Chris pulled up and turned to the group as they stopped and watched Chris, he rode to JD.
"I'm fine, Chris, we can keep going," he answered before the question was asked.
"Yeah, well care to tell me why your eyes are half shut?"
"Sun's bright?" he said innocently, all he wanted to do was go to sleep, but that would bring on the dreams.
"Ah-ha. We stop here!" Chris ordered out to the scattered group. "You need a hand down?"
"Just a shoulder maybe," he smiled shyly. JD got off his horse landing on his good leg and steadying himself on Chris shoulder. "Thanks," he said, limping away to secure his horse to the wagon.
"Anytime, son." How many more times was he going to be able to say that?
The late morning breakfast was as lively as the ride had been. There were the polite 'pleases' and 'Thank yous' exchanged, and after eating, telling Nathan it was good. Buck had offered to help Nathan with cleaning the dishes, something JD always did, but not this time. JD opted for a rock instead.
He sat on the large gray boulder and looked towards where they were going, back to a place he'd hoped never to see again, back to Boston.
Josiah saw JD walk off by himself, usually the preacher would let the kid come to him, but things were different now, they were losing one of the seven. Josiah went to him, wanting to ease the boy's mind..get him to talk to him, someone, anyone. He wanted JD to understand that they were here for him, to show their support. To give him the strength to take the trip to Boston and face what was likely to happen. To let him know he'd made his mark, not only in Four Corners, but in their hearts, to tell him what every man wanted to but couldn't.
"Mind if I join ya?" Josiah gentle tone asked.
"No, suit yourself," JD answered, his tone as unemotional as Josiah had ever heard.
"Can I ask you something?" Josiah tested.
"Depends on the question," he answered honestly, he wasn't ready to tell Josiah why he didn't want to go back to Boston.
"Fair enough. What scares you the most about going back?" Josiah vaguely asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Is it going back that scares you, or what happens when you get there," Josiah laid out.
"Both, for difference reasons."
"What do you think is going to happen when we get there?"
"Josiah...." JD started, "I dunno," he gave up.
"What? JD, you wanted to tell me somethin'," Josiah said, breaking the short silence, noticing that JD had something brewing in his head.
"No, yeah. You think, well.. Momma never had a funeral, just me buryin' her. If .. If the guys wouldn't mind, ya think... well would you .. I mean..is it too late to do a funeral?" JD asked, changing the subject quickly, but he had been thinking about it.
"You wanna have a memorial service for your momma?" Josiah was caught off guard, he hadn't expected this.
"Well, not if ya think it's a bad idea, I was just thinking we was going all the way out there, and it's just a bit out of town, and it'd be real nice if you guys would be there, you think Chris would mind?"
"No, I think it's a fine idea, JD."
"Would you mind sayin a few words? I mean, you know all them verses and stuff, and well I know momma woulda liked ya an awful lot," JD smiled shyly.
"I'd be honored, son, a right down honor," Josiah said warmly, slapping JD on the back gently.
"Thanks, Josiah," JD not hiding his pleasure.
"I'm gonna see if they need a hand, you comin'?"
"I think I'm gonna stay here for a minute, let me know when there ready," JD said, turning his back to the terrain he might never see again.
Josiah walked away from the rock, still not so sure what had happened, who was trying to make who feel better.
"You okay, Josiah?" Vin asked, seeing how the preacher looked. He couldn't put a finger on it, but bewilderment was the only word that came to mind. Chris had noticed the preacher as well.
"Josiah? JD say somethin' to you?" wondering if JD had let Josiah know about Chamberlain.
"The teacher has become the student," Josiah said somberly.
"He wants to know if you'd allow us to stop at his mother's grave, to have a memorial service," Josiah almost chuckled at the thought.
Vin shook his head and let out a fast sigh, Chris mocked Vin's action then looked to the teen on the rocks.
"We're ready, Josiah, I'll get JD," Chris left the two men.
"How's Buck doin?" Josiah asked.
"I dunno, he ain't said much. I think it's just the starting of the trip, neither one of them can stay quiet for the day, much less the whole ride," Vin hoped, he and the preacher walked to their horses and mounted, joining the others while they waited for JD and Chris.
"We're ready, kid," Chris said.
"Huh? Oh, okay." And he got up from the rock and limped his way over.
"How far out of our way do we gotta go to visit your mother?" Chris asked out of the blue.
"Momma's buried about five miles from the estate. We ain't gotta go, it's really outta the way..it's oka.."
"That'll be fine, JD, we'll stop before we get there," Chris said.
"Thanks," he said, mounting his horse.
Chris nodded "We all set? Lets move out." And the men started at the same galloping pace as before to Boston.
