Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Characters: JD, Vin, Buck
Summary: A sudden shift in the weather demonstrates how dangerous life can be out West
Traveling the countryside by stagecoach wasn't JD's favorite way to move from town to town, but due to recovering from a minor bullet wound, Chris had insisted a less strenuous transport than horseback was used to escort a deputy and his prisoner into the waiting hands of a Federal Marshal in Santa Fe.
On the return journey, and as the young Sheriff and four other passengers were bounced along the hot, dusty trail, he couldn't help but wonder when Chris had last ridden overland by stagecoach. It was anything but comfortable. Still, it had been an enjoyable trip; an opportunity to relax, as much as was possible in a crowded coach; and see more of the countryside JD had come to love so.
After resting at Pond Creek Way Station for a bite to eat and a stretch of legs, the stage next stopped at Hangman's Gulch. The majority of the group was almost on the last leg of their jaunt. JD, however, was on the home stretch. The boy rested his head back, closed his eyes and smiled to himself. Home; sure sounded good.
Sometime later, a holler woke him from a light doze.
"Shutters down, folks! Sandstorm's rollin' in."
On hearing the coach driver's warning, JD reached out of the window, undid the straps, and rolled down and secured the leather blinds, while a man on the other side of the coach did likewise. The five male passengers then placed kerchiefs to their noses and mouths. The swirling sandstorm quickly whipped up into a vicious, choking, needle-like grit that seeped in through gaps in the wood and the shades, and obliterated all landscape from view.
After a while, JD had a thought. He dropped his bandanna for a moment to speak to a fellow passenger. "Hey, Mister, what time is it, please?"
The man's reply caused JD to frown as he mulled over how long and how fast they had been traveling before the storm. He stuck his head out of one blind, and was taken aback at how the churning dust stung his face.
"Hey!" JD hollered louder to reach the coach driver's ears. "Driver! Hey! Are we close to Hawks Ridge, yet?"
"What of it?" the faint call came back.
"Was just wonderin', it's an open trail, and this storm…"
"I'm headin' for some foothills to find shelter so git back inside sonny and let me and the horses worry 'bout the particulars."
Relieved to get out of the wind, JD secured the shade, but he couldn't shake off the nagging unease building in the pit of his stomach.
"What's the problem?" one traveler yelled over the noise of the wind.
JD forced a smile. "No problem. Just wondering where we are is all." He didn't feel it to be right to share his concerns that the team was running blind, and along a valley rim trail.
The wind and stinging sand was unsettling the horses and the driver was struggling to hold them back. Suddenly the coach's wheels hit a rut in the ground with a hefty jolt and from somewhere below, an almighty crack was both felt, and heard, over the sounds of pounding hooves, a creaking chassis, and the howling storm. The stage shuddered violently before lurching off to one side. Seconds later, all vibration ceased.
JD barely got one shade open before he realized the eerie stillness wasn't because they had stopped, but due to the coach, minus the four horse team having no road beneath it. As the carriage's nose dipped, he grabbed at his bench seat and the window frame to brace himself.
"Oh God. We're going over. Hold on!"
The coach was in freefall. Its passengers had barely understood what was happening before the heavy framework hit something hard enough to turn the coach upside down. Not one of the occupants were conscious a sufficient amount of time to experience the stagecoach's lengthy crash, bounce, and slide down the grassy, boulder-littered incline, or the crunching halt when it, and they, hit the valley floor.
TWO HOURS PRIOR - POND CREEK STATION
JD smiled up at the jolly woman clearing his and his fellow travelers' plates. "Thanks Missus MacLeish that sure was a great meal."
Dorothy MacLeish offered a warm smile. "You're very welcome, sweetie. Me and Mister MacLeish like to make sure our visitors go on their way with full bellies and a well-rested team." She glanced around the table. "Can I interest anyone in some of my peach pie?"
Her melodious chuckle greeted appreciative mumbles, and while her husband Darwin poured the five travelers, the coach driver, and his shotgun messenger fresh coffee, Dorothy served up warm, peach pie.
Outside in the early afternoon sunshine, the five passengers bid farewell to the station keepers.
At the driver's call, the passengers climbed into the coach and the man addressed the hostler holding the team steady. "Let 'em go, friend!" As the handler stepped back, the driver took control of the eager team and they set off.
"Hup! Hup! Yah!"
JD relaxed back. Next stop Hangman's Gulch, and then home. He smiled, not really surprised at how good that thought made him feel.
