This segment should be read after:
DISCLAIMER: The characters in this fic are owned by CBS, Trilogy and MGM. I'm just borrowing them to play with for a while. I promise to put them back when I'm through :)
WARNINGS: None, except for a good deal of corniness.
Buck rode swiftly through the waving field of wildflowers, not even bothering to see if Chris and Vin were behind him; he knew they were back there somewhere, and would catch up. He was having far too good a time to rein himself in today.
He slowed Beauty down to a leisurely trot and smiled as he took in his surroundings, the gently rolling hills, the majestic mountains beyond, and the cloudless sky which saturated the area with softly warm sunshine. He still couldn't get over how beautiful it was, even though he had been here for-well, he'd forgotten what time felt like so he really couldn't say. Sometimes it felt like an eternity, sometimes less than a minute. But it always felt right, and that was what mattered. And he was here to stay.
He turned around, looking behind him for the others; they were riding slowly, as he was, enjoying the day, small dark specks against the colorful landscape. He reined in his horse and waited, willing to drink in the scenery while his friends caught up. He could hardly complain, now that they were almost all together again.
Despite the lack of time, he mused to himself, it had sure seemed like ages until the others had arrived. Well, Ezra had been there first, of course, but he had confided to Buck that he felt the same way-having known what was in store, he had also been somewhat impatient for the others to arrive so they could share it as well. Any sadness over the loss of their former lives had been eased by the joy of their new ones, and Buck had waited and watched with increasing excitement as their small, blood-stained group, who had gone through such hell before, were again reunited.
As Buck watched Chris and Vin ride up, he smiled a little, remembering how hard it had been to wait for Chris. He had wanted so badly to be the first one there for Chris, had wanted to see the joy of his longtime friend's reunion with his family. It had been terrible to know that Chris would be cut down, even if it meant his suffering was over, and he and Ezra could only be beside him in those final moments and offer what comfort they could without being able to interfere. It had been an awful, bloody way to go, but knowing what lay beyond it had helped quite a bit. And Buck had been all set to go to Chris until he realized that Sarah and Adam deserved that honor far more than he did; so, he had waited a little longer. But it had been worth it, to see that old smile again.
For the others, the wait had been almost as excruciating, but no less satisfying. Vin had been next; the long vigils Chris had spent by his bedside as the tracker lay dying from his injuries sustained at Purgatorio were particularly hard, but at least he had had Vin's mother there to share the burden of watching his friend die. The whole story-how Vin had finally been shot off of the burning rooftops of Purgatorio, how a passing group of Seminole had found him in the ashes and taken him into their tent, where he had died without regaining consciousness - had gained Vin an entirely new respect in Buck's eyes. He had certainly earned the undisguised joy which now shone in his blue eyes as he rode through the unsurpassable beauty of this new world.
It had been with a great deal of satisfaction that Buck had watched Nathan and Josiah each reach a ripe old age and, in Nathan's case, find joy in a family of his own by marrying Rain. Their lives had been spent serving others and keeping the memory of their time together alive, and Buck and the others had made it a point to be near in times of grief as well as joy. They had lived the full lives the other men could not, and had not wasted a single minute to regrets or sorrow; they had earned the right to be here as well, and could now watch with satisfaction as the results of their labors continued the positive course they had been set on.
Then, of course, there was JD.
Buck sighed, surprised at how sad he felt whenever he thought of the kid; but after all these years, he reminded himself, JD was hardly a kid anymore. He's an old man, he thought with wonder, older even than Nettie Wells now. It had pained Buck to know that JD, who out of all of them had enjoyed being together in the West the most, was now the only one left. JD had longed to die in a blaze of glory, and almost had; for a few dark days Buck and Chris and Ezra had stood by watching as Nathan and Josiah fought to keep JD from joining Chris, and the kid had been hurt so badly that Buck almost hoped he would die, just to end his suffering. But it wasn't to be, and Buck knew why; after all, he had met JD's son William.