+ + + + + + +
"How ya holdin' up kid?" Buck finally broke the four hour silence.
"Fine, Buck," came the short reply
"I'm sure Chris won't mind if we stopped for a bit, let ya rest your leg," Buck offered gently.
"I said I'm fine, Buck!" he yelled, spurring his horse ahead. Buck sighed, knowing far to well why he was snapping and not talking. He usually would have said a few choice words of his own, but the kid was on a journey back to Boston, where the memories were of beatings and hurt.
"We're stoppin here!" Chris ordered, JD stopping next to him.
"I said I'm fine, Chris," JD let out exasperated.
"I heard ya, so did everyone from here to Tennessee," he said sternly.
"I don't need a rest," he said in a small tone, almost a plea.
"Maybe not, but I think its time you let the others in on why you don't want to go back."
JD took a deep breath, he looked at his hero, his friend for a way out. "I can't, Chris, I never shoulda said nothin to you."
"JD, they need to know why you're so shook up, and don't go telling me you ain't. Buck asked you a simple question and you bit his head off. They all know something's got you wound up so tight your head's 'bout ready to fall off besides the custody thing, tell them..let them, understand? They need to know. They've come out here without any questions, you owe them the truth."
"I ain't tellin, you can if you want, I can't do it again, Chris. It's bad enough I gotta go back there, don't make me say why I left," JD begged, "You know I ain't coming back." He spurred his horse on again, leaving Vin and Chris behind.
"He okay?" Buck asked.
"No, I'll go talk to him," Vin smiled, going after JD.
"Let's set up for lunch, we got somethings to tell them," Chris said.
"It ain't our place, Chris," Buck pointed out.
"I ain't so sure, he's not gonna say it again," Chris shared.
"Wish he didn't have to say it at all," Buck hung his head sadly.
+ + + + + + +
JD looked up to Vin from where he sat under a shade tree, his horse next to him. "Hey," he returned, bringing his head back down.
"This ain't gonna get any easier the closer we get," Vin said, dismounting his horse and sitting next to JD.
"You trying to cheer me up?" JD half smiled.
"Nope, just pointin' out a fact."
"I know all the facts, don't really need them pointed out to me," JD said quietly. God he was gonna miss being able to talk to him like this.
"Chris gonna tell the others?" JD asked hanging his head.
JD brought his knees up and put his elbows on them rubbing his eyes then bring his hands through his hair.
"Arrrgghhh," he let out in frustration.
Vin wanted so badly to tell JD that he understood, and he knew how he was feeling, but he couldn't, he had no idea what he was feeling.
"Why did I leave there?" JD said tiredly
"If ya hadn't you wouldn't have made it out here," Vin still in a light voice.
"I wouldn't have to leave, either."
"What makes you think you ain't comin' back?" Vin had a little hope that he'd come back, but his heart and his head were in agreement, the kid wouldn't be.
"Geez, Vin, you tell me. What judge in their right mind thinks I'd be better off back out here as a hired lawman then sittin at some school learnin? All that judge is gonna see is a seventeen year old kid, he ain't gonna see 'me'."
"You got a point, I guess."
"You guess? Think twice before you try and cheer me up okay? Another one of your 'pep talks' and I might just go find another bear trap to step in," trying to cheer Vin up a bit, no need in everyone being depressed.
"I'll remember that," Vin smiled. Damn kid's still trying to make everyone feel better. God I'm gonna miss that.
"Sorry, Vin, I don't mean to snap at ya."
"It's okay. You got any idea who wants you?"
"Judge said it was someone who knew you, said they promised your mother they'd take care of you."
"Dunno, momma didn't have many friends, not real friends anyways."
"Well, she had me without ever gettin married. Imagine they treated her like..well, not good."
"I don't know why that would make a difference, she sounded like a real nice lady."
"Yeah, she was. She would have liked you, all of ya. Well, she would have put up with Buck," JD couldn't help but smile.
"What do you think she would have thought about Chris?" Vin could see the kid was distracted by the conversation and went with it.
"Chris? I dunno. She probably would have stepped back a bit."
"You think he'd intimidate her?"
"Momma? Heck no. She would step back and watch him for a bit, then she'd have him figured out."
"Take it your momma wasn't intimidated easy."
"No, I don't think I ever saw her back down or give into anyone if she knew she was right."
"Alot like you, huh?"
"Yeah, right. I let a man three times as big as me beat the tar outta me regularly. No, I don't get intimidated," JD hung his head sadly.
"Don't know many men that would have made that sacrifice, JD."
"I shouldn't have run off after she died. I coulda stayed, kept working in the stables."
"Still get the stuffin' kicked out of ya.."