TWO HOURS PRIOR - FOUR CORNERS
Seated outside the jail, Buck checked his pocket watch. Smiling to himself he closed the timepiece and slipped it into his vest pocket. By late afternoon the stage would roll in and JD would be back. Buck couldn't help but feel good about it. He'd missed the boy, and it would be kinda nice to have him home.
When Chris ordered JD to ride with the marshal, Buck hadn't been too keen. Though never life-threatening, JD was recovering from a bullet wound to his leg and he felt the boy could do with more rest. But Chris promised a prisoner escort, and with JD a little under par, he figured a nice sit-down job just the thing to make the boy feel useful, while enabling Chris to keep his word.
The idea turned out to be a sound one. The day after JD left, Mexican banditos rode into town looking for a fight. Having JD safe, and not in town insisting he was 'fine' and could fight made Buck feel a whole lot happier. JD being due home soon added to that contentment. Buck nodded to Ezra as the southerner joined him and took up a seat on the boardwalk.
"Are you planning to lodge here until the afternoon stage arrives, Buck?"
The brunet smiled. "Figured I might, just to kill some time."
Ezra offered a wry smile. "Kill time, of course. The fact that Mister Dunne will be on that very stage has nothing whatsoever to do with it, correct?"
"You think I'm burning daylight just to check that pesky kid makes it back here in one piece?"
Standish pulled out a deck. "Perish the thought." As he shuffled the cards he glanced sideways at Buck, and the pair laughed.
"Will be good to have the kid back."
Both men touched their hats to Vin as he rode by to begin his patrol. Ezra smiled to himself, convinced Vin's route would align perfectly for around the time the stage was due in the area. In truth, in their distinct, unique ways, each of the six friends had felt the loss of their youngest's company. While the days JD was gone were undoubtedly quieter, the boy's bubbling enthusiasm for just about everything had been missed. His youthful curiosity kept them on their toes, and caused them to look at most everything with fresh eyes. No bad thing for six once jaded, distrustful gunslingers.
Ezra stood. "I was considering partaking in a hand or two of poker. Care to join me?"
Buck pursed his lips, and then nodded. "Sure, might help to kill some time." With a slap to Ezra's back as he stood, Buck followed the southerner into the saloon.
A half hour later, and having joined Buck, Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah to play poker, Chris looked up from the cards in his hand and to the clattering saloon doors. His gaze narrowed as it moved to the window. The view outside was obliterated by a fierce dust storm.
"Vin still out?"
Josiah tossed in a card. "Yup, but he's no fool. Likely he saw this coming well in advance."
Chris nodded, but Josiah's assurance didn't completely ease his concerns. He decided to wait out the storm, and then maybe he'd take a ride out – just to check over the area.
Buck too was looking toward the doors. "This could make the stage late."
Nathan puffed on his cigar. "Better to be late than in trouble." As soon as he'd said the words Nathan wished he could take them back. Buck's face became a mask of concern. Chris looked at his long-time friend and figured he likely wouldn't be riding out alone later.
The sound of screams finally penetrated his wooly head and ringing ears. JD had tried to fight consciousness. Somehow, he knew coming to would bring pain; and he wasn't wrong. Throbbing ignited just about everywhere, and he wondered if it was possible to break every bone in your body; but the worst pain had to be in his left shoulder, ribs and head.
"Aaahhh…" Trying to move was a bad idea, so he carefully rolled his head to one side to find the source of the cries that woke him. "Oh God, no."
The sights that greeted JD made his stomach roil, but he was on his back, and in no position to be sick, so he took a few calming breaths as deeply as his aching chest and sides would allow. Three of his fellow passengers' and the two coachmen's bodies were horribly twisted and lying among grass and stones. The guesswork of whether they were still alive was removed due to the glassy, lifeless stares of most of the men, and the horribly unnatural positions and injuries of the others.
In the direction of the cries, JD could see another man was trapped under the main bodywork of the coach. The wheels had become separated, and lay a little way over from the young sheriff, but even without those, the stage was solid, and heavy, and JD feared the man was crushed, as all that was visible was his shoulders, neck and head.
Dreading the pain, but knowing the man wouldn't survive for long like that, JD tried to get up. "Gotta help…"
Despite firing up all his injuries, it became evident his left leg was numb. Raising his head a little, he could see that from the knee was trapped underneath the carriage. He pushed his right boot against what was once the top of the stage, but the bodywork remained stubbornly unmoving. The effort caused him to jolt his injured shoulder and ignited the ache inside his head.
