Disclaimer: I do not own any of "The Magnificent Seven". This story is strictly for entertainment purposes. I'm not writing this for a profit.
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Buck stepped outside the jail pulling his coat closer to him, covering his neck and what he could of his head. He turned to his right and noticed the young man sitting in a chair, leaning the back of it into the jailhouse. He watched his breath float in front of him and a slight shiver ran down his back. He hated this time of year. Thanksgiving and Christmas was over. As far as he was concerned there was no need for the snow. It irritated the hell out of him that the kid could sit outside and feel the chill in the air and not seem to mind it. He asked the kid on more than one occasion if he was feeling all right, he just couldn't understand how the kid didn't seem to be affected by the winter weather, Buck figured the only thing that made sense was the kid had a fever. JD finally agreed to have Nathan check him..Just to shut 'Big Brother' up.
Buck pulled his gloves on, shaking his head he said to the youth "I can't understand for the life of me how you can sit out here and not be at least a little cold."
"Buck, I told ya' a thousand times..this ain't nothin'. Back East this here'd be considered a 'mild' winter. You'd never make it in Boston."
"I ain't gonna argue with ya', it's too nice a day." And with that he headed to the saloon.
As he stepped off the porch he could hear Buck saying something about "..and I suppose a flood would be just a big mud puddle.."
But what caught his ear was a soft crying, or something like that.
It was coming somewhere near the back of the Sheriff's office. As he got closer the sound grew. As he peered around the back of the jail he saw a basket. It was about the same size as the one Mrs. Potter used to hang her clothes out with. The basket looked like it was full of clothes but there was more to it.. It was moving and making some kinda sound. He also noticed a peculiar smell and decided he needed to find out if the sound had anything to do with the smell.
He carefully pulled back what he thought was a blanket, what he saw in the contents of the basket and blanket shocked him. It was a baby. He didn't know how old, couldn't be more than a couple of months old.
"Whatcha' got there ki....What the hell is THAT????"
"What's it look like Buck? Geez..I think you better get Nathan."
"Well, I only see you and me here Buck. Unless you think you need to tell me somethin', I think someone left it here on purpose. It's probably cold and who knows how long its been here. Now before this thing freezes, ya' mind gettin' outta my way so as I can take her in the jail, and get Nathan." He said as he carefully picked up the basket and headed for the warmth of the jail.
"How you know it's a girl?"
"The pink blanket kinda gives away.. And here I was thinking you could spot a beautiful woman..."
"A woman yes..I don't know nothin' bout babies!!"
JD was gonna say something about changing his social habits if he didn't want to find out more about them but thought against it. Instead he said "Nathan, Buck."
"Oh yeah, forgot..I'll get him." Buck headed for the saloon.
"Hah..See you are a girl ain't ya'? Only women can get him stumblin' all over himself," He said to the baby in soft tones..and a gentle smile on his face.
Buck flew through the batwing doors of the saloon, with wide eyes he scanned the badly lit room for his fellow gunslingers. He spotted them all at Ezra's usual table, playing a game of ..What else..Poker. Buck nearly knocked over a waitress with a tray full of drinks, without even apologizing he made his way to the table. "What's gotten into you?"
"Chris, I ain't got time to explain. Nathan ya gotta get over to the jail .. JD went and..."
He didn't get a chance to finish... " and found a baby behind the jail.." because everyone got up and headed for the young man at the jail..
Usually anything that needed Nathan and when JD's name was mentioned it usually meant trouble. So they all headed there thinking the worst. What greeted them caught them all by surprise.
"JD, you all rig..." Nathan began, but stopped at the young man sitting in a chair next to the stove holding a little baby in a pink blanket.
With his finger pressed to his lips he whispered "Shhhh.. I just got her quieted down."
The six men in front of him were stunned. Then they all turned to the man who had brought them all here in a panic.
"You didn't give me a chance to finish" The mustached man shrugged.
"How is it doing JD? Was it cold when ya'found it? Ya' think its hungry?" Nathan asked as he approached them.
"She, Nathan. She weren't at all cold, pretty warm all wrapped up like she was..I think she's hungry though, she been there for a while." Still in his soft and kind voice, he looked at the healer for reassurance she was going to be okay.
"Why do you think it..She..was there for a while?" the leader asked evenly.
"She smelt somethin' awful..so I changed her. She was pretty wet and ....stuff...I just threw the stuff in the fire. How old ya' think she is Nathan?"
"Can't be more than a few months I figure. Josiah, would you see if Mrs. Potter might have somethin' kickin' around for a bottle and maybe get some milk? She needs to get somethin' in her." Nathan said as he checked her eyes and the rest of her physical state, "its been a while since she's eatin'. She's pretty weak and dry."
With eyes full of worry he looked at the little lady he was holding and back to the healer "But she's gonna be okay? Right?"
"She should be fine, then we can go about and find someone'll take care of her."
"Looks like he's doin a pretty good job at it." The tracker said with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.
"Thanks Vin, I dunno if I can do this alone though..Maybe Nathan's right, we should find someone else..maybe Mrs. Travis could do it." JD said it half heartedly, like the others didn't think he could do it. He could, he had.
How long had it been?? Three or four years? Had that much time passed? Didn't seem possible.
"I'll stay and help ya' JD. After all I do have a way with the ladies!" As he said this he went and gently took the baby from JD, and just as he got in eye view of the baby she began to cry, "Well..guess that' animal magnetism' doesn't work on babies" He roared a laugh and the little bundle cried harder.
