Mary watched from the church, awed by the completeness of the early morning silence, stunned by the simple tragedy of what was happening before her. It took her a moment to realize what was happening; she thought Orin would simply follow Chris into the jail, and that would be the end of it. But that was not what was happening.
Orin walked into the jail, his steps firm and quick, but Josiah was following him. No, wait. The preacher walked by the jail, on his way to somewhere else. Vin and Nathan, however, did walk toward the open door of the jail, pausing in the middle of the silent street to look up at Buck and Ezra, who without making a sound quietly stepped to the back of the roof and made their way down. Mary's eyes followed the men, saw them enter the jail with a shiver of dread. They're going to accuse Chris. She felt a raw ache inside her as she remembered what she'd seen in his eyes, when he looked at her - regret, despair, a sadness so numbing she wondered that Chris hadn't died from it. Vin was going in now, his head ducked low, his shoulders slanted; Nathan was right behind him, one hand on Vin's arm, a steadying presence. And a few moments later, Buck and Ezra appeared, their faces darker and frighteningly grim. They walked into the jail with agitated, angry strides, and Mary looked around, wondered where Josiah went, decided she must have missed his going in. The entire street was quiet, even though it was crowded with people. They were all watching the jail, and the effect was eerie, as if the entire town were holding its breath. Mary saw the jailhouse door close, wished she could do something. Sighed.
Then she heard another sound, a door opening, then closing again, frowned.
She shivered again, and knew where Josiah had gone. Of course. And when he came back down he would use the back way so JD wouldn't face the humiliation of being carried around in public like a child...
They would all be in the jail soon. All seven of them. Judge and jury, accuser and accused.
Mary bit her lip, and felt like crying. She hugged herself, then sensed a presence and looked to her left. The Irishman, Darcy Thomas, was standing beside her, and as she looked at him he gave her a gentle smile.
"Don't worry, Mrs. Travis," he said in his quiet Irish lilt. "Mr. Larabee's quite all right. He's where he's supposed to be."
Mary blinked, tried to compose herself in front of this charming but puzzling stranger. She knew she'd put the wall up too late, however. This Darcy had seen her concern, and there was no help for it. Sighing, she said, "I know, it's just..."
"I know," Darcy said sympathetically, his gaze wandering to the closed jailhouse door as his voice dropped to a whisper. "Ye saw his eyes."
There was a tone in this man's voice that struck Mary as familiar somehow, but she couldn't quite place it. Looking at Darcy inquiringly, she said, "You said earlier, that you brought Chris here?"
Darcy looked down at the street, nodded.
"Brought him from where? Where did he go?"
Darcy paused, turned his head and met her eyes. Mary looked into them, at first only out of politeness, but then saw something there-
A memory, like a lightning bolt, long-ago words.
"Your friend Buck told me about your wife and son. I lost my husband too, I know what you've been through."
And the eyes...
"No, ma'am. You don't."
And Darcy looked back down again, without saying a word. Mary saw her answer in his eyes, and didn't say anything more for a moment, felt embarrassed. Finally she said in a soft voice, not taking her eyes from his face, "Well...thank you, Mr. Thomas, for getting him back safely. I don't know how you found him, but - I was rather concerned, that he was out there without a friend. Thank you for helping him."
"My pleasure, ma'am," Darcy said, the same mild tones, his gaze on the street. "It was the least I could do, really. But - " He said suddenly, in a slightly brighter voice, lifting his head up and smiling at her warmly, "Mr. Larabee did ask for my help in another matter, and I'm afraid I'll be askin' for yer indulgence in answerin' a question of mine."
Mary nodded, her eyebrows raised. Anything.
"Those gentlemen, that went in with our friend. Was there one among them that answered to the name of Buck Wilmington?"
+ + + + + + +
When Josiah opened the door Nathan's room was quiet -- very quiet. He looked around quickly, saw the open windows, the splintered window frames, and for an instant his heart jumped, but then his eyes traveled to where JD and Tims were sitting, underneath the front window. They both looked all right, and Josiah relaxed. Then he stepped in, looked closer, and began to worry again.
Tims was on his knees under the window, the chair JD had been sitting in tipped over and disregarded nearby. He looked up at Josiah, looked at him with a face full of frustration and anxiety. Next to him, JD sat against the wall, his knees drawn up to his chest and his Colt still dangling from his good hand as it rested on his knee. His head was turned to the side, the healing bruise on his face huge and dark, his hazel eyes staring at nothing. Josiah drew in his breath when he saw the expression on the youth's face: a blankness, an abandonment of feeling that made Josiah's blood run cold. He took a deep breath, stepped closer, but JD didn't move, only blinked slowly and let his black hair fall into his eyes as he stared at the wall in numb silence.
Tims stood up as Josiah approached, wiped his hands on his pants and sighed. Searching Josiah's face for a moment, he stammered a bit and finally said, "That was - "
Josiah put a hand up, cut him off, stared at JD in barest anxiety. "What happened?"
