Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Ratings/Warnings: Some bad language, discussions of violence toward women
Thanks to: Phyllis, who helps keep me going. Blackraptor for giving my stories a safe place to live
It had been a busy time in Four Corners. Cattle drives had kept the seven regulators fully occupied and it soon became apparent the day to day problems would need the strongest and most experienced men at their best and fully alert. Chris hated to do it, but decided it would be for the best. As he entered the jail, JD looked up from his desk where he sat guarding three sleeping drunks and smiled.
"I'm not done yet, am I?" JD asked.
"Depends," Larabee took a seat. "I have a favor to ask of you, it's a little hard on you, but I hope you'll understand."
JD nodded. "Okay." He figured Chris had good reason; he was not a man to waste words.
"I wondered if you'd take the next three night shifts, just until this drive's over."
JD frowned. "Sure, if that's what you want. Can I ask why?"
Chris sighed, he had hoped JD wouldn't ask, but he would never lie to the boy.
"Guarding the jail at night is usually due to drunks sleeping off the day's festivities. Keeping the festivities down to a dull roar through the day...is tough going sometimes."
JD's face fell and he dipped his head. "Oh, I understand. Sure, no problem, you need your best men awake in the day, I'll do the nights."
"No...listen to me." He waited until JD faced him, but the pain in the youth's eyes affected Larabee deeply. "I need my most experienced men. We're barely keeping on top of it as it is. JD, I swear to you, that's all it is. Think on this, Josiah's sleeping off a night shift, you're in the saloon with me Buck and Vin. Eight men start a ruckus...Josiah can take on three, maybe four...but he's..."
"...in bed." JD smiled in understanding. "I don't mind, really. I can catch up on some reading."
Chris nodded. "Good man. Go get some sleep, be back here for ten."
The blond watched him go. He didn't feel good about his decision. JD had proved to be just as much one of them as any of the others. He was brave and reliable and remarkably quick and accurate with his guns. But he was young, and small, an instant target and for now, Chris needed fewer targets. He nodded to himself, satisfied he had done the right thing, but it didn't take away the feeling.
Nathan smiled as JD came in at ten to relieve him. The youth looked into the cells, only one man sat in the shadows.
"Quiet day?" he asked.
Nathan shook his head. "No, but we were able ta run the troublemakers out of town."
"All except him, huh?"
Nathan frowned. "No. That there's Virgil Clemens. He's waitin' on a marshal to take him to Carson for trial. Vin found him in the livery, forcin' himself on one of the girls from the saloon. Had beaten her some and then..." Nathan swallowed the anger rising to form a lump in his throat as he looked at JD's shocked expression.
"When Chris an' Vin checked the posters...well, seems he's wanted just about all over the territory. He don't say much, so you shouldn't have any trouble."
Saying goodnight to the healer, JD took his book from his pocket, and placed it on the desk. He removed his hat and jacket and, sitting back in the chair, propped his feet up on the desk as he prepared to read for the night. Taking one last look at the seemingly sleeping prisoner, JD opened his book and began to read.
"There's nothin' quite like the power, y'know?"
JD stretched and looked at his pocket watch, 1.30. What was that Clemens said?
"Huh?" As JD turned, he saw the prisoner was now sitting upright and next to the bars. Placing his book on the table, the youth shuddered, the man looked positively evil. Clemens' voice oozed out as a malicious smiled played on his lips.
"The power, you feel when you take a woman's virtue as she cries for you to stop. The harder you hurt her, the quieter she gets. Did you know that?"
JD felt sick to his stomach. "No, and neither do I want to. Go back to sleep."
The man laughed. "Ain't tired." His large fingers curled around the bars as he pressed his face against them. "Women's faces bruise faster than a man's y'know. They're softer...yield more easily to the blows of a man's fist."
The young sheriff glared back at him.
"I'll just remind you I'm a duly sworn officer of the law, and as such am duty-bound to report back everything you say to me." JD prayed that would shut him up.
"I thank you for the warning." He went quiet and Dunne picked his book back up, hoping he had done enough. He closed his eyes as the smooth, baritone voice started again.
"There was this one time, pretty li'l thing she was...her mama had sent her ta buy milk..."
JD closed his eyes. 'God please...make him stop.' He wanted nothing more than to walk out of the door, but it was his duty to be there. And besides...where would he go?
"Had never been with a man before...you can tell these things...there' s a certain...resistance... "
The easterner just kept trying to read...if he didn't show any interest, the guy would shut up...wouldn't he?
By the time Vin took over at 5.30, JD was feeling physically sick.
"Quiet night?" the tracker asked, noting the pale youth before him.
"Yeah...sure, see ya, Vin." JD hurried out the door as Vin stared after him. He then turned back to the prisoner to see him sink back into the shadows, smirking as he lay down and covered his face with his hat. Taking a seat, Tanner kicked back and covered his own face, figuring he could get a few more hours shut-eye before the town fully awoke. He had no problem drifting off; the prisoner's snores were one of the few sounds for the next two hours.
In his room JD toed off his boots as he fumbled with his clothing, his hands shaking as he fought the images in his head...images put there by Virgil Clemens. Ripping at his shirt in frustration, he buried his face in his pillow, and howled into it.
"Why? Why does he have to stay?" JD had arrived at the jailhouse the next night at ten to take over from the ladies' man.
Buck looked at the young sheriff and shrugged. "All I know, is that the stage was delayed at Four Feathers an' the marshal won't be getting' here until noon tomorrow, so we can hand him over then."
JD was crestfallen. "But that means he's gonna have to stay two more nights 'cause there's no way there's room on tomorrow's stage out."
"Guess so..." Buck frowned and tilted his head. "Is somethin' botherin' you, JD?"
