Ratings/Warnings: None (A possible spoiler if you've never seen the episode 'Vendetta')
In the town jail, JD stretched and stood from his seat behind the desk. With nothing more left to do, and no prisoners to watch, he exited the sheriff's office and just caught the tail end of the sombre-suited Nichols brothers riding out of town. Frowning as he pondered where they were going, and while mumbling to himself, the young sheriff went in search of his friends. He checked the saloons, the stores, the barbers and the restaurant, without success.
JD sighed, heavily. Since breezing into town, the Nichols clan was walking around as if they owned the place, making the townspeople, and his friends, more than a mite jumpy. He didn't trust `em, `specially that one fella who seemed to have designs on Casey. He shrugged. Not that it bothered him or anything, but well, city folk were a mite different from townsfolk, and she was a friend, so he figured he should watch out for her. On hearing horses approaching from behind, JD turned. He smiled to see Buck and Vin riding toward him and stepped forward to ask where they were going in the hope that maybe he could go along; but the solemn pair rode past without giving him a second glance. His shoulders drooped.
At this rate there'd be hardly any of the Seven left in town. As he watched the duo disappear around the bend, JD thought better of not asking to ride along with them after all. He'd learned a harsh lesson back when Marshal Bryce was in town and he'd eagerly offered himself up to go with Vin to look for a missing artillery wagon. Ezra quickly pointed out that he hadn't been invited; boy, that had been an uncomfortable moment for him, anyways. Vin never made a move to say he could go along either, and from then JD figured, in future, it best to wait to be asked.
He walked along the boardwalk toward the hotel at the far end of town. Approaching the main doors, JD heard familiar voices, and inside, found Ezra and Nathan sitting and talking. They stopped when he joined them.
"Mister Dunne. Good to see you. How are you now after your little altercation?"
Wanting nothing more than to drop the whole 'dusting floors' incident, JD eyed the gambler as the man swigged back whiskey from a bottle. "I'm fine, but maybe you should go easy on that stuff. I reckon we're gonna need our wits about us when those Nichols fellas get back." He thumbed toward the door. "Where'd they ride off to, anyway? And where's Buck and Vin going? I woulda gone with 'em if they needed help."
Ezra glanced up at Nathan offering him the opportunity to reply, which he did. "Word is, the Nichols are heading to Chris's shack in the hills. Buck and Vin are riding out to warn him."
The young sheriff's brow knitted in a deep frown. "The Nichols got a good head start. Not even Buck and Vin can do anything about that."
Nathan grinned. "Yeah, they got a head start, alright by means of Ezra's directions."
It took a second for the information to filter through, then JD grinned. "Oh, right. How much time you buy `em?"
"Enough," Ezra replied with a grin, and with such conviction that JD figured he couldn't be wrong.
JD absently glanced around. "Anyone seen Josiah?" he asked.
"He's around," Nathan answered. "He's still with Ma Nichols. I reckon he got his hands full with that old lady."
With a nod, and realizing he could do no more there, JD touched his hat in parting, and walked back toward the jail.
Just before reaching the jailhouse, JD spotted Casey further along the street and outside Potter's store. He was about to cross to join her when he paused instead, and leaned against a support to watch. Package in hand, she was twisting left and right as she gazed at her reflection in the store window. He had never seen her behave that way before shoot, she barely ever brushed her hair, let alone worried about how fine she was looking. JD shook his head. Ever since that Nichols fella threw some fancy words her way, she'd been acting like a heifer in heat. He chewed his bottom lip. While not really sure what that meant, he recalled Buck saying it once about Missus Travis over Chris, back when them working girls were in town. Casey sure was behaving the same way right now.
The girl turned. Seeing JD, she smiled, and waved to him, but before JD could react, her smile widened and she flounced off. The boy huffed.
If that's how she wanted to play it, weren't no way he was gonna chase after her, no sir.