Tims paused, glanced at JD then back to Josiah before saying in a low voice, "I - I don't know. We were shooting out the window, and then that man in black, Chris?"
Josiah's eyes drifted to where JD was sitting, and he nodded.
Tims' head came back. "Chris showed up, and JD kind of...well, I guess he kind of snapped or something. He just about shot him."
Josiah stiffened, his eyes going wide as he stared at the stricken youth, at the hanging gun, at the overturned chair. My God. My God.
Tims looked down. "I - he changed his mind, obviously, but I think it - I think it hurt him, broke something somewhere, I don't know. He's just been sitting there, like that - " Tims pointed rather obviously to where JD was slumped, but the youth didn't look his way or acknowledge that he knew he was being talked about. His eyes stayed on the wall, distant and unfocused.
Josiah knelt in front of JD slowly, studied his pallid face with infinite concern. Tims tilted his head. "Is he gonna be okay? I mean, as far as...well, you know..."
Josiah looked up at Tims then, his face a map of earnestness. "Mr. Alderman, could you do me a favor?"
Tims nodded. "Sure."
"There's people outside, hurtin' and needin' lookin' after. Why don't you go report to one of the soldiers and see if there's any way you can help. I'll see what I can do here."
Tims looked at JD, then back at Buck and nodded. "Yeah, sure. I, um, I hope you can help, I mean he seems like an all right kid."
Josiah nodded, but didn't look at Tims again, kept his eyes on JD. Tims paused, then biting his lip, he turned and hurried out the door, and once more the room was heavy with oppressive silence.
The birds sang for a few more moments, then Josiah quietly cleared his throat, gazed at that stunned face. "JD?"
He wasn't expecting an answer really, was surprised when one came. But it was eerie, as if someone else were speaking in JD's body, his voice was so dead and detached. "What?"
Josiah took another breath, suddenly thought of demons. "Son, it's Josiah. It's all over, you're safe. You okay?"
Another long, slow blink, still staring at the wall. "My ear hurts."
Josiah tilted his head, saw a few spots of blood on JD's neck under his left ear, thought, now how did that happen? Slowly standing up, he went over to the basin and found a cloth soaking in it, wrung it out and brought it over to where JD was and gently laid it over his ear. "That help?"
No reaction. JD didn't wince, or bring up his hand, or anything. Just stared at the wall and gave a small shrug.
Josiah watched that quiet face for a long time, finally said, "Now I know you're hurtin', son, and I won't make you go, but the judge has got Chris in the jail."
JD's eyes flickered, blinked once. "He does?"
Josiah nodded, leaning close so JD would know he was there, and protecting him. "Now like I said, you don't have to be there, but the rest of us are in the jail with the judge and we're going to see that justice is done for you. For the record, Chris don't look like he'll argue much with whatever the judge decides."
The eyes flickered again, and JD's face grew puzzled. He said in a dreamy voice, "I almost shot him, Josiah."
Josiah looked down quickly, unprepared for the perplexed wonder in that injured face. Looking back up, he said, "I know, son, but you didn't."
"I saw him," JD said in the same faraway tones, as if Josiah hadn't said a word. "And - and I wanted him dead, Josiah."
Josiah felt a chill, and looked at the floor.
JD started talking faster, his voice getting deeper and struggling. "It was like, like I couldn't even think anymore, I just wanted him dead. He shouldn't have hurt me, he shouldn't have taken away my life just because he was drunk. He's got to pay, Josiah, but I couldn't kill him. I couldn't - "
JD's eyes were becoming wild, bewildered, and Josiah put a steadying hand on that trembling arm. "Be at peace, JD. You did good, not taking a life out of anger. That's not the way a man does things."
JD leaned his head back against the wall, turned his face so he was once again staring at the wooden planks. He shook his head morosely and wiped his nose with his good hand.
They sat that way for a few minutes, JD staring at the wall and Josiah kneeling in front of him, one hand on his arm, a steadying presence. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, JD sniffed again and gave Josiah a chagrined look. "I'm okay. You don't have to babysit me."
Josiah patted JD's arm and gave him a reassuring smile, made to stand up. "I hope you'll accept a helpin' hand back to bed, anyway."
JD had put his hand out to Josiah, gripped it tightly as the larger man hauled him to his feet. As Josiah put his arm around JD's waist to keep him from falling, the youth turned his hazel eyes to the gunslinger and said, "I don't want to go back to bed."
Josiah blinked. "JD, you been through one hell of a m-"
JD shook his head emphatically, black hair flopping over the scar, the bruised face. "I wanna go to the jail. I want him to see that he didn't whip me."
Josiah regarded JD carefully, up and down, for a long moment, "You sure?"
JD nodded solemnly, but his eyes revealed a soul scared to death. "He's got to pay, Josiah. And - and I gotta face this, or I'm no better than he is. Yes, I'm sure."
