Characters: JD, Ezra
Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em but if I could they'd be on season 10 by now!
OW Alternate Universe - The Teacher
First story in this AU - Lessons In Life
Thanks as always to Phyllis for all her good advice and help.
My thanks also to my daughter Abbie for the wall.
And thank you to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home.
He had been fairly certain it was him, now he knew for sure. JD nudged his horse toward two men, one wearing a familiar red jacket, wondering who the stranger with Ezra was and was his southern friend okay? Standish noticed his companion's hand twitch toward his gun.
"No... he's the local schoolteacher... just a boy ...and a curious one at that. You have no need to be concerned, allow me to deal with him."
He called out. "Mister Dunne, to what do we owe the pleasure of your company on this fine day?"
As he got closer, JD frowned at the unfamiliar face, then looked at Ezra.
"Just out ridin', is all...is everything alright here, Ezra?"
Standish flashed his familiar grin. "Why, yes indeed. Where are my manners? JD...this is Eric Duggan, Mister Duggan, this is our resident schoolteacher, John Dunne."
JD touched his hat in acknowledgement to the man, Duggan stared impassively.
The boy eyed the stranger suspiciously. "You headin' back, Ezra? Should I wait up for you and we can head on in together?"
The southerner shifted in the saddle and shook his head. "No, I have a few errands to run. I will join you for a libation upon my return."
With a nod and a click of his tongue, JD wheeled his horse around and headed for town. Ezra watched him go, his stomach flipping as his anxiety kicked in.
"Friend of yours?" Duggan asked.
Ezra displayed his best poker face. "Lord, no...he's just a child, but he is well respected around town, it always pays to keep in touch with the more popular residents, they tend to be a veritable mine of information."
The man looked at Ezra. "I'll keep that in mind. We expect your help on this, Standish...You owe us...your mother's a bitch whore, and I will get my money back one way or another."
"I can make no assurances of my assistance; I am not one of Mister Larabee's confidantes, merely a subordinate."
Eric leaned forward. "I wasn't givin' you a choice, fancy man...I may not take out my frustrations on your mother...but I will take them out on someone...you, maybe..."
Ezra nodded. "I understand your grievance, and will comply as best I can," he lied.
"See that you do...'cause maybe I'll jest hafta take it out on say...that kid you reckon you hardly know." There was barely a flicker of emotion from the southerner, but it was enough for Duggan to know he had hit pay dirt.
JD jumped when hands clamped down on his shoulders as he unsaddled his horse in the livery.
"Buck!" He hadn't needed to look.
Buck chuckled then went all serious. "And what if it hadn't been me? What have I told you about lettin' your guard down? Not concentratin'... even for a few seconds...could cost you your life." He tilted his head as he rounded JD and eyed his young friend. "Now...what's gotten you all deep an' thoughtful?"
JD looked at the man before him. He had grown very fond of his six new friends, but particularly so of this man. He didn't like to keep secrets, but he wanted to talk to Ezra before he voiced any concerns he had about his encounter, while out riding. There was something about the man with Ezra that he didn't like.
"Aww nothin', just daydreamin' is all. So...you come to offer to buy me a drink?"
Buck smiled, "I guess that's a yes." The ladies' man helped his young friend tend to his horse, then the two stepped over to the saloon together, their banter light as they walked, the two men clearly at ease with each other.
In the dim light of the saloon, JD could see the rest of his friends gathered around a table...all except Ezra. As Buck approached the bar, JD took a seat, nodding to each man.
"Did you enjoy your ride, JD?" Josiah asked.
Dunne nodded, "Yeah, I did, thanks...it helps clear my head, y'know?"
Vin looked out from under his hat at the easterner and nodded. The Texan knew exactly what the boy meant.
"I'll take ya out to Rourke's Point one day...I reckon you'd like it there."
JD beamed at the tracker, the man was quiet, but he really liked Vin, JD always felt safe and at ease around the Texan. "Yeah, I'd like that, Vin, thanks."
Chris sat forward in his seat and leaned on the table. "JD...I'd prefer it if you didn't ride out alone. You're not familiar with the area."
JD was about to protest when he caught the look on Chris' face.
"Yes sir...it's just...I don't like to bother people."
"It's no bother, and I insist." With that, Larabee knocked back his drink and stood. "Anyone seen Ezra?"
Despite his best efforts, everyone saw the expression that crossed JD's face for a moment. Larabee looked at Tanner, then touched his hat to the others and an approaching Buck, and left.
"Have I made him mad?" JD asked the others as Buck handed him a glass of milk.
Buck grinned. "About you, ridin out without company? Naw...that's just Chris...all intense. He's right though, kid, you shouldn't be goin' out alone."
"You're not from around these parts, JD," Nathan added, "it's not safe territory. Any one of us'd be happy to take a ride out with ya."
JD nodded to them all, appreciating the gesture. He watched Vin stand.
"Got me a patrol." With a touch to his hat, he was gone.
"So..." Buck nudged his young friend, "...what was it got ya needin' to clear ya head?"
JD sipped his milk, set it down on the table, then sat back in his chair. "Kitty didn't come to school today...or four days before that. I sure would like to know why. D'ya think she's sick?"
Nathan sat forward. "JD, what say you an' me take a ride out there?"
"Sure, if ya want."
Dunne nodded. "I'll need a fresh horse. I'll go get us saddled up." He stood to leave. Buck grabbed his arm.
"Got room fer one more?"
JD grinned. "Sure, I'd like that." He set off for the livery.