"Geezz Buck!! You're scarin' her! Let me have her back." He took the baby quickly and carefully and with an ease that all the men noticed. As he hushed and shushed the baby it became very clear to all there that the kid was no stranger to this. He had done this before.
Vin made his way to the two 'kids' and peeked at the baby, she appeared to smile at him and that made the bounty hunter smile. "Mind if I stay with you two tonight?" He asked the baby more than he asked JD.
But it was JD who answered "I don't think we 'd mind, would we?" And the baby smiled and fell asleep.
"You wanna bring her over to the clinic, JD?"
"The jail's smaller, it's the warmest place in town, better off here I think."
Josiah came in with a few bottles, some milk and some rags Mrs. Potter gave to him, he didn't have enough hands to shut the door and the cool breeze found it's way to the place where the baby was. JD uncharacteristically glared at the man.
"Gosh Josiah, the door! Shut the door!" he hissed softly as he brought the baby to his chest, and Vin stood in front of them to add extra protection.
Ezra shut the door quickly and as he did he leaned towards Josiah and whispered, "It would appear that our youngest 'friends' have been taking lessons from Mr. Wilmington in the art of how to be a 'momma grizzly' regarding our precious little lady."
"From what I can tell from the looks on those two, I would say they are somewhat comfortable with that role Brother Standish".
Josiah handed Vin the bottles and milk and set the rags next to the basket. He gave the two men a nod and then left the jail. The others in the group also exited the building. Five men stood on the porch feeling the growing cool breeze.
"We gotta find out where that thing came from, and who's it is."
"It's a baby Buck, not a thing." The leader turned to Buck.
"Well, it don't make no mind. We gotta find out why this thing..the BABY..was left like that. Can't imagine her momma leavin' her out like that."
"Now don't be gettin' down on her momma Buck, it might notta been her."
"Nathan's right, Brother Wilmington."
"Why behind the jail? Whoever left her there musta known one of us would hear her, what are we supposed to do with a baby?"
"As far as 'we' looking after the child, I think our young friends not only seem to posses the skill necessary, but also have the required demeanor for the task." Buck looked at Ezra and cocked his head.
"What I am trying to articulate Mr. Wilmington, is that it would appear that Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne have had previous experience in child care."
Three of the hired guns walked into the saloon, quietly thinking to themselves about the scene at the jail. Josiah and Nathan had gone to the clinic to get a rocking chair to take to the jail. They thought it would be more comfortable to use instead of the chair they had.
* * * * * * *
Back in the jail Vin was preparing a bottle, JD was in a cell with the baby laid on the cot, changing her.
"She sure is pretty." JD said, as he was swept away by the delicate skin, the barely visible blond hair and the bright blue eyes and her smile. Vin thought that his voice was almost..sad.
"That she is, and she seems to like you an awful lot. I guess hanging around with Buck has given you a 'way with the ladies' kid." Vin said with a chuckle.
"Yeah, I guess. Just wish it was like that with someone closer to my age... Hey Vin?"
"Think she has a name?"
"I would think so. Why?" Vin looked a little concerned.
"It just don't seem right not callin' her somethin', you know."
There was a long pause. Vin noticed the care the kid took with the baby, he was at ease with her, he was comfortable, but he didn't look happy or sad. The look on his face was somewhere in between.
" I think we should call her Hope." Vin saw J.D.'s eyes fill as he barely got the words out. JD then slowly picked up 'Hope' and cuddled her and held her gently but tightly against himself.
"I ain't gonna let nothin' happen to you. I swear. I'm older and I can take care of ya'"
Vin saw the distant look in the kids face. "JD?"
The kid turned to face him, but kept his eyes on the baby.
"I'm not sayin' this to be mean, kid, but your gettin' pretty attached to her. When we find her momma..."
"I know Vin." He said sadly.
"There somethin' you wanna tell me?"
JD snapped his gaze from the sleeping baby to Vin with pain filled eyes.
* * * * * * *
"Where is she?!!" The burly man asked the petite woman who sat on the wagon.
"She ain't here Wil." She answered rather shakily.
The burly man, Wil, turned to the two men to his left. "Billy, Cody...tear that wagon apart and find her!!"
The two men quickly dismounted and began to rummage through the wagon, overturning everything and anything in their path. It only took 10 minutes, but the wagon was completely empty with its contents spilled onto the winter carpet and the gentle breeze scattering lighter objects further away from the wagon.
Wil grabbed the woman by the throat and with his face only inches away "Where the hell is she, Gwen!?!!??!!"
She jumped back and tried to breathe, she grabbed at the mans arm with both her hands and tried to speak. With a look of terror she said the only thing she could to save her daughter, knowing her life was going to end today. "She's gone!" She spat out with tears falling uncontrollably from her cheeks, causing the tears to freeze on her face.
"I know she ain't here" With a huge backhand he slapped her and grabbed her again. "I'm askin' ya one more time Gwen..WHERE IS SHE!!?"
She straightened herself up and with a feeling of defiance the said it. "She's dead Wil. Now you can never have her."
"Dead? What the hell happened!?" The look on the man's face showed that he couldn't believe what she was saying.
Gwen felt the pleasure in the other men's reaction but didn't show it in her face. SHE was in control now, and it felt good. She knew she was going to die today and as she asked God to forgive her, she then told Wil, with an even, evil tone "I killed her."
He looked at her and before he knew what he was doing he fired a shot that hit her in the chest.
