Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!
Main Characters: JD, Vin
Summary: Things go bad for two of the towns' residents, and JD and Vin will never forget this day.
Despite the early hour, six peacekeepers raced out of the saloon to see the tail end of a wagon tearing off down the street.
"The horses have bolted…my daughter's in there!" the distraught mother cried at the six anxious men, but they were too far away to help, and she, and they, knew it. Nevertheless, the six raced off after the fast disappearing two-horse team.
JD came out of a store close to the livery, and instantly saw horses pulling an unmanned wagon hurtling his way. Instinctively he tore off down the boardwalk just ahead of them. When he reached the end of the boards, JD jumped. His left foot slammed down on the top of a barrel and his right sprung off the bar of a hitching post, launching him onto the back of one of the horses now parallel to him. JD snatched at its flying mane, and as he fought for control, the wind whipped his familiar bowler off his head. It rolled along the dusty street and toward the pounding feet of his six pursuing friends.
For a few moments, and as the terrified horses increased their speed, it was uncertain to onlookers if he could stay on; but JD's experience with horses belied his 'city boy' appearance and he used every ounce of energy and skill to cling on and battle the fleeing animals into submission.
"Whoa, whoa, easy there, fellas, easy there. Good boys, good boys."
Oblivious to all but the heaving, snorting horses, a panting JD jolted when, as they slowed, a little voice cried, "Fank you."
He turned sharply to see a diminutive, fair-haired girl with the biggest blue eyes JD had ever seen, looking at him. He clambered off the horse, tied the reins to a post and moved toward the seat. With an 'oomph', he just caught the little girl as she threw herself into his arms, hugged him tight, and sobbed.
"Horsies ran fast," she sniffed.
Not having too much experience with little ones, JD hugged her close and patted her back. "I know, I know. It's okay, it's all over, now."
Once he spoke, it was as if an invisible door had opened up, allowing noise to filter through; feet pounding, voices shouting, horses shaking and rattling their harnesses. He could even hear his own heartbeat thudding in his ears.
"Thank you, Sheriff, thank you." A woman very similar in appearance to the child in JD's arms looked beseechingly up at them as her hands reached out for her daughter. With a smile and a nod, JD eased the sobbing little one down and into the waiting, loving embrace of her equally distraught mother. The enormity of his undertaking finally caught up with the youth, and while patting the neck of the sweating black he once sat on, JD blew out a shaky, relieved breath.
"Damn, boy that was some move."
JD stared at the dusty street he'd just traveled down and then grinned at the ladies' man.
"Right place right time, I guess."
Vin took off his hat and slapped his thigh with it. "Hoo-wee, you got some grit, Kid."
JD actually blushed, Vin Tanner had complimented him? His color deepened when a grinning Josiah bear-hugged him, and Nathan and Ezra patted his shoulder and back.
"An exploit worthy of any laudable novel," Standish praised.
"Aww, come on, fellas, I was just lucky," JD replied, swiping at his moisture-soaked bangs and still a little breathless from the experience.
"Luck had nothing to do with it. You should be proud of what you just did; we are."
JD's gaze barely caught the glint of a smile in Chris's green eyes before the dark-clothed gunslinger turned away.
"Reckon that deserves a drink. I'm buying," Chris continued as he walked off toward the saloon.
Buck was dusting off the dented hat he had retrieved from the street. He handed it to JD. "Chris is buying, huh? I sure ain't about to miss out on that." He put an arm around the youth's shoulders. "Come on, I reckon you could use a nice, quiet drink."
Barely eleven o'clock that same morning and JD had to duck and crawl behind an overturned table as another saloon chair went flying over his head. When a three inch bleeding gash above his left eye began to restrict his vision, and forced him to battle with dizziness, JD figured he should gracefully bow out of the recently erupted bar brawl. He watched in awe as each of his friends dodged and punched their way through the drunken hoards with a skill and expertise borne of experience.
They appeared to be enjoying themselves, despite furniture, bottles and glasses crashing all around - some frighteningly close to hitting their targets. Vin and Chris fought back to back and, despite that they were bleeding, both were grinning like loons.
