widened when the Brave drew a knife, and in those moments, pinned down and unable to match the native's strength, JD said his silent `goodbyes'. Seconds later he was unconscious when the Indian turned the knife in his hand and delivered a knock-out blow to the side of the boy's head with the bone hilt. Panting as he stood victorious, and then with a grumble, the Brave lifted JD's limp body over his shoulder and headed back to camp.
Six men rode determinedly up to the outcrop, their demeanors suggesting they were more than ready for an attack, and their doggedness warning that anyone who did, would not come off well. Relief washed over them when JD's horse looked lazily back at them from his tethered position, but it was short lived the instant Vin and Buck dismounted.
Buck almost yelled out JD's name, stopping himself when he remembered why they were there. Moments later, he saw Vin squat down next to JD's abandoned coat and hat. The tracker picked up his spyglass from the ground, before he dropped his head, his hat concealing any emotions that may have been reflected in his face right then. Buck's fear was palpable and he glanced between his concerned partners. Chris dismounted.
After a pause, Tanner looked up. The anguish in his features shocked them all. He pointed at the ground. "Skin prints all around there was an Injun up here." He closed his eyes momentarily when Buck made a sound akin to a wounded animal. He looked directly into Buck's eyes. "I'm sorry."
Shaking with rage, Buck couldn't return the look, instead, his gaze swept over the encampment below them. He moved to his horse. "I'm going down there."
Chris grabbed his arm. "No, not alone you ain't."
"He might still be alive," Buck hissed.
"Reckon you're right." All eyes turned to Vin as he stood. "If they planned on killin' him, JD'd be stretched out here, now."
"I've rarely heard of Apaches taking hostages," Josiah commented.
"It's been known," Vin replied. "They must want somethin'."
Buck mounted up. "Oh don't worry, I aim on giving it to `em."
"Buck, simmer down. We need to think this through," Chris warned. He looked at Tanner. "So, I guess I need to go in there and ask them what they want."
"I'm coming, too," Buck stated.
Chris sighed, but eventually nodded. "Josiah, you, me, Buck, and Vin are going down there. Nathan, Ezra, take JD's horse, head back to town and prepare for an attack. Wire Judge Travis and all outlying towns to let them know what's happening. Tell the Judge to contact the army pronto!"
Six grim-faced men set about their assignments. Chris hoped Vin and Josiah's knowledge of Indians would help them, plus, he might need help keeping Buck calm. If JD was alive, Chris wanted to keep him that way.
With a soft moan JD began to rouse. Once the pain in his head eased a little, his blurry vision made him aware that he was inside a dome- shaped construction. Blinking away the fog, he realized the structure was semi-dark, and made from hides and poles. Attempting to move caused more hurt and the recognition that his hands were tied and secured above his head. But he was lying down, which was a blessing. It would have hurt like crazy if he'd been upright with his hands and arms taking his full weight.
A cool, damp cloth touched his face and he closed his eyes appreciatively. Seconds later, hazel orbs sprang wide open in realization he was not alone. Swallowing against a dry throat, JD turned his head to catch a glimpse of his companion. He noted that a pretty woman well, girl, actually, was tending him, and she stopped to stare when he looked at her. Without speaking, she lay down the cloth, and picked up a clay cup. Raising JD's head a little, the Indian woman brought the cup to his lips and nodded encouragement for him to drink.
JD was parched, but his concern was with what he was being offered. However, the smell of water was too much and he took several grateful sips before she stopped him and resumed with the damp cloth.
"Th thank you," JD stammered.
She smiled, nodded and then stood, glancing back once before exiting the dwelling. Seconds later, JD's breath caught in his throat when a much older Brave entered, stared at the boy stretched on the floor before him, and then sat cross-legged next to him.
"You have awakened."
"You speak English?"
The Brave nodded. "White Eyes struggle with our tongue, so I must." He pointed after the woman. "Little Deer speaks no English, but understands much. You need not fear me, we wish you no harm." He reached out to touch JD's cuts and bruises. "I am Gray Cloud; my father was grandfather of Taklishim, father of Geronimo. Running Wolf brought you here, and has been taken to task for his hostility." Gray Cloud smiled. "He tells of a powerful soul that has the appearance of a cub, but wrestles like a grown bear."
Relaxing a little, JD attempted a shrug. "He ain't no weakling, either." The young sheriff looked the Indian in the eye. "Why am I here?" What he really wondered was `why am I still alive?'
Offering JD more water, Gray Cloud's expression saddened. "Our people are hunted like dogs slaughtered, imprisoned, or forced to live on land with no nourishment, or means to survive by hunting. I wait on Geronimo, to join with him and defeat these persecutors, but first, a more personal goal. The people of my brother were attacked, and then killed or taken prisoner. One woman is with child, yet they hold her in a cold, dark jail where she and her unborn child's life are in peril. I want her returned. I will trade a White Eye for her safety."
JD swallowed nervously. "Me?"
"You." He pointed to JD's bonds. "I have no wish to keep you in this way, but you might try to flee."
JD paused for a moment, then looked up at the man. "What if I gave my word that I won't?"
"I am uncertain of my answer. I have yet to meet a White Eye who has not betrayed my people."
"Well, I was led to believe all Indians torture and scalp their prisoners, yet here I am."
Gray Cloud actually huffed out a soft laugh. "You have a sound argument, little one."
Heart still beating wildly, JD hoped he wasn't pushing his luck. "I guess we'll just have to trust each other. My Mama always told me if I kept my word, I'd grow to be a man to depend on. I have six good friends who believe I'm becoming that man." He flinched when Gray Cloud produced a large knife and held it close to JD's throat. Seconds later, the tether was cut to release the bound hands from their stake, but not the bonds that held them tight together.
"We start here." He helped JD sit up, noting the winces from where the boy had lain flat and stiffened up, and also from his fight with Running Wolf.
JD smiled. "Thank you."
"I have no knowledge of your name."
"It's John JD."
"JahayDee. Good, this I like." Standing, the old warrior moved to leave. "Little Deer will return with food. I will tell you when you are free to move around the camp, but I give warning should you walk beyond our boundary before a deal is struck, you will be returned to this dwelling and forfeit your freedom."