Watching JD's life unfold had been of special interest to all of them, but to Buck especially. He had to feel a little pride as he watched the kid regain his strength and become a strong, handsome young man-a man now, not a kid any more. He wondered if JD had felt them near at all during the times when his life was in danger-and there had sure been enough of those, the kid would have to become a lawman in Chicago of all things. Evil had stayed the same, it seemed, but the methods had gotten more sophisticated. But JD had been up to the challenge, and Buck believed that if he hadn't been dead already, he would have busted with pride.
But Buck had to admit it hurt to see JD get older. The light in his eyes had never dimmed, and he never lost his youthful excitement for life that nearly got him killed a million times. But Buck had never expected he'd see the day when JD's thick hair would be white, the nimble hands covered with wrinkles, the excited gait hampered by disease and age and old wounds. There would be no more running up the street, brandishing his gun at danger, his heart pounding with terrified joy.
And last year, when Casey died, had been the worst, even for the men who knew what lay beyond. They had all been there, and Buck could only hope that JD knew it as he sat by her bedside, holding her hand, begging her to stay and letting her go at the same time. Casey's parents and Nettie had been there too, on that early spring evening, and Buck had to chuckle at the memory of how crowded that small room should have been. But there was plenty of space, it seemed, and when Casey opened those brown eyes and smiled at JD without a hint of pain, and JD had smiled back with those tears streaming down his face, Buck could feel the surge of strength from them all, helping JD as he leaned down and kissed his wife goodbye. Then she had closed her eyes, and that had been it. At least JD's kids and grandkids had been there, to help in ways the men couldn't; but still, it had been tough.
Chris and Vin were getting closer now, and Buck grinned at their approach, thinking that it had to be soon, when they would all ride together again. Until then, there was still work to do, just a different kind from before.
"Still ridin' ahead, Buck?" Chris called as they rode up. Buck laughed and shook his head.
"Well, I ain't no worse than Vin, y'know how he used to like takin' the lead," Buck replied, eying the tracker sharply. Vin just smiled, his long brown hair blowing gently in the wind.
"Somebody had to, y'know," was the quiet response. "You was too busy doggin' JD."
Buck had to nod in agreement. "Yeah, but that was too much fun to let off. Wonder how he's doin' at Four Corners."
They had all been there, not long ago, as JD walked the ruined streets of the once-bustling town; but it was empty now, a broken shell waiting to be crushed by progress. They had watched as JD strode the silent streets alone, reliving the days when he was young, when he had met Casey and the others. It had seemed sad to Buck to see both Four Corners and JD so near to the end; but he knew what was ahead, and that had helped.
"Man like JD, he's got a lot of rememberin' to do," Vin offered, leaning on his saddle horn and scanning the countryside. "Lucky for him it's mostly good."
Buck smiled. "Well, he had a little help, y'know."
They rode on silently for a while, through a wide running stream sparkling and splashing in the sun, across a wide meadow full of waving grass. Buck was wondering if they should ride over to Nathan's to see what he and Rain were up to, when suddenly he stopped short. After sitting still for a moment, as if listening for something, he turned to look at Chris and Vin. He could tell by their expressions that they knew, too.
Vin nodded, as if he'd been expecting it. "Reckoned it'd be soon."
Chris looked down for a moment, then glanced up at Buck, a huge smile on his face.
"What do you think, Buck?" he said, leaning back and gathering his reins. "Want to go see if JD still wants to ride with us?"
There was a brief pause, and neither Chris nor Vin knew if Buck was going to laugh or cry. They soon received an answer; Buck let out a whoop of pure joy and spurred his horse back to the ranch, charging through the stream and sending up a rainbow-hued spray of water. The other two men laughed and followed him, riding with the same happiness in their hearts, if not with the same recklessness.
+ + + + + + +
When they arrived at the ranch they were surprised to see quite a few people already there; Sarah swept down from the porch and greeted Chris with a kiss, as always.
"Didn't waste any time, did you?" he smiled, looking around. She shrugged, her eyes merry.