As she fell from the wagon her thoughts went to the baby she had left behind the sheriff's office in the town of Four Corners. As she felt herself slipping away, she closed her eyes and a single tear rolled from the corner of he eye.
Please keep her safe was her last thought before darkness and death engulfed her.
"Grainger ain't gonna be happy , Wil."
"Don't you think I know that Billy! I can't believe she killed her."
"The boss is gonna be pretty pissed to find that you killed Gwen. Once he finds out what she did with their daughter.."
"I know Cody, he'd wanna kill her himself. What's done is done, nothin' we can do now."
The three men headed back to Mill Creek to the Grainger Ranch to inform their boss that his mistress had killed his daughter and they had killed her as she tried to run. It was a lie, but one that would keep them alive, Wil thought.
* * * * * * *
JD couldn't find his voice to answer Vin. Was he that easy to read? He just shook his head and sat in the rocking chair Nathan and Josiah had brought over earlier. Vin gave the kid a bottle and JD began to feed 'Hope'.
"Vin, could you hand me one of those rags?"
Vin did as he was asked and got a quiet 'Thank you' from the boy. As JD fed, burped, and rocked her Vin studied him. He was amazed at the kid. He didn't seem to be bothered by anything. He had changed her without complaining about the smell or when the baby had spit up (Now he knew why the kid wanted the rag). He was brought out of his daze by the sound of the door opening.
"Thought you two might be getting hungry. How she doing JD?"
"Thanks Chris, she's doing good she even had some milk and managed to keep most of it down." Chris noticed the look on JD's face.
As Chris put the tray of food on the desk he motioned for Vin. They both stepped outside to talk privately.
"Is he okay ?"
"Yeah. He's real good with her"
"I can tell, but that's not not what I meant. He seems too good with her."
"I know, we haven't had much of a chance to talk though. Wanna give me a hand findin' out if he needs to talk? I'm kinda worried about him."
"Me too, you suppose he left someone back east?
"More like lost somethin'"
The men entered the office and noticed the sheriff put the baby back in the basket near the stove. "Can we talk a minute ,son"
"Yeah, I guess. I ain't been no where but here Chris, what could I have messed up?"
The hardened gunslinger let out a small grin and shook his head. (Usually when Chris asked the kid if 'we' talk a minute, it was followed by something he'd done wrong.) "You didn't do anything wrong kid. Vin and I are just wondering about something."
He looked back and forth between the two men "What?"
"We don't wanna push ya' and make ya' think' of things ya' don't wanna'.."
JD knew where this was going, Vin must have heard him say something to 'Hope' "Kid, it ain't none of our business..It's just that you seem to have a way with her. Like you know what you're doing."
JD looked at Chris..He hadn't even been here long and he picked up on it. The young man decided he should tell them, about before he came here, about his first 'makeshift family'. "I guess."
"JD" Chris said as he put a strong hand on the kid's shoulder and looked down into his eyes, "We ain't saying it's wrong, we just don't want you to get attached. This ain't a dog, you can't keep her, you know that, right?" Chris knew the words were the wrong ones the minute he saw the change in the kid's eyes and felt the tension in his shoulders.
"I know it ain't a dog! I know what I'm doin' Chris! I can take care of her! I know she ain't mine but if nobody else comes for her...I promised I would take care of her! This ain't gonna be like last time.." The words left his mouth before he could take them back.
Both men sported concern on their faces. Vin sat in the rocking chair, Chris carefully sat the kid in the chair next to the bounty hunter and grabbed a chair and set it down directly in front of the kid. The kid sat, looking defeated. His head hung low and his shoulders were slumped down. Vin thought it looked like the kid was melting into the floor.
"Tell us about before, the last time." Chris had a way with the kid. He didn't show his feelings much around the others, but here especially with these two in particular he never had a problem. He placed both his hands on JD's knees (Just like he used to do with Adam when he'd done something he shouldn't have. It was Chris' way of telling Adam that no matter what he had done, he still loved him),it served the same purpose here.
With a heavy sigh, JD brought his head up and looked, not into the icy blue eyes that most saw, but gentle blue eyes that told him it was safe. He then looked to Vin for more reassurance and, maybe, a bit of strength. He looked beside him to make sure Hope was still sleeping and began.
* * * * * * *
"Mr. Grainger, We're sorry..She told us that she killed Madeline and started to run..We shot at the horses but one caught her in the chest. We did everything we could think of, but nothing helped. I wish we coulda found your daughter before.."
"Are you sure Madeline's dead?? She could have left her someplace."
"Mr Grainger? Sir? With all due respect, there weren't a town with in miles of where we caught up with her, if she left her anywhere by the time we woulda gotten to her she would probably be dead, the weather was real bad and the coyo.." Billy thought better to say any more.
"Well Wil, thank you for trying. I'll have a small service for Madeline tomorrow." And Grainger sat down in his chair and cry. Damn he wanted his revenge on Gwen.
Taking off like that was stupid, his wife had agreed to raise the baby as her own. She was unable to have children but always wanted them.
When Gwen was hired it was Mrs. Grainger that had pointed out to her husband how much he and Gwen looked alike, and suggested she tell her in no uncertain terms her 'position' here. He had agreed and Gwen had no money and no where else to go, so she did as was told. What she didn't expect was that after 'Emily' was born, Mr. Grainger told her that Mrs. Grainger had forgiven him for his mistake and would help with the financial burden of raising a child by raising it as hers, not Gwen's.
