JD awoke early the next day, a little sore but otherwise refreshed. He didn't tell Buck, but he'd had this funny dream - well, it started out as a nightmare, but his mother came and that made it better; then Buck showed up, and for some reason JD remembered being stuck under his desk, and Buck coming over and getting him back to bed. It was so real that JD would have sworn it actually happened. But, of course, that wasn't true; it was just a dream.
I'm going for another walk today, JD remembered his travels of the day before, and suddenly couldn't wait to get outside again. He stretched, grimacing as his muscles protested, and slowly, carefully, put his feet on the floor and stood up.
Walking was still a big pain. He could do it, but he hated having to go so slow, and using the walking stick, even though Buck pointed out that now he looked even more like his idol, Bat Masterson. It wouldn't be for long, Darcy promised, but it never hurts to have a little help, so JD used the walking stick, but not all the time. For instance, not right now.
JD walked haltingly to where his clothes were slung on the floor, bent over - very slowly - and picked them up, started to get dressed. As he did so he had flashes of memory, as he often did now, brief glimpses where he remembered doing this before, before this had all happened. Getting up, getting dressed, it had all been different before, he could do it without thinking. Now he had to think about everything, had to be careful, he was still wobbly sometimes. JD frowned as he buttoned up his shirt, looked up and caught himself in the mirror. And paused, leaned in, looked closer, curious at how he looked now. He didn't really know.
Well, he - he looked fine. JD peered closer, tilted his head around to get a better look. His hair had gotten very long, too long almost, and JD heard his mother's voice telling him to get it cut before he started bumping into things. JD sighed and raked one hand through his black locks, trying to straighten it at least enough to be seen in public. Then he caught sight of his scar, and stopped.
He'd never really taken a good look at that scar. The morning sun shining into his room was bright, more than adequate, and JD leaned forward and with the same hand pulled his hair away and really looked at that scar, the only physical reminder that there had ever been anything wrong with him.
It was small and neat, a silent testament to Nathan's skills. The angry red had faded to a dull pink, then to a thick white, a slightly jagged line that began at the top of his forehead, just over the outside edge of his left eye, and continued back about an inch and a half. It wasn't noticeable, really, unless you were looking for it, or unless, like now, his hair was flopping in a certain direction, and parted there...
JD peered at the scar, ran his finger over it, fascinated, felt his heartbeat quicken a little. That night, that week, was little more than a jumble of hazy memories, pain and confusion and soul-throttling fear. He still had nightmares about it, but hadn't told anybody because, well, what would they have said? He was a man now, one of them, and men didn't have nightmares, didn't run screaming to their mamas when the night terrors came...
There was a knock at the door, and JD located his vest, staggered toward it and said, "Yeah?"
The door opened, and Buck poked his head in. "Oh, hey, kid. You're up, huh?"
"Hi, Buck," JD answered, scooping his vest up off the floor. "You wanna go to breakfast or something?"
"Yeah, sure, in a minute," Buck muttered in a preoccupied way, coming into the room and sitting on the bed. He looked at JD for a moment, but wasn't saying anything.
JD slipped his vest on, noticed Buck looking at him in the mirror. "What is it? You're not gonna get on me about not using my walking stick."
"No," Buck said thoughtfully, shaking his head. "No, that's fine, whatever you want to do about that is fine."
JD glanced down, lined up the vest buttons and began to fasten them. "Well then, what? You're makin' me nervous, Buck."
Buck took a breath, took off his hat. "JD, what do you think about Chris?"
JD's head shot up, the nightmare images flashing through his mind, and the awful morning when he'd very nearly put a bullet in Chris' brain; but he masked the fear he felt as his hazel eyes sought Buck's. "Huh?"
"Chris. You ever - think on him much?"
JD tried to act nonchalant, shrugged and frowned as he realized he'd just buttoned his vest wrong, looked down to correct his mistake. "Well...yeah, I mean, I guess, sometimes. Why?"
"Well, I was just wonderin' how you felt about him bein' back, and you know...everything."
JD finished buttoning his vest, gave Buck a curious look. "Well, I ain't gonna try to kill him, if that's what you're asking."
Buck was about to say something, then stopped. Just what the hell was he asking?