"AAAARRRRGGHHHH…!" He slipped into a pain-fueled unconsciousness with the whispered plea of the man a little ways from him filling his fleeing thoughts.
Vin peeked out from the cave he was sheltering in and smiled at the now tranquil landscape. The storm had been wild, but thankfully short. He lead out his horse and before mounting up, pulled down his bandanna from his nose and mouth, and dusted himself off. He made his way down the trail and back onto the beaten track, already of a mind to meet up with the stage and ride on back with it. He figured JD wouldn't mind. Tanner shook his head. Darn it, why hadn't he thought to saddle up JD's horse to bring along? Then they could have ridden home together.
After a mile or so Vin halted. He stared on seeing, grazing just ahead of him, a four-horse team still harnessed together, but with no sign of a wagon. Dismounting, he checked over the harnesses and partial rig and instantly found the tongue had cracked and split from the carriage it was once attached to. He examined the horses, thoroughbreds, all four. Apart from breeding, the only use for such fine stock in these parts was to pull a stagecoach. Tanner's stomach clenched.
He stared around the area, painfully aware of how the trail ran along Hawks Ridge, and close to the rim of Dry Springs Gorge. Leading the horses, including his own, Vin walked the trail, and prayed he would find whatever this team had been hitched to standing at the roadside and waiting on help.
Unable to dismiss Nathan's comment, Buck had given up on the poker game to mosey on over to the telegraph office and send a wire to Hangman's Gulch. Just as the storm was easing up, Buck received his reply and stepped out of the office and onto the boardwalk to read it.
Buck jolted slightly, and frowned at Chris. "Where'd you come from?"
Leaning against a support post, Chris pursed his lips. "Been stood here 'bout ten minutes or so; from when the wind slowed up." He gestured to the telegram. "Well?"
Buck wasn't sure if the news was good or not. "Says here that the stage left Hangman's Gulch before the storm hit."
Chris straightened. "Wanna take a ride out?"
Buck was already walking. "You need to ask?"
Chris paused, his gut instincts telling him this might need more than just two of them. "Saddle the horses; I'll round up the boys."
An odd gurgling sound prompted JD to depart his state of semi-consciousness and force open his eyes. Facing the sky, he noted how overcast it had become. He swallowed against a dry throat. Ah well, if it rained, at least he'd get a chance of water. He remembered a sound had roused him and so the boy turned his head toward the man trapped by the coach – and promptly wished he hadn't.
Even as the death rattle in his throat took the man's last breath, his wide eyes and frightened gaze latched onto JD's. It was a sight JD feared would haunt him for a lifetime – providing he survived in the first instance. Ashamed at his weakness, but in no shape to hold back, hot tears spilled from the corners of the boy's eyes as compassion for the horrifying loss of lives took control. "I'm real sorry, Mister...real sorry."
Once composed, his mind worked overtime as the question of how much longer he could hold on consumed him. Minutes later, it occurred to JD that he might make it through the night, which in itself brought its own dangers. He chewed on his lower lip and eased his good hand down to his gunbelt. Relief washed over him when his hand closed around his gun grip. "Oh, thank you, God, at least I got a means to defend myself."
Both his Colts were fully loaded, but now there was a new question. Could he reach the other gun? Fighting the fiery pain that moving caused, he inched his arm and hand across his belly, but barely got a fingertip to the butt of the second firearm.
He had his answer; no, he couldn't reach. And so now he had a decision to make.
Reloading with only one hand and limited movement would be tricky. Should he fire shots in the hope of reaching the ears of a passerby, or save the bullets in case any animals came sniffing around? Gritting his teeth, JD's fingers felt around the one side of his gunbelt and through pained grunts he successfully freed up six bullets from the belt loops. As the boy laid them on his chest for safekeeping, he figured it at least gave him a few more options. "Hopefully, I won't need you fellas," he said, lightly patting the shells.
JD stared around at his motionless fellow travelers and suddenly became overwhelmed that perhaps only he had survived – at least so far. With the sun masked by dark clouds it was near impossible to know how long he'd been lying there. Would the fellas recognize the stage was late by now? Were they already out looking? As the first heavy raindrop hit, JD's true fear was that if the earlier sandstorm stretched as far as the town, they might just assume the stage had stopped to wait it out, and so would give it more time.