"I thought we might be havin' a small party," she replied, in her soft Irish lilt. "What with you men bein' back together an' all."
"Sounds like a right fine idea," Buck agreed, jumping off of his horse with a good deal of energy.
"Buck's just a little excited," Vin remarked, sliding smoothly off of Sire.
"No more so than Casey," Sarah laughed. "She's gone to meet him already."
Buck let out a yelp of laughter. "Dang, that gal never could sit still. Guess we should get goin' too."
Chris put his arm around his wife and looked at Buck. "We will, Buck, but let's give Casey a few moments with him."
Buck considered this, then nodded; they deserved it, really, and besides, the others hadn't arrived yet. He looked over the small group setting up picnic things on the lawn; they were all relatives or friends of JD and the other men, including Buck's mother, Chris' and Sarah's parents, Vin's mother, and their relatives-everyone, basically, who wanted to be there when JD finally came home. Buck felt his heart swell with anticipation; this was going to be fun.
He heard hoofbeats and a whoop behind him, and turned to see Ezra tearing gleefully up the road on Chaucer, wearing a smile bright enough to be seen even from the house. Behind him, riding at a more demure gallop, rode his cousin Sophie and his parents Maude and Daniel Standish, who were also smiling, although it was unclear whether it was in amusement at Ezra's excitement or their own delight.
"Well, sirs," Ezra chirped, reining Chaucer in, his green eyes dancing. "A day long looked for, is it not?"
"I'll say," Buck huffed good-naturedly. "I got 67 years of teasin' the boy to catch up on!"
"You all should have been there," Sophie laughed as she rode up. "We were walking by the pond when all of a sudden Ezra lets out a loud yelp and gave me this huge hug. I thought he was going to knock us both into the water."
"Merely a momentary lapse of control, I assure you," Ezra said, looking slightly embarrassed.
"Don't let him fool you, Buck, " Maude cautioned, a twinkle in her eye as she gazed lovingly at her son. "I haven't seen him this happy since he won $500 in the New Orleans Lottery in 1872. He could hardly wait to get here."
"Don't worry on it, Ezra, we'll all be happy to see JD, an' none of us have waited longer'n you."
A smile crossed the gambler's lips. "Very true, Buck. I must thank him for taking such good care of Chaucer." He looked around. "However, there is one who's waited longer-is Amanda here yet?"
Buck searched the slowly gathering crowd for JD's mother as Sophie, Maude and Daniel climbed from their mounts and, after waving to Ezra, moved onto the lawn amid shouts of greeting. "Nope, don't look like it."
Another pounding of hooves announced the arrival of Nathan and his family, with Rain riding happily beside him and their relatives behind. Nathan was grinning hugely.
"Hey!" he called happily as he and his brood rode up. The others greeted them warmly as they dismounted; only Nathan stayed on his horse.
"Sure been waitin' for today," he exulted to the other men as his family joined the others on the lawn. "I was beginnin' to think JD was just too tough to go."
"Sure fooled us all, didn't he?" Vin mused as he guided Sire to stand next to Nathan and Ezra. "I was thinkin' he was gonna get plugged sure the first gunfight he got in. An' here he is, the last one of us left."
The crowd on the lawn was beginning to grow; the warm air was full of the cadence of conversation and laughter. The sun was beginning to go down; strings of paper lanterns were erected and lit, tables spread with food and drink, and a small area set aside for dancing later. It had all the makings of a truly memorable evening.
Finally Josiah came riding slowly up the dirt road, accompanied by Bright Dawn, the Seminole woman he had married late in life, and another woman, small-boned and pretty, with cascades of black curls tumbling down her back. She seemed quietly excited and eager as they approached, and all of the men who were waiting for Josiah removed their hats at her approach. They smiled at her happiness, knowing exactly what she felt; of all of them she had waited the longest for this day.
"Evenin', Amanda," Buck called, as she reined in. "We wondered when you'd be by."
