Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!
Summary: Is having the support of men as close as brothers enough when stripped of your past?
My thanks to Joy for the blackraptor transcripts archive, and blackraptor, for giving my stories a home.
The little town of White Bluff bustled into life as the blistering noon sun moved into a more bearable mid-afternoon heat. Ladies wearing brightly colored, crinoline-lined dresses and carrying open, white parasols to shade them from the sun waved to neighbors and talked to friends as they strolled through the street and along the boardwalks.
Men dressed in simple suits, and garments for toiling the land, could be seen moving from store to store, or sitting on the boardwalk talking, puffing on their chosen smokes or simply watching townsfolk going about their business. Others headed for the small saloon to sit in its cool, smoke-filled murkiness.
Outside the livery, the clang of hammer against anvil permeated the air as the blacksmith toiled. His braces hung around his hips, dangling against woolen pants to disappear under a full-length leather apron. He straightened for a moment to wipe his brow with the back of his hand, and smiled, first at the grinning ladies glancing his way; and then at the gray-haired man driving an approaching wagon, pulled by its solitary horse, Clyde.
"'Afternoon Jacob," the smithy called, walking forward to stroke Clyde's velvet muzzle as the big black was halted.
Noting Clyde snuffling eagerly into the blacksmith's hand, Jacob wagged a finger at the man. "Quit feedin' him. Danged horse won't let me pass by here no more 'til he's visited with you. You're spoilin' my one good carthorse, Bucklin." Even as Jacob scolded, he handed the dark-haired younger man a covered basket. "These are from Emma-Lou. Woman's still convinced you need feedin' up, even though I told her you're not lookin' as scrawny as you did a few weeks back."
Bucklin grinned. "Much obliged. Tell her thank you for me, would you?" He placed the basket down and pointed to Clyde. "Would you like me to check his feet while you're here? As a thank you…" he clarified, to save the man's pride. Jacob and Emma-Lou barely scraped a living from their smallholding, so this seemed a perfect solution to ease the man's burdens.
"Mighty kind of you, son. While you do, I'll just go pick up some vittles."
As he watched him cross the street, Bucklin took Clyde's bridle and kissed the horse's nose. "Don't you fret old boy, I'll always have something nice for you when you call." Endorsing his words, he offered up a piece of carrot, before unhitching Clyde and giving him a small helping of oats, and a drink.
While examining the black's feet, Bucklin mused over the last several weeks. He didn't remember much about the early part of the first week. His head injury saw to that. When he was stronger and he wanted to work, he learned the town had no blacksmith, but although the job came naturally to him, nagging at the back of his memory-wiped mind he couldn't help feeling this wasn't his true calling, his…destiny.
The townsfolk had been particularly accepting of him, despite the fact he could tell them nothing about himself and that why, when found, he was wearing a gunbelt and his horse carried a sheathed rifle. His big gray had been lame, so Bucklin figured he'd been thrown when the horse faltered, but simply couldn't recall any of it. The gray nickered from his stall in the livery, causing Bucklin to smile, however, the smile turned to curiosity when the horse became animated; excited even.
Moving away from Clyde, Bucklin's dark hair ruffled in the warm dry wind as he looked toward the horizon. From out of the heat haze, six horsemen appeared. They were riding fast, but there seemed to be no threat in their urgency. As they drew nearer, several heads popped around doors and people turned in the street to look. The blacksmith's stomach did a little flip. There was something…familiar about them and he stepped further away from the livery to get a closer look.
"Buck, they're gunslingers, step back."
Turning toward the approaching sheriff, the blacksmith nodded his understanding of the concern. "I can't explain it, Cliff, but…I don't think they're here to cause trouble." Buck smiled as he heard the sheriff mutter something about him being 'some kinda fortuneteller all of a sudden'; and watched the lawman step out in front of the slowing horses and raise a hand.
"Howdy boys. Name's Cliff Boyd, I'm the sheriff here. May I ask what your business is in White Bluff, or are you just passing through?" The sheriff didn't miss that all six armed men were staring at the town's blacksmith. He couldn't quite make out the emotion on their faces, but he found himself agreeing with Buck, they appeared to pose no threat.
Two men dismounted and the one dressed all in black touched his hat. "Name's Larabee. We're here to find a friend of ours. He's been missing for a while."
Boyd eyed them all. "What makes you think he's here?"
The second man spoke as he glanced at the blacksmith. "We already know he is."
Engrossed by the men staring at him, the smithy went to take another step forward. "Cliff…"
Boyd raised a hand. "Bucklin, stay out of this."
The second man raised a hand and used his thumb and index finger to smooth down his mustache. He approached the blacksmith. "You go by the name of Bucklin?"
Nodding, Buck shrugged. "I guess it's my name. After my accident, it was the name that came into my head when I woke up and someone asked who I was." He was surprised when the taller man laughed softly, and his liquid blue eyes twinkled as he raised one hand to squeeze the lad's shoulder.
"Well Buck, we've had a long, hard ride. There's something real important we'd like to talk over with you. How about you join us in the saloon for a cold beer?"
Frowning, the smithy glanced between the six earnest faces staring back at him; his gaze rested on a gray-haired, barrel-chested man with kind eyes, sitting atop a huge sorrel.
"Do you fellas know who I am?"
Josiah Sanchez smiled. "Yes son, we do."
"Is…is my name Bucklin?" The hand still on his shoulder gripped him tighter and Buck turned his gaze back to the man.
"No, Kid, that's my name. Yours is John, but you go by JD." Buck Wilmington sighed at the lack of recognition in familiar hazel eyes. "Come on; how about we go have that beer and talk."
Unable to explain why he trusted these men, JD nodded and watched them dismount before he pulled his apron over his head and tossed it across a bench. He began tucking in his shirt before leading Larabee's horse into the livery while urging the others to follow.
"Make mine milk and you're on."
The seven men took up a whole corner of the small saloon. Sipping his milk, JD viewed them all apprehensively. They seemed to know him well, but he couldn't for the life of him recall any of them. And yet…it felt right being around them.
"Didn't notice any saloon girls."
Ezra Standish raised one eyebrow as he knocked back a whiskey shot. "Good Lord, Mister Wilmington, what prompted such an observation? Are you looking for feminine company already?"
Buck looked disgruntled. Just a short while ago, the only brunet on his mind was his missing friend. "Just saying is all, Ezra. Can't a man make an obs-er-va-tion without being judged?"
"It depends entirely on the positioning of your hands. When you're hungry, you rub at your belly, thirsty, you scratch at your throat, tired you pull your ear and in need of…" Ezra grinned. "Well, let's just say, when you asked, I couldn't see your hands at that moment."
JD chuckled at the exchange and any building animosity evaporated as the six men savored it. In truth, if this lead had become another cold trail, they would have considered their friend might never be found, leaving them with an impossible decision to make. Taking a shot of whiskey, Chris Larabee set his forearms onto the table and leaned forward.
"JD, you say you recall nothing until you woke up in this town?"
JD nodded. "Jacob…he's a farmer hereabouts…was on his way into town when he came across me and my horse. He brought me here and the nice lady who runs the provisions store took me in." He sighed, his expression one of pure anguish.
"I've tried, truly I have, but it's like I…just appeared from the air. I got no idea how I got hurt, where I'm from, who my family are…" He touched a hand to his head and winced. "Or even if I have a family, and if I try thinking too hard, it hurts." He looked at the black man leaning in.
"It's important you remember, but you shouldn't push it. Head injuries can be funny things. You may never remember all or any of what happened or who you were before it." He ached to see the fear in JD's eyes at that suggestion. "Or it could all come back tomorrow. How's the head now?" Nathan Jackson asked.
Shrugging, JD sipped his milk before answering. "It's fine, thanks."
"The horse you were riding is mine." Buck began to explain, being careful with the content. "Your horse picked up a stone and was still too sore to ride, so you took mine to take a patrol." He smiled. "He looks good."
JD tilted his head. "A patrol? Patrolling what?"
"Plenty of time for that," Chris reminded. "We want you to come home with us, JD. How do you feel about that?"
JD's brow furrowed. He was happy here. Did he want to leave? He glanced around the men at his table. Could he trust them? He didn't even know their names. Yet even as he pondered his doubts, something was niggling away at him - that whole 'destiny' thing again. He'd often felt he was out of place in this town; maybe this was why. "It would help if I knew your names."
Buck smiled. "Good point, I'm…"
JD grinned, "Buck, yeah, I know."
Each man introduced himself.
"I'm Josiah Sanchez."
"Ezra P Standish, at your service."
On hearing that name something stirred deep within the youth, but his next actions were so instinctive, it caught them all off-guard.
As Tanner spoke, JD pulled a gun from his waistband, stood and faced down the tracker. Five men went for their guns, halting when they realized what they were doing, and to whom. Tanner stood, raised his hands and looked JD in the eye.
"I know your heart's goin' faster than a runaway horse right now, Kid, and I don't rightly know what caused you to jump on me like this, but I ain't offended none. You're my friend, and just now, you don't even know that. All I can ask is that you look me in the eye, and listen when I tell you I would never hurt you. Give me a chance to show you I ain't the threat you think I am."
JD stared at him. When Vin announced his name, it had reverberated around JD's mind like a ricocheting bullet. Information in his head refused to translate, and JD felt his gun hand begin to shake, while his body refused to co-operate in moving in any way. Through the haze, he saw Vin close in and wrap a hand around his. The next thing he knew, he was sitting on a bench outside, six concerned faces staring down at him. He swallowed and looked up at them.
"Sorry…I don't know why I did that."
"We'll work it out," Buck promised. "Let Nathan take a look at you, then decide what you want to do." He winked. "So long as you decide to come home."
Chris glanced at Vin. This needed some pondering. "We'll take a few days. Let JD adjust to the news, then see where we stand."
The others agreed, and JD nodded gratefully. He was already in turmoil over not knowing who he was and where he came from. This new revelation had hit him hard and left him even more confused. It was clear these men knew him, and he felt like he should know them. However, his reaction to Tanner bothered him and caused him to wonder just who were these men? And how did he fit in?
It was all Chris could do to stop Buck following Nathan and JD as the healer took the youth somewhere more private to look him over. The five remaining lawmen returned to the saloon for a drink, joined not long after by the town's sheriff.
Chris nodded. "Sheriff. Something we can do for you?" Raising his foot underneath the table, he pushed a chair out and Sheriff Boyd sat down, removed his hat and placed it on the table. He raked his fingers through his graying hair.
"Buck's a nice kid. Folks here in White Bluff have taken quite a shine to him." The man flushed slightly. "Truth be told, me too." His look was one of concern. "Level with me, he in some kinda trouble?"
