Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Ratings/Warnings: Some bad language
Summary: Seven men ride out to save a town, but at what personal cost?
My thanks to Sherry for going over this for me. Your help was invaluable, hun :o)
I do however love to fiddle, so all mistakes are mine :o)
For Lisa C.
Late morning in their preferred saloon, and six peacekeepers were engaged in a game of poker, though the heart of at least one was not truly in it.
Acknowledging the grins from around the table while ignoring the tone that suggested Standish knew exactly what JD was holding, the easterner folded, picked up his hat, and walked out of the saloon. Buck went to throw in his hand but Vin stopped him and threw in his.
"Nope, I reckon the look Ezra just pitched you is reason enough for you to stay, I'll go after 'im." With a touch to his hat, Vin rose to his feet and left.
Buck grinned at the southerner, ignoring the face he made. "I'll see you, and raise you a dollar."
"You okay, kid?"
Not turning away from his gaze on the jail, JD shrugged. "Just wondering why the Judge came to see Chris. He's been in there a long time, don't you think? What do you reckon he wants?"
Tanner nodded his agreement. "Yeah, it's been a while, soon as Chris knows for sure, I reckon we will too."
Dunne sighed. "You don't think he's come to split us up again, then?"
Noise from behind them suggested the poker game was over. They turned
to see all four peacekeepers exit the saloon, Buck grinning like a loon, and nudging an unamused Ezra.
"I...I was somewhat distracted by Mister Dunne's and Mister Tanner's sudden departures."
Watching as Chris exited the jail, shook hands with the Judge and sauntered toward them, all six men took a deep breath.
Larabee stopped in front of them and smiled *that* smile. "Boys, let's ride."
The seven men rode hard for two days, to eventually arrive at a dusty, rickety town. As they approached the livery, it became obvious people were staring at them, seemingly...in fear.
JD leaned over to Vin. "What did you say the name of this town was?"
"'Freedom'," Vin answered.
"Sure isn't much to look at," Buck stated, as he glanced around at the dilapidated buildings, broken hitching posts and pot-holed street.
"Just as well we are only passing through," Ezra commented. "Aesthetically, it is certainly not pleasing to the eye. One can only speculate at what delights it may hold for us." He glanced at Chris, noting a look that spoke volumes. "I stand corrected, gentlemen, it would appear we have arrived at our destination."
Chris halted them with one hand raised, then climbed down from his horse to approach the sweaty blacksmith at the front of the livery.
"You got room for seven horses?"
The blacksmith looked up at him. "One night?"
Larabee shrugged. "Not sure, yet."
"Two dollars fer the night, fer each horse."
"Two dollars?" Nathan called out. "Are you crazy?"
The man shrugged. "Them's the rates, take 'em or leave 'em."
Larabee looked at his men, then back to the blacksmith. "We'll take 'em."
Understanding Chris' underlying tone, the six dismounted and led their horses into the stalls, paying the smithy for two nights each, on their way out. From there, the seven men headed over to the saloon.
Rumbling murmurs circled the smoky, dimly lit room, while the peacekeepers chose a table. The seven men looked to each other, a silent message passing between them as they noted the apprehension in the eyes of the regulars. Before he could sit, JD turned at a tap on his shoulder, his eyes falling on a pretty saloon girl, not much older than himself.
"You want for me to show you a good time, cowboy?"
JD looked at her, hoping he didn't look as shocked as he felt. "Uh..."
The girl leaned in and, taking his hand, she whispered into his ear. "I need to talk to you, but we're being watched. Come upstairs with me...please."
Dunne looked at her. Despite everything he had ever been taught now telling him to at least consider his options, something in her eyes made him nod. The two disappeared up the stairs in seconds.
Standish pointed. "Good Lord, Mister Wilmington's ways have finally corrupted our young sheriff."
Buck frowned while turning to where Ezra was pointing. "What the...?" He looked at the others, unable to speak.
"Well, Buck, looks like you really have been teaching him dutifully," Josiah grinned.
"I'm speechless," Wilmington squeaked.
Ezra smirked. "Well, there really *is* a first time for everything."
Chris and Vin glanced at each other, but before they could speak, a woman was taking their orders, offering a selection of food to go with the beer.
"Should we order for JD?" Nathan wondered.
"Reckon he's gettin' his boots filled as we speak," Vin drawled, dropping his head and smiling at the look Buck threw him.
Larabee watched and listened to the exchanges. He knew his old friend, and any other time Buck would have been as proud as a peacock of the kid he had taken under his wing and, for better or worse, took it upon himself to guide the boy through the pitfalls that was life out West, but it *had* seemed a little...abrupt.
JD hesitated as he reached the room door. 'I'm gonna get robbed, I know it,' he thought to himself.
"Come on," the girl urged him, opening the door to pull him inside.
"Oh Molly...I asked for a man, you brought me a child."
JD stared at the woman sitting on the bed. Oh God...she'd likely chew him up and spit him out before the others had downed their first beer.
"He came in with them mama...he's one of 'em."
JD rallied. "I'm not a child." If he was going down, he was going down fighting...and as a man.
The woman held out her hand. "Come here, boy."
"You know, I don't have a whole lot of money," he warned the mother and daughter as he approached the bed, noticing now, the older woman's withered legs. "Ma'am?"
She took his hand and guided him to sit next to her. "You're one of the seven men that are spoken of with fear and awe?"
JD nodded, oblivious to her discerning look.
The woman paused, and then smiled. "Well then, I'm Lara, and this is Molly, my daughter. We heard y'all were coming, and prayed that it was true. This town is badly in need of your help. Tell your friends...there' s a man by the name of Kitcher...lives a few miles outside of town...big rancher, very rich. He has this town in a stranglehold. Takes money from every business that ain't his, though, most are, controls the livery, provisions store and saloon. For every man we bed, he takes all but a few pennies from us. We can't afford to live and we can't afford to leave."
"You want to leave?" Dunne asked.
"A choice would be nice, but mostly, we want to live, and Kitcher has to be stopped, before he kills again. Please...will you ask your friends to help us?"
Six pairs of eyes watched with interest as JD trotted down the stairs. Jumping the last few, he walked to the empty chair at their table, sat down and taking the beer he hoped was his, took a long draw.
Buck chuckled. "Damn...you really are a sly dog."
JD frowned at his mentor, completely missing the point as his mind spun with all he'd just heard.
"Something you'd like to share with us, JD?" Chris threw down his napkin, confident he wasn't about to be regaled with tales of a sexual encounter. JD nodded and leaned in conspiratorially, the others subconsciously following suit.
"Well, firstly, we're being watched, but I guess you already know that, and, secondly, it sure seems the name 'Freedom' don't describe this town real well. If you all are prepared to help these people...then we got trouble."
Chris grinned, his gaze roving his friends' faces. "Looks like we're in the right place then. Let's see about getting us some rooms."
The next day, as JD was rumbling around in the musty, long abandoned Sheriff's office, Molly poked her head in the door. "Hello."
Taking off his hat, JD grinned. "'Morning." He glanced around. "I guess it's been a while since you had a sheriff, huh?"
She nodded. "He disappeared just after Kitcher arrived. We were told he handed in his badge, but none of us really believed that. Kyle was a good, honorable man, and this town was a good, thriving town, `til Kitcher and his cronies showed up."
JD leaned back against the desk, grinning. "So, is this a visit with a purpose, or you just passing the time of day?"
"I was on my way to the store." She looked at him wistfully. "Could use some company...if you're not too busy."
Nodding, JD grabbed his hat. "Sure."
Nathan chuckled as he happened upon Josiah at the boarded up church. "Couldn't stay away, huh?"
Sanchez grinned. "It called to me, Nathan."
"Did it happen to tell you `forget it, I'm too far gone to be saved'?"
"Oh ye of little faith, brother. No lady is too far gone to be saved, and this beautiful creature was once a very fine lady."
Jackson shook his head. "Well, I could use someplace to help sick folk while I'm here...so we'd best get to seein' just how much `help' she needs."
With a nod, the pair set to work.
Ezra loved poker...loved to play, and loved to win, but winning from these poor souls did not sit well with him. He watched as two men between them, carried a brightly dressed woman down the stairs and sat her at his table. Rising, he touched his hat before re- taking his seat.
"Am I right in assuming you are the lovely Lara my young friend spoke of?"