Late evening, and Nathan and Ezra were in the saloon, while Josiah was sitting on the boardwalk outside the hotel the Nichols were staying at; his only light in the gloom being from the watchfires, and the lamplight reflecting through the hotel doors and windows. Ma Nichols was there too, pacing while waiting on her boys' return. JD kept himself occupied between being in the jailhouse, and patrolling the street. With so many of his friends out of town, he figured it best he got on with it. He was doing the latter when the pounding of hooves heralded the return to town of the Nichols brothers. He dipped into the saloon to inform Nathan and Ezra, who promptly told him to go figure how things had gone for the men, before reporting back to them.
Keeping to the shadows, and using the buildings and alleys as cover, JD hurried toward where Josiah was sitting. While more than prepared to be available in case Josiah needed help, the easterner remained hidden when it was clear the preacher was under no direct threat at least, not at that very moment. The conversation between the mother and sons, and Josiah's interspersed comments had the boy's neck hairs standing on end.
"He tricked us, Ma."
"Who tricked you?" she asked.
"That fancy-talkin' fella."
"There's seven of 'em, Ma. They've been protecting Connolly, playing us for fools."
Ma Nichols spun to face Josiah. "Is that true? Are there seven men protecting Hank Connolly?"
Sanchez sipped slowly on a whiskey. "You should take your boys and leave town, Ma'am."
The woman's eyes flashed with fury and, JD decided, a hint of crazy. "You tell those men I will not be made a fool of. You tell those seven men I'm sending them and Connolly straight to the devil."
Without reaction, Josiah replied. "I'll pass that along."
"And, you, Preacher...you can pray for their souls."
The tiny tilt of Josiah's head suggested to JD he heard his sharp intake of breath at her threat. Thankfully, the family had not, and as the brothers rode their horses to the livery, Ma Nichols returned inside the hotel.
"Come out, son."
JD peeled himself away from the building he was flat against, and joined Josiah. "They don't know you're one of us," he stated.
Josiah nodded. "So it would seem. Go find Nathan and Ezra, and tell them to meet me at the church."
With a nod, JD trotted off, but his heart was heavy. This situation was becoming grim, yet while some of the fellas were actively involved in keeping the Nichols from finding Hank, all he seemed good for so far was to be little more than a messenger boy. He kicked out at a stone in his path. JD wanted action, he wanted to show those bullies they couldn't come to their town and threaten folk...especially the Seven.
Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were clearly no less frustrated by the situation. They had expected Buck and Vin, and maybe Chris, to have returned by now, but it wasn't to be; so all they could do was sit and ponder their options. Sadly, they were few, and now it seemed, whether Chris and the others came back with Hank, or even if only Buck and Vin returned, the regulators had a fight on their hands. The only thing in their favour right now was that the Nichols clan had retired for the night.
"We can take 'em, right?"
The three men smiled at JD's unwavering belief in his friends. Ezra rubbed his chin with a thumb.
"Well, from what I have observed, they are heavily armed, and highly motivated."
"So are we," JD argued.
"That may be," Nathan replied. "But they seem mighty confident of themselves considering they're so far away from home."
"Have to say," Josiah added. "That old lady believes God is on their side. She won't be backing down until us, and Hank, are crow bait."
JD swallowed, nervously. "Well...she's got one hell of a fight on her hands if she thinks she can come here and threaten us." He rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "One hell of a fight, yes sir-ee."
Having been awake before dawn that morning for the early shift, in fact, all of the shifts at the jail, and despite his concern for their three absent friends, and the dilemma the Seven were facing, JD had unsuccessfully tried to stifle several yawns. After another suppressed jaw-cracker, Josiah sat forward in the pew he occupied.
"Go to bed, John Dunne. We need you fresh for whatever the morning brings."
JD frowned. "Josiah, I'm fine, I can wait..."
"Weariness causes errors," Ezra reminded. "We too shall be retiring, directly."