With a nod, Gray Cloud pushed back a hide and exited the structure. JD exhaled, loudly, and failed to stop the trembling throughout his body. He couldn't believe he was still alive, but one thing he was mindful of, not once had the Indian leader mentioned what would happen to JD if the captive woman wasn't returned to the tribe. He looked up when Little Deer returned with a steaming bowl and sat down next to him. Scooping food onto a wooden spoon, the girl smiled and held it to JD's lips. Suddenly aware of how hungry he was, JD opened up and ate. He smiled.
Little Deer giggled, and continued to feed him, intermittently offering JD water in between several mouthfuls at a time. Neither heard the commotion outside and the call there were riders heading in.
Chris and Vin dismounted on seeing several Braves led by what looked like the Chief, approach them. Vin made some sort of hand gesture from his chest out, and it was returned with an appreciative nod.
"Why are you here?"
"You got a friend of ours!"
Chris turned to Buck and glared. He returned his gaze to the man who had spoken and pointed up toward the ridge. "I left a friend watching over your camp. He's no longer there."
"Slight of build with raven hair?" Gray Cloud glanced at the four nodding men. Vin quickly gestured for Buck and Josiah to dismount as a show of respect. No Chief should be made to look up high when addressing a man.
The four now stood shoulder to shoulder. "Yes," Chris answered.
Gray Cloud turned and nodded to a warrior at the back of his entourage, who in turn walked over to a domed dwelling. Buck's gaze followed his every move.
"He going to a tipi?"
Vin nodded, deciding it was best he didn't correct and tell Buck that tipis were pointed; the Brave was going toward a wickiup. He also tried not to show alarm when the Brave was joined by at least another ten warriors.
Inside the wickiup, Little Deer and JD looked up when an Indian pulled back the hide covering the entrance and, shaking a decorated lance at the boy, signaled for him to stand. With his hands still tied, JD prayed his legs wouldn't fail him as his nerves returned when he did so. Surely Gray Cloud wasn't going back on his word was he? JD blinked at the sunlight when he stepped outside. Two braves took a position, one either side of him, and with several more in front of the three, JD was urged to walk forward before eventually being halted just behind several more Indians.
Unable to see what exactly was happening, the four peacekeepers nervously watched the procession approach. Gray Cloud waited for them to stop, then, as he turned and gestured with his hand, the troupe parted line by line until JD was revealed center back. Seeing his friends, JD's heart soared and he went to step forward, but two lances crossed in front of him, halting his attempt. Instead, he stared hopefully at them. No one missed the cuts and bruising.
Chris held onto Buck's arm as he addressed Gray Cloud. "What is this?"
"You asked if your friend was here. I am showing you he is."
Buck had a dozen questions running through his mind, and judging by his partners' rigid stances, they were doing no better. Holding tight to the rising emotion, he called out. "You okay, Kid?"
JD offered a tight smile. "I'm fine, Buck." He looked at Tanner. "Sorry Vin, I never heard him."
The tracker smiled. "You ain't meant to, Kid. Sorry to leave you."
JD shrugged. "Rock and a hard place, right? One had to stay." As he said the words, he wondered if Vin would have heard the Indian approaching.
"So, what's the deal?" Chris asked.
Gray Cloud frowned for a moment or two, and then seemed to work out what the man in black was saying. "Moondance is heavy with child and held by the Long Knives. You tell them, for her safe return, we will release your friend, unharmed."
The four men were visibly shocked, their gazes glancing between JD and Gray Cloud. JD didn't seem surprised by the declaration. Vin's brow creased in reservation. "Ain't no cavalry round these parts gonna give up a prisoner."
"Make it so, or JahayDee stays with us."
Buck's agitation was painfully obvious. Chris's grip increased, added to by Josiah's large hand on Buck's other arm.
"We know the Long Knives are coming for us. We will fight, but what we want now, is Moondance to be returned unharmed. The smoke tells of an outpost burned. That was not us, but I vow we will act if our terms are not met." With those words, Gray Cloud stepped back. "You have three cycles of the setting sun before my offer is no more. Do not return here without her."
He turned and the entourage retreated into the camp. Chris just managed to catch JD's eye before he was escorted back to the wickiup. "We'll be back for you, Kid."
JD nodded. "I know."
Buck's eyes shimmered as he watched JD disappear. "We can't just leave him," he choked out past the block of emotion clogging his throat.
"For now, we have no choice." Chris's words were stern, but oozing compassion.
The regulators mounted up, but didn't move out until JD was completely out of sight. Four heavy-hearted men rode for home to regroup and figure out how to do this. "What exactly does that mean, three cycles?" Buck asked.
"Three sundowns," Josiah offered. "The sunrise that follows, they'll expect Moondance to be returned."
Vin nodded. It was logical they were being given two days, plus whatever was left of this one to find the cavalry and meet the Chief's terms.
"She must be real important, this `Moon-Dancer'," Buck thought aloud.
"Word is, Moondance is the daughter of a noted Apache Shaman, and is believed to hold the same powers, and likely her child will, too," Vin replied. No one asked how he knew, instead, they focused on the job at hand JD's life depended on them getting this right.
On returning to town, the four men noted Nathan, Ezra, and the townsfolk had been preparing for the worst by erecting barricades and nailing down doors and windows. While Josiah, Vin, and Buck stabled the horses, Chris sent a wire out to try and locate the army troop in the area. Luck was smiling on them when the sheriff of Eagle Bend replied that the troop had just passed through and a rider from town had successfully delivered their request to head for Four Corners.
Sitting in the saloon, the six friends drank in silence. Buck had removed himself from the group and occupied a table at the back of the establishment. A bottle of red-eye sat on the table in front of him, with a shot glass next to it, filled to the brim. But the man had yet to drink a drop. Like JD, his eyes were as windows to his soul, and right now they told of the inner torment he was experiencing for a boy he adored. Early on in their anguished vigil, Buck's stare bored into Vin, but soon after, his gaze remained on the smoky amber liquid in the glass, and the fingers curled around it.