The Graingers called her Madeline, the stress became to much and Gwen decided it was time to leave. They forbid her to see 'Emily/Madeline' more and more. So when she was able to see her again, she took her and ran. Gwen realized Wil, Billy and Cody were after her. That's when she dropped 'Emily/ Madeline' behind the sheriff's office hoping some kind person would find her.
The three men following her knew they had lied to Mr. Grainger. About killing Gwen and about no towns being anywhere around. They weren't bad men. They all liked Gwen, and felt bad for her. Wil felt sorry about killing her, but that was her only escape and she knew it. Gwen and Wil had talked about it before she ran off. Billy and Cody had no idea about the 'plan'. It was basic. When Wil and the others caught up to her if 'Emily/ Madeline' wasn't with her, he was going to kill her, there was no way out, she was Grainger's 'brood mare' so to speak.
Wil knew where baby 'Emily/Madeline' was, and knew she would be safe. He agreed to write a letter to Gwen's sister in Michigan and tell her about the baby and where to find her. Gwen said she would understand everything and wouldn't blame Wil, she had wrote to her sister and told her about Wil.The plan had been carried out, and with a heavy heart Wil sat down at his table and began to write:
Dear Miss Samantha Long,
My name is Wil, your sister Gwen has written about me. It is with dread that I have to inform you that your sister was killed protecting the most precious thing in her life...Her daughter, Emily Samantha Long.
Your niece can be found in a town called Four Corners. I know this would be a long journey for you and a great burden to undertake. I am sending you what money I have saved, I hope that this will ease that burden. Your niece is a beautiful little girl. Her father is somewhat of an important man here, but Gwen was no more than a breeder for him and his wife. She was being denied the right to see her, so when she did she took her and ran, all here believe the child to be dead. You shouldn't have any problems.
He would've sent a telegram. It was faster, but it was too far away to get to the nearest office, and he wouldn't be able to explain to his boss why he had to go.
He mailed the letter the next day, and hoped it would get there in a reasonable amount of time and it wouldn't take her too long to get to Four Corners.
* * * * * * *
The two men waited for what seemed a life time for the boy to say anything. He hung his head trying to think of where a good place to start would be. He guessed there wasn't going to be one, took a deep breath looked at the man he admired most and hoped they would understand.
"There was this girl that worked with us, at the mansion, and in the stables and she got pregnant. She hid it from everyone for a long time,but she was gettin' close to havin' the baby. She didn't know what to do. The foreman didn't know and pretty much everyone in the stables knew and kept her secret." He began to take another breath to finish, but was interrupted.
"Was it your kid, JD?" Chris asked, knowing Vin was thinking the same thing.
"Gosh no Chris! I was only 15! It was a guy who worked in the mansion, he was a cook or somethin'. The people in the stables didn't get treated very good, not even the foreman. We were help to the help," He said in a bit of a chuckle, "if ya' know what I mean."
"Sounds like a nice buncha folks" Vin added, feeling bad about thinking the kid had an easy life.
JD shrugged "It weren't all that bad. What is it Josiah's always sayin'? 'What ya' don't got ya' don't know your missin' it'?"
"Something like that kid" Chris couldn't help hang his head and release the smile that was coming across his face. If Josiah had heard the way J.D. had just slaughtered his quote.
They were then interrupted by the crying of little 'Hope' in her basket. Just as they had done a dozen times (or so it seemed) both men took to their duties. Vin getting a bottle ready, JD grabbing a cloth and a rag and placing her on the cot. Chris stood up , walked over to the cell door and watched the kid. A moment later Vin was next to him, leaning against the opened door. They both watched the boy. Again Vin was amazed, and Chris was amazed for the first time.
Chris didn't know if he should press the kid, but as he watched the kid he realized that every day that she was here was going to be harder on the kid when she left.
"So what happened when the foreman found out?"
"Nothin', he was pretty mad, but once he found out who the father was he didn't blame Sara. He figured she weren't as willing as the cook said she was."
JD finished his task and sat in the rocking chair, with the rag over his shoulder and a bottle in his hand he began to feed baby 'Hope'. "Anyway, we was in the stable when she started havin' pains, we knew she couldn't have it there so me , the foreman and a couple others took her to where me and momma stayed. I had another one go get my momma and tell her I got hurt to get her outta the house,he told her the real reason once she left with him."
He took the bottle from 'Hope' and began to burp her. "Things didn't go the right way. She was suppose to have the baby and everything was gonna be fine." JD's eyes began to fill and that sadness Vin had seen came back in his voice. 'Hope' made her presence known and she was rewarded with some more milk.
"What went wrong?"
"Sara was only 14, momma guessed it was too much for her. She said her body just wasn't ready to be that grown up. She had the baby, she asked me to please keep her safe and watch after her."
"You were in the same room when she was having it?"
"It was only one room Vin. Momma needed help, what was I suppose to do?"
Vin just shrugged and shook his head, he regretted saying it as soon as it came out.
"I told her I would, I don't know what I was thinkin' I weren't even grown up. But she was dyin' I just wanted to make her feel better."
"Ain't nothin' wrong with that,son."
JD looked at the now sleeping baby and waited for what he knew was coming.
"What happened, you get in over your head?"
"I guess, I don't know what happened. Everything happened. A few months after Lily, that's what Sara wanted to call her, was born momma got sick. It was almost like taken care of 2 babies. Momma did most of the taken care of Lily before, ..I just didn't know what to do."