Sanchez smiled at Wilmington. Buck shrugged and returned the gesture. "Just doin' as Chris asked." He and Nathan rose to leave just as Ezra walked in.
"Gentlemen..." He watched them pass then looked at Josiah. "Was it something I said?"
The preacher chuckled, poured him a whiskey and pushed it toward the seat the southerner now occupied. "Nope..."
Larabee looked up from behind the desk in the jail as Tanner walked in.
"Jus' goin' out on patrol. Ezra's back...went into the saloon."
Chris pursed his lips and looked at the younger man. "Reckon JD's seen something?"
Vin nodded. "Yep. When we gonna ask Ezra what's goin' on?"
Chris shook his head. "Don't suppose he's ready to share, yet, but he will. If there's one thing Standish has learned, it's to trust us. Guess he's just waiting until he's got all the facts."
Vin adjusted his hat. "That's all well an' good fer the five of us, but JD's a whole other matter. He's too green ta see trouble comin'."
Chris nodded. "Good thing we're watchin' his back, then."
Vin acknowledged the comment, touched his hat and left the jail.
An hour into their ride, Buck, JD and Nathan arrived at Kitty's home where her father greeted them.
"Boys. Hello there, Mister Dunne. What brings you out this way?"
"It's my fault, sir," JD explained, "I was wondering if everything was alright. Kitty hasn't been in school for the past five days and..." He stopped, shocked, as the man broke down.
"Mister Wallis?" The youth had jumped to the ground before Buck or Nathan could stop him. It was clear to the older men they were intruding on a private moment.
Wallis looked at the young teacher. "The last time Kitty came home from school, she got a fearsome fever that night. She was so sick and nothing Martha did helped."
He looked to Nathan who nodded. Martha Wallis was also a healer and was likely the reason Nathan had not been called on.
"She..." the man sobbed, "...Kitty died last night. Martha thinks it was influenza."
"No..." JD had paled as the man's words sank in. He had grown very fond of his students, Kitty especially. She was sweet and chatty and had totally captivated the youth with her inquisitive nature. JD's eyes filled. One thing he found frustrating about himself was his problem with controlling his emotions. Everything he felt was mirrored in his face; occasionally it would get the better of him by way of a blush... or a tear.
But this time he couldn't have cared less.
"M...may I see her...to s...say...goodbye? "
Brad Wallis was clearly touched by the request. "Yes...come with me."
Buck and Nathan dismounted and led the three horses to the hitching rail, close to the house, all three removing their hats as they stepped inside. A tearful Martha greeted them from a rocking chair close to the hearth, her six month old son nursing at her breast.
"Mister Dunne wanted to pay his respects," Brad said quietly. Nodding her understanding, she glanced toward a closed door and JD stepped toward it. Buck touched the youth's shoulder.
"Don't be touchin' anythin', ya hear?"
JD nodded, pausing for a moment before he opened the door and stepped into the room.
"It took her fierce, Mister Jackson," Martha sobbed, "Never seen nothin' like that in my whole life. She never woke up once." She looked down at her son as he made a little noise, adjusting his body slightly, her tears dropping onto his soft hair.
Buck choked back the emotion in his throat, glancing toward the bedroom door JD had entered, then back to the grieving mother. Nathan patted her shoulder.
"We're sorry for your loss. Kitty was a sweet li'l thing. Would you like help with anythin'?"
Martha smiled. "It's alright Nathan, thank you; we've gotten rid of all we needed to. Been keepin' her room aired since her passin'."
JD felt decidedly odd as he looked at the tiny swaddled body of Kitty Wallis. No more the bright sparkling blue eyes, the sweet chatty voice or the deep little giggle she would produce when amused. She lay still and pale, her golden curls matted to her head. Her bed had been stripped and the mattress was gone. The curtain billowed softly in the breeze from the open window.
Before he had realized, JD had dropped to his knees at the side of the bed and was holding the tiny hand that was out of the blanket. He then reached out and touched her cold face, Buck's warning now gone from his thoughts.
"Oh, Kitty, I'm so sorry," he whispered. "I had no idea you were sick." He stared at her for a long time, tears rolling gently down his cheeks to drop to his vest. He swiped at them in frustration then bent forward to kiss the child's head as he whispered his goodbye. JD remained unmoving for a time, until strong hands gently grasped his shoulders.
Buck's tone was soft but commanding. JD stood and as he turned, leaned in to the big man, who offered him the comfort he clearly needed. In a few minutes they were back outside and mounted, ready to return to town, unwilling to intrude any longer. Brad had walked them out and looked at the two peacekeepers.
"We're gonna bury her over by that old oak...be obliged if you could ask Mister Sanchez to come on out here tomorrow mornin'."
The two men nodded and all three turned and left.
Chris watched the solemn trio ride in, right up until two walked into the saloon while the third went up to his room. He joined the pair at their usual table and waited patiently until they were ready to talk to him.
Josiah nodded at the request Nathan relayed from Wallis and left to return to the church to prepare.
"I assume Mister Dunne did not take the news well."
Buck looked at Ezra, too weary to make a snappy comeback. "Kid took it bad. Didn't speak once on the way home...reckon he's hurtin' right now. He's real close to his students."
Ezra sighed. "May I visit with him?"
Buck shrugged. "Can't see as it'll hurt."
Standish looked to his leader. "Am I to understand Mister Tanner is at the jailhouse?"
"Would you accompany me to the establishment? I have need of both your opinions on a little matter of urgency."