"NO!" He cursed himself for answering so quickly. "No...no problem...just wonderin' is all."
Buck rubbed his hands together. "Well...I hear the call of beer an' fine ladies. Too bad ya got jail duty tonight. See ya later, kid."
"An' tomorrow night..." JD whispered as Buck left the jail. Trying not to look at the man in the cell, JD removed a dime novel from the drawer and relaxed back to read...except he couldn't...he knew what was coming.
"Well...sheriff looks like it's jus' me an' you again. Guess I'll jus' carry on from where I left off..."
JD closed his eyes and swallowed. He really couldn't take another night of this.
In the saloon, Buck was staring at his beer and hadn't so much as glanced at Miss Millie. Vin nudged Buck's foot with his boot.
Buck started to shake his head, then looked at the tracker. "JD seem okay to you?"
Vin offered a tight smile. "Was wonderin' when you'd notice."
"Can't put my finger on it."
Vin stood, deciding to play a hunch. "Maybe he jus' needs some company."
Wilmington grinned and stood also. "Maybe...I'll get us some cards."
Tanner nodded, "I'll get some drinks."
"I had that girl right where I wanted her...my hand round her throat... an' I squeezed..."
JD touched the butt of his gun...one shot...just one, Chris would understand. He sighed deeply, relaxing his hand as he continued trying to read, while swallowing the bile in his throat. He jerked as the door to the jailhouse opened, his hand once more going to his gun. He looked at the two men inquisitively.
"Couldn't let you have all the fun now, could we?" Buck grinned.
Fun? It had been many things...torture, hell on earth...but fun?
"Reckon'd you might want some company," Vin smiled at his friend, while watching the prisoner sink back into the gloom.
JD couldn't help but grin at his two friends, relief washing through him. "Reckon I could at that."
The three settled down for the night.
"You did what?"
The next morning, Chris was furious as he looked at two weary regulators. "I ask JD to do something for me, to find you two decide to stay up all night with him? Well you ain't going to bed now, we got trail hands due in any time and I need every man I can get. Go get breakfast...and coffee...lots of coffee."
Buck and Vin sighed and headed off to the restaurant.
"See what ya get for tryin' ta help a friend?" Buck moaned.
The tracker cast him a sideways glance. "Still reckon we did the right thing."
Wilmington nodded. "Yeah, we did, kid seemed to perk up real good. When we gonna tell Chris?"
"Aw, let him simmer down some. We'll talk to 'im later."
JD was exhausted as he reached his room and after kicking off his boots, he collapsed, fully clothed on the bed...and slept like the dead.
Later that night, JD yawned as he walked to the jail for, what he hoped was, his last night with Virgil Clemens. The man was pure evil and the young sheriff tried hard not to think badly of Chris for giving him three night shifts in a row, but it was sure wearing him down.
The marshal had not arrived on the day's stage as expected and the seven regulators were forced into being responsible for the accused for one more night, now maybe another two.
As Ezra bid him goodnight, JD placed his hat on the desk, draped his jacket over the chair and settled, turning his back to the cells in an attempt to persuade the prisoner to leave him be. Oddly, the man did, and soon the youth had moved the lamp closer to him and was engrossed in his book, unaware of the muted scraping of metal across brick or the sadistic smile on the man's face as he sat way back in the dark.
Several hours later, JD jumped from his sleep at the sound of a voice, his heart racing as he tried to get his bearings. Thinking he must have been dreaming, he settled back down.
"Hey...young 'un...I...I need help."
The boy looked over his shoulder toward the voice.
"Help...please...my gut...I...I'm dyin'."
Now fully on his feet JD instinctively reached for the keys, picked up the lamp and, opening the outer cell door, stepped inside to see the prisoner sitting on his cot bent over and in serious distress.
"P...please, kid...help me...I...I know I surely...don't deserve it...b...but..."
Clemens groaned in pain. JD backed out into the office. "I'll go get Nathan."
The man looked at him, nodding, and an expression that JD believed to be gratitude, then suddenly keeled over with a grunt, to lay on the cell floor, unmoving.
JD placed the lamp back on the desk and hurried back to the inner cell. Hands shaking, he pushed the key into the lock and twisted, flinging open the door to kneel at the unconscious man's side.
"Clemens? Oh God...I need to get...oomph!"
JD had been punched hard in the stomach before, but it had never felt like this. He fell backward, his face screwed up in pain as he gasped for air, his shaking hand searching for the point of impact. All energy drained from his body as he realized something was embedded deep inside him, he could just feel the end of the object. Clemens loomed menacingly over him.
"Told ya, boy...I always get what I set my sights on."
The words ringing in his ears, JD curled in on himself, groaning softly and desperate to ease the pain. There was nothing he could do to hold in the blood and he couldn't get enough of a grip from his blood-slicked fingers to pull out the object. Watching Clemens leave through now unfocused eyes, JD gasped as the man flipped over the oil lamp which instantly spilt its contents, eager flames following the trail of oil. In seconds, Virgil Clemens was gone.
Shaking violently, his pale face glistening with sweat, JD reached for his gun and somehow managed to pull it from its holster. Knowing he had very little strength left, he cocked it and fired in the air; managing to do it two times more before he fell unconscious.
Being a light sleeper, Vin was aware of movement outside, but as it wasn't uncommon for drunks to still be finding their way home from the saloon, he wasn't too concerned. Whoever it was had gone in seconds, so he turned over in the tiny wagon he called home to get back to sleep.
The first gunshot startled him, the second two confirmed the first had been no mistake. He was out of the wagon in seconds and now stood in the street figuring out the direction.
The glow from the jailhouse was unmistakable and the tracker was at the door in moments.
