Summary: An ancient ritual takes a young man on a journey into manhood, but he learns so much more.
It was a warm evening that saw the seven peacekeepers in shirtsleeves as they sat around their usual table amidst the smoke-filled haze of the saloon.
Taking a short break from their poker game, Vin was regaling them with an old Cherokee Indian legend, most of the men smiling and drinking as they listened, and one totally engrossed in the tale. As Vin stopped to drink, JD sat back in his chair, his mouth open, his eyes, huge.
"That's amazing. So, by sitting in the forest all night, blindfolded, the boy was instantly welcomed back to his tribe as a man?" JD took a sip of his milk and just as Buck was realizing the wheels in JD's brain were turning, the boy spoke.
"Could I do that?"
For an instant, his question was met by silence, then Buck, seeing JD about to add more, shook his head.
"Got nothing to prove, boy."
JD frowned.. "Maybe I have."
Chris smacked his lips as he put down his beer. "You don't."
Vin attemped to elaborate. "Kid, the Cherokee have been carryin' out this Rite of Passage for most, if not all of their existence. The boy wasn't allowed to share what he was about to do and no one before him was allowed to tell what happens, so his father prepared his son for it his whole life, right up until it was time."
"Well, by what you say, I have a few years on him," JD pointed out.
"You will be unarmed," Ezra put in.
"I know," JD nodded.
"Blindfolded," Nathan reminded.
"That's the point," JD agreed.
"Alone," Josiah stated.
JD frowned. "Again, that's the point."
"And you'd likely get into enough trouble facing wild animals armed and in daylight, let alone blind, unarmed and at night."
Barely able to disguise his disappointment at Buck's words, JD nodded, put down his glass and stood, snatching up his jacket and hat as he did so.
"Yeah, I guess you're right." He glanced at his friends. "I'm kinda tired. G'night."
A chorus of `goodnights' went up as JD left the establishment. Noting the glares, Buck stared at the others.
"What? I told him what he needed to hear to get this fool notion out of his head," Buck stated.
"And so subtly done, Mister Wilmington," Ezra said as he scooped up the cards and shuffled the deck.
Buck huffed. "I'd rather him mad at me than chewed t'death by a wolf one night."
Vin leaned forward. "I say he should do it if it's that important to him." The tracker held up a hand against any oncoming protests.
"I never got to finish the story, an' now I know the kid's interested, this is the part the boy in the woods was never told until the ritual was over."
Chris grinned. "Let's hear it."
Heading down for breakfast the next morning, JD couldn't decide if he was angry with Buck for maybe thinking he was too green to see this `Rite of Passage' through, or flattered that the man cared enough to want JD to drop it. Stepping off the boardwalk and into another warm, clear day, JD's mood lightened the further into the sunshine he got. By the time he walked into the restaurant, he was back to his usual bouncing self.
"'Morning, fellas." He smiled as Buck pushed out a chair with his foot and JD took his seat around a full table. JD did a double take, he couldn't recall the last time the Seven had eaten breakfast together.
"'Mornin'" came the various replies. Buck stared at the younger man, his grin widening as JD smiled at him.
"Kid 'bout last night "
Thanking the waitress for his milk and taking a quick sip, JD shook his head. "Forget it, Buck. You were right, what chance would someone like me have in a situation like that?" He chuckled. "I don't know what I was thinking."
"What if we said we all thought it was a good idea?"
Stopping mid-sip, JD stared at Chris. His eyes narrowed, wondering if this was some kind of ribbing, but the eyes of his hero showed nothing but sincerity.
"You do?" the kid asked..
Buck slapped him on the shoulder. "Hell yeah, if you want to offer yourself up as supper to some coyote, who are we to stop you?" The twinkle in Buck's eyes and the smile on his face made it clear he was just teasing.
His mouth open as he tried to find the words to reply, JD turned toward Vin as the tracker spoke.
"The moon'll be perfect tomorrow night. You still interested?"
Even though his head was screaming `say no you idiot', JD nodded. "Yeah." He watched Chris throw down his napkin and stand.
"Tomorrow night it is."
As he walked the main street that afternoon, JD stopped off at the church.
Sanchez stopped his sawing and, smiling, turned to the youth. "John Daniel, what brings you here?"
"Can I ask you a question?"
Straightening and wiping his hands, Josiah stepped closer.. "Of course." He waited patiently as JD found the words.
"Do you think I'm crazy, wanting to do this thing tomorrow night?"
Josiah squeezed the youth's shoulder. "Every man has a right to choose the path that allows him to hold his head high with dignity."