Raising his hand he stared at bloodstained fingers. When reaching for the second gun, JD found he was bleeding out. Without knowing why, or how bad it was, at least he now understood why he was beginning to feel lightheaded. The rain fell heavier, and he stuck out his tongue to capture the drops. Imagining how he must look, JD giggled, which caused him to hiss as doing so hurt, but the pain didn't stop him, and soon the giggles turned to breathless laughter, which prompted an emotional outburst that finally snapped him out of his sudden hysteria.
"Damnit, JD, get a grip, or you're gonna die out here."
Feeling himself growing weaker, JD eased his gun out of its holster. He raised his hand in the air, thumbed back the Colt's hammer, and fired three slow shots skyward before heavily dropping his arm to the ground. He felt around for his hat, but with no luck locating it he turned his face away from the rain and closed his eyes. All he could do for now was wait and hope – and maybe pray a little.
Vin was following the most recent tracks from the team of horses. He cursed inwardly when drops of rain hit his boots, and hat brim. Tanner glared up at the sky, but wasn't overly concerned about losing the trail. He was pretty sure he knew where they were heading and was torn between feelings of both dread and satisfaction at finding the stage. At best, the coach and passengers were stranded; at worst – Hawks Ridge and Dry Springs Gorge had factored into their fate. Vin really didn't want to think about the worst scenario; but secretly, the threat of it was plaguing his hopes of a happy outcome.
Continuing on through the rain, three distant shots fired in succession brought his gaze up from staring at the trail of hoof marks and crushed grass and toward the looming arroyo.
"Aww hell." Tugging at the horses' reins, he started to sprint.
The remaining five, somber regulators were setting a swift pace as they rode the stage trail from town. The blistering heat following the sandstorm had eased when the rain started, which was more of a blessing than a curse. Not that anyone was commenting. Even Ezra's usual disgruntlement at getting wet hadn't cropped up due to each man's unswerving focus on the task at hand and at what they might uncover on their mission.
Chris and Buck led the group, both men's minds heavy with unease. Along with concern for JD, Chris was also bothered that Vin still hadn't come back off patrol, and now he was worried the two events might be linked. He chose not to share his fears with Buck; the ladies' man had enough on his mind as it was, the others, however had commented on Vin's absence before riding out, and were painfully aware that they might well be looking for two of their friends.
Buck, despite not voicing his worry, was no less aware that Vin was missing. His thoughts, however, were more positive. He hoped the tracker was running late because he had met up with the delayed stage; and which meant neither he, or JD were in trouble. Buck shook off the nagging doubts attempting to creep in, preferring his interpretation much better than any alternative.
Distant gunfire and the urgency of the shots had the five pushing their horses on at a breakneck speed.
JD opened his eyes to patches of blue sky and warmth on his face. The rain had stopped, but that wasn't what brought the youth around. It was an impulse, a gut feeling that something was wrong, but as of yet, nothing was obvious. Shivering, he reached for the wound in his side. It was still wet. He expected to be damp from the rainfall, but even though he was shivering, JD felt sure he was sweating too, and hoped it wasn't from any kind of infection.
Panic gripped him. What if my leg is…? He closed his eyes at the thought of any part of his body being crushed, or severed. He swallowed the rising anxiety and tried to apply logic. Yes, his leg was numb, but then he did have a God-darned stagecoach lying on it. He glanced up at the Heavens. "Sorry Mama, didn't mean to blaspheme."
A distant sound caused the earlier gut reaction to return and JD tried to make his eyes focus. His hearing was working fine though, and the sounds of snuffling, and bracken crackling underfoot had him turn his head toward them. He went rigid when a pack of coyotes came into his line of sight. Several were tearing at one of the bodies, the smell of blood clearly exciting the animals into a feeding frenzy. JD tried to recall anything Vin or Buck might have told him about how to deal with them, but his fuzzy mind was blank. His good hand trembled as he raised his gun, aimed at the three coyotes closest to him, and fired.
One animal dropped dead, one ran away, and the other yelped in pain, but didn't go down. Instead, injured, and with its meal under threat, it growled, which set off the coyotes that hadn't yet begun feeding. The empty Colt clicked on the next discharge, and now JD was in a world of hurt and trying to reload with one hand. Aware he was a real easy target, his heart thumped crazily as he watched the snarling beasts cautiously make their way toward him.