Vin kicked at the door, instantly raising his arm to protect his face as the heat and smoke assaulted his senses.
Through the flames, he could see the cell door was open. Maybe the kid had got himself and the prisoner to safety. Grabbing the spare pail from the corner of the room, Tanner ducked outside to the water trough, almost mowing down Nathan and Chris, who had also heard the shots. Seeing the problem, both men picked up buckets from the boardwalk, kept there specifically for times such as this, and followed Vin's actions, repeating them instantly. The six bucketfuls practically extinguished the flames, a seventh being added by Josiah completing the job.
"Good work, Vin, you caught it before it took hold." Chris turned and accepted a lit lantern from Nathan.
Vin looked at Chris. "I heard gunshots, then I saw this. Have you seen JD?"
Larabee shook his head, holding out the lantern and looking through the smoke to see the outer cell door open.
"Did JD get the prisoner out?"
Vin shrugged. "I don't know."
They all turned to see a half-dressed Buck, his braces dangling around his hips.
"Have you seen JD or the prisoner?" Chris asked. He figured if anyone knew where the kid was, it would be Buck, but the ladies' man shook his head.
"No, why, isn't he here?"
Chris and Vin once again looked at each other. Something didn't add up. Josiah had slowly made his way through the puddles to the back of the jail, holding up his own lantern to look at the jacket over the chair and the familiar bowler sitting on the desk as he passed them, both undamaged due to the fire having traveled along the floor across the front of the outer bars. Taking care not to touch the bars as he walked through, in case they were hot, the preacher noticed the inner cell door was open. He looked back at the others.
"I guess you were right, JD musta..." Something in the gloom inside the cell caught his eye and Sanchez held the lantern higher to illuminate the area.
"OH DEAR LORD! NATHAN!"
The others turned sharply and Chris and Vin moved forward. Nathan pushed through as Josiah placed his lantern on the floor and all four men could now see the horror of it all.
While Nathan took a look at the wound, Sanchez placed a shaky hand on JD's head.
Jackson looked up from his examination. "We need to get him to the clinic...now!"
On hearing the healer's anxious words and ignoring the blood pooling around JD's still form, with a grunt, the preacher scooped the boy up, settled him against his chest and turned.
Chris' eyes were wide, Vin's closed as if to hide the sight. Buck pushed closer.
"Aw hell, kid...no."
Nathan moved to the door. "I'll go set up the clinic."
As he moved forward, Josiah shifted the weight in his arms and JD's head flopped back, his arm dropping down to swing loosely as the big man walked. Buck wanted to ask if JD was alive, but Josiah's face was showing his distress and determination to get the boy out of there, so he just followed him instead.
Chris stepped to where Sanchez had just been, Vin just behind him. He crouched down to look at the pool of blood on the floor, swallowing to stop the contents of his stomach from rising.
"Jesus, Vin...what the hell happened here?"
Tanner looked at him, sorrow clouding his blue eyes as he looked down at the floor, then to Larabee.
"We may never know."
"Put him on the bed."
Even as Nathan issued the instruction, Josiah had done so, straightening the youth's body to aid the examination. For the first time, Buck got a good look at the kid he'd come to think of as a little brother, shocked at JD's ashen features and blood-soaked clothes.
"Nathan...it looks bad." His voice was a mere whisper but it conveyed the deep anguish he was feeling. "Why is he bleeding...was he shot?"
"Let me take a look, Buck." The healer stepped forward and cut JD's vest and shirt, pushing the material back to reveal the source of the bleeding.
"I need more light."
As Josiah obliged, Chris and Vin entered the clinic, shortly followed by Ezra.
Jackson winced. "Ah hell...hand me my bag."
"What...what is it?" Buck asked.
"Somethin's in there...don't know...I need my bag." The bag was placed in his hand. Nathan foraged inside to remove an instrument. He looked at the others.
"Whatever this is, it looks like it's in deep."
Nodding their understanding the men took positions around the bed. Buck's eyes filled.
"Oh God." He stroked back the dark, saturated hair and leaned in to the deeply unconscious boy.
"Hold on, son...this is gonna hurt, but we have ta do this."
Ezra held the lantern while Chris and Vin each held one of JD's legs and Josiah, the boy's shoulders. Buck placed a hand on JD's chest but focused more on talking, softly and soothingly.
Nathan gave a nod and they all braced themselves, each man glancing at the lifeless boy, then looking away. Using the instrument, Nathan frowned deeply as he attempted to get hold of the object. A shaky intake of breath and a look to each of them announced he was ready. Slowly he tugged at the object, encountering resistance at first, then gradually feeling it give.
At the first movement, JD grunted and arched slightly, the first time he had moved or made a sound since they had found him. Nathan sighed deeply and looked at Buck, then continued. With each tiny movement, JD became more animated, his breathing quickening, until one longer movement caused pandemonium as the boy stiffened, arched then writhed and thrashed to escape the pain, screaming his anguish at the top of his lungs.
If ever the six men had pondered JD's physical strength, they were now in no doubt, as between four of them they could barely contain the boy. Just as Nathan fully extracted the implement JD screamed and arched his shuddering body once more, to collapse back to the bed, again unconscious. His ragged breathing confirmed he was still with them.
"What is it?" Chris' voice was raspy from the sheer emotion of the encounter.
Nathan pushed several cloths to JD's hemorrhaging wound, asking Buck to press down on them, then held up the gory, dripping object and examined it. "It's a fork."
"A what?" Buck was still stroking the boy's hair but his eyes were firmly fixed on the item Nathan had just removed.
"A fork?" Vin asked, unsure he had heard right.
Nathan was studying it closely. "There...see the ends? They been sharpened...it's as sharp as any knife would be...and..." he looked at each man, then to JD, then back to the bloody fork.