JD looked into the mirror, began running his fingers through his hair again. "I don't know, I guess I'm glad he came back, he saved the town. And he brought Darcy Thomas here, and...and other stuff, I guess."
Buck nodded in agreement.
JD seemed satisfied with his hair, turned around and leaned against the bureau. "But I guess - I mean...well, you remember when I couldn't remember much, and I thought Chris had gone after the man who beat me up?"
"Sure," Buck responded, that quiet night coming back to his mind, JD in bed still, bandaged and stitched up, with that huge, awful bruise on his face.
"Well..." JD looked down. "I couldn't believe that Chris would go after somebody who hurt me, cause he hardly knew who I was. I - I thought it was really something, that he'd go out of his way for me, that he thought I mattered, because he was my hero. And then I found out...I remembered..."
Buck looked down at the rumpled bed, swallowed, knew what JD was saying and hated it.
JD paused, took a couple of large breaths, then said quietly, "I want to look up to him again, and I can't, Buck. I just can't anymore."
Buck eyed his young friend sadly, but there was nothing he could say.
JD noticed his look, said, "How do you feel about Chris?"
Buck coughed, shrugged, thought, here we go. "Talked to him last night."
"You did?" JD sounded surprised. "What'd he say?"
"That he was sorry." Buck's voice softened as he spoke, "That he wished the whole thing had never happened."
"I do too," JD muttered, tugging at the front of his vest distractedly. He brushed some imaginary lint off, then said, "Hey, Buck?"
Buck sniffed. "Yeah?"
"You think when Chris gets out he'll want...that the judge will let him ride with us again?"
Buck tilted his head. Funny how that thought would have made him see red just a day ago. "Well, the judge kind of left it up to us, whether to let Chris back in. We don't have to. Actually, JD...it's kind of up to you."
JD looked up, a little unsettled. "Me?"
Buck nodded. "We all got our grievances against Chris, but you got it worst of all. So I reckon it's your say-so, and won't nobody hold it against you."
JD stared at the floor a moment, his eyes big and lost. Then he shrugged and stammered, "I - I don't know, Buck, I want things the way they used to be. I want it more than anything, but...but I don't respect Chris any more. I don't...I don't like him."
Buck drew in his breath, nodded and stood up. "All right, JD. That's your right. I don't think Chris will put up a fuss."
"I - I'm sorry, Buck," JD stuttered as his friend walked toward the door. "I - I could try to get past it I guess, like the rest of you did, it's just - "
"Now stop it," Buck said firmly, swiftly coming to JD's side and placing a hand on his shoulder. Those eyes still looked so hurt, even after four months. "Now you ain't got nothing to be sorry for, that's for Chris. I'd no sooner put you around a man you was scared of than I would throw you into a pit full of rattlers, and the others'd say the same. Believe that, JD. You got no sorrys to say."
"I'm not scared of Chris," JD mumbled, looking at the floor, but it was a flimsy lie, and he knew it.
Buck saw the halfhearted bravado, heard the struggling attempt at confidence battling against the nightmares, and his heart hurt as he patted JD's shoulder and said, "Well, if you was, son, that'd be all right. The man scared the hell out me too."
JD looked up at the sincere tones in that statement, perplexed and surprised.
"Now," Buck said brightly, clearing his throat. "Before we get some grub, Mr. Thomas said he wanted to talk to you 'bout something. You up to it?"
"Uh - sure," JD said, looking around and picking his jacket up off the floor. He gave it a dusty shake, and smiled at Buck as the gunslinger headed for the door.
"You're gonna make some woman miserable if you don't get hangers figured out," Buck called from the hallway.
JD laughed and picked up his bowler hat, checked his reflection in the mirror. Everything looked fine, just as it had, except for...his hand wandered up, touched the scar one more time and thought about how badly he wanted it to go away. But it wouldn't, of course. So he put his bowler hat over the scar, and headed out the door.
+ + + + + + +
The morning street was bright and warm, and JD smiled at it as he made his careful way down the stairs.
"Nice mornin', eh kid?" Buck said in a cheerful voice as he walked at the boy's side.
