Universe: OW Characters: JD, Buck, Chris, OMC
Ratings/Warnings: Some bad language
Thanks to Phyllis...don't EVER leave me!
Thanks to Kay (Jedikay) for my wonderful wall.
This is the final story in the Legacy trilogy and follows the first story Legacy and Legacy - The Return
JD Dunne stretched and yawned. It had been a long dry, dusty four day ride and they were still several days away from Four Corners. He watched his friends sitting circled around the campfire, talking and laughing quietly. He turned his attention to Buck as the brunet nudged him.
"You okay, kid? You're looking a mite tired there."
JD straightened, "I'm fine Buck, don't worry none about me, I can stay awake as long as any of you."
Buck chuckled softly, "Sure ya can, kid." He finished his coffee and threw the dregs into the fire, watching as it hissed and smoked from the action. He stood, stretching.
"Well, boys...don't know 'bout you, but I'm about ready for my bed."
With a series of low mumbles, the others agreed.
"Yep, can't disagree with you there, brother," Josiah yawned. "Goodnight all."
Each man bid his goodnight and the group dispersed in search of their bedrolls. JD sighed inwardly. Thank God...he was exhausted. He looked over his shoulder at Buck preparing to bed down and smiled to himself. 'Damn,' he thought, realizing just what his friend had done for him. As JD moved over to his own bedroll, sandwiched between Chris and Buck, he watched his best friend settle for the night. Without opening his eyes, Buck spoke.
"Get ta sleep, JD."
Amid a soft chuckle, the boy shuffled down and closed his eyes. He was asleep in minutes.
Buck looked at the youth and grinned. Chris raised his head to look down at, then over the sleeping teenager, a half-smile aimed at his old friend.
Buck winked, "Chris."
A call of nature roused JD from his bed. It was raining a little and JD noticed the fire was slowly dying, thinking to himself he'd have to put more wood on it before he settled back down. Cursing softly, he groggily made his way to some trees to meet his needs.
The horses nickered and shifted slightly. His needs met, JD moved toward them to check on the tether line they were fixed to a little further into a small stand of trees. He glanced around, realizing the horses appeared a little spooked, but the darkness revealed no indication of trouble so he shrugged it off. He wondered who was on look-out and decided it might be best to mention it.
As JD turned back to face the camp, he felt a blow to the back of his head and fell to the damp ground. Propping himself up on one elbow, he clasped a hand to his head as he tried to call out, but while his own voice had deserted him he was vaguely aware of other voices and movement around him. At the same time he was unsteadily attempting to get up, a fierce gun battle ensued and fear for his friends wrangled with the pain in his head. He didn't even have the strength to struggle as someone hauled him to his feet.
From his look-out position, Vin watched JD get up and walk to the trees, smiling to himself as he realized why his young friend had done so. He turned sharply to stare into the darkness to one side of JD, instantly moving and melting into the shadows, only stopping briefly to squeeze Chris and Buck's shoulders before disappearing again, confident the two men would know what he expected of them.
By the time the intruders revealed themselves, Vin was behind them and they were faced with five guns pointing their way. One miscreant nervously fired and all hell broke loose.
With practiced skill, the six men dove for cover, rolling and firing as they did. Vin took out three men in succession then hauled JD unceremoniously to his feet.
Observing all the assailants were down, Tanner half-dragged, half- carried the youngest peacekeeper over toward the fire, then carried on around the camp checking for danger.
Settling himself down next to the dying fire, JD shivered as the rain soaked his shirt.
He watched as Chris and Buck dragged lifeless bodies away from their bedrolls, while Josiah, Ezra and Nathan sought out survivors. Vin was now standing on a large rock, searching for any new threat as the early light of dawn broke through.
The easterner groaned softly as his fingers touched his aching head and came away stained red.
Despite his pain, he silently thanked God they had survived this night, and that his friends were so well practiced...and more awake than he had been. He turned as a hand rested on his shoulder, looking up to meet Buck's concerned expression. JD bowed his head.
"I'm sorry, Buck," he whispered.
The ladies' man crouched down in front of him, waiting patiently until his young friend met his gaze.
"Weren't your fault, kid. Hell, the tricky bastards almost got past Vin. Let me see yer head." Buck gently grasped the back of JD's head and pulled it forward and low enough to see, wincing at the gash and the blood that had started to congeal. He pulled his bandana from his neck and placed it over the cut, bringing JD's hand up to rest on top of it. He started to rise.
"I'll just go get Nathan."
"Buck...no, I'm..." 'fine' he finished in his head as he watched the tall man stride toward the healer. JD felt bad enough he'd been caught out, without Buck making a fuss. What must the others think of him? He startled slightly as legs in black trousers appeared in front of him, quickly followed by Chris' face as the gunslinger squatted down to speak.
"I wanted to thank you."
Dunne frowned..."Huh? "
Chris stifled a smirk, "If it hadn't have been for your call o' nature...we might be several good men down." With a touch to his hat, Chris rose and went back to saddling the horses, Nathan instantly taking his place.
"Let me take a look, JD...see what ya got there."
Despite a raging headache and constant dizziness, JD couldn't help feeling a little better.
It was only a short time into their continued journey when it became obvious JD was struggling to ride, the heat and dust adding to his discomfort. Buck dropped back to speak to Chris and was quickly joined by Vin. The tracker spoke.
"There's a small town 'bout an hour's ride from here, we could stop there fer JD to rest up."
Buck smiled gratefully, Chris nodded.
"Let's do it then. Tell the others we have a change of plan." His attention was instantly drawn to the little bay ahead of him as Buck surged his horse forward and arrived at JD's side just in time to stop the boy from toppling sideways.
In one movement, Buck caught the falling body, tugging JD out of his stirrups and settling him in front of himself, Nathan assisting then taking the reins of JD's horse.
"Hush boy, just lean into me and relax. We're heading for a little town up yonder to rest up. Come on...lean back."
Grateful for the support, JD did just that, at last giving in to the blackness that had been calling him for too long. Buck was already feeling the heat from the hot and clammy body now leaning into him, preventing any chance of a breeze cooling him any time soon. Chris and Nathan drew alongside, and stayed there until they arrived in the small backwater town of Little Ridge.
The arrival of such a large group stirred some interest in the few townspeople that were around, but after a good look-see they went about their business as if seven men arriving in town was a regular occurrence.
Nathan looked around, casting a glance to an unconscious JD then at the others.
"Not likely there's a doctor here."
"Not likely there is much of anything here," Ezra sighed, rallying slightly on spotting the saloon.
Vin was already off his horse and scouting the area. "Just need food and a place fer the kid ta rest, Ezra...won't be here long." With a quick nod to Vin, Larabee wandered over to the saloon.
Buck maneuvered to whisper in JD's ear, "Ya with us, kid?" A soft groan and slight movement brought a small grin to the brunet's lips. "I guess I'll take that as a yes." He looked toward Josiah who was off his horse and next to the pair in seconds, his arms raised toward them.
"Hand him down, Buck, you won't be getting off your horse anytime soon with him resting against you."
Grateful for the assistance, Wilmington shifted on the gray's rump to get a better grip on the boy then gently lowered him, jumping down almost as soon as his injured friend was on the ground.
Chris was returning from the saloon.
"All they got here is one room...pretty big, should see us through tonight."
Buck looked up from unsuccessfully attempting to wrangle one of JD's arms around his neck to take the strain from Josiah.
"Sounds good, stud; won't be the first time we've had to get a little up close and personal ta get some rest."
Chris snorted, "Speak fer yerself, Buck. Okay...let's get the horses seen to and our gear stowed in the room. Nathan, you go with Buck and Josiah and concentrate on tending to JD, Vin...take a look around,"
The Texan nodded and took his horse over to the livery, Chris hadn't needed to say any more, Tanner knew what the blond expected of him.
"Ezra," Larabee looked at the gambler, "Help me with the horses."