Buck strolled through the skirmish with purpose, punching out any antagonist that dared to challenge him; while Josiah stood at the bar appearing almost bored between whamming any incoming combatant's head down hard onto the countertop.
Nathan and Ezra had set up a winning system when each in turn sent a man to the other to be punched out. Cowboys fell like skittles as each tried to lay one of the peacekeepers out, only to face a wall of brawn matched with brains and skill, at every turn.
Subsequently, as fast as the fight had started, it was over. Several of the bleeding, but still grinning peacekeepers hauled anyone close to conscious off to jail. As Nathan took a breather, he spotted JD trying to stand without swaying, and crooked a finger his way. JD gratefully obeyed, if only to get the darned blood out of his eye. Buck appeared seemingly from nowhere.
"You're hurt. You okay?"
JD nodded, and then winced regretfully. "I'm fine, thanks." He glanced around the damaged saloon. "So much for a quiet drink, huh?"
Buck chuckled. "You should know by now, just when things done settle down, something new crawls outta the woodwork to bite us in the butt." He frowned at JD's hiss when Nathan applied a clean rag to the cut. "Come on, Kid, let's go get cleaned up."
An hour or so later, gunfire from the street saw JD's bandaged head peek out of the jailhouse. Spotting Vin and Josiah leaning against a porch prop, he approached.
Vin shook his head. "Just some cowboys celebratin' after a long cow-drive."
"Chris won't be happy if they shoot someone," JD pointed out.
"No," Josiah agreed. "But he understands how a man needs to cut loose now and then. Long as they aim high, spreading the joy won't be a problem."
JD looked across the street and pointed. "Yeah, well, Missus Travis is looking to come over here and she don't seem too happy. Who's gonna talk to her…?" Turning back to his friends, JD realized he was alone. He watched the grinning pair attempt to stride off.
"Hey!" He managed to snag Vin's arm just as Mary approached.
Tanner touched his hat. JD went to take his off when he realized he wasn't wearing it. "Missus Travis."
"Is Mister Larabee aware of this commotion?"
"I reckon even those at rest in the graveyard are aware of this commotion, Ma'am," Tanner replied.
"Well, what do you intend to do about it?" Mary pushed.
JD looked to Vin and the Texan pulled his hat low.
"You want for me to ask 'em to leave, Missus Travis?"
Mary raised an eyebrow at JD. "Perhaps Mister Larabee should do that."
JD bristled. "I can handle it."
He felt a squeeze to his arm and noted the gentle warning in Vin's gaze. "Reckon you can, but keepin' Chris clued-in might be a place to start."
JD pondered Vin's words for a moment, and then nodded.
Mary turned away to cross the street. "Make it soon, please," she called back.
Tanner winked at JD. "I'll see to it. You keep an eye on 'em."
"Sure, thanks, Vin." As Tanner left, JD smiled when he saw the southern gambler approach. "Hi Ezra."
Standish caught a glimpse of himself in a store window and shook his head. The midday light was at least kind but his reflection told its own tale. He looked a fright. Adjusting his jacket, hat, and shirt cuffs, he touched the bruises on his face. Stopping bar fights were duties he could do without.
JD grinned as the southerner approached the jail to relieve him. "Good fight earlier, huh?" He pointed and made an 'ooh' face. "Nice collection of bruises. Did Nathan take a look at those cuts?"
"Ah yes, this morning's bar fight. Most certainly one for my memoirs," Standish ribbed. He smiled. "Thank you, JD…I appreciate your concern, but I felt my own ministrations to be sufficient." He glanced at the growing number of rowdy cowboys.
"Do I take it they heard we were having a reasonably quiet day and subsequently felt obliged to intervene?"
JD frowned, and then chuckled as he realized that Ezra was using sarcasm. "Wouldn't want the day to get too dull, huh?"
"Indeed." Standish headed into the jail. "Please feel free to call on me should the need arise."
JD's grin widened and he shook his head in amusement. "Sure Ezra, will do."
Clutching his heart, a surprised JD turned to the gunslinger at his shoulder. "Shoot, Chris. Where'd you spring from?"