"Sure is," JD agreed, thinking it odd that Darcy hadn't come to his room if he wanted to talk to him. Would have been a lot easier than making him negotiate these damn stairs. "What's Mr. Thomas want to see me about?"
Buck shrugged hugely, and as they hit the bottom of the stairs the gunslinger hopped down the last two, turned around to face JD with a big, silly grin on his face.
JD stood on the last step, looked at his friend in irritation. "Come on, Buck, you got about the worst face I ever saw for keepin' secrets. What's going on?"
Buck tried to shrug again, but was cut off when JD heard Darcy's voice coming from behind them. "Ah, Mr. Dunne, ye're up I see."
"Yeah, I'm up." JD repeated, starting to get a little steamed at Buck's caginess. He turned around to complain to Darcy about it - and stopped.
Darcy was standing in the alley, smiling widely, but that wasn't what JD was staring at. Instead, his eyes were locked on the beautiful dark brown horse with the white star on its forehead, that stood at Darcy's side, tugging impatiently at the bridle he held and whinnying softly.
My horse. JD was overwhelmed by the rush of joy he felt. He stumbled down the last step, felt Buck's steadying hand on his arm, shook it loose as he took a trembling step toward Darcy with his cane. My horse -
Darcy smiled and regarded the elegant animal at his side. "She insisted on comin' to see ye. Told me she misses ye, and wouldn't be at all disappointed if ye wanted to saddle up, and learn how to ride her again. D'ye think ye'd like to do that, JD?"
JD stepped up to his horse slowly, as if he was dreaming and didn't want to wake up and lose it. The animal saw him, stamped its foot and reached its head forward,and JD put out one shaking hand and stroked the horse's soft muzzle, felt tears sting his eyes. God, he'd missed this so much...
"Now," he whispered, turning huge, begging eyes to Darcy as his horse ducked its head down and gently thumped it into his chest. "Can I start now?"
"Of course ye can," Darcy replied as he handed the bridle to JD. "Only let's get some breakfast in ye first. Mr. Wilmington, kindly get us a table at the restaurant while I assist Mr. Dunne here in gettin' his friend back to her stall. We'll be joinin' ye shortly."
"'Course, Mr. Thomas," Buck replied, and JD turned from stroking his horse's nose to see the gunslinger beaming at him.
I'm gonna ride again, Buck, JD wanted to say, but didn't think he could talk, not without blubbering like some big baby. But Buck was looking at him in a way that didn't ask for words, only wanted to share in his happiness. Then Buck gave him a final smile, and headed out of the alley.
JD turned back to his horse, knew Darcy was still standing there, but didn't say anything to him, continued to pet the animal's soft muzzle and thought, God, I missed this. He'd missed everything, the bristly feel of his horse's coat, the soft musky smell, everything. His whole being ached to sling himself into the saddle, and pound off into the hills, the wind in his hair and the world rushing by his feet. Now, his soul cried out, and it took his entire being to control it, I want to ride now. Now.
"Come, my boy," he heard Darcy say quietly. "Let's take a walk beck to the stables, and I'll tell you what's to be done."
And starting later that morning, JD got his wish. And rode.
+ + + + + + +
It took some time to get JD comfortable in the saddle again; he was immensely frustrated to find that he had to learn to ride again, just as he'd had to learn to walk. But fortunately, it wasn't as arduous an endeavor as relearning walking was, for several reasons.
First, Darcy explained to Buck and the others as they watched JD maneuver his way awkwardly around the hay bales that had been set up in the corral, JD had a God-given talent. He knows, Darcy said, it's deep inside him where no mortal injury can reach it. He draws on that, and the horse follows him.
Then there was the fact that he wanted it so badly; no one, not even Darcy, could keep JD out of the saddle once he learned he could get back into it. It became a common joke that JD's horse got a lot more exercise than JD ever had, and both horse and rider seemed the happier for it. JD had nothing if not determination, Josiah noted proudly; and it seemed to be paying off.
And so it was on a warm day not too long after that golden morning that Darcy and the other men were lounging at the corral, watching JD make his way around the hay bales with an increasingly unerring precision, his bowler hat firmly set on his head, his black hair flying in the slight breeze.