Slipping gracefully from his mount, Standish gave a touch to his hat, "My pleasure."
Chris looked sideways at him, he was pretty sure the remark had been sarcastic, but his need to get organized outweighed his desire to shoot him a glare just then. Ezra grinned, enjoying getting a rise from the seasoned gunslinger. He felt it his duty to achieve it at least once a day. Larabee took one last glance toward Buck, JD and Josiah, shaking his head at the exchanges.
"Will ya just stop whining and accept ya need help...there...ya see now... does nearly falling flat on yer face make ya feel more of a man?" Buck was still attempting to pull the youth's arm around his own neck.
Chris chuckled to himself, only Buck could show someone how much he cared by making him feel about five inches tall. The blond gathered up the remaining reins and followed the southerner into the tiny livery.
JD felt himself sliding down off the horse, only to be once more gathered into strong arms. He blinked his eyes open, squeezing them shut momentarily as the light pierced through his semi- consciousness. He was aware of Buck trying to pull his arm and grip his waist.
"Dang it, Buck," he mumbled, "I'm fine...", instantly regretting his words as he stumbled, almost going to the ground, only to be hauled back up partly by Josiah but mostly by a now exasperated Buck in full scold. Now it was Josiah's turn to chuckle to himself.
"S...sorry, Buck...just don't want to be no bother."
Buck's frustration instantly melted, "Hell, kid...you ain't no bother. Now just relax and let me an' ol' Josiah here take the strain."
Yep...kid could play him like a fiddle.
"Less of the 'old', if you please, Bucklin," Josiah reminded.
"My apologies, preacher."
"Could we move this along, d'ya think?" Nathan chided.
"Easy for you to say," Buck grunted as they started to climb the stairs inside the saloon, "All you got ta carry is your bag."
"Brothers...do you think we could concentrate on the job at hand for a moment? Our youngest is wilting as we speak here."
Nathan came around the three of them and opened the door to the room Chris had rented. It was indeed a good size, with one bed. Nathan instantly pushed the bed up against the wall before Sanchez and Wilmington deposited the youth onto it. There was now ample room for six bedrolls, well, almost.
JD sighed as his back hit the bed. His head was pounding and being upright was not helping. In no time, he'd been stripped of his hat, coat, boots and waistcoat. He suddenly felt cold, which Buck had clearly noticed as a blanket was draped over his tired form. JD drifted off to thoughts as to why a bang on the head could be so exhausting.
The brunet watched as Nathan sat on the bed close to JD's chest and began re-examining the head wound, aided considerably by a very still youth. Nathan looked up at him.
"Don't fret, Buck, it's been a long ride and this is a nasty bump, but he's talkin' to us and conscious on and off, so he should be fine after a good rest."
Josiah slapped Buck on the back, "I'll go see if Chris needs a hand." As Sanchez stepped out, feminine giggles could be heard from the next room on the landing, causing him to smile as he passed by and start thinking about whiskey.
Taking seats at a large table, two of the seven were deep in thought. Chris and Vin had both seen something that concerned them, as each of the men had scouted the area thoroughly before eventually stepping into the saloon. The blond looked at the tracker.
"It was the horse, in the livery, wasn't it?"
Vin nodded, "I know it's familiar, I just can't think who."
Chris agreed, "Guess whoever it is could be staying here, too...looks like the horse has done some traveling recently."
They eased into a comfortable silence, each man knowing they would need to be vigilant. Sanchez joined them, then Standish, bringing with them a bottle of whiskey and extra glasses. Acknowledging the offered drink, Larabee asked Josiah how JD was.
"A mite sore and tired, but our healing brother is confident he'll be fine to ride soon. Our resident 'mother hen', however, is not so confident."
"Sounds about right," Chris stated. "We ordered some food. Is Buck joining us?"
"I can't see him leaving JD alone. When the food arrives, I'll take some up and ask him and Nathan what they'd like to do." Josiah offered.
"May I ask what it is you're looking for, Mister Tanner?" Ezra inquired, noting that, while Vin hardly moved, his eyes were everywhere.
"Saw a horse stabled in the livery, can't quite place why but I feel like I should know him."
Ezra nodded, "The rather attractive roan, I saw it too and I concur, it is familiar."
"There is someone actually in the room next to ours right now," Josiah informed, smiling as Nathan joined them.
The medic poured himself a whiskey, "Yep and it sounds like he's sure getting his money's worth in there; it's making Buck a mite fidgety."
The men laughed as they cleared a space for the arriving food. Josiah, immediately put up a plate for Buck and JD, starting slightly as Vin thumped his elevated feet to the floor and sat forward.
"JD asleep when you left, Nathan?"
The healer nodded, "Yep, guess he'll sleep for a while yet. Why?"
Vin pointed to the plate in Josiah's hand. "Mind if I take that up to Bucklin?"
Handing it over, Josiah nodded. "By all means... I'm sure Buck will be grateful for the company."
As Vin stood to leave, he looked toward Larabee, causing the hairs on the back of the gunslinger's neck to stand on end. Chris nodded; Vin had figured it out. What worried him was the now feral look in Tanner's eyes. Chris had no doubt they would soon know.
Buck watched the rise and fall of his young friend's chest. The boy was clearly comfortable, in no immediate danger, yet here Buck was, sitting in a semi-darkened room, watching a kid sleep and ignoring his growing discomfort at the sounds coming from the adjacent room.
And he was hungry, and could sure go for a beer right about now. His decision to leave was fleeting as JD shifted slightly and let out a soft moan. Nah...he could wait.
Vin tapped on the door and entered without an acknowledgement. Buck's eyes lit up on seeing the plate of food and the whiskey bottle in the tracker's hands, taking them eagerly and swigging back a mouthful of the amber liquid. He was on his third visit to the plate when he noticed Tanner pressing his ear against the wall to the next room.
"Y'know, Vin," he mumbled through his mouthful, "They're making enough noise to just sit back and listen, if you know what I mean."
Vin shook his head, "I was wonderin' if I know him, or at least his horse. The fella I'm lookin' for ain't anywhere downstairs, got ta thinkin' he might be stayin' in one o' these here rooms."
Buck sat upright, glancing toward JD then back at Tanner. "Trouble?" The brunet was a little shocked at the expression on Tanner's face.
"If it's who I think it is...he's just risen from the dead."
The atmosphere around the table in the saloon had changed dramatically. They were getting to know their leader pretty well now, and each man could sense something was brewing.
"Am I to understand Mister Tanner has recalled the owner of the roan?"
Larabee glanced at Ezra, pursing his lips, "I figure we'll soon know."
A noise, muted angry voices, and a woman's scream, drew the four men's attention and they instantly rose to join their friends upstairs, pushing back against the hand rail of the stairs as a hysterical, naked woman swathed in bed linen pushed past them and into a downstairs backroom. On passing the room next to theirs, they all slid to a halt and backed up to look in, visibly paling to see who Buck had in a rather vicious hold on the bed, Vin hovering over them. Chris stepped forward, his face emulating the expressions on Buck and Vin's features.
"Still sleepin'," Buck grunted as he tightened his arm lock.
Chris stepped toward the bed and examined the man's face, "Good, 'cause this could take some time."
On hearing the couple in the next room settle down, Tanner was moving to the door. Buck jumped to his feet to join him.
"Buck, if I'm wrong, we apologize and move on, if I'm right...you're gonna want a piece of 'im."
Trying to quell the nerves now turning his gut, the brunet nodded. "Let's do it."
The tracker tapped on the room door.
"Go the hell away!" a man's voice called out. The familiarity struck them both harder than a charging buffalo and taking one step back, Wilmington kicked at the door, splintering it at the frame. The woman in the bed screamed and jumped out of bed, snatching at the sheets to cover her modesty. The men were oblivious to a naked woman standing before them, their full attention on the man lying next to her. As she ran out, the Texan pulled the man over onto his stomach while Buck grabbed at the guy's hair and pulled his head back, forcing his right arm up his back
"I'm gonna take you apart piece by piece, you bastard."