Chris stood and followed the southerner out. Buck and Nathan barely acknowledged their exit, both staring into their drinks, lost in the images of a grieving family and a dead seven year old girl.
Vin dropped his feet from the desk back to the floor as Larabee and Standish entered.
"We'd got to wonderin' when you were gonna tell us what's goin' on with you," Vin stated.
"Gentlemen, I'll cut to the chase," Ezra began, leaning heavily against the outer bars of the empty jail cells. "I was approached recently by a rather dour individual by the name of Eric Duggan. He informed me that mother had relieved him and two of his associates of a considerable sum of money. True to form, mother has disappeared, but they succeeded in tracing me...to here, and now insist I compensate them."
"They want you to pay them the money your mother sto...won from them?" Chris asked.
"Oh if only it were that simple," Ezra replied. "No, they have information regarding the imminent arrival of gold bullion to our fair municipality, and require knowledge from myself regarding its mode of transport and the expected day of arrival." He paused on seeing the two men look at each other.
"How can they know that? We only received word ourselves, just this morning, and it was hardly an open message from the Judge." Larabee considered his words in relating to certain code words the judge had insisted on using when referring to sensitive issues.
"I confess, it was news to me," Standish admitted, "and I am somewhat concerned now, as failure on my part to deliver the required information will result in..."
Vin sat upright. "Who'd he threaten?"
"Myself, at first, but unfortunately, while out on his ride today, Mister Dunne happened upon our meeting, which I had arranged outside of town to establish the man's intentions."
Vin's look was feral. "He threaten' the kid?"
"Not directly, but there was no doubt of his intentions should I fail him."
"Go check on JD as you planned, leave this with us...and just us, for now," Chris ordered.
With a touch to his hat, the gambler left.
"We need ta tell the others..."
"We will, Vin...we have some time to think this through and keep an eye on JD and Ezra. I do not need an anxious Buck right now."
JD tried to ignore the tap on his door, but whoever it was, was insistent.
"Come on in."
On entering, Ezra's heart pinched at the despair on the youth's face and he found himself cursing these new feelings that constantly made surprise attacks on him.
"I hear you received some devastating news. My sincere commiserations, JD, I know how attached you have become to these young people. Can I help in any way?" He sat down gently on the bed as he looked at the boy sitting against the headboard. Even as JD shook his head 'no', he was talking.
"It's not fair, Ezra, she was just a little thing. Why would God do that? Give Missus Willis a new baby just to take her first one? I don't understand."
Ezra sighed and pondered the question. "I fear that question will be best answered by Mister Sanchez. I turned my back on the Lord's ways several years ago, my church if you will, consists of myself and occupants of cards of the spotted variety." He produced the ace of spades from the air, not really surprised when JD remained unimpressed. His friend was in deep pain, and it was affecting Ezra more than he cared to admit.
"JD, have you had dinner?"
"Not really hungry."
"I see, then would you accompany me and keep me company during my evening repast?"
Ezra smiled, "Oooh...humor me, would you?"
JD coughed slightly and reached for a glass of water, sipping then replacing it on his nightstand.
"Sure, why not?"
Standish had ordered two coffees and a plate of the saloon's finest beef sandwiches. As he took one, he gently pushed the plate toward JD, who was blowing on his coffee.
"My word, I fear I shall struggle to eat all these."
JD glanced around, "Buck's here somewhe..."
"I believe Mister Wilmington has already eaten, in fact, all our good friends have," Ezra lied, but only for a worthy cause, he did not want an eager peacekeeper showing an interest right about now. He continued eating, barely able to hold back a smile as JD absently picked up a sandwich and after examining it, then holding it for a minute, bit into it.
By the time they were done, JD had only eaten the one, but it was one more than he had wanted initially so Ezra felt a sense of achievement.
Buck had been watching from a distance and nodded his approval. Ezra was doing good, and Buck relaxed a little.
"I'm gonna head back," JD yawned, "feeling a little tired."
"Allow me to accompany you," Standish offered and as JD bid his friends goodbye, they left.
Five minutes later, Ezra was back, as were Vin and Chris, and the six peacekeepers started up a hand of poker.
From the alley opposite the schoolhouse, Duggan and his two companions relaxed.
"Looks like my hunch was right," Eric grinned. The three disappeared into the shadows to leave town.
JD rubbed the back of his neck as he sat at his desk in the classroom. It had been a tough morning and it was still an hour to noon. He and the peacekeepers had attended Kitty's funeral and now he was drained. He had coughed on and off through the night and now he felt hot and then cold and his head ached. The children had not attended school today because of the funeral, so the young teacher decided to call it a day and go take a nap, his heart still heavy with grief from the loss of the little girl. He exited the schoolhouse and went to the stairs at the side of the building, that led up to his room.
As he began his ascent, a strong hand clamped over his mouth and he was pulled backward. Instinctively, he struggled and, despite his weariness, he put up a remarkable fight. Tired of the struggle, the man accompanying the abductor cracked JD across the temple with the butt of his gun. As the youth crumpled, the second man picked up JD's feet and, glancing around, they carried the unconscious boy to the back of the building.
A little later, the six peacekeepers had gathered together in the jailhouse. Finally, Chris spoke.
"We have a gold shipment coming in on tomorrow's mornin' stage. It shouldn't present a problem but we may have a developed interest in the delivery. Ezra has been approached in an attempt to gain information. He has to offer them something today or they will carry out a threat they made. He's gonna meet them and tell them the delivery is this afternoon at five."
"What threat?" Buck asked.
