by Sarah B.
JD clawed at the walls of the hole, and groaned.
The water had gone over his head twice; it was freezing cold, numbing him and making thinking difficult, but still he kept trying to stay alive.
When the water had gotten high enough he found he was floating in it; his leg still burned in agony, but he found that he could move it less painfully, and so had managed to turn himself over so he was facing the steep walls that were now his only hope. One last, desperate hope: maybe I can climb out.
But it was no use; the water was killing him with its ice-cold intensity, stiffening his limbs until they no longer did what he told them to; and the walls went straight up; even if he could move it would be difficult, and his broken leg made it impossible.
But JD kept trying anyway. It was all he had.
He gasped as the water once more touched his chin, and dug his hands into the icy earth around him, hoping to pull himself up a little higher than the five or six inches hed already attained. His leg screamed at the effort, and he gasped at the pain, coughing as water got into his mouth, down his throat. He closed his eyes tight, jammed his fingers into the dirt until the pain lessened a little, tried to think. But it was so hard...
He was going to die.
No, JDs mind screamed, and he fought against the panic that was welling in his throat, no, this isnt how its supposed to happen, its not. Mama always said Id do great things, I promised her Id make her proud, I cant die in a muddy hole, I -
The water reached his mouth, and JD shook his head, tried to breathe through his nose as he once more attempted to haul himself out of the freezing water, even if it was only an inch -
Suddenly there was a loud roar above his head, and a torrent of water slammed down on him from above, sending an explosion of pain rocketing through his entire body. His arms gave way and he plunged down into the pool with a cry, the water closing over his head one more time.
JD flailed against the churning depths, tried to find the sides of the hole, opened his eyes but there was nothing to see, and again his leg erupted in a lightning bolt of torment. The water was rising faster now, pushing him down, and JD couldnt make it to the surface. His lungs were bursting, his mind swirling and fading as he was pinned to the bottom, and JD had time for only one more thought before the pain and cold and exhaustion took over, and he felt himself passing out. One more frantic, pleading, almost irrational thought:
Mama, God, help me!
And then oblivion.
* * * * * * *
Buck ran forward a few more feet, scanned the trees and dead leaves with eyes that reflected the panic in his heart. JD!
It was getting dark; shit, it couldnt, not yet. Vin ran by him, his keen eyes searching the terrain. The men were fanning out in all directions, all calling JDs name, but so far no response.
No response at all.
Shit, Buck thought, and shook his head against what hed seen before. It was bizarre, his plain mind had trouble comprehending it, but danged if it wasnt just what Josiah said it was, a demon. Just like Buck had read about in the Bible, a real one.
But if there were demons -
God, you and I aint exactly drinking buddies, Buck prayed as he ran forward again, but if you helped me out here Id surely appreciate it. Then, more desperately, aw, shit, God, dont let JD die, not yet. He aint lived yet. Please, God, please -
Bucks head came up at the sound of a womans voice. What the - There, just ahead and down at the bottom of a small valley - was that a woman standing next to the stream down there?
Buck ran toward her, stopped as he realized how steep the descent was becoming. It was one of the townswomen, Buck saw as he got closer, and when she saw him she started waving her arms frantically.
Somebodys trapped down here! She called, her voice full of urgency.
Buck went a few more feet, stopped and looked. There was a rock wall at the bottom of the stream, half kicked-out it looked like, and water was pouring through it into a wide hole some yards distant.
The woman pointed and shouted, Down there! Hes down there! Buck took a deep breath, screamed, Hey! and fired off his gun to alert the others. Then he half ran, half slid down the grassy slope to where the woman was standing, half-hidden in the gathering darkness.
Please hurry! The woman pleaded, her handsome face strained with worry. Buck rushed to the edge of the almost-full hole, looked down in. It was almost impossible to see, water was gushing past him furiously, and the gathering night made the hole almost black, but - Three feet away, bobbing in the muddy water - a white shirt, wet black hair, and the waterlogged satin back of a brown vest.
Buck plunged his arms into the water without thinking about it, gasped when the iciness stabbed at him. He grabbed the back of JDs collar with both hands, hauled with a strength he didnt know he possessed, but JD was so heavy, and he dug in his heels and tried again.
His legs broken. The woman standing next to Buck said.
Oh - Buck breathed, straining to lift JD out of the water.
Suddenly Josiah was next to him, taking the back of JDs vest, and together the two men pulled JD from the waters hold, and laid him on the cold valley floor.
JD? Buck cried out, scrambling to kneel by his young friends side. The youth was white, his lips blue, and he was so still - Buck put his hand on JDs chest, shook him. JD!