More gunfire had Vin running the last several hundred feet to the edge of the ridge. Reins still in hand, Tanner stopped at the arroyo rim and peered over. His eyes reflected the horror of seeing luggage and bodies laying a trail of carnage down the hill and toward the wrecked stage that lay at the bottom of the gorge. However, his sharp senses were already directing him to unsheathe his rifle. A pack of coyotes were closing in on something on the far side of the stagecoach, and Vin wasn't about to let that happen, even if their prey was also dead. Aiming, he accurately took out four coyotes in succession, and successfully scattered the rest toward the safety of nearby woods. So intense was his focus he almost missed the pounding hooves draw near and pull up behind him.
For a second, the five dismounted lawmen stared down at the horrifying scene. Moments later, and rifle in hand, Buck was half-running, half-sliding down the incline, firing off a few shots toward the woods for good measure. His feet hit the valley floor and he scanned the area.
Hearing no reply, and though dreading what he might find, he made his way toward the overturned stage. Behind him, Vin was halfway down the hill, Ezra was already heading back to town for help, and the others were gathering up supplies to treat any casualties.
JD stared at the retreating pack and closed his eyes in relief. Someone had found them, but – a flash of alarm struck him - were they here to help, or strip the dead and injured of their belongings? A familiar voice calling out brought his pounding heart up into his throat. Oh, thank God. Buck.
There was little volume in his call, but it was enough to bring his best friend running to his side. "Ahh jeeze, Kid."
Buck dropped down onto his knees and mentally checked over his self-adopted kid brother. His eyes filled at the sight of JD so badly injured, but also with joy that he had survived the ordeal. Buck stared around at the ones who hadn't been so lucky. Now it was up to him and the boys to make sure the kid got home to make a full recovery.
And help JD put this horror behind him.
"Buck, help – my leg…"
The ladies' man nodded. "Take it easy, Kid, I see it. The boys are here, too. We'll have you outta there faster than a hobo in a whorehouse." He forced a grin when he could see JD reacting to his words.
JD grunted as he held back a giggle that he felt sure would hurt like hell. "Still…full of…crap, Buck."
"You know, it, Kid." Buck looked up when Vin settled next to them. Seeing the tracker struggling with the sight, Buck winked at JD before addressing the sharpshooter.
"Sure was some fancy shooting there, Pard. Got those coyotes running for their mamas."
Realization of who had saved him from being chowed down on by coyotes softened JD's pained hazel gaze as he looked at the Texan. "Thanks, Vin. I saw 'em early, but I couldn't recall what to do…"
Tanner's misty blue gaze held JD's. "Anytime, Kid. When you're up to it, I'll remind you...in case you should come upon 'em again, sometime."
The sounds of Chris, Josiah and Nathan arriving caught JD's interest, but it was clear he was struggling with staying alert. Larabee crouched down and smiled at the boy.
"Let's get you fixed up." He gestured to Buck and Vin and the three moved back toward Josiah to let Nathan check JD over.
"Nathan's gonna give JD some water, and then a little laudanum. Once he's drifted off, we'll get that coach off him." Chris glanced around.
"Ezra's bringing help. I figured we could get the dead back up the hill and back to town, but it's gonna be late by the time we're through, so we'll make camp here. Nathan said he'd be happier tending to JD here and building up his strength before getting him up that rise and then home." He waited on their reactions. Everyone agreed, especially as no one yet knew how bad JD, or his leg was.
"Okay, he's out."
All eyes turned to Nathan and then to the stricken stagecoach. Chris spoke. "Nathan, it's gonna be tight, get ready to haul JD out."
Nathan got into position. "I'll have to watch his left shoulder, it looks to be dislocated."
With a nod from Chris, he, Josiah, Vin, and Buck got into position. They took the strain and on a count of three, lifted the stage just enough to ease JD out. Moments later, and before the heavy carriage crashed back to the ground, Nathan had also freed the other trapped passenger. Returning to JD, he eased the boy's boot off and was relieved to find it wasn't full of blood as he'd feared. While the others watched, he checked over the limb. Finally, he looked up.
"Apart from nasty cuts and scrapes and a lot of bruising, his leg's good."
Buck stared. "It ain't broke?"
"No. Lord knows how, though I reckon it's gonna be a mite uncomfortable for a while." He glanced over to the crushed man he'd freed. "JD got real lucky."
Lucky wasn't the first word that had come to Buck's mind when he initially saw JD, but he nodded on realizing it was a darned good choice, considering.
Nathan continued. "He's pretty banged up. Apart from his shoulder, he's got a gash in his side that needs stitching, and a nasty head wound. One thing I ain't sure of just yet is whether he's hurt and bleeding on the inside. If I can get him resting comfortably through the night, and keep a close eye on him, I'll know more by morning. First thing I need to do though is get these wet clothes off him."