Chris pointed to the mayhem in the street. "How many?
"'Bout ten or so shooting, not sure how many are in the saloon."
"Least twice that." Vin's voice cut in moments before the tracker actually appeared.
Larabee pursed his lips. "We'll keep a close eye on them, but I can't see any real problem right now." Stepping back, the group's leader took off his hat, laid it down on a table on the boardwalk and took a seat. Removing a book from his jacket pocket, he started reading, but JD knew Chris was watching the town.
Vin patted JD's arm and then walked off along the boardwalk. Minutes later the young sheriff saw the sharpshooter settled on one of the rooftops. Figuring the pair had it covered, and that he wasn't needed right now, JD went in search of Buck.
Nathan looked up from his ministrations when Josiah hefted yet another wounded, drunken cowboy into his clinic. "Shooting's turned to fighting now, huh?"
Sanchez nodded. "Buck and JD are tossing them out of the saloon faster than I can catch 'em." They both looked up at what sounded like more gunfire. Josiah stepped outside the clinic and leaned on the balcony rail to see what was happening.
"Oh, wonderful; some fool's gotten hold of firecrackers and is throwing them around the street."
Nathan scolded the wriggling drunk he was stitching for moving too much. "Been kinda dry lately," he more reflected, than advised.
Josiah turned back and nodded. "Sure has. We could use some rain..." Something caught his eye and the preacher took a sharp intake of breath. "Good Lord. FIRE!"
Abusive, ham-fisted drunks were easy pickings for Buck and JD and soon the jail was full up. More gunshots from the street drew their attention, and the pair exited the jailhouse to check it out.
"What the hell?" Buck stared around. Something was off and his anxiety levels were rising fast. "Whoa!"
He grabbed JD and they just managed to duck down behind a water trough as a firecracker bounced around close by. It was followed by several armed cowboys riding down the street and shooting more than holes in the clouds, causing glass to shatter and once again sending townsfolk scattering for shelter.
With guns drawn, Chris joined them, Ezra came out of the jail, and all four surveyed the scene. As Chris's eyes knowingly locked with Buck's, Josiah's voice boomed out over the pandemonium.
JD's eyes scanned the street and then widened on seeing a dwelling ablaze close to where Vin had been perched on the rooftop. He instantly recognized it to be that of a young wife and husband who recently moved into town, and were due to become parents real soon. JD took off running.
"Oh God. Fellas!"
"Well, this just went to hell in a handbasket," Buck said aloud.
Not getting a response, he looked to his left, expecting to see JD crouched beside him. What he saw instead, froze him to the spot. Surprise warred with alarm to see that JD was heading straight for the source of Josiah's anguished cry.
"JD, NO! Get your butt back here, now!" Buck turned sharply when a hand grasped his arm. "Chris…" Buck pointed. "...JD…"
Chris nodded. "One thing at a time, Pard. Set up a line, we need to get buckets of water down there, now!" As Buck headed for the hardware store, Chris signaled.
"Ezra, pull folk out of the saloon, we need all the help we can get." Using his gun barrel, Larabee whipped it around the inside of a large, metal triangle hanging outside the jail in order to alert the townsfolk. Every building was potentially at risk, they needed to move fast.
By the time JD arrived at the building he had discarded his hat and jacket while running. He saw Vin holding on to the distraught mother-to-be that lived in the dwelling that was now well ablaze. "Vin! Where's Mister Shipman?"
Mary arrived and Vin handed Missus Shipman over to her. He gestured to the burning building.
"Still inside. Della said Ike was helpin' her get out and got hit by a fallin' beam." As Tanner spoke, he too was stripping down to his shirtsleeves.
JD ducked down to look inside and through the debris. A few moments later he spotted the large, fallen rafter. "I can get through!" Before Vin could even consider a negative response, JD was heading in.
"JD, WAIT! Damnit!" Vin glanced around. On seeing help arriving, he turned back to the inferno. "Right behind you, Kid!"
Chris headed up the forming line of men, but it was all he could do to hold Buck back from following JD and Vin into the building. Fighting with his own desperate need to do likewise, he shook his long-time friend.