Chris shook his head, noting the warm smiles from his compadres. "Nope, JD's in no trouble. A few weeks back he took off from town on patrol, and we ain't seen him since. Figured the kid had run into some kinda trouble…feared at one point he might be dead. He stands with us in a town close to the Mexican border. Like you, he's a duly appointed sheriff."
Cliff Boyd's jaw dropped. "A sheriff? Shoot, and here's me to thinkin' he seemed a mite young to be a blacksmith." He scratched at his whiskers. "Name's John, you say?"
Buck took over. "Yeah, John Dunne, but he's always gone by JD." Buck leaned in. "Tell me…how did he come to be called Buck?"
Accepting a beer, Cliff sat back and filled them in.
THREE WEEKS PRIOR
Sunup, and Jacob Erwin was traveling in a wagon to town from his smallholding. He slapped at the reins. "C'mon Clyde, ya ole lump o'horse flesh. We'd kinda like to be home afore sunset."
His wife of thirty years sat alongside him. "He's gettin' old, like us, Jacob. Ease up on the old fella."
"Gettin' soft is what he is," Jacob muttered, ignoring Emma-Lou's chuckle. Peering into the distance, he could see a big gray gelding, fully tacked up and just standing there. He appeared to be favoring one leg, but as they neared him, it became clear he was also standing guard over something on the ground. Closer still and the something was revealed as someone.
"Hold that thought, woman." Jacob reached down to the boards at his feet and hurriedly pushed his old Henry rifle into her hands. "Stay watchful. Whoa, Clyde."
Pulling the rig to a halt, Jacob eased himself to the ground and, looking cautiously around, approached the prone, crumpled form. His eyes scanned the area, and his knees creaked as he crouched down and checked the unconscious figure.
"It's just a young 'un." He touched a hand to the exposed neck. "He's still alive."
Emma-Lou climbed down from the rig as soon as she heard Jacob's find was alive. Clutching a canteen, she dropped down next to the battered youth's side while Jacob turned his attention to the big gray blowing anxiously.
"Easy there, fella." He stood and ran a hand down the favored leg. "Whatcha done here then, huh?"
Jacob held the dangling reins firm as the horse whickered and pulled back. "Easy, easy there, boy." Eventually straightening, he patted the horse's neck and looked to his wife, who now had the dark-haired boy's head in her lap and was wiping at his wounds with her skirts, dampened from the water in the canteen.
Jacob patted the gray. "No bones broken." He glanced around. "Hit a gofer hole at a fair lick I reckon…prob'ly threw the kid. He hit his head?"
Emma-Lou glanced up, nodding. "Got a real nasty head wound and a lump the size of an egg." Her eyes glistened. "He's been beat up some…and not by the fall. Maybe he was going for someone, or…delivering a message." She sighed. "Or running for his life."
Jacob nodded. "Maybe…either way we gotta get 'im outta this heat and to help." He glanced back to where they came from, then to where they were going. "Town's closer than home. Let's get him in the wagon."
Inside White Bluff's jailhouse, and at the sound of a wagon rolling in fast, Sheriff Cliff Boyd looked up from the papers he was studying. He stood on hearing Jacob's frantic call.
"Hey! Anyone…I'm needin' some help here!"
Hurrying out onto the boardwalk, Cliff held Clyde's reins as Jacob climbed down off the halted rig and moved to the back. "What is it?"
"Found this here boy out there in the heat. He looks to be hurt bad."
Cliff hitched the reins to a post and joined Jacob. He touched his hat to the woman sitting in the back of the wagon and holding a young man in her arms. "Emma-Lou."
"Morning, Cliff. Is Clarrie in town?" she asked.
On cue, a short, medium build, gray-haired woman exited the general store and approached. "Right here, what have we got?" The town's healer climbed into the wagon and began examining her new charge.
Emma-Lou looked at her. "Got himself a few injuries, but his head is banged up some."
"Has he woken up at all?"
Shaking her head, Emma-Lou brushed back wayward damp tendrils of hair from the unconscious boy's ashen, bloodied, beaten features. "No, not even stirred when we moved him."
Clarrie nodded to the few men that had gathered. "Bring him through and take him up to the back room." Not waiting for them to do her bidding, Clarrie went back into the store to prepare for her patient.
Boyd looked up to see a big gray horse limping into town. "What the…?"
Jacob grinned. "I was gonna go back for him and bring him in nice an' slow. I guess he had ideas of his own." The men around the wagon carefully handled the unconscious youth while Emma-Lou walked to greet the approaching horse.
Two days later and the youth had still not woken. A fever was raging within him and Clarrie was struggling to keep him cool. She sighed on recalling the sticky, oozing head wound that seemed to be the reason behind his unresponsive condition. His body had many bruises and abrasions, suggesting he may have been attacked, as well as suffering injuries from his fall.
Almost at the point when she wondered if he ever would wake, a soft groan drew her to him and she smiled as hazel, fever-glazed eyes tried to focus on her. "Hello there, honey, I'm Clarrie. You've been hurt, just rest easy now." Rinsing a cloth in the water in a bowl on the dresser, she wiped his face over. "What's your name, honey?" She watched him blink slowly as he tried to process what he was seeing and hearing. "Hmmm? Can you tell me your name?"
The word was whispered so softly she almost missed it. "What was that?"
"Buck?" She smiled. "Well, hello, Buck. Like I said, rest easy. You're gonna be just fine." The youth's black lashes flickered closed and he drifted into a restful sleep. Clarrie held his hand in hers. "Yep, just fine, Buck. Sleep now."
By the following day, the youth was fully awake but confused. Sheriff Boyd visited, removing his hat on entering the temporary sick room. "Good to see you awake, son. You had us mighty worried."
"Sure. Got us a real mystery here. Was kinda hoping you'd clear it up some, Buck."
The youth frowned. "Buck…"
"Or maybe it's Bucklin?"
A flash of memory prompted a ghost of a smile from the youth.
"Bucklin, huh? Yeah, it suits you. So, Bucklin, you can't bring to mind anything of how you came to be injured."
"No, I don't, sorry mister. I've tried real hard but I can't recall anything, not about getting injured, where I came from…nothing."
Cliff noted the young man's eyes welling. "Hey, don't get troubled over it. I reckon, once you're on your feet, it'll all come back to you."
Bucklin swallowed. "I sure hope so. Not knowing who I am is kinda…scary."
Cliff nodded. "I'm sure it is."
Five peacekeepers sat back in their seats in the saloon as they took on board all Boyd had told them. The sheriff concluded. "About a week later, and wanting to repay Clarrie for allowing him to stay in her spare room, he asked me where he could find work. I kinda mentioned we needing a smithy…and by day's end he'd found what he wanted to do. Gotta say, he's darned good at it, too. We'll miss him if he goes back with y'all."
Buck sighed, deeply. "Yeah, if. Kid seems settled here. I'm not sure what we're offering's enough for him to wanna leave."
Cliff smiled. "What you're offering is to get his past and his family back. Don't misjudge the need to find his real life. Truth be told, sure, he's happy here, but it's always been clear he's never been truly settled." Boyd sipped his beer. "Funny thing is, when you boys rode in, he was the one telling me it was gonna be okay."
"Gut instinct," Josiah pondered.
Boyd nodded. "Reckon so."
Buck stood. "If you boys'll excuse me, I'm gonna go see how the kid's doing."
They nodded. Cliff spoke "I told your black friend to use my office."
Buck touched his hat. "Much obliged."
Sitting on a chair in the sheriff's office, JD looked at the man checking him over. He was gentle and clearly skilled. JD grinned to himself at the pouting frown the man made as he concentrated. "Nathan?"
Jackson smiled. "Yeah?"
"Are we good friends?"
"I'd like to think so, yeah."
"Are you a doctor?"
"Not as such. I ain't got no papers to say so, but I do what I can."
"You got a real nice…touch." JD blushed.
Nathan smiled. "Yeah, well, I've had me some practice where you're concerned…the others too for that matter."
JD touched his left shoulder. "I got me a scar here. Do you know why?" He watched the black man nod.
"Sure. You took a knife there saving a little girl a couple 'a months back."
"Did you fix me up then?"
Nathan nodded, dropping the items he finished with into his bag when he appeared satisfied with his examination.
JD sighed. "You'd think I'd remember something like that, wouldn't you?"
Placing a hand on the boy's shoulder, Nathan squeezed. "Like I said, head injuries are tricky things. All you can do is give it some time."
JD chewed his lower lip. "Do you think I should come back with you?"
Jackson shrugged. "Not for me to say but...for what it's worth…I sure hope you will."
They both turned their heads as the door opened. "Hey…y'all done here?"
Snapping his bag closed and picking it up, Nathan's hand gave JD one final squeeze and he moved to leave. "Yep, he's still healing some, but it's looking good."
"Good enough to travel?" Buck asked.
With a glance back as he exited the building, Nathan nodded. "Physically, yeah."
Buck placed a raised finger to his chin as Nathan's departure prevented his next question. He grinned when he noticed JD had moved next to him.
"I think the answer to your next question Buck, is mentally, I'm still kinda confused by all this." He watched the big man glance out of the window before he turned to face him and speak.
"I need to do something. Will you trust me?"
Not truly understanding why he should, but feeling he certainly could, JD nodded. "Sure, Buck." He tried not to react when the man pulled him into a fierce clinch. Strangely comforted by the act, JD raised his arms to pat Buck on the back.
Buck whispered into JD's ear. "I sure hope you'll come back with us, though I'll understand if you say no. I just wanted you to know, I'm glad you're okay. I was worried somethin' fierce about you. I've missed you, little brother. Not knowing what happened to you has been tearing me up inside." Pulling away, Buck held him at arms' length for a moment, nodded through a watery gaze, and left the jailhouse.
The younger man stood there and watched the brunet leave, his mind raced, yet despite all the thoughts coursing through it, not one was helping him remember anything. He jolted out of his reverie when Boyd came in.
"Hey Bucklin…uh…JD," he corrected. "You okay?"
The youth sighed. "Not really. I thought I was mixed up some before…but now…"
The man took up a seat at his desk. "Step at a time, boy. You're in a mighty nice position, whichever way you decide…you're wanted. Not bad for one lifetime."
As he walked away from the jail, JD reflected on the events of the day so far. Evening was closing in and he was more confused now than when he first learned his name wasn't Bucklin. He decided to close down the livery and retire for the day, hoping that sleeping on it would bring him closer to a conclusion.
In his rented room early next morning, JD banged his foot into his boot seconds before answering a knock at his door. He smiled when Clarrie walked in with a breakfast tray.
"Clarrie, you're sure spoiling me, getting up this early to feed me."
The woman smiled as she set down the tray on the dresser and sat down on the bed. She looked up at him. "My reasons are two-fold. One, I always wake at first light and two…" her expression saddened. "…I might not get to spoil you for much longer."