Before Vin could add to the threat, the other peacemakers joined them, as JD slept on in the next room oblivious to it all, which, for now, was a pure blessing.
Chris nodded for Josiah to close the door and for Buck and Vin to ease up. He picked up the man's britches and shirt and angrily threw them at him.
"Get these on."
Staring wide-eyed at six furious peacekeepers, he decided it was best to do as he was told. "Wh...where's JD?"
Wilmington grabbed at the man's hair again, twisting his fingers until he heard a small yelp.
"Don't you even dare speak his name; you ain't earned the right."
Chris' admonishment was short, but delivered with enough sincerity for the brunet to release his hold.
"He's my son...and no matter what you think of me, you can't change that fact."
Larabee stepped in, glaring as only he could. "Johnson... you gave up that privilege when you sent letters through a lawyer to say you had died. That kid grieved for you...grieved for a man he barely knew, yet had walked into his life uninvited and turned his world upside-down. We put up with your shit twice...the kid's happy and settled...git your things together and leave, or I might feel obliged to let these five men show their affection for you."
Daniel Johnson ignored the shuffle of the men around him and returned the glare.
"I did what I believed was right. I almost got him killed because of my lifestyle, and it hurt me...I wasn't expecting it to hurt," he admitted softly. His eyes scanned the men as he said, "He'll have money and the memory that someone out there did once care for him and his mama, that's more than some get."
The blond pulled Johnson to his feet and fisted his open shirt. "Right for you, maybe, it sure as hell didn't feel right for any of us, and sure not for JD. You're a lowlife, Johnson; you see yourself as all noble because you think you did right by him...well maybe it started that way, but you've shown your true colors. We agreed to take JD on for you once, ain't none of us going back on our word, so get the hell away before I do something I won't regret."
Johnson wilted slightly, sighing.
"Ya got me all wrong, but I can see why you'd think like that. I'll do whatever you say, I don't want no trouble, and I sure as hell don't want to hurt the kid again. Give me an hour."
"We'll give you half that and you'll be grateful." Sanchez said, growling.
Buck and Vin had barely been able to keep their tempers. Buck had picked the kid up after Johnson's apparent demise while Vin had been the first one with JD when bounty hunters had shot the boy to get to his father, risking his own freedom to protect a friend. Despite hearing Johnson say he was leaving, it somehow didn't feel as good as it should have.
A crash of glass and a thud from the room next door got Buck moving and out of the room in seconds, followed by Nathan. Johnson watched them leave, only one person could make Wilmington move like that...his heart lurched...his boy was right next door.
As Buck pushed open the door, he saw JD sitting on the floor looking more than a little disoriented and surrounded by glass and spilled water. Buck was at his side in seconds and crouching down to speak to him.
"Are you hurt?"
JD blinked. "No...no, I'm fine." He looked down at the mess. "I'm sorry... I thought I heard shouting, but when I woke up...it was just me here. I guess I must have been dreaming...I...I was thirsty so I reached for a drink but I must have still been half-asleep, I fell out of bed and pulled it all down with me...sorry Buck."
The brunet grinned and squeezed his friend's arm affectionately.
"Don't matter, none. Here. Let me help you back to bed and I'll get this all cleaned up in no time."
Buck helped JD back onto the bed as Nathan handed over a canteen from their gear. The boy drank greedily, grimacing slightly at the tepid water. Nathan slowed him down.
"Easy, boy...small sips, d'ya hear? No gulping or we'll have more than water ta clean up."
JD nodded but carried on drinking, sipping this time.
"So..." JD continued, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, "...was there shouting, or was I dreaming?"
Buck hated to lie, but, for now, could see no other way to protect this young man who was as a brother to him. He bent down to clear the floor of debris and water.
"I guess you were dreaming, kid. Who'd ya think ya heard?"
JD's huge hazel eyes looked deep into Wilmington's, causing the brunet to shudder slightly, it was almost as if the easterner was searching his soul...then Buck shook it off...'get a grip, ya fool'.
"That's the odd thing...it sounded like Chris," Dunne remembered, "But the other voice...it was familiar but...I can't place it."
Nathan and Buck exchanged looks, as Wilmington rose from the floor with the broken glass and soaked rags.
"Well, don't be straining your head too much," Nathan warned, "Looks like your mind is finally clearing."
JD nodded, "Yeah, it don't hurt hardly at all now." He grinned sheepishly as his stomach rumbled, "Guess I'm a little hungry, too." He looked at Buck as the brunet approached him.
"Well, let us go get ya some food and then we'll see about you getting' some fresh air. Whaddya say?"
"Sounds like a plan, fellas, thanks."
Nathan nodded to them both, indicating he would do the honors, and left the room. Buck sat in the chair next to the bed.
"That don't mean you can get up yet, runt...lie back 'til Nathan brings you something ta eat."
"Ya want fer me to go get Chris?"
JD pouted, "No...alright, see? I'm lying on the bed."
Wilmington just snickered and placed his feet up on the bed as he relaxed back in the chair.
"That's my boy."
Daniel Johnson had dressed quickly many times in his life, for various reasons, but this was one time he was torn.
On one hand, he was being 'supervised' by four very angry men, knowing at least one more was close by and more than willing to rip his head off. On the other...he had a son...a truth he'd been fighting with for some months now. He was more than sure he didn't want this boy traveling with him, which was why he decided to proclaim his death; to know without a doubt, the youth would no longer be tempted to come looking for him. And yet, how many times had he found himself close to Four Corners, when he should have been on the other side of the country by now?
Hell, he'd even managed to catch a glimpse of JD and some of the others out riding once, content to watch from a distance, to see his son was happy. He glanced at the wall; JD was just beyond that wall.
"Don't even go there," Larabee's voice hissed menacingly.
"I'm ready." Johnson announced, picking up his saddle bags. With a nod from Chris, Vin opened the door and peered out into the corridor. Giving the 'all clear', five men moved out of the room, down the stairs and into the street, not stopping until they reached the livery.
As Johnson was about to ride out, Larabee stepped forward and looked up at him.
"I'd say 'good luck', but personally, the only thing I would consider good luck where you're concerned is if someone would oblige us and blow your dang brains out. If any one of us sees or hears from you again, we'll shoot first and not ask questions later...you have a price on your head, something I've chosen to overlook, so far, but no longer. Now go."
Wheeling his horse around, Johnson pulled out, not looking back once. Chris absently wiped his hands on his jeans as if removing dirt. He looked at the sky, it would be dark in a few hours, then several hours after that they'd be heading back to Four Corners, he suddenly found that idea appealing.
Just before heading for bed, six of the peacekeepers were enjoying a final drink.
"We'll have ta tell him, won't we?" Buck sighed.
Chris closed his eyes for a moment and nodded. "Yep, I reckon so...us keeping quiet last time almost got him killed, 'sides kid deserves to know the truth, to know what a low-life his father really is, no matter how much it hurts."
They all agreed, but none of them were happy at the thought of their high-spirited young friend being hurt again.
JD looked around at his fiends' tired faces as they sat quietly in their room, preparing to settle for the night. Each man seemed tense, yet he had no idea why. His mind worked overtime as he got to thinking maybe they were angry with him for being weak and having to rest. Chris caught his crestfallen expression.
"You okay, kid?"
The men looked toward Chris then JD, noting the youth's lowered head.
"I'm real sorry, fellas."
Buck grunted to his feet and sat next to his friend on the bed. "Sorry for what?"
JD glanced at Chris. "I didn't mean to hold you up. It's my fault we're not closer to home now...I know this job for the Judge is real important and time is tight...I'm sorry."
The six peacekeepers glanced awkwardly at each other; Chris stood and made his way over the bedrolls to JD.
"Kid, our long faces ain't down to you. We're just all a mite trail weary." He waited for JD's chin to tilt up to meet his eyes.