By the time Vin got a campfire going, Nathan had the sleeping boy tended to, covered, and settled. Finding no survivors, Chris, Josiah, and Buck started on the task of gathering up the deceased and their belongings. Ezra returned with men from the town, and several wagons, and once the passengers and coachmen's bodies and possessions were wrapped in tarpaulin and blankets, they were hauled up the hillside and taken on to town, leaving the six regulators alone to take care of their seventh. Tired and deeply affected by the terrible tragedy, the townsfolk left for home with their precious cargo, and in no doubt that the six friends remaining held deep fears as to whether their youngest would make it through the night.
With Ezra also having brought back supplies, Josiah cooked up a beef stew and Chris brewed coffee. Vin wandered off into the brush, while Buck chose to sit with JD as Nathan continued to clean and stitch the boy up. Only minutes earlier, when the healer put JD's shoulder back in place, the kid had awakened howling in agony. The effort to fix JD up while restraining him, and then finally calm him down drained Buck and Nathan, as well as JD, but eventually Nathan's valerian and hops tea did its job and sent the kid into an uneasy sleep.
Vin returned with a large number of tall, springy, sturdy yet slender deadfall boughs which he proceeded to cut to an even size for a main frame, then slightly shorter sticks to be tied to them. Taking a piece of hide from his saddlebags, Vin cut it into thin strips to lash the sticks together.
When he was happy with his contraption's sturdiness, he took two of the blankets Ezra brought from town and sewed them together, making a form of man-sized pouch. Poking holes into the bottom blanket, Vin threaded hide strips through them to secure it to the frame.
While they cooked, made camp, and tended to JD, the others watched the Texan with interest. When Vin stopped to check his efforts, Ezra approached.
"How will this work, Mister Tanner?"
Vin gestured as he explained. "JD ain't gonna have an easy time goin' up this hill, so I figured if we secure him inside these blankets he won't need to be tied – which could do more damage to his injuries. I'll head on up, send down a rope, and while you boys climb up alongside the travois, I'll get a couple 'a horses to pull it."
Chris came over with a mug of coffee for Vin. "Good plan." He glanced back at JD. "Nathan reckons if he gets through the night, the kid should be strong enough to be moved in the morning."
Vin nodded and sipped on his brew. "He woke up yet?"
Chris pursed his lips. "Not properly. He's running a fever, so Buck, Josiah and Nathan are taking turns to keep him cool."
Vin toed at one of the excess boughs he'd been using and flipped it up into his hand, He tossed it onto the fire. "Best we keep these flames roarin', help sweat that fever outta him."
Chris nodded. "Ezra, Josiah and me already planned on doing that."
Tanner offered a tight smile. "Count me in."
Little sleep came by the six men as JD hollered, tossed and turned from fever induced nightmares and flare-ups of pain. The boy shivered, yet his body was hot and clammy to the touch. Buck laid out his bedroll next to JD and hunkered down beside the boy. In a moment of lucidity, JD's fever-bright stare studied Buck's concerned gaze.
"Is it bad? Am I gonna die too, Buck?"
Not even blinking, Buck shook his head. "Not a chance. Now get that fool notion outta your head right this minute." He took a damp cloth and dabbed at the beads of moisture on JD's brow and cheeks.
Tired eyes struggled to stay open. "Just needed…to know. Glad…you're here…."
Buck fought the wobble in his chin and laid a hand on JD's sweat-slickened shoulder. "Now just where else would I be, huh, Kid?" Before he could offer JD some water, the boy was out again. In the crackle and pop of the flickering firelight, Buck watched the kid settle into a restless sleep, and silently prayed for JD to stay with them.
Six tired men emerged from a night of intermittent sleep and lookout duty. As coffee brewed, and bacon and beans cooked, all eyes were on Nathan as five stood close to the campfire and the healer examined JD. He was thorough, checking JD's head injury, and the infection in his flank and leg wounds, before re-bandaging them, and finishing with strapping the boy's injured shoulder to ensure stability when it was time to move him. After offering JD some of the broth from the previous night's stew, he walked toward the waiting group.
"He ain't out of the woods yet, but he's stronger than yesterday, a mite cooler, and there ain't no swelling in his belly."
"We can take him home?" Chris asked.
Nathan nodded. "Yeah, I reckon it's safe to move him now, so long as we take it real easy."