Moved by her words JD offered a small smile. "You think I should go back with those men?"
Clarrie sighed and reached up to touch her hand to his face. "Aw, Honey, it's a done deal. You need to find your roots, and those men have been searching long and hard to give them back to you. You may not know them yet, but they sure know you, and it's clear you mean a lot more to them than you give yourself credit for. 'Sides, Cliff wired your home town and their story checked out. Some lady called Travis answered him."
On hearing the name 'Travis' a vision snapped into JD's mind of a portly, somberly dressed man standing before him and looking around a saloon before they talked.>> "I got $20 for any man who wants to be sheriff. A week's work. All right, $30." Travis looked disgusted. "I am deeply moved by this exhibition of courage."JD approached him. "Sir... I'd like the job."The man shook his head. "Nah. You're too young.""I'm older than I look." JD hoped that would convince him, though it rarely worked on others.Travis eyed him from top to toe. "This job could kill you.""I know.""There's no glory in it."JD nodded, he'd expected the man to discourage him. "I'm not looking for any."Travis stared around the room at the clientele, most of whom were avoiding his gaze, including the man in the fancy duds standing at the bar with his back to him. "Am I to believe that this is the only brave man among you?" He nodded in resignation and a hint of admiration. "All right, you're hired." <<
Alarmed by JD's sudden frail appearance, Clarrie stood, took his hand, guided the swaying boy to the edge of his bed and sat him down. "Honey, are you alright? Did you remember something?"
Wiping a shaky hand across his damp forehead, JD looked up at her, his brow furrowed in concentration. "I…I'm not sure…maybe, yeah." He grimaced as his head ached.
"Let me get you something for that headache. Maybe you should rest up some," Clarrie advised.
JD gently shook his head. "No, I need to be doing something." He smiled at her. "Thanks for the worry, though."
She patted his arm. "Ain't no trouble, son. I'll go get you a drink." She shook a finger at him as she left. "Don't you be moving until I do so. Eat your breakfast."
Grinning, JD saluted, the action causing another wave of nostalgia to dart through him when the image of another arm making the gesture, this time in white shirtsleeves and somewhere high above him on a ridge, flashed through his mind.
"Yes ma'am." He shuddered. The tiny flickers of recall he was experiencing were disturbing and comforting all at once. Until yesterday, he remembered nothing from his past. Maybe his memory really was returning, but now he had to ask the question…why was it scaring him so?
After enjoying a hearty breakfast in the town's small hotel, the six peacekeepers walked out into the early sunshine to the sound of metal pounding against metal. "Kid's up early," Buck noted around a grin.
"Maybe he has a lot on his mind," Josiah speculated.
"How long we gonna give him to make up his mind?" Vin asked.
Chris chewed the inside of his cheek as he considered the question. "Don't wanna rush things, on the other hand…he's safe, and we should be getting back soon."
Buck frowned. "You saying we're giving up…?"
"No, Buck," Chris cut him off. "I'm saying JD needs time to think this through and maybe us being here isn't helping."
"Maybe I should leave, kid can hardly look at me," Vin said with noticeable lament.
"Don't judge him harshly, Vin," Buck pleaded. "He even said himself he don't know why he reacted toward you like that."
Tanner smiled, thinly, but it was no less sincere. "I ain't, Bucklin; I just…miss him is all."
Each man nodded. Searching for JD had been heartbreaking, and grueling, and, despite having him living, breathing, and just a few steps away, it still didn't feel as if he was totally with them. Chris spoke. "I'd rather not push, but by sundown today, if JD can't give us an answer, we leave next morning."
No one answered, deciding the remark was best left hanging in the air…and Buck already of a mind that, as long as the kid was willing, he would stick with JD, whether it be here or back home.
After two hours of toiling, JD licked his dry lips, put down his hammer, and approached a rain barrel. Ladling out water from within, he sipped greedily, wiping his brow as he glanced around. The town was stirring to life, but he had yet to see the men claiming him as a friend. He knew they were still in town because he'd already mucked out their mounts' stalls and gave their horses and the big gray fresh hay, oats and water. What he didn't know was whether the men would be staying much longer, and therefore how much time was left to decide what to do.
In truth, his decision was made. The facts so far presented proved that he already knew he didn't belong in White Bluff. He also understood he might never know the truth if he didn't return to the place these men called home. His dilemma was whether he wanted to leave behind people who had taken him in, cared for him and befriended him, even though neither they nor he had any idea of what kind of a man he truly was. JD sighed, but any wavering over the six men who had come looking for him vanished on seeing Buck grinning like a loon and walking toward him. JD returned the smile. "Hey Buck."
"'Mornin' Kid. How are you on this beautiful day?"
JD giggled and approached his friend. "Y'know, drinking this early steals your wits."
"Aah, way too late for that, Kid, I'm already a lost cause." He waggled his eyebrows. "And as long as the stealing of body parts drops no lower, I'm good."
His features sobered. "I was kinda hoping you mighta come to a decision…" He saw JD about to answer but halted him. "Before you say…I was thinkin'…if it helps…I'd kinda like to stick around here, in White Bluff, with you…if you'd rather not go back."
Tears pricked at JD's eyes as Buck's sincerity bored into him from dark blue eyes. His momentary glance down caused the tears to spill over his dark lower lashes, and his hand quickly came up to swipe the moisture away before Buck caught him weeping like a girl.
Too late, and Buck was touched, if not a little fearful of the emotion as he quietly fretted what it might lead to. He heard a sniff.
JD's raspy reply shook Buck to his boots and dropped his heart into his gut. His own reply was little more than a whisper. "Huh?"
"No…there's no need for you to stay." He looked up and smiled. "I'd like to come back with y'all, if that's still okay."
For a long few moments, the pair just stared at each other. Seconds later, townsfolk turned to look, shaking their heads or chuckling as Buck whooped in full voice, snatched up JD and swung the surprised youth around…twice…before putting him back down on the ground.
"Ha! Well alright…now we're talkin'." Buck was leaving, then turning back, then leaving again, making a laughing JD giddy. "I'll go tell the others…wait, did you tell 'em already? No, 'course not…uh, I'll go tell...'em shall I? Ha!"
JD nodded his head and laughed harder as he watched the big man jauntily stride off, making full use of his long legs. A hand dropped onto his shoulder and he turned to see Boyd at his side.
"Good decision; and you know…if things don't work out, you're welcome here anytime."
JD smiled. "Thanks…but I got me a feeling things will work out."
The sheriff nodded. "Me too, son…me too."
Barely sunup the next day and six men sat atop their horses waiting for the seventh to mount Buck's gray. JD was clearly moved that Sheriff Boyd and Clarrie had come out to see them off. As he approached the healer, she tugged him into a tight embrace. He returned the hug.
"Thanks for all you've done for me. I might not be here now if it wasn't for you, and Jacob and Emma-Lou."
Her fingers still firmly grasped his jacket sleeves, and she pushed him back to take a final look at him. Clarrie made a face. "Tosh, boy…you're a survivor, anyone can see that. You came to me a battered little thing…you leave me, healed, strong and proud. I hope you find what you're looking for, John Dunne." She released him and playfully pushed him away.
"Thanks to you, my chances are good."
JD turned to Boyd. "I'm gonna miss our talks. Thanks for trusting me, and letting me stay here."
They shook hands as Cliff nodded. "It's gonna be real quiet without you…'Bucklin'…" He grinned.
JD laughed. Turning to his horse, JD slipped his boot into a stirrup and mounted up. He looked down as the sheriff spoke.
"I meant what I said." Cliff looked at the line of six men and winked. "If these reprobates give you a hard time, you'll always have a place here."
JD swallowed and Ezra cut in. "Us give him a hard time?" His green eyes twinkled. "Anyone care to wager on which of us cracks first?"
They all grinned and Chris looked down the line, his gaze stopping on JD. "All set, Kid?"
Dunne nodded. "Yeah."
The blond straightened. "Alright then…let's ride."
Not long out of town, and at JD's request, the seven made a slight detour to Jacob and Emma-Lou's home. On seeing them approaching, Jacob called his wife out from the house and moved toward the slowing group. Stopping, JD dismounted and walked up to the pair.
"You're leavin'?" Jacob asked.
JD nodded. "Yeah…time to find out what kind of a man I really am." He extended his hand and Jacob took it. "Thanks. I'll never forget either of you…." he looked at Emma-Lou. "Or all that you did for me."
The three laughed when Clyde snorted from the nearby corral. JD walked over to the big black and stroked his muzzle. "Yeah, yeah, I'll miss you too, you big galoot." Fishing into his pocket, JD produced some apple slices. The horse lipped at them enthusiastically. JD kissed his nose. "I'm gonna miss you a lot, Clyde. Be good."
Returning to the group, Emma-Lou hugged him and glanced at his friends. "Wait here and I'll get you something for the journey."
Vin held up a hand. "Ma'am, that's real good of you, but Miz Clarrie done gave us enough for three trips already."
Nathan grinned. "And ma'am, you know it must be a lot when Vin refuses more."
Laughter reverberated around the group as the six riders waited for JD to re-mount. With a touch to the bowler he had barely worn since arriving in White Bluff, JD and his six companions wheeled their horses around to begin the long journey home. Jacob called after them. "God's speed, boys. Good luck Buck…, John Dunne."
Having ridden at a fair speed for several hours, the horses were now walking, allowing the animals to cool off some, and catch their breath.
"Is this place far?" JD asked.
"A few days ride," Chris answered.
"You sound disappointed," Josiah noted.
"Nah…not really. I guess I wanted to just get there already." They all nodded at that. "So…if it's a few days away…how do you think I came to be this far away from home? I mean…if I was patrolling…that would just be around the town, wouldn't it?"
Vin answered, trying not to feel hurt when JD ducked his gaze. "Yeah. That's why it took us so long to find you. We'd almost give up lookin', when some fella breezed into a town we were in and started arguin' with the blacksmith about a price he was quotin'. Said he should take a leaf outta the book of the kid blacksmith from White Bluff."
Ezra took up the story. "On questioning the man, his description of the blacksmith bore an uncanny resemblance to yourself, Mister Dunne." Ezra grinned. "Of course, we simply had to take a look for ourselves."
JD blew out a breath, completely missing the look of anguish on Buck's face as the man recalled the fear of riding into yet another dead end. "Jeeze…to think…if you hadn't been there at that minute…you might never`ve found me." Now Buck visibly shuddered, and they all saw it. That was something he didn't want to ponder on.
Another few hours and Chris called a halt to set up camp before the sun got too low. By the time it was dark, the camp was set out. The horses were tethered to a line, the fire was roaring, coffee was bubbling, and Josiah was stirring something in a pot. Noticing Tanner standing at the camp's perimeter and looking out into the gloom, JD approached and stood quietly next to the tracker for a while. Finally Vin spoke.