"Am I right in assuming you and your friends are staying to help us?" The look between them answered both questions. "It won't be an easy confrontation. "
"They rarely are, dear lady."
"I have a few things you may want to hear."
Leaning in, Standish grinned. "I'm all ears."
Buck was in Heaven. Surrounded by six pretty saloon girls in a back room, was like a dream come true, but there was a purpose to his time with them. One thing Buck had learned from his experiences was that saloon girls picked up on all the town gossip and they had certainly lived up to that reputation. Realizing he soon needed to be moving on, he paid them for their time and all but one left.
"You have anything else for me, darlin'?"
Pushing him down on the bed, Tilley straddled him and gave him a searing kiss. "Just wanted to give you a proper thank you."
Buck grinned. "There's no need and I'm kinda short on time..." he was halted by another breathtaking lip lock. "Well, darlin'...if you insist."
Having examined every inch of the town, Vin and Chris were now together in the saloon.
"Hardly any businesses," Chris stated.
"Yet folk stay, despite livin' in fear," Vin added, his eyes meeting Chris's. "Let's hope the others come up with somethin'."
One by one, the others joined them. JD and Molly trotted in last, the former sporting a bruise and small cut just below his left eye. He grinned as she kissed his cheek, watching her go as she climbed the stairs, before joining his friends. Returning from the bar with water, Nathan poured some on a clean cloth, and placed it under JD's eye before both taking a seat. Holding the cloth in place, JD smiled at the healer.
"Who did this?" Buck's face was dark.
"The fella who runs the store...well, not him, the big man he's got with him." He sighed. "He sideswiped me, I wasn't expecting it, or I'd've..."
"JD," Chris drew his attention. "Why'd he do it at all?"
"Oh, right. Well, Molly needed things and I walked her to the store. When she didn't pay and asked it to be put on her tab, I asked why and she went all quiet. Then I started looking around. Even back East things never cost as much, so I asked the storekeeper why his prices were so high. Well...I guess he didn't like the question, `cause next thing I knew, this big fella was standing over me, and I was on my butt in the dust, holding my eye. It was so fast, I never saw it coming." He readjusted the pad to the colder side.
"On the way back here, Molly told me most folk in town owe the store money. They couldn't afford all the staples they needed for a week, and what was left owing got put on a tab." He shook his head. "'Bout everyone in town owes more than for a few months worth of provisions, but they can't pay it off..."
"...Because the money they have is needed for food for the week," Ezra finished. "Clever...they practically owe their souls to what appears to be akin to a `company store'."
"No wonder these people are so unhappy," Josiah fumed. "The church was sealed soon after Kitcher arrived. No one knows what happened to the minister, or why Kitcher was opposed to the church in the first place."
"The Doc lit out of here about the same time. Folks say there have been several deaths during childbirth since he left, and from accidents that were badly tended and left to fester," Nathan put in. "I'm gonna try and help, and maybe look out for a natural healer among the folks here, until we can get hold of the judge for some help."
Buck took over. "The saloon ladies tell me most of the farms around Kitcher's property mysteriously fell into his hands. There's a silver mine a ways from here, too, but the original miners are long gone."
"Don't tell me...Kitcher mysteriously inherited it," Chris seethed.
"Something like that, yeah."
"Is the mine still bein' worked?" Vin asked.
"No one's sure, I guess none are too keen to go take a look."
Rising, Vin touched his hat. "I feel like takin' a ride. Later, boys."
Chris addressed the rest of them. "Okay, here's the deal. Travis knew this place had problems. He gave me a small bankroll, but it may not be enough," he glanced at Ezra, who returned the gaze, impassively. "Looks like we need to restore order, and start up a few businesses that offer more than a fair choice to these folks."
"How about a livery? Would that be too much for us?" JD asked.
"Something simple wouldn't be too much of a challenge for seven of us," Chris nodded.
"If I may...six," Ezra interrupted. "I'd like to explore the possibility of becoming the proprietor of maybe a...provisions store."
Chris grinned. "Alright, I'll wire the Judge and get him to organize a wagon. Josiah, Nathan, get the church opened. JD, Buck, clean out the Sheriff's office and make it look like we're open for business. Ezra, pick out a property and get it ready for trading, then JD, Buck, me, and Vin will help you set it up. Meanwhile, Vin and me'll scare up some lumber and tools for us to build a makeshift livery." He stood. "Let's go."
Having ridden for close to half an hour, Vin leaned on the saddle horn and looked down at the silver mine from the ridge above it. It was a hive of activity, but his spyglass enabled him to stay clear of the armed `spotters'. "Sweet set up," he mumbled to himself. "No wonder this fella's rich and wants to keep the town cut off." With a cluck, he turned Peso and headed back to town.
"No, no...over there, gentlemen."
Buck slammed down the cabinet that he and JD were toting, JD grunting as it took him by surprise. "Ezra...make up your damned mind. This thing's been handled more in the last half hour than the busiest saloon girl has in a lifetime."
"Delightful metaphor," Standish said, grinning. "Just there, will be fine, thank you."
"'Bout time," Buck grumbled as he and JD went out for more items. "If Ezra worked as much as he talked, we'd have been done an hour after we started." He glanced across at the small crowd of townsfolk watching them, touching his hat to the saloon girls. "Ladies." He watched JD grin at Molly, the girl returning the grin with a small wave.
"You gettin' sweet on that little girl, boy?"
JD's expression was priceless. "No! Just like her company, is all."
"You bothered that she's a whore?"
JD glared at Buck. "Don't say it like that; she's not to blame for what she has to do to make a living."
Grinning, Buck pulled him close. "That's my boy." He chuckled at the scowl JD threw him, and didn't miss the grin of affection just after they picked up more goods to take inside.
By the day's end, the church's stained glass windows were revealed, and the faded wood was having its first coat of paint. Inside, most of the pews were intact and now upright. Several ladies had curiously ventured inside and were now cleaning and brushing while Nathan saw his first `patients' in a back room.
The other five had worked from building to building, making repairs to the structures in most need. Inspired by the activity, some of the braver townsfolk were now assisting, most filling in the potholes in the street, while others fixed damaged hitching posts. That night, despite their weariness, the seven enjoyed a livelier evening in the saloon, the slightly out-of-tune piano being played for the first time since Kitcher had stamped his authority on the town.
Lara watched from her spot near the bar, smiling to see Molly and JD talking animatedly in a corner, and the other girls making the clientele feel good, as they moved from table to table. Occasionally, they would guide a customer to a room upstairs. Business hadn't been this good in a long while, but Lara couldn't help wondering how long it would be until Kitcher got wind of all this. She shrugged it off. That was for another day, tonight, was all about turning a corner.
Back with his friends, JD yawned. Buck snapped JD's jaw shut with a finger under the chin. "Lord, boy, you nearly inhaled Vin's hat."
The kid chuckled. "I'm beat."
"I guess we should all get our heads down," Chris acknowledged. With a nod, Josiah and Nathan headed for the church. Vin gathered up his bedroll to head for the livery. JD and Buck rose simultaneously.
"You're actually coming to bed, Buck?"
"Is that so odd? Bein' nighttime an' all."
"Kinda expected you to have somewhere better to be tonight," JD shrugged as they made their way up the stairs.
"And miss the delights of my best friend snoring his little heart out?" He chuckled as JD rolled his eyes.
"Not my fault we're sharing," JD reminded him. "And it's you that snores, not me."
Chris watched them go. "You heading for bed, Ezra?"
"Not just yet, I sense a hand or two of poker coming on." He grinned as he began shuffling a deck.
"Got an early start tomorrow," Larabee reminded him, shaking his head at the wider grin.
Standing, he turned to Vin. "You gonna be okay out there?"
"'Smithy's already in bed. Don't see no problem I can't handle." With a clasp of forearms, the friends parted. Today had been a good day, but none of the Seven doubted it was going to get tougher from here on in.
"Hey, Yosemite!" Midday and JD rushed out of the Sheriff's office on hearing a wagon rolling in.
The Four Corner's blacksmith gave a friendly wave as he and four other men came into town loaded with timber, tools and wares. Holding a paintbrush, Ezra stepped out of his new store.
"At last." He smiled, walking to meet them. By the time the wagon had rolled to a halt, all seven peacekeepers were there.
Chris nodded. "Good to see you."
"Same here, Chris. Me and the boys thought you might need some help."