Vin was already packing up his kit. "I'll head on up to the horses and wagon. I'll toss down a rope, and when you holler, I'll get Josiah's horse to help pull the travois up."
Quincy was a sturdy, sixteen hands, sorrel quarter horse, and being of a sweet nature, was the perfect choice for a steady haul up a tricky incline. It took Vin little time to climb up to the tether line. He unraveled his rope, held onto one end and tossed the weightier coil down toward his friends. The rope was a few feet short, but there were more than enough of them to carry JD and the travois toward it.
JD was given laudanum, and once he was out, Buck and Josiah eased him between the blankets, and then Nathan quickly sewed across the top, and either side of JD to restrict movement. Each with a saddlebag over his shoulder and a bedroll tied to their gunbelts, the five men picked up the frame and carried it toward the rope. Once they reached it, Chris secured the end to the top part of the 'inverted V' - shaped frame, and with a shrill whistle to Vin, he and the men once again lifted the travois.
With Quincy taking the strain, and Vin slowly easing the horse forward, the men were able to use one hand to steady and assist themselves up the hillside, while the frame was half-carried, half-pulled upwards. Despite being asleep, and well secured, JD moaned a little at the jostling, but otherwise seemed fine.
When the entourage hit the top, Vin halted the horse, and then went back to assist his friends in getting first the travois over the rim, and then each of the lawmen. It had been a long, slow, tiring, yet successful procedure, and once they caught their breath, they took JD from the travois and laid him in the wagon on a bed of blankets ready for the ride home. When they finally set out, Buck and Ezra drove the buckboard, while Nathan climbed into the back to ensure the safety and comfort of his patient.
Another long, slow, journey later, townsfolk halted in the street, or peered out from buildings to watch the group enter the town and head toward the livery, and to Nathan's clinic located above it. Mary Travis approached, her gaze resting on the still form in the wagon.
"Is he still…?"
Jumping down into the street, Nathan nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Not sure how JD survived, but he did. He's a tough kid though, and providing I can get him settled, he should be fine."
Mary smiled. "I have the clinic ready for you. I'll join you later."
Exiting the livery, Yosemite wiped his hands on his apron and gestured toward the horses and wagon. "I'll take those for you, fellas. You go do what needs to be done for young JD."
Thanking him, the six men proceeded to take JD from the wagon and up to Nathan's clinic; a place they hoped the final part of the healing process would ensue, and where they would be there for him, no matter how long it took.
Three days on, and after a much needed bath, and shave, followed by breakfast, Buck walked softly into the clinic. After the seven returned to town, apart from outhouse and occasional meal breaks, Buck had sat with JD in the hope that, despite his delirium from the infections in his side and leg, JD would know he was there and that he wasn't alone.
A half an hour later, and just as Buck and Nathan were plotting to get some of Gloria Potter's beef broth into JD, the boy stirred. With hope in their eyes, the two men looked at each other, then back to the bed. Buck leaned in.
"Don't be teasing ole Buck now, Kid. Let's have those eyes open, huh?" As he spoke, he brushed damp bangs from JD's brow. He glanced quickly at Nathan. "He ain't hot no more."
The healer touched the back of his hand to JD's forehead and grinned. "He did it, Buck. He won the fight." Nathan looked upwards and spoke softly. "He won."
Eyes dancing with joy, Buck and Nathan looked to JD, who was staring blearily at them.
"Who won, Buck?"
His gaze misty, Buck wrapped his fingers around JD's wrist and grinned. "We all did, son, all seven of us."
"Am I to understand a game of chance took place without me?" Stopping just inside the clinic door, Ezra smiled wide enough to expose his gold tooth. "Why, Mister Dunne. Good to see you awake."
"Hey, Ezra," JD said, weakly. He lifted a limp hand and waved it between Buck and Nathan. "I got no idea what these two are going on about."
Ezra chuckled. "Nothing new there as far as Buck is concerned." All three laughed when JD hissed out a raspy giggle.
Buck mock-scolded the pair. "Standish, I'd sleep with one eye open t'night if I was you. And you, Li'l Brother…awake two minutes and ragging on poor ole Buck already?" The fact that he and JD were smiling completely took the sting out of the admonishment. All four looked to the door when it opened and Josiah, Chris, and Vin walked in.
"Josiah told us there was a racket coming from in here," Chris teased, a smile lighting up his face. "Looks like he was right."
"Good to see you awake, Kid," Vin said, a crooked grin adorning his features.
