Candles of the Wicked
And simply as that, it was over. They left Vin and Ezra at Mesilla to bring JD's and Chris' horses on and the stage carried the remaining five peacekeepers home. When they stepped off the stage, everything in town looked peaceful, unremarkable and exactly as they had left it. What gnawed at JD now was the niggling idea that something somewhere ought to look different. He kept running into an awareness of change like stubbing a toe on an uneven floorboard, just a little odd moment that kept revisiting itself. But everything he saw remained the same.
Here he stood once again on the saloon porch, one shoulder against a post and his thumbs loosely hooked in his belt. On the other side of the post slouched Buck, all that long length of him just barely hinged together in his relaxation. JD could simply turn his head to see Chris sitting with one hand loosely wrapped around a half-drank beer, squinting off into his distant thoughts. Only a shrewd observer would note how carefully both men still held themselves. Across the small table from Chris, Josiah sat motionless as stone, only the big man's eyes moving to scan the pages of a book in his hand. Across the street, Nathan listened to old Mrs. Lighthouse's rheumatism complaints as if she were the most interesting thing all day.
A man could almost think nothing ever happened. Almost. But JD still felt the things that had been, like the memory of a bruise that went to the bone. Not the physical hurts, though they all nursed those. Maybe it was just a click of the gears in growing older. Thinking about it felt too much like worrying at a stubborn knot, however, so JD abandoned the subject for a more pressing concern.
"How long you think they'll be?" he asked.
"Oh, I reckon about as long as it takes to get here." Buck slanted a grin, which JD rewarded with a snort of strained patience.
"Yeah, well, you ain't the one left walkin' because your horse is somewhere between here and Mesilla," JD replied.
"Now, you know Vin will take care of that pony like it was his maiden aunt," Buck said, and shifted his position with a world-weary sigh. "If you ask me, I'd say it's Chris who should worry."
"Aw, you know " Buck lowered his voice as if Chris would not hear him, sitting only four feet away. "That big black of his could fetch a pretty price. What if Ezra finds himself a poker game halfway home and the pot gets a little rich?"
"He'd be a dead man," came Chris' flat rejoinder, though belied by the glint of amusement in his eyes.
Buck turned to grin over his shoulder and their gazes met in unspoken understanding. As Josiah might have said, these two old friends were finding their balance again, discarding the burdens of grief and anger that had driven them both. Though neither would admit it, the simple fact of being here, together in the thin, warm sunshine of autumn, ironed out a lot of the wrinkles in a man's troubled soul. Buck's casual step back placed him almost accidentally beside Chris' chair, where he arranged himself once again in a pose of leisure.
"Yeah," he drawled, "man's got to watch those gambler types. Why, I heard of a man once who sold his mother's -."
"Hey, fellas, look!" cried JD, and pointed far down the main street.
Across the way, Nathan had bid Mrs. Lighthouse good day and begun crossing the street towards the saloon. He looked in the direction JD indicated and stopped. Two horsemen trotted towards them. A white grin bloomed across his face before he hastened on and sprang onto the porch.
"Looks like the lost sheep are comin' home," said the healer with a smile.
"Yup," said Buck, a world of contentment in that single word. "Reckon they are."
Chris rose to stand at Buck's shoulder, but JD already waited halfway out in the street, both hands braced at his hips and smiling a mile wide. In those few seconds of compressing distance, the last missing pieces of his world came back right.
"Vin! Ezra!" he called cheerily. "We thought maybe you'd got lost!"
"Never lost, though I dare say ill-used," Ezra greeted with a weary grin. "I never thought I would say it, but I'm genuinely pleased to see this dusty little burg."
"No trouble?" Chris asked, scanning the gambler and Vin keenly, as if misfortune might leave new claw marks upon them.
"Not a lick," replied Vin, and swung from Milagro's saddle to relinquish the bay gelding into its young owner's care. "Quiet as a church on Monday the whole way."