"Always glad of help," Josiah answered, starting to pull things out of the back of the wagon.
"What are these?" JD was poking around in several covered baskets.
Yosemite jumped down and smiled. "Them's from the ladies. They wanted to make sure y'all were eating right. Mind you, they made enough for the whole town."
Nathan grinned. "I reckon that just might work out good. `Bout time this place had some fun."
"Well, we got us a livery to build. Let's get to it," Chris insisted.
Several hours of hammering and sawing later, the simple frame at the edge of the small town was ready for its roof. Many of the townsfolk were watching, intrigued by the activities of the six shirtless, sweaty men, and their friends. The ladies especially, were enjoying the view. Lara's eyes glistened as she fanned herself, while sitting on the boardwalk outside the saloon, her girls giggling and pointing as they watched the semi-naked men toiling.
Molly moved to sit beside her. "It's really happening, mama."
"It is," Lara smiled. "God hasn't forsaken us." She held Molly's hand. "The little one you like is a hard worker. He's more of a man than I gave him credit for."
"He's sweet." She sighed. "I'm gonna miss him when he leaves." She squeezed her mother's hand. "Are we still going to San Francisco one day if this works out, mama?"
"I hope so. It's been my dream for a long time."
Molly nodded. "Mine, too."
Clambering onto the top of the frame, Vin and JD were handed a tarpaulin, and stretched it across and down three sides of the framework. The hammering began again until all edges had been secured. They all stepped back to wipe their brows and examine their handiwork. Six double stalls, separated by simple rails, ran from back to front from the street. It squared off with an equal amount of space in front of them for feed and pails, the support posts doubling as tack hitches, and all neatly nestled under thick tarpaulin.
No one spoke, mostly from tiredness, but also from the overwhelming emotion the task had evoked. Gentle applause caused them to turn and see most of the town clapping with approval, the `smithy from the other livery, stood watching at the back of the crowd and was decidedly unamused.
"My, my, you have been busy."
"How you doing, Ezra?" Buck asked.
"If you would care to come with me, you will see." Following, the men stopped outside Ezra's store, now officially named and marked with a deftly crafted sign, `The Standish Emporium'. He ushered them inside and stood back proudly as they voiced their approval of his layout.
Once outside again, he addressed the crowd in full view of the other storekeeper. "For every 50 cents you spend here, I will pay 25 cents off your bill at the other store. Please feel free to look around; I think you will find my prices more than acceptable."
JD rubbed his eyes. "My stomach's rumbling. Is anyone else hungry?"
Buck nudged him, chuckling. "You're always hungry." He touched his growling stomach. "Well, guess I am, too."
Josiah raised a hand. "Everyone, the church, one hour, food for all. If you'd like to bring something, all offerings gratefully received."
With time to wash up, the men split up. Vin approached Chris. "Did you see the fella up on the ridge, earlier?"
"Yup. I guess we got their attention."
"I guess we did."
"Did the others see him?"
Vin nodded. "They saw him."
"Well, I guess then, all we can do, is...wait."
That night, the town celebrated like they had never done before. Someone brought a violin and the saloon girls engaged both men and women in a few hoe-downs. The beer flowed and all the food was consumed as the sound of music and laughter floated through the streets and buildings. Seven men joined in, intermittently, Buck throwing himself wholeheartedly into everything, while grinning broadly and proudly at Vin and JD being guided onto the dance area and shown some steps, before awkwardly attempting to dance. Ezra seemed content to display his slight of hand to the few children and teenagers left in the town, while Josiah and Nathan talked with what appeared to be the town's elders. Chris was happy to share a drink and enjoy the food, but was more comfortable at a distance, keeping watch more visibly than his permanently alert compadres. They were expecting trouble any time, but tonight was all about simply enjoying seeing the once somber town alive and vibrant...and full of hope.
The celebrating townsfolk weren't sure if these men could save them, but just knowing they were trying had given them a goal, and the belief their town's name would finally live up to itself.
Next morning, and the man that had watched from the hill the previous day, rode into the little town. Having noted a hive of activity on the perimeter the day before, he had decided to take a closer look. Past experience had taught him to never ignore such things, so before reporting back to his boss, he had returned. The shirtless men that had been sawing and hammering were no more, there instead was one boy and several canopied stalls, where the few drifters that had dared to enter the small municipality had stabled their horses, along with several others. Curious, he continued on to the original livery to find it almost empty.
"What's going on?" he asked the smithy.
The man pointed. "Seven men lit in here three days ago, an' made themselves real comfortable. One started playin' poker in the saloon...he's since opened up a store, while another fella seems taken with the saloon girls," he whispered, "I been told they don't even charge him. Another here on the boards...just sits an' watches...real mean-lookin' dude, a big man an' a black fella are checkin' over sick people over at the ol' church...for free." He waved his hand back and forth.
"'Nother walks loose up an' down the town wearin' a big sawed off gun...don't reckon he'd lose in a shoot-out, an' some kid's runnin' a makeshift stables they put together most of yesterday...chargin' two bits for each horse. Two bits! Mister Kitcher ain't gonna like that Mister Morse."
Punk Morse looked around while his horse danced and sidestepped as if sensing the building tension. "Leave it with me...and keep your ear to the ground...I'll be back." With a nod from the blacksmith, Morse turned his horse and headed for the temporary stables.
Seeing the man approaching, JD remembered what Chris had told him that morning and tried to relax, despite having the feeling this was not going to be pleasant.
Smiling, he approached the rider. "Howdy, mister, you want for me to stable your horse?"
Morse dismounted. "How much, boy?"
"Two bits, sir...and for that, they get good grain and fresh straw..." A powerful backhand caused JD to stagger back slightly, his hands instinctively moving to where his gunbelt would normally be, before the stranger fisted his shirt and pulled him forward, snarling in his face.
"I don't recall you being given permission to start a business here...boy."
"I didn't know I was s'posed to ask, "JD lied.
The man raised his hand again. "Well, let me explain it to you." He looked up to the sound of a gun cocking to one side of him.
"Get off him."
Turning to see Vin holding his mare's leg on him, the hammers of five other gun's sounded. He released JD and raised his hands, turning again, to see five more determined men surrounding him.
"Now, fellas...I was just talking with the stable boy about bedding my horse down for the night."
"This some fancy new trick...talking with your hands?" Buck asked, glaring at the man.
"Why don't you just...get along, and tell your boss...we're running this town, now." Chris' soft tone carried a deadly quality.
Morse looked from one man to the other...even the one in the fancy clothes had a murderous glint in his eye. He backed away to his horse, never taking his eyes off them as he mounted. "Maybe I'll do just that, and maybe you'll do well to watch your backs." He paled at the grin from the man in black, took one last look at the kid he'd slapped, and with a cluck of his tongue, rode off.
As he disappeared into a distant dust cloud, the six men re- holstered their guns. Buck approached JD.
JD nodded, rubbing his sore face. "I'm fine." He watched Chris approach.
"You did good, kid...but this ain't over."
"Yeah...I guessed as much."
"Rider comin' in."
On hearing the call from the roof of his home, Benjamin Kitcher strolled out onto the veranda to watch Punk Morse race through the gateway and stop in front of him. He tugged at the napkin tucked into his shirt collar. "Trouble?"
Morse nodded. "Yessir, Mister Kitcher, those seven strangers in Freedom told me to tell you they're running the town now."
Ben picked at his teeth then sucked them as he pondered Punk's words. "I see. Gather the boys and saddle my horse...reckon we should pay these strangers a visit."
It wasn't the first time they had done this, and it likely wouldn't be the last. Seven armed men stood in a line to face the eight riders heading their way. Kitcher led the group, his face a mask of anger as he approached, halting a few yards in front of them. "Who am I addressing?"
"Name's Larabee...and you are?"
"Kitcher, Ben Kitcher. I own this here town and I'd be obliged if you rode outta here real soon."
Chris grinned. "I bet you would. According to circuit court Judge, Orin Travis, this *here* town is considered a free municipality and therefore open to trading. That's what we're doing...trading. "
Kitcher waved his arms around. "I own most of these businesses and have a say in the saloon. I reckon that makes it my right to invite you to cease trading on my time and in my territory."
"You're welcome to that opinion, friend." Josiah answered. "But the fact remains, we're here to stay."
"And that's *our* invitation," Buck added, "for you to leave before our patience ups and does so first."