"Just about good as new," Vin remarked as he draped both arms over the rough wooden fence.
Darcy squinted into the sun and nodded. "He'll have to work on his jumping yet, and some of the fancier stuff. But it will come, easier and easier."
"Praise the Lord," Josiah said softly, shaking his head as he watched JD move about, horse and rider, together and one. "Another miracle has taken place."
Ezra nodded agreement, then turned to look at Buck, saw a peculiarly wistful expression on the gunslinger's face. Glancing around so as not to embarrass his friend by calling attention to him, Ezra leaned close and said, "Mr. Wilmington?"
"Hm?" Buck blinked and sniffed, shook his head a bit and looked at Ezra. "Oh - yeah?"
"Nothing," the gambler remarked. "You simply had this - you looked somewhat preoccupied."
"Oh - it was nothin'," Buck said quickly, wiping his face with his dirty bandanna. "Nothin'."
JD finished his maneuvers, trotted his horse over to the group with a huge, self-satisfied grin on his face.
"Was that okay?" he asked in an enthusiastic voice.
"Fine, son," Darcy praised. "In fact, I doubt ye could do better. Get down here a moment, I'd like to share a word."
"Sure," JD slung himself off the saddle, almost as if he'd never been injured, although Darcy's hands were quick to catch him as he awkwardly slung his leg over the horse's back. As Josiah took the animal's bridle, JD set himself on the ground and said, "I'm all right."
"Of course ye are, son," Darcy said reassuringly, and cast his light eyes on the group as they all gathered around him. "And I'm glad ye are, in fact that's sort of my announcement."
The men looked at him curiously.
Darcy cleared his throat, met their gaze. "Gentlemen, JD is healed as far as my talents can take him. He'll get stronger, faster, more sure; but my work is done. And I'll be takin' my leave of ye at the end of the week."
The men looked at each other, at Darcy, at JD. None of them said anything for a moment, then Josiah said, "Well, that's a shame, doc. I know I speak for the others when I say, we're sure gonna miss you."
"And the feelin's mutual," Darcy said with a sincere smile. "But it's time for me to move on."
"We got you for the rest of the week, though, right?" JD asked anxiously. "Cause I got this move, I just know I can do it - "
Darcy laughed as JD turned back toward his horse, reached out and steadied the youth as he grabbed at the bridle. "I'm sure ye can, JD, just watch yerself."
"He's gonna hurt himself again, so you don't leave." Nathan suggested with amusement.
There was laughter, and the men watched as JD tried, tried, then succeeded at mounting his horse. He faced them with that huge, I-can-do-anything smile.
"Oh, you're laughing at me," he said defensively. "But you just watch. Josiah, let go of the bit, huh?"
The big man shook his head. "What're you planning on, JD?"
The youth's face fell. "Oh, come on! It's just that small jump, I swear, it isn't even dangerous - "
As JD and Josiah argued, Darcy shook his head at looked at the fence. The other men had left it, to go around into the corral, but Buck remained there, looking up at JD. Darcy walked over to him; Buck's gaze didn't waver.
"That's the same look ye were givin' before, that ye told Mr. Standish was nothin'," Darcy noted, in soft tones.
Buck blinked, smiled a little. "Yeah, I guess."
Darcy nodded, looked back at JD, waited.
Buck shifted his position on the rail fence, then whispered, "First time I laid eyes on that kid he was jumpin' that fence over there - " He pointed with one hand as he spoke. "Just jumped it like it an inch high, same suit, same horse, same damn bowler hat."
Darcy smiled at the admiring tone in Buck's voice, kept his silence.
Buck cleared his throat, looked at the splintered wood beneath him. "Mr. Thomas, without you I reckon JD would have just died, an' wouldn't be nothin' we could have done to save him. I owe you for that, and if you ever need a hand you just give ol' Buck a call and I'll come runnin'. I mean that."
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington," Darcy replied, turning his head to give the gunslinger an appreciative look. "Thank you."
And the two men watched the lively debate continue in companionable silence.
+ + + + + + +
Darcy Thomas' going away party was a huge, community-wide affair. Everyone in town, it seemed, had reason to appreciate and want to thank the sturdy Irishman who had helped them all out so much. So it was no surprise when it turned out that the church was nowhere near big enough to accommodate all the guests, and by nine o'clock the party had spilled into the street, and everyone was having a fantastic time.