Josiah sighed, wondered if JD was strong enough to be in with Chris' demons so quick. But there was that stubborn will in those long-lashed eyes, made of something stronger than iron or stone; and it wrapped itself around JD's voice and amplified it as he looked in the preacher's eyes and said:
"Take me to the jail."
+ + + + + + +
The jail was silent and cold, like a tomb. Despite the early morning sunshine, it felt to Chris like the pitchest black of night as he stood in front of Orin's desk, and waited.
In their cell, Sherson and Childers stared in terrified fascination at the black clad stranger that had just walked in, dark as a thundercloud. They gulped, and didn't move.
Orin walked in behind Chris, spurs jarring against the hard floor. Chris stared at the desk, swallowed hard, felt like bolting, fought it frantically. This is right. This is what has to be done.
Orin walked to his desk, stood behind it. Chris lifted his head, slowly, didn't want to meet those accusing eyes, knew he had to. Then he did, and found just what he expected there; a cold detachment, not Orin the friend or Orin, Mary's father-in-law whose life Chris had saved, and whose grandson favored Chris with idolizing affection. This was Orin W. Travis, Circuit Judge of the territory. Chris would get no favors from him.
Good. Chris looked Orin right in the eye.
Other footsteps, and Chris' eyes dropped to the desk as he held his breath, suddenly felt as if he was in some kind of hazy nightmare, so complete was the terror he was feeling. It was a frenzied, wild panic. He knew who was coming, knew his greatest nightmare was about to become reality, and Chris suddenly yearned for a bottle of whiskey, of beer, of anything that would dull his senses. They hurt so much and he so badly wanted to escape. I can't take it.
No. For Sarah, and Adam. Face this.
Chris Larabee looked up.
They were standing behind Orin, in the dim light of the jail, standing as still and pale as if they were made of wax. Chris' stomach lurched, and he fought tears as he struggled to look them in the face, these men whom he had fought beside for six months...and then in one awful, disastrous night, nearly destroyed. He didn't have to ask what they'd been through in his absence, it was in their eyes, in their faces, in the blood that was finely spattered over Vin's coat and in his hair, and the bruises on Ezra's face. No, Chris didn't have to ask. He already knew.
Vin was standing behind Orin's right shoulder, Nathan's hand on his arm to steady him, and Chris winced, felt his stomach fall into the floor at the sight of his friend looking so pale, so injured. It was a tremendous struggle to look into those blue eyes, but with a supreme effort Chris forced himself to connect, and saw when he did the eternal calm of Vin's gaze, the unwavering empathy the fellow lost soul that Chris suddenly realized he had been missing. Chris almost gasped at the depth of it; no hostility, no rancor, but rather a detached observing, wary but uncondemning, fighting to make itself known against pain and loss of blood. My God. Vin doesn't hate me.
Nathan stood next to Vin, and when Chris looked into his eyes he saw some of the anger that was missing from the bounty hunter's gaze. There was hurt there too, and an uncertainty, as if the healer was unsure of what Chris' return meant. I have to make it up to you, don't I. You aren't taking my penitence for a given, like Vin is. You don't trust me. And I don't blame you.
Just behind Orin's left shoulder Chris saw Ezra standing half in the shadows, but the gambler wasn't meeting his eyes. Chris felt a pang then, knew from Ezra's tight face and flushed complexion that the usually placid gambler was fighting a tremendous battle against tearing him to pieces. Ezra kept his eyes fixed on the desk in front of him, but Chris could almost hear him trembling with rage. Chris stared for a moment. Whatever he had unleashed in the normally imperturbable gambler, it was crude and fierce and very close to exploding. Chris had never seen Ezra so emotional, and it terrified him.
Buck was standing next to Ezra, and Chris saw to his dismay that the gunslinger wasn't looking at him either. Instead he was standing with his head down and his hat thrown back on his neck, his hands on his hips as if he were deep in thought. Look at me, Buck. Chris felt his heart break at the sight of his friend's face. It was haggard, drawn, as if he hadn't slept in ages, and Chris winced as he thought of how Buck must have sat by JD's bedside, night after night, how many mornings? How many afternoons? He sat by your side too, and you pushed him away. You stupid fool.
There were quiet footsteps behind him, and Chris didn't have to look to know who it was; only one man among them had the strength to carry a crippled boy down a flight of stairs, and so quietly. Chris felt his composure slipping, knew soon he would shatter under the tremendous guilt that hung in the room, that wrapped itself around him and clung to his soul. He saw the others' expressions change as they looked behind him, watched their eyes grow darker and more sorrowful. Buck's expression hardened into a bitter mask, and the flush of Ezra's face darkened to a maroon as his green eyes flashed angry fire. And still neither man looked Chris in the eye.