"It wouldn't hurt so much as it does now." Vin understood what JD was saying.
"That judge talks to ya, he might see that being with us is best for you."
"We're going back to Boston, Vin, things are different then they are here, everything is different. It ain't 'civilized' out here, not like back east. No one's gonna understand what's best for me."
"Did you know the judge wrote a letter, speaking on your behalf?"
"He did, should get there a few days before we get there."
"You think it will help?"
"Don't think it could hurt," Vin hated to get his hopes up, but he felt if the kid knew that Buck was the only one that thought JD was coming back, JD would run, and they would loose him forever. If he was in Boston, at least they would be able to find him later.
They sat under the shade tree for another ten minutes in silence, Vin looked over to JD and smiled as he saw JD had fallen asleep. The tracker looked up as he heard footsteps.
"I brought you two somethin to eat. How long has he been asleep?"
"No more than five, maybe six minutes, thanks," Vin said, taking the plate, still sitting.
"Chris tell 'em?" Vin asked.
"No, you look busy, I'll go tell Chris he's sleeping," the mustached man said lightly, seeing the boy's head had found Vin's shoulder.
"Okay, thanks," he smiled.
"Didn't you find them?" Chris asked, seeing Buck alone.
"Yeah, kid just fell asleep, he's usin' Vin as his pillow," Buck smiled. "How long you wanna give him?"
"Let him sleep as long as he can, he needs it," Chris stated.
"Ya tell them?" Buck asked, understanding if Chris did, but hoping he didn't.
"No, if the kid can't tell them, I don't think I should," he said, looking in the direction where Vin and JD were.
"This going back worth it?" Buck said, out of the blue, the first hint that maybe he didn't think he'd get custody of JD.
"How do you mean?" Chris asked still not sure if Buck was talking about the custody issue.
"Goin all the way back to Boston, I ain't to sure how this is gonna work out, Chris."
"You don't think you have a chance?"
"How many times you say he was too young to do this, it was too dangerous," Buck pointed out.
"More than I care to remember, but.."
"Exactly what a judge is gonna say, don't ya think?"
"Buck, I wish I knew," Chris said honestly.
"If..'this' don't work out, I ain't sure I'm coming back," Buck laid out.
"I figured you'd been stayin'," Chris let on.
"Who said we'd be stayin'?"
"What are you gonna do? Run off with him? You gonna run him around the country for four years? You think that's a good thing to teach him? Things don't work out the way you want, you run," Chris tried to reason.
"No, I don't want to 'have' to run, but I ain't leavin him where he don't wanna be!"
"That ain't our choice," Chris said flatly.
Buck was beside himself at the statement, didn't he understand?
"How can you say that? You're given up on him that easy..doesn't the last year mean anythin to ya?"
"Of course it has, why do you think I'm out here?" Chris shot back.
"He wouldn't get on that coach when you told him to leave, and from the sounds of it now, your personally escortin' him there!"
"Don't think for one minute that I don't care about that kid! I hate doing this, Buck, I hate it! I lost Adam, and I sure as hell don't want to loose another one! And if you're out there running I don't know if he's safe, at least if he's in Boston....if he has to be there, at least I know he'll be safe," Chris's anger softened
Buck hung his head, he knew how Chris felt about JD. He'd seen a lot of the old Chris, the one he knew before Sarah and Adam had died, when he dealt with JD. He missed the way Chris used to be, and every now and then he'd see him. Like helping JD with the nightmares, the patience he had when JD would go on a tear of asking questions, the way he looked at JD. He'd given JD the cold stare a few times, and it never deterred the kid. As much as the kid looked up to Buck, he knew Chris was the one the kid admired the most.
"I don't want to loose him, Chris, we..I..need him too much."
"Neither do I, you know that. None of us do."
"Guess we just wait and see how this all plays out."
"You ready?" Chris asked JD as the two youngest made their way back to the scattered group.
"Yeah, sorry I fell asleep," JD apologized.
"Don't worry about it, gave us all a chance to rest up," Buck said.
"I...ah..I been doin some thinkin'," JD said.
"What do you think, Buck?" JD shot back. Buck was going to say something, but was interrupted by Chris.
"What is it?"
"We ain't but a days ride back home, I want ya to go back."
"You lost your mind?" Buck said harsher than he meant.
"No, I ain't lost my mind, Buck! If I go back to Boston... you know I ain't comin' back," JD said honestly in a quiet voice, the others joining as they saw JD and Vin come back.
"No, we don't, JD," Buck said.
"JD, if the judge listens to ya, reads that letter the judge sent, and listens to what we gotta say it might not end the way ya think," Nathan offered, trying to give himself and the others a little hope.