The preacher chuckled. "No, I don't think you're crazy. I think it's a very brave and honorable thing you're doing."
"Brave? So, you think it's too dangerous?"
"If there wasn't an element of risk, there would be no honor in it."
JD smiled. "Thanks." He moved to go, turning back as Josiah spoke again.
"JD if you change your mind, no one will think less of you. You have already proved yourself to us more times than we care to remember."
The young sheriff nodded. "Thanks, that means a lot to me."
Watching him go, Sanchez picked up his saw and resumed his task. "God's not the only one who has your back, son."
Spotting Standish on his way to the saloon, JD chased after him. "Ezra!"
The southerner smiled as his youngest friend approached. "Mister Dunne, come to make a wager on how you will fare tomorrow night?" he smiled.
"No!" JD tilted his head. "The others are betting on me?"
"Alas, no," Ezra confessed, "not yet, anyway, but I still have time.." He saw JD's face fall.
"I jest, my young friend. Actually, I think this is a most extraordinary thing you are doing, and I applaud your tenacity in wanting to carry this through."
"That's good, right?"
Chuckling, Ezra placed an arm around JD's shoulders. "Most definitely. May I offer you a beverage?"
"Thanks, maybe later?"
"Later, it is."
"Thanks, for not making fun of me."
Standish grinned. "Now, why would I target you, when Mister Wilmington provides me with so much material to use on him?"
Relieved to see the wink, JD grinned and headed off. Ezra tracked his movements.
"There's little amusement in teasing the virtuous," the southerner said, softly.
Seeing Nathan standing on his balcony, JD hopped up the stairs to join him outside the clinic.
"JD. You feeling okay?"
Dunne nodded. "Sure I reckon so. Well, maybe I was hoping you could tell me."
Nathan frowned. "I'm listening."
"This `Rite of Passage' thing, it's not our way, is it?"
"Not normally the road we travel, no, but it doesn't make it any less right to do it."
"Really? I was worried ya'll might think I was going crazy."
Nathan smiled. "Who says we don't think that every day?"
JD hung his head and grinned. "Yeah, yeah." Despite knowing Nathan was joshing, JD still snuck a look, to be sure.
"So, you making the rounds to see if any of us has doubts?"
JD shrugged. "Maybe yeah, I guess."
"We all have doubts, JD don't mean we think you shouldn't do it."
Tapping both hands on the rail, JD nodded. "Thanks. Uh, Nathan?"
"If a bear or something should find me "
"I'll be ready," the healer winked. As JD left, Jackson returned to his clinic. "Been ready since the first day I met, you, kid."
Sitting, reading outside the jailhouse, Chris swallowed his grin as he watched his youngest peacekeeper bounce on his heels several times before finally coming over and taking a seat next to him. Not looking up from his book, Chris spoke.
"Hey, Chris." Silence reigned for at least a minute, a record for JD, Chris observed.
"Can I help you with anything?" Larabee finally asked, glancing up briefly.
JD took a breath. "Would you do it?"
"Do what?" Chris asked, already knowing the answer.
"What I'm planning on doing tomorrow night."
Chris marked the page as he closed his book and looked at the youth. "You mean, sit blindfold, in a forest, alone, through the night, without a weapon?"
JD nodded, paling a little. It really did sound crazy when put like that.
Chris shook his head. "No."
JD's heart sank. "Ain't that crazy, huh?"
The blond stared at him. "I ain't that brave."
Swallowing, the easterner shook his head. "You're one of the bravest men I know, Chris."
Larabee grinned and patted JD's knee. "You should look in the mirror more often. See you at dinner." He stood and crossed the street, leaving the young sheriff gawping after him. `Chris thinks I'm brave?'
After a long night for JD of dreaming of bears and wolves chasing Indians, the even longer day finally moved into evening and Buck, Vin and JD mounted up to head out. The other four peacekeepers stood on the boardwalk to see their friends off and with a nervous grin from JD the three rode out. As they entered the forest, JD's nerves began to kick in. He felt sure his two companions could hear his heart thumping.
"Not too late to turn back, kid," Buck assured, as if sensing the tension.
"Naw, I'm good," JD half squeaked, swallowing some water to combat the dryness in his throat. "Is it far, Vin?"
"'Bout another ten minutes or so." He turned to his friends. "You'll be followin' in the footsteps of some very brave men," Vin stated.
JD nodded. "Do you know of anyone who did this, Vin?"
Tanner was nodding now.
"Would I have heard of him?" JD wondered.