"You doin' okay, Kid?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, thanks." He paused, "Vin."
Tanner turned to look at him. "Yeah?"
"About what happened in town. I'm real sorry I pulled a gun on you. For what it's worth…I somehow know you're not a bad person, but when I first heard your name, something crossed my mind, and despite it making no sense, I reacted…badly. I didn't even know I'd drawn my gun. Sorry."
Vin's heart soared at JD's words, but his calm demeanor never reflected his elation. He placed a hand on JD's shoulder. "'Preciate that, JD. I know it'll all work out, that's why I ain't bothered none by what happened. I'd only be bothered if it meant we could never again be friends."
JD nodded. "Me too, 'cause I just know you're the kind of man I want, and need, as a friend."
Vin laughed, softly. "Same here, Kid." He glanced back at camp. "Let's go see what Josiah's cooked up for us." They turned and made their way back.
"Does Josiah always cook?"
Vin grinned. "I usually catch what we eat…Chris never drops his guard the whole time we're out here. Iffen we don't watch him, Nathan adds stuff that tastes like someone done put old socks in it, Ezra…don't cook, and Buck's efforts usually mean we eat burned offerins."
JD chuckled. "Have I ever cooked?"
"Sure, when you and me have been out huntin'. I think Buck said you'd cooked for him once… " Vin chuckled. "We-ll, what he actually said is that you tried poisonin' him one night." He halted them and looked JD in the eyes. "When we're all together like this, you tend to the horses. It's how it usually works out."
JD nodded. That sounded about right. His eyes glistened in the firelight. "I just don't understand why I can't remember any of this stuff, Vin."
"You will, Kid…I can feel it. Just give it time."
From beside the campfire, Buck nudged Chris as he watched Vin and JD. "Looks like those two cleared the air some."
"It was needed. Gotta tell you though, this not being able to remember anything…it's kinda creepy."
Nathan cut in. "Saw a lot of it on the battlefield. Minds wiped blank…some from injury…some from trying to block out the horror."
"You saying JD's trying to block something?" Buck asked.
"Can't be sure, but that lump on his head…still real big after three weeks…tells me how bad a crack his head took."
"If I may," Ezra said as he joined them. "As I understand it, the gentleman who brought JD into town told the sheriff he presumed JD had been traveling at quite a speed when his horse faltered."
"So he might have been running from someone, or something," Josiah concluded.
Chris pursed his lips, closing the conversation with his final remark before the two young men joined them. "I guess that means we keep an open mind. With JD's memory shaky, whatever or whoever he was running from…if he was running…could walk right up to us, to him…and he wouldn't even know it."
All in agreement, Josiah issued orders to take up plates, Nathan poured coffee and the seven men sat around to enjoy supper and good company before bedding down for the night.
JD suffering with heavy nosebleeds twice interrupted the next day's riding. He was at a loss as to why he was getting them now, but figured the tiny, active blacksmith taking up residence in his head wasn't helping matters. Valiantly, JD carried on, determined not to delay them getting back to the place he hoped he would once again call home; but the pain in his head that caused him to slouch as he rode, and a third and heavier nosebleed, prompted Chris to call a halt and make camp. Getting home could wait another day.
JD shivered while he waited on Nathan to brew up one of his potions. He dreaded having to drink it, yet at the same time looked forward to it easing his misery. He glanced up at Buck when the tall man sat down next to him.
Buck frowned. "What for?"
"For holding us up. I ain't had a headache like this for almost two weeks now."
Brew in hand, Nathan joined them. The others were also listening. "You've had headaches and nosebleeds before today?"
JD nodded, wincing at the effort. "Yeah, but they stopped a week or so back. Clarrie said it might go on for a while…after such a bad knock and all."
Nathan nodded and handed over the drink. "She's right, but you shoulda told us. Riding for so long's just gone and stirred it up again."
Sipping the drink, JD shuddered at its bitterness before answering. "Told you, I hadn't had one for a while…and if I'd told you I had, you'd 'a made me ride home in a darned wagon."
"Damned right," Buck put in. His hand urged JD to drink the brew while the others watched, and took up seats on the arranged bedrolls to enjoy their coffees. He glanced toward Chris, who could read the need in Buck's eyes and so gave his silent blessing.
"So, Kid…what's the first memory you have of White Bluff?"
Despite Nathan's warning looks to continue, JD was grateful to take a moment from sipping on the evil infusion. He looked up and appeared to ponder the question before answering. "Well, I remember waking up in a strange room, but I didn't feel so good so it's a bit hazy. Clarrie said I'd been there almost four days before that. I took my first steps outside a couple days after that, but I kept getting the odd headache; I'd get a really bad one just before one of those darned nosebleeds. By the time they'd eased off and I felt a lot better in myself, I'd gotten to know Cliff and had walked around town some." He drifted off to take in more liquid.
"That's when I saw the sale sign over the livery. Cliff let me in there and it felt kinda…familiar. Everything about the place came easily to me, so I asked if I could take on the work there until an offer was made."
"Did you get any headaches after that?" Nathan asked.
JD nodded, stifling a yawn. "Some, but not so often." He looked at the healer. "The worst ones came when I got an image in my head…like…a memory was just there, waiting…"
He trailed off, a wistful look in his eyes. "But nothing ever came of it…and Clarrie usually gave me something to ease the pain." He sighed as if in resignation to his fate of maybe never regaining those memories. His next words were barely audible.
"Sometimes, I get so scared of not knowing who I am, or what I was running from to get hurt like that." He looked around at the group of compassionate faces and laughed, but it was from embarrassment not humor. "Running. Jeeze, I must be some kinda coward, huh?"
Buck's exclamation startled JD and he almost spilled his drink. "Hell, Kid, you've stood with us against some real mean hombres and never once shown yourself to be anything other than plucky and set for anything that comes our way." He waved off Nathan's glare to quit feeding the kid information. This was too important to let JD dwell on.
"You ain't no coward," he rounded, softly.
JD offered a grateful nod. "Thanks, that's good to know." Draining the cup, he looked at Chris. "Do I know someone called Travis?"
Larabee nodded. "You recall the name?"
Shrugging, JD smiled as Nathan offered to take his mug. "Clarrie said Cliff had wired ahead to check out your story…"
Vin nodded. It's what he would do.
"He said a lady by the name of Travis answered him."
Expectations began to wane at the possibility that JD recalled the name because he was prompted.
"But…when Clarrie said the name…" he drew his brow together in concentration. "…I got this image of a man, well dressed and all in black, talking with me in a saloon."
Ezra perked up, his grin revealing a glint of gold in the firelight. "I recall that very conversation. Shortly after, you were appointed sheriff…and arrested me."
The others snickered into their coffees. Nathan simply looked exasperated with them all.
"I was…I did?" JD squeaked. "Did you do something real bad?"
Ezra brushed off the question with a wink. "Travis deemed it so, yes. Of course, it was all a misunderstanding." He grinned at the soft laughter from around him.
Picking up on the lack of seriousness of the incident, JD grinned. "What else did I do?"
"No more for now," Nathan warned, more to the others than to JD. "How's your head?"
Trying not to look disappointed, JD nodded. "It's a little better, thanks."
In an unspoken agreement, the group settled down for the night; six of them hoping the mystery of JD's recent whereabouts might be solved once the boy was home, while the seventh grew nervous about arriving in a place he feared he wouldn't, and might never remember.
By early afternoon, seven regulators rode up to the livery in their hometown. Stepping out in greeting, Yosemite grinned widely to see JD was with them.
"Boy howdy, ain't you a sight for sore eyes, Sheriff. Welcome back, boys, let me take those horses for you."
JD frowned on approaching the livery. He nodded to the blacksmith that greeted them, but showed no recognition of the man, despite the fact he clearly knew him. JD looked around, and then leaned over to whisper to Buck. "I really don't feel like I've been here before."
As they dismounted, Buck smiled sadly. "Sure you have, Kid, but don't fret on it; I reckon a coupla days here'll sort you out."
The pair un-cinched their saddles. "I ain't fretting," JD promised. "I guess I just hoped it would feel familiar as soon as we got here." He turned at a pat to his back, and smiled shyly at Vin as he passed by. JD still couldn't understand why seeing the Texan made him think of needing to arrest the man. He seemed nice enough, and sure had a forgiving nature. JD wasn't sure he could be so gracious if someone felt the same way about him.
JD nodded. "Yeah."
Vin gestured for him and Buck to follow. The tracker hoped some of Missus Kettle's steak and potatoes, and plum pie, would help toward jogging JD's memory. It was one of the kid's favorite meals from the restaurant.
It took a while to get to the restaurant. On seeing JD, townsfolk who had known him since his initial arrival, but who, right now, were complete strangers to him, stopped the group to express their delight in seeing him back. JD sweetly thanked them, but was quietly becoming overwhelmed by the situation. When Buck dragged him into the restaurant, JD had never felt so relieved.
After eating, and more fussing from patrons and staff, the seven men headed for their favorite watering hole. Inside the saloon JD felt like some sideshow freak when clients stared at him as though he had two heads. Their shock at seeing him was painfully evident, and he wondered if all but his friends thought he had perished. His fears were confirmed when a wild-haired, toothless old man patted him on the back as he left the saloon.
"Good to see ya, Sheriff. Thought you was a goner."
The comment took the weary youth over his anguish threshold and he stood in the unfamiliar surroundings, rubbed his eyes and forced a smile at the six men looking up at him. "I'm kinda tired, so I'm gonna go rest up." He got to the double-swing doors, stopped then turned a sheepish smile on his friends.
"Uh…could someone show me where I actually sleep?"
Buck stood and approached the boy. "Sure Kid, come with me."
Leaning against the doorframe of JD's room, Buck held his breath as he watched the boy stare at, and tenderly touch his personal effects. Surely something would jar his memory. JD held up an open locket.
"I know her?"
Buck stepped inside the room. "Yeah. She's…"
"No!" JD smiled. "No, don't tell me. I wanna do this myself, okay?" He touched the arm of his concerned friend. "Go on go back to the others, Buck. I'll be fine."
"I ain't in no hurry…" Buck could see the need in his friend's weary eyes. "…But I can surely appreciate when a man needs some alone time." He raised a hand to squeeze the back of JD's neck. "I'll see you in the morning."
JD offered a watery smile. "Thanks…for everything." When the door closed, JD sat cross-legged on the bed. He stared around him, and then back to the locket, a small bible, and a bundle of letters tied with ribbon that were strewn on top of the bedcovers. Nothing was familiar. The woman in the picture wasn't, and neither was this room his friends said he'd rented for a few months. JD'd never felt so troubled. The only place he felt even remotely comfortable was back in White Bluff. He sighed and glanced out of the dusty window.