"We expected trouble, son, There are men who would kill us to stop the land deed we're carrying from getting into the Judge's hands. The new railroad they're proposing is big business, and big money to some people, but we can't have them taking away water rights from honest settlers, can we?"
Dunne shook his head. The blond smiled.
"I'm sorry ya got hurt, kid...but at least none of us got killed. I have no doubt there are more men out there, between here and Four Corners. We needed each of us fit to see this through. I believe you're ready to help us finish this...do you?"
JD's eyes lit up.
"Yessir, I do."
The others smiled as they felt their mood lighten.
"Well, alright then...let's get to restin' up; we got an early start and a long ride tomorrow."
With nods and mumbles, the seven men settled down for the night, mentally preparing for the day ahead.
Johnson slumped wearily into a chair, nursing a whiskey bottle. He glanced around; this town was smaller than the last one he was in and a hell of a lot more dreary. Apart from a group of men to his right, the saloon was empty. He uncorked the bottle and poured himself a shot, twisting the glass with his fingers for a good minute before knocking back the cheap fiery liquid.
His mind was back in Little Ridge. He had been so close to seeing JD yet had ended up being driven away without a chance to look at him, let alone speak to him. At first, he had been angry as he rode away... promising himself he would go back, even if he had to shoot Larabee and Wilmington and anyone else who stood in his way to do it. Then he had come to his senses, these men were doing the very thing he had asked of them and by now, they would have told JD he was still alive. There was no way his boy would forgive him for that. Daniel took another shot and sighed. He had made his decision and clearly fate was ensuring he stuck to his plan, so he sat back with another shot and scanned the room, this was his life now, and the first thing he was going to do after he'd finished his whiskey was get out of this God-forsaken town. Five minutes later, the conversation on the table next to him changed the course of his life...forever.
Still two days from Four Corners, night was drawing in and Chris had given the signal to make camp. They had ridden hard and JD had coped well, but now had gone quiet, clearly tired from the activities of the day and his previous injury. Larabee smiled to himself...he was actually missing the easterner's usual noisy chatter.
The blond looked around his weary men...such good men. He rarely showed it, but he cared for them all deeply. Taking up with them had been his salvation. A ramshackle little family had been created and he found himself deeply comforted by that. He looked at JD and sighed. Tonight he would have to break this boy's heart, again, and tell him about Johnson. He was not looking forward to it, but at least there were five other men with him to carry the burden and ease the youth's pain.
"D'ya wanna hand there, boy?"
JD looked at Buck, "Naw, I'm good. You want for me to take your horse over to the tether?"
"Yeah, go ahead, I'll help set up camp."
JD made the same offer to the others and settled the horses for the night as a fire was built, bedrolls laid out and food prepared. Absorbed in his task, it wasn't until Nathan called to him that JD had realized the rest of his friends were now sitting around the fire, eating. After a while of sitting in near-silence, JD couldn't contain himself any longer.
"Did I miss something?"
Buck looked at him, "Why d'ya say that?"
"'Coz you're all acting like someone died, and seeing as we're all here, I figured that can't be it, so...what is it?"
He knew he was on to something when he saw the exchange of looks. His heart thumped in his chest but before he could speak again, Chris was squatting in front of him.
"We made a mistake once of keeping something important from you, and promised that would never happen again. JD, what I'm about to tell you is not gonna be easy ta hear, but we have to say it. Back in town, you thought you heard a familiar voice along with mine?"
Dunne nodded, Chris swallowed, aware Buck was moving closer.
"It...it was your father."
JD just stared at him, almost as if he was waiting for another explanation. Eventually, Larabee spoke again.
"Did you hear me, son? Your father...is alive and was in that town we just left, well, he was at first, he left before we did."
Buck's heart ached to see the emotions wash over his friend's face. At first, the youth almost whispered his response.
"He...he's not dead? But...but...I don't understand...the letters, he...he...."
JD's breathing quickened as he grasped what had just been said. The man who had claimed to be his father...had come searching for him to tell him just that...only to one day have a lawyer contact them with news of his death...was...alive ?
Suddenly, JD jumped to his feet with each man's eyes following him up. He stared at Chris, brows deeply furrowed.
"HE'S NOT DEAD?"
The youth paced, pushing his fingers through his hair and looking to each of his friends, eventually once more resting on Chris.
"How? Why? Why would he do something like that?"
Chris stood to face him, "I don't know, except, I think, to try and protect you..."
"Protect me?" JD interrupted, "How can tearing my heart out protect me?" He paced some more, his voice dropping, "Didn't he want to see me?"
Buck answered, "We suggested he leave, JD; the man's a waste of air, he got no right to see you and hurt you again."
JD glared at his friend, "Don't you think that was for me to decide?"
"Boy, I saw how you were after you got that letter; we all did. We didn't want to put you through that again."
"And this here, now...this isn't 'putting me through it?'" He absently pushed his hand through his hair once more, letting it linger there. "I got ta get me some air." He strode off.
"Stay the hell away from me, Buck," he called back.
Chris wrapped slender fingers around the anxious brunet's wrist. "Give him a minute."
The easterner walked until he rounded a large rock, leaning heavily back against it, his eyes closed, as he tried to clear his mind. He felt miserable and confused and truly wished he had never heard the name Daniel Johnson.
A twig snap, caused his anger to flare and he was just about to yell at Buck for following him when a stranger grinned back at him then punched him hard in the face. JD staggered then recovered slightly, launching himself at his assailant, but the man was prepared and used his rifle butt to strike out at the side of the boy's jaw, knocking him almost senseless.
Vin's head jerked and the tracker jumped to his feet, instantly alerting the others, causing them to do the same, their hands going to their guns but stopping on hearing the sound of guns arming.
"You boys are gettin' sloppy...you made this way too easy."
The man looked at Larabee, smiling as he saw the gunslinger prepare to draw.
"Not a good move if you care at all for your men."
Six hearts sank as a bloodied and semi-conscious youth was dragged before them and thrown face down in the dirt. His assailant cocked his gun and aimed it close to JD's head.
"NO...no...it's alright, see, we're putting our guns down," Buck assured, never taking his eyes from the boy in the dirt as he tossed his gun on the ground.
Larabee hissed, "Laying a hand on him was the dumbest move you ever made."
Before there was a response, a series of shots rang out and several of the men now surrounding the Seven dropped to the ground. Vin and Nathan immediately took up the slack with a knife each, their aim true and each taking out another man, while Ezra's derringer activated and put a bullet between the eyes of the man holding a gun to JD.
As six lawmen recovered, Daniel Johnson stepped out of the shadows.
"I hope you'll at least be happier to see me this time."
As Buck hovered and Nathan bathed JD's face a distance away, Johnson filled the others in to what he'd heard in the last town he had stopped in.
"This is just the first group, there's a whole lot more hot on my heels and maybe even a few ahead of ya. Whatever it is you're carrying...they want it bad."
Chris clenched his teeth and walked over to see how JD was doing, pleased to see the youth sitting up as he held a cloth to his face.
JD looked guiltily first to Buck then to Larabee. "Sorry, Chris, when I heard a noise I thought it was Buck."
"Not your fault, we were all caught off guard. This thing with your father's got us all turned around, but we'll be more prepared now. Are you gonna be okay to continue?"
Dunne nodded, instantly regretting the move but keeping it to himself. "Sure thing, Chris."
Larabee patted him on the arm as he gestured with his head for Buck and Nathan to join him. "Good man."
Back with the others, it was all business. Larabee took control.
"You're absolutely sure there are others on their way?"
Johnson nodded, "Definitely, I knew one group had left, and I saw the others preparing to leave. I left just ahead of 'em."
Chris turned to Vin. "I need you to scout ahead and find us a good place to make our stand."
Tanner nodded and left.
"Buck, I need all of us for this, but those papers have to get to the Judge. I have an idea, but you're not gonna like it. Johnson, you in or out?"
Daniel straightened, elated to hear the words. "In, if you'll have me."