Vin grinned. "You're lookin' at him."
Buck chuckled softly as he and JD watched Vin trot ahead. The brunet reached out and held onto JD's shoulder. "If it wasn't for Vin, I doubt you'd be doing this. He supported you all the way, son and persuaded the rest of us it was your right to do this if you wanted to."
"You're still not convinced, are you Buck?"
"I truly admire your grit JD, but, truth be told, I'm scared for you."
Dunne nodded.. "You and me both."
Buck grinned. "Well then, you'll be fine. It takes a brave man to admit to being scared."
JD smiled his thanks. Despite wanting to do this, in truth, he knew that he was terrified.
They caught up with Vin at the edge of a small clearing. He was off his horse and waiting patiently. "We walk from here," he called.
Both dismounting, Buck slipped his rifle from its sheath and he and JD followed Vin into the clearing. There, they saw three tree stumps. After suggesting JD relieve himself and when the youth returned, Tanner pointed to one.
"You're to sit there, all night and not move. I'll face you east an' when you feel the sun on your face, you can take off the blindfold."
JD nodded his understanding. He looked at Vin. "Thanks. Knowing you did this too, has helped a lot."
The Texan grinned. "Hoped it would. Ready?"
JD nodded. "Not really."
Vin laughed. "Give me your gunbelt, jacket and hat."
"Why my jacket and hat?" He saw the look on Vin's face. "Okay."
"By rights, you should be wearin' a headdress made from a buffalo head, but, seein' we don't have us one o' those, then hatless, it is." He nodded to Buck and the big man stepped behind JD and tied the blindfold.
"Don't do anythin' stupid," Buck half warned, half begged.
"You mean like running away from here screaming? No problem," JD assured.
Buck and Vin chuckled as they guided JD to the stump and helped him sit.
"See you in the morning, kid," Buck said, softly.
"Always the optimist, huh Buck?" JD said, shakily. He was shocked when Vin's next words came from a distance away.
"No talkin' or movin', kid. This is it, now."
Straining his ears, JD realized they were gone. "Oh God," he breathed. "Okay, JD settle down, you can do this. Ain't no bears gonna eat you wolves have hopefully had supper by now." He jerked at the rustling of a bush somewhere behind him. Making the sign of the cross, JD muttered a soft prayer."Dear God, give me courage,
for perhaps I lack it more than anything else
I need courage to fight against the devil,
against terrors and troubles, temptations,
attractions, darkness and false lights,
against tears, depression, and above all fear.
I need Your help, dear God.
Strengthen me with Your love and Your grace. and grant me the courage to persevere
He took in a deep breath. "Good thing nothing but the bears, wolves and coyotes heard that!" he murmured. "Snakes aw hell do snakes come out at night?"
The world seemed so strange without sight, JD decided. Things sounded louder or at least, he hoped they did, he hated to think they were that close.
He thought about his mother and how he missed her smile, and her touch, her voice and her kindness.
Then he thought about his friends and his new home. He was happy now, but he so wanted to be like them, strong, brave, true, confident fearless. Was that why he was doing this?
He decided it was. `Great, this one thing to prove yourself could just as easily cause your death, JD.' He considered what each man had said to him over the last two days, still amazed neither one of them had made him feel foolish. He wondered if they were laughing about him, now.
`At least I'll leave `em happy,' he thought, flinching at another sound somewhere to the side of him. "Aww, shoot...breathe, JD...it's gone, see, it's gone."
He wondered why he wasn't tired. It was the middle of the night probably and yet his senses were wide awake and on alert. `Just as well if I doze off and fall off this stump, Lord knows what I'll attract.' Funny how suddenly a simple tree stump now held the secret to his survival.
JD went back to thinking about his friends. Buck and Vin had left so quickly. He hadn't even said goodbye, and they were gone. He smiled as he thought about the story Vin had shared, his grin widening as he thought about Buck. `I wonder if Buck really will miss me?' he pondered, before shaking off the morbid thoughts.
JD shivered. He wasn't cold, just scared to death. But, suddenly, he didn't mind. If this was how he was meant to go out, so be it. Maybe others would think it a foolish way to die, but his friends thought what he was doing was honorable.
And that was good enough for him.
What seemed like an eternity later,and after much soul-searching, JD made the tiniest of movements to stretch his body, He tilted his head. Was that warmth on his face? His heart beat faster at the thought that he had actually survived the night but he waited, he wanted to be sure, it would be disastrous if he got it wrong after all this time.