"...I'd say it was driven in real hard."
The atmosphere in the room was thick as looks of horror passed over the faces of the regulators. Tanner's face grew angry and he moved to leave. Larabee grabbed his arm.
"Wait 'til first light."
"He'll be long gone by then, I'm gonna kill 'im."
"Ain't one of us here don't feel the same, but you won't be able to track him in the dark." The blond's green eyes flashed. Vin nodded and relaxed a little.
"I need more cloths."
They all turned to Buck, his hand saturated in blood. Nathan instantly handed him more, disposing of the others.
"It won't stop, Nathan." Buck looked terrified. "Why won't it stop?"
"Buck..." Jackson looked at his distraught friend. "It's real bad, Buck, I don't know if I...I..."
"Please, Nathan...ya gotta try." Buck's whispered plea just about broke Nathan's heart. Josiah sniffed, and then coughed.
"Buck, I'll do all I can, you know that."
The brunet nodded. Even as Nathan spoke he was working. He'd cleaned out the wound as best he could and hoped stitching it would slow the bleeding down. He kept glancing at JD. The young sheriff was pallid, even his lips were pale. He had lost a lot of blood and Nathan was afraid he could lose his young friend if only to shock, which Nathan knew in itself could prove fatal. By the time he had finished stitching and bandaging, dawn was just breaking through and Vin and Ezra had left to track Clemens.
Chris sighed. He hated to do this. "I'm gonna need help out there today...Buck..."
Wilmington raised his head but didn't look at the blond. "I'll be there."
A nod from Josiah and Chris was set. "I'm gonna go...tidy up the jail." In truth, he had decided there would be no arrests today. They could either leave...or be shot.
Six hours on and it was clear Clemens trail was cold. Vin spent the longest time scouring the ground and shrubs for something...anything, finally screaming out his frustration.
Ezra sighed. "My friend, I believe it prudent for us to return to town. We can telegraph the nearest municipalities... "
Vin's eyes flashed. "Hush! I can do this...I can smell him. He's close."
"Mister Tanner...Vin, I fear JD might not make it through this day. We have nothing to follow, nowhere to go. Let us go back and be with people who need us. As God is my witness...I will help you find this man, follow you wherever you need to go...but today..."
Tanner squatted down and bowed his head, almost as if in prayer. Ezra dismounted and mirrored his stance, looking at the tracker as he placed a hand on the slender shoulder.
"We...may need to say...goodbye."
Vin spoke, his head still bowed. "This ain't right Ezra. I don't want him ta die...this ain't right."
"No my friend, it is not. But should this be his last few days...he should not die...alone."
Vin picked up some dirt and ran it through his fingers, finally standing as he brushed his dusty hand against his trousers.
"No man should die alone." Vin stared out at the vista and shouted. "You can run, but you can't hide...your ass is mine, Clemens."
With a nod as they both straightened, they mounted up and headed back to town.
Word of the attack on JD had quickly spread around town and some of the townsmen had offered to help Larabee in any way he deemed fit. Oddly, the cattle drive missed them and Chris found himself relieved to have the town peaceful for the first time in a week. He spotted the two men on horseback enter the livery and walked to meet them. He didn't need to ask how they had got on.
"How's the kid?" Vin asked the instant the blond entered the livery, as he and Ezra cared for their horses, working as they talked.
Chris pursed his lips. "Not good. Buck and Josiah have been with him and Nathan all day. Nathan can't get his fever down, reckons the kid's so weak it's just a matter of time."
Ezra swallowed. "Surely not...he's young...Nathan..."
Chris sighed. "...has tried everything."
"Have you been ta see 'im?"
It was not an accusation from the tracker, but Larabee still felt the twang of guilt the question had produced. "Not for some time."
"No time like the present." Vin's eyes stared straight into Larabee's.
Chris returned the gaze. "You go on, I'll meet you there."
With a nod of acknowledgement, Standish and Tanner left for the clinic.
Nathan was brewing more tea. Josiah was sitting next to the bed, one hand on JD's arm as he prayed constantly. Buck had spent most of the day cooling the young man down while talking to him the whole time, reliving most of the adventures they had lived through since meeting. But still JD's fever rose, despite Nathan changing the bandages several times as the wound refused to stop seeping.
The first thing Vin and Ezra noticed when they entered the clinic was JD's rapid raspy breathing. Vin looked to the healer.
Jackson sighed. "I fear we're losing him, boys. He's real weak..."
"Nathan, don't." Buck's plea was heartfelt. "He might hear you...we need him to keep fighting."
Jackson nodded and turned back to the stove. Ezra and Vin got settled. And now Chris had joined them.
Buck was wringing his hands, he felt helpless. Nathan scowled intently in frustration while Josiah continued praying. Chris sat, frowning, as Vin lounged as if he wasn't worried, only the white of his clenched knuckles betraying his fear. Ezra was quietly shuffling cards, dropping some as JD moaned softly. Buck leaned in; sighing heavily when he realized JD actually seemed weaker.
"C'mon, kid. I bet you're blamin' yourself, ain't ya? Better men than you have done worse. How about you just open them eyes and tell us what happened."
As Buck finished his sentence, Chris leaned forward and stared at him.
"I need you all to leave."
Soft mumbles circulated the room. He looked to each of them.
"Go, take a break."
Sensing something bigger, they all stood and stretched. Clutching their hats, they turned and left.
Chris spoke to Nathan but didn't look into his eyes. "You too, Nathan, I'll be a while, take your time in coming back."
Despite wanting to argue the point, the healer quietly left.
Chris stared at the youth for a minute or so as if coming to a decision. He then stood, removed his hat and jacket and went to the head of the bed. Sitting down, he lifted JD gently, resting the hot sweaty youth against his chest.
