The morning came, bringing with it the morning sun. JD had slept all night, waking occasionally to move his stiff body, and take in water and something to eat. He had told both Buck and Nathan he would be okay to ride in the morning. Compromising that he would ride with Nathan for the day.
With a little help from Vin, JD stiffly mad his way to where the other men were starting to eat. Vin eased him down onto the log, taking a spot right next to him.
"Hungry, kid?" Buck asked.
"Already ate," Justin replied.
"Yeah," JD replied at the same time, both young men smiling.
"JD, can I ask you something?" Justin looked to JD.
"I guess," he answered shortly, as he nodded a thank you to Buck who handed him a biscuit.
"How long were you out West?"
"About a year, why?" JD was wondering if Justin still thought it what he did was exciting.
"How old are you?" Justin asked the question he wanted to the first time they talked.
"Ain't important," JD answered.
"You can't be more than five years older than Justin," Ellen stated, as she stood to go to the wagon and check on her daughter who was still sleeping.
"There's more than one way to measure a man's age," Josiah offered, trying to change the subject.
"Why won't you tell me?" Justin asked, feeling a bit betrayed; why he didn't know.
"Cause you don't need to get your head thinkin' you can do what I did."
"Why not?" he asked sincerely.
"Cause you'd get yourself killed."
"You didn't!" Justin shot back.
"I got lucky, had some good teachers," JD said sternly, and meaning it.
"You don't think I won't?"
"You're fifteen? Gonna be sixteen right off?" JD asked. Was it possible that this 'kid' was only two years younger than him?
"Yeah, couple more weeks," Justin said proudly.
"So you plan on landing in a town and be the first sixteen year old sheriff in the territory?" JD asked, not using a very nice tone.
"So what if I do!"
"You'd be too late," JD said, stiffly standing and making his way to the wagon, he not only wanted the subject dropped, but wanted to check on Jessica.
"What's that suppose to mean?" Justin asked the men.
"He already beat you to it," Chris said.
"He's the same age as me?" Justin couldn't believe it, he acted so much older.
"No, he's a year older," Buck said, suddenly saddened that the conversation reminded him of why they were here to begin with.
"JD. How are you feeling?" she asked concerned.
"Better, thanks. How's Jessica?"
"She's still sleeping, Nathan said that she's just exhausted from yesterday," she smiled, then hung her head.
"She's a good kid," he smiled.
"She..she talked to you," Ellen stated, keeping her emotions in check somewhat.
"Just that once," JD smiled. He noticed she didn't talk whenever he'd asked a question. He never paid any mind to it.
"It's the first time since her father died, she was there," Ellen reflected sadly.
"I'm sorry," JD hung his head. Never asking what happened.
"You didn't ask how he died," Ellen asked, not sure why, most everyone always asked. The explanation had become part of her vocabulary, like you'd say 'please' and 'Thank you'.
"Does it really matter? It doesn't change the fact he is," JD justified, he'd felt that way, like saying how his mother died would change it.
"No, I guess it doesn't," she smiled. "May I ask you what she said?"
"She told me she couldn't see my blues," JD smiled.
"Blues?" cocking her head, shaking it not understanding.
"My eyes," he smiled back to her.
"They're not blue, though?" she questioned.
"She started to fall asleep on the rock, I told her she had to open her eyes cause I couldn't see her blues," he said, holding back the smile.
"Thank you.... for everything, you've done so much for us, I just wish.."
"I just wish you hadn't been here. Don't take that the wrong way, please, I don't mean any offense... it's just that Justin, his heads all full of these..these ideas..he wants to grow up so fast. Having seen you.. I'm afraid of what he'll do. He's not as old as you are..he .. I'm afraid for him."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Murphy. I know Josiah's done some talkin to him. I can try and talk to him if ya'd like, I already told him it ain't all it's cracked up to be."
"Do you like what you do? Back in the town you came from?"
"Four Corners? Yes, ma'am, for alot of reasons, but it doesn't mean I don't get scared every time I gotta get my guns out," JD said honestly, "The guys, Chris and Buck and everyone, they've taught me alot, and there were times I thought about leavin, but.." he shrugged, " I told Justin I got lucky to meet up with them, he might not be. Seen too many kids our aged hooked up with the wrong kind, they're the ones who die first."
"You and Justin? You're the same age?" She didn't think it possible, she hadn't even heard the last part of what he said.
"I'm older, by a year."
"You seem older by years over Justin."
"Just the way we grew up, we're still just typical kids," JD smiled, not with regret but maybe a hint of jealousy.
"I hardly doubt that there is anything 'typical' about you," Ellen said, putting a motherly hand to JD's face.
JD pulled away, he hadn't felt a mothers' touch in so long and it reminded him of where he was, how close he was and why he was this close. Ellen jumped as JD pulled away from her hand, she saw his youthful expression change into one who had been through too much, making him a man before his time, it showed on his face and his eyes, the eyes so full of sorrow it made her want to cry for him.
"Blues," came the tired voice of a six year old girl.
"Jessica, how are you feeling baby? You hungry?" the girl's mother asked. Jessica smiled and nodded.