Several of Buck's favorite saloon girls tried to ease his melancholy, but all had failed. Vin cast glances back at his friend and, despite Chris's attempts at stalling the tracker, he eventually stood and joined Buck at his table. Buck didn't look up, but was well aware of Vin turning a chair and straddling it.
"Bucklin, I understand you hatin' me right now "
"I don't hate you, Vin I could never hate you, or any of the boys." As his gaze remained lowered, Buck's voice was soft, and raw with emotion. "I wanted to blame you, I surely did, but seeing JD there today, and the trust in his eyes, damn, that boy's got some pluck."
Nodding, Vin sipped on his beer. "That he has. We're gonna get him back, Buck, iffen I have to ride in there m'self and snatch him up, he's comin' home."
The ladies' man's eyes glistened in the sparse light from the oil lamps. "I can't have it end any other way."
"None of us can, Buck." Four pairs of eyes stared at their distraught friend, and six heads nodded in unison.
It was barely sunup when Mary Travis appeared in the saloon's doorway. "Cavalry's riding in."
Relief mixing with exhaustion washed over the six and they stood, stretched and strode out into the street to meet with them.
The situation was explained, and now six men stood before the mounted troopers, the man in black no less defiant than the soldiers sat atop their horses who had outright refused to co-operate. Vin watched the cavalry flag flutter in the breeze, then he glanced at Buck. The man was focused on the soldiers, and made no eye contact, but Tanner knew that was now more worry than anger.
"You can't do this."
Captain Ferguson leaned forward. "I'm sorry your boy's caught in the middle, but I have my orders and I'll thank you to stand down."
"He's not a boy," Buck growled.
"No Apache either," Vin reminded.
The Captain shrugged. "The Indians can come quietly, or die resisting. No hostage threat will stop this. Fort Amigo was laid to waste, decimated, they must pay, or the territory will be ravaged."
"They said they're not responsible," Josiah insisted. "Are you really willing to risk the deaths of innocent men, women, and children over the safe return of one Indian woman?"
"The woman is a prisoner of war. When the threat is vanquished, and all surrendered Indians allocated to appropriate reservations, she will be released to them."
"Or die before she can be. She's carrying a child, allow her people to tend her," Nathan pleaded.
"It's not in my power to do so. Now, stand aside. Like I said, I have my orders and will not be prevented from carrying them out."
Larabee glared. "Oh, but we can. I'm waiting on word from Judge Orin Travis "
"Sir, the Judge has no jurisdiction here."
"No, but Washington does, and he's lobbying them as we speak." All eyes turned to the town's newspaper editor, Mary Travis as she exited the telegraph office. "He will have an answer for you by tomorrow."
Six regulators audibly inhaled. Damn, that was tight. They watched the Captain consider this. He touched his hat. "Ma'am.
Raising his hand, his sergeant noted the instruction and called an order. "Troop, about face!"
Ferguson leaned forward. "We're camping just outside of town. I'll return tomorrow for the answer."
Watching the soldiers leave, Chris relaxed a little. He looked at Mary. "Any word on where Moondance is being held?"
She nodded. "There's an abandoned town one day's ride east from here, with several adobe buildings intact. When word hit about Fort Amigo, the troop escorting her there holed up in the town."
"Explains why the outpost was attacked. Someone knew she was being taken there," Ezra concluded.
Buck growled. "Even if Washington agree, not even a rider as fast as JD could get there and back in time for the trade-off at Bear Bluff."
Chris pursed his lips. His gaze fell on Vin. "Fort Amigo you reckon any uniforms survived?"
Tanner smirked. "Saw an officer's hangin' in what was left of the Colonel's office. Never paid much mind to it."
Chris looked at Ezra. "Welcome to the army, soldier."
"I'm what now?" Ezra queried.
"You and Vin head to the outpost. You should make it before sundown. If you can salvage two uniforms, all well and good, if not, you're the officer and his accompanying scout about to release Moondance and return her to Bear Bluff."
"Do I not require signed orders ?" Standish grinned. "I assume I'm about to get creative."
"Isn't this illegal?" Mary asked.
Larabee's green glare set on the woman. "You wanna ask JD that when he gets home?"
Lowering her gaze, she turned and left, intending to chase-up her father-in-law hourly. Less than half an hour later, and with instructions to meet at Bear Pass if time was tight, Ezra and Vin rode out. Buck sighed.
"What can we do?"
Chris placed a hand on his oldest friend's shoulder. "We wait."
A cock crowing roused JD from his slumber. He slept surprisingly well, and stretched before opening his eyes. Touching another body startled him and he shot up to find Little Deer rousing next to him.
The girl sat up and smiled. Taking his hands, she led him from the dwelling and pointed to some shrubbery, offering a little giggle as she did so. At first he was confused, then noticing other Braves leaving the area she pointed to, the penny dropped. "Oh, thanks." With a shy smile, JD moved to relieve himself. Hoping he'd manage okay with both hands tied. He sure as hell didn't want no help from Little Deer. As he walked over, JD wondered about her laying with him.
"Sure hope that don't mean we're married or anything."
When he returned, food was waiting. Gratefully he ate what tasted like eggs, really good eggs, and sipped at the water in a cup. He looked up when Gray Cloud entered.
"Did you rest well?"
"Yessir, I did. Thank you for breakfast."
The Chief smiled. "It is not my intention to make you go hungry. Is Little Deer attending to your needs?"
"Uh 'bout that. She uh she was lying in my bed when I woke up. I swear, I never touched her, or anything, I didn't even know she was there." JD was surprised when Gray Cloud chuckled.
"You amuse me. Little deer is Running Wolf's mate to be. Because of his attack on you, she will be your aide until you leave."
JD waved his tied hands. "That's not necessary, really. I mean, I did hit him first."
Gray Cloud nodded. "Indeed. However, it is our way." He approached and drew a knife. Placing it beneath the tethers on JD's wrists, he sliced them.
JD audibly sighed and rubbed at the chafed skin. "Thanks."