Chris took a deep breath, saw in his mind the mountain he had yet to climb, turned slowly toward the dark form he knew was Josiah, standing just behind him. He looked into Josiah's eyes for a moment, saw infinite compassion and knowledge there, how did he know? When he sent me away, how did he know what would happen? His eyes locked with Josiah's, just for a moment, and Chris almost asked; how did you know?
At the same time, out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw supported on Josiah's arm an almost-image: a dark head of hair, a white shirt, a face looking down at the floor, lips pursed, a fair complexion bruised and beaten and black stitches in his hair, one arm bound to his side in a white bandage - - a white shirt being gripped, thrown, slammed, again and again -
- slumping against the brick wall, when there was nothing left -
- blood and broken bones, my God.
Chris gulped, gasped, looked away. Not ready yet. Not yet.
But the others, they were looking at him, waiting. Waiting for Orin to speak, or him. Chris swallowed hard, heaved himself out of the terror of the moment, knew he had to.
It was time.
Chris looked at the judge, at his friends who were standing behind him, raised himself up to his tall height and took a deep breath. Let it out. And spoke, his voice clear and strong.
"Five days ago," he said steadily, "I attacked JD Dunne in the alleyway outside this jail. He was badly hurt, and I'm responsible. I'm here to turn myself in."
Thundering silence in the room. The men looked at each other, at Orin. Chris felt the floor tilt beneath him, heard a curious thundering roar in his ears. Ignored it.
Orin looked at him, glanced behind him. Chris knew he was looking at JD, winced as the judge said softly, "Mr. Dunne?"
A soft reply, injured but unbowed. "Yes, sir?"
Chris saw Orin's face soften. "Son, is what this man says true? He the one who hurt you?"
Chris ducked his head, felt every ounce of pride and arrogance he ever had fold itself quietly up and slip out of him. He closed his eyes and willed himself not to collapse.
A long pause, the sound of a throat clearing. "Y- yes sir." Then, stronger. "Yes, sir. He is."
The men behind the judge stirred, and Chris' muscles ached with sudden tenseness as he lifted his head to look at them. Vin was looking at him, regret in his eyes. Nathan was openly glaring. Ezra was in the shadows, his face unreadable. Buck was looking at JD, his expression sending Chris back to another day, another tragedy.
And you pushed him away. You damn fool. Orin's face became official again, or tried to as he said, "In these cases, the accuser always has the right to confront the accused. JD, do you have anything to say to Chris?"
Chris couldn't look, closed his eyes as he heard the youth behind him take a few gulping breaths. He glanced at Buck, saw his old friend looking at JD with such an expression of helpless sorrow that Chris felt like dying.
But no. He had to live. That was his punishment for all this. Live, and regret.
It seemed like a hundred years later, but was really only a few moments had passed when JD finally spoke, in a voice that seemed to be fighting with itself for control, resolution against soul- curdling fear. "No, sir. I don't have anything to say, I guess. I just - I just wanted him to see me."
Chris shuddered, and felt tears sting his eyes. God...
Orin tilted his head, nodded and said slowly. "All right, son. Chris Larabee, you're pleading guilty to assault and battery. Have anything to say before I pass sentence?"
Chris shook his head, felt once again the inescapable weight of his friends' eyes on him, knew that he couldn't hide, that it was over. But, that was good. This felt good, that it was over, and Chris straightened himself up again, knew that this was how it had to be, if he ever wanted peace, ever wanted things set right. He knew what he had to do. Shaking his head slightly, he looked Judge Travis in the eye and in a hoarse, dry whisper said:
"Let me pass my own sentence."
Orin looked at him, puzzled. The others turned to each other, Vin expressionless, Nathan and Ezra clearly confused. Buck still kept his gaze on the floor, but Chris felt his anger, thought, maybe this will help. I hope so...
As they all watched, Chris slowly unbuckled his guns and laid them on the desk. They clattered loudly, almost deafeningly in the shroud-silence of the room. Then, slowly turning until he could almost see JD and Josiah standing behind him, Chris walked resolutely to the cell block and, taking the keys from the hook, unlocked the outer doors and walked in. Orin followed him.
There were two men in the first cell, who stared at Chris in a kind of amazed, frightened shock, but he barely noticed them. With Orin walking behind him, he opened up the second cell, walked in and turned around, handing Orin the keys.
As Orin backed away, Chris grabbed the iron bars of the cell door in his hands and looked the judge in the eye with sorrowful determination. The others gathered around him, and Chris looked into their faces, their eyes, thought, whatever it takes, I've got to get them back. If it takes the rest of my life.
I've got to set it right.
And Chris Larabee, onetime leader of the Magnificent Seven and admitted assailant, tightened his grip on the iron-barred door in his hands and looked at Judge Orin Travis with eyes that blazed with determination and self-recriminating strength.
"When JD walks through the that door ," he said in the same clear, strong voice as he glanced toward the front of the jail, "then you can let me out."
And he slammed the jail door shut.