"Which is how I much prefer it," Ezra added, dropping to earth with somewhat less than his usual grace. Grimacing, he held out the reins of his erstwhile mount. "Mr. Larabee, I believe this fine fellow is yours."
As Chris accepted the reins and ran a hand over the black gelding's gleaming neck, Vin cast his own quick scrutiny over his friends and the surrounding buildings.
"We miss anything comin' in late?"
"Nope," said Chris, the corners of his eyes crimping in humor as he met the tracker's glance. "Which is how I prefer it."
"Hello, Mary." Josiah's voice interrupted the reunion, and the men turned to see their lady newspaper editor stepping from the boardwalk. "Our prodigals have returned."
"Indeed they have." Her incandescent smile briefly put the sun to shame as she took in the dusty travelers. "It's good to have you back, gentlemen."
Vin dipped his chin in greeting, finger to the brim of his hat. "Good to be back."
"And yours is a timely arrival," she added, producing a folded newspaper for their perusal. "I'm doing the run for tomorrow's paper and thought you might like a preview."
"Well now," said Buck, stepping to take the paper and stand slope-hipped as he held it to the light. "What do we have?"
"First two columns," Mary said, pointing past his shoulder. "I ran it the full length of the page."
"Do tell." Ezra plucked the sheet from Buck's hand, ignoring the taller man's yelp and turned to study the print. A moment's hesitation while he read, then his grin widened to gold. "Now, this is what I call a hero's welcome."
Nathan leaned to peer with interest. "What's it say?"
Snapping the page straight, Ezra began to read.
"THE WANDERERS RETURNED: After many travails and hardships, our own Chris Larabee and J.D. Dunne walk among us once more. Readers will recall the dastardly deed of one Calvin Bell, whose bullet laid Buck Wilmington, that brave fellow, perilously near to Death's dark door. In a quest born of friendship's noblest ties, Larabee and Dunne set forth in pursuit of justice, and theirs would prove to be a road leading to greater hardships than any could foretell. Only the fortitude of these two courageous souls and the fidelity of their comrades saw them through to a happy end. Verily each was Damon to the other's Phythias, a doughty pair such as to throw fear into the craven heart of Calvin Bell. As the bold hunters -."
J.D.'s groan, though swiftly stifled, did not escape attention. Mary tilted one fine eyebrow, while Ezra peered over the top of the page.
"You have something to say, JD?" asked Ezra.
"No." J.D. twisted the ends of his reins in his hands. "I just reckon I won't be able to show my face anywhere around town, now."
"Oh?" Mary's eyes twinkled. "And why is that?"
"Because -." His outburst floundered and stopped, as color rose in his cheeks. "I just it makes me feel silly."
"Oh, I don't know," said Buck, beaming. "I like the 'Buck Wilmington, that brave fellow' part."
"You would!" JD retorted, and shrugged uncomfortably as he planted both hands on his pistol butts. "Oh, I don't mean offense, Miz Travis, it's a fine article. I just don't feel like a hero, is all. Pretty much everything we did just went on to a bigger calamity."
"But you persevered," said Mary kindly. "That is what makes an effort heroic."
"Enjoy it, son." Buck clamped a heavy hand on JD's shoulder, and bent to give a knowing wink. "Heaven knows the ladies love a hero. In fact -." His gaze lifted past JD and he straightened. "I see a fair damsel in need of a gallant knight, now. Come to think of it, I even have a white horse."
The others chuckled as they spied the object of Buck's attention, the pretty new seamstress in town. Clearly, the inconvenience of healing wounds did not cool the tall gunslinger's ardor.
"I wouldn't," retorted Chris dryly. "Last time you got near that girl, she near slapped your head off."
"Oh, I don't know " Buck shrugged languidly, his grin turning speculative as he watched the seamstress' graceful passage. "Maybe she just needs a little extra persuasion. Just you let me ponder on it a mite."
"Some things never change," said Chris fondly.
"Nope," replied Nathan, grinning. "And maybe they never should."
"Well, gentlemen, I must get back," said Mary. She smiled at JD and added, "Just think of it as something for your scrapbook."