"It won't happen, they'll be getting what they want, only it's not gold they'll be meeting up with, it'll be us," Chris informed.
"And the threat?" Buck insisted.
"They felt duty bound to inform me it would not bode well for me if the information were not forthcoming, " Ezra explained.
Vin saw Buck relax and spoke up. "An' JD."
They all stiffened, Buck stepped closer to the tracker. "What?"
Chris sighed. "They threatened the kid...not directly, but their meaning was clear."
"So why is no one with him?" Buck turned to leave. Chris held his arm.
"Ezra's about to go meet them now. He'll be safe, Buck, as will Ezra."
Buck disagreed. "We knew what we signed up for, Chris...JD's a kid, and no gunslinger. Yeah, he's fast with those guns of his, but if he had been fighting alongside us, I'd 'a taught him how to take care of himself, hell, you would have...we all would have. He shouldn't be alone." With that, he shrugged out of Larabee's grasp and left the jail.
"Ezra, you best get to it," Chris ordered. "If you're not back by three, we'll assume it didn't work. Watch your back."
With a nod, Ezra left. Vin looked at Chris, stood and followed Ezra out. Chris smirked at the others.
"Never hurts to be sure."
Buck came out of JD's room frowning. The schoolhouse was locked but there was no sign of his young friend, either around town or in his room. As he reached the bottom of the staircase he spotted a rider.
The tracker turned and dismounted, walking his horse down the side of the schoolhouse to reach the ladies' man.
"Buck? I need ta git goin, Ezra..."
"You seen JD?" Buck interrupted, "I can't find him."
Vin looked up, "Not in his room?"
"No...I've looked an' asked around just around here, no one's seen him."
Looking at the ground, something caught Vin's eye, he walked to the bottom of the stairs. "Lift up yer boot."
Vin tapped Buck's footwear and he obliged. "I ain't a horse, y'know."
Tanner studied the boot then crouched and examined the ground. Finally he looked up. "Looks like a scuffle here, four sets o' footprints, includin' yours."
Buck paled. "Oh, God...Vin?"
They walked toward the jail as the lawmen exited. Larabee frowned on seeing the tracker still in town.
"Ezra may be walkin' into trouble," Vin informed, "I'm perty sure they already got JD."
Larabee's face grew dark. "GO!"
He didn't know why, but Ezra felt decidedly uneasy as he reached the meeting place. Duggan had chosen to camp alongside a deserted shack, and was now with one of his two companions. The other had met up with the gambler to guide him in. The two men drew their weapons on their approach.
"Really...is that any way to greet a friend?" the southerner asked.
"You ain't no friend," Duggan spat. "You got somethin' fer me?"
Ezra dismounted. "May I inquire, would there be monetary remuneration for myself in this little endeavor?"
"What's in it for me?" Ezra figured they saw him as a cheat and a liar, he might as well play the part.
The three men smirked and the unease crept back into the pit of the gambler's stomach.
"Come with me," Eric ordered and guided him to the shack.
The dank, dusty, dim interior was only lit from ill-fitting slats and a peppering of knotholes, but the figure tied, gagged and seemingly unconscious was instantly recognized by the southerner.
In moments he was at the youth's side, alarmed at the blood on the young face and the heat radiating from the boy's shaking body, clearly the reason JD's clothes were damp, as was his face and hair.
"My God...he's burning up, I must get him back to town."
"Not until you give us what we want." Duggan insisted, waving his gun in Ezra's face.
"I came here to do just that. You had no need to hurt this boy. Why is he so hot...is he sick?"
The man shrugged. "Information... now!"
Dunne moaned and Ezra bent to reassure him. "I am going to get you home, son...I promise." He saw a flicker of coal black lashes and felt a little relieved, standing to face Eric Duggan and his two henchmen, who had now moved to the doorway.
"The gold shipment is today, arriving by stage at five. Now, allow me to untie this young man that I may return him to town."
Duggan fired and with a grunt, Ezra doubled over, crumpling to the ground.
"Don't think so, fancy man." With that, the three left the two injured men alone.
Ezra's trail was easy to follow, but Vin's delay while looking for JD had him a little on edge. Standish was likely meeting the men by now, and JD was out here somewhere...he just hoped it was at the same place the gambler was heading. Stopping, he dismounted and crouched down as he studied the ground. Buck leaned over.
Tanner stood and jumped back on his horse. "Looks like someone came out ta meet him." With that, he urged Peso on and continued following the trail. After a little while, Vin changed direction and directed Buck to an outcrop of rocks, barely getting there in time before three riders rounded a bend and passed along the very trail Vin was following. Tanner cursed.
"Damn, they're goin' in early. One of us needs ta go back to town."
"You should go, Vin, Chris' gonna need a good eye up high."
Reluctantly Vin nodded and pointed toward the trail. "You'll be okay?"
Buck offered a tight grin. "Hell, yeah, I ain't as good as you, but I can follow a trail this wide."
Vin nodded. "Good luck."
Buck touched his hat. "You too."
The pain made him screw up his eyes. Fighting the nausea, Ezra blinked and tried to remember where he was. Touching his side, he located the source of his pain and the blood he was losing and he pulled out his handkerchief to attempt to staunch the flow. As he managed to get to a sitting position, something tugged at the edges of his mind...something he needed to remember. He leaned against the rough wooden wall and lost consciousness.