The loud clanging noise reverberated in the small room, echoed endlessly within the brick walls. The men all stared at Chris as he backed away from the bars, to where the small cot was sitting against the wall in the back of the cell. Without looking at his onetime friends again, Chris sat down on the matted straw ticking, and put his head in his hands.
Still, nothing was said for what seemed an eternity. Orin turned around, looked at the men thoughtfully and said in a soft voice, "If you gentlemen don't object, I'd like to let Mr. Larabee's sentence stand."
Silence. Buck looked at JD, but the youth was slumped against Josiah's strong arm, obviously exhausted. Josiah's eyes locked with Buck's, infinite compassion meeting infinite fury. Then Josiah looked down, whispered something to JD who nodded. Without another word, he led JD to the back door of the jail, and the small group broke up, leaving Chris Larabee alone.
+ + + + + + +
The sun shone brightly on Buck's face as he followed his friends out the jailhouse door and onto the boardwalk. Curious passersby gawked at them, then went back to sweeping the glass off the street and helping the soldiers with the wounded and the dead. Buck sighed wearily, and wished he could stop hurting.
Orin came out of the jail behind them, squinted into the morning sun as he stood next to Vin and checked his pocket watch. "I suggest you men get some rest. I imagine you can use some."
Vin leaned back a bit, away from the supporting hand Nathan still had on his arm, peered at the dead outlaws that littered the street like scraps of paper. "I'd best take a look around, make sure we ain't got more company..."
He went two steps and faltered a bit before Nathan quickly took hold of his shoulder with his other hand and said, "Uh-huh, sure you are. You been wounded, best let me get you taken care of before you fall over and bang the other side of your head."
"I don't need no nursemaidin'," Vin grumbled, but Buck noticed he didn't resist as Nathan guided him to a nearby barrel and firmly set him down on it.
"Then call it insurance," Nathan muttered as he closely examined the tear in Vin's scalp. "Last thing we need right now is you gettin' all woozy with a gun in your hand an' shootin' Conklin again."
Vin grunted, and glared at the open air as Nathan looked him over.
Ezra put his hat on, looked longingly across the street. "You know, I may head on over to the saloon. I haven't dealt a game in ages."
Orin cast his eye on Buck, then the others, and nodded knowingly as he snapped his watch closed. "Mr. Jackson, you take care of Mr. Tanner and the others. As for the rest of you, if anything happens, I'll let you know."
Nathan nodded, Vin winced, but Buck gazed around the cluttered street, too tired for a moment to move, or even think. Orin sighed, and headed back into the jail, the door softly clicking shut behind him.
Ezra took out his cards, flipped them idly as he surveyed the damage around them. "Well, once again we've managed to single-handedly rescue this town from the clutches of evil. You would think someone would offer to buy us a drink."
There were a few smiles, even from Vin, who was obviously in some discomfort as Nathan pressed a clean handkerchief over his scalp wound. Even a halfway attempt at humor felt good, after so long. Buck sighed and rolled his shoulders, felt the sun on his face. Things were starting to feel a little better. Chris was back, in jail where he belonged...but Buck didn't like to think on that, didn't like the battling emotions of relief and overwhelming anger that had roiled inside of him at the sight of his onetime best friend. No, he didn't like that at all. So he let it go.
Josiah walked up, limping slightly, his face tired and anxious. Spotting Nathan bending away from Vin, and the former bounty hunter holding the cloth to his head, the preacher said, "Working your miracles again, doc?"
Nathan shrugged. "Tryin' to, if the patient sits still long enough. How's your leg?"
"I've had worse," Josiah said dismissively, glancing down at his bandaged leg as if he'd forgotten it was there. Looking back up he said, "JD's askin' on ya, Nathan. His collarbone's troublin' him."
Nathan nodded, sighed. "Comin'."
As if by an unspoken signal, Nathan helped Vin up and they all started walking toward Nathan's room, a collection of concern and sympathy, JD's room neglected, the patrol put on hold, the card game forgotten. They had only gone about a dozen steps in the morning sunshine when they heard the light voice of Mary Travis saying, "Mr. Wilmington?"
Buck turned around; they all did. Mary was standing behind them, and next to her was a tall, stocky fellow, giving Buck a curiously hopeful look.
Buck frowned, perplexed. "Mrs. Travis?"
Mary looked at Buck with a puzzled expression, indicated the man next to her and said, "He wanted me to find you, I'm sorry if I'm interrupting..."
The man looked Buck up and down, a small smile on his face. "Then ye're Buck Wilmington?"
Buck frowned deeper, not in the mood for riddles. What accent was that? Dutch? "Yeah. Who're you?"
The man nodded in satisfaction, took off his hat and put his hand out. "M'name's Darcy Thomas. I was told to ask for ye, personally."
After a moment's hesitation Buck shook Darcy's hand, was surprised at the strength of it. Scottish, maybe. He peered at Darcy with a hint of impatience and said, "What do you need me for?"