But then there were his friends. He couldn't remember them, but he really liked them. And they'd spent all that time looking for him. He owed it to those men to work through this. JD sighed again. He just hoped he had the stamina to hold on until either he remembered…or accepted things would always be this way.
Buck's demeanor on re-entering the saloon told the others exactly what was on the brunet's mind. Chris waited for Buck to sit.
"Give him time Pard."
Buck sipped his beer and nodded. "I know, I know, but…shoot, it breaks my heart to see him look so lost. I keep waiting on that smile…and a sassy comment, but all I see is…" Buck sighed. "Loneliness."
"Boy's had a shock, Buck. He'll come around one way or another. He's got good friends to see him through this," Josiah soothed.
The ladies' man agreed with a nod. "I guess I figured he'd see home, and everything would just…fall into place."
Each man nodded. They all had.
JD's time on his first day home was filled with renewing acquaintances and frustratingly long periods of trying to remember something - anything - that might jog his memory. His friends told him he was a duly sworn in sheriff, so later that day, JD walked into the jail. Sitting at the desk, he stared around him. His head snapped toward the closed door when Buck's voice suddenly echoed in his mind.>> "Of all the stupid…What is wrong with you, son? Bartender said you signed on as sheriff?""I'm getting enough money to be called 'mister.'""Are you out of your mind? You're going to get killed, okay? Then I'll have to say something nice at your funeral.""You mean you're capable?""Yeah, I'm capable."……"Hey. A badge.""A badge. Imagine that. A badge. In a jail. Isn't that something? Do me a favor. Just, uh, pin it behind your lapel. That way you're not advertising in case someone is looking to shoot you….shoot you…shoot you…" <<
"You okay, son?"
JD startled when Buck actually walked in. His hand moved to where, if he was wearing his jacket, his badge would be. "I found a badge…"
Buck's heart skipped a beat. "What?"
The boy looked absently around. "You…I just got this image of you and me, in here, and you blathering on about hiding a badge."
Easing himself into a chair, Buck recalled Nathan's advice about not pushing, and stifled the smile bubbling inside of him. "Anything else?"
With tears of frustration threatening to spill, JD shook his head. "Nope. Buck, did...did that happen between us?"
The brunet nodded, his own emotion rising as he recalled that very conversation. "Yeah Kid, it did, on our very first day back in town."
With a groan, JD leaned forward, placed his elbows on the desk and rested his head in his hands. "Jeeze, I can't take much more of this. I feel like I'm swimming in a molasses hole and can't find the edge." He lifted his head just enough to look at Buck. "I don't know what to do."
Standing, Buck moved around to squat next to his best friend. "Quit trying so hard. We all want you back, Kid…but we want you well, too."
JD nodded. That sure would be something.
Day two was mostly quiet until two men attempted to rob the bank. Chris, JD, and Vin were walking toward the saloon when they heard gunfire. Instinctively, the three drew their guns and raced toward the building. The two robbers ran out firing. Standing just ahead of them, JD froze, barely aware of Vin screaming out his name. Just as one gunman raised his weapon and pointed directly at JD's chest, a blur in black took the boy clean off his feet, and a mere second before the sharpshooter's bullet put a hole in the robber's forehead. The second bandit dropped his gun and raised his hands when four more armed, and angry men ran toward him.
With a grunt, Chris pushed up off the body underneath him. "JD, you okay?"
A little shaky, JD brushed himself down and nodded. "Yeah…yeah…thanks." He accepted a hand up from Buck, and then looked guiltily at the two men. "I…Jesus, I couldn't move. The guy was gonna shoot me. What's wrong with me? I can't even remember how to shoot my guns now."
Exchanging a look with Chris and Vin, Buck draped an arm around JD's shoulders and tugged him away. "C'mon, Kid. I reckon we could all use a drink."
JD agreed, but said very little for the rest of the day, finally turning in early.
In the saloon and after JD left, Buck leaned in and looked at Larabee. "Chris, I know the Kid's struggling, but I'll watch out for him, keep him close. Don't tell him we can't use him…not yet, please."
"Buck I ain't about to do that." Larabee swallowed the lump forming in his throat. Sure, we were hired to do a job, but I reckon we've come a lot further than that as a group." The other four nodded.
"Unless JD says otherwise, no matter what, he's one of us," Chris assured.
They all smiled, approvingly. Relieved, Buck sat back. "Yeah…one of us."
Three days on, JD rose late. He and his friends played numerous hands of poker well into the small hours and, although any memories were yet to return, the kid enjoyed the evening…they all had. Yawning as he walked along the boardwalk, he ran slap bang into a young girl. He tipped his hat. "Sorry Miss."
Casey Wells looked him up and down. "JD! Hey, it's me, Casey."
The boy stared at her, and then smiled. "Uh, sure, sorry…"
Despite being forewarned of JD's situation, the girl was crushed. "I can't believe you don't remember me."
JD huffed. "Girl, when I came to, I didn't even remember my own name, so why would I remember yours?" He pointed toward the saloon. "I don't remember Buck, or Chris…or any of 'em, yet I'm told we've been riding together for a coupla months. Heck, I don't even know my own mother!"
Images flashed through JD's mind…a smiling, pretty, dark-haired woman, a grave with a roughly hewn cross. A stagecoach; two armed men striding down a street; canon fire. A pain filled his head and JD groaned aloud. The last image in his mind was of him, in his room, holding a silver locket. 'Mama?'
"Eeww…Lord, JD, you're bleeding." Casey pulled out her kerchief and handed it to him.
Mumbling a thank you, JD pushed it under his nose and hurried away. He ended up in the livery and gravitated toward a handsome little bay that seemed anxious to see him. Reaching out, JD embraced the horse's neck, buried his face into the mane, and silently wept.
Looking up from their breakfasts, six men stared at the young girl bursting through the saloon doors. Ezra and Buck stood. The former spoke.
"Miss Wells, are you alright?"
Casey grabbed Buck and Ezra's wrists. "JD…"
"What about him?" Chris stood as he asked the question.
"He was acting all funny…then his nose bled, and he rushed off."
She stared in shock when all six grabbed their hats and left the building. She swiped a tear from her eye. "Please help him."
It took a while, but the six regulators found their seventh still in the livery and sitting in his horse's stall. The scene was heartbreaking and no one was sure what to say, or do. Finally, Chris spoke. "JD."
Beyond caring how he looked to others, JD raised his head and stared back at them. All six scrutinized the disheveled, blood-streaked face. Buck coughed.
"Weren't planning on riding outta here without us, was you?"
Pushing the heel of his hand to his aching forehead, JD shrugged, wearily. "Maybe it's for the best. I sure ain't no good to you like this." He looked at Chris. "I couldn't live with myself if I got any one of you hurt, or killed."
He then glanced apologetically at Vin. "And I hate seeing the hurt in your eyes because I have this urge to throw you in jail." He was startled when all six laughed softly at that remark. To his own surprise, he too smiled.
JD pushed himself up onto his feet. "You're all crazy."
Nathan approached, wet a cloth with water from a nearby pail and wiped the blood from JD's face. "You got that right."
As the healer worked, JD had a flash of memory of Nathan pushing a cloth into his bloody shoulder. He raised a hand to a place on his chest and winced slightly at the recently healed spot that he'd recently asked about. JD felt dizzy and closed his eyes. Someone guided him toward a hay bale, and when he opened them again, to his surprise, the only person left, and sitting next to him, was Vin. He smiled.
"You draw the short straw for watching out for me?"
"Quit feelin' sorry for yourself." There was no malice in the words, but they still stung.
JD pouted. "Why? What else I got to look forward to?" He offered a lop-sided grin. "Sorry. you're right, but I'm just so sick of all this."
His smile widened. "You sure you wanna be around me? I can't shoot straight right now…but I might still try and run you in."
Vin grinned back. "You can try, Kid."
He nudged JD's arm. "I can't pretend to understand how you're feelin', but I have faith it'll all come right in the end."
"Don't it bother you I'm acting so strange toward you, Vin?"
"Nope. I reckon when you remember why you are, we'll find out what happened to you out there."
JD sighed. "I sure hope so. Thanks for being so accepting and all."
Vin smiled. "That's what friends do, right?"
JD nodded. "Right." He gestured to the stable doors. "Go on, I'll be along for breakfast shortly."
Standing, Tanner slapped JD's back. "I have a mornin' patrol, so I'll talk to you later." Together, the pair tacked up Vin's horse, and with a nod, the tracker mounted up, and headed out. Relaxing back in the hay, JD closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift off.
Two riders came into town. With a quick talk with the blacksmith, Yosemite, the men left their horses in his care and headed for the saloon. The pair was searching for a bounty that eluded them. After learning their quarry ran with six other men, a month back they believed they'd discovered one of them after running into a youth out on the trail, but they failed to garner any information from him. So they kept searching and, despite several false leads, eventually the trail led them to Four Corners.
They noted several patrons in the saloon, five of whom were sitting together and showed some promise to their hunt. However, after several hours of little action, the bounty hunters decided they would take a look around town before seeking accommodation for the night. If Tanner was nowhere to be found by this time tomorrow, they would move on.
Feeling refreshed after his siesta, JD exited the livery. Bounty hunters Cooper and Spencer stopped in their tracks and stared at the boy walking their way.
"Damn." Their hands moved toward their guns as they prepared for the moment JD would recognize them. However, when he passed them by, JD simply nodded and walked on.
A surprised Spencer called out. "Hey!"
JD turned, and frowned warily at the two men approaching. "Can I help you?"
"Hey Kid, long time no see."
'Great', JD thought, 'more people I don't remember'. Sighing, JD offered a smile. "Uh, sorry fellas. I'm having a little trouble remembering things right now, and I can't recall you, sorry." He knew the men who claimed to be his friends would be a mite put out he offered that information so freely, but JD was beyond fearing he could be putting himself in danger. He was more hopeful a straight answer from him might prompt a memory due to someone else's response.
Spencer waved him off on seeing the sincerity in the boy's eyes. "Hey, no trouble. We'll catch up again sometime when you're feeling more up to it."
As the men walked triumphantly away in hopeful search of their prize, a tiny flash of memory made JD dizzy…and suddenly nervous. An odd sensation prompted him to touch the back of his hand to his nose. 'Damn, bleeding again'. He needed some handkerchiefs, all his were bloody and being laundered, so he hurried over to Potter's store.
Cooper looked back at JD, astonished the boy wasn't chasing after them. "How come he didn't recognize us?"
Spencer shrugged. "Who knows? After we lost him, anything coulda happened. He took a beating from us…maybe it affected his mind." He pointed to the restaurant. "Come on, let's eat, then we'll wait. Sooner or later, Tanner's sure to turn up."