Mary was there, dressed up and smiling, the tensions of the past months gone from her fair face as she laughed and smiled with Matthew Dwight and the other townsfolk. Conklin was there too, for a while, but didn't seem comfortable, and left early. Gloria and Emmie traded housekeeping secrets, and Rita and Maria sampled the food and learned how to waltz, courtesy of Buck, who insisted neither would leave until he'd taught them proper. They didn't seem to mind that the lessons took a long time to teach.
Darcy had, during his stay, treated many of the townspeople for various ailments, and helped Nathan with still more, so they were grateful. Many people who hadn't needed the physician's medical advice were still aware of his miraculous hand in healing JD, and because of their fondness for the young sheriff, were also grateful. Of course, there were some people who were just in the mood to dance and drink - outside, of course - and they were at least grateful for the opportunity, even if they weren't entirely sure who Darcy Thomas was. So a good time was being had by all.
The church had been set up with enough bright lights to turn the humble edifice into a blazing beacon, a star right on the earth Josiah said when he saw how brilliantly the lights burned. There was plenty of punch and baked goods, and the pews had been set up around the edge of the room for people to sit, and an area for dancing if anyone felt like it. Several people with musical instruments had shown up, and before long the whole town seemed alive with lively tunes and laughter. And no one laughed more, or seemed to have a better time, than the men of the Magnificent Seven.
Chris was still in the jail, and no amount of coaxing by any of his friends would draw him out. Vin said over a mug of beer that afternoon that he wasn't sure what Chris was waiting for, but Josiah said he knew. There were a lot of people in town who were still wary of Chris, still unsure that he had shed any of the malice that had made him attack JD. Chris was still a dangerous man, and knew that his presence at a public function would cause nothing but trouble. It was better to stay away.
But he doesn't have to sit in the jail, Nathan argued. He could go to his room, nobody even had to know. To that, Josiah shrugged, and merely repeated what Chris had said when he tried to tell him his trial was over: it wasn't time yet.
So, Chris was absent, but the others were scattered around the church, and the grounds beyond; Vin was sitting in a corner, drinking a glass of punch and watching the crowd; Buck had found several willing dancing partners, and was flirting with all of them at the same time; Ezra was performing card tricks for the children, who had come with their parents to pay their respects to Darcy for nursing them through sickness and injury; and Josiah and Nathan were lounging near the door with Darcy, who was exhausted after a full day of farewells and toasts and at eight forty-five had set himself firmly in the first chair he could find, pulled out his pipe, and declared himself officially relaxing. Nobody argued.
"This is a fine sendoff you're getting, doc," Josiah said appreciatively as he scanned the merrymaking throng in the church. "Almost makes up for your leavin'."
Nathan smiled in agreement, his expression rueful as he looked at the man he'd come to regard as a friend. "Yeah, it ain't gonna be the same around here without you, you know. You might get up tomorrow and find out somebody stole your horse just so you don't go."
Darcy smiled at the compliment and nodded. "Aye, if I'd known ye had parties like this every time somebody left town, I'd have left a long time ago. And come back, just to get another one."
Josiah chuckled, then scratched his face and leaned forward, his expression serious as he looked into the Irishman's eyes. "You might not hear it from everybody, Darcy, but on their behalf I want you to know how much we appreciate what you did for JD."
Darcy looked down at his pipe.
Nathan nodded, his face equally earnest. "We was ready to give up hope before you showed up. Don't think we can do anything to thank you proper."
"Ah, but there is," Darcy replied softly, his eyes flicking up to meet Nathan's in an even gaze.
Nathan cocked his head.
"Keep fightin' injustice the way ye have been," Darcy said, leaning back to gesture at Ezra and Buck, and Vin in the far corner. "All of ye, the inspiration ye provide with yer courage and strength is all the thanks I require. It's more than enough, really."
"You've been reading JD's dime novels," Josiah said in a gently teasing way, reaching to the floor for his mug of punch.
Darcy smiled in reply, pulled out his pocket watch and checked it. "Speaking of the lad, he should be here by now."