She smiled at them with JD's hazel eyes, her face aglow. "I'm afraid I had to collect myself, gentlemen," she said in a clear voice tinged with the air of Boston. "It's been so long an' all, my heart just about broke with joy when I knew."
"Well, I can understand that," Buck said, standing beside her. "Want to come with us?"
She ducked her head a little and fiddled with her reins. "Oh-I don't think that would be right. He wants to see you all so badly, I'd rather meet him here, where we can talk quietly. Besides, I can't spoil Casey's fun by being the intrusive mother-in-law!"
She laughed without bitterness; Buck chuckled and helped her down. She smiled in gratitude at him, then looked around at all of them, gathered now in a small circle apart from the crowd.
"I just wanted to thank you men, again, for being there for JD. I always felt so bad that he didn't know his father, but then I realized he was luckier than most boys because he wound up having six of them. You set him on the right path, and neither of us will ever forget it."
The men hemmed in embarrassment, until Chris came up and took her hand.
"We just pointed the way, Amanda. It was JD that done the travelin', an' it was you that started him on it. An' I think we can all be proud of how the trip turned out."
She smiled again, and went to join Bright Dawn with the other guests. Josiah leaned over his horse's neck, his expression thoughtful.
"I believe we have accomplished a truly marvelous ratio, my friends," he rumbled. "Seven men, an' not a one of us wound up in the Inferno."
"Not surprised at that, Josiah," Chris said as he mounted Valor. "Way I see it, we did our time in Hell already."
"Don't mean I didn't have my doubts about some of you," Josiah grinned. "But I was never so glad to be wrong."
As Buck swung himself into Beauty's saddle he noticed Josiah and Ezra exchange smiling glances and shook his head. Josiah had been the last of them to arrive before today, and it had not escaped Buck's notice that the ex-preacher had been particularly happy to see Ezra here. Must have to do with something they talked about before Ezra died, Buck decided; maybe someday he'd find out.
They were finally all saddled up, and for a moment Chris, Vin, Buck, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah sat looking at each other, silently, as if the moment was too profound for words. Certainly Buck didn't feel like he could speak; the idea that their number would once more be complete, and would never be diminished again, seemed overwhelming. He looked out over the ranch, at the throngs of people enjoying each other's company, heard the sounds of happiness wafting on the soft summer air. Soon the sky would be ablaze with bright pinks and golds and purples; soon the lawn would be carpeted with fireflies, and the sky would come alive with a million stars, and there would be dancing, and laughter, and joy.
And you'll finally be here to see it, kid, Buck thought fondly, feeling an unexpected lump in his throat. You'll finally get to know.
And Buck could see, by looking around, that the other five men were thinking the exact same thing.
Finally Chris looked at Buck and smiled slightly, his eyes bright.
"Say, Buck," he said lazily, "why don't you go on ahead an' make sure JD don't hurt himself his first day here?"
He and Chris looked at each other for a moment; then he nodded, trying to suppress the goofy smile that was threatening to overwhelm his face.
"Yeah, Chris, I'll do that," Buck nodded, picking up his reins. "Guess I'll always have to keep an eye on that boy!"
With a loud hya! Buck spurred his horse down the road, shouting joyously all the way.
+ + + + + + +
The air at the ranch was thick with anticipation as they waited, all with excited smiles, knowing what was ahead. Amanda paced anxiously by the end of the roadway, casting glances down its shady path, smiling and biting her lip. Sophie and Bright Dawn stood with her, helping her wait, laughing and saying, don't worry, you know they'll come.
Finally they all heard it, the thunder of pounding hooves stirring the warm twilight air. Amanda straightened, her eyes shining; Sophie and Bright Dawn exchanged wide smiles and stepped back, unwilling to crowd the scene. The yard full of guests fell silent, watching.