"Again, I am showing trust that you will not flee."
JD smiled. "I gave you my word."
Nodding, the Indian left. JD watched him go, dwelling on the fact the man had never once suggested JD would die if none of this worked out. In fact, he'd said `leave'. Resuming his breakfast, the youth felt a little less nervous, and hoped that the Chief's version of `leave' was actually riding or walking out of there.
At what was left of Fort Amigo, Ezra righted a damaged mirror and viewed his reflection. "General would have been more fitting, but colonel will do. What say you, private?"
Vin just grunted. His uniform was from a laundry hamper, and smelled bad. "Let's go, *Colonel*."
"I'll give the orders, trooper " He noted Vin's glare and smiled. "After you."
"Got the papers?"
Ezra patted an inside pocket. "Indeed."
"Let's do this."
Buck stared out at the horizon, barely noticing Nathan joining him on the boardwalk. "Breakfast's on the table," the healer said quietly.
"I'll pass thanks."
"Buck." The brunet turned to Nathan.
"JD's okay for now, but we might need all our resources before this ends. Stay strong, my friend for us for JD. Come and eat."
"Can't swallow it," Buck rasped.
"Aww, Buck." Jackson draped an arm around Buck's shoulders, and the pair just stood together in compassionate silence.
Inside the newspaper office, Chris leaned against the wall just inside the door. He turned and straightened when Mary entered. She shook her head.
"Orin answered, but said they're still deliberating. Apparently, something more pressing has their attention."
Larabee closed his eyes for a moment. If Vin and Ezra succeeded, they could all hang, or be imprisoned. He shrugged inwardly. Ah well, he always knew he wouldn't live to a ripe old age, and couldn't think of a better way to go than in saving the life of a friend a brother. Ironic that, after this, JD could actually be the only one of the Seven left alive, or free. He nodded and turned to leave. "Thanks."
Josiah moved back from the candle-lit alter in the church and sat down. He was all prayed out, but found it comforting to sit here with his thoughts. Like Vin, he knew Indians to be grossly misunderstood. They only rose up to defend their land, and their kin. They could be cruel, but only when provoked. Their sense of family could well be a positive for JD. There was clear evidence the boy was cared for, and it seemed to touch the Indian leader's heart. He decided on one more prayer, a prayer that whatever transpired, JD's natural affinity to endear folks to him would help see the boy through this.
Entering the abandoned town, Vin and Ezra were instantly challenged. Dusk was settling in as the Sergeant used the campfire's glow to read the orders Ezra handed over. He frowned at the pair. "You want that savage in there?" he gestured toward the crumbling jailhouse.
"We do. We will travel at sunrise. Do you have a wagon?"
The Sergeant nodded. "Yessir."
"Good, we will be requiring it for the interim." He gestured to Vin. "Trooper, find a suitable place for me to rest tonight. I wish to set off at dawn."
With a salute, Vin wheeled his mount around and headed for the remaining upright buildings. Ezra turned to the Sergeant. "Take me to the prisoner."
At the jail's threshold, Standish thanked the Sergeant for the lantern and dismissed him. Approaching the bars, he noticed a disheveled woman huddled in a corner and staring back at him. He smiled. "Good evening, my dear. Do you speak English?" There was a pause, then a slow nod. "Good. Tomorrow, we leave for Bear Pass."
Moondance stared in a mix of disbelief and hope. She watched her savior wink. "Sleep well, we'll talk more tomorrow." Setting down the lamp, Ezra turned to leave and join Vin. The woman held her swollen belly and rocked as, in her native tongue, she told her unborn child to hold on.
A new day and, trying not to dwell on tonight's sunset being the third, JD wandered around the encampment. For the most part, the Braves seemed disinterested in the youth, while the women watched him in fascination. Little Deer showed him how to catch some lizards, and wood rats, before she skinned, cleaned, and chopped them up for stews. JD seriously began to worry what he might have eaten the past two days.
While the men made weapons and talked of war, the women tanned hides, sewed clothes, cooked, and generally kept the children close. It was a fascinating insight into an existence JD had only read about. Never in all his years would he have expected to experience it firsthand. He once visited the reservation on the other side of town and, to their credit; those Indians lived as best they could considering they weren't truly free. These Apaches however, were free, and passionate about staying that way.
While he walked, the youth couldn't help wondering about the woman he was to be traded for. She must be pretty important for this tribe to go to such lengths to save her, especially as it was clear it was a goal aside from their quest against the army to protect their people, and lands. JD stopped when he realized how close he was to the edge of the encampment. He looked longingly out at the ridge above the valley, convinced that there was no way, no matter how determined they were, that his friends could find that woman in time.
He turned to find many eyes watching him. Strolling back, JD pondered why he wasn't more afraid, this likely being his last full day. Why shouldn't he just turn and run for it? Sighing, he entered the wickiup that had become his temporary home and slumped down onto the pelt-covered pallet. Touching the painful bruising on his head and cheek, JD lay down and stared up at the domed construction above him. He knew why because he had given his word.
He didn't want to die, but if he must, he liked to think he would be remembered as a man of his word.
Atop his horse next morning, Ezra glanced across to the woman in the wagon. She looked uncomfortable, but, as he expected from an Indian, made no sound of protest. Vin drove the team as fast as he dared, but, mindful of his precious cargo, was nowhere near as fast as he wanted to. At this rate, and needing to camp up for the night for Moondance to rest, they would barely make it to Bear Pass by sunrise, if at all. It was just as well they were unaware of events back in town.
Captain Ferguson had reached the end of his patience. No wire revoking his orders came from Judge Travis, and so he informed the regulators he would move in to attack the Apache encampment at first light. The four men became angry, and barely escaped imprisonment. Ferguson explained he sympathized, but had his instructions. Taking another route after the cavalry left, Chris, Buck, Josiah, and Nathan rode out armed to the teeth to Bear Bluff. If they couldn't get JD out of there before the army struck, they would go in there and protect him.