Larabee nodded to Johnson then called to the young sheriff. "JD, come here, son."
Dunne approached Chris and the rest of the peacemakers, not making eye contact with his father. "Yes, Chris?"
"JD, I have a very important job for you. I want you to go on to Four Corners without us."
JD started to protest, as did Buck; the other lawmen were stunned. Chris held up his hand.
"These papers have to get to the Judge in three days, we're two days out. I want you and Daniel to get home and deliver them into the Judge's hands in time. It's a huge responsibility; can you do it for us?"
JD gulped, swelling with pride and apprehension all at once but answering instantly.
Chris smiled, "Good, go get ready, come sunup you can leave." He watched with pride as the battered youth went off to prepare for his journey. Larabee stepped toward Johnson.
"I'm entrusting you with his life...don't let me down."
Ignoring the glares from the remaining men, Johnson stared Larabee down. "I could have walked away from that town, knowing you could all be dead by morning. I didn't come all this way to let you or John down now."
Chris nodded, "Alright, let's do this."
Buck and Johnson exchanged looks. "For what it's worth, Buck, you have my word, I'll protect him with my life."
The brunet scowled, "See that you do."
The peacekeepers and Daniel Johnson had re-located to higher ground. So far luck was with them as no more men had tried to waylay them.
Once JD was ready, he mounted and walked his horse to Chris. The gunslinger held up a saddle bag to him.
"The deed's in here, you have enough time to get back to town, but there's no tellin' what you're gonna meet up ahead." Chris stared up at the boy before him, a boy maturing before his eyes. He couldn't be more proud of him than at this moment, but he couldn't afford to tell him that right now, he needed to keep JD focused.
"Watch your back, kid, and don't stop except to make camp, or unless you have to rest the horses. We'll buy you as much time as we can here. JD...you can do this."
JD took the saddlebag, "I won't let you down Chris."
The gunslinger nodded and turned away. "I know, son," he whispered to himself.
One by one, five men approached the young sheriff.
"God's speed, son." Josiah.
"May you reach your destination safely and uninjured, Mister Dunne." Ezra.
"Don't be takin' no chances, y'hear?" Nathan.
Tanner approached. "Here." He handed the boy a knife, JD frowned and looked from the knife to the man who had given it to him.
"Keep it in yer boot, yer never know when ya might need it."
JD smiled, "Thanks Vin, I will, I promise."
Buck almost couldn't wait for Vin to move away.
"Now you watch yer back, ya hear?"
"I hear ya Buck."
"And no fancy shootouts, right?"
"And you do as yer pa says."
"Are you listenin' to me, boy?"
JD sighed, "Yes, I'm listening, can I go now?"
Buck looked into JD's eyes, a silent message passing between them. He squeezed the boy's knee. JD nodded.
"You be careful too, Buck, okay?"
"Always am, kid." The ladies' man reluctantly released his young friend's knee and stepped back toward the others. Chris was standing next to Daniel.
"It may get rough."
"I know it, Chris. You have my word...with my life."
With a nod of understanding, Larabee joined the others as they watched the two men ride out of camp.
"See ya in town, fellas." JD called back as he gave them one last look. Each man knowing exactly what the youth meant...'please don't get killed.'
Johnson touched his hat to the six men and, in moments, they were gone.
After a few seconds of staring after them, Chris snapped into action.
"Right, let's head these bastards off."
"Mister Larabee, Chris..."
All eyes turned to the southerner. "What if Johnson was hired by the very men set on acquiring this deed and this was all a mere ploy to remove us from the situation to make it easier to abscond with?"
Buck swallowed and looked back to where the two had just ridden off.
"I already thought of that," Chris stated, "And he assures me it's not the case. If I find out he lied..." Chris gave his infamous glare, "...ain't no place on this earth he can hide from me."
The others nodded a silent agreement that he would not be alone in his search should it come to that.
"Here they come."
Vin's words were softly spoken but there was no mistaking the urgency.
"How many?" Chris asked.
"Would twenty scare ya?"
Larabee groaned, "This had better not be the same as Tastanagi's version of twenty."
Vin grinned, "Naw...just twenty."
The six men fanned out on the outcrops to wait until their pursuers got closer. This would probably be a bloody battle, but they were more than ready for it.
After half a day of hard riding, JD and Daniel came across a watering hole and decided to stop and let their horses rest for a while. As the horses grazed, JD wiped his brow and sat against a rock as he drank greedily from his canteen.
"Don't go makin' yerself sick, son, we got a fair ways to go yet."
If Johnson had any doubts about his son bearing him any ill will, they were instantly banished with the withering look JD sent his way. The man tried again.
"I reckon we still got about four hours of ridin' before we need to make camp."
Dunne looked up at the sky and nodded, "Yeah, sounds about right."
Daniel turned his back on JD to hide the small smile on his face. It had only been a small reply, but it was still worthy of the title 'conversation' . He decided not to push his luck too early.
"Whenever you're ready then," he called over his shoulder and made his way to the horses.
JD looked at the man. There was so much he wanted to say...no...shout at this man...but this was not the right time. He hadn't expected Johnson to come looking for him and yet not only had he made himself known to the boy, the man had involved his friends in a deception that caused them to lie to JD initially. Then Johnson had lied to them all about his own death, only to re-surface and offer to help them, with promises of protecting JD with his own life.
The easterner was angry, he didn't need any help, he could do this alone, but Chris had insisted, and if Larabee trusted Johnson, who was JD to argue. He rose and walked toward his horse. The boy vowed to himself that when they got to town he would knock this man clean on his ass and tell him exactly what he thought of him.
The two mounted in silence and rode on to meet the Judge.
The gun battle had been raging for some time. The peacekeepers had brought along a considerable amount of ammunition with them...it looked as though they were going to need it.
Vin and Buck were firing rifles and were getting in some good shots. Ezra hissed as a sharp pain in his left arm caused him to recoil slightly but he quickly recovered and continued firing. Nathan caught the movement.
"I am perfectly fine, thank you, Mister Jackson. Should that change, I will inform you directly."
Satisfied with the exchange, Larabee ignored it for now. Unless his men were screaming in agony or worse, unconscious, they had no option but to keep going. Despite knowing they had taken several men out, the gunfire had in no way diminished. Chris found himself hoping JD was having better luck.
After a while, the firing stopped and the six peacekeepers took the time to regroup and reload. Larabee took control.
"Nathan, check on Ezra. Is anyone else hit?"
'No' and shakes of heads greeted the question. Chris joined Vin at his position. "How d'ya reckon we're doin'?"
"Perty good, I reckon we took out about half a dozen or so and injured as many more. I'd be more concerned about any sneak attacks. We may have the higher ground but we might just miss someone sneakin' up here."
The gunslinger agreed and went back to the others, walking first to Nathan and Ezra, addressing the former. "How's he doin'?"
"It's not too bad, bullet took a piece outta his arm but he'll live." Nathan flashed a smile at his last words.
Ezra grinned, "Apparently I am still functioning as normal and therefore am able to continue, and indeed, why would I not want to? I can think of no better way to spend the day than being fired upon by miscreants that outnumber us three to one."
Larabee chuckled, "Yeah...he's okay." He noticed Josiah and Buck together and walked over to join them. Sanchez was staring kindly at the ladies' man, clearly something passing between them. It didn't take a genius to work out what.
"He's a good boy, Buck, and he's not alone...he'll be fine."
Josiah grinned at the insight their leader had for his men. With a slight nod, he backed away to allow Chris access.
"Fine...fine... not a word I wanted to hear where JD's concerned, stud."
Chris smiled and squeezed his friend's shoulder. "I know, pard, but I had to do it this way. We made the Judge an oath to see this through."
"At the risk of one or more of us dyin'? Does he think that little of us, Chris?"
"No---I'd say he believes in us that much, that he sees us carrying this through successfully. "
Buck stared at him for a few moments, then nodded and continued reloading. Chris squeezed the brunet's shoulder one more time.