Darcy brought one hand up, scratched behind his ear. "Well, I was told by Mrs. Travis here that yer the closest thing Mr. Dunne has to a guardian, so I'll be askin' yer permission before I get to work."
Buck found himself growing irritated, noticed the other men gathering around him, openly curious. Welsh. Welsh? No...
Nathan asked, "What do you mean, work?"
Darcy leaned back a bit, turned his hat in his hands. "I'm sorry, I should have been more explicit. I'm a doctor, you see."
Buck's head came back, the accent forgotten. Everyone was paying close attention now.
Darcy paused, his face suddenly very serious. "And I've been sent here, to give Mr. Dunne all the help that he requires to get him well again."
Buck shook his head, felt a tremendous joy but checked it, because he wasn't understanding this. "You know about JD?"
Darcy nodded, his face sincere and concerned. "Yes, Mr. Wilmington. I've been told he's suffered blows to the head, that he can't walk anymore. It's a terrible injury to be sure, but he's not crippled for life. It's not a paralysis; he can get back to himself again, and I'm here to make sure he does."
Buck frowned, unable to fathom what this dark-clad man was saying. The others wore similar looks of doubt. Ezra's face was incredulous, even angry as he leaned forward threateningly and said, "Sir, if this is some kind of chicanery, or a cruel joke on Mr. Wilmington's person - "
Darcy's hands went up. "No, sir, I promise you - all of you - I am in earnest. They haven't done as much work with head injuries over here, but in Europe I've seen many men in Mr. Dunne's condition walk again. And I would never inform you of this possibility, if I did not believe, in his case, that it was possible also."
Buck shook his head; it suddenly hurt tremendously. He couldn't speak.
Mary put a hand on Darcy's arm, her eyes round with questions as she asked, "Mr. Thomas , if JD isn't paralyzed, then what's wrong with him? Why can't he walk?"
"From what I understand," Darcy explained as Buck and the others exchanged increasingly amazed glances, "it's because he was hit in the back of the head. It's like his brain forgot how to tell his legs what to do. Like a baby, you see. Mr. Dunne is perfectly capable of walking. We just have to teach him how to do it."
"And you can do that?" Nathan asked, clearly impressed.
"Well," Darcy admitted, "I haven't seen the boy yet, but from what I've been told there's no reason why he can't relearn what he used to know. No reason at all."
There was a small pause while the group absorbed this. Then Vin whispered, "Nathan, tell me I ain't hallucinatin' this."
"You ain't," Nathan replied, a wide smile on his face.
Buck couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Mr. Thomas, are you sayin' - " He paused, considered his words. He wanted to be really, really sure about this. "Are you sayin' JD is gonna walk again?"
Darcy's eyes gleamed as he gave Buck a hopeful smile. "Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Dunne's got Ireland in his veins. I'm sayin' he'll bloody well fly if he wants to."
Irish! That's it, but other thoughts suddenly boiled over that one, spilled over until Buck was seized by an immutable joy that bounded up and fired through him with the force of a hurricane. JD was going to walk again. He looked at Darcy, at Mary, at his friends, and felt himself lighting up, like someone was turning up a lamp inside. Then, all at once, he let out a whoop of joy, unable to believe how light he suddenly felt, how happy. JD would walk again. No, it was too incredible, but...but this man seemed so serious, and Buck trusted him, why, he didn't know. Something in the eyes, maybe. But he trusted him.
JD was going to walk again. It was too good to be true.
Buck looked at his friends, saw his unfettered happiness reflected in their expressions: Nathan was openly beaming at him. Vin was looking sideways at Nathan; then he looked at Buck, his face a map of gentle encouragement despite its palenss. Josiah reached out and put his hand on Buck's shoulder, the pillar of strength as always, and Ezra -
Ezra was gone.
Buck looked around as the group began to move away, Josiah leading Darcy to Nathan's room, Nathan still firmly supporting the faltering Vin. He finally spotted Ezra a few feet away, facing away from him. Puzzled, Buck took a step toward the gambler and said, "Ezra?"
There was a pause, then Ezra turned around. "These accursed desert winds," he muttered in his Southern drawl, dabbing at his eye with his handkerchief. He blinked at Buck and said gravely, "Blew dust right into my eye."
Buck grinned, clapped Ezra on the arm and laughed, laughed for the first time in nearly a week and felt so wonderful he thought he would split in two. And knew the gambler was right behind him as he ran to catch up with the others.
+ + + + + + +
JD sighed and stared out of the window from the bed, waiting for Josiah to return. The window was still open, and JD gazed at the bright blue sky and the high white clouds, that he could just see but never reach. A beautiful sky really, and JD laid his head against the mountain of pillows, gazed at the brilliant patch of sky, and hurt.