JD felt awful. His head hurt so much he couldn't bear to open his eyes, even in this dim light. He knew someone had been shot, and he prayed it wasn't Ezra, but he was in no condition to check. He was still bound and gagged, but even without that hindrance, he felt as weak and shaky as a new-born foal, and he ached all over. One thing that did stay uppermost in his mind was Ezra's words just before the gun went off. He had sold out his friends...told the men who had hurt him when and where gold would be arriving. How could Ezra do that to them...and to him? Fearing for his new friends' lives, JD drifted into unconsciousness.
Buck was comfortable following the trail, it was clear and fresh, he just wondered what he might find at the end of it. He prayed it would be JD, but it nagged at his mind that Ezra had not been with the three men heading for town. Standish was not the type to go down easily...so where was he? As he got to the top of a small crest, he spotted the cabin and urged his horse on as he fought to control his inner dread.
Tanner had taken a different route and arrived well ahead of the three men. In minutes, he had located Larabee and the four peacekeepers had cleared the streets and gotten into position. Chris checked the time...quarter to four. He couldn't help wondering why these three individuals thought they could challenge him and his men... then it hit him...they had JD...possibly even Ezra...thank God Buck was on it, it would give Chris the leverage he needed, because there sure as hell wasn't any gold, not today, anyway.
Ezra's green eyes flew open. 'JD!'
The image of the young schoolteacher, bound and gagged, hit him like a sledgehammer... had he dreamed it? No...a floor...poor light...HERE!
Despite his pain, Ezra grunted and leaned away from the wall, his eyes searching the gloom.
"Oh dear Lord." Ignoring the burning in his side, he dragged himself over to the prone body a few feet away from him, holding his wound in an attempt to ease the pain. He hissed as he touched the boy's head. JD was burning up and he had no idea why. He wondered if his horse was still outside, he needed water...and transport.
Somehow he struggled to his feet, stifling a scream as the agony of the movement tore through him. Staggering, he arrived at the door, shocked as he opened it, only to fall unconscious into the arms of the man standing there.
Buck frowned as he caught him.
Stunned, he dragged the man out into the sunshine and leaned him against a rock. It didn't take him long to locate the bleeding wound, relieved to find the bullet had passed through the southerner's side. Pulling out his bandana, Buck crouched down and packed the wound as best he could. He stood and walked to his horse, unhooked his canteen and returned to the southerner, touching his canteen to Ezra's lips in an attempt to keep him hydrated. Ezra groaned, then sought out the liquid eagerly.
"Easy...easy there...that's it."
Pained green eyes looked up at the ladies' man. "Th...thank you," the injured man whispered.
Buck re-corked the canteen. "D'ya think you can ride?"
"Standish nodded, "Y...yes...yes...I will be fine. Is my horse still here?"
Buck reassured him, "Yeah, he is. Ezra...did you find JD?" The ladies' man startled as Ezra grasped at his shirt.
"H...help him, Buck...in there..." he nodded toward the shack."He's...he' s sick."
Buck gently eased free of the grip on his shirt, as he pondered why Ezra thought JD was sick.
"You just hold on there...I'll be right back."
Standing, he walked to the shack and entered, squinting as he struggled with the gloom. Suddenly, he saw JD.
He was at the boy's side in seconds, growling at the blood on JD's face and his bonds. As Buck went to remove the gag he pulled back his hand as if seared.
"Good God." He touched his hand to JD's head. "What the..." Gently he lifted his friend's face, pushing the gag down around JD's neck as he attempted to listen for breathing.
"Oh, thank God," he whispered, removing his knife from his boot as he cut the ties around the youth's hands and ankles. Lifting the boy to his chest, Buck carefully brushed back the dark, damp hair as he examined the wound to JD's head, relieved it wasn't too bad. Buck was alarmed at the heat radiating from the slight body, now noticing JD's clothes were soaked and he was shivering. With a grunt, Buck lifted him up and took him to lie next to Ezra.
Feeling a little more lucid since his drink, Standish looked at the pair.
"What is wrong with him?" he asked quietly.
Buck shrugged as he poured a little water on the now untied gag and wiped the youth's face and neck with it.
"Damned if I know...we gotta get you two back to town." He sat JD up a little and offered him a drink, frowning as the liquid simply rolled down his chin.
"C'mon, kid...ya gotta drink some...just a little...fer ol' Buck...okay?"
Somewhere deep in JD's mind the words registered and he slowly latched on to the canteen.
"That's my boy...c'mon, now...a little bit more...good."
Suddenly JD spluttered, then had a coughing fit the like of which Buck had never seen before, racking the sick youth with pain as he gasped for breath between coughs, to slip back into oblivion at the end of the spasm. Instinctively, the brunet pulled the younger man close in an effort to offer him comfort, eventually resting him down on the ground, now very aware of the boy's labored breathing.
"What the hell was that?"
Ezra met his gaze. He had seen it before. "What was it you said Kitty died of?"
Buck frowned. "Influen...oh no...no, Ezra...no...not that...he can't..." He touched his hand to the damp, hot head. "Oh shit...we have to get you two to Nathan...now."
Ezra assisted as much as he could as Buck manhandled him onto Chaucer's back, the gambler leaning heavily over the saddle horn as he caught his breath. JD was unable to assist and Buck prayed he could still father children after the strain he endured setting the boy atop his own horse. Finally, the ladies' man mounted behind the unconscious youth, pulled the heated body toward him, took Ezra's reins and slowly headed toward town. ~~~ As Duggan and his men reached the outskirts of town they halted. Their plan was a simple one; they would walk right up to Larabee and insist on being handed the gold when it arrived. They assumed Larabee would not want to see his friends die, no one but Standish knew of their plan, no one but them knew where Standish and Dunne were, and when they told Larabee someone had stayed back to kill the two captives should they not return, he would believe them...they were wrong.