Cantering into town after his patrol, Vin arrived at the livery. He dismounted and walked his horse into the stables. While it munched on oats, Vin removed the tack. As he hefted the saddle up onto a partition wall, a horse blowing noisily caught his attention. It only took the tracker a second to recognize these two animals were new to town, so he decided to act with caution until he could determine if their riders were a threat.
He also wanted to talk with JD. On this patrol, Vin had ventured to a region they rarely traversed. Being flat, barren, and with few rocks or trees, there was little threat from the area, but what he found caused him to ponder on JD's disappearance.
Though weeks old, one rocky part had evidence of a camp. Investigating further, Vin found discarded pieces of bloodied rope. He glanced at the sheriff's badge in his hand. He'd found that partially buried close to the remains of a campfire. JD was no longer carrying his star, yet since putting it back on after dealing with Lucas James and his uncle, he had always worn it behind his lapel, just as Buck taught him.
Walking to the saloon by ways of the back alleys, Vin was convinced he'd unlocked some of the mystery behind what happened to JD. All he could hope was that seeing the badge would have some effect on his young friend's memories. Entering the drinkery, he nodded to the five peacekeepers gathered around a table but decided not to share his discovery just yet. He needed to think this through.
"Goodness, JD…what happened?" Gloria Potter swiftly moved from behind her counter and, snatching up a washcloth from a stack for sale, held it to the boy's bloody nose.
He nodded his thanks. "It's nothing, Ma'am, it's been happening on occasion since I had my accident."
Gloria guided him out back to a chair. "Sit here and be still, I'll…" She turned on hearing her doorbell tinkle.
JD raised his free hand while his other held the cloth to his face. "You go ahead, Ma'am, I'm just fine right here, thanks."
With a pat to JD's shoulder, Gloria returned to the counter to find two men waiting. "Gentlemen, can I help you?"
Spencer placed a crumpled wanted poster down on the countertop and pointed to a familiar face etched on it. "We're looking for this man. Name's Vin Tanner…a murdering sonofabitch who's wanted in Texas. We aim to take him back and see that justice is done. Have you seen him hereabouts?"
Despite easily recognizing the man who stood with JD against Conklin and the townsfolk when her beloved Bertram was murdered, Gloria's features did not reflect the fact. "He's not known around here. This man, he's bad, you say? He seems so nice in this picture."
Spencer leaned in. "Don't let that face fool ya, Ma'am…Tanner killed a man in cold blood, and then, like a no good, mangy dog, ran away. He needs to pay, and we aim to make sure he does."
Gloria folded her arms across her chest. "Of course, the $500 dollar reward has nothing to do with your determination, I'm sure."
Cooper snatched up the poster. "It's dangerous work, Ma'am…and that money surely ain't enough for all we go through to rid this country of desperadoes like him."
Once the pair left the store, the widow returned to the backroom. She gasped to see JD pacing the floor in circles, and clearly distraught.
Despite her calling his name, JD was lost in a memory. He was being dragged off the ground, hurting…bleeding. An angry face...someone was leaning into him…
~>> "Where is he?" A powerful grip on JD's shirt and vest shook him like a rag doll.In a world of hurt from the beating he had already received, the youth blinked hard at the man clutching him. "I told you…don't know who…you're talking about.""I heard tell you ride with him. Now, you tell me where Tanner is, boy, or I'll have you squealin' like a stuck pig."With oblivion calling, JD released a bloody grin. "Go…to hell." One last powerful punch from the man helped JD escape from his own personal misery. Spencer tossed the limp body aside in disgust, and then looked down at his hand and the object he was holding that broke free of JD's jacket when he released the boy.Cooper stared. "Shoot! He's a sheriff? What we gonna do now?"Spencer tossed the tin star toward the campfire. "Cut the ropes on his hands. We let him think we left him here. Sooner or later he'll head home, and lead us to Tanner."Sinking fast, but hearing Spencer's words before passing out, JD knew what he had to do. When he came around, he had to ride for anywhere but home. <<
JD snapped back to the here and now. Mumbling an apology that he needed to find Vin or Chris, he pushed past a shocked Gloria and out into the street. He'd remembered something, and he needed to find Vin…before those men did.
On leaving the saloon, Vin returned momentarily to his wagon before going in search of JD. He halted at the back of the rig and suddenly drew his mare's leg, aiming it toward the adjacent alley next to his wagon. "Come out!"
Vin froze when a gun barrel dug into his back.
"I'll take that, Tanner."
The man hidden in the alley stepped out while keeping his own gun directed at the Texan. The man at the rear disarmed their prisoner, and roughly pulling Vin's arms behind his back, Spencer shackled him.
"I'm aware of your friends, so we're gonna take a quiet, easy stroll to our horses, and then leave."
"I ain't goin' nowhere with you," Vin growled, huskily.
"Iffen you don't want these good townsfolk all shot up, you'll do as your told," Spencer warned.
"Nice," the Texan said, sarcastically. "You talk about hurtin' innocent folk, yet you're treatin' me like an outlaw?"
Spencer pushed Vin forward. "We do whatever it takes to get scum like you off the streets."
"No matter who gets in the way, huh?"
"We work in the name of justice. You give us trouble, and their blood'll be on your hands." They all jolted when JD ran around the wagon and called out to the tracker.
"Vin! There are bounty hunters in town…"
Taking advantage of the disruption, Vin elbowed Spencer in the gut, and then turned and delivered a knee to the doubled over man's jaw. Despite his own surprise, Cooper grabbed an unsuspecting JD and held his gun to the boy's head. "Quit it, or I shoot!"
Tanner stopped and looked toward Cooper.
"Finish 'em, Vin!" JD yelled out, and received a gun butt behind his ear for his trouble.
Vin's hesitation was just enough time for Spencer to recover. He smacked his gun hard across the side of Vin's head, then shoved the barrel in the fallen tracker's face. He nodded toward JD.
"Or maybe I'll just shoot him, instead. He went through a lotta trouble and pain to protect you. You want his blood on your hands?"
Despite not grasping what Spencer's words meant, Tanner swallowed against the nausea the blow to his head was causing and turned a feral gaze on him. "He's sick. You leave him outta this and I'll do whatever you want."
Spencer indicated for Cooper to bring a dazed JD with them. "Oh, you sure will. He's coming, too." In minutes, the four were riding out on the three horses the bounty hunters had hitched in the alley.
Blissfully unaware of the blood seeping through his hair from the wound, right then all Vin wished was that his aching head would kindly drop off and roll away. With his hands tied behind him, and clinging to the horse with his knees, he bounced uncomfortably in the saddle, which wasn't helping his predicament. The Texan glanced across at JD, who was positioned in front of Spencer, with his hands tied at the wrists, and then tethered to the saddle horn. The kid was hunched over, also bleeding, while clearly struggling to stay focused.
Vin's jaw clenched in anger. "Damn."
By late afternoon, Chris was worried. He had walked the town and found no trace of Vin. Buck had done likewise for JD and now the others joined the search in the hope they'd overlooked something. The fact that Vin and JD's horses were in the stable made their absence all the more disturbing. Meeting in the street outside Potter's store, Chris and Buck looked expectantly at their friends, but their hopes were dashed at three head shakes. Ezra extended his hand to show a recognizable object.
"Where was this?" Buck asked, taking the familiar bowler hat from the gambler and reverently stroking its brim.
"At the edge of the alley next to Vin's wagon," Ezra replied.
Preparing to close the store for the day, Gloria looked over at the men. "Good day!" She called.
Chris touched his hat. "Ma'am."
Gloria began sweeping the boardwalk. Buck called over. "Missus Potter, have you seen Vin or JD lately?"
She stopped sweeping, looked up, and frowned. "Didn't JD find Vin, or you, Chris?"
Concern burning a hole in his gut, Chris approached her. "JD? When was this?"
Leaning on her broom, Gloria pondered the question, much to the anxious men's chagrin. "Well, it was around lunchtime, I believe. He ran in here in need of a kerchief…his nose was bleeding. I sat him down, cleaned him up…oh, and then the men came in."
"Men?" Josiah asked. Gloria's reply chilled the five custodians to the bone.
"Yes, bounty hunters. They had Vin's poster, and was asking after him. Of course, I denied knowing him, and they left. However, when I went back to JD, he was pacing around and mumbling something." She leaned over, conspiratorially. "Actually, I'm not convinced JD was aware I was even there. Then, he rushed past me saying he needed to find Vin or you, Mister Larabee."
She shook her head when all five regulators rushed off up the street. "You're welcome," she huffed with a hint of derision, then continued sweeping.
"JD never found us." Buck stated the obvious.
"And Vin ain't been seen for some time," Nathan added.
"Neither of them are in town, of that, I'm certain," Ezra assured.
"For that matter, I've seen no sign of any bounty hunters, either," Josiah confirmed.
As they entered the livery, Chris glanced at the hat in Buck's grasp. "Which means they're in trouble," he concluded. "Let's ride!"
When Spencer finally decided to set up camp for the night, Vin's thigh and back muscles were burning and he inwardly thanked all that was Holy for the respite. Their route had gone over rocky terrain, and was not a trail widely used, so the bounty hunters were openly confident that their head start would not be lost.
Spencer dismounted, dragged Tanner off his horse, and secured him to a sturdy Creosote bush. Vin bit back a groan when his aching body complained at the new movements. He watched as a subdued JD was manhandled, and then tossed down onto ground nearby.
"You damn-well go careful with him," Vin growled.
"Shut up," Cooper warned, and went to help Spencer build a fire.
Frustrated he could get no closer, Vin called softly to his friend. "JD…Kid…it's Vin. Look at me."
From his position lying on his side and facing away from Vin, a confused and trembling JD curled up in a ball.
Vin swallowed nervously as he considered JD's fresh head wound. "Hey, Kid, it's okay. Look at me." JD remained turned away from him, and Tanner's own eyes filled at the thought that this blow to JD's head was one too many. "Aww Kid…stay with me, buddy."
No longer able to see well in the failing light, Chris called a halt for the night. While no one wanted to stop, they also knew that injuring themselves, or their horses, would not help to find their missing brothers. Five heavy-hearted men set up camp, determined to ride out as soon as the first flecks of dawn's gray light filtered through.
After supper and coffee, Chris wandered to the edge of camp and looked out toward the darkened plains. "Hold on, boys, we're coming," he uttered, softly. A crunch of dried brush from somewhere behind him made his lip curl in a half smile. "Buck."
"Chris. If it weren't for that there glow of your cheroot, I'd 'a missed you in the shadows."
"You need something?" Chris smiled at the pause and turned to his long-time friend. "They're alive, Pard. For some reason they took JD, probably to keep Vin in line. They coulda just ditched the kid, killed Vin, and made off…but they didn't. Keep that in your thinking, okay?"
"Mighty big of 'em, huh?" Buck hissed.
"We'll get 'em."