"Buck! Get a grip. We need to get water on there, now."
"Heads up!" Ezra's call announced the first full bucket. "BUCK!"
Buck's misty blue eyes glanced at the building. With a heavy sigh he nodded and switched instantly into action. Taking the first slopping bucket from Ezra, he quickly passed it into Chris's waiting hands.
Headed by Mary, who had handed off Della to another couple, women were forming a second line, so no sooner had Chris tossed the water, the empty buckets were being passed back to be refilled. A small collapse sent up a shower of sparks from the burning home, prompting an already sobbing, struggling Della Shipman to wail louder.
"Speed it up!" Chris hollered. While painfully aware of the trapped soul in there, he was also worried for Vin and JD.
Being slight of build, both peacekeepers were making slow, but steady progress. Elbows dug into dirt, ash, and splintered wood to drag along straining bodies, while toes of boots sought purchase to aid the push. Leading the way, JD swiped at his sooty features and coughed before yelling out. "I see him. He's there!"
"I see," Vin called back while scrutinizing the central collapse. He altered his direction when he realized only one of them would be able to take the more direct approach.
JD inched his way over and under fallen beams and toward the trapped, prone figure; however time was against them. The flames were hungrily consuming the wooden structure and were now roaring overhead with vibrant, blistering intensity. Gobbets of burning debris dropped along the crackling, spitting, inferno's path, starting fresh fires, and making the crumbling, smoky interior treacherous.
"Mister Shipman – IKE!" JD's stinging, watery eyes raked the smoky interior to once more locate the main beam that he'd earlier been heading for. His fingers felt across the wooden floor as he sought out his prize and he made his way forward. "IKE!"
He gasped and then coughed when a sooty hand came from out of the murkiness and grasped his wrist. JD's toothy smile stood out in stark contrast to his smutty features when he spotted the trapped man almost in front of him.
"Shoot!" From JD's left Vin's equally grimy form appeared.
"Help…me…" Ike rasped, his lungs constricted by the weight of the obstruction crushing him.
"Hold on, Ike," Vin asked. He kneeled, but the space was horribly tight. "JD, I'm gonna get my shoulder under this jut-out. When I holler, pull him outta there, fast."
Nodding, JD also got onto his knees. Taking the only hand of Ike's available to him, the boy took the strain.
Vin took the strain. "Now!"
With the free end of the beam resting on his shoulder and back, Vin gritted his teeth and with a pained grunt, pushed up. His body visibly quaked from the effort, but he focused on keeping the beam steady.
JD's one hand curled around Ike's wrist, the other fisted the back of Shipman's belt and he pulled with all his might. Ike screamed out in agony, but JD kept on hauling. "He's moving."
"Keep…goin'…" Vin grunted through clenched teeth. The weight was becoming unbearable and he feared he couldn't hold out much longer. Just at the point where both young men believed they would succeed, Tanner's sixth sense told him he had a split second to make a decision. A deafening roar accompanied the collapse of the main structure and all three were swallowed up.
"It's about to come down!"
Even as he bellowed out a warning, Josiah left the bucket line, ducked low and barreled into the structure. There was no time for delicacy now as the telltale creaks and moans alerted him and the people closest to the building that a collapse was close. Ezra and Nathan drove everyone back while Chris and Buck stood anxious, but ready to help Josiah and anyone he could haul out of there.
Blinded by smoke, Josiah sensed someone close by. When the midpoint began to cave in on itself he urgently reached down. Without knowing who he had a hold of, save for it being two bodies, the brawny man heaved and despite being bombarded by falling, burning debris, backed out at speed. Supportive hands pulled him and his charges fully out and the momentum caused Josiah, Vin, and JD to collapse in a heap at Chris's, Ezra's, and Buck's feet.
Despite shock and injuries, exhaling gray breath, Vin and JD clambered unsteadily to their feet. JD's eyes were wild and he went to move.
"No! We almost had him! NOOOO!"
Chris grabbed the frantic boy around his middle before JD could tunnel his way back into the blazing rubble. In an instant Chris had lifted JD off the ground and passed him to Buck in anticipation of Vin possibly trying the same move; but as Buck took charge of JD, it was clear to Chris by the haunted look in Vin's eyes that he already knew Ike Shipman couldn't be saved.