"For what it's worth, I won't be happy until I see seven men standing shoulder to shoulder back in town." With that, Chris moved away. Buck stared after him.
"Me too stud...me too."
Gunfire sounded and the six men took their positions.
"Damnit, here we go again."
As JD saw to the horses, Daniel built them a fire and laid out their bedrolls. As the fire crackled into life and he stirred some beans ready to heat in a tin can, he watched his son effortlessly settling the animals, it was clear to him the boy was very comfortable around horses, which led him to thinking of the hardships his mother and he must have endured as he grew up fatherless.
Johnson's mind was in turmoil. His initial curiosity to find the son he never knew and get to know him had been weighed down by the bounty on his head and the sudden fear of not wanting responsibility for another life, especially one so young. He had seen how well the six lawmen had cared for JD, and how eager the boy was to watch their backs whilst also looking to them for guidance. When JD had been shot because of him, he had made a decision then and there that he would no longer put his son's life on the line for a stupid mistake he had made ten years ago and that the best way to do that was to disappear... forever.
So why had he constantly been drawn back to the area? It was almost as if he had wanted to be discovered. And now here they were, father and son, alone in the great outdoors for the first time ever...and not speaking.
How could he make this right?
JD walked over to his bedroll and sat down, grateful for the warmth of the fire as the cold night air seeped into his weary bones.
JD nodded, "Thanks." The young sheriff might not have wanted to speak to the man, but he knew his manners and didn't want to appear ungrateful.
The two ate in silence for some time, Johnson was aware of the glances being cast his way and finally took a chance.
He handed JD a tin mug of coffee. "John, can we talk?"
JD took the offered mug and looked at the man. 'Say no...tell him to go to hell...punch him in the face...' The youth sighed and turned sad eyes to the man.
"Is there really anything to say? You found me, you didn't like what you saw and you faked your own death to be rid of me, it's okay...I got the message."
Johnson caught a sob in his throat, 'my God', he thought, 'is that what he believes?' Every nerve in his body tingled and a feeling of compassion came over him like he had never experienced before. Before he had realized it, he had thrown down his mug, was on his feet and had swept the shocked youth into his arms, clinging to him as tears flowed.
"No...oh God no...that's not it at all...I loved what I saw, son, but it scared me half to death, and when you got shot...oh my boy...I'm so sorry."
JD struggled a little to escape from the man's fierce grasp... then he heard the words. All his life he had wanted to hear those words and just like that, all the pain and anger melted away and he found himself returning the embrace, fearing letting go might break the spell and this would all be a dream. His emotions came to the fore and all he could say as they clung to each other was...
Buck stared into the flames as he sipped at his coffee. They had decided to make camp as normal, it was no secret they were there and any attack would be better illuminated by the fire. No one would be sleeping this night, staying on their guard could be the difference between survival and...death.
The tall man was thinking of JD, wondering how the boy was doing and praying no more men were on the trail ahead ready to ambush him and his father.
All the men looked up as Vin moved, holding up his hand for silence. A few moments later he pointed to his left ahead of him. Everyone understood, carrying on as if nothing was wrong but each man pulling his weapon closer. Seconds later all hell broke loose as at least half a dozen men burst into the camp, each peacekeeper picking a target.
Buck was thoroughly enjoying punching someone, it was certainly helping ease his frustrations, Chris appeared to be of the same mind.
Ezra was struggling with one hand but as Josiah seemed to have taken on two adversaries, Nathan helped the gambler out.
Vin was pinned and his assailant was dangerously close to plunging a knife in him. With a flick of his wrist, Tanner had reached into his boot and in seconds plunged his own knife up into the man's abdomen. With a grunt, the attacker clasped the hilt of the knife as he fell dead to one side. Shakily Vin got up and checked to see if the man was dead. He retrieved his knife, wiping the blade on the man's clothing and replaced it in his boot. Looking around, he was satisfied the situation was under control. Any survivors had been tied to some trees, none had been allowed to flee the scene. Each of the six looked around, satisfied to see their friends still standing. Larabee walked over to the outcrop and called out, taking care to stay out of view.
"IT DIDN'T WORK...I SUGGEST YOU LEAVE OR HOWEVER MANY ARE LEFT WILL SUFFER THE SAME FATE AS YOUR FRIENDS HERE."
He looked at his companions. "If we're clear tomorrow morning...we head for Four Corners."
Johnson lay in his bedroll and watched his son sleep. He was amazed at the calming effect watching the youth's steady breathing and listening to the soft snores had on him.
Their earlier embrace had begun the healing process and Daniel had promised on their return to Four Corners they would do some serious talking. He knew now he wanted his son by his side, even if it meant settling down. He never wanted them to be apart again.
Some time later, JD stretched. It was still dark but the sun was definitely about to make an appearance. A cup of coffee was thrust under his nose and he smiled as he took it, thanking his father. Then he felt guilty.
"Sorry...I fell asleep." His gaze dropped to his hands as they grasped the mug for warmth.
Daniel chuckled. "Son, you've had a pretty rough ride as I see it, you should be resting, we have a hard ride today but we're gonna be in town by sun-up; hopefully your friends won't be far behind us."
The boy nodded and sighed. God, he missed his friends; he hoped they were okay.
Just as they were about to set off and were kicking the fire dead, a noise from the underbrush close by drew their attention but before they could act on it, two men pounced on them while a third hovered, holding a gun.
Johnson knew instantly he could better his assailant but he wrestled a little to get a view of the third man.
JD was struggling but determined. His attacker was bigger than him but for a while the young sheriff was besting him. With an almighty heave, the bigger man flipped JD over and onto his back and the youth realized there was a knife only inches from his face. Despite colossal efforts from the youth, the knife dropped lower, the hands on the knife shaking with the strain as one pushed for home and one pushed away. A sudden thrust and, as JD twisted slightly, the knife just missed his face but was now deeply embedded in his shoulder.
Johnson heard the agonized scream and tossed his assailant from him like a rag doll while drawing his gun and shooting the third man dead. He turned to ease JD's predicament when he saw the boy reach into his boot, withdraw a knife and plunge it upwards into the body above him. With a gurgling scream, the ambusher collapsed on top of JD and Daniel instantly moved to toss the body off his son. Assuming momentarily all three assailants were possibly dead or dying, Johnson helped a gasping JD to a sitting position while reassuring him, then remembering, sought out the first man he had thrown off, shooting just as that same man was aiming his gun at JD and his father. Hearing a sound from the man JD had stabbed, Johnson roughly pulled the man up and snarled in his face.
The man coughed.
"How many more?" Johnson shook the dying man.
As blood bubbled from his lips, he looked at Johnson and breathed out..."M...ore..." and then he was gone.
A quick scan of the area quelled any fears of an immediate attack so Daniel turned back to a young man who was clearly in pain. Leaning him back against a rock, he took his son's sweaty face in his hands and spoke.
"Son...listen. There may be more, you have to get out of here while I hold 'em off, but first I have to remove the knife and pack the wound as best I can. JD...can you still ride?"
Dunne nodded, his movements slow and exaggerated, "Y...yes...yes I can d... do this..." he breathed.
Johnson smiled, bursting with pride. "Good boy...okay, this is gonna hurt."
Larabee and his men were well on their way. They had set off at sunup and had been riding hard for a few hours, their assailants long gone after the failed attempt of the night before.
Vin was ahead, tracking the route taken by JD and Daniel. Six determined men rode doggedly, slowing occasionally to pick up the trail, set now on finding their youngest man and completing their assignment.
Johnson manhandled JD onto his bay and watched as the easterner got settled.
"It's gonna be tough, kid, but you can do this."
"Please, please don't stay."
Daniel smiled, "I'll be right behind you; I just want to make sure you get away. I promise...right behind you."
"Maybe I should stay, make a stand together."
Johnson was determined. "JD...go."