The blond listened for a minute to the shaky shallow breaths, silently praying each one wouldn't be the youth's last. Larabee's voice cut through the silence.
"Don't intend to make a habit of this, kid, so make the most of it. Something Buck said got me to thinking and I figured me an' you should clear the air." He shifted slightly to get more comfortable.
"You know how Vin is...always on top of things, fast, alert, wise beyond his years. So I'm guessin' you'll recall how Chanu caught him out in the jail an' nearly choked the life outta him. Vin felt bad about that, felt he shoulda known better. But even the best can get caught out and he realizes that now...learned a valuable lesson from it. I guess what I'm trying to say, is...you did nothing wrong. Vin and Buck told me they figured Clemens was riling you...and for that, I'm sorry. You were helping me and I didn't even consider the man would be trouble. You didn't put that sharpened fork in his hand, so someone else made a mistake...forgot to check it was with the plate when it got taken away. If your time has come son, so be it, but if your heart's heavy because you think you let me down...you didn't, and even if you had, I forgive you. I don't care, JD, all I know is, Clemens ain't worth dying for. So if I have any influence with you at all...then I guess I'm using it to tell you to get well. We need to have us a real conversation and this ain't the one. Sleep, kid, get some real rest. We're all here for you...just like you're always here for us."
Larabee was sure he felt JD lean into him, or was it just wishful thinking? He sat quietly for a moment, fully intending to move. He never knew how the men had smiled when they had come back into the room to see the hardened gunslinger sleeping, JD still propped against him. Nathan quietly touched Dunne's face, turning back to the others.
"He's still hot, but his breathin's easier," he whispered.
Buck took his seat, "You talkin' 'bout JD or Larabee now?
The five men chuckled softly, waking Chris. Keeping his eyes closed, he didn't miss a beat.
"Some of us are tryin' ta get some shut-eye. Siddown and shut up."
And they did, planning only to stay for a little while...they stayed all night.
He kept staring at the light. JD was sure it had been closer, but now, when he reached out...he could no longer touch it. He felt concern as he believed Buck was just there, just beyond it. He could hear him. Chris too, he had definitely heard him. He had felt so hot, so uncomfortable, but every now and then he felt his hair move softly, and where was that warm solid mass that had been at his back? It had made him feel...safe. A prayer played in his mind, a prayer his mama had taught him, but it wasn't his mama's voice he heard, but a man's, a soft, deep soothing voice. It had made him feel comforted.
The light was further away now. But he didn't feel afraid anymore, he could hear more voices, familiar voices. JD found the one next to his ear drawing him...he knew that voice.
Buck sat upright, paused then leaned back in. The others stopped their conversation and watched, leaning forward in their seats.
"JD? Hey...hey li'l brother...can you hear me?"
JD smiled, well, it felt like he smiled...li'l brother...he knew that voice.
The name spoken was barely a whisper, but the six lawmen had felt as if it had been shouted from the rooftops.
"I'm here, son...come on, boy...stay with us."
Buck chuckled, the chuckle JD loved, the one that told him Buck was happy and something was really amusing him. With his eyes closed, he couldn't see the tears in the big man's eyes.
"...laughin' at...me, Buck?"
Buck pushed back the youth's hair. "Nah...laughin' with you, kid...we all are."
The ladies' man looked at the smiling faces of his friends...yeah, they all were.
Two days on, Chris watched the passengers alight from the stage, looking at one man with disdain. He turned and walked into the jailhouse. A few minutes later, footsteps sounded behind him, but he didn't look up as he continued clearing the last of the debris from the fire.
"What the hell happened here?"
Finally Chris turned to glare at the marshal. "Well, I guess as you're a little late to the party, it's of no concern of yours."
"Where's my prisoner?"
"And you would be?" Chris was not going to make this easy he had decided.
The man straightened as he lightly touched the badge on his lapel. "Owen, Marshal Parker Owen. Where's the prisoner I came to collect? Where's Clemens?"
"If you'd been here two days ago, you'd have him, as of now, he's not been found."
"He escaped? Do you have any idea how long we've been searching for him? I guess you men are not so Magnificent after all. Which idiot lost him, or are we talkin' turning a blind eye here?"
Larabee hadn't even realized he had moved until he had the man's jacket in his hands and the man himself back against the door.
"That man you just called an idiot almost died doing his sworn duty and no half-assed lawman is gonna come to my town and question my men's character or integrity."
Josiah was just approaching along the boardwalk. On seeing the confrontation, he whistled to Vin. In seconds both men were at the jailhouse door.
"Take your hands off me, Larabee, I'm a Federal Marshall and you don't get to talk to me that way."
Chris tightened his grip. "See, now that's where you're wrong..."
Vin spoke softly. "Chris..."
There was a strained silence as the blond decided what to do, finally stepping back and releasing the marshal.
Owen adjusted his clothing. "Seems like me an' the Judge need to have us a conversation. "
Larabee grinned, but there was no warmth in it. "You do that, and tell him from me, when we get hold of Clemens...and we will get hold of him...he's a dead man. You go tell him that...Marshal ."
The man in black swept past him, Josiah and Vin and onto the boardwalk, not stopping until he reached the saloon.
Tanner and Sanchez looked at each other, speaking together. "Saloon."
"Buck, go eat. He's doing good, restin' comfortable. He's gonna sleep for some time...go 'head...go eat."
The ladies' man looked at Nathan from JD's bedside, then back to the sleeping youth. "Why is he still so weak? He can't hardly drink, and he sure as hell can't eat without help."