"Vin?" Chris said, softly.
"Structure took 'im afore we could…" Tanner coughed, hard, and Larabee could see, though the cough was genuine, it helped to cover up the utter despair he was suffering. The tracker was favoring one shoulder and sporting several bruises, scrapes and burn marks, too.
"You did all you could, Pard."
Tanner's misty blue gaze bored into Chris's eyes. "Mebbe so, but that don't change the fact that we lost one, today."
With nothing left to do but smother the flames, Chris nodded. Now, it was time to care for the living.
"Buck…get…off...ME!" JD's desperate plea and frenzied struggling brought on a heavy, harsh coughing fit. Seeing emotion welling in the lad's eyes, Buck took his opportunity to use back patting as a cover to draw JD close.
The ladies' man whispered softly into JD's ear. "He's gone, son – Ike's gone." Buck's heart constricted at the wheezing reply.
"Oh, God…I let him down. I had him! I had him…" He gasped when Buck grasped JD's upper arms and pushed him to arms' length. Trying to overlook the soot, blisters, bruising, and the gash over JD's eye being re-opened, Buck stared in earnest at the boy.
"You listen to me, Kid. You did no such thing. We almost lost you and Vin. You boys did all you could, y'hear? All you could."
JD's head lowered, and there was an imperceptible nod as Buck once more pulled JD in close. The event was overwhelming the kid, and Buck could see, as he glanced toward Chris, Vin was struggling, too. In addition, the regulators were aware of townsfolk standing around and watching their every move.
Larabee noted Nathan was comforting Della Shipman just before Mary got involved. Seconds later, she and Gloria Potter were helping the distressed widow to Mary's home, with a promise from Nathan he'd be there, soon.
The seven lawmen gathered around. Chris and Buck each gave Josiah a long and grateful glance before they all moved off toward Nathan's clinic. There, they could regroup, while treating Vin and JD's cuts, scrapes, bruises, and minor burns; and also some burns Josiah suffered to his hands and shoulders, and leaving the less curious and more industrious townsfolk to dampen down what was left of Della and Ike Shipman's first – and last - shared home.
Later, in the blush of a deep, red sunset, the tolling bell of the town's church drew in those who sought solace. Though the hour was late, the House of God had its first full complement of worshipers in a long while.
Enveloped in the soft glow of flickering candlelight, Josiah was in full swing, thanking God for the town's survival in the face of such a fierce, predatory, and uncompromising force; but mostly praising and complimenting the townsfolk for their valiant efforts during the fire. It had been a harrowing experience, but the blaze being contained had saved many lives, and buildings.
Tragically, one precious life was lost, and Josiah looked to his gallant friends, and especially Vin and JD who, aside from the young, pregnant widow, were feeling that loss the most. Josiah felt especially proud of these two young men. They couldn't have given more, yet their unnecessary guilt and painful-to-see grief was threatening to take them toward a dark abyss. He noted the pair staring expressionlessly at the bandages on their hands, and hoped his words would reach them.
"Brothers and sisters; take these words away with you and hold them in your hearts. John 14 verse 27 "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."
He focused on his friends, especially the two youngest. "If we see someone in trouble, but fear we might fail them if we try to help, does that mean we should never make the effort? Are we to suppose we will succeed at every undertaking in our lives? If fear of failure takes up residence in our souls, should then we be prepared to give up on our values, our principles, and our very existence?" He smiled.
"If your answers to those questions are 'no', then we are truly among good, and steadfast people. Life's pathways are strewn with difficult choices. Some we will get right, others, we will not, and then there are those, the conclusions of which are taken out of our hands. These are the moments that truly test us; and are the times we should turn to God for help…or to the comfort of family and good friends.
"Fate is like seed on the wind; souls that travel with purpose, ever hopeful we will reach our hearts desire. However, each hard lesson teaches us that we can only do, and give of our best, and armed with this knowledge, we continue on our journey through life." Resting on his forearms, he leaned over the pulpit and spoke softly.