"Blues," she said again, stretching her arms to JD.
"You want me to eat with you?" he asked, not hiding his smile.
"Blue eat," she nodded.
JD looked to Ellen, for a sign that it would be okay, she smiled and nodded, putting the girl on the ground. Jessica walked to JD and grabbed his hand, they turned and walked towards the fire; JD turned around and smiled at Ellen who he saw mouth the words Thank you.
+ + + + + + +
"We can't just leave them here, Chris."
"JD, we've already lost a day. They should be able to catch up to he wagon train by the end of the day," Chris reasoned.
"It just don't seem right," JD said
"If we take them back, JD, we'll miss the hearing by three days," Buck offered.
"Well, what if someone stays behind, you and Vin or Josiah?" JD still reasoned.
Chris sighed, normally he would have agreed to the idea. He didn't want to show the kid that he felt that this was their last ride together, and knowing the others felt the same he didn't think anyone would sacrifice the chance to ride as the seven one last time.
Chris was going to ask the group what JD had suggested, when the sound of horses approaching stopped him. The Murphy family also heard the noise and stopped packing up the last of their belongings. Chris gave a signal, all understanding. Their horses and wagon were already shaded in the thick grove of trees. The men went to the grove as well. JD whistled and made a motion , Chris understanding that JD was staying behind.
The group of five rough looking men made their way to the, now dismembered, camp.
"May I help you?" Ellen said, confident knowing the others were there.
"You traveling all by yourself?" asked the obvious leader.
"No, I have my children," Ellen stated, Justin stood behind his mother, Jessica had hid behind JD.
"No offense, Ma'am, but this ain't the safest thing to do, traveling by yourself."
"We'll be fine, thank you."
"Well," the man dismounted coming closer to the small group, "We be happy to offer 'our' services to escort ya to where ya gotta get to," eyeing the woman up and down as he said it. "For a small fee, of course," he grinned, his tabacco stained teeth showing.
"We haven't any money," getting nervous.
"Well, I'm sure we can make 'arrangements'," he said, extending his hand to touch her hair.
"Leave her alone!" Justin yelled, instinctively stepping into protect his mother. JD had pushed Jessica away from him, she took the hint to get in the wagon and did so when the man had come closer.
"You gonna stop me runt?" the man said leaning into his face, pushing Justin aside. JD pushed his jacket back to show his Colts.
"I will," JD said evenly.
"If you haven't noticed there, 'boy', there's five of us..and only one of you and I doubt you could hit the broad side of a barn if you was standin' next to it!"
"I think you counted wrong mister, and I doubt you'd want to see if I can shoot or not."
The man reached for his gun, before he even had it in his hand JD's were on him, he also noted the sound of several guns being cocked from the grove of trees, he turned to the noise and saw six armed men with their guns trained on the group he had come with.
"I think it best you leave," JD said evenly again.
The man sneered as he reholstered his gun. "This ain't over, boy," he said as he mounted his horse.
"Ya better hope it is," JD ended the conversation.
When the group of men finally rode out of sight the men holstered or uncocked their weapons.
"You all right, Mrs. Murphy?" JD asked.
"Yes, I'm fine," with a tone of regret in her voice, once again Justin had seen what JD was capable of, she turned to the wagon to check on Jessica.
"Justin?" JD turned giving the youth a hand to his feet.
"Yeah," he answered, with a hint of anger. Protecting his mother was his 'job', and he had failed. He stood and brushed his pants off and walked away.
"You okay, Jess?" JD asked.
"Fine," she smiled.
JD walked to his friends and talked directly to Chris.
"We gotta get them back to the train," JD said with an 'I told you so' way.
"JD, we take them back we're going to be another two, three days late, son. There ain't a judge in the country that'll like that," Chris stating the consequences.
"I know, and I'm sorry," letting them know he knew what would happened. He turned to the man that would be most affected, "Buck I'm sorry for making ya, all of ya come out here, but ya gotta know that leaving them to catch up on their own is wrong. Buck, tell me ya understand, I know us bein' late.. I know if we're that late I ain't comin' back," he said, with conviction in his words.
"JD.." Buck tried, by the tone of his voice JD knew he was gonna try and talk him out of it.
"Buck, I can't leave here knowin' that those guys are out there waitin' for them. You know that they are. I can't turn my back and walk away until I know they're safe. I'm sorry, Buck," and he turned to walk away.
The exchange hadn't gone unnoticed by Ellen Murphy, she didn't know what they were talking about, but she had heard some of the words. Three days late, no judge will like that, sorry, understand, I ain't comin' back, can't leave, those men, can't turn my back, sorry, Buck. She also saw the turmoil on the young man's face, who once again saved them, and walked after him.
"JD, JD!" she said as she caught up to him.
"Ma'am," he answered, not looking at the woman.
"JD, why? Why are you here? What is it that makes you so sure that you won't be going back with them?" she asked turning him around gently.
She didn't expect to see the face that she saw as she turned him around. His face so full of sorrow and loss, not of a past loss, but of a loss he knew he was going to have. She felt a sense of responsibility, thinking that maybe if it hadn't been for her, the face she was looking at wouldn't exist.