Everything hurt. Seeing Chris again hurt, hurt a lot, and JD was mad about that. He thought standing up to Chris wouldn't be that bad, but once they'd gotten into the jail it was like someone kicked him in the stomach, and it was a fight just to keep from falling apart.
Why didn't Chris look at me? All he had to do was look at me and say, I'm sorry. How hard is that? Unless he's not really sorry. Unless he's just pretending.
JD shifted in the bed, rode along with the bad mood he felt himself slipping into. Chris was back, had locked himself in the jail, what had he said? When JD walks through that door, you let me out. But JD knew he wasn't ever going to walk again. Did Chris know that? Was he really going to stay in jail forever? Or maybe he was just trying to impress the judge, kind of saying, see how sorry I am? But Chris knew better than that, the judge was really strict. And Chris admitted he did it.
JD closed his eyes, the scene replaying in his mind, Chris standing there with his back to them, the words clear as a church bell on a winter morning: I attacked JD Dunne in the alleyway outside this jail. He was badly hurt, and I'm responsible. I'm here to turn myself in. Chris had sounded so strange when he said it, so...JD couldn't put his finger on it, but he thought it sounded almost like Chris wanted them to hate him, like he didn't care what happened to him if they knew.
And they did hate him. Boy, JD didn't think he'd ever seen Buck or Ezra look so mad, or Nathan either. JD thought they hated Chris more than he did, then thought about it again. Did he hate Chris? What was that he felt when he first saw his former hero, when he'd almost shot him? It was like...it was like he sometimes felt when he and Buck had had too many beers at the saloon, like his feelings were running off, and he was just watching. But worse, not loopy like he was drunk but mad, and oh Jesus had it hurt. Like a Fourth of July rocket going off on the ground, spinning and spinning and blowing hot, painful sparks, and you didn't dare put your hands on it. That's what seeing Chris again had felt like. And JD didn't understand it.
Except he didn't want to hate Chris. Really, he didn't.
A light breeze blew in through the window, softly ruffling the white curtains that hung in Nathan's window. JD looked at them in a kind of drowsy fascination, remembered other curtains, white lace, a much bigger window, salty spring air. JD felt a sudden pang, closed his eyes and swallowed sudden tears. God, mama, I wish you were here. I thought you were for a while, but I guess I was just dreaming. I'm scared, mama, I don't know what's going to happen to my life anymore, and I wish I could talk to you because you always seemed to know. You said I'd do great things someday, that I could do anything I wanted, but that was before, mama. I'm hurt now, hurt like those men in the soldiers' home, remember I used to ask if they were ghosts, because they never moved or acted like they knew anybody was around? Am I going to be like that? I don't want to be. But...I guess...
I wish you were here.
I wish everything didn't hurt.
Why didn't Chris look at me?
JD didn't realize he'd nodded off until he started awake, at the sound of the door opening. For a split second he panicked, and saw the nightmare image of Durning lurching into the room. With a startled cry, he jerked himself up in the bed.
And met Buck's surprised eyes, and immediately felt really stupid.
"Hey, there, kid," Buck said reassuringly, putting his hands up as he walked around the bed. "Sorry about that. Didn't mean to scare ya."
"Geez, Buck," JD said in chagrin, rubbing his eyes for a moment and trying to sit up. "Didn't anybody ever teach you to knock?"
Buck laughed, and JD shook his head to clear the last of the cobwebs out, and looked at him, puzzled. Buck looked awfully happy about something, and now JD noticed the others coming into the room, Josiah, then Nathan and Vin, Ezra last of all, and another man, tall and broad shouldered, who JD didn't know. Another one of those businessmen, maybe.
JD noticed Vin was holding a cloth to his forehead, a white cloth with blood spotted on it, and was moving awkwardly as Nathan planted him in the closest chair he could find. His eyes widening, JD gasped, "Gosh, Vin, you get hurt again?"
"I'm fine, kid," Vin answered in a voice that was weak, but sounded curiously cheerful. Nathan seemed intent on the former bounty hunter, nagging him to take his jacket off and looking at his bleeding scalp in concern. But when the healer looked at JD, his expression changed to one of pure joy, and he smiled.
"He's gonna be okay, son," Nathan said reassuringly. "Just needs to take it easy for a while."
JD swallowed, thought in mild confusion, if you say so.
"Well," Buck said cheerfully as he sat down on the bed. "As I said, I guess I forgot my manners, but I got some good news for ya, JD. Real good news."
JD scooted himself up in the bed a little more, tried to get comfortable. "About San Francisco?"
Buck laughed again, and JD looked at him again. Is he drunk or something? Then he noticed everyone looked kind of giddy, like it was Christmas or something. Vin still had that funny smile on his face, and what the hell was the matter with Ezra? JD didn't remember the gambler having any allergies. But then, his memory might have still had a few holes.
Buck looked behind him, waved a hand toward the broad shouldered man. "JD, this here's Darcy Thomas."