He felt overwhelming grief creep up on him, but he managed to keep it in check. It wasn't for the men that sat in front of him but for 'Hope'. He didn't want to upset her, he wasn't going to mess up this time.
"I got used to the crying, she missed momma, at least that's what momma kept tellin' me. For weeks she cried all night and I fed her and changed her and went to work. I just got so tired. The weekend came and she was really fussin' we was up most the night. She finally fell asleep. I didn't know somethin' was wrong. I was so tired I didn't get up early on Saturday to do the chores in the stable. Lily was quiet, momma was sleeping so I left to do my chores. I came back in less that two hours. Momma was sittin' up in bed holdin' Lily, she told me to get the doctor, said she couldn't wake her up. When we got back Lily had already died."
The only sound that was heard was the winter breeze wrapping itself around the Sheriff's office. The buckskin covered bounty hunter lowered his head , and the hardened gunslinger in black stoop up, walked towards the now weeping young man head hanging.
He carefully took the sleeping baby from JD and put her carefully into the basket next to him. He then lowered himself to the young man, with one hand on the kids knee and the other grasping the back of his neck.
"You did what you could, son."
JD shook his head "No, I didn't! I let Sara and Lily down! I promised to take care of her and I let her die instead!"
"You were only 15, JD. I couldn't have done what you did. You made that promise before your momma got sick." Vin had made his way to the boy.
JD lifted his head and looked at the two men in front of them. Tears were strolling down his face and he almost whispered "I'm not gonna let her down, not this time, I ain't gonna mess up this time."
"Kid, none of us know how long she's gonna be here. She might have family looking for her. And when they find her.."
"You know you are gonna lose her,can you handle that?" The words were simple and they cut like a knife into the kid. Chris knew that JD knew there would be a day when someone would come for her, he thought if he said it it would seem real.
JD nodded his head. "I know, Chris. And I can't say it'll be fun, but the least I can do is keep her safe. I owe it to Sara and Lily." he ended with a heartfelt smile.
The leader of their group knew the kid meant what he said. When the time came he would let her go, and he would have 6 brothers to give him the strength to do so. Chris only hoped that there was family out there and they were looking for her. The longer it would take, the harder it was going to be to let her go...for all of them.
The days went by without any change. The Magnificent Seven had turned into the Magnificent Eight. All the men at one time had taken care of the baby (Although she spent her nights in the company of JD) now officially known as Hope, except for one. Buck Wilmington. JD never thought he'd see the day Buck would runaway from a 'member of the opposite gender', but run he did.
Even the uncrackable Chris Larabee had been caught making a fuss over Hope. He even changed a diaper once..to prove a point to Buck.
The days turned into weeks and some of the men began to worry that Hope had no family looking for her. Trouble had fortunately strayed from Four Corners, except for the occasional saloon problems, it had been quite peaceful. Then, without warning, three weeks after the 'arrival' of Hope, the storm hit. Hank the telegraph operator grabbed Buck from the street and gave him a yellow piece of paper. He thanked him and opened it. As he read the message his heart fell. The day they all knew would come had finally arrived. Samantha Long sent a wire inquiring about a baby girl. Buck turned back to go the telegraph office to send a response that she was here, safe and sound and ready to go home.
After sending the telegram he walked slowly to the saloon. He stood outside the doors and saw Vin, Chris and Ezra. He walked over to them and stood stock , still holding the piece of paper. Chris met the mustached man's eyes. His eyes went from the mans face to the paper in he held in his hand.
The three men at the table knew this was good news, for Hope. Larabee took the paper opened it and read it silently. "She's looking for Hope."
"Does she say how long her journey will take?" the flamboyant gambler had lost all the charm in his voice.
"Says here it will take her at least ten days. I guess I better let her know Hope's here so she can start out." the leader stated flatly, trying to keep his composure.
"Already did, figured she'd wanna know as soon as she could." Buck was not holding up very well, it felt like every muscle in his body was on fire. As much as he was scared of the baby, he knew JD had a very rough path ahead of him. "This is gonna kill him."
"We all new this was gonna happen, I better get this over with." he said coldly, trying to mask how he really felt. He thought it worked as he made his way out he doors when he felt a strong hand on his shoulder, followed by another and one on his neck.
"You ain't doin' this by yourself, we started this together we'll finish it that way."
"I was hoping you say that. Buck, Ezra better get the others. Any idea where they are at?
"Livery, I think." came the small southern voice. They were all having a hard time holding themselves together emotionally. Ezra didn't think they'd have to say a word to the boy. It would be all over their faces, even the man who made a living from his emotionless face would be easy to read.
Within minutes the six men gathered at the livery. With a nod of reassurance from each other they entered the livery. They found JD in with his horse. He was showing Hope how soft she was and she was doing her cooing and giggling. He was talking to her softly and she looked at him and smiled. The sun that had shined in was blocked and JD looked to find the source.
He saw his six friends, his six brothers, Hope's six 'uncles'with looks on their faces that told him the time had come. He had prepared himself for the day he would be told someone was looking for Hope, as he stood there he silently decided he hadn't prepared enough.
After a deathly long silence the sound was broken by Chris Larabee's boots on the hay. JD had never heard that before. Before Chris could utter a word a voice was heard. It sounded familiar but it would have been unrecognizable if they hadn't seen J.D. say, "How long we got?"