+ + + + + + +
"You all right, son?"
"No," the young man said through tears.
"Feel like you might have let someone down?"
The young man looked up at the preacher through teary eyes.
"Just realizing I can't keep my Ma safe," he let out in a small voice.
"You stood up to him son, put yourself in front of her. If he'd been pointing a gun would you have done the same thing?" Josiah questioned.
"Of course," the young man said quickly and honestly.
"Then you have nothing to be ashamed of," he said, putting the familiar hand of reassurance on the boy's neck.
"If JD hadn't been there...Josiah?" Justin looked to the preacher, pleadingly.
"What is it?" Josiah asked, seeing the change in the youth's face.
"He's only a year older than me. Why does he act so much older than me?" he asked, thinking JD might be the standard.
"When did you loose your father?"
"About four months ago," he said sadly. "What's that got to do with anything?" he bit back.
"He show you things, things that you'd need to know to raise a family, make a living?"
"Yeah, did alot of farming, taking care of the animals, things like that."
"Were you allowed to do things by yourself, fun things?"
"Well, yeah. Like I asked before, what's that got to do with it?"
"JD never did anything like that. He never knew his father," Josiah said, watching the youth's face.
"He's Pa died before he was born?"
"Don't really know, his mother died, and he came out West."
"He didn't have any family?"
"Nope, just him and his mother."
"Was she, I mean..how'd she..make..money?" Justin knew of people, women who worked in the saloons in the town he had lived near.
"Relax, she was a chambermaid at an estate in Boston, JD worked in the stables."
"Do you know how long?" he began to feel bad for thinking the worse of JD's mother.
"Not really, he never said. I do know he was really young, probably the same age as your sister."
"He never went to school?"
"No, his mother taught him how to read and write," Josiah smiled, seeing the young man's face change once again, to admiration for a woman that no one knew.
"She sounds like she was real nice, what she look like?"
"Don' know, never met her."
"Never? I thought you all knew each other?" Justin asked.
"I thought you read that book?" Josiah laughed out.
"Just the parts where it was exciting," he hung his head, sporting a shy smile.
"Buck and Chris knew each other before, no one else."
"Can I ask you why you came all this way?"
"You can, but I'm afraid I can't answer that, son," Josiah said honestly.
"Honor among friends?" Justin said, quoting one of the books he'd read.
"Nope, honor among family," Josiah smiled, patting the young man on the shoulder as he stood.
+ + + + + + +
"This is his choice, ya know how he is."
"Their ain't a judge in this whole territory that'll give me or any of us custody if we're that late!"
"Buck, he knows what's gonna happen, if 'this' is what he wants to do, let's do it..give him that memory," Vin tried to reason.
"We're gonna loose him ..just like that," Buck snapped his fingers for effect.
"Vin's right, Buck, the one thing JD's always done is think with his heart. His heart's tellin' him to get these people to the caravan. I'm going with him," Chris raised his head.
"I'm goin'," Nathan added.
"If this is our final journey together with Mr. Dunne, I prefer it that he remembers what we have done, and my memory will be one of his self sacrifice, I also plan to accompany the Murphy's to the caravan," Ezra said.
"Josiah?" Chris asked, as the preacher rejoined the group.
"Still discussing taking Mrs. Murphy?"
"Yeah, what do you think? Keep going to Boston, or back to the wagon train?" Buck asked.
"Knowing JD the way I do, he's going to escort them back, I'd like to remember we finally had done something to show the boy that we were willing to make the same sacrifice for the greater good," Josiah spoke volumes, as he always did.
"Buck, think about it. If we haul JD off to Boston, knowing he wants to do this; whether they get to the caravan safely or not, he's not going to be able to live with us, much less himself..I don't think I could live with myself," Chris again pointed out, believing that Buck also felt the same way.
"I know, I know," the usual jubilant man said, sounding defeated, holding back tears that wanted so bad to come.
Chris walked away from the group and saw JD and Mrs. Murphy. He wasn't going to interrupt but he caught JD's face and the look he shot to him that pleaded for a way out.
"Ma'am, sorry to intrude. You get the rest of your stuff packed up while we get ready and we'll make sure you get back to the caravan."
"Mr. Larabee, that won't be necessary, I'm sure we.."
"Mrs. Murphy, those men, they're gonna be waiting for you to leave, I think one meeting with them is enough for anyone, I know me and the boys will feel alot better if we know you're all right, right son?" Chris nodded at JD.
"Yeah, I think it's better this way," JD said, nodding his head.
"Okay, if you insist, I just don't want to keep you from something important," she said, letting Chris know that she knew 'something' was going on.
"Nothing that can't wait," JD tried to smile, not fooling the man who knew him well.
"I'll start getting ready," she said, leaving the two standing alone.
"Thanks for comin' with me, Chris."
"I gave everyone a choice to go or keep going, no one's going to Boston, until we get them back."
JD's eyes filled again, "I have to do this, if we leave and somethin hap.."
"I understand, we all do," Chris said with a sad smile, putting his arm on the kid's shoulder as they walked to help pick things up.