Chris sat back in the chair outside the jail, his long legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. He looked for all the world as relaxed as a man could be, but his eyes were fixed permanently to the opposite roof and he was soon rewarded with a nod from Vin. Duggan was on his way. A touch to his hat alerted Josiah and Nathan...they were ready.
Buck glanced across at Ezra as he hunched over the saddle horn. The man was one of the proudest Buck had ever met, and he cursed himself for forgetting that, with all that had happened. It was unlikely the southerner would complain if he was in pain. Oh yeah...he'd gripe like his world was ending on a normal day, over the simplest things, but at times like these, he would try and be all strong and noble...just like the rest of their friends. 'Hell, even the kid would tough it out rather than complain'. What was it that made men so pig-headed at times like that?
Standish huffed a soft laugh. "Never better, my friend, in fact, I insist we take the long way round back to town."
Buck grinned, "That bad, huh?"
"How is our young friend faring?"
Buck's smile disappeared. "I can feel his chest rattling against me... he's real sick, Ezra." He paused for a moment. "Do...do you know of anyone who's survived influenza?"
Standish considered his answer carefully. "No...but I understand, if caught early enough...it is possible."
Buck halted them and handed Ezra his canteen, then withdrew it. "JD's been drinking from this one." He leaned over to retrieve Ezra's own, uncorking it and handing it to him.
"You need to drink."
With a nod, Ezra took the canteen and took several swigs, handing it to Buck."
"You need to drink too, my friend."
Buck grinned and took in some water, handing it back. "Don't want ta get them mixed up."
He soaked the bandana and draped it over JD's head, hoping it would help to both protect him from the sun and cool him a little. JD started mumbling.
Buck frowned and looked at Ezra, but clearly he didn't know what JD was referring to.
"Mister Wilmington...I...I must...apologize... "
Buck just managed to grab the southerner's jacket before the unconscious man left his horse to hit the ground. He steadied him, then urged the horses on. Thank God it wasn't too far now.
Chris lifted his head slightly as a man stopped in front of him and dismounted.
"Who wants to know?" he asked without making eye contact.
Chris finally looked Duggan in the eye. "So?"
Duggan shifted slightly. "I want the gold you're about to put in the safe at the bank."
Chris laughed, "Well...if there was gold arriving at the bank, guess you'd be in a long line of wishful thinkers, me included." He stared impassively as the man pulled a gun on him.
"Now you listen and you listen good. If you want that kid schoolteacher and that fancy southern friend back in one piece, you'll do as I say and hand over the gold nice an' peaceful like."
"And if I don't?"
Duggan swallowed. "You tellin' me you want their blood on your conscience?"
Chris shrugged. "Not my fault if they can't take care of themselves."
Eric took a step back and cocked his gun. "Maybe I'll just shoot you first, then."
He screamed in pain as a shot rang out, a single bullet knocking the gun from his hand, leaving nothing but numb fingers. When he looked up, Chris was armed.
"Guess not." He looked at Duggan's companions as they went for their guns, his glare in place.
"Go 'head...see how far you get," he taunted. They raised their hands instead. Chris looked to see Vin, Nathan and Josiah approaching, nodding his thanks to Vin for the shot. He fisted Duggan's shirt and slammed him against the porch roof post.
"If either of those two come back with so much as a scratch on 'em... you'll wish that bullet had hit your heart."
Duggan rallied. "If we don't get back, they're dead anyway...got a man there ready ta shoot 'em if we don't return."
Chris looked as Vin took out his spyglass, then looked back and grinned at him.
"Don't think so." Chris shoved Duggan toward Josiah and Nathan as he nodded to the other two men. "Get these idiots out of my sight."
Relieved, he watched as Vin turned and broke into a trot, stepping off the boardwalk to follow him. One look told him something was wrong and he called back to Nathan.
"Gonna need you, Nathan."
Jackson stuck his head out of the jail and looked to where Larabee was heading. Checking Josiah had everything in hand, Nathan joined his leader.
Reaching Buck, Vin hopped up onto the back of Ezra's horse. Buck handed the Texan the reins.
"Much obliged, it's been a tough trip," Buck acknowledged.
"Ezra, yeah...the kid..."
Tanner's blue eyes flashed. "What?"
"Ezra thinks it might be influenza."
"Damn." Vin looked worried. "Might be best if we git Ezra to the clinic an' JD to his room ...more isolated there."
Buck nodded, "Good idea."
As they reached the clinic, Nathan started asking questions. Vin halted him.
"What I got ta say ain't gonna sound real nice but I gotta say it. I seen how fast influenza can take a man, then a town..."
Chris' head jerked up and he looked straight at Buck. The big man's distraught expression told him all he needed to know.
"I reckon we should keep JD in his room and Ezra at the clinic. Nathan, you tend ta Ezra, Buck'll tend ta JD, seein' as he's been with him, an' I'll go between the two of ya ta make sure we're doin' right by JD."
He could see Jackson about to protest.
"Nathan...this town needs you more'n it needs us...we cain't let ya git sick."
Buck nodded. "He's right, just tell Vin what I need to do an' I'll take care o' the kid."
Larabee sighed heavily. "Okay, let's do it."
Vin handed Ezra to Nathan and Chris and the two took him to the clinic. The Texan then helped Buck with JD, returning to the clinic to get all he needed to help JD, and any instructions. Nathan instantly put a pot on to boil.