Nathan was there, the others running behind him. The healer skidded to his knees next to JD, and Buck pulled himself back and said, his eyes wide with panic, Hes not breathin.
Nathan knelt close, then sat back up.
Come on, JD, He said with only a hint of panic, gently turning JD onto his side and then, more forcefully, began pounding on his back.
Buck looked up, and his eyes met Chris. Fear on Chris face, and Ezras too, a horrifying realization setting in, Vins head was down so Buck couldnt see his face. Buck tried to control his fear, tried to maintain that gunslinger calm, but - God!
Buck leaned close, saw that Nathans efforts were having no effect; JD lay quiet, cold, his youthful face slack and almost peaceful-looking, the strands of black hair plastered around his closed eyelids. He was dying. He was dead -
Jesus, come on, JD! Buck pleaded, casting his eyes around the group, somebody, cant somebody do something? He felt himself tilting, falling even though he was on flat earth, and slammed his fist into the ground in agonized frustration.
Nathan continued pounding on JDs back, harder and harder, his face knotting in angry helplessness. The others began to realize it was hopeless; slowly, as if in a dream state, Ezra reached up and took off his hat. Vin followed, then Chris.
Dammit, JD! Nathan was nearly crying now, slamming his hand over and over into JDs back.
Chris knelt down and put his hand on the healers arm. Nathan -
No, dammit! Nathan shouted, still trying to get JD to breathe. The others knelt next to Chris, forming a tight circle around the dying boy, and around Buck who was still kneeling next to him, too grief-stricken to look up.
Suddenly Josiah leaned forward, putting his hand on JDs face as Nathan continued his work.
God, he prayed quietly, You dont want this boy yet. Dont let the dragon win. Im asking your mercy for him. Please, God.
Buck looked at Josiah through eyes stinging with tears.
Wham! Nathans hand came down again.
Josiah ran his hand over JDs forehead and thought, please, God...
Please, God -
Suddenly JDs whole body convulsed, and with a huge, groaning cough he heaved a lungful of water out onto the ground, onto Josiah, and Chris who was next to him, and Buck. As the men jumped back in surprise, JD coughed again, spitting up more water, and then opened his eyes and screamed in pain.
They all stared for the quickest moment, stunned. Then Nathan leaned forward, gazing into JDs face, which was contorted and pasty white, his eyes staring ahead in agonized shock.
Lady said his legs broke. Buck said quickly as he moved to where JD could see him.
Vin looked up quickly. Lady?
Buck nodded, looked around to point her out, but shed left. Huh, he thought, but forgot about it when JD twisted his his eyes shut and let out a low groan through gritted teeth.
Nathan looked down at JDs legs and bit his lip. Well need to splint it. I got some laudanum in my kit. He grimaced, then gently rolled JD over onto his back. The youth cried out again, an inarticulate, mindless yell, and as Nathan quickly stood up to run to his kit Buck moved in close and touched the boys arm, his eyes wide with stunned amazement.
JD grabbed Bucks hand, gripped it tight as he rode out the thunderous pain coursing up his body. The others gathered around, relief evident on all of their faces.
JDs eyes searched them, battling the pain to try and look unaffected by it. He closed his eyes after a moment, his forehead knotted with pain, and without a word Josiah reached forward and smoothed his hand across the youths forehead until JDs breathing grew more relaxed, and the white-knuckled grip on Bucks hand eased.
Whew, Vin said as he stood up and put his hat back on. Thats as close to one of us goin as I want to get, for now.
Ezra was replacing his hat as well, looking around the woods carefully as he did so. They say there are places in the South that harbor spirits; I suppose the same could be true for out here. I would suggest that we warn people away from this place.
Chris was looking at Josiah, looking at him intensely until the preacher glanced up from JDs sleeping face.
Then Chris said, Those womens murderer went free. How can we make him pay?
Josiah thought for a moment, stroked JDs forehead even though he knew the youth was asleep and smiled. We dont have to, Chris. From what I hear tell, Satan is a harsh taskmaster, and I have a feeling someones payin mighty dear for letting JD escape.
Chris scowled, his fists clenched in impatient fury. Then his face softened, and he looked at Josiah with grateful eyes.
Youre a good man, Josiah. Chris said in soft, almost wondering tones. Then he turned and walked away.
Josiah cocked his head, sighed, noticed that Father Daniel was some distance away, his head bowed in prayer. Thanking God? Praying for the souls that had not been as fortunate as JD? Josiah thought to ask, decided against it. It was time to go home.