Reluctantly, JD nodded. They were right. Nothing was likely to happen until morning. Bidding them goodnight, JD took one last tour of the town, and then headed off to bed.
The next morning and considerably refreshed, the young sheriff left his room. After noting Buck's bed had not been slept in, JD stepped out from the boarding house into the bright, early morning sunshine and went in search of his friends. He smiled when he approached Potter's store and called out to the woman inside.
"`Morning Missus Potter."
"Good morning, JD."
He stopped and peeked in. "Have you seen Josiah, Nathan, or Ezra this morning, Ma'am?"
Gloria nodded. "Why yes. I saw them go into the saloon for breakfast."
JD touched his hat. "Much obliged Ma'am." Crossing the street, he noticed the Nichols brothers hovering around outside their hotel. He wondered if they were watching out for Buck, Vin, and Chris, which led him to pondering as to whether the three had returned to town yet. He suddenly felt uncomfortable when, before moving away, all but one of the brothers looked his way and stared at him for a few long moments. The man called Peter tipped his hat to someone, and then crossed the street to follow after his siblings.
That's when JD noticed Casey, just ahead of him and leaning against a support post outside Watson's store. She was grinning back at Peter Nichols, who held her gaze until he and his brothers disappeared from view. Exasperated about how dumb she was acting around these, these...desperadoes, JD strode up behind her. His arm outstretched, he gestured toward the departing family. "Would you look at them. Prancing around like a bunch of peacocks."
Casey smiled, gleefully. "JD, you don't have to be jealous of them."
The boy huffed and rested his hands on his guns. "I ain't jealous of a bunch of city slicker desperadoes."
"Desperadoes? Bad men don't travel with their mother."
JD came around from behind Casey, and leaned in to face her. "You ain't met her." He figured she should; she'd soon change her mind about 'em all.
Casey pushed away from the post and flapped a sprig of wildflowers in JD's face before flouncing away. It was clear she was enjoying his frustration. "You shouldn't talk that way about other people's mothers."
Left alone to once again shake his head at her behavior, JD watched her walk away. 'Ah, to hell with her.' If she wanted to act like some love-sick fool, so be it. He was hungry, and Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were already eating. Best get on, just in case Buck, Vin, and Chris rode in and needed their help.
He stepped off the boardwalk to cross in front of the alley to get to the saloon, unaware of several men laying in wait as he did so. He halted sharply when the Nichols brother that yesterday had pushed him flat on his back in the saloon, stepped right into his face.
"Watch where you're going."
JD's heart thumped in his chest, but he tried to stay calm when the other men quickly hemmed him in against the side of Watson's store. He smiled, nervously. "Now don't go sneakin' up on people like that, huh, boys?"
Peter Nichols raised his head and looked back at JD with a sadistic smile. "Now I know who you are. You're the messenger boy."
JD struggled to speak around the lump forming in his throat. "I...I don't think you know what you're talking about." `Shoot...was what he mostly did around town yesterday that obvious?'
Nichols's tight smile grew. "Now, don't be offended. It's the best job in town."
JD tried to compose himself. 'Okay...okay...they wanted him to deliver a message. He could do that...yep, just stay calm and listen...'
Nope, damnit...his mouth had other ideas. "Yeah, and why is that?"
Peter Nichols leaned in. "We don't...kill the messenger."
Before he could react, JD was surrounded, and then herded toward the back of the alley by the men in black mourning attire. He was just thinking this was a funny way to go about giving him a message, when the first blow...hard to his gut...took his breath away. As JD doubled over, and while cruel fingers tangled in his hair and pulled him up straight, a curled fist punched him hard in the face, several times. His last cognizant thought before going into an agonized daze from a vicious, and prolonged pounding from most, if not all the men surrounding him, was that when he found his friends, and they laid eyes on him, this would be one message he might not need to say aloud in order to pass it on.
Without words, these men were making their intentions painfully clear.
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