"He will be," Nathan said as he removed a cigar from his breast pocket. "He told Buck he wanted to rest up, and if he didn't by nine-thirty to come and get him. He wouldn't miss your party, doc. You know that."
"Aye," Darcy sighed as he tucked his watch back in his pocket. "He'll be the hardest of all of ye to leave, I think. He has the fight of Ireland in him, I'm jealous ye get to be around it all the time."
"Yeah, well," Josiah replied with a sideways look to where Buck was talking to a young lady. "Come back in a few more months, and you'll probably be seein' the fight of Ireland doggin' Buck again, and Buck givin' it right back."
"Just like old times." Nathan said fondly as he lit his cigar.
At that moment Vin wandered over, walked to Darcy's side and extended his hand. Darcy shifted his pipe to his left hand, stood up and grasped the tracker's hand warmly.
"I'll be leavin' to go patrol pretty soon," Vin said in his slow drawl. "Just wanted to make sure you hadn't changed your mind about an escort come mornin'."
Darcy smiled as he looked into those blue eyes and shook his head. "No, it's very kind of ye, but I'll be leavin' early, and it'll be easier on all if I take my leave of you fine gentlemen tonight, while we have music and dance about us. I'll disappear tomorrow, and leave the way I came."
"You came with Chris," Vin pointed out as his hand fell to his side.
Darcy glanced toward the door of the church, toward where the jail was, then looked back sadly. "I'll see him in the morning, before I go. He'll not come out, and if there's anything I've learned in these past four months, it's that he's much more stubborn than I am, and that's saying quite a lot."
There was a pause, and when Darcy looked back from the church door he saw Vin looking at him with grateful eyes.
"You're a good man, Mr. Thomas," he said softly. "Chris was lucky - we all were - that you found him when you did."
"It wasn't luck, Mr. Tanner," Darcy said, in a manner that attempted to be flip, but failed when his voice caught. He looked at the altar in the back of the church, its seven candles still burning, and looked down as he shook his head. "No, more than luck, certainly. A divine hand was involved, I'm sure of it."
"Amen," Josiah said softly, almost too low for anyone to hear.
Vin shifted his weight, looked at Darcy uncertainly. "Wish that divine hand would help JD out a little more. He's walkin' again, but his heart's still broke. I don't think he'll ever be up to forgivin' Chris."
Darcy nodded sadly as the others exchanged melancholy looks and said, "What Mr. Dunne's been through the rest of us can only guess at. But with friends such as ye around him, I'm confidant he can walk through the fires of this life, just as Chris and ye have,and come out stronger on the other side. And in that strength, he'll find the peace his heart needs."
Vin looked down, then at Josiah and Nathan, at Ezra and Buck a short distance away, at the townspeople around them, then back to the floor. "Hope you're right, Mr. Thomas. Some people would say if we're all he's got, it still ain't much."
"He has the world, gentlemen," Darcy said in a voice full of admiration and respect, and he nodded as he added, "and it will help him heal. I'm sure of it."
+ + + + + + +
In his room, JD fidgeted with his vest and sighed, looking in the mirror for the hundredth time. Why the heck am I so nervous? Well, that was a dumb question. He was nervous because he knew as soon as he walked into that party, every eye would be on him and he'd feel stupid and probably fall flat on his face. That's why he was nervous.
He was done getting ready, and couldn't put it off any more. Okay, deep breaths, one, two. JD sighed again, looked at his reflection, which was made light and dark by the oil lamp behind him. I'm not ready yet. Maybe I'll just go back to bed...
But no, Buck would come up and make a big deal out of everything, and Nathan would nag him for not getting more exercise now that he was walking, so JD knew he had to go. He turned around, found his fancy walking stick and glanced back at the mirror. Bat Masterson. At a whim JD tilted the bowler hat a little, tried to look rakish. Nah, that just looked stupid. Back on straight.
Despite his loathing of the device, JD had found that the walking stick made getting around easier, and using it he managed to get out into the hallway much quicker than his pounding heart was prepared for. He closed the door to his room, glanced up and down the hallway nervously. Wait a minute. Stairs. I need to practice on the stairs.