"You boys are inviting more trouble than you can handle if you stay."
"You're invitin' more trouble than you can handle if you don't go," Vin snapped back. One of Kitcher's men moved to draw, seven rifles instantly cocking at the action. Kitcher held up his hand.
"This ain't over."
"Yeah, it is," Chris warned. "Forgot to mention...we took over the undertaker's, too. Anytime you favor wearing a pine box instead of that fancy jacket of yours, we'll be waiting."
Eight men wheeled their horses around and walked them to the edge of town before galloping away.
JD whooped, halting as he saw the sober faces of his friends staring back at him. "I know, I know...they'll be back...right?"
Larabee nodded. "You can count on it." Collectively, they uncocked their guns and headed for the saloon.
For two days the Seven kept vigil, while they traded by day and patrolled at night, but nothing much more than a few drunken brawls had occurred. The third night since their encounter with Kitcher saw the town once again quiet, as two of the seven men kept watch.
Hearing a sound outside the makeshift livery, JD got to his feet, jerking as a familiar face greeted his. "What are you doing here?" he hissed, hurrying his visitor inside and replacing his guns in the holsters lying next to his jacket and hat on the straw-covered floor.
"I came to see you," Molly replied, watching him plop back down onto his makeshift bed.
The girl snuggled down in the hay beside her new friend. "I thought you might be lonely."
JD smiled. "That's real nice of you, but we're expecting trouble. Vin's walking the town and I'm guarding the livery. You should go back." He saw her expression in the muted lamplight. "Now don't be mad at me, I'm just worried you'll get hurt, is all."
Molly cracked a smile, leaned in and kissed him. "Okay." She jolted as he hushed her and looked around toward the rear of the structure.
"There's someone out back," he whispered right into her ear. "Go get the others, but be careful and keep it quiet." Both rising, he tucked one of his guns into his pants and under his shirt, and followed her to the front of the building to watch her cross to the saloon. Relieved she had made it safely, he turned back, collapsing instantly as a piece of wood slammed into the side of his head.
"They send a boy to do man's job," Morse sneered, hitting the prone form once more. He looked to the three men with him, pointing as he spoke. "You two, get him up on a horse and release these horses from the stalls." He addressed the third, smaller man, direct his gaze to where JD's hat and jacket lay. "Toss that lantern hooked up, there, into the stall, and be quick about it."
Tuck Cooper was a small man, but his hard work ethic and strength had never seen him short of work. Kitcher paid well, but Cooper was becoming more and more uncomfortable with some of the things he was being asked to do. He had been ordered along on this job, but the full impact of that directive only became clear as the sharp knife Morse was now holding plunged deep into Tuck's back and pierced his heart. Tossing the dying man next to the JD's clothes and into the burning hay, Morse grinned as he exited the makeshift livery.
"Let's see if they still think it's worth it when they believe one of their own is dead." As one of the men handed him his reins, he glanced at JD, unconscious, and draped over the horse directly in front of the second man, then toward the burning building. "Let's get outta here."
Molly ran toward the back of the saloon, her heart pounding. She started to scream as she was grabbed, a hand clamping tight across her mouth to muffle it. In the glowing light of the street fires, frightened eyes searched for her attacker, relief washing over her to see Vin shush her.
"JD thinks someone's round back of the livery you built."
Tanner nodded. "Go get Chris, Buck, and Ezra; I'll get Josiah and Nathan."
"Okay." She ran up the side stairs and into the corridor where the boarding rooms were.
Clamping a hand on his holstered mare's leg, Tanner ran hell for leather toward the church, banging on the door. "Josiah, Nathan...we got trouble!" he hissed. Satisfied with noises inside, which suggested they had heard him, he ran back toward the livery, skidding to a halt in the dirt as he saw the flames, before continuing on. "Oh no...no!"
Despite being exhausted, the instant Chris heard the bang on his door he was up, his gunbelt snapping into place as he opened his door. "Molly?"
The girl had already roused Buck and Ezra. "Vin's going for Josiah and Nathan. JD thinks someone's at the livery."
Chris nodded, meeting the eyes of Buck and Ezra as they stepped into the corridor. "Go back to your ma...and stay there!"
"Yessir." The girl vanished into the darkness.
The three men ran down into the street, shocked to see the flames engulfing the framework they had recently erected. Buck howled and raced to help Vin with the water buckets, the flames too fierce to attempt going in.
Despite them all helping, and being joined by several townsfolk the structure was all but destroyed by the time the fire was out. Buck was frantic, yelling at the smoldering wood. "JD! JD...where are you, boy? JD!"
Chris grabbed his arm to stop him running into the charred remains. "Wait."
Tanner moved forward, poking at the smoldering debris with a stick as he stepped cautiously through it. He squatted down to examine something, spending a long few seconds just staring at his discovery before returning to his friends, heartsick. Five pairs of eyes shimmered in the glow of the dying street fires as they waited on him.
"Vin?" Chris' voice cracked as he spoke.
Tanner struggled with the words. "There's a body in there."
"That could be anyone," Buck spat out, one solitary tear falling.
"Right," Vin acknowledged, unable to add to the statement due to what he felt was now true. From behind his back, one hand moved around to pass over a charred but familiar bowler hat.
Buck snatched at it and crushed it to his chest. "Damn, stupid hat..."
All eyes turned downward, no one able to meet the others' gazes. Vin turned back to face the ashes when Buck's rapid, heaving gasps rose above the silence and his head suddenly jerked up. He howled out his heartbreak, a fury in his face and voice that very few people had encountered from the normally open, fun-loving man, but any who knew him well, understood that he was more than capable of. He started moving.
Chris grabbed his arm. "Where you going?"
Buck's face was a mask of hatred and fury. "To kill the bastard who did this...so take your Goddamned hand of me," he spat.
"That's what he wants, Buck, to fight on his own territory."
"Well, he's got it." He glared at Chris, another tear escaping his brimming eyes. "I'm sure JD woulda been touched by your concern."
Chris lowered his voice to a deep, somber tone. "Each one of us knows the next ride we take could be our last, Buck. JD knew...and still stood by us."
Buck swallowed, shaking now, as he spoke. "That meant to make me feel better? `Cause it didn't." His anger to the fore, Buck's grief began to overtake him. "Let me ask you something, stud. Did those words make *you* feel better?"
Chris shuddered out a breath. "No."
"Buck..." Josiah's deep, soft voice stirred the emotions as each man warred with his feelings.
"We must do *something*."
All eyes turned to Ezra.
Chris nodded, his glistening eyes glaring as he spoke. "Oh, we are. We're gonna hit the bastard where it hurts and bring him back here to face us. First, we're gonna close down his businesses and kick his flunkies outta this town. Then we're heading for the mine...to blow the place to Kingdom come."
"Oh, that'll do it," Nathan agreed, "Cut off a snake from his fodder and he gets mad."
"Or desperate," Josiah reminded.
Chris looked at them all. "We'll have our time to grieve for our loss, right now, we need to finish the job that we...and the kid, came here to do." They all nodded, no less distressed but now determined.
"Vin, the horses?"
"Saw some wanderin' out back."
"Let's round `em up...then get down to business."
"Buck?" Someone was wiping at his aching head with a wet cloth. JD figured it had to be Buck, or Nathan.
"Easy, boy, you took a bad knock."
"Oh, God..." JD was turned just in time to empty his stomach.
"Try not to move too much, son." The man's words were lost as JD sank back into unconsciousness.
Sometime later, JD woke again. His head was a little clearer now and fuzzy images of a gloomy shack came into view. "Where is this?" he whispered. He felt someone lift him.
"Take a drink, son, you need water."
Grateful for the liquid, JD drank, looking up at his shaggy haired, bearded redeemer. "Do...do I know you?"
"I reckon not. Name's Jenson, Ezekiel Jenson and I've been here longer than I care to recall. Welcome to hell, kid."
Struggling to sit up, JD glanced around, shocked at the thin, hairy, haggard faces staring back at him. "Where the hell am I?"
"You're at Kitcher's silver mine. Well, it's his, now, not sure what happened to the original owner. While he lives high off the hog, we dig his silver out for him."
"Why...why does he keep his workers in here?" JD grimaced as the man eased behind him and laid JD back against his chest.
"Try slaves, son. Ain't no man here ever gonna be free again. Those here are considered dead...so no one's gonna come looking for us."