The broad shouldered man walked up to JD, put out his hand with a gentle smile. "It's a pleasure to meet ye, Mr. Dunne."
"He's an Irish fella," Buck noted proudly.
JD stared at the man, at Buck. Why was everybody acting so weird? He started to put up his hand to shake Darcy's, just to be polite, but his collarbone nagged him and he brought his hand back with a gasp.
"Here," Nathan said, coming over to JD as Josiah helped Vin get his jacket off. "Let me take a look at that bandage. Josiah said it's bothering you?"
"Uh." JD looked down at his bound arm, suddenly embarrassed, and hefted himself so Nathan could get at the bandage. "Uh, yeah. Thanks."
Darcy came and stood behind Nathan, and was looking at JD as the healer checked the bindings. JD stared back, curious, and noticed that this man had a funny look on his face too, a look that, strangely, reminded JD of his mother. Happy and sad and worried and relieved, all at once.
Darcy smiled at Nathan, said in an admiring lilt, "Ye do good work, Mr. Jackson. I couldn't have set that collarbone any better, meself."
JD stared at the man in open confusion, thought, that's an awful funny thing for a businessman to say. Wincing as Nathan touched a sore area, JD glanced at the healer and said to Darcy, "You couldn't, not unless you were a doctor or something."
Buck's voice was suddenly quiet, different. "JD?"
JD looked up.
Buck's smile was quiet as he cleared his throat. "Darcy Thomas is a doctor."
JD blinked. The information wasn't sinking in.
Buck's smile grew wider, his voice barely above a whisper. "And he's here to get you walkin' again."
Oh, now this had to be some kind of stupid joke. JD didn't bother hiding his confusion, ignored the sudden shooting pain as Nathan rebound the bandage. His hazel eyes went from Buck to Darcy as he stammered, "Get me w - come on, Buck, you know I can't walk anymore. That's really low."
Buck's face dropped into such an expression of shock that JD immediately felt terrible, but - but it had to be a joke...
"Now, son," Buck said in a voice that trembled with emotion, "how could you even think I'd put you on over something like this? I know, it don't sound reasonable, but it's true. I swear to God it's true, Mr. Thomas has promised us he's gonna see to it himself. You're gonna be all right, JD. You're gonna be just fine."
JD sat back in the bed, blinked, thought, no. Too many of his dreams had been shattered recently to think that one could come true. He couldn't believe -
But - but there was certainty in this Darcy's eyes, a kind of determination as he looked at JD and said softly, "It's true, my boy. Now it won't be easy, and it won't be right away, but ye're not paralyzed. Yer legs work, it's just a matter of teachin' 'em what to do again. If ye want this, if ye really want it - "
JD found himself nodding, mesmerized by this man's quiet optimism. A kind of numb excitement was building somewhere deep inside him, where it had been so dark. So dark, and now...
Darcy leaned back, looked around him at the others who were standing in the early morning light of that room, and smiled. "Then I suggest the rest of ye start gettin' ready. Young Mr. Dunne here will be outridin' the lot of ye before we're through. I can promise you that."
For a split second everything stopped. JD looked around one more time. This can't be real. I'm dreaming. It can't -
But Josiah was grinning from where he stood over Vin, his blue eyes lit up with joy. Vin was leaning against the preacher, one hand still pressing the bloodied cloth to his scalp but - but he was smiling too, fighting his dizziness to give JD the biggest grin JD knew he was capable of at the moment. Nathan was laughing, his face glowing with happiness, and Ezra was coughing and scratching at his eye in an oddly self-conscious way, and JD realized he was crying. Ezra was crying.
And that's when it hit: I'm going to walk again.
JD couldn't believe it. He looked at the others, at Buck, and laughed for sheer joy. He felt a surge of electricity run through him, coursing through the tiredness, the surrender that had been imprisoning him for so long. I'm going to walk again. No. I'm going to ride again, and I'll show them, I'll be as good as I ever was, better even. He felt lightheaded, exuberant, like he could fly, and looked up at Buck. And then looked again, puzzled.
Buck coughed, looked away and muttered. "Damn desert sand. Uh, Ezra, mind if I use that handkerchief?"
JD shook his head, and as the others talked and celebrated around him, looked back at Darcy and saw the oddest expression on his face. JD thought again of his mother, of the day when she realized she was going to die and had told him he was going to have to grow up, but she was proud of him and knew he'd do well. I've been nothing but a problem to you, mama, JD had said, because he was afraid she'd gotten sick from working so hard to save money for him. She'd smiled and put her hand on his cheek and said, No, JD, you were never a problem. You saved my life, don't you know that? I was so lonely before you came, but you brought my life back to me. You saved me.
And now this Darcy was looking at JD the same way, like JD had done some big thing, saved somebody's life, or something, but JD knew he had to be wrong, because he hadn't done anything, except get beaten up by Chris. And JD had no idea how that could save anybody's life.
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