A horse appeared, galloping quickly up the road; Amanda gasped with joy as she saw her son bent over the horse's neck, his smile radiant in the gold-pink light of dusk. He was looking at the girl seated behind him and laughing, relishing the fact that he had beaten them all; but when he turned his eyes forward, and saw the small dark-haired woman standing at the end of the road, he sat up, his face wreathed in a remarkable expression of amazement. Amanda saw Casey tighten her grip on JD, as if to steady him.
They finished the ride slowly, JD walking Hero up to stand before his mother in silent reverence. JD stared at her, tears clinging to his long lashes and spilling unheeded down his face. Amanda smiled at him, laughing a little at her wet cheeks.
"Hello, JD," she said, unable to think of anything more profound.
JD said nothing, but his breathing became hard, the tears coming more quickly. Without taking his eyes from her, he slid off of Hero, half-stumbled to where she stood and threw his arms around his mother, kissing her and sobbing openly with joy. She held him tightly, stroking his thick black hair.
Casey quietly dismounted and looked behind her to see the other men ride up; they all regarded the mother and son with warm satisfaction, smiling wordlessly at the reunion. Buck looked particularly pleased, and was not ashamed to wipe a tear from his own eye. You earned this, kid, he thought, you really did.
After a while JD pulled away, still gulping a bit as he looked at his mother. Finally he laughed a little and touched her face.
"You look so young," he said in wonder. But not tired, or sick, he thought to himself, not like she used to look at all. She wiped the tears from her cheeks and tousled his hair.
"You look pretty chipper yourself, Jonathan Daniel," she replied. He grinned, took her hands in his, and stood staring at her. It was so wonderful it couldn't be true.
A thought struck him, and his face turned serious.
"I-I hope you're not mad," he said, ducking his head. "About my not going to college. I really wanted to, but..."
Amanda laughed and caressed her son's cheek. "Now, JD, don't you think you would have gone to college if it was meant to be? You wound up in a place much better than some dusty old school, an' had teachers much smarter than any old professor. I couldn't be prouder of you than if you were the President of Harvard himself."
He looked at her for a moment; then a smile lit up his glistening eyes as he felt the guilt lift from his heart. Then, still holding his mother's hand, he turned to see that the others had dismounted, walking towards them as the horses went to graze in the green meadows nearby.
"This is incredible," he said, shaking his head as his eyes traveled over the faces of his wife and friends. "I-how-"
Buck laughed. "Easy there, kid-no hurry to answerin' your questions, there's plenty of time for that."
JD cocked his head, then dropped Amanda's hand and marched up to the grinning gunslinger.
"Watch that 'kid' stuff, sonny," he huffed happily. "I spent almost my whole life puttin' smart young mouths like yours behind bars in Chicago. I'm older than you by a good 50 years!"
Buck leaned forward, his eyes twinkling. "Not here you ain't, JD. You don't look a day over twenty to me, an' seein' as how you ain't gonna age no more, I reckon that means I can call you 'kid' much as I want, if that's OK with you."
JD and Buck eyed each other for a moment, as the others watched smiling. Then JD slowly broke out into a wide grin, his eyes becoming wet again.
"You have no idea how OK that is with me, Buck," he said.
Casey came up behind JD and took her husband's hand.
"Come along now, JD," she urged gently. "Can't start the party without you, y'know."
JD turned wide eyes to the throng on the ranch's lawn, the softly glowing lights, the well-stocked picnic tables.
"That's all for me?" he gasped. Buck slapped an arm around his shoulder.
"That's all for US," he corrected. "Got a few folks here eager to meet ya, JD. Feel up to it?"
JD smiled again and took his mother's arm with his other hand.
"Try an' keep me away," he said. The men laughed and followed him as he waded into the welcoming throng.
+ + + + + + +
JD's head was spinning as he wandered a short distance away from the party and plopped himself down on the soft green grass; it was so much to absorb, and it all still seemed so impossible. He just had to take a break.
He pulled up his knees and rested his crossed arms on them, gazing in wonder at the starlit scene before him. The sun had set, and the lawn of the ranch was ablaze with the glow of the paper lanterns and the dancing lights of what seemed like millions of fireflies. In the gentle light he could see the teams of people moving about, talking, laughing, and having in general a marvelous time.