"Well, that ain't so for me," JD said with conviction. "My friends will miss me and come looking, you'll see."
"You sure about that? You been here over a day and they ain't even posted extra guards."
JD looked shocked. "How can they think I'm dead?"
"Can't rightly say...do you remember how you got here?"
Swallowing the rising nausea, JD shuddered. "Oh, God...there was someone at the livery I was guarding."
Jenson nodded. "That ties in with what some of the guards were jawin' about yesterday. Seems somethin' big in town burned down."
Realization struck JD. His friends must have thought he had burned up right along with it. He fought back emotion...they really weren't going come looking for him. For a minute or two, he remained silent, absorbing the facts that compounded his misery. Then, all at once, he straightened, causing all in the shack to stare at him. He touched his bruised belly and found the reason for his discomfort, the gun he had slipped into his waistband was, miraculously, still there.
"Well, if help can't come to us...we're gonna have to go get it ourselves." He looked up, startled as a giant of a man stood over him, recoiling slightly as the man's large hand reached toward him and rested on his head.
"Good boy......my boy...gonna take us home...yessir, gonna take us home." He nodded and went back into the shadows. JD stared in confusion at Ezekiel.
"That's Barnaby. He used to be the blacksmith in Freedom. He's a little slow in the head, but a good man." Jenson smiled. "Looks like he's taken to you...as long as he's on your side, you're safe, here."
JD blew out a breath. "Good to know." They all turned to the door, squinting as it was opened by a man with a lantern.
"It's 4am...git your butts in the mine, now!"
Jenson stood. "This boy's been injured and hasn't eaten..."
The man waved a rifle. "Don't want no sob stories...git, all of you."
Swaying slightly as he stood, JD patted Ezekiel's arm. "I'll be fine, thanks." He feigned a fall and managed to hide his gun in the dirt, then struggled to his feet. "See? Fine." Swallowing the nausea and dizziness, he fell in line with the others.
JD wondered why no one attempted to make a run for it, dismissing the idea the instant he hit fresh air, and he saw one guard waiting on the group and two with rifles trained on them. He filed the information for future reference...not like it would be the first time he'd had the odds stacked against him. JD sighed. But then...he'd also had six strong, brave men at his back.
In Freedom, later that morning, Kitcher's lackeys gaped in shock as six angry men boarded up their establishments.
Larabee turned to them as they stood protesting, in the middle of the street. "You got one hour to vamoose."
"You can't do this!" the blacksmith cried out.
Chris smiled, but it was not a warm gesture. "We just did. Now...GIT!" He watched them scuttle off as Vin approached.
"Got the dynamite. We're ready when you are."
"You say there are men working there?"
Vin nodded. "I reckon they hold `em in a shack a ways back from the entrance."
"If we strike at night, you reckon they're safe there?"
"Yeah. If we set the charges inside and at the mouth, it'll just cause it to cave in. Once the deepest one goes off, I'll let `em out. Then all we got to worry about are the guards."
"So, no real problems, then?"
Vin offered a small grin. "Nope." He looked Larabee straight in the eye, a soft sigh on his lips as he spoke. "Tonight's a full moon."
Chris noted Vin's drop in features. "Vin?"
Tanner's expression was full of sadness. "Kid woulda loved all this, huh?"
Chris's jaw squared, resolutely. "This one's for him. Full moon, you say? Alright, we ride tonight."
JD was not afraid of hard work...shoot, all his young life before he came out west, was hard work. But toiling like this was draining, and not helped by the pounding headache that seemed to beat in time with the tools being used to hack out the silver from the hard rock face. He wiped his brow and stood for a moment in the dim light to catch his breath, grunting and falling forward against the rock wall as something hard punched him between the shoulders.
"Did I say you could take a break, runt?"
"Didn't know I had to ask..." He reeled from the blow to his face, his hand going up to wipe the blood from his lip.
Defiance rose, but one glance at Jenson told JD it wasn't a good idea, so he reluctantly took up his pick and started attacking the shaft wall.
They were allowed water, but rested just once for a meager bowl of beans and a chunk of bread. After fourteen hours of digging, JD was exhausted, practically dragging himself along to get some much needed rest. As they entered the shack they each were handed a cup of water and a plate with beans and something that once might have been meat, JD wasn't sure...mildly grateful his stomach was rolling too much to appreciate it, anyway. He dropped down onto the patch of dirt Jenson guided him to, eagerly drank back the water, and setting the plate down on the floor, stretched out, beat, stiff and aching.
"You did good today, kid. You mostly kept yourself in check...they won't be watching you so close tomorrow."
Peeking from under the arm across his eyes, JD frowned. "They were watching me?"
"Sure...new fellas always think they can outrun the guards...most of `em git shot for their trouble. That's what happened to ol' Kyle. He used to be Freedom's sheriff...afore he got dragged in here."
With sleep pulling at him, JD yawned. "Yeah, well..." he said, tiredly. "...We're gonna break out of here...just gotta think of how." He jerked as a large foot stepped next to him.
"Can I have your grub?"
Looking up at the big, former blacksmith, JD nodded. "Sure, help yourself." A grin emerged, despite his weariness, when the big man chuckled deeply as he took up the plate and walked away
"Well...if he wasn't a friend before...he will be now," Jenson said, as he hunkered down to sleep.
`Friend'. That word had JD's emotions rising at the thought his friends considered him dead. `Hang on, fellas...I'm coming...don't leave without me.'
The journey in the moonlight was silent, as Vin, Buck, and Josiah made their way toward the mine. Buck had barely spoken since learning of JD's death and Chris knew, if it hadn't been for the job in hand, the big man would be lost to them, his heartbreak so visibly profound, but reined in to complete their mission. Vin and Josiah were no less heartsick, as were the rest of the peacekeepers. The former pair was also lost in deep thought as they traveled.
Overall, JD was the kid brother they never had when growing up. He had opened their toughened hearts and weary minds to the wonder of everyday life. The six men had been so busy living it, they had forgotten how magnificent it could be. JD loved the fearsome, rugged countryside that had been the cause of many deaths. He thrived on the risk and excitement in every confrontation that the other six took in their stride, and was curious about everything around him which caused more trouble than not when he investigated. His total innocence and trust in all that was good and the belief that justice would prevail, reminded them that it may not always be that simple, but it was always worth fighting for.
All these things they were once of the same mind about, but in the harsh reality of living it day to day, had been buried deep within them. To think now, that cheery innocence was once again lost to them, was affecting them deeply.
Josiah had lit candles and prayed for a soul he considered beautiful and pure. He and JD had spent many hours together, and had laughed often and talked plenty. Josiah enjoyed being the `brother' his new family turned to for spiritual guidance, despite not having the answers he sought for himself, but in helping them, he was learning to forgive. JD unintentionally drew out the father in him, and in truth, he believed, in Chris and Buck, too. It was just JD's way, a manner that called to your heart and urged you to nurture and protect. Not that anyone ever admitted to that out loud. JD was proud and strong and, while loving the concern and security, wanted desperately to prove himself. The preacher had been looking forward to help guide their youngest into manhood, and sighed deeply in the knowledge that duty would never be fulfilled.
Vin rarely got close to anyone, but damnit, he'd gotten close to JD...to all the Seven. And now the ache in his heart reminded him of why he should never stray from the path he had chosen. It hurt too damned much. Chris was right, every time they went up against someone, any one of them could lose their life, and they knew this. But still they stood together, even when hurting, they stood as one. In the short time he had known him, JD had shown remarkable spunk for one so young and considered a greenhorn. Even though Vin already knew this to be true, a defining moment for him was the day JD stood in front of armed men to stop them taking him to Tascosa to be hung. A suicide mission the kid had been willing to undertake for a man he considered a friend. Vin had hoped he could one day repay that friendship, now it was too late.
Buck was in hell. He had failed to protect his friend, his little brother, and it hurt him to the depths of his soul. JD had done everything asked of him, but had lost his life anyway. Where was the justice in that? Right now Buck was mightily mad with God. Where was the so-called compassion for an innocent soul, who had only wanted to do good? Why do good at all, if your reward was to be taken before you had even lived half of a full life? That wasn't justice. His mind was filled with images of their time together...the laughter, the conflicts, the trust and, yes, the tears. JD had brought out something in Buck he had long given up on, and he liked it. He liked being needed, he liked being listened to. Oh sure, JD would sometimes roll his eyes, but he would always do what was asked of him. Buck almost laughed to himself...the kid still wore his star under his lapel. Buck knew his time with these men was over. How could he go home without his best friend? How could he look at things in the same way if he stayed? Simple answer...he couldn't. If he was still alive after all this, he would not be returning and, right now, either option was viable. His tears ran unchecked as he rode in silence.