It broke the men's hearts to hear the words as much it did to have them said. As Ezra had suspected not a word had to be said. Buck and Ezra had had to turn away and wipe the tears that were forcing their way out. Vin didn't care.. His ran freely. Josiah put a comforting arm on the younger man and silently grieved himself. Nathan swallowed hard as two solitary tears ran down each of his eyes. One tear for Hope who was getting a family and one for JD for the heartache that lay ahead.
With every part of his being Chris fought to keep control. He knew the words he wanted to say he just couldn't find his voice. Finally he took a deep breath and prayed his voice would betray how he was feeling. "Ten days." His voice couldn't hide his feelings. He had to practically choke the two words out.
With a sad smile on his face his attention turned back to Hope. He leaned forward and told her "We only got ten days, you got someone coming for ya'. You got family Hope, and family is the most important thing." He then kissed Hope's forehead and she smiled and giggled as the tears rolled down his cheeks and kissed her good-bye. "Ain't that right guys?" He looked to the men in front of him, that same sad smile on his face cascading with emotion and tears.
The ten days seemed to come to soon. All the men had taken Hope to do all the things she seemed to like to do with them. JD wondered who liked the things more, Hope or the men. JD had awaken that morning feeling numb. He knew that Samantha Long would or should be here sometime on the morning stage. He was glad it was the morning, Hope was usually fussy in the afternoon, he'll have to tell Miss Long that. He went to the cradle that Mrs. Travis said he could borrow and looked into see Hope's big blue eyes looking right him. He picked her up and started whispering nothing against her ear, he'd have to remember that too. And every time he did something with Hope it always ended with the thought..remember to tell that to Miss Long.
The men had agreed to meet at the cafe that morning for breakfast. JD figured the rest would be late, like always, but left anyway to get Hope fed. When he walked in he was surprised to find all the men sitting there with a things that resembled presents.
"Why look at that Hope, your Uncles are awake and up to somethin'."
"We were hopin' we could help feed her, kid."
"Sure," as he handed her off to Vin, "but what's all this?"
"Just some things we thought she might need." Buck said with a smile on his face.
The festivities seemed to last forever, Hope 'opened' her presents with help from the 'uncle' that had given it to her, and the men shared in her feeding while they ate and just had a good time and enjoyed her while they could.
The room grew quiet except for Hope playing with the rattle 'Uncle' Vin had made her. JD was the first to stand and as he started to go for the door he turned and said "Guess we better see if she's on it."
They stepped out and saw two men get out of the stage and they waited. As the stage unloaded and left there was an instant exhale of air. No one knew they were holding their breathes. JD turned to go back into the cafe to retrieve the presents and get them packed. "I'll take care of it." Buck said.
"Thanks, I'll be wai...I'll be at the jail if she co...I'm going to the jail." he wanted to be alone and they all knew it. After he entered the jail Chris Vin and Ezra went to the jail as well. They just wanted to make sure the kid wouldn't do something like run off with her. Vin and Chris didn't think he would, but Ezra said it well.."Even with the best of intentions, the boy could abandon his senses in his extremely emotional state and just leave with her." they honestly doubted it, but Ezra had a point.
Ten days had flown by in five minutes and the hours seemed like days waiting for the next stage. Hope was all packed and ready to go, JD had not set her down since he picked her up. He sat in the rocking chair and just held her. Hoping that sometime in her life she would remember this feeling. Knowing she wouldn't.
The pounding hoof beats of the next stage were heard like a gun blast to the seven gunslingers. As it slowly approached and stopped at the station.. A man and a woman got out of the coach, then two women. The men had all gathered at the jail leaving one inside like a condemned man to be alone. They watched the activity as a slender woman was pointed in there direction. She nodded gathered her skirt and began to quickly approach them.
The young woman appeared to be in her twenties. She came to the men, slightly outta of breath, and stopped.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for Chris Larabee, do you know where I might find him. I received word that my niece may have been left here before her mother was killed?"
"Miss Long?" came a faint voice from behind the men. The men turned to see JD and Hope standing behind them all. "Mr. Larabee I can't begin to te...."
"No, Miss Long. This is Chris..." Vin replied as the kid shook his head.
She looked at the man in black and smiled an apology and then back at the young man in front of her. "Is that my niece?"
JD nodded. "Yes, ma'am." Nathan added.
She stepped closer to the young man holding her niece and smiled sadly. She was beginning to actually notice the group of men around her. She realized that as happy as she was to have found her...they were equally as sad to let her go. This was going to be hard on them, especially on the young man in front of her. Her heart hurt for them all, and something told her she owed one in particular.
JD leaned to Hope and kissed her forehead for the last time and said goodbye with his eyes, he couldn't say it with his voice he had lost it after 'Miss Long', he handed Hope to her Aunt. As she took the baby from JD she swore she could feel his heart break. She looked down into her niece face. Tears rolled down her face as she saw Gwen.
"She's an angel" she said looking at the seven strangers, "I can't begin to thank you for taking such good care of her for me. I would like to meet the women responsible for doing such a wonderful thing."
"JD found her. He's been taking care of her ever since." Chris hoped this help close more than one door for the kid.
The woman turned to JD with tender green eyes put her hand on his cheek. She looked at him for the longest time, she went forward and gently kissed his cheek and whispered "Thank you." JD just smiled.
Samantha sensed his emotional attachment to her niece Emily "She will never forget you, any of you. I give you my word she will know who gave her a second chance at life and loved her."
"And I can guarantee you, Miss Long, we will never be able to erase the memory of Little Miss Hope."
"What a beautiful name. My sister had picked Emily Samantha, but I think she would approve of Emily Hope. Which one of you suggested the name?"