Without even trying, it seemed, he could find them; there was Casey with her parents-it was very strange meeting them, JD reflected, but they were good, honest people, and Casey was so happy to be near them again that JD almost shed tears on her behalf. He could see Chris with Sarah and Adam, and marveled again at how great it was to see Chris so changed, to see him sitting there with his arm around his wife's waist, hat off, the haunted look in his eyes gone forever. He'd admired Chris for his gunslinging skills, but now that he knew what Chris had lost in order to gain those skills he felt almost guilty for envying him so much before. Vin lounged nearby, hands on his belt as usual, a small smile on his face, radiating a quiet happiness which seemed even more profound than Buck's vocal jubilation.
Music wafted through the air, slow and sweet; JD's eyes traveled to the glowing area where couples were swirling in graceful harmony. There went Ezra and Sophie, laughing as they exchanged some words with Maude and Daniel as they waltzed by. JD had almost forgotten how Ezra had looked before he'd fallen ill; he'd often regretted that their only group photograph was taken after the consumption had begun to take its toll. Now as JD watched the gambler nimbly twirl Sophie under his arm, it was impossible to think that Ezra had ever been sick at all.
Josiah danced by with Bright Dawn, and JD regarded them with surprise as well; it was funny, he had known them both into their old age, and had gotten used to them being old. But it did not seem at all unusual, now, to see Josiah as a young man again, and Bright Dawn as a beautiful young girl, with cascades of thick black hair. It just seemed natural, the way they really were. The same with Rain and Nathan, he mused, as he watched them move through the crowd. They had all grown old together, and JD realized that he had never really seen them as getting older; to him they had always been young. It was the world that was getting older, becoming different. But they had stayed the same, inside.
Finally his eyes settled on Buck and Amanda; JD smiled as he saw Buck whirling his mother around, then felt a heavy surge of emotion swell through his chest, so overwhelming that he had to bite his lip to hold back the tears. They're really here, he thought, blinking, my mom and Buck and the others, I'm actually sitting here looking at them, it's not a dream. How often had he ached to see his mother again, or longed to hear Buck's raucous laughter; and now he was doing just that. They're here, he thought again, then looked around; they're all here, and felt the warm tears sting his eyes again.
A gentle touch on his shoulder startled him out of his reverie, and he looked up to see Casey's face, lit by the silver moonlight, as she knelt behind him.
"A bit much, ain't it?" she asked quietly, putting her arms around him. He shook his head as he reached up to tenderly stroke her arms.
"It's so amazing, Case," he muttered. "I keep thinkin' it's a dream, but-I know it ain't."
"That's what I thought, too," she replied softly, as they sat together watching the festivities. "But the nice part is, this is only the beginnin'."
They sat silently for a little while, without moving, content to simply watch. Finally JD heard the soft crunch of footsteps on the grass, and turned to see Buck and Ezra walking towards them.
"Now if that don't beat all," Buck said in mock exasperation, shaking his head. "Here we throw this boy such a swell party, an' he's out here spoonin' with his gal."
"Quite a shameful display of ingratitude," Ezra agreed, smiling, his gold tooth shining in the warm blue darkness. "But I believe we must forgive him, given the irresistible beauty of his companion." Here Ezra touched his hat brim, and Casey laughed.
JD looked at them both with surprise. "Is the dance over already?"
"Just a little break," Buck replied, squatting on the grass next to JD. "Thought we'd come an' see how you was gettin' on. Pretty well, I'm guessin'."
JD nodded, tried to speak, couldn't find the words. Eventually he just shrugged and said, "Yeah, that pretty much sums it up."
Casey gave JD a squeeze and kissed his cheek. "I'm gonna go see the folks, JD, I'll be back in a bit."