"Mine comin' up."
Vin's whispered words snapped their thoughts back into the here and now. They had a job to do...then...they would mourn.
Chris, Ezra, and Nathan had stayed in town, the former unsure if Kitcher would hit back quickly, or even if he yet knew they had thrown his flunkies out of town. Chris stood on the town's outskirts, his cheroot glowing in the intermittent moonlight as he drew in the comforting smoke. Pinching the end before tossing it down and grinding it into the dirt with the heel of his boot, he moved to stand watch with Ezra. They had decided Nathan should rest in case there were injuries from the night's activities.
Passing the burned out, makeshift livery, the blond's heart constricted. He should never have left JD alone in there. Yet...the kid had been adamant, and Molly's telling of that night made it clear, the kid had done his duty. So the fact remained...he had been murdered. The men behind it knew he was in there...and for that, they would pay. As he walked the town, Chris refused to dwell on his initial decision to let JD ride with them. The kid had proven time and again that he was right where he should be, he had earned his place. Not that the kid believed it to be true, and was still trying too hard to impress, but Chris found that endearing. It showed him JD never sat on his laurels where his standing with the group was concerned. And Chris believed that tenacity would keep JD alive. Or at least he had, until that fateful night. He also knew Buck wanted out. Larabee was determined not to let that happen. This time, he would be the one to keep things together. He owed it to Buck, and he owed it to JD.
Ezra was uncomfortable. JD's death had affected him deeply, and he found it disconcerting to say the least. He found himself reflecting on occasions when he had tried to coerce the youth into some venture or another, and JD had taken each proposition in his stride, causing Standish to realize just how open to suggestion JD could be. From there on in, he watched out for the lad, especially when Maude was in town. Now, only he was allowed to make such plays...because he knew when to call a halt. Also, JD was becoming more discerning. He smiled as his thoughts traveled back to the day he attempted to run a book on Buck's success in a swordfight. The look JD threw him that day would have soured milk. There was so much he had wanted to teach his young friend. He had found JD's energy both exhausting and invigorating at the same time. He would miss that...he would miss him. Covertly, he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye as he steeled himself for the battle ahead and vowed to ensure JD did not die in vain.
Nathan had tossed restlessly in his bed. There was no way he could sleep, his mind was too active. He was worried about Vin, Josiah, and Buck and hoped their mission would be successful and injury free. He worried about Chris and Ezra and whether two on guard now, three in total with him, with Kitcher waging war against them, was enough if the man turned up. He kept wondering, if they had reached the livery sooner, could they have saved JD? Were they too slow that night, or was the fire just too quick? He also pondered why JD had still been inside. Molly had told them he'd sent her for help...so he was awake. Oh God...did he burn alive? Aware of everything that was happening but unable to escape? That thought had Nathan out of bed and throwing water over his clammy face. All he ever wanted was to heal. The thought of the kid suffering in such a way made his stomach roll. The thought of someone like JD, a brave, determined, kind and innocent soul, dying in such pain...was simply too hard to bear. Nathan looked tearfully out of the window. The first tinge of dawn was on the horizon. Hopefully they would soon be together, all...six. And they would end this.
It hadn't been difficult to maneuver around the mining camp to place the charges. The guards were drunk and sleeping, and Vin's task was almost done, while Buck and Josiah watched his back. Setting the shortest fuse on the deepest charge would give him time to get to the shack and release the captives before the others went off. Hopefully, in the confusion of the first blast, they would all be long gone before Kitcher's men could fathom what had hit them.
Striking the match, Vin watched the fuse ignite, then hurried away to light the longer ones and head across the compound to the shack. Just as he was reaching the small building, an explosion ripped through the air and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, the shack door was hoisted, from inside, off its hinges, the guard outside it long gone to see what was going on and never spotting Tanner, hiding in the shadows. A brute of a man stepped out.
Cautiously, Vin touched the man's arm, flinching at the fury there. He pointed. "Wagon and horses over there!" Seeing the man nod, Vin melted into the darkness and hurried off, reaching his horse, Buck, and Josiah, just as the other charges went off. He looked at his friends.
"The men ain't shackled...they' ll be fine, the guards have all but abandoned `em. They got a wagon and horses, so let's go, just in case Kitcher hits town before dawn."
Looking back in the waning moonlight to see men pouring out of the shack, Buck and Josiah nodded, and the three rode for town.
The explosion caused all in the shack to jump up in fear. JD rubbed his eyes. He had slept soundly, and for a moment, wasn't sure where he was. With a roar, Barnaby rose to his feet, and squinted out into the compound through the gaps in the wood. In an instant, he grabbed at the door and yanked it free of its hinges, disappearing momentarily, before returning and pointing to a wagon and some very nervous horses. JD scrabbled in the dirt behind him, relieved to find the gun he had hidden there.
He looked at Jenson, pointing at the door. "How come he never did that, before?"
"'Cause the guard normally th'other side of it woulda shot him dead."
Nodding his understanding and a little embarrassed he hadn't remembered that, JD shifted to the front of the crowd, looking back at the frightened men. "I've got a gun...head for the wagon and hitch it, we can get more of us out that way." They all nodded, willing to do anything to get away. JD waved them off.
"Go I'll cover you."
As instructed, and just as more explosions rocked the compound, the men streamed out and ran to where JD had directed them. As the youth lay down cover, he grinned to himself, no doubt in his mind that this was his friends' handiwork. "Nice one, fellas."
Barnaby ensured no one took a horse for himself until he was done, hitching the wagon in record time and hurrying the men into the back. He and Jenson looked back to JD and waved the youth to them, well aware JD had been firing for several seconds.
JD watched as the wagon was hitched and the rest of the horses mounted, just spotting an armed guard running at them through the gloom. Taking a position, JD fired, relieved to see the man fall, to quickly aim at another, and another, the third one firing off two shots before going down. Noting all the men were in the wagon, or mounted, and his two new friends were calling to him, JD took one quick glance at the chaos around the mineshaft, before racing across the exposed distance between the shack and the wagon, firing into the dark as he ran. He was almost there when a shot rang out and his breath hitched in his throat as pain in his back caused him to fall. Vaguely aware of someone roaring out, JD shuddered and groaned in pain, before his eyes closed and he left the noise and confusion behind.
Barnaby howled when he saw JD fall to a bullet, instantly advancing on the shooter. The guard could see the big man heading for him, desperately trying to fire, but his rifle was jammed. He stared in horror as the blacksmith lifted him high, to then bring him down on the man's large knee, snapping his back like a twig. Tossing the body aside, and with a gentleness belying his stature, Barnaby scooped JD up and gently cradled him in his arms. He took him to the wagon, climbing in and holding him close as Jenson yelled and without looking back, drove them away from their living hell.
Watching Chris stand had Nathan and Ezra on their feet and staring out at the lightening town boundary, their eyes and ears straining for the first signs of their friends' return. Each man smiled as three riders came pounding in, appraising each man as they drew nearer. Stepping into the street, Chris grabbed Peso's reins as Vin came to a halt. "You all okay?"
Tanner nodded. "Yep, and the mine is nothin' but dust and rocks."
"Congratulations, gentlemen," Ezra grinned, more in relief than happiness.
Larabee's eyes watched Buck dismount, remove his hat and run his fingers through his hair. "The miners?"
"They helped themselves," the ladies' man mumbled, before pushing past his oldest friend and heading for the saloon.
Chris glanced around at the others, noting the strain showing in their faces. "C'mon, let's go get a drink and some breakfast."
Entering the saloon, they saw Buck had taken a table and had his back to them. Josiah went to join him, but Chris held his arm. "Let him grieve."
"We're all grievin'," Vin reminded him.
"I know," was all Chris could say as he watched Buck down several whiskeys in a row.
The dawn light had the town stirring. Lara was carried downstairs and seated next to the bar between Buck and the rest of the peacekeepers. Molly joined her, her pretty face without make up, her eyes sad and teary. Despite warning looks, she approached Buck.