"Hell yeah." Buck sighed. "I just can't quite figure where JD fits into all this."
"He might not," Chris suggested. "Might 'a just been in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Or those fellas had another reason for keeping him close."
Chris nodded slowly. "Maybe. Either way, they're gonna regret riding into our town and messing with us." His softly spoken words carried a dark promise, and one Buck knew the gunslinger would keep, while having four more men right there to help him.
Despite the cold and lack of comfort, somehow, Vin had slept. On waking, he bit back a groan. In the cold damp of first light, he ached all over from being unable to move much all night, and from the previous day's traveling. He glanced across at JD. He hadn't shifted much, either. About to call for an opportunity to relieve himself, Vin's blood ran cold on overhearing Spencer and Cooper's conversation while they broke camp.
Copper looked back at JD and chewed his lip. "That young 'un…I reckon he's sick, just like Tanner said."
Spencer shrugged. "In the head, maybe. Been thinking…we should just ditch him, kill Tanner, and be on our way. We don't need this bother. Tanner's worth five hundred greenbacks dead or alive…let's make it easy on us."
Cooper frowned. "Kid might die out here, alone."
"I reckon their compadres are already on our trail. They'll find him…and if not, well, hardly our fault he's all boogered up, is it?"
"Us beatin' on him a while back couldna helped."
Spencer kicked dirt over the fire. "If he'd told us what we needed to know, we wouldna needed to." He raised a hand and absently motioned between Vin and JD. "The fact them two are here, together, proves the kid was lyin' to us." He shrugged. "We was just doin' our sworn duty."
Seeing Spencer walking toward JD, Tanner attempted to divert his attention. "Hey. Hey! I been tied here all night. I need to see to business."
"I'll get to you," Spencer promised as he drew near JD's still form.
Tanner tugged at his bonds. "Hey! Now, you hold up. I been sittin' here waitin'…"
The bounty hunter leaned over to grab at JD. "So you can wait a mite longer…"
By way of a patience he never knew he possessed, JD timed his move. Just as their captor closed in, he summoned all his remaining strength, jumped to his feet and wrestled the man to the ground.
With a thump to his midriff, Spencer went over like a shrub in a stampede. He looked up to see JD standing over him, his tethered, shaking hands holding bead with the gun dropped in the struggle.
JD gestured to a dazed Spencer. "Hands where I can see 'em, mister." He looked over to an equally surprised Cooper. "You too! I ain't gonna be too concerned if I shoot his ear off 'cause you made a move for your side iron, but he sure will be."
Vin's heart soared to see the kid back with him, but he could also see JD was pretty shaky. "Kid…untie me."
Spencer hadn't missed JD's unsteadiness, either. "Hey, Kid…I remember you said your mind ain't quite working too well right now and, well, so's you know," he nodded at Vin. "Me an' my partner here got a sworn duty to bring this man in." He noted JD was listening, and hoped to take advantage of his evident confusion, so kept his gaze soft and his smile warm.
"You recall…back in town…I said we'd met? Well, when we did, I told you me and Cooper here was lookin' for Tanner."
JD swallowed nervously as echoey smatterings of dialogue pricked at his conscience…>>'Tanner's a no good half-breed…a lawdog gone bad. We aim to see him swing for what he done'…<<
Seeing JD's disorientation, Vin feared the kid might jump the wrong way. "JD…untie me, now. Come on, Kid, you need help…let me lend a hand."
Cooper made to move and JD fired at his feet. "Don't…I won't tell you again." He quickly swiped at the beads of sweat gathering on his brow and upper lip.
"Kid…the varmint you're protecting is a murderer. Don't let him fool you. He done killed a man in cold blood, and we're taking him back to Tascosa to stand trial."
"JD, stay with me, now, y'hear? Untie me." Vin pleaded, while straining at his bonds and attempting to get JD to listen.
"Shut it, Tanner!" Spencer composed himself and tried to smile when he looked up at JD, but the gesture was as frosty as early dawn. "He'll kill us all if you untie him, boy."
JD swallowed against a dry throat. His head was throbbing and he feared unsteady legs wouldn't hold him up much longer. Meaningless images and conversations bounced around inside his skull and he struggled to stay focused. He glanced at Vin, then to Spencer.
"So say you, but in the time I've gotten to know him, he ain't ever hurt me. You just beat us both around the head, tied us, and dragged us out here. Seems like you two are more likely to kill me, not him."
"He's fooling you, boy," Cooper called over, his gun hand dropping ever so slightly toward the holster on his hip. "That's how he's stayed one step ahead o' the law up to now." He could see JD's eyes were unfocused, and his nose had started to bleed.
"You're sick, Kid…let us help you. It's a misunderstanding 'tween us, is all. You were trying to warn him, and we thought you was against us. But we can see now, you're ailing, and he fooled you. Just like he's fooled folk all over the territory." Cooper took a step. "He's just taking advantage of you."
With Vin hollering out behind the youth, Spencer's tells suggesting he could jump up and try to rush him at any second, and seeing Cooper's hand going for his gun, JD fired. Cooper screamed out and dropped on his knees to the ground, grasping his bleeding arm.
Taking his opportunity, Spencer leapt up and sent him and JD crashing into the dirt. Vin hollered out in a vain attempt to divert attention to him. Having retrieved his six-shooter, Spencer dug his knee into JD's soft belly and while JD groaned, he rose to stand over him. The pressure and pain caused the boy to curl in on himself. Satisfied JD was out of action; Spencer turned, grinned, and fired at a hollering Vin.
When the bullet ripped through him, Tanner jerked and cried out in pain. Spencer smirked at the doubled over, panting tracker. "I told you to shut up."
Glancing at a writhing Cooper, and then to the dazed youth at his feet, Spencer cocked his gun and directed his comments to JD. "And that's the tale we'll tell. Tanner jumped me, shot Cooper, and killed you, before I got my gun back and shot the varmint dead." He aimed at JD's head. "Shoulda kept going last time you run out on us, boy."
A shot rang out and echoed around the camp.
As Vin struggled for breath, he looked up just in time to see Spencer's gun fly from his bloodied fingers. From rocks close by, Buck lowered his rifle. Four more armed men showed themselves, and then hurried into the camp.
Ezra and Josiah swiftly secured the two groaning, bleeding bounty hunters. Chris and Nathan went directly to Vin, and while Larabee cut his friend loose, the healer applied a cloth to the wound in Vin's flank.
"How you doing, Vin?" Nathan asked through a frown of concentration and concern.
"Never better," the Texan grunted. His gaze met Chris's. "Kid's a mess. He don't know if he's comin' or goin' right now."
Larabee cast a glance toward Buck and JD. "We'll put him straight. Now ease up and let Nathan work on you."
"I'll live," Tanner hissed through gritted teeth.
"And so will JD," Chris stated more than promised.
Buck dropped down next to JD and gently scooped him up. JD was barely conscious and his head lolled back at the movement. While he waited on Nathan, the ladies' man sat back in the dirt and drew the boy close. He looked up when Ezra approached. "Them sonsabitches dead?"
"Unfortunately, they will live." Standish crouched down next to Buck and JD. "How bad? Is he shot?"
Buck shook his head, his gaze never leaving JD's glistening, slackening features. "I don't know. Don't think so."
Ezra glanced over at Vin. "Nathan?"
The healer looked back at him and patted the arm of the pain-racked, equally sweat-soaked Texan. "Yup, if he takes it easy, he'll live. Bullet went clean through his side."
Standing, Ezra gestured toward their horses. "I shall return to town for appropriate transportation."
Chris nodded. "'Preciate it."
The southerner touched his hat. "I'll be back presently." He squeezed Buck's shoulder. "Hold on, my friend."
Buck watched him mount up. "Ain't me I'm worried about."
While they waited on Ezra, Chris, Buck, and Nathan laid Vin, and JD on bedrolls set down close to a fresh campfire. Josiah shackled both loudly protesting bounty hunters, and threatened to cut out their tongues if they didn't shut up. Despite a dose of Laudanum, Vin was sweating, in pain, but awake and talking. He filled them in on what happened, all the while glancing between a motionless JD, and the now quiet bounty hunters. Nathan assured them JD was only sleeping. Nevertheless, Vin's heart ached for his young friend. Laying there in the warmth of the campfire, and the company of good friends, Tanner was pondering that, although this ordeal might be over, just how long would it be before these men, or others like them came back for him?
Another look at JD helped Vin make a decision. When the kid was well, he'd move on. It was the only way to keep his friends, and himself, safe. But he wanted to be able to tell JD face to face. He knew now that JD's memory loss and injuries were down to the bounty hunters…men that rode into the area searching for an outlaw worth $500 dead or alive, which was him, Vin Tanner. After all the seven friends had been through together, Vin figured talking to them all, and JD, before he rode out was the right thing to do. Finally succumbing to the effects of the Laudanum, and a mug of Nathan's tea, Vin slept.
Later that afternoon Chris stood and approached the bounty hunters. He ordered the pair to stand.
"You got no right," Spencer spat. "We was just doing our sworn duty." He paled at the blistering green glare.
"Here's what's gonna happen. You two are gonna be tried by a Federal Judge for the assault, kidnap and attempted murder of a duly sworn officer of the law."
Cooper pointed at Vin. "But, he's a…"
"Not him," Chris growled, leaning in. "For what you did to him, I was all for cutting out your hearts with a rusty blade…" He enjoyed their pained expressions to that remark and gestured toward a glowering Buck. "Then, for what you did to the kid, left your twitching bodies for him to finish you off with an old, chipped, cut throat razor I no longer got use for."
Larabee straightened. "But I was reminded that the law's on our side, and seeing you hang…will be good, too." The blond paced before turning back to the ashen pair.
"Or we could make a deal."
All but the sleeping pair frowned and turned to their leader. Spencer just got more nervous. "D…deal?"
Chris had one shot at this, and hoped he'd get it right, as he wasn't liking the way of thinking he was sensing from Vin, one bit.
"We could let you ride outta here." Chris's features became feral. "On the condition you never ride back this way again, or speak of this place, and Tanner's whereabouts, to anyone." The wide, green glare bore into the two men as he fisted their shirts to choking point.
"I got eyes and ears as far as the east coast, and to the Panhandle, and if so much as one man comes this way looking for Tanner, I'm gonna come for you and follow through on my original plan." He smirked and glanced toward a just-awakened tracker.
"Then I'll leave you in Vin's hands for a coupla days before throwing you to the buzzards."
Spencer's heart did a flip. Right then, he would've eaten horseshit for these men if it meant escaping their fury; and he sure as hell never wanted to come back here again, or risk them coming after him. One glance at Cooper and the deal was set. He coughed and took in a rasping breath when Chris released them from his stranglehold.