In JD's room, Buck stripped the boy's soaked clothes from him.
"No time for modesty, son...got ta git you cooled off."
He covered the naked boy with a thin sheet and put some water and a cloth in a bowl. Taking the cloth from the tepid water, he wrung it out lightly and wiped JD down from his head to his feet, rinsing the cloth and starting again almost instantly. Once Vin had brought him boiled water, Buck put some in a tin mug to cool, then started the body cooling procedure all over again. Using a clean rag, he dipped it into the cooling sterile water and cleaned and stitched JD's head with the thread Vin had brought over.
Vin poured two more mugs of the still boiling water. In one he steeped an herbal mix and in the other he sprinkled something that smelled of camphor, placing the latter close to JD's head.
"Nathan said it'll help him breathe."
"And the other?" Buck asked.
"Ya gotta try an' get him to drink one of these every hour."
With sadness in their expressions, they turned to look at the young man they had grown fond of, listening to the quick, raspy breaths.
"You should go." Buck insisted.
Vin took up residency in a chair in the far corner of the youth's room.
"Nah...reckon I'm in it for the long haul. I'll jest stay back here...in case ya need anythin'."
Buck smiled, deeply proud of his friend at that moment. He continued cooling JD down, fighting the urge to lose control of his emotions.
"He...he's gonna die, isn't he?" Buck asked quietly as he stroked the youth's hair.
"Not if we can help it."
Buck smiled, Vin's words offering him hope.
Nathan was examining Ezra's wound. "Needs cleaning up, but it's a clean shot, no bullet ta dig out. Reckon he's lost some blood, but it's lookin' good."
"Do you need anything?" Chris asked.
"Nah...you an' Josiah go do what ya got ta do...I can handle this, jus' fine."
Chris smiled. "I'm sure you can."
Leaving the clinic, Chris crossed over to the schoolhouse, climbing the stairs to JD's room. He opened the door, but despite a deep desire to do so, he didn't step inside.
"How is he?"
Vin answered. "Reckon if he'd 'a been in town, we'd've been able to help him a lot sooner. How's Ezra?"
"Nathan says it looks good and he's not showing any of signs of what's ailing JD." Chris looked around. JD may not be a peacekeeper, but all six had grown close to the boy. Now he could die, and two of his closest friends could go down right along with him. Ezra had been shot doing the right thing by them...and now Chris was angry. With a nod, he closed the door and headed for the jail.
He threw open the door, causing Josiah to stand.
Larabee unhooked the keys and approached the bars. "You think you're clever? Kidnapping a sick kid...shooting one of my men...threatening me? I'm calling you out, Duggan...I'm unlocking this cell and I'm haulin' your ass outta there..."
Josiah grabbed his arm, "Chris, stop it."
"GET your hands off me, preacher...I want this no good, son of a..."
"Chris...come on, now."
One look at Josiah and Chris' shoulders relaxed. He slammed the bars with his hand.
He walked out, leaving a quaking Duggan to watch him leave. Josiah followed him out and as they stood on the boardwalk, Sanchez waited.
"Damn...I'm sorry, Josiah...it's just..."
Josiah smiled kindly. "You're a man of deep emotion, Christopher Larabee...all your friends know this, no matter how much you try to conceal it. Have faith, God will watch over us."
Chris sighed. "I sure hope you're right."
Ezra's mouth was dry. He looked around as he realized the pain he had been experiencing was now a dull ache and that he was in Nathan's room. Nathan leaned in and lifted Ezra's head.
"Here, sip this."
Ezra drank eagerly and rested back on his pillow. "Thank you. I assume the prognosis is a good one?"
Nathan grinned, "If you mean are ya gonna live, then that's a yes."
Standish smiled. "Well...that is good news." He closed his eyes for a few moments then opened them again.
"How is JD? He seemed to be very sick."
Nathan nodded, sadly. "Yeah, he's real sick. Buck an' Vin are takin' care o' him. Just gotta hope he's strong enough ta pull through it."
Ezra yawned. "The boy traveled from one end of our glorious land to the other, Mister Jackson...alone. I have every confidence in his resilience."
Nathan sighed, "You could be right there...he's a tough kid."
The gambler grinned, despite his reservations. "That he is, my friend... that he is." Exhausted and fighting a losing battle with the pain, Ezra drifted off.
Buck was drained. JD had been restless all night, his painful coughing taking what little strength he possessed. He was still hot and Buck feared the worse. Vin had brewed the healing tea through the night, slipping out occasionally to get coffee from Mary to keep him and Buck going. No one knew why JD was so sick, the men knew if news of his illness got out, there would be mass panic. So they simply said he'd been injured and hoped they could leave it at that.
All the next day and the following night, Buck and Vin stayed with him, occasionally visited by Chris, Josiah and Nathan, neither crossing the threshold. Nathan told them that Ezra was doing well, and it gave the two exhausted men a sliver of hope.
JD was trapped in a recurring nightmare. He could see Ezra standing in the shack, laughing with the men who had abducted him and plotting against the other peacekeepers. Ezra bent down and spoke to him, but instead of hearing comforting words, Ezra was sneering and telling him that soon he and the others would be dead. Ezra rose to address the three men...he was talking about a gold shipment...no...no...
"Ezra...NO!...No... don't tell...EZRA!"
Vin jumped from his sleep, Buck scooped the youth up and soothed him.
"Ssshh...calm down, Ezra's fine...easy now."
JD's body was shaking, but Buck turned to Vin. "Vin...am I imagining this, or is he cooler?"