"May I ask why Hope?"
JD shifted uncomfortably and shrugged, "Seems to fit her"
Chris gave a knowing look to Vin. Hope. Such a small word but gave so much meaning. Hope to make things right. Hope...not to mess up this time, JD had said it jokingly once, but Chris knew he was serious.
The seven men walked Samantha and Emily Hope to the stage. She apologized that she couldn't have stayed longer. She would've liked to have gotten to know the men who had taken care of her niece for the past month or so, but she felt it would be easier for everyone involved to leave as soon as she could. She was happy she made that decision after meeting the young man who'd taken on such a big responsibility, if she dragged it out it would be harder to let her to take her back home, and harder for JD to let her go.
They handed the stage driver Emily's things and a bag to Samantha with milk and bottles for her.
"I wrote some things down for ya', things she likes and stuff she don't, stuff like that."
She smiled to him and said "Thank you, I'll make sure I read it."
"Miss Long..take care of her." J.D. finally barely found his voice. The men stood behind him, and Chris laid a hand on one shoulder, Buck on the other.
"You have my word. I'll telegram you as soon as I get back home, to let you know we made it"
"Thank you, we'd appreciate that." Vin smiled.
"Mr. Larabee? May I have a word with you." Chris stepped away and stepped to the stage. "Keep him safe, Mr. Larabee. Let him never forget what he's done..for both of us. I give you my word of honor she will never forget what he has done for her."
"I will, Miss Long. She healed him as much as he helped her. Don't let her forget that. He'll be fine, you're family and no one knows better than JD how important family is."
The stage pulled away and 'Hope' was gone. JD felt another part of his heart break.
The men stood dumbfounded, not knowing what to do. JD was the first to pull away. He walked like a defeated man towards the jail. Buck started to follow but Vin and Chris held him back.
"Let us talk to him Buck." Vin said.
"You guys know somethin' I don't?"
"Let's get him through this.. Then we can fill ya' in. Okay?" Chris left little room for argument.
The two men saw JD enter the sheriff's office. They entered the jailhouse and saw the young man sitting in the rocking chair, staring at the stove.
Chris found a chair and pulled it to sit across from the kid.. "You did real good, JD"
"I kept my promise." It came out as whisper.
"You should be proud of yourself JD." Vin added.
"If I did somethin' good then why's it hurt..so much.." The tears and emotions he had held in check for the past ten days all came at once now, and he let them out. Chris pulled the boy into his shoulder. And Vin put a protective arm across the heaving shoulders. The tracker had done his grieving the way he always did, in private. The hardened gunslinger felt a tear roll down his cheek, and then another and another, before he could stop them.
After a while there were no more tears to shed. It had grown dark outside and the moon was rising. Vin opened the door of the sheriff's office and found four men sitting on the edge of the porch, like a protective wall that everyone understood was unmovable. They turned and stood as they saw Vin standing in the doorway.
"He all right?" Buck said concerned.
"Yeah, he's been holdin' a lot in for a while, we need to get him to bed." "Are you needing our assistance?"
"Her stuff's still there. I don't think its a good idea...." overprotective Buck sided in.
"He needs to take care of it himself, it's the only way he's gonna get over this." Vin said flatly.
Everyone knew he was right. It was the only way he would be able to heal. The door to the jailhouse opened again and Chris Larabee stepped out with one arm around the waist of JD, holding him up more than anything. Buck went to the other side of the kid, putting his arm around the boy's shoulder. JD laid his head on the lean man's chest, with red dazed hazel eyes staring at nothing, the three men slowly made there way to the boarding house.
Four men encircled the three, protecting him from onlookers, but there were none, the townspeople had seen a different side to the boy sheriff, and they all knew he was grieving.
Ezra opened the door to the boarding house and as the trio passed. "If you are in need of anything, we will be right here." There were no fancy words to say.
JD lifted his head from Buck and nodded slowly and a quiet "Thanks."
Buck tried to smile at the gambler, a ' he'll be fine smile', but it lacked conviction and the southerner squeezed his friends shoulder and whispered "Take care of him." Buck nodded. The three men passed and headed up the stairs to JD's room.
Ezra stepped down on the boardwalk, his fingers pinching the tears from his eyes. As he sat next to the healer he simply said, "I'd feel better if you could remove that knife piercing the boy's heart."
"Wish it were that simple." Nathan said.
"I'm going to go over to the cafe..bring them back something to eat. They won't leave him for a while."
"I'll give ya a hand.." Nathan added, knowing that no one was going to leave there 'posts' anytime soon.
"You know he ain't gonna eat, Josiah." the bounty hunter stated. "Not yet anyways."
Josiah nodded his head knowingly "It won't hurt to have it in case."
The door opened to JD's room. Chris knew JD was emotional exhausted, but he needed to be here. They took him inside and place JD on the bed. JD turned, sat his back against the headboard, and brought his knees to his chest, arms holding them close.
"Maybe you outta lay down, kid. Get some rest."
He shook his head at the concerned ladies' man.
"You want us to leave? Give ya time to yourself?" Chris's tone surprised Buck. He hadn't heard him talk like that since Adam.
"No." came the drained voice. "I need help....gettin' this...stuff..put away.."
"You don't have to do it today, let's do it tomorrow." Buck thought he was helping..he just wanted the kid to stop hurting. He knew leaving this stuff here was a bad idea, and the look he gave his oldest friend told him that.