With a sad nod, JD picked up the reins, only to duck suddenly as a bullet whizzed over his head.
Johnson slapped the bay's rump and in seconds, horse and boy were racing away. Diving for cover, Daniel laid out his two guns and his rifle and in seconds he was firing on his unseen attackers.
JD looked back just for a moment as the gunfire echoed in the distance, then hunkered down to minimize the pain and rode as fast as was possible.
Johnson fired round after round, satisfied he was hitting bodies but unsure as to how many more were around him. An explosion of pain in his back halted him and as his rifle dropped to the ground, he turned, his surprised eyes falling on a man holding a smoking gun. He slid slowly to the ground.
The man stepped forward and fisted Daniel's shirt. "Where's yer partner?" On receiving no answer, he shook the injured man and yelled in his face.
"Where is he?"
Daniel smiled as he felt his body closing down.
As he finished speaking, Johnson removed a gun from his waistband and shot the man dead.
His eyes closed and he smiled weakly..."My...my son is...home."
By early evening, the six peacekeepers had arrived at the spot where Johnson and JD had camped. They immediately noticed several saddled horses tethered below the camp. Dismounting quickly and quietly, they cautiously approached the camp. Several bodies littered the ground around the site and the six peacekeepers moved quicker in fear for their comrade.
"Chris," Buck hissed and gestured to Johnson's saddled horse as it stood there nibbling at the bushes.
They all fanned out wondering now if JD's horse was there also. Buck's heart was pounding...were they too late? An "Aw hell" from behind a rock drew them all to where Vin was now standing over Daniel's prone form. Nathan took control and growled as he pulled the man forward to see the wound.
"Shot in the back." Larabee's words cut the air like a knife.
"He's still alive."
They all moved in closer at Nathan's words. Chris and Buck squatted next to the dying man.
"Johnson...can you hear me?"
Daniel's eyes fluttered and he squinted up at Chris.
Larabee nodded, "We did...Daniel...where' s JD?"
The man smiled, "H...h...home." He weakly placed his hand on the gunslinger's arm. "L...Larabee..."
Chris looked at him, his emotions threatening to break through his tough façade. He moved closer.
"S...such a brave...boy. Tell...tell him...I...I'm proud of him."
Finally saying the words he needed his son to hear, Johnson exhaled and passed away.
Visibly moved, Chris looked to Buck, then the others and reached out his hand to close the man's eyes.
"I will, Johnson...I will."
"Rider comin' in!"
Mary didn't know who called out, but her stomach flipped. Since the town's seven peacekeepers had been away, the town had been vulnerable. By some miracle, they had so far survived without incident but each time a call went out, she feared the worse.
As she peeked out from her office, she acknowledged her father-in- law who stepped out from the jail to acknowledge the call. Mary, now out on the boardwalk looked toward the rider as he got closer and was suddenly running.
As much as JD wanted to, he could not straighten up, opting instead to cling as he bent to his saddle horn. Halting his horse at the jail, he pulled the saddlebags from in front of him and handed them to Travis, who immediately opened them, grinning broadly as he took the land deeds in his hand.
"Well done, JD and in time, too. Where are the others, son?"
Unable to stay conscious any longer, the youth keeled over, only just being caught by a surprised Judge. Mary called out in shock.
"Oh, dear Lord."
Easing the young man to the ground, they saw for the first time the blood saturating his shirt and how his soaked hair clung to his face. Travis gestured to some men and ordered them to take JD to his hotel room.
An hour passed and Inez and Mary had cleaned up the wound and managed to get some water into the youth. As they were clearing up, Inez noticed glazed hazel eyes peeking through dark bangs. She smiled
"Ola chiquito, how are you feeling?"
The Mexican woman clutched JD's hand and sat next to him.
"You did well, JD. The Judge had the deeds in good time. Now you must rest."
"Are the others back yet?" he whispered.
She shook her head. "No...not yet."
JD closed his eyes and drifted off. The next time he awoke, it was morning and he felt thirsty, but a little stronger. Orin Travis smiled at him from a chair close to the bed.
"Welcome back, Mister Dunne. Good to see you awake. How are you?"
"I'm fine, Judge, thank you. Sir...are they back yet?"
Travis rose to offer JD a drink, which the youth accepted gratefully, shuffling into a sitting position with the Judge's assistance.
"I'm afraid not, son, but I'm sure they will be along shortly." He returned to the chair and observed JD fidgeting in the bed, the boy hissing at his every movement, his face glistening with sweat.
JD's heart was aching. He hated not knowing if his friends...his family, were alive and well. He felt dizzy and nauseous, but wouldn't let on to the judge. He wanted out of this room to see his friends home safely...even if it meant riding out to find them himself. Slowly, the boy began to ease himself to the edge of the bed. The Judge sat up, a little alarmed.
"Mister Dunne, may I ask as to why you're attempting to get up at this early stage of your recovery?"
JD grunted into a sitting position, his feet now resting on the floor and looked resolutely at the Judge. "I'm gonna go wait."
Travis rose, "Mister Dunne...JD, please, stay and rest..."
JD glared, grimacing as pain coursed through him with every movement as he gathered his clothes together.
"No...I'm gonna go wait for them and my pa."
The Judge looked shocked. "Your...your pa? JD, son, I really do think you need to rest, you're delirious, your father...son...your father died."
JD slowly and painfully pulled on his britches, wincing as the movement jostled his shoulder. Grateful for the fresh shirt that had been left for him, he struggled to get into it. He shook his head.
"No...no he's not...he was...hiding, and he came to help us. I had to leave him behind so's I could get the papers to you." He placed his foot in a boot and stamped it on, hoping Travis couldn't see he was shaking from the exertion.
"Now are ya gonna help me, here, or do I have to step outside half- dressed?"
The Judge moved toward JD and helped his young sheriff to dress; wincing right along with him as the boy moaned and hissed softly as each movement not only hurt, but clearly exhausted him.
As he buttoned JD's shirt, the judge looked at him. "Well, if you insist on doing this, at least allow me to escort you outside."
For the first time since he arrived home, JD offered a small smile.
"Thank you, sir,"
As they made their way to the street, the Judge couldn't stop thinking about what JD had told him about his father.
Six men felt their spirits lift as Four Corners came into view. Vin was buoyant. He knew the horse they had been tracking had made it home and as they hadn't seen any evidence of JD on the trail, he could only assume the youth had made it home, too.
Despite a desperate desire to gallop the last few miles, they stayed together, keeping a steady pace in deference to the man they were bringing home for the last time.
JD sat on the porch outside the jail, his shoulder strapped for support on Mary's insistence. He was exhausted but determined to remain there until his family came home.
On hearing the Judge's observation and a single clap of his hands, JD dragged himself from his chair and away from the shelter of the porch, blinking slightly at the bright sunshine that met him. Adjusting his strapped arm for comfort, he looked down the road, his smile broadening to see seven horses and six riders wearily approaching.
Despite his lack of energy, he jumped down from the boardwalk and jogged to meet them, Travis and Mary close behind.
As the peacekeepers entered the town, each man's mind was filled with the burning question as to whether their youngest had definitely made it home safely. Chris had begun to question his decision to make the land deed a priority over his men's lives, yet in his heart, he knew it held the key to security for many families if they succeeded in getting it to the judge on time.
Glancing at the wrapped body, draped over the riderless horse, he wondered what was worse, seeing the kid bouncing toward them full of hope and expectation or hearing he wasn't back yet. He had just concluded the former was considerably more satisfactory when the object of his pondering was heading toward them. He found himself relaxing, smiling even as the young man approached, and noted the other five men were doing likewise.
Buck relaxed momentarily, a huge grin spreading across his face as he saw the youth he considered a brother trotting toward them, his smile slipping slightly as he noticed the sling. He looked across at Nathan and visibly relaxed as he noted the healer was already mentally assessing it.
"Welcome back, gentlemen."