Yes, that would stall him having to go out for a few minutes...he could go to the room Darcy had rented, and practice going up and down those stairs they'd built, just to be sure. Just to be sure...
He made his way quickly down to the exercise room, but found it to be locked. Nuts. Then JD remembered that Darcy always put the key on the bureau in his room. Maybe his room was unlocked...
JD hobbled to Darcy's room, glanced once more up and down the hall, then bit his lip and opened the door. He didn't feel guilty about breaking into Darcy's room - all he wanted was the key - but still he found himself holding his breath as he turned the handle slowly, and heard the door softly click open.
The room was dark, of course, and JD opened the door wide to see his way around. Everything was neatly folded and mostly packed away, and JD frowned at how neat the place was. He hated being reminded that his own room was a disaster area. But the key...
JD's eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, and he padded his hand on the bureau, looking for the key. Nothing. Oh, wait, what was - no, that's a tie pin. Hm...
As JD felt his way along, his eyes wandered the room until he spotted a dark object draped over a chair in one dim corner. He peered at it, squinted, and suddenly lifted his hand from the bureau in surprise. Chris' coat. It was Chris' black coat.
JD felt a sudden thrill of fear, felt his breath catch in his throat. Forgetting the key, he took up his walking stick and made his way to that dim corner, his hazel eyes wide as he stared at the formless black duster, casually thrown over the wooden chair.
Chris' coat. His former hero's emblem.
JD reached out one tentative hand, ran it over the musty fabric, felt his eyes misting up at the revulsion the feel of it caused. Damn it, Chris, why did you do this to me? I'm better now, but I think I hate you, and that's not going to go away. And all because you had to get drunk...
JD's knees felt weak, and he sat down on the floor, certain the hall would remain deserted and no one would see Darcy's door open. He was hidden from view by the high bed, and leaned his back against it as he continued to contemplate Chris' duster, framed by the hallway light in sharp lights and darks, like an oil painting of a murder weapon.
JD sighed, felt the nightmare returning, the hideous uncertainty that had visited him that morning, when Buck had asked him, so, what do you think of Chris?
What do I think of you? JD stared at the coat with baleful eyes.
I hate you.
It was hard to breathe suddenly, and JD hugged himself, stared at the folded mound of dark fabric and felt himself sliding into a chasm of tangled memories; fear and terrible pain, the fractured agony of waking up and not knowing who anybody was, the freefall of despair that awful night that he'd leaned against Buck's side and cried.
JD shuddered, thought about that night, remembered how scared and alone he'd felt. I wanted to die that night. I felt so useless and everything hurt so bad. Mrs. Travis needed me, they all needed me, and I couldn't help them. I thought my life was over. If it hadn't been for Buck...
JD paused, considered that for a moment. What if Buck hadn't been around? Or any of them, they could have all been killed by Concho's men, it could have happened. If Vin had gotten hung, if Josiah and Nathan had died trying to free him, if Ezra had been gunned down at Nathan's door...if Buck -
JD shook his head and gasped, no - when he tried to picture it, himself crippled and alone, it was like a big black hole, and he could feel the handle of his Colt Lightning in his hand, at the bottom of it. No, he thought again, shoved that thought away, and shuddered, too terrified at the aching loneliness that image brought on to even look at it again. Too much.
JD blinked, looked at the floor, looked back up at Chris' duster. Only Chris would have escaped, because he wasn't there. Maybe with the town destroyed and all of them dead, he wouldn't have come back. Sure, Chris was sorry now, but that was because he'd gotten caught. But maybe, if he hadn't, he would have just kept going. And maybe not even cared.
Tears stung JD's eyes, and he bent his head down, glad it was dark and nobody could see him. He didn't want to hate Chris, didn't want to let go of that last shred of optimism left in his tired heart. It had been so wonderful, that six months, when they'd all been together and strong. JD had always believed, always been told, that were good, strong people out there, worth following and giving your trust to. And JD had wanted it to be true, wanted that so badly he'd looked past Chris' temper, his violent bad moods, and thought he'd found someone to follow. And he'd been happy.