Nathan sat opposite his friend. "He's only able ta take broth for now, anyway. Can't have him eatin' solid food 'til he's healed some, an' made up some o' that blood he lost. Go on, I'll watch him an' you can spot me when ya get back."
With a heavy sigh and the lightest of touches to the boy's arm, Buck nodded and left. As he reached the bottom of the steps, he decided to head for the saloon, strangely relieved at seeing Ezra, Chris, Vin, and Josiah already there, but instantly noting the tension. The brunet waved to Inez, who acknowledged him, then joined the men at their table.
Chris looked at him. "If you can call a tall, thick-waisted, badge- wearin' asshole trouble...then I guess that's a yes."
"That would be our esteemed Federal Marshal," Ezra explained.
Buck nodded to Inez on receiving his beer and took a long draw, eventually placing the glass on the table. Sitting back, he looked to Standish, then Larabee.
"Finally arrived, huh? How'd he take the good news?"
"Surprisingly badly," Josiah said with a glint in his eye. "He left with the stage."
"He's already gone?" Buck looked at Chris. "Was it somethin' you said, buddy?" Frowning, he leaned forward at Chris' expression.
"Somethin' he said...did he go after the kid?" Buck was fully leaning on the table now, his eyes flashing with anger.
"Not directly," the blond confirmed, "let's just say...he knows my feelings on the matter."
Wilmington looked across at the exchange between Tanner and Sanchez, relaxing back a little.
"How is he?" Vin shifted a little as he spoke.
Buck sighed. "Nathan says good...I don't see it...but I guess Nathan knows best." He watched Tanner stand.
"Think I'll stop by before I head out."
"You goin' somewhere?" Larabee looked a little surprised.
The tracker nodded. "Gonna see if I can pick up Clemens' trail." With a touch of his hat, he was gone.
Ezra scooped up the cards he had been toying with and sighed. "We had a distinct lack of good fortune yesterday... I fear Mister Tanner is taking this personally."
Chris knocked back a shot. "He ain't the only one."
Nathan reached for his gun as the clinic door opened, relaxing as Vin came in and removed his hat.
"Mind if I visit a while?"
"You wanna go eat, Nathan? I reckon Bucklin'll be over shortly, I can spot ya for now."
Nathan stood and smiled. "Much obliged, Vin, I am a mite hungry."
Vin nodded and settled in the chair, content to watch the rise and fall of his friend's chest as the boy slept, much more peacefully than he had the day before. Deep in thought over his impending departure, it took Vin a few minutes to notice the hazel eyes peeking out from dark bangs. The tracker smiled.
"Never better. Good to see you awake." He reached for the glass of water next to the youth and, standing, helped JD take a few sips, easing him back to the bed when he was done.
"No problem. Ya hungry?"
JD shook his head, sighing. "I hardly got no energy, Vin. Am I always gonna be like this?"
Tanner shook his head. "Nah...once ya made up some o' that blood ya lost...you'll be right in no time."
They both looked up as Buck came in; Vin squeezed JD's arm. "Gonna go see if I can pick up Clemens' trail, I'll talk to ya later."
As he stood, Tanner looked at the boy. "What ya sorry for?"
"I let 'im go, and now you have to..."
"You didn't let 'im go, kid...and ya can't dwell on what's done. Rest easy, now." With that, he left.
JD closed his eyes briefly, then looked to his friend. "Aww Buck, what a mess."
The brunet resumed his seat at the side of the bed. "Let's get you well...the rest'll fall inta place...you'll see."
Three weeks on and JD was more like his old self, still yet to ride, but clearly recovering. He was happily sitting, while watching his six friends play poker, not of a mind to play, but content to watch and enjoy the relaxed banter between them. He watched Vin with particular interest. The tracker had failed to locate Clemens and it had clearly bothered him, but he seemed to have finally moved past his frustration, groaning as he tossed in his hand and standing as he did so.
"Leaving so soon, Mister Tanner?" Ezra grinned as he scooped up the cards and re-shuffled them.
"Got me a patrol," came the answer.
JD's eyes widened and he sat forward. "Erm...could I go too?"
Buck huffed, but JD cut him off. "Aww c'mon....I have to ride sometime, an' I know I can now. It's not like I'll be alone or anything."
"Fine with me."
JD grinned at Vin's declaration. Chris nodded.
"Fine, but do as Vin says, y'hear?"
Dunne stood and placed his hat on his head. "I will." With that, he left, closely followed by a laughing Tanner.
"He'll be fine, Bucklin," the tracker called back as he left.
The remaining regulators waited and watched the ladies' man, laughing as he stood.
"Well...I'm...just gonna make sure he don't fall off his horse." He hurried through the saloon doors to get to the livery and catch up to the two who had just left.
"Now who didn't see that coming?" Josiah asked with a huge smile on his face.
Buck was smiling to himself as he watched JD ride. A little stiffer than usual, but the boy's face shone with contentment. Buck looked at Vin as the tracker dropped back to ride alongside him.
"Told ya he'd be fine."
Wilmington grinned, then the mask dropped a little. "Yeah, well...it's been a long journey...y'know? "
Tanner nodded, "I know, Buck...but he's a real tough kid. We don't rightly give 'im the credit he's due."
Buck nodded. He knew that to be true, but he could only live by what was in his own heart, and that was telling him to watch out for the boy, and as long as he drew breath...he would. He jerked from his reverie as Tanner called out.
"Hey, JD...gonna swing by the McLeish place...haven't seen Angus for a week now. Reckon it won't hurt ta look in on 'im an' the Missus."
JD slowed his horse and looked back. "Sure, Vin. Good idea."
As soon as the three men approached the McLeish homestead, Vin felt uncomfortable.
"Real quiet," Buck pointed out.
"Too quiet," Vin replied.