Very soon, a grin adorned his handsome face. He could see light bleeding through the fabric of his blindfold. He had done it dawn was breaking. Hands trembling, JD reached up to pull the cloth over his head, blinking hard against the invading brightness. He frowned.
Before him, the man he had become so close to was grinning, sitting cross-legged on another stump, a rifle nestled in his arms and across his lap.
JD's heart leapt and tears welled in his eyes as he realized what his friend had done for him, but the euphoria and emotion of seeing him there suddenly switched to dismay.
"But if you were here all night I didn't succeed "
"That's not what the ritual's about, kid."
JD turned his head to see Vin walking through the trees and into the clearing. "You were here too? Aw, hell wait, what do you mean, `not what it's about'?" He looked up as the Texan stopped in front of him.
"No, only Buck's been with you all night." Vin assured. "Y'see, the Rite of Passage involves the boy spending the night blindfolded and alone to earn the right to be called a man.. Until he takes off the blindfold, he's done what's been asked of him he believed he was alone, when in truth, his father was there protectin' him all night."
JD swallowed. "It was never about surviving the dangers of the forest at night "
" Nope, just believin' you did," Vin finished, grinning. "You did it, kid you took that journey."
JD stared at the tracker, speechless.
The pair turned to see Buck struggling to get up. "Gotten stiff, sitting here all night," he explained.
Laughing, Vin helped JD up and the two got Buck to his feet. Mentor and protégé faced each other, both suddenly overcome with emotion as the big man wrapped a hand around the back of the boy's neck.
"I couldn't be more proud of you," Buck choked out.
JD smiled, raising his hand to clasp Buck's outstretched arm. "You stayed with me the whole night."
Tanner grinned widely as the pair took on board all that had happened, eventually speaking as he pointed. "Horses are back there, through the trees."
Unable to contain himself any longer, Buck pulled the youth in for a tight clinch, JD hugging right back, the pair breaking apart a little while later.
"Thank you, Buck," JD whispered.
Buck grinned, one hand still on JD's shoulder. "Hey d'you really think I was gonna leave my little brother out here, all alone, in the dark with a forest full of wild animals?"
Seeing JD struggling, he gestured with his head. "Let's go eat."
Recovering a little, JD nodded.
Buck grinned. "As long as it ain't fried snake, huh?"
JD shot Buck a look. Oh God, Buck had heard everything JD had said to himself
Buck's grin widened as he winked. "No snake."
The three had been walking a few minutes and JD was just about to ask where exactly the horses were when the smell of coffee and bacon reached his nose. Stepping into a small clearing, JD chuckled on seeing four peacekeepers camped around a roaring fire. He had no words for how he felt at that moment, his heart soaring as, one by one, the four approached, grinning. Ezra shook his hand, Nathan thumped his shoulder, Josiah swept him into a tight bear hug and Chris stood before him. JD's heart skipped a beat as he waited for Chris to speak.
Larabee extended his hand. "Welcome to manhood, kid." His face broke into a grin as JD shook his hand and Chris pulled him into a quick clinch, patting the boy on the back as they broke apart.
"And not a fine lady in sight," Buck laughed, the others joining him as they all moved toward the bedrolls around the fire and started dishing out the bacon and beans.
Sitting there, sipping their coffees, Chris spoke.
"So, was it worth it, JD?"
The youth nodded. "Yeah, it was. I found out a lot about myself last night. That said I would never want to do it again!"
The men nodded their approval. Vin's eyes twinkled.
"Really, kid? Only there's this one ceremony where a young man has to sit out four days and nights without food or water "
"No!" came five voices. JD shrugged and stifled a chuckle by drinking his coffee. No one missed the huge yawn.
"Well, if it's all the same to you fellas, I'm ready for my bed."
Chris looked at Buck. "Your own bed?"
"Hell yeah, ain't got enough energy to poke a stick at a fire, much less poke "
"Thank you, Buck, we understand your meaning," Ezra cut in.
Josiah gestured with his head and they all looked toward Buck, who now understood the warm weight against his arm. He shook his sleeping friend.
"Hey, kid come on. Let's go home."
"Sure..." JD mumbled, not waking at all. Nathan took over when Buck slipped away and saddled his horse. Mounting, he gestured for JD to be seated in front of him. Protesting mildly, JD was hauled to his feet and in minutes was sitting on Buck's gray and resting back against Buck's chest, asleep once again and oblivious to the arms wrapped protectively around him.
The other five quickly following suit, the Seven were soon all mounted and riding back toward town. A new day had dawned and none of them doubted a new adventure was likely close behind.
But, maybe they could get some sleep first.
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