But how could he believe now? Chris had hurt him, beaten him up, and that's what bad people did, not good people. Sure, Buck said Chris was sorry, and he'd done time, but what did that prove? He might have just been trying to get the others' trust back, keep himself from getting lynched. Maybe he was pretending. Or maybe he was just sorry because he got caught.
JD thought of how he used to idolize Chris, thought of the warm glow he felt when he thought the man was going after his attackers. Chris Larabee cares about me, he'd thought. Chris really wants to do whatever it takes to make things right.
JD sniffed, wiped his eyes. Maybe it shouldn't have surprised him that Chris didn't care. What was he anyway, just some idiot kid who ran all way west like some puppy dog, pestering Chris until he let him join the group. Why should Chris apologize any further than the law allowed? Why should he do anything other than serve his time, get somebody to make JD better so he doesn't get lynched, and then ride out of town like none of it mattered? And why did it hurt JD so much to think that that was exactly what was going to happen?
Jesus, Chris. JD rubbed at his eyes, at the tears in them. I can't believe you did this to me.
Why didn't you look at me? I looked at you. You put me through hell, Chris. I just about wanted to die for a while, but I didn't. I got better, but it hurt sometimes, it felt like fire. Some days it would be so hard just to move at all, and I'd want to give up. I don't know why I didn't, except maybe I felt like I'd be letting my mother down if I did. And Buck, and the other guys. I'd get so tired of trying, and hurting, and not getting better, but I did, I got better, and now Mr. Thomas says I'll be good as new before long.
Except for my heart. That still hurts like the first night I remembered how I got this way. And I think one day, it'll kill me.
We were a family, Chris. I looked up to you, you were my hero, dammit, and you let me down. I believed in those dime novels, believed that good was good, and then you had to go and show me that everything I believed was a lie. A lie you laughed about while you were beating me up, a lie you threw aside like it didn't matter to you at all. Well, it mattered to me, Chris. Maybe it was stupid and childish and a waste of your time, but it mattered to me...
There was a thump down the hall, and JD gasped, suddenly aware of how late it was getting. Hurriedly, he wiped his face and made to stand up, reaching out to the chair to hoist himself up. Halfway up, his hand slipped, and he fell back to the floor with a thud and a soft curse, the duster wrinkling in his hand as he clutched it in frustration.
And something fell out of it.
JD frowned when he heard the sound, like something metallic. JD looked around the floor, then saw something shiny sitting on the wooden floor at his feet and picked it up.
It was a wedding ring.
JD frowned deeper. Chris' wedding ring? Must be, but why was it in an outside pocket of his duster? Why didn't he have it somewhere safe? Why -
JD glanced at the coat, still bunched up in one hand. His hand was over a pocket, which had opened and caused the ring to fall out. And there was something else there too, a torn piece of paper looked like, folded neatly and sticking halfway out of the pocket, its whiteness stark contrast to the black of the duster. JD let go of the coat, pulled the paper out, too curious now to care if someone came in and saw him. He unfolded the note and read:To whoever finds this,
My name is Chris Larabee. I'm putting this note in my coat pocket, so if you find it you're likely standing on what was once my ranch. Please bury me in the little graveyard next to the two crosses that are marked Sarah and Adam. They are my wife and son.
After you bury me, go to the Four Corners Clarion and ask for Mrs. Mary Travis. Tell her you are the beneficiary of my estate, and show her this letter. I own this ranch, and what's in a room I rent in town. This is what I want you to do.
Sell the land my ranch is on. Sell everything in my room. My horse might still be around here somewhere; sell him too.
In Four Corners there may still be some men who I am proud to say I knew. Their names are Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington, Ezra Standish, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson, and JD Dunne.
The money you make from the sale of my estate is for JD Dunne's care and comfort. He was injured through my carelessness and stupidity, and my last wish is that all I own be used to provide for whatever he needs. You may run into a Mr. Darcy Thomas. He has my wedding ring, and instructions like these. Maybe you can work together.
I hope JD Dunne and the others are still in town when you get there. They are all good men. Don't say my name to them, esp. JD. He might not accept your help.
If you meet Mr. Thomas, tell him I wish things had turned out like he wanted them to. Tell him I hope the ring buys JD everything he needs, or wants. He should have it. He should have had a better hero than me.
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