Dismounting close to the empty corral, the three men drew their weapons and split up. Vin cautiously moved to the side of the house, while Buck and JD stepped up onto the porch and went to the door, Buck insuring JD was behind him. As the taller man eased open the door, he realized the main area was empty, so cautiously crossed the room and headed for the bedroom, the easterner close behind.
JD looked around, someone had been here... the place was a mess and smelled...odd.
Buck pushed open the door and inhaled sharply, his knees buckling slightly. He turned to JD.
"Go round back, see how Vin's doin'."
JD frowned, "Buck...what is it?"
Buck's eyes filled. "Please son, do as I say."
Dunne nodded and left, going back out the front door, his stomach in knots as to what could have caused Buck so much pain. The brunet watched him go then turned back to look at the bed, a tear rolling down his cheek and into his mustache as he looked at the ravaged, naked, beaten body of Noreen McLeish, no doubt in his mind of what torture the poor woman had been through. As he got closer, he could see her eyes, staring, her throat displaying deep bruising. With shaking hands, Buck checked for a pulse, knowing there wouldn't be one. The body was still warm, she hadn't been dead long. Bile rose in the brunet's throat, burning him and he thanked God JD hadn't seen this. His despair was absolute and didn't prepare him for the heavy blow to the back of his head.
Vin had moved to the rear of the house. He had found no one, yet felt certain someone was here. Noting a back entrance to the dwelling, he made his way toward it. He barely had time to reach out to open the door, when it flew open and something hard hit him full in the face. As he lay on the ground, dazed, Vin realized someone was standing over him.
"Been lookin' fer me, Tracker boy?"
Just as Vin fully opened his eyes, Clemens brought down a knife, Tanner moving just enough for the thrust to miss his chest but screaming in agony as the long blade went straight through his upper arm to be driven hard into the ground directly below. He passed out from the pain. Clemens stood, grinning.
"Well...ya found me."
JD was making his way around from the opposite side, taking it slowly, just as he had been taught. He instantly recognized the blood- curdling scream as Tanner's and his blood went cold. He waited a few seconds for Buck to join him, feeling sure the big man would on hearing the scream, but when he didn't arrive, the young sheriff pushed on.
He could feel himself shaking as he saw Virgil Clemens standing over Vin; his stomach rebelling as memories of the last encounter with this man assaulted his thoughts, but he took a deep breath and settled himself, stepping forward.
"Hold it right there, mister." JD felt the shaking start again as Clemens slowly turned toward him...and grinned.
"Well...look who's still with us...it's the boy sheriff. Damn, boy, I figured I'd kilt you...gonna have ta do it all again, now."
JD straightened and tried desperately to keep the tremor from his voice. "In case you hadn't noticed, mister, I'm the one holding the gun here."
Clemens laughed hard. "Boy, ya had guns, and me locked behind two sets o' bars...an' I still got to ya. Whatcha gonna do...huh? Ya gonna shoot me in cold blood? Gun me down...unarmed? You bein' a duly sworn officer of the law an' all...you reckon your duty stretches ta...murder?"
JD swallowed. "It wouldn't be murder. It would be self- defense."
"You keep thinkin' that, kid. But think on this too...I ain't gonna let you walk away...so...sheriff... you're gonna have ta shoot me...do you know what it feels like, ta shoot an unarmed man...dead?"
JD shuddered. He had killed to protect his friends, to protect himself, but never a man that had no weapon. God...what would Buck do?
"Don't have to kill you...if I shoot both your legs you won't get far."
Clemens laughed again. "No...but I will get better...and then I'll be comin' for you...for all of you."
Dunne looked on in horror. This man was crazy.
Buck groaned and with great effort pushed himself up, instantly regretting it as his stomach roiled with the movement. He controlled his breathing and once he had settled, pulled himself up by means of the bedstead, his stomach churning again as he was faced with the graphically exposed body of Missus McLeish. Picking up the bedspread from the floor, Buck covered her body. Straightening, he half- walked, half-staggered toward the front door, completely missing the back door in his disoriented state...his determination driven by his concern for JD and Vin.
Just as Buck had made it to the back corner of the house he heard voices, instantly recognizing JD's and identifying another man's. He gasped at what he heard, then jumped at the gunshot.
As Clemens was talking, he was taking tiny steps forward, at first unnoticed by the youth.
"See, kid...I need you and them others you ride with, out of the way... seen me some nice fillies in town just waitin' ta be ridden 'til they drop. So...you'd best shoot me, boy...I ain't gonna leave 'til I've ridden each of 'em hard, then squeezed the life outta them."
JD swallowed hard at Clemens' words, raising his gun on realizing the man had advanced on him. "I said hold it, Clemens. I mean it...I will shoot if I have to."
"Then do it, runt...I'm comin' for ya, then your friends...then those fine ladies around town. Don't forget...I got two of yer buddies right here...gonna have me some fun with them..."
"Please," JD cocked his gun, his heart pounding. "This is my last warning, Clemens, stand still...you're under arrest. Stay where you are or I'll shoot."
"Then shoot me...go on...just how much of a man are you?" He took another step forward, "It's you or me...you ain't got the guts...you're just a boy doin' a man's job. Ya scared kid? Hoping yer friend in the house'll come an' save ya? He can't...he's dead. Well? What are ya waitin' for, runt...GO ON...SHOOT ME!"
As he yelled, Clemens lurched forward. JD fired, and for a second the man hovered just before him, a wild look on his smiling face. Then JD saw the hole in Clemens forehead, just before the man crashed to the ground...dead.
"Oh God..." JD could barely control his breathing, a small tremor building to violent shaking, both hands still holding the smoking gun.
He jerked as hands came around him and gripped the gun.