"You got it, mister." He gestured toward his saddled horse. "Papers on Tanner are in my saddlebag. Burn 'em, I swear, I'm done with these parts…I'm done with bounty hunting."
Cooper nodded his agreement.
"They're lying." Josiah's deep voice boomed out, hoping to add depth to Chris's threats. "I say kill 'em right here, and leave their bones for the crows to pick clean."
Sitting next to JD, Buck rested a hand on the slumbering boy's back and nodded. In truth, keeping them here and holding a trial would just draw attention to Vin; having these men gone, and running scared was far preferable.
"No, please, I swear, it's done with, over." Again Spencer pointed. "We got money…take it, give it to the kid, whatever you reckon's best."
His and Cooper's eyes widened in terror as Chris approached them with a large knife passed to him by the black man who had earlier tended their wounds. Seconds later, their bonds were cut, and Josiah and Nathan dragged the pair to their feet.
Easing JD down on the bedroll, Buck stood and looked the two men up and down. His mind was filled with the memory of the weeks of anguish due to not knowing whether their youngest was still alive, and that these men had been solely responsible for their torment, and JD's agony. He glanced back to JD before delivering a brutal, heartfelt, full-power punch to each man's gut, sending their gasping, doubled-over forms to their knees. He then kicked them both hard in the face, and bent over them.
"If it were up to me, for what you did to JD, and then Vin, I would've waited for Chris to scoop out your hearts, then happily sliced you open and spread your innards from here to Tascosa." He spat on them. "And if I ever hear of you again…I will. Now, git!"
By the time Ezra returned with a wagon, both injured men were sleeping again, so the group decided to continue to camp out overnight and return to town in the morning. The smell of food cooking roused Vin, and soon six of the seven were enjoying some rabbit stew. After pouring some whiskey into his coffee, Ezra passed around a bottle he'd brought back with him.
"I assume information of Mister Dunne's treatment and disappearance at the hands of those miscreants was not forthcoming before they left."
Josiah shook his head. "No. It was clear they beat on him, but I don't think even they know what happened to JD after he either escaped them, or they left him."
Sipping on some whiskey-laced coffee, Vin shifted to get comfortable and glanced at JD. It was time to share. "I found a camp back a ways from town. By marks on the ground, and pieces of bloody rope I found there…" He pulled out a tin star from his jacket pocket. "…And this, I reckon that's where JD met up with them fellas."
Noting JD awake and trying to sit up, a grinning Buck helped him, and was inwardly soothed when he leaned JD against him, and the boy didn't fight it. The men waited patiently while JD gratefully accepted a mug of water. Chris made eye contact.
"You feel up to talking about it?"
JD shifted to sit more comfortably against Buck. He nodded, but paused for a long while before speaking.
"I was at the end of my patrol, and I'd run Beavis for a good while…" he smiled at Buck. "…It felt good. We were quite a ways out, and I was about to turn back when I spotted smoke in the distance, so, even though I was running real late, I went to take a look." He sipped more water. "Them bounty hunters were real nice, offered me coffee. Anyway, we jawed a little, and then I drank up. It was getting dark, and I was about to head out when they just up and asked if I knew a man called Tanner."
JD glanced at Vin, who smiled and nodded. The boy's brow creased and he stared at Vin as if seeing him for the first time. "When did you get shot?"
Tanner waved off the question, desperate for JD to carry on. "Later. You said they asked about me?"
JD continued."Oh yeah, they did. I said no, but they…" his frown deepened, while his unfocused stare at the ground suggesting he was elsewhere right then. "They didn't believe me…just wouldn't listen, kept saying bad things about you, telling me you was a murderer, and that they were gonna arrest you, then watch your neck stretch." All seven swallowed at that.
"They said they'd heard tell Vin was running with five gunslingers and an eastern greenhorn. When they got tired of me giving them nothing but arguments, they beat up on me some…" he looked up and again focused on Tanner. "I never gave you up, Vin."
The sharpshooter's shimmering gaze never wavered as he remained focused on the kid. "I know."
JD's gaze again lowered, and he drew circles in the dirt with his finger as the painful memories returned. No man dared breathe too hard, all realizing JD's memory was intact, and he hadn't even realized.
"I was hurting real bad, but they just kept beating on me. They seemed so sure I knew something. I knew I couldn't stay awake much longer...and then I heard 'em say they were gonna pretend to head out in the hope I'd ride home, and lead 'em to Vin.
"I figured I'd double-bluff 'em, and make out like I was sneaking away, so I pretended to stay out of it, and waited until full dark. Then I rode hell bent for leather in the opposite direction to town in the hope they'd think I was going back home." JD looked up, a little surprised how all six men were seemingly riveted to his tale. He blushed and, a little shyly looked away, before continuing.
"We rode for a real long time, and they followed, and almost caught up to me, but Beavis kept on going. I was still hurting from the beating, so I guess I wasn't concentrating too well, and in the dark, while we were going full tilt, Beavis stumbled. The next thing I recall was lying in a strange room, hurting most everywhere, and not knowing why."
JD dabbed at his nose, relieved to see just a dribble of light-colored blood there. He stared at each of his friends while leaning into Buck just a little more due to the enormity of what was happening.
"Jeeze…I can't believe you came looking for me after all that time." He looked up at Buck, and recognition sank in that this man would never choose to give up on him, and, it would seem, all his friends, too. JD lowered his head as weeks of pain, uncertainty and loneliness washed over him.
"Thank you," he whispered.
Buck looked around at the gathered group, his liquid gaze twinkling back at the other five men. He pulled JD in closer and gave the trembling boy a squeeze. His own body began to quake as he recalled the pain of realizing JD wasn't coming back off patrol under his own steam; the days - weeks - of fruitless searching, questioning neighboring townsfolk, wiring ahead to ask outlying towns to keep a look out.
Memories surfaced of the decision to start a further, more intense search; of the cold trails, and false sightings…and suffering the agony of not knowing what had happened to the boy, while fearing JD might have died…alone. Buck remembered wishing he had told JD just how much he liked him being around, and that ache in his heart that, maybe now he never would. Happy to have it all behind them, he rested his chin atop the dark head next to his shoulder.
"Anytime, little brother…any time."
TWO WEEKS LATER
"A magnificent game, sir, but I hold a full house." Ezra's declaration was the last thing JD heard from inside as he exited the saloon. He touched his hat on seeing Missus Potter walking along the boardwalk.
"Hello, JD, what time is the stage due in?"
"'Morning, Ma'am. It's due at eleven." He checked his timepiece…it was quarter to... "You waiting on something?"
Gloria nodded and smiled. "A new hat."
The boy grinned back. The widow was finally treating herself. 'Bout time.
"How are you feeling now, dear? I must say, you're looking much brighter."
"I'm feeling good, thanks for asking, Ma'am."
Crossing the street, JD waved to Vin and Chris who were sitting outside the jail. Their current prisoner was heading out on the same stage. Good riddance. Despite his gunshot wound healing fast, Vin was still being forced to take it easy. Funny, but this time, the tracker hadn't made any fuss over it. Chris was never too far from his side, and it was obvious to all but a blind man that Vin appreciated the gesture.
Nathan's voice drifted down from the clinic as, with some parting advice, he bid goodbye to a patient. He waved down to JD, and then across to Josiah whose sanding efforts on the church's doorframe could be heard clean across the street.
The young sheriff looked up, smiled, and waved back to Nathan, but as he stepped forward, a squelch, followed by a familiar odor assaulted his senses. Lifting one boot, JD grimaced at the juicy horse apple clinging to it. "Aww, hell!"
"That's considered lucky."
As he scraped his boot along the edge of the boardwalk JD glowered at Buck who was walking toward him. "How can horseshit on your boot be lucky?"
Buck shrugged. "'Cause you didn't fall flat on your butt into it?" He grinned at JD's giggle and nod.
"There is that." JD grunted as Buck suddenly tucked in behind him. JD spun around in an attempt to follow the action; his head spinning when strong hands on his upper arms twisted him back around. "What…?" Looking back to where Buck's gaze was focused, JD noted a woman heading their way.
"I'm not here," Buck hissed.
The boy made a face as he tried to turn to see the ladies' man. "Buck…you're taller'n me, 'sides, she's seen you." JD was shocked to see Buck gone. He spun back around to face the approaching woman. "Uh, 'morning, Widow Fry."
"Sheriff Dunne, Mister Wilmington left his bandanna last night." She held out her hand. "Would you return it to him for me?"
"He's about to run an errand out of town," JD covered, "but I surely will when he gets back." He shook his head as she left. A whisper from an alley drew him back to his concealed friend and he walked over to him. "Here, this is yours."
Buck nodded and took the bandanna, slipping it into a pocket. "Sorry, Kid, but she has…"
JD stared, was Buck blushing? "She has what?"
"…Peculiar preferences in the…" Buck cleared his throat. "…Bedroom department…if you know what I mean." He looked furtively around. "I ain't surprised she's a widow."
Now JD was blushing, despite him not really understanding what Buck meant. But it had to be bad for Buck to pass, being a man of the world, and all.
The town was bustling as the street and stores became busy. A distant jangle and pounding of hooves heralded the arrival of the stage. Chris and Vin stood, and JD and Buck crossed the street to join them in meeting it, and also to offload their prisoner. Through narrowed eyes and hands on guns Chris, Buck, and Vin studied the coach.
JD frowned at the three men's intense scrutiny. "What? It's just not the usual driver and shotgun is all…Acchhh!"
A hefty, semi-throttling yank to his collar propelled JD backwards. Seconds later, Chris, and Vin drew their guns and dove for cover when all hell broke loose. From behind a water trough, Buck's strained features pushed into JD's face.
"You stay down. I just got you back, I ain't about to lose you again."
Stunned by Buck's words and the genuine fear in his eyes, JD watched as each of his friends fired on riders in the street and men atop the halted coach. Josiah and Nathan appeared, also shooting, and Ezra ducked and rolled from the saloon's doors as he too entered the fray.
Snapping into the here and now, from his covert position, JD drew his six-shooters, but before he could even so much as line up a shot, it was over. When Buck stood, so did he, and instantly looked around to make a tally of his friends and their state of health. He openly grinned when he saw all six men fit and well. As he and Buck joined the others next to the empty stage, Buck shook his head and nudged JD.
"We get caught in a street shoot-out, and all you can do is grin like a loon?"
JD's infectious smile widened. "Yeah."
Re-holstering his mare's leg, Vin winked. "Guess you're glad to be back and gettin' shot at again then, huh, Kid?"
Dismissing the attempted surfacing of the not yet distant enough memory of his weeks away from home, JD glanced around at six amused men…hardened gunslingers who had become like family to him in the short time they'd ridden together. He nodded.
"As long as I got you fellas to stand with me, I wouldn't want it any other way."
Thanks for riding along
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