Josiah just offered his best, bright smile and walked closer to set a hand on the boy's head and say a short, silent prayer.
Taking a few sips from the cup Nathan held to his lips, JD glanced around his friends. "Don't recall a whole lot, but I do remember y'all were there with me, down in that gorge." He swallowed, though it was not due to the liquid, but owing to a block of emotion lodged in his throat. "Thank you," he rasped out.
Silent nods greeted the lad's sincere words while each man truly hoped JD would never fully remember what he'd gone through, or the terrible carnage that occurred that day. Though they figured the chances of him drawing a complete blank were likely to be slim.
One week on, found JD enveloped by a blanket and sitting in a chair outside the jail. Each of his friends stopped by at some point to keep him company, and it became evident as the day wore on that JD's demeanor was going downhill.
Owing to weakness from his injuries still healing and a prominent albeit, Nathan hoped, temporary limp on the leg that once was trapped under the stage, the six men helped JD inside the jailhouse. After making coffee for each one, Chris asked the question on everyone's lips.
"What's bothering you, son?"
JD wasn't really surprised his friends had noticed he was down. He shrugged, but made eye contact with his hero. "Was just wondering, is all."
"What about?" Buck queried.
JD licked his lips nervously. "I don't wanna sound ungrateful or nothing but…I keep wondering how come I didn't die that day, too. I mean, I was sitting right there with the others before the coach crashed down the hillside, yet I…"
Buck squeezed JD's good arm. The boy's eyes filled and he stared up at the ceiling. "I keep wondering too, if there was more I coulda done. The poor fella lying next to me…" he shuddered.
"...He kept crying out, and I couldn't move to help him, or the strength to stay awake and comfort him. Next time I woke up, he'd passed. Just like the others." One tear dropped as JD looked at the six men. "He'd been sitting right next to me inside the coach. Right there, next to me."
Josiah pitched in. "It's a well-worn phrase, son, but the answer's real simple. It wasn't your time. I've seen men stood next to each other in a gunfight, and one will walk away, while the other takes a bullet that ends his days."
The others nodded.
JD's brow furrowed. "You reckon it's really that simple?"
Vin scratched at his whiskered chin. "Yeah, Kid. It's that simple."
Buck leaned in. "Come on, JD. You gotta let this go, now."
Chris stood and approached. "We've all been there, Kid. Every one of us. My Pa had a great phrase; What don't kill you, makes you stronger. He was right." He reached out and squeezed JD's good shoulder.
"Learn from this, accept it for what it is, and then let it go. You take your troubles into the next battle, and they either burn you up with rage, or blind you with fear. The John Dunne I've gotten to know would fight to stop his hopes and dreams being taken away from him. The John Dunne I know - would do what he's been doing since the day I first met him and taught him his first lesson out West."
JD waited on the answer with bated breath. Vin smiled to himself. Chris was a good man – a good leader.
"And...what's that, Chris?"
"Take on board what he's learned, and long for the next adventure."
JD stared at Chris for a long while, then he grinned, shyly. "Aww, now you're just funning with me."
Chris looked JD in the eye. "I would never do that over something like this." He noted the acceptance in JD's gaze and smiled. "Now, Buck, on the other hand…"
They all laughed and the tension melted.
"Sorry," JD offered.
"Don't be sorry for giving a damn," Chris more advised than ordered. He nodded his approval when JD's head bobbed in agreement.
JD pushed himself out of the chair, but wobbled. Buck quickly rose to steady him. The boy glanced over at the healer and then excused himself. "I promised Nathan I wouldn't stay out too long for my first day." JD hated leaving, but figured showing willing might give him leeway for other days.
Buck held JD firmer. "Where we heading, Kid?"
"Just my room."
Nathan gestured toward the saloon. "What say I grab us some whiskey, and milk and we keep you company for an hour or two?"
"Perhaps we could play a hand or two of poker," Ezra suggested.
Six men grinned. "Sounds like a plan," Vin agreed.
As night drew in, seven friends spent some time enjoying the familiarity of company that had moved beyond mere co-workers; had even overtaken friendship. In the course of joining together to tame a town, they became family – brothers in all but blood. Their strengthening bond meant neither one was alone any longer; nevertheless there was room for growth; time to learn from mistakes, battles both personal and public to win; fresh difficulties to overcome.
And all the while, all seven confident in the knowledge that each and every one was a good man to ride the river with.
Thanks for riding along.
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