Josiah groaned at his stiff muscles, made to stand up and join the others. Before he could do so, however, he felt a hand on his arm and looked to see Buck staring at him with eyes that were nearly as big as JDs had been, big and scared and, Josiah knew, indebted to him for life.
Thank you. Buck breathed softly, his eyes never wavering from his friends.
Josiah smiled, a little, felt as if maybe today, he could still be Gods warrior, and God wouldnt mind. Maybe He wouldnt mind at all. Just doin my job, Buck. Just doin my job.
* * * * * * *
The light was burning softly in JDs room as Nathan made a final check on the youth before turning in that night. It had been a very long day, and everyone was exhausted.
Chris was at the hotel, with Father Daniel. The priest was somewhat shaken, but after a whispered conversation with Josiah he came to Chris with the solemn resolve to bury his sister, and get back to his ministry. Chris watched as Josiah mounted his horse and rode into the night, but his concern was eased by Father Daniel, who simply smiled and assured Chris that Josiah was fine, and just had some unfinished business to take care of. Not really understanding, Chris had let it go, and he and Father Daniel had a talk about evil, and demons, that lasted until the morning hours.
Vin and Ezra were in the saloon, drinking away the days memories. The nearness of JDs death and the shock of looking into the eyes of evil incarnate had rattled Ezra more than he cared to admit, and after making sure that JD was back in his room and he wasnt need anymore, the gambler had practically ran to the saloon and set up a poker game. Vin hadnt hesitated to join him; he needed to think.
JD lay propped up in the bed in his room, his leg carefully splinted and immobilized and resting on its own stack of pillows. The youth stifled a yawn as Nathan pulled up the bedclothes and the healer smiled. You ready to go to sleep?
JD nodded, slowly blinking his eyes. He hadnt said much since they got back, only that he wasnt sure he believed everything that happened, and he was glad Josiah wasnt going to hang. Aside from that, hed been uncharacteristically quiet, but Nathan decided not to push. Nearly dying was a rough ride for anybody, and JD would talk about it when he wanted to. And then theyd never get him to stop.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Buck came in, smiling wearily
. Hi, Buck, JD said, stifling another yawn.
Hey, kid, Buck returned, giving Nathan a pleasant nod. Hows the patient, doc?
Well, hes gonna be laid up for a while, Nathan said, but added, But hell be fine. Hes one tough customer.
That he is. Buck said with a grin, and JD grinned back. One tough customer.
Well, JD, youre set for the night, Nathan said to Buck as he packed up his kit, Just let Buck know if it gets too bad, and hell come get me.
Ill be fine. JD said with a confident smile, and squared his shoulders to prove it.
Nathan and Buck traded smiles, and Nathan said, Good. Well, good night.
Night. Buck said, and slapped Nathan on the back as the healer walked out the door.
JD settled himself into the pillows as Buck grabbed a chair and sat down by his bedside.
Well, this is gonna be a short night, Buck guessed, peering at JDs tired face, You look like youre half asleep already.
JD cocked his head, started to say something, paused. Then said, Buck?
Buck looked at JD inquisitively. Yeah?
Was I dead?
Buck blinked. Clearing his throat, he scratched his neck and said, Well, you werent breathin, so I guess you were close.
JD nodded, didnt look at his friend. Oh.
There was a pause, and Buck could tell by the look on JDs face that something was troubling him. He leaned a little closer and said, Is there a reason youre askin?
No, JD said, too quickly, then hastily added, No, I was just... He paused again, then asked, Is Chris mad that I ran off by myself to look for the killer?
Naw, Buck said, shrugging, Right now I think hes just glad youre in one piece. Give him a day or two, then hell be mad.
JD nodded, sighing, looked down at the bedspread guiltily. I guess it was a dumb thing to do. I was just tired of being the kid all the time. Then I try to change and this is what I get. He thumped the bedspread in dismay, and shook his head.
Buck leaned back, studied JDs forlorn face for a moment. He thought of the demon - corny as that name sounded, there was no other word for what that creature was, not that Buck knew. The demon in JDs body, with JDs hair and face, a face that was lined with despair and corruption, the hardened, bitter face that Buck prayed hed never see again. Especially on the young man in front of him, in such a damn hurry to grow up.
You do okay, JD, Buck said reassuringly, giving his friend a pat on the arm as he smiled, You wont be the kid forever. Hell, someday itll be you teachin some young whippersnapper to mind himself. And Ill bet he looks up to you, too.
JDs look was incredulous, but Buck saw a glimmer in those hazel eyes as he asked, You think?