She patted his arm and jumped up, trotting lightly off across the grass towards the brightly lit front lawn. JD watched her go and felt his throat tighten again, but managed to hold himself back. She really is going to come back, he thought, and swallowed.
"Havin' a good time, JD?" he heard Josiah ask, as he and Nathan emerged from the dance area.
"It'll be better once he gets Casey out on the floor," Nathan urged, giving JD a friendly, reproachful look. "I'm bettin' you remember how to dance."
JD smiled back, feeling impossibly happy. "I'll put you all to shame, just watch," he declared. It had been so long since he and Casey had danced, and they had really loved to do it, before age and injury had intruded. Now such barriers were removed, and he could hardly wait to see if his box step had held up.
The others had deposited themselves in various attitudes of relaxation around him, and as JD glanced at his friends he was struck by a new thought.
"So, uh," he said, after clearing his throat, "could you guys, um...see...what was goin' on? With me, I mean?"
Buck grunted, amused. "If you mean, was we watchin' you all this time, well, of course we were. All part of the package, y'see."
"Hmm." JD considered this. "Cause there were so many times, when-well, it's gonna sound silly, but it was like you were all there. Guess I just wanted to know if you really were, or if I was goin' crazy."
"You were quite sane, let me assure you," Ezra said, from where he was leaning against an oak tree with his hands on his belt. "I believe it was our mental capacities which were tested, with all the wild incidents you exposed yourself to."
"Yeah, like goin' after that Capone fella an' gettin' all shot up," Nathan nodded. "We sure worked overtime on that one."
JD shrugged. "Well, I would've had him if his men hadn't shown up." He paused, then looked down, not daring to meet their eyes. "I guess I just wanted to...say thanks. For lookin' out for me, I mean. I think I knew it was happenin', even when I tried to convince myself it was nuts."
There was a long silence; then finally Buck cleared his throat.
"Well, there ain't no cause t'thank us for doin' that, JD," he said, his voice husky. "We were just tryin' to help out as we could, is all. You'll be able to do it, too, for those you left behind. Your kid William, for instance."
JD glanced up at Buck, surprised; then he smiled. "Quite a guy, isn't he? I named him for you, Buck. Even took to calling him that, when he got older."
The other man grinned widely. "Good call, there, kid. I sure did appreciate that."
"An' he named his son William, an' I didn't even tell him to," JD continued, shaking his head. "An' he calls him Buck too."
"Too many Bucks, if you ask me," came Chris' voice; the small group looked over to see Chris and Vin sauntering in from the brightly lit lawn. Buck chuckled.
"No such of a thing, in my opinion, Chris," he replied, trying to sound insulted. "I'm bettin' one of 'em becomes famous, an' the name will become downright fashionable."
Chris crouched beside JD, looking at him with appraising blue eyes. "How you doin', JD?"
The younger man thought about the question, then shook his head. "It still seems too weird, but I think I'm gettin' used to it." He looked at the blonde gunslinger. "I wanted to tell you, Chris-when we were at the wall, an' you said you were proud to die with me-well, that meant a lot to me, an' it got me through some rough times when I wasn't too sure of myself."
Chris' face slowly spread into a smile, a lot like the ones JD remembered, but without the shadows that used to lurk behind the gunslinger's eyes. "You deserved it, JD. Glad things worked out for you."
JD nodded, a little flustered. "Well, yeah, boy, they sure did. I couldn't have asked for a better life, really, what with Casey, and the kids, and the job. But...well, I sure wish you all could have been there too. It sure would've been fun."
"Well, it ain't like we really went anywhere, JD," Vin drawled, as he lounged on his side in the grass. "An' we knowed you didn't forget us."
"Not by a long shot," Josiah smiled. "Glad to see you made use of that picture we had done. Best eight dollars we ever spent, in my opinion."
JD's head bobbed sadly. "Yeah, I remember how I used to stare at that picture and think you were right there with me again. I willed it to William, hope he puts it somewhere safe. It's all that's left of us now, except the stories."