"It can't wait, all it's gonna do is remind me of..."
"Of what you did, son. That's something you can be proud of. I know it hurts..hurts like hell. Hope ain't here, she's gone..but she's alive and healthy..because of you..no one else..you. You kept your promise, there's three people looking down here right now, and they're proud of you, too." Buck was confused, but figured Chris knew what he was doing.
Tears filled JD's eyes and he whispered "Sara and Lily?"
"And your Momma."
JD lifted his head and smiled "You think?"
"Yeah, I do. And I'm proud of ya, we all are. You let Miss Long take her back with her, as hard as it was, you did it."
JD lay his head back against the headboard and closed his eyes, he opened them and took a deep breath, let it out slowly and got up from the bed. He made his way to the cradle, took out a few small blankets.
"This needs to get back to Mrs. Travis".
"I'll take it over right now, if you want." Buck offered.
Buck made his way to the small cradle, picked it up and headed to the door.
"Thanks, Buck." JD said.
"Anytime, kid" he looked at Chris and received a reassuring nod. As much as Buck was JD's comforter, this was something he knew Chris needed to handle. Not just for JD's sake either. Maybe they could heal together. Buck then opened the door and left. Chris shut it behind him.
The leader turned and saw the kid holding a blanket that Mrs. Potter had made for Hope. The kid was so tired looking.
"Do you think Miss Long will let us know how How...Emily is gettin' a long?"
"I'm sure she'll let us know when she gets there." Chris wanted to say yes to the kid, but his untrusting nature told him not to.
A gentle knock was heard, JD nodded and Chris opened the door. Four men stood solemn faced, two held trays of food. "Need any help?" Vin offered.
Chris looked back at JD who nodded "Come on in."
Before long the men were busy packing and sorting and taking trips to various parts in town, returning things people let them borrow. A few blankets and toys the men had made or bought were left.
"Nathan, you think the people in the Seminole Village could use these?" JD's sorrowful voice was gone, but the sadness in his eyes was still present.
"Yeah, I think they could..I'll take them out tomorrow." the healer smiled.
"Well..then I guess that's all of it..thanks for the help."
They all took that as a hint to leave the kid alone, as the men made their way to the door, JD said thanks again.
"Yeah, JD?" Chris said, as he turned away from the door. "Can I ask ya somethin'?"
"Sure." Chris had an idea of what the conversation was going to be about, and decided it was time.
"How'd you do it? I mean...does this empty feelin' ever go away?" the kid said with invisible tears, he had shed all the tears he could. He didn't have anymore, just the ones you couldn't see.
Chris closed the door sat next to the kid, took a deep breath and began to talk.
The men outside had all gone to the saloon except for Vin and Buck, they sat on the boardwalk, waiting for what seemed hours. The door to the boarding house opened and Chris stepped out. The two men stood quickly.
"How's he doin'?"
"He's pretty tired, I don't think he'd mind ya goin' up..Hey Buck, don't bug him about eatin', he ate some of that soup Josiah brought up."
Buck smiled and headed up the stairs.
The two men sat vigil at the boarding house until the sun came up the next day and a young man shook them and asked if they wanted breakfast. The two men smiled groggily, stood, stretched, and headed to the cafe for breakfast.
The dark cloud surrounding the seven lifted slowly as the days passed, the men kept a close on their young friend, but no one kept a closer eye on JD than Buck and Chris. Chris spent a lot of time talking, no one really knew about what. If JD had had a bad day, finding a rattle that had been lost, he found his way to Chris. Buck knew that they shared common ground.
Chris and Vin had shared with them JD's story of Sara and Lily. They began realizing he hadn't had such a wonderful childhood, and felt bad for assuming he had.
Two weeks after Emily had left, a telegram was given to Chris Larabee. He read the contents and headed to the jail, the door to the jail opened.
"What has you looking like that?" Buck said..mentally not remembering the last time his oldest friend had sported that look.
"Just got a telegram from Miss Long."
The spark in JD's eyes could have lit up a room. He really didn't believe they would get word from her...then his heart fell and worry crossed his face.. "Is everything okay? What does she say.. is Ho.. Emily okay?? Something wrong.. Did I do somethin I shouldn'ta??"
"Easy son, she says everything's fine. Healthy as a horse...there's one more thing."
"What!?" All the color from JD's face drained
"We gotta go to Rock Creek, all of us."
"Why's that?" Buck was totally confused, as was the bounty hunter.
"Seems Miss Long got a photograph of Emily and wants to send one here."
"So what's that got to do with Rock Creek?" Vin asked.
"She ain't gonna send it until she can get a picture of her six uncles."
"She wants one of JD by himself."
"Guess we better tell the others, huh?" JD said excitedly.
Three weeks passed and not another word from Samantha Long. The men weren't worried.. They didn't think they would ever hear from her again, and she had made contact. JD pushed his sadness to the back of his mind, it was getting easier to do every day.
A letter arrived at the beginning of the fourth week. In it was a note of thanks and two pictures of Emily. The men couldn't hide their smiles. "I think this is for you, kid." Buck smiled.
JD took the picture and turned it over:
Thank you so much for taking such good care of Emily
She will always know who you are and what you did. You will be a wonderful father when the time comes.
JD smiled, and left to his room. He had made good on his promise, and as hard as it had been to let Emily to go it was the right thing to do.
Chris was right, the empty spot was still there, but it didn't hurt as much. And seeing this picture of a smiling, happy Emily made him feel better, she was where she was suppose to be.