"Because with each adventure, we eventually figure out that there will be times where even our best will not be enough."
A reasonably quiet day followed, and Sheriff Dunne was preparing for night duty. His mind played the previous day's events over and over, so he figured he'd rather work instead of try, and fail to sleep like last night. As he stood on the boardwalk just outside the jail, familiar voices drifted over the town and soothed him.
"Of course it's late, darlin', why d'ya think I was talking about a nice warm bed?"
JD shook his head at Buck's predictable nighttime speech to yet another pretty lady. However, he knew Buck was hurting, too, and hoped his adopted Big Brother would find some peace, tonight. Buck had spent most of last night trying to help JD find his.
The youth then glanced across to Vin. JD nodded to the tracker, who was sitting on the step of his wagon, and taking one last look around. The bandages on the sharpshooter's hands stood out starkly in the glow of the night fires. Vin's wagon was parked close to the still-smoldering remains of the Shipman home and even now, the smell of charred wood hung heavy on the night air leaving a painful reminder that the ruins had temporarily become a good man's tomb.
JD looked up to the room Chris rented. The glow from his cheroot could be seen at the window. JD wasn't surprised that Chris was watching over the town – and over Vin. Like Buck had with JD, Chris stayed close to the tracker last night. Hopefully, after observing Vin's quiet acceptance of his heroic role in the tragic events, Chris's mind would be more at ease and allow him to get some rest this night, too.
Noise drew his attention to the opposite direction and JD watched Josiah and Nathan exit the saloon and finish off a conversation in the street before separating. Wondering who was left in the drinkery at this hour, JD walked up to the batwing doors and glanced inside. He spotted Ezra seated at his favorite table and dealing a hand of poker to four other patrons. The gambler's green gaze drifted toward the doors and Ezra gestured for JD to join him.
"Thanks, no," JD more mouthed, than spoke.
He really didn't feel like a game of cards while the death of an innocent man still lay heavily on his mind. He sighed. His thoughts had come full circle. JD hung his head. If only he and Vin could have been just a little faster…
He turned back toward the end of town where the ruins stood and nodded to himself. They really couldn't have done any more. Buck and Chris were right about that.
He was surprised when Vin approached him with two saddled horses.
"Ride out with me," Tanner said, his Texan drawl soft.
JD knew that Vin wasted little time on small talk. When he did or said
something, there was a purpose to it, so JD agreed to the offer to take a ride. Before he could concern himself with abandoning his duties, Ezra appeared from nowhere and slipped into the jailhouse, deftly touching his hat to the two before disappearing inside.
After about an hour of easy riding, the pair reached a ridge and on Vin's instruction, laid out their bedrolls. They lay back on their makeshift pallets and looked up at the clear, night sky. JD glanced at his companion.
"Why are we here?"
"Shh…watch." Vin pointed. "There! See that?"
Staring at the stars, JD nodded. "Uh huh. What…?"
"Watch…" Vin grinned and JD gasped as the star brightened, then shot across the sky, then another, and another.
Vin smiled. "Nothin' better'n watchin' Mother Nature's fine display." He turned his head toward JD. "Been a bad coupla days, but we ain't gonna let it beat us, Kid. Y'hear?" He waited for JD to nod.
"We did all we could. Ike was taken afore it all came down. You gotta let it go now, JD."
JD swallowed, looked at his bandaged hands, and then nodded. "Sure. I guess I can, if you can."
There was silence, and more shooting stars. Eventually, Vin spoke. "That's settled, then." He rose up on one elbow and turned his head toward a stand of trees and surrounding shrubbery. "Y'all can come out, now."
JD turned his head sharply to see their five friends leak from the darkness and cover of nearby bushes. "How...? When...?"
He shook his head, grinned at Vin's instincts, and settled back down to enjoy the night sky's show. "Never mind."
Quietly, five more bedrolls were laid out to surround Vin and JD. For the first hour, seven friends watched the rest of nature's magnificent display together, then talked for a while over coffee. For the rest of the night, five brothers watched over their exhausted, sleeping youngest.
Thanks for riding along.
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