Yep, Buck said, I think. Course, before that happens we gotta teach you to grow a decent moustache, but I aint given up on you yet. JD threw him a look and settled back deeper into the pillows, closing his eyes. Buck noticed this and said, You bout ready for me to turn down the lamp?
I guess. JD muttered, already sounding as if he were asleep.
Buck got up and walked around the bed to where the lamp was, turned it down so it was barely glowing.
Buck leaned close to the oil lamp, checking the wick. Yeah?
You believe in guardian angels?
The question caught Buck off guard, and he stood up to look at JD, now nearly invisible in the amber gloom. Well, I dont know, JD. Aint never seen one.
A small pause. I did.
Buck walked over to JDs bed, his head cocked in curiosity. You did? When?
JDs eyes were closed, and he was smiling faintly at the memory. I thought I was dying. I was under the water, and all of a sudden I wasnt.
Buck crossed his arms. I dont follow you, JD.
JD opened his eyes a little, shrugged. I cant...it was like I was in this warm place, and nothing hurt anymore. And there were colors, and it felt like... He paused, hunted for words, gave up and said, And my mama was there. She was, Buck, I know it.
Really, Buck said indulgently; he knew how much JD missed his mother, and wasnt about to argue with the boys imagination. Boy needs his mama, when he thinks hes dying.
JD nodded with certainty. She told me it was gonna be OK, and not to give up. She told me shed go get you, and she knew youd take care of me, that all of you would. She told me it wasnt my time yet.
Buck started to feel a little creepy, JD sounded so sure all of this actually happened. He didnt know how to tell the boy that he hadn t come across any ghosts while hunting for him, just that woman from the town who yelled at him from the valley...
...that woman from the town whom hed never seen before...
...and come to think of it she did look a lot like JD...
Buck? JD asked quizzically. You OK?
Buck took a deep breath, then another one. Yeah, kid. Yeah, Im fine.
JD smiled in reassurance, then hunkered down into the covers. Well, gnight.
Night, JD. Buck said softly, and walked quietly to sit in the chair beside JDs bed. In a few moments Buck knew the boy was asleep; but he stayed awake, staring at the low flame in the oil lamp for a long time, thinking about demons, and angels, and the iron-clad, unstoppable toughness of the innocent soul.
* * * * * * *
It was nearing midnight when Josiah walked to the center of the quiet woods, holding his lantern before him. He couldnt ride; his horse wouldnt come near the place. So hed come on foot, but he wasnt afraid. He had to do this, he knew that now. It was who he was.
And there was no use denying it.
A rustle of leaves, and something plopped into the path in front of him. Josiah straightened his head, looked at the small creature with the leathery grey skin, huge glowing yellow eyes and large, spreading bats wings. Looked at it with unfettered loathing.
What do you want? The demon spat.
You know what I want. Josiah said sternly. You will leave this place.
The demon scowled at Josiah. You dont have any power over me. Forget it.
Youre right. Josiah replied. I dont have any power, by myself. But through me run the powers of justice and truth, and right, and you cannot stand against it. You know it.
The demon cowered a bit, sighed. Okay, look, Ill make you a deal. You let me stay, Ill leave your friends alone, all right?
Josiah shook his head.
Oh, come on! The demon pleaded, waving his gnarly hands in frustration. You dont know what Im offering. That kid is a virgin, you know how hard it is to find guys his age that are still virgins? Im giving up a lot here. You gotta respect that.
No, Josiah replied, his voice deadly calm. I have no respect for you, or your master, and as of this moment Im dedicating myself to wiping your kind off the face of the earth.
The demon brought his head back and laughed. Good luck. You get rid of me, another one will show up. Were everywhere. And you wont live long enough to get us all.
I know. Josiah said quietly, But I intend to live long enough to bring a lot of you down. And some of my friends are very young.
The demon scowled again, looked at the ground. I almost had him. And that tracker too. You guys know each other too well.
Josiah smiled. Demon, in the name of God I cast you out of this territory.
The demon winced, backed away. His eyes locked with Josiahs, just once more.
Demon, Josiah said, a little louder, In the Name of God, clear out before God through me kicks your sorry butt.
A furious scowl, and the demon vanished in a puff of smoke.
Josiah took a deep breath. Already the air seemed cleaner, sweeter. Already he felt stronger, ready to stop denying his calling and to start fighting the good fight, whatever it took. The demon really was gone; this was a good sign.
Maybe the devil was still scared of him, after all.
Josiah turned around, ready to go back home and finally get some rest. He took a few steps, paused, and setting the lantern down pulled his wooden-beaded cross out of his pocket, and put it back around his neck.
And went home.