"Now, I wouldn't take them stories so lightly there, JD," Buck cautioned. "I like to think we done some right good things, an' when Mr. Crenshaw-Greer gets that book written, maybe other folk'll understand what we tried to do. It'll be good for them to remember what we fought for, an' that the fight ain't over yet."
JD's eyes were thoughtful as he considered this; he could only hope that Michael's book would be a success. He liked to think that somebody, somewhere, might be interested in the things they did, so long ago. If at least one person found inspiration in their adventures, it would have all been worth it.
Finally he looked around. "So, um, what happens now?"
Buck chuckled. "You gettin' impatient already, kid?"
"Well, no," JD replied, "but-well, I was just wonderin'."
JD looked at Chris for an answer, an old habit now able to once more be indulged.
Chris turned serious eyes to him, full of strength and confidence. "There's always battles to be fought, JD," he said quietly. "For our friends, our kin, our homes. Just cause we're here don't mean we ain't part of it no more."
The young man felt a smile spread across his face. "Ridin' to the rescue again, huh?"
Vin smiled as he regarded JD warmly. "T'Hell an' back, kid. Just like always."
"'Cept this time I don't have to worry 'bout stitchin' any of you up," Nathan said with a grin.
The music began again, and Ezra hoisted himself upright from his leaning position.
"I believe for now, Mr. Dunne, we should rejoin the ladies," he said. "I, for one, am anxious to see how much of Mr. Wilmington's instruction you've retained."
JD lifted his head to see Casey coming towards him, wearing that radiant smile he'd fallen in love with and thought he'd never see again. He felt his heart rise, then soar, and found himself standing, waiting breathlessly for her to arrive. She giggled at his excitement and grabbed his hands as soon as she was close enough.
"C'mon, now, JD, I've waited a powerful long time for you to spark me on the dance floor again," she teased. "Maybe we can get 'em to play the Charleston for us."
She was pulling him towards the dance floor now, and as he looked around he saw the others gathering there as well. Chris was escorting Sarah, their faces glowing as they looked into each other's eyes. Nathan and Rain were whispering and laughing as they clinched in the corner of the floor. Josiah was proudly escorting Bright Dawn, while Buck was already whirling Amanda around and making her laugh with his energetic waltzing. Vin had removed his hat and was smoothing his long hair down before taking a lovely brown-haired woman-Vin's mother, JD realized-into his arms, gazing at her with reverential awe. He watched as Ezra approached Sophie, executed a perfectly elegant bow, and offered his arm to escort her to the dance floor, which she happily accepted.
Soon they were all waltzing around the dance floor, moving in perfect time to the music; JD noticed that it was just the seven of them, and their partners, on the dance floor; everyone else was watching and smiling from the sides. He looked at Casey and broke into a huge smile.
"We seem to be pretty interesting to everybody," he remarked. She laughed a little.
"Well, we cut a pretty good figure, y'know," was her answer. She looked up to see him gazing at her, his hazel eyes serious and full of love.
"I sure missed doin' this with you, Case. I forgot what it was like."
She returned his gaze, then smiled. "Well, you're doin' it with me now, JD Dunne, and I'm gonna see to it you don't forget again."
He blinked, amused. "We ain't gonna spend all of our time dancin', are we?"
Casey laughed, shaking her head. "Course not, JD, there's so much more to where we are, you can't begin to imagine it. But for now, I'm happy to just dance with you."
He smiled at her and whirled her around in a theatrically exaggerated gesture. "And then, Mrs. Dunne?" he asked, with a slight swagger.
She eyed him mischievously. "After that-God only knows."
They laughed together, not noticing the six pairs of eyes on them, or the similar number of warm smiles aimed in their direction. They danced on, knowing their stories would be told, their lives remembered, their spirits carried in the hearts of their children and their descendants still unborn. It would grow, and spread, and touch the lives of generations who would need to hear of the strength and courage of those who once trod their country's soil. It was the story of a people, and a country, that still fought for justice.
And they could all feel that their part in the story was really only just beginning.
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