"JD...let go, son...give me the gun."
For a second, JD's grip was vise-like and Buck struggled to uncoil the rigid fingers, but as JD's senses registered the familiar voice, the grip was released.
"Yeah, I'm here kid...let me take the gun...good boy."
Suddenly all the strain and emotion caught up with the youth. He turned to look at Wilmington.
"He...he said you were dead." JD turned again to look at Clemens' still form. "Oh no. Oh God Buck...what have I done? Oh God, no..."
Buck staggered around to once again be in front of the youth, cupping his face between his large hands as they made eye contact.
"Listen to me...you did good...he wasn't giving up, kid. Gun or no gun...he was coming for you...then me an' Vin, then God knows who else. Missus McLeish is dead, JD...he attacked and murdered her in her own home. You did the right thing...you did good."
JD stared vacantly at him for a few moments, then the emotion washed through him from his head to his feet. Sensing the moment, Buck pulled him close, JD relaxing into the clinch for a few moments, then pulling back. He reached up and touched his fingers to the back of Buck's head.
"I'll be fine, this hard ole head o' mine can take most anything."
"VIN! Buck...Vin's hurt."
Pulling away, JD jogged to where the tracker lay, unmoving. He knelt beside his injured friend, looking back toward a swaying Wilmington. "Buck...help me!"
The ladies' man had followed JD's movements with his eyes. "Ahhh hell!"
Dunne didn't know what to do first. He could now see the knife had gone right through Vin's arm and was embedded in the ground. Buck joined him and dropped to his knees.
"Take his arm and hold it carefully but firmly. I'm gonna work the knife outta the ground."
JD nodded and did so, waiting for Buck's next instruction.
"Okay, it's loose...I'm just gonna pull his arm and the knife away from the ground...be ready for the jerk."
The easterner nodded. "Okay...I'm ready."
Despite the fluidity of the action, Vin howled to consciousness with the movement, coming up fighting. Buck didn't have the energy to fight him, but just managed to catch a swinging fist.
"Vin...VIN! It's Buck, and JD...easy...HEY...easy now."
Groaning in pain, Vin looked up at him. "Buck?" Then he saw his arm and squeezed his eyes closed. "Damn..."
Ignoring his own raging headache, Buck got Vin to look at him. "Are you ready for me to get it out of there?"
Vin swallowed. "Yeah...do it."
JD bent forward and helped Tanner sit up. Putting Vin's good arm around his shoulders, he held onto Tanner's wrist and looped his free arm around the tracker's waist.
Vin nodded and JD stood slowly, carefully bringing the injured man with him and guiding him toward the house. Sitting Tanner down on the porch, his back against the building, Buck talked him through what needed to be done, while JD got his own shirt from his saddlebag and ripped it into strips. When Tanner nodded he was ready, JD held Vin's shoulder and arm steady and Buck pulled on the knife, the tracker stiffening instantly. The three looked at each other then Wilmington pulled again, one quick, fast, hard tug, Vin growling out his pain and passed out as soon as the blade cleared his limb. JD leaned the Texan back and rinsed away the blood with the water from his canteen, bandaging the wound with the strips from his shirt. Seeing Tanner was okay for now, JD turned his attention to Buck, fighting off any attempts at stopping him as he cleaned and dressed Buck's gaping head wound and rested him next to Vin.
Pushing himself to his feet, Dunne looked toward the house. He would have to go in and wrap Missus McLeish's body to take back to town...and Clemens...he needed blankets. JD stared at the door and shuddered. He felt a hand on his arm and turned to see Buck standing there.
"No way, kid. You just give me a minute an' I'll be doing all that needs to be done to take the bodies into town."
Buck was determined the youth would not see the full horror of what Noreen had been through, the brunet knew it would haunt him for the rest of his life, and he wouldn't wish that on anyone, especially the kid.
An hour or so later, two bodies were draped over Buck's horse. Buck had succeeded in mounting JD's horse and JD had climbed up behind Vin, who was now awake but clearly in agony, his arm bound to his chest as his body hunched forward over the saddle horn The boy took the reins from around Vin, then of the two other horses in case Buck passed out. They hadn't found Angus McLeish, but vowed they would return again to search, riding away from the property unaware of the well's grisly secret, as Angus lay dead in its murky depths.
Several days later, Chris looked at three of his peacekeepers as all seven were sitting together in the saloon. Judge Travis had sent the sheriff from Eagle Bend to confirm Clemens was the body at the undertaker's at Four Corners and agreed they bury him. They had also buried Noreen McLeish, but well away from Virgil Clemens and with an appropriate service.
Larabee knew the three would come around eventually, but it hurt him to see them so despondent, each man fighting his own demons. He recalled them riding in that day, two bodies and three broken souls. He learned of what Buck had seen and how it now haunted him, adding to the trauma of the brunet's head injury. Vin was beating himself up over Clemens getting the drop on him, and was somehow blaming himself for JD's torment, feeling the boy would not have had to do what he did, if Vin had been more vigilant. No amount of discussion would sway the tracker's mind otherwise and he suffered silently with the pain of his injury and his guilt-ridden misery.
JD was barely over almost losing his life and now was torturing himself over a decision he had no choice in. Chris and the others knew he had to get his mindset away from where it was now trapped, or JD would likely not survive another gunfight. As each day passed, things had been slowly improving, and the other four regulators felt confident they would continue to do so...with their support.
Virgil Clemens had been but one man, yet had shattered the lives of several good people in his short time in the area. Chris hated to think how many more had suffered at his hands.
But now that was behind them, and Larabee's focus was resolutely on the here and now, here being a home and a surrogate family to be thankful for, and now was knowing there was a town that needed them and that they were still, and would go on as...seven.