Moondance stirred from her uneasy slumber when the wagon rolled to a halt. It was growing dark and, pulling herself into a sitting position, she looked at her companions. With a series of hand gestures and the odd word, Vin attempted to explain they were stopping for the night. The woman shook her head and conveyed her desire to keep going. With a long pause, the two men looked to each other and nodded. It was what they wanted anyway, and so lighting two lanterns, Vin hung them on the wagon to light their way and, with their hearts considerably less heavy at the thought they might just make it in time, they trundled steadily on.
Unable to eat, JD watched a ceremony instead. He might be a shave tail, one of Buck's less colorful descriptions for him, but even he could see this ritual was a preparation for war. Wearing large headdresses, and with painted faces, aggressive dance steps were performed with practiced ease. Now he wondered if that's why sunup was the deadline. These natives planned to attack then, regardless of their success or failure in getting Moondance back. JD figured their original target must be the army he hoped it was the army, the town would likely not survive an attack from these warriors, even if he and his friends were there to help.
Taking the cup of water from Little Deer as she joined him, JD nodded and smiled. "Thanks." As he sipped, he shivered, despite being reasonably close to the fire, and it being a warm night, to boot. A call from out of the gloom had the festivities halt abruptly and the Braves rally. Four riders rode into the light from the large campfire, to a hostile welcome by a line of armed Braves. Gray Cloud raised a hand and stepped forward about the same time JD jumped to his feet on realizing who the riders were.
Feeling a thump between his shoulder blades, JD dropped to his knees, while struggling to catch his breath. A Brave stood over him pointing a rifle at his head, a clear warning not to move.
The four riders saw the blow, but dared not react. Chris dismounted and approached the not-so welcoming committee with his arms outstretched. When close, and as Vin had done, he touched a clenched fist to his chest, and sent it open and palm down, back toward Gray Cloud, who nodded.
"Two of my friends are collecting Moondance now, but the army plan to attack at dawn. We're here to stand with you, to protect JD, and your people, until our friends arrive."
Gray Cloud glanced between the men. "You would stand against your own to honor your friend, and your word?"
"Always," Buck replied, his gaze fixed on JD.
Turning, Gray Cloud walked over to JD and offered him a hand up. "You are men of honor."
Rising shakily, JD nodded. "We try," he rasped out. Ignoring the fiery ache in his back, JD grinned at his friends, his heart swelling with affection and pride. He looked to Gray Cloud when he spoke to them.
"Come join us, we have council. But know this, until Moondance returns, JahayDee is not free to leave."
Chris nodded, accepting the original trade-off agreement was still in place. Once the Chief turned to walk back into camp, Buck was off his horse and at JD's side in an instant. Holding the boy at arms' length, he scrutinized the cuts and bruises, and the dark circles under the youth's eyes. "You okay?"
JD nodded. "I am, now."
Josiah and Nathan dismounted and, with Chris, approached to acknowledge their youngest. JD's eyes shimmered as he greeted them. "Thanks, fellas."
Chris nodded. "It ain't over yet. Vin and Ezra are bringing Moondance here."
While basking in their presence, and the comforting hands gripping his shoulders, JD could do no more than nod for fear his emotion might escape. When Gray Cloud once more gestured for them to join him, the youth went to fall in line with his friends, but Braves carrying weapons gripped his arms and tugged him away. Recognizing their presence hadn't changed JD's position, Larabee caught the boy's gaze.
"Don't fight it; just go with it, okay?"
Despite his disappointment, JD nodded. All moved toward a large wickiup, and once the four regulators had joined those inside and were seated, JD was pushed in through the flaps and made to sit with two Braves next to Gray Cloud. His four friends could barely contain themselves when the youth's hands were roughly taken and his wrists retied. JD's own frustration broke through.
"Even though my friends are here to stand with you, you no longer trust me?"
Gray Cloud's features gave nothing away. "Geronimo comes. My sign to stand with him was the return of Moondance." He turned toward Chris, Buck, Josiah, and Nathan. "Without her, he will ask of me another sign. I will give him that sign; I will offer the life of a White Eye." As his words trailed off, his gaze missed the shock on the four men's faces, when it moved to JD.
Stiffening, the boy looked first to Gray Cloud, then to his friends. He wondered if they could sense the fear in his heart, or maybe his shame in feeling it. So this was why Gray Cloud never stated JD's fate with them because it actually lay in the hands of Geronimo himself. He jerked from his thoughts when Buck's dangerously low growl penetrated the ensuing silence.
"That'll happen over my dead body." His angry stare focused on the Chief, and the Braves stirred, restlessly. Gray Cloud raised a hand.
"I would expect no less."
Several women brought in food and drink before exiting. Little Deer smiled at JD, disappointment marring her pretty face when there was no return gesture. JD hadn't seen her; he was still shocked at learning what the Apache had planned for him. He risked a glance toward his four friends, and smiled inwardly at their expressions of support. The youth was disappointed at the sound of his own voice. Shakier than he would have liked.
"In that case, you fellas should leave. No point in us all getting caught up in this." In truth, JD felt betrayed by Gray Cloud. Nevertheless, he had given his word to stay, but that didn't mean he'd let his friends risk their lives, too.
Gray Cloud waited quietly for the men to decide. Chris took seconds to answer. "Let's have council." His posture gave a clear message to his friends; they were all in this to the end.
Despite the rough ride, Moondance was asleep in the wagon. Vin and Ezra were tired, too. They hadn't slept more than a few hours since this all started. Standish drew his horse alongside the seat and looked at Tanner as the Texan slowed to talk. "How far?"
Straightening, Vin glanced at his friend. "Too far. We ain't gonna be there `fore sunup."
Noting something else in the sour reply, Ezra pushed. "What is it, Vin?"
Not really surprised Ezra knew something was up; the Texan shook his head, pausing a long while before answering. "I shouldna left him, Ezra."
"I assume you refer to our young sheriff." The return glance confirmed his suspicions. "Did you not say JD offered to stay?"
"Yeah, but damnit, Ezra, either way, he's just a greenhorn Kid, with more grit'n you could shake a stick at."