"I miss him too." Her words were hushed, but Buck heard and turned to her. Extending his arms, the girl buried her face in his chest, her distress allowing Buck's tears to flow openly.
Lara looked at the others. "I haven't had a chance to say...but, I'm sorry...about your friend. He was a nice kid."
They all nodded. "That he was, ma'am," Josiah agreed.
Vin made a noise in his throat, drawing their attention. "I guess Kitcher knows by now...about the mine."
Chris nodded. "I guess. Any ideas on how to handle this?"
"Not a one," the tracker admitted.
"Business as usual then." Chris half grinned, taking back a shot.
"Several of the townsfolk have offered to help," Ezra informed them.
"Good to know," Chris replied, his head tilting toward the street before returning to his drink. Seconds later, Vin was doing the same and soon the men were standing and heading for the doors.
Buck stood also, ushering Molly to her mother's side, and helping them into a back room before joining his friends.
Guns drawn, the six men watched the wagon and horses approach. Vin stepped into the street.
"I think it's the miners."
Taking no chances, they remained on alert, but when the convoy stopped, it was clear the thin, weary men within were of no threat. Jenson tied off the reins and extended his hand.
"Name's Ezekiel Jenson, I used to be the preacher, here." He jerked a thumb behind him. "These here men have been working Kitcher's mine for a good while. They need food, water and tending to. Also got a kid in the back...been shot."
Hearing that, Nathan was at the back of the wagon in an instant, his eyes raking over the ravaged men quietly sitting there. Focusing on the big man in the middle, the healer's eyes fell on the body in his arms.
Holstering his gun, Buck walked to join Nathan, following the teary-eyed healer's finger as he pointed at the wagon.
"Oh, dear God..."
Buck's words were barely a whisper, one tear escaping his brimming eyes as he moved closer. Curious, the others joined him. Buck looked at Barnaby, the big man reluctant to hand over his precious cargo as Buck's arms extended toward the pair.
Buck smiled. "Please...can I take him? He's my brother."
The silence was palpable, all six men stared at the boy...their friend, who they believed had perished. They watched as Buck edged forward and Barnaby slowly handed the unconscious, bloody form over. Closing his eyes, Buck pulled JD close and rested his cheek on the hot, sweaty, dark head.
As he turned, Vin raised a hand and touched JD's shoulder as if ensuring it was really him. He chewed his lip while his glistening eyes roamed over the still face. "Kid's got more lives than a cat." He nodded once to himself and released his grip.
Before Chris realized, his hand was resting on JD's head. He had no idea how this miracle was happening, but right then, even Kitcher himself making an appearance, couldn't have broken the spell of this reunion.
Ezra's face twitched in an effort to hide his emotion, eventually casting his gaze down when he knew he was done for.
Josiah stepped forward. "Let me help you, brother." He took JD's hand in his and squeezed.
Buck blinked to see clearly. "Nah, I got `im, thanks."
Nathan started running for the church. "I'll get a pallet ready." He pointed at the wagon. "I wanna see these men, too!"
Suddenly the urgency in Nathan's voice brought them out of their dream-like state. For the first time, Buck realized JD was still bleeding, and the man that had been holding him was also soaked in blood.
"Let's move!" Thankfully, the church wasn't far, not that it mattered to Buck. Just having JD alive and with him was giving him the strength of ten men right then.
"Josiah, Ezra, go with Buck and take these men along with you. Vin..." Larabee was all action now. "Let's get ready. Rally the townsfolk prepared to help, and get some wagons on their sides and across the street."
Nodding, the tracker headed off. Chris watched the entourage enter the church, a small smile lighting his handsome face before he hurried off to prepare for Kitcher's inevitable arrival.
Ben Kitcher was pissed. Actually, Ben Kitcher was more than pissed...he was ready to tear someone apart with his bare hands. Scarcely having time to recover from the news that all his businesses in town had been shut down, now he was being told his mine was gone. He considered it gone; because he knew it would take years to clear the kind of rubble several explosions would cause. He glared at Punk Morse, murder in his eyes.
"I want Larabee and his men dead."
Morse nodded. "I'll round up the men." He looked at him. "You ridin' with us, boss?"
"Oh yeah..." his words left him in a venomous hiss. "Larabee's mine, y'hear? I want his scalp for myself."
Morse nodded, not at all sorry. He'd met the man in black up close, and he was one scary hombre. "The kid escaped with the miners...so they're seven strong again."
"The way I'm feeling, they can have seventy and it won't help `em. Go get the men...I want blood!"
Two hours later, almost twenty men were riding toward the town of Freedom.
Buck watched Nathan as he worked, his gaze fixed on the delicate surgery his friend was attempting, while his own fingers carded through JD's soaked hair. The boy had barely flinched, as he lay on his stomach. Buck hadn't missed the bruises to his face, his split lip, and the congealed wound in his hair. He looked up as Nathan puffed and smiled.
The bullet out, the healer cleaned and packed the wound, finishing with Buck holding JD up, while he bandaged around the boy's back and chest. Resting him back down on the makeshift bed, Nathan looked at Buck. "His heartbeat's strong, but he's lost a lot of blood, and he's running a fever."
Nodding, the brunet blinked away tears. "He'll be fine, Nathan. We lost him once, we ain't about to lose him again." He smiled. "Go tend to your patients...I'll take care of him."
`I'll bet you will,' Nathan thought as he nodded and got up.
Josiah, with some help, had fed all the men some chicken stew, bread and water, promising them coffee if they could keep their meal down. Jenson had been around them all with a wash cloth and water and there was a promise the barber, who happened to be amongst them, would trim and shave them as soon as he could stop shaking.
Barnaby's voice boomed out in the echoey church. "Is our boy gonna be okay?"
Nathan answered. "Not sure, yet. But you helped a lot by keeping your hand on the wound, thank you." The blacksmith smiled and bit more of his bread, his gaze on Buck. "He gave me his food."
Buck nodded. "He's got a good heart."
"Yeah...he can shoot good, too."
Not sure what he meant, Buck just smiled, his gaze falling back on JD as he leaned in."You're safe, kid. Looks like you did good, too. But I gotta tell you, JD...you ever make me think you died again, an' I'm gonna whup your ass `til it glows." His words did not reflect his expression. JD looked so sick, but he had faith in Nathan, and JD was strong...he'd beat this. Buck was so deep in thought; he missed Chris come in and crouch down next to him.
"How's he doing?"
"Holding his own. Got shot in the back."
Chris gritted his teeth as he pondered that information. He sighed. "Gonna need all the help I can get," he whispered. "Vin got back from scouting, Kitcher's headed this way." He looked up, surprised to see Jenson, Barnaby and the miners standing before him.
"We may not be in the best of health, but we can all shoot."
Chris nodded. "Much obliged. Go see the fella in the buckskins, he'll give you guns." He stood. "Nathan, Josiah...can you help?"
"We're with you, Chris, but JD can't be moved," Nathan replied. A small sound from Buck alerted Chris to the anguish the big man was feeling about leaving the kid alone.
The gunslinger pursed his lips. "Could Molly sit with him?"
"That would work," Nathan smiled.
Josiah passed them. "I'll go get her."
Larabee squeezed Buck's shoulder. "We can't afford to lose this one."
"Ain't gonna lose, Chris. Someone up there gave JD back to us. We're gonna win this...get this town on its feet...and go home...all seven of us."
"Can't argue with that," Chris agreed. "See you outside." With a quick touch to JD's head, the gunslinger left.
Buck leaned in. "I promise not to make me look foolish, if you promise to fight this." He watched JD breathing, nodding. "Well, alright." With a final stroke of the damp black hair, and a smile to a just arrived Molly, Buck left.
Accepting Nathan's instructions, the young saloon girl took JD's hand in hers and watched him sleep while her other hand ran a damp cloth over his sweat-dampened skin.
Larabee looked around him. On the rooftops, Vin was leading ten men, four with him and six on the opposite side. Many of the buildings had armed men in them, some miners, and some townsfolk, while the five remaining peacekeepers were manning the barricades...the front line.
Vin's warning put them on alert, Chris wondering if Kitcher would come in talking, or shooting. His answer came swiftly. Once the large advancing group was within firing distance...they did so. While the deafening gunfight escalated, Kitcher's men fell, the peacekeepers ducking occasionally to avoid ricochets and bullets sailing over their heads. Chris saw one man fall from the roof, feeling guilty for his relief, when he could still hear Vin's rifle barking out, repeatedly.