Tanner moved toward them and touched JD's head. He smiled.
"Yeah...yeah, he is."
Buck placed JD gently on the bed. "JD...kid...can you hear me? C'mon, boy... come back to us...c'mon...open those eyes."
Was he dead? 'Cause if Buck and the others were dead, maybe he was in Heaven with them. At least, he hoped it was Heaven...he'd been good... hadn't he?
"B...Buck?" He was so dry he could barely squeak out the name.
"Yeah...yeah, I'm here...so's Vin...Lord boy, you've had us real worried. Shoulda known you'd get through this."
"G...get through wh...what?"
Buck laughed softly "Aww nuthin'. Here, ya need to drink this."
"Wh...whe...you said Vin was here..."
"That I am, kid. Good ta talk to ya."
Buck got JD to sip the herbal tea, grinning at the expression.
"Oh God...that's awful." he rasped.
"Yeah, well...I reckon it likely saved...made ya well again. Rest up, now."
JD looked wearily up at him, then at Vin. "You gonna stay?"
Both men nodded. "You bet."
Once he was asleep, Vin touched Buck on the shoulder. "I'll just go an' give the good news."
The brunet stretched. "Yeah...good idea."
By the time Vin hit the bottom step, Buck was sound asleep.
Ezra looked up from his game of solitaire as Vin entered the room. He smiled.
"I take it you have some good news?"
Tanner grinned. "And you'd be right."
Nathan clapped his hands together. "Well, alright...he came through it. When can I go see him? I should be okay now, shouldn't I?" the healer asked.
"We'll strip an' change the bed, burn the sheets an' the mattress, should be fine then."
"The mattress...Lord Vin...how can he cope with no mattress," Nathan wondered.
"If I may...I would gladly give you my own," Ezra offered.
Nathan frowned. "That there feather bed you go on about?"
"Yes...and if you will allow me to get up, I can unlock the door to my room and you may have it immediately. Mister Dunne has earned a good night's sleep, don't you think?"
Vin grinned. "You're a good man, Ezra. I'll go get Josiah."
Nathan watched the tracker leave, then walked over to help Ezra out of bed.
"You know...if you keep this up, I'm gonna start thinkin' I was wrong about you."
Standish noted the twinkle in the healer's eyes.
"Oh my, now that would never do."
The two men laughed...it felt good to laugh again.
Larabee opened the door to JD's room and chuckled. Buck and Vin were both stretched out in chairs, snoring softly as the curtains moved with the breeze from the open window. JD looked very comfortable in his freshly made bed. Chris smiled as he saw JD's eyes open and approached the youth.
"How are you?"
"I'm good, thanks," he whispered, casting a glance toward his sleeping 'protectors' . "Sorry I caused you trouble."
Chris sat on the bed. " Wasn't any trouble, I was four lawmen down, had to pull double shifts at the jail...take care of a town with just Josiah...naw, no trouble at all."
JD swallowed then noticed Chris' eyes crinkle as he smiled.
"Oh God, Chris...you had me worried then."
"Actually, I came to apologize."
JD frowned. "To me?"
Larabee nodded. "I'm sorry you got caught up in this mess, kid. It wouldn't've stopped you getting sick, but you would have got the help you needed sooner."
"The attempted gold robbery. It had nothing to do with you...I'm sorry."
Flashes of Ezra giving away information caused JD to pale.
He looked at Chris, alarm evident in his eyes. "Sure. Erm...does that mean...I can't be around you guys any more?"
Chris laughed, inadvertently waking Tanner and Wilmington. "Hell, no... if ya get in that much trouble being around us, I dread to think what might happen if you went out on your own."
JD grinned. "Oh, that's alright then."
Chris looked at his two men. "Go take a break. I'll sit in for a while."
With a nod and a stretch, they left. JD watched the blond take a seat. He couldn't believe such a man...this man, would want to spend time with him. JD was so in awe of the gunslinger... from the first day he arrived and Chris saved him from certain death... to right this second. In his eyes, the man was a legend. They all were.
"Go to sleep."
JD grinned. "Yes, sir." And he did.
Three days later, and Ezra had been sitting with JD on the porch for a good ten minutes but the boy had yet to speak. His previous visits to the young easterner in his sick room had been no easier and he wondered what he could have done to upset the boy, deciding JD must be blaming him for his abduction. He sighed heavily as he turned away from the blanketed youth.
"I didn't tell them, if that's what you're concerned about."
Finally...JD had spoken.
"Told them what, son?"
"I am afraid I do not. Please, enlighten me."
JD sighed. "I haven't told the others you told those men about the gold." He scowled. "How could you do that, Ezra? How could you betray your friends like that?"
Standish was at a loss...then it hit him. JD must have overheard him in the shack. He grinned...then chuckled, then flat out laughed. JD looked on, shocked.
"I don't see this as funny at all."
Holding his injured side, Ezra squeezed the youth's arm. "It was a ruse, my friend, regrettably it backfired, but that is all it was... subterfuge. Misters Larabee and Tanner were well aware of the situation. Unfortunately, your possible involvement was not factored into the equation and for what you suffered, I am regretful."
JD grinned, relief washing over him. "Thank God!"
Ezra chuckled again and looked fondly at the young man. JD had believed him to be guilty of duplicity, and yet had told no one.
"You are a good man, JD. I am honored to call you friend."
Buck approached, pulled up a chair and joined them.
"Whatcha talkin' about?"
Buck stretched out his long legs and relaxed back in the chair. "Oh good...I can do that all day."