"Vin " Ezra waited until the tracker looked at him. "You treated the boy with respect. He chose to stay, you honored his decision. There are no guarantees in this life, my friend; you of all people know this. Would he have made it back to town, as did you? Or would we be mourning his demise at the hands of savages?"
"They ain't savages," Vin snapped. "They's tryin' to survive, just like we are, only they got army canons firin' on `em, soldiers roundin' `em up like herded buffalo to be kept on army reservations, no respect, no future, no hope."
Ezra raised a hand. "Vin, I'm sorry, I meant no disrespect."
Tanner went quiet, then offered a lopsided grin. "I know, Pard I know. I'm sorry, too. I guess this whole thing's gotten me all knotted up inside."
"Indeed. Not to mention weary." Standish glanced ahead. "So, how far?"
Vin actually laughed. "Now you're gettin' to sound like JD."
"Touched as I am by the comparison, I have no desire to return to that tender age again." A voice penetrated their conversation.
Startled by the urgency in the female voice, Vin turned in his seat and Ezra dropped back to look at Moondance. She stared at them, her expression suggesting discomfort, but not fear.
"My child it begins."
The men glanced at each other. Vin nodded and snapped the reins. "Hold on, ma'am."
Peering into the gloom of pre-dawn, Mary stared at the man stepping from the stagecoach before running to greet him. "Orin!"
"Mary, my dear. How are you?"
"I'm well, thank you. I didn't realize you were coming here."
"He and the others went to the village. The army threatened to attack the Indian camp at dawn. How did the stage get here so early?"
Orin smiled. "I used my considerable influence and offered the driver remuneration for his trouble if he started out early and got here before dawn." He waved at Yosemite who had exited the livery to meet the stage and tend to their needs. The blacksmith approached.
"Good to see you, Judge."
"Likewise. I need a sturdy horse, now."
"Yessir." He hurried off to tack up his best horse.
"My dear, I must leave now. I will visit with you on my return."
"You know how to get to Bear Pass?"
"I do." He kissed her cheek. "Wish me luck."
As she nodded, Travis mounted up and hurried out of town. "Good Luck."
At Bear Pass, a bird call alerted all in the wickiup that they had company. Exiting the dwelling, Buck, Chris, Josiah, and Nathan checked their weapons, a little surprised at how dozens of armed Braves now stood, waiting for instructions. Buck approached JD and his single guardian.
"Stay out of the line of fire. You ain't got no gun, so don't make yourself a target."
JD nodded, but his eyes glistened and Buck didn't miss the slight tremor running through the boy. "Dunno, Buck, I ain't no coward, but maybe a bullet's better'n what Geronimo might have planned for me." He jerked when Buck fisted his shirt and drew him nose to nose.
"I'll say this once, and once only. Ain't no one gonna be kicking your hide any time soon but me, got it?" His gaze softened. "No one lays a hand on my family when I'm around."
JD nodded, but had to look away before his emotion betrayed him. The squeeze to his neck rallied him and he looked back at the man he was so in awe of. "Be careful all of you."
Buck released JD and grinned. "Hey, careful's my middle name, Kid."
"Huh? I thought your middle name's "
"Ah, ah, ah! No sharing, Squirt." He pointed. "Go get your scrawny butt behind something solid." Chris joined them.
"Josiah says it's the army. I kinda hoped Vin and Ezra'd be here by now." He glanced at JD. "You okay, Kid?"
JD nodded, his eyes conveying a deep need to tell his hero something. "Chris "
Larabee knew that look, and decided words weren't necessary right then. He winked. "I know, Kid I know." With that, the peacekeepers left JD with his guard, and joined with the warriors to approach the long blue line of cavalrymen just visible in the gray dawn light.
Moondance's cries spurred the two men on. They were close to Bear Pass now, and hoped they were on time, on both counts. One, to save JD; and two, to get there before Moondance's baby made an appearance.
"Hold on, we're close!" Vin wasn't sure his encouraging words carried to her on the breeze from their rapid journey, but it was all he could offer right then. "Ezra, ride on ahead!"
With a nod, Standish lowered his frame and urged his mount on.
Captain Thomas Ferguson of the Sixth Cavalry Regiment leaned on his saddle horn and stared down at the four white men standing with an Apache troupe. "Well, seems like you are the Indian-lovers we took you to be, Larabee."
"And it seems like you're the Injun-hating butt-cracks we figured *you* to be, Cap'n."
"Buck!" Ignoring Wilmington's defiant stare, Chris looked to Gray Cloud, who nodded for him to continue.
"Call off your men, Captain. Moondance has been released and is on her way here as we speak. It's over."
"It's far from over. These Braves massacred an outpost. I have orders "
"It wasn't them," Josiah interrupted.
"And who says this to be true?" the Captain challenged.
"Gray Cloud," Chris answered, gesturing to the Chief next to him.
"And I'm meant to take the word of an Indian, is that what you're saying?"
Chris held the man's gaze with a steely glare. "Yes."
The Chief spoke. "The day will come when we will rise here against the White Eyes, but as yet, we have not." He gestured to the two canons in the line-up. "Neither your guns, nor your fire wagons will stop us when it is time. We came to meet with great warriors. Our first task to show our brotherhood is to protect the life of a leader's woman and her child. Return her to me, and the White Eye we hold will be released."
"And if you recall, that `White Eye' is a good friend of ours, so we have a personal interest in standing here against you," Buck reminded, just in case the Captain missed the point.
"Then you'll die here." Ferguson stated. "We will not be releasing "
Another bird call signaled a new arrival. From the edge of the Pass, a rider appeared from out of the dust with a wagon close behind. Ezra's voice carried over the distance. "Nathan! You are needed!"
The Braves parted just long enough to let rider and wagon through, before regrouping. Ferguson could see the cart's passenger and he and his troop drew their guns and swords, but when many rifles, lances, and bows were raised against them, Ferguson held up his hand to his men. "Hold your fire."
Ignoring the developing conflict, Ezra and Vin leapt from their mounted positions and ran to the back of the wagon. "Baby's comin'!" Vin yelled.
JD and his armed companion had edged closer to the activity. Behind them, many women exited the dwellings when they became aware that Moondance was in labor. Vin caught JD's eye.