"I have to agree, Mr. Dunne, presuming the worst is not a productive line of thought. I would not wager a journey of this magnitude if I was unsure that it would have a positive outcome," the gambler lied, he wanted to make this journey; knowing it would be his last with the young man and possibly each other.
"We're doing this not just for support son, we're trying to help. We've always fought for each other, watched each others back, we aren't gonna stop now," Josiah added.
"What happens if we loose?" JD asked.
"We'll figure that out if it happens," Chris said, stressing the if. He was beginning to think there may be a chance.
"I just don't want this to be a waste of time."
"We've wasted a whole year with ya already, kid. Let's get to Boston so we can waste a few more years," Buck smiled confidently, maybe everything would be okay.
JD and the rest couldn't help but smile, and with a renewed hope, or maybe a hope that some hadn't had, gathered up the remaining necessities of camp and mounted their horses. Once again off into the soft gallop Chris had set for a pace, and headed to Boston once again.
The group had purposefully held back from traveling the road, they were following from a short distance away. They had decided early on that it would be safer, not only due to the active bounty on Vin, but for the seven protectors of a small town, called Four Corners, they had left five days earlier.
The trip had started quietly, but as time went by, the reason for going was being temporarily pushed back into the corner of their minds. They were, however, reminded repeatedly at night just why they were going. The nightmares were frequent at first, but diminished as the seven rode to their destination, and were hopeful that they would soon disappear altogether.
They were all thankful they hadn't met many other travelers on the way. They skirted around several towns larger and similar in size to Four Corners, venturing in only for supplies and usually two at a time, never for the night, sometimes to Buck's great disappointment.
The terrain began to change so slowly around them they never noticed the change in the surroundings and climate until it seemed they had stepped over an invisible line. The scattered trees, a few hills, gentle colors of green and shades of brown had turned into mountains and trees with scattered trails and stagecoach roads, bright colors of gold, yellow, and orange covered the trees and the air had gotten a comfortable cooling breeze.
They had set up camp near a small river where a grove of trees offered protection. As the men sat in various places in a circle waiting for the meal to be served, the aroma of their meal floated freely among them.
"Who's cookin'?" JD asked, his nose scrunching.
"Buck," Vin and Chris answered, aping JD's expression.
"Josiah helpin him?" JD hoped as he saw the tall preacher standing next to Buck, as he stood.
"He ain't lettin him," Nathan offered, shaking his head, the men coming closer to the stench.
"Guess I don't have to worry 'bout nightmares tonight," JD said loud enough for Buck to hear.
"Ole Buck's got a cure for everything, my cooking's gonna cure those nightmares," Buck smiled widely and full of pride.
"Or give ya new ones," Vin smiled.
"Your cookin dissolves stones," JD ribbed.
"Are you sayin my cookin ain't good?" Buck asked, taking a few long steps towards JD and the other men. As his back was turned Josiah put somethin' into the pot, causing the men to chuckle. Buck turned quickly as Josiah stood next to the pot innocently.
"No, I'm sayin it's terrible!" JD laughed out. Buck lurched towards him and the chase was on.
"How long we got before you think he catches him?" Josiah asked quickly.
"JD said he could keep him going for about five minutes maybe," Vin said, handing Josiah a few spices.
"Make it three, their ain't no way he's gonna be able to keep going before that leg of his gets tired," Nathan reasoned, handing Josiah another bag. "Can you save it?" the healer continued.
"If we pray very hard, I'm sure the good Lord will not let us suffer," Josiah smiled.
"May I ask who's brilliant idea it was to rotate the cooking responsibilities?" Ezra asked, squinting his whole face.
"Yours," the four men said back to him.
"Yes, oh, well. Obviously in a deranged, sleep deprived moment of complete insanity. You should have known better," Ezra defended himself, offering Josiah a donation for the pot.
"GET BACK HERE!!" they heard Buck yell.
"Can he ruin it?" Nathan asked as seriously as if one of the seven were asking of a patient.
"I don't see how," Josiah answered just as seriously.
"I can see JD, get the stuff put away quick!" Vin urged.
"He okay?" Nathan asked, as he and the others hurried to put things away.
"Owe owe owe owe owe.." JD said quietly with every running step he took towards Vin.
"Yeah, Nate..he's fine..I mean he's okay." Vin stood in front of JD so Nathan couldn't see JD's face. "Right?" he asked quietly.
"Yeah," he smiled, "just a little sore, how far behind me is he?" JD asked still smiling a bit.
"Right behind ya," the mustached man said sternly. "Why'd you go and do that? My stew coulda been ruined!" he said passing by the younger men.
"Already was," JD whispered out.
"I heard that!" Buck shot back.