JD and the Judge called out their greeting together. Before Buck had realized, he was off his horse and in front of the young man, grinning at him. Instinctively, he pulled JD toward him, relieved when JD relaxed into the clinch with a chuckle.
"Are you alright, boy? How d'ya get hurt?"
"Aww I'm okay. Mary and Inez patched me up until Nathan got back. Are you all alright?"
He pulled back from Buck to scrutinize his friends' conditions.
"We're all good, kid," Tanner grinned.
"Vin, I did it, I used the knife ya gave me to hide in my boot. It saved my life, Vin, I swear it did."
Tanner nodded his approval, though concern showed in his eyes as he considered the implications of JD's words.
"Sounds like a good tale ta tell, kid." He smiled, the concern returning as the youth's open features betrayed him momentarily as fear washed over them.
"Yeah...sure. So, is everyone okay? Did you see my pa out there? He was holding off a whole bunch of 'em while I got the deeds back to the judge." JD was now searching beyond them for signs of another rider, his wide hazel eyes darting between the road beyond and his friends. Just as his attention was drawn to the horse with the body over it, Buck was beside him and Chris dismounted to stand just in front of him as Buck moved in closer to his injured shoulder.
Ezra, Nathan, Vin and Josiah all exchanged knowing looks, each man removing his hat as they saw Larabee brace himself to speak.
"JD, about your father..."
The easterner couldn't explain why, but it was becoming hard to breathe as a gnawing fear crept through his bones, causing his lip to tremble and his eyes to fill. His voice cracked as he spoke.
"Ya shoulda seen him...Chris...he...he was... magnificent. " JD watched his hero as the blond placed one hand on the wrapped body.
Chris sighed and looked the younger man in the eyes, "JD...son...I'm sorry..."
Buck was right next him, for the first time noticing the sheen to the youth's face. But JD was oblivious as he glanced around to each of his friends in search of a glimmer of hope, his body shaking and his chest heaving as he tried to control his emotions.
"No..." He looked at Chris, "No...oh God, no...not again...Chris?" As tears fell from his dark lashes, he knew, just looking into Larabee's eyes, he knew...his father was gone.
The sudden outburst caused the men to jump and the horses to startle.
JD lashed out at Chris' chest but there was no real strength behind it, "No...I should have stayed...I told him...I should have stayed."
The blond had instinctively pulled the distraught teenager toward him and the words JD sobbed were muffled as he pressed into his hero's chest, struggling initially, then slowly giving in to the grief.
Buck waited patiently. He knew Chris needed this moment. Johnson's last words had affected them all, Chris more so as he had come to almost forgive the man for all he had done to JD previously. Sensing the right time, Buck took the grief-stricken boy from their leader and, talking gently and soothingly to him, he helped JD to the clinic, closely followed by Nathan.
Unable to hold out any longer, the pain and grief overwhelmed the youth and he dropped unconscious. Not totally surprised, Buck and Nathan, joined by Josiah gathered the limp body up to continue on to the clinic.
Travis finally approached the remaining men, looking to the body and then to Chris.
"Such a tragedy...the lad's been worried about him, worrying that he'd had to leave him behind alone." The Judge sighed as he stared at the body. "He gave his life for his son and the good of others. A brave man indeed." The Judge touched Chris on the arm.
"JD's injury is quite bad, though not life-threatening, aggravated somewhat by his insistence on waiting outside for you all to come home. Don't judge him too harshly, Chris, he did exceptionally well to get home under the circumstances. "
Chris closed his eyes for a moment and nodded, acknowledging also the undertaker as he led the burdened horse away from them.
"Did everything go to plan with the land deed?" Chris asked.
The Judge smiled briefly. "It did, my gratitude to you all, you did me an excellent service. My only regrets are the hardships it put you through, and an unnecessary death. Gentlemen, I know it's not much, but I would be honored if I could stand you a round or two of drinks, at your convenience. "
He tipped his hat and smiled as he turned and headed down the street.
Larabee looked up at the clinic, then turned to the others. "Y'all go ahead, I'll catch up with you."
Nodding their understanding, Vin, Josiah and Ezra gathered up the horses and proceeded to the livery. Chris crossed the street and headed for Nathan's rooms.
When he arrived he could see Buck sitting in a chair, Nathan disposing of bloodied bandages and JD asleep in the bed. The healer offered an explanation.
"He's got a slight infection, nothing too serious. I gave him something to help him sleep."
Larabee nodded his approval, looking at Buck. "You staying?"
Wilmington nodded, "Yeah, reckon I'll stay a while. Maybe come over for a beer when he's settled." The brunet looked at his friend.
"Johnson made a choice, Chris, weren't nothing we coulda done ta stop him. I guess in the end, he really did care for JD."
Chris pursed his lips, "I just hope JD sees it that way."
Buck nodded, "He will...he's got us ta help him."
With a nod, Chris approached the bed and stared at his youngest peacekeeper.
"I'm truly sorry, son."
With a tip of his hat, he turned and left. He needed a drink.
Nathan looked at Buck.
"Go after him, Buck, JD's not going anywhere soon."
Buck shook his head, "Naw, I'm good, Nathan."
The healer sighed. "Buck, listen to me...JD's out of it, but in no time at all he'll be awake. Now we both know you could do with washing some o' that trail dirt outta your throat. If you go now, you'll be back in time for when he's awake, and he's gonna need you, Buck. You know I'm right."
The ladies' man stared at Jackson for some moments as he considered his words, then stood, placing a hand on his little brother's head as he gazed at him for a while. He sighed.
"Reckon I will...but I'll be back ta spot ya soon."
The healer nodded and watched the tall man leave as he settled himself into a chair, making one final check on his patient before he hunkered down to catch up with some sleep.
Buck leaned against the doorframe to the backroom of the undertaker's while he watched JD standing over his father's open coffin.
Buck's big heart was breaking; he was at a loss as to how to help the boy as for once, JD was keeping everything inside. He refused to talk about it or show any emotion since that day with Chris. The ladies' man smiled as he glanced toward the front of the store. The other five peacekeepers were standing on the boardwalk just outside, all genuinely concerned for the young man. Buck waited...if JD needed him... he was here.
JD shuddered at the marble-coldness of his father's face as his fingers traced the man's jaw line and across his brow. He wanted to memorize every feature because he had barely had time to get to know them before the man was lost to him again, and forever this time.
Daniel had died a noble death and JD wanted to be proud of him, he really did, but all he felt was anger. Anger at all the time lost when they could have been together. He had started to wish he had never met the man; nothing was worth feeling like this.
As he stood there, his anger turned to deep sorrow, evident to a watching ladies' man as JD looked down on the still form of a man he never really knew, yet could so easily have been his whole world. He hadn't realized he was shaking until Buck's hands were on his shoulders.
"C'mon, kid." Buck looked to the front of the store and caught Chris' eye, gesturing a direction with his head. He then led the youth out through the back and toward the church.
Once in the church, JD let go of his pain while six friends stood helplessly, enviously even as he released all his anguish. Buck stayed close until JD was spent, holding the boy close for a few moments.
"Y'okay there, kid?"
Without looking up, he nodded, embarrassed at his weakness and took a long time before he could finally look at his friends.
"Is it wrong?" he sobbed, "That despite knowing me and Daniel were related by blood...I feel closer to all of you?"
No one could hold back the smiles, as they each knew exactly what he meant.
Chris approached. "No, it's not. C'mon, let's go and put him to rest."
With that, the seven left the church and headed to the cemetery to say their last goodbyes to Daniel Johnson.
The ceremony was short but emotional as JD shivered his way through it, despite it being a hot, sunny day, flanked on all sides by Buck, Chris, Vin, Ezra and Nathan as Josiah carried out the service. JD had respectfully asked no one else attend, and the ladies of the town waited patiently for the seven men to return, a small selection of snack foods prepared in the saloon in case they were hungry.
Finally, they walked back to the saloon together...ready to face whatever may come their way...together...peacekeepers... friends ...brothers.