"Kid help her, we're movin' to stand with Chris and the others." Nodding, JD and his sentry moved to help the panting woman.
Army horses danced anxiously in the building tension. Captain Ferguson raised his pistol. "Hold your positions. Larabee, that woman is a prisoner of the US Cavalry! Troop, prepare to engage!"
On hearing their Captain's cry, in an instant and as if in slow motion, several soldiers broke rank causing mayhem to ensue as Braves and peacekeepers fought with cavalrymen attempting to advance. One soldier who had successfully split the line of warriors raised his drawn sword as he rode, and ran it through the Brave with JD, killing him instantly. He then wheeled his horse around and moved to strike down Moondance. Still holding onto the woman, JD instinctively stepped between them and lifted his bound arms to protect her. He cried out at a sharp pain to his right shoulder, missing the whistle of an arrow before it embedded itself in the attacking soldier's chest.
Pandemonium arose on the front line as more soldiers looked to break through. Men jumped from horses to challenge those before them, and several scuffles broke out amidst the rising cries of anger. Six peacekeepers fought mano a mano in a desperate bid to disarm the soldiers. They had no desire to gun down these men, though, in an unspoken agreement, they would if they had to.
More gunfire from a distance had several of the combatants turning to see Orin Travis speeding toward them on horseback, while firing a gun in the air.
The six peacekeepers assembled and also fired shots in the air as Chris's voice bellowed out. "STOP, STOP! HOLD IT!"
Gray Cloud stepped into the fray and raised his arms. His warriors immediately backed away.
Ferguson steadied his mount and looked to see who was approaching. Calling for his men to draw back, he shook his head at the rider who drew near. "Judge you have no "
"Hear this," Orin gasped out, a little breathless. It had been a while since he had ridden so hard. Removing sealed papers from his inside jacket pocket, Travis leaned across to hand them to Captain Ferguson. "These are orders from Washington. There is news that Geronimo is on the move, and you've been ordered to return to Fort Smith immediately."
Taking the papers, the Captain broke the seal, opened them, and read. Several long moments later, he stared back at Larabee and Gray Cloud, then, with a nod to his Sergeant, the call went out to regroup and move out. Minutes later, and after retrieving their dead colleague, they were gone.
Nathan ran to his horse, grabbed his medicine bag and raced off to follow the women and Moondance. The remaining five peacekeepers stared at the Judge, who smiled. "Gentlemen, a little close, but a successful conclusion."
"The instructions are genuine?" Chris asked.
"Oh yes. Hopefully, the army will be too occupied from now to consider the orders that released Moondance."
Five men grinned in relief and clasped hands. Buck and Vin glanced around as if thinking the same thing. "Where'd JD go?" the brunet asked, recalling seeing him helping Moondance seconds before cavalrymen attempted to break through their human blockade. "Did he go with the women?"
Nathan's anxious call from one of the dwellings before he ducked back inside, chilled the men to the bone, and all five took off running.
As several women helped Moondance into a large, central wickiup, a few others supported a bloody and injured JD to the same place. Once inside, Moondance grasped two support poles to one side of the hut and puffing and blowing, squatted, while water was brought and skins placed beneath her crouched form. Nathan entered the domed hut and raising his medicine pouch looked to the women to offer assistance, but they shook their heads and directed him to the opposite corner. When all but Little Deer moved away, he could see JD lying on hides, semi-conscious and bleeding badly from his shoulder, while the young woman was cutting off his vest and shirt. "Damnit!" He poked his head outside the tent and yelled. "BUCK!"
Eyes glazed over with pain peeked out from under soaked bangs. JD was in a world of hurt. He couldn't recall much after a sharp, slicing pain to his shoulder, but somehow he knew he was bleeding. Nathan's face came into view and seemed to ask him something, but JD couldn't hear above the rushing sound in his ears. Then he heard Buck and maybe Chris, while someone wiped at his face, but his fading awareness was focused on the woman across from him squatting and making odd noises. Two more females were kneeling below her, and he watched transfixed as she gave out a long and almighty scream when a tiny body slipped from her and into the waiting hands of her attendees. JD was vaguely aware of Buck's anxious voice close to his ear, before he blinked slowly, closed his eyes, and it all went black. His last thought was wondering if he was about to die with his hands still tied together.
Pushing back the hide flaps, Buck groaned on seeing JD's bloody, sweat-slicked form. He asked, but no one seemed to know how it happened. The others joined him, and Chris crouched down to ask JD how he got hurt, but it was clear the boy was not hearing them. Seeing how serious the slash was, Buck got close to JD's ear to talk to him, all five peacekeepers unaware of the tiny miracle occurring in the opposite corner. Only after hearing a woman scream, and Nathan call for some space when JD passed out, did they notice Moondance was sitting quietly in a makeshift bed, tired, but happy as her new son nursed at her breast.
All six men stared in awe. Vin swallowed. "Well, I'll be damned."
Ezra nodded. "Indeed."
Josiah signed the cross and mumbled a small blessing before the Indian women shooed them from the dwelling.
Dizzy and hot, JD blinked open gritty eyes. A cool cloth was being traced over his clammy features, and, for a moment, his mind had slipped back in time a few days to when he was first captured. Little Deer leaned in and grinned. "He-lo."
"Hey." JD closed his eyes, and sighed. A sudden pain burned in his shoulder and he screwed up his face in agony, before his eyes popped open. "Oh God!"
A familiar voice spoke. "Nope, but I've had ladies who've worshipped me during times of passion."
JD laughed, but it came out more as a sob. Grateful for the sip of water offered by Little Deer, he looked up at Buck and Nathan, who were next to him inside a familiar domed hut. Eyes filled with dread, JD spoke, softly. "The sword. Did did he cut off my arm?"
If JD hadn't looked so afraid, Buck would have laughed. Instead, he smiled and tugged gently on the strapping holding JD's bandaged arm and shoulder. "Nope, you're still all in one piece."