For a proper woman, she sure could tap into an awful lot of mischief, her parting glance ample evidence of that. JD sighed gustily.
"Oh well," he said. "Maybe in a week folks will forget."
A sudden pattering of feet caught their attention, and they turned to see the beaming elfin face of Casey Wells as she skipped gaily towards them. The girl had not been into town since their return, but only JD failed to realize the true cause of her gladness. She abruptly slowed to a more adult pace upon seeing their notice, but her wide smile remained.
"Howdy, everyone! Nice to see you're all back." She halted in their midst with a final bounce. "Did Miz Travis show you her article?"
"Hi, Casey," said JD glumly. "Yeah, I saw it."
"She read it to me from the first sheet off the press." Casey's brown eyes gleamed. "Ain't it wonderful?"
JD blinked. "It is?"
"Of course it is." Fierce, tiny frown lines appeared between her brows. "I think you fellas don't get nearly enough appreciation from folks hereabouts."
"Of course I do. You ninny, what did you think I thought?"
"I -." Studiously ignoring the broad grins of the others, JD squared his shoulders. "I didn't know you felt that way."
"Well, I do." Casey tilted her stubborn little chin up and planted both small fists firmly on her hips. "I'm glad she's finally telling people just how much work you fellas really have to do."
"Is that so?" JD's grin began to widen, and he turned away from his friends, by his movement drawing her to stand beside his horse. "Like what, for instance?"
Casey continued with her thoughts as she stroked Milagro's mane. "Why, last month you had to deal with that awful Pedro Jones and his stupid mining dispute, and then there was that horse thief you had to chase all over creation. Did you know that over in Ridge City the sheriff charges the county for the miles he rides?"
"No, I listen, Casey, there's something I need to tell you. I "
Her eyes shadowed in sudden worry as she looked up at him. "What is it, JD?"
"Just that " He grimaced and swept off his hat to run the fingers of his free hand through his hair. "I'm sorry I sent that stupid letter. I know it was awful, and -."
"No, it wasn't." Her bright gaze searched his face earnestly. "I thought it was real fine of you to write. I don't get letters hardly ever, you know, and then it's from some relative I don't even know."
"Better listen, JD," Buck murmured.
However, the young gunslinger barely heard him. Something in Casey's expression, her eyes seemed to soothe a long-nursed ache deep inside of him. With this look on her face, so close and earnest, the idea of kissing her flitted unexpectedly through his mind, and his mouth went instantly dry.
"You you don't mind, then?"
"No, silly." She frowned prettily and flounced towards the walk. "Though Ezra says your spelling could use some practice."
"My what?" JD stared for a beat then hastened after her, only to be brought up short by the weight of a horse at the end of his reins. "Wait a minute, what's wrong with my spelling? My spelling is just fine!"
"How do you know?" Casey spun to face him. "You don't write enough letters to tell."
"What's that supposed to mean? Why would I write to you when you're right here?"
"Shows what you know." With a sniff, Casey about-faced and reached into the most imperious stride her small stature allowed.
"Wait a minute! Casey, I don't see would you just wait a confounded minute?"
As JD sputtered helplessly, Chris, Vin, Ezra and Nathan grinned.
"Ah, young love," rumbled Josiah.
"Or somethin'," chuckled Buck.
Sighing, JD looked at the bridle reins still in his hand, then at his horse still patiently awaiting his care.
Chris chuckled silently and stepped forward, his own black gelding clopping after. "C'mon, JD, let's put these nags up and get a cold beer."
JD fell in beside Chris, Milagro following, and Vin fell in at Chris' other side.
"You buyin'?" the tracker asked.
With a grin, Josiah said, "See you boys in the saloon."
As he, Buck, Ezra and Nathan turned towards the swinging doors, Chris, JD and Vin stepped out into the sunshine. Though their ways for the moment diverged, the Seven would again come together. The weft of their lives wove closely amidst the blaze of desert sun, creating a fabric strong enough to withstand whatever new dangers the unforeseen future might bring.
~ THE END ~
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