With a nod to the tribe's Shaman, Nathan took the offered wooden bowl and encouraged the boy to take several sips. JD closed his eyes in relief at Buck's confirmation, and the warming liquid coursing through him and numbing him from the neck down. He looked back at his mentor. "Buck?"
"Yeah, Kid?" He watched JD's facial expressions go from doubt, to pondering, then back to uncertainty.
"I had a strange dream. I dreamt I saw a baby drop from the sky."
Buck chuckled. "Not quite the sky, but it was no dream. The lady you helped had a baby a boy."
"Oh, nice." Sighing, he began to drift off to sleep. "Buck!"
"When I was hurting did I see soldiers?"
The ladies' man grinned at Nathan on realizing JD had seen Ezra and Vin. "Less you know about that, the better. Now, sleep."
JD yawned. "'Kay."
With a nod to the boy's attentive young nurse, Buck and Nathan stood, stretched, and joined their friends outside. Chris, Vin, Josiah, and Ezra were sitting with Gray Cloud and some of his Braves. The former smiled. "How's he doing?"
Buck and Nathan sat down. "Good," Buck answered. "Whatever it was these folks did for him, and gave him, he's doing good."
Gray Cloud nodded approvingly. "He will be able to travel soon." The Chief smiled. "He will be missed."
"A bargain can be struck should you wish to keep him," Ezra teased. There was a pause, then Gray Cloud lifted a finger and chuckled as he wagged it at the southerner.
"Ah yes White Eye humor. I have still to understand the meaning of a dog with three paws."
They all laughed.
The Chief acknowledged Vin. "What`s so special about Moondance?"
"Her given name is Nana-tha-thtith. She is the third wife of Geronimo."
Two days later, Nathan agreed that JD could travel, but insisted they broke it up into a slow, two-day ride. Even riding in a wagon, JD's wound and the blood loss from it would tire him quickly and prevent them from traveling too fast.
As the five men mounted up, and Nathan got JD settled in the back of the cart before climbing up to drive them home, Gray Cloud and many of his people gathered to watch them leave. Little Deer ran to JD's side, and handed him a string of beads from around her neck. He smiled and she touched his face before trotting back to stand with Running Wolf. JD and the Brave locked gazes, and both nodded. It seemed like a lifetime since the pair had fought on the hill.
Gray Cloud folded his arms across his chest and spoke. "You run with brave and honorable men, JahayDee. "You will grow to be a fine warrior." The Chief looked at Chris. "May your God go with you. Next time we meet, it may be in battle, and we will fight, but our hearts will know we once stood as brothers." Cradling her son, Moondance walked to his side and smiled back at Vin, Ezra, and JD, and then nodded to the others.
With a touch to their hats, the group pulled out. JD stared back at the tribe for a long time. He was happy to be going home, yet still felt a tinge of sadness as they pulled away. Despite the underlying threat to his safety, meeting and living with them had been a truly wonderful and humbling experience.
As agreed, the seven regulators broke their gentle return journey to town with an overnight stop. They maintained that it was to ensure JD wasn't overdoing it, but there was also a strong desire to enjoy the brotherhood of all seven of them being together again.
That night, from his perch on a rock above their camp, Vin glanced around at his slumbering friends. His gaze moved to the flickering campfire, before falling on JD. If someone had told him six months ago that he, alongside five other men he would also die for, would move Heaven, Hell, and high water to ride into an Apache encampment and liberate a greenhorn easterner, or impersonate the army to free the wife and unborn son of Geronimo, the Texan would have laughed.
But here they were, seven brothers of the heart, who had quickly come to realize they were each worth fighting for, despite their obvious differences. He smiled when the glisten of hazel eyes reflecting the firelight caught his attention. He climbed down and moved next to JD's bedroll, mindful not to disturb Buck sleeping next to him.
"Can I get you anythin', Kid?"
The easterner gingerly shifted his aching arm. "Nah, I'm good, thanks. Just can't sleep right now. I reckon I've done a lot of that, lately, I'm all sleeped out."
Vin nodded his understanding and settled next to the youth. After a small silence, they both tried talking at once. Vin grinned. "You first."
"I just wanted to say sorry I got caught," JD whispered. "I never heard the Indian come close. I feel bad I let you down."
"Hell Kid, you didn't let me down. I was more worried I let you down, but a good friend reminded me you made a sound decision and it was. I guess we got to accept that we both did and move on."
"You ain't disappointed in me?" JD asked.
"No more'n you are with me."
They stared at each other, and laughed.
"You're a good man, Kid. I'm proud to know you."
JD's eyes shimmered, and he nodded. "Same here."
Seeing JD's eyes closing, Vin smiled and sat quietly until his youngest friend brother drifted off.
"Nice words, Tanner."
Vin nodded to a drowsy Larabee. "The truth sure is a beautiful thing and always worth fightin' for." He stood and approached the campfire and the coffee pot.
"Can't argue with that, Pard."
Rising, Chris joined Vin. The two men sat in comfortable silence as the sounds of sleeping men and a crackling fire soothed them. Another groan and Buck's voice had them turn to look.
"You okay, Kid?"
"Yeah Buck, I'm fine, thanks. Just need to you know."
Lighting the end of a heavy log, Vin stood and walked over to the two struggling to their feet. "C'mon, I'll light the way."
JD huffed. "Lord, I have to answer the call of nature and you two are gonna be right there?"
Buck's grin flashed in the flicker from the torch. "Well, you ain't got the strength of a newborn foal right now, so I aim to see you don't fall flat on your face, and Tanner'll make sure you don't splash them fancy boots of yours."
Listening to the sounds of the three shuffling behind some rocks, Chris grinned. He outright laughed at Buck's cry and Vin's chuckle.
"Damnit, JD, them's *my* boots you're sprinkling. You even awake?"
"Sorry, it's not easy with one hand NO! I can deal with it, thank you, Buck." There was a pause. "You sure you ain't got a brother, Vin? I saw a soldier at the Apache camp, an' he looked an awful lot like you "
Refreshing his cup, a smiling Larabee sipped the heady brew. It was gonna be a long night and he couldn't have been happier about it.
Thanks for riding along