Kitcher and his men were almost on them, and then they were there, jumping the barricades, horses screaming out as some made it and some didn't. Kitcher dived on Larabee instantly and the two rolled around in the dirt, as they fought for dominance. Buck was firing with one hand, while swinging his rifle left and right with the other, grinning as he watched them drop like flies and nodding his gratitude as Ezra's gun took out a man Buck had not seen coming, the southerner then turning to fire both his weapons before chasing down a man and tackling him to the ground.
Vin barked out a warning to the men on the roof whose guns were trained on the melee below them. His friends were in there and he wanted them protected, not fired on. He was surprised how easily he was picking Kitcher's men off. "Like shootin' fish in a barrel." He called out another warning as men were on the opposite roof and heading for his second group. He turned just in time to see the same happening to their side, and ran at the threat in an instant.
Josiah and Nathan were back to back, unsure of how the others were doing, but making damned sure no one headed for the church. Unknown to them, one had slipped through.
Despite the fire in his shoulder, the sound of gunfire permeated JD's hazy mind. He heard a soft, unfamiliar voice speak.
"Stay still, JD, you're not well enough to get up."
He was trying to get up? His body had reacted to the gunfire, but he was fast realizing he could barely move, let alone stand and fire. "Friends...?"
"Kitcher and his men are here. The fighting's fierce...I...I just don't know."
Molly's words had his weakened body moving again, to simply collapse in frustration as the pain in his back ignited. He heard his companion gasp and another voice. This one he recognized, but couldn't put a face to, as he lay there semi-conscious.
"Don't know how you got away, kid...but I reckon this is one time I'll make sure you stay put."
JD heard a gun cock, the face of the guy from the livery that had backhanded him, now firmly in his mind. Something solid was pressed into his hand and JD cradled the small gun Molly had slipped him, He opened his eyes to see Punk Morse standing a few feet away and aiming at him. Not waiting for Punk to make the first move, JD fired and watched the man fall, but the small gun hadn't killed him, and the man was grunting to his feet. Expecting to die any second, JD closed his eyes. A shot rang out and Molly screamed.
Vin was rolling around on the rooftop as he and a man fought for his rifle. "Give...it...up...fella!" The Texan tried not to look down as they rolled perilously close to the edge several times, finally managing to get a boot in the assailant's gut and heft him over his head. Watching the man's descent to the ground below, Vin winced, then snatched up his rifle and scrambled to his feet to continue the fight, relieved to see it was all but over.
Kitcher was fighting dirty, but Chris was more than up to the challenge, gouging the man's eye to finally get him off him. Jumping up, a panting Larabee grabbed his gun and aimed at the man.
"Shoot me...I ain't going to jail."
Chris shot the man's foot and Kitcher screamed out. "Happy to oblige and...yeah, you are." Looking around, he could see his men rounding up what was left of Kitcher's group, many laying dead or dying in the dirt. He saw Josiah.
"Lost two miners and got us a few glass cuts, but all fine."
"Headed back to the church." They all turned at the two gunshots from that very building.
"Are you okay?" Buck held a shaking Molly close, kicking out at Morse to make sure he was no threat after he had shot him.
Going to JD's side, Buck grinned. "Deader'n a dead dog's bone buried in a blind alley." He grinned at JD. "Can't leave you alone for five minutes, can I?"
"Guess...not..." Unable to stay awake, and knowing he and Molly were in good hands, JD closed his eyes and let go.
Relieved to feel a strong pulse in the youth's neck, Buck stood, raising his gun as running footsteps approached. He smiled when he saw Chris and Nathan. "Howdy."
Chris just laughed, shook his head and, content Buck had it under control, headed back to the street. Nathan scolded the unconscious boy when he saw fresh blood, but it was more from fear than anger.
"All over?" Buck asked on noticing the silence.
"Pretty much," Nathan answered. "Help me change these bandages, then we'll see who needs tending to. Kitcher got shot in the foot."
Buck snarled. "Let `im bleed."
Seeing that JD was okay, Molly headed back to the saloon to check on her mother.
Vin joined Chris in the street. "Kitcher's still alive?"
"Yep, and he's going to prison, if there's any justice in this world. I sent Josiah to wire Mary and ask for the Judge to join us."
Smiling his approval, Vin nodded, looking around at the bodies. "Hate to bring this up...but, don't we own the undertaker's? "
Chris couldn't help laughing. "We do, but I have it on good authority from the ex-preacher of this town that one of the miners is also an undertaker."
"I guess now we know why Kitcher was able to run this town; he had about every storekeeper workin' his mine."
"Looks that way." Chris glanced around. "And now they're back."
Vin grinned. "Maybe this little ol' town'll survive after all."
"You thinking on moving here, Tanner?"
Both laughing, they headed off to round up their friends.
Four days later, Orin Travis shook Chris's hand. He had sentenced Kitcher to fifteen years hard labor and had brought two marshals with him. One to escort the man to Yuma prison, the other to oversee the sealing of the mine and the sale and clearing of Kitcher's ranch. Five horses were saddled and ready for riding, JD's Milagro, and Josiah's Quincy, prancing while tied to a hitched wagon. The judge looked at his three peacekeepers, Nathan, Ezra, Buck, and JD still to join them.
"My congratulations, gentlemen, for a job well done. Actually, you did better than I could have ever hoped. Freedom now has a Marshal, a preacher, an undertaker, a barber and it would seem some of the miners are keen to start up a business." Orin smiled. "You have my thanks."
They all turned as Ezra was instructing a man who was following him. "It's a family tradition, I have your word, the name will remain?"
"Yessir, Mister Standish. Your emporium will keep its name, it's the least I can do for all the goods you passed on to me for free."
Trying to silence the man, Ezra looked at his friends. "He's delirious...all this fresh air after being cooped up for so long in the mine."
They all laughed. Standish was fooling no one. They watched Nathan approach, mumbling as he joined them.
"Stubborn little cuss thinks he's gonna ride outta here on a horse...well, he can just think again."
"JD's going in the wagon, Nathan, you have my word."
The healer looked at Chris. "Good luck with that."
In his room, JD huffed at Buck. "I wanna ride outta here, Buck. I can do it...I'm fine."
Buck pointed. "See...right there, those very words...those are enough to put you in the wagon right there." He watched JD wince as he tried to put his shirt on, walking over to help him. Buck stared at the youth, his throat tight.
His voice was a whisper and caused JD to look at him with concern. "Buck, you okay?" He knew what was coming, so relaxed into the embrace.
"Kid...I...we all thought we'd lost you. I gotta tell you, it was more than I could bear." He pulled back to look JD in the eye. "All I wanted to do was drink away the pain, but we had this damned job to do..." JD nodded his understanding.
"I don't ever wanna feel that way again. I guess what I'm saying is...you're hurt...let us take care of you. It's something we need to do...it's something *I* need to do. Seeing you on the back of that wagon was a moment I'll never forget. We'd been faced with thinking you'd burned to death, only to find you hurt and alive days later. It got to us all, kid."
They held each others' gaze, both knowing exactly what Buck meant. JD had ached too, when he thought he might never see his friends again, and they thought him dead. He tried to break the tension.
"Jeeze, okay...I'll ride in the wagon!"
Buck laughed, a deep, joyful laugh that made JD think of the men he saw as brothers and...home.
"Come on kid...let's go home."
As the pair exited the saloon, JD cursed at how slow he was moving. But at least he was moving, and, if you didn't count Buck's hand on his arm...under his own steam, and that was always good. As he approached the wagon, Vin trotted over and took JD's other arm, winking at JD when he saw the kid nod and smile. Between them, they got him settled.
Josiah chuckled at Nathan's dropped jaw as he climbed up to take the reins. "Planning on going fishing Nathan?"
The healer stared at the preacher. "Huh?"
"Looked like you were catching flies."
They all laughed as they mounted their horses, the townsfolk, Ezekiel, Barnaby, and the saloon girls, Lara with them, all there to see them off.
Molly climbed into the wagon and gave JD a kiss. "Take care."
JD grinned. "Don't forget to write when you get to San Francisco." With a nod, she joined her mother on the boardwalk.
"God's speed, boys," Lara called.
"Ma'am." They watched Orin get onto the stage, Kitcher glaring at them from inside, securely cuffed to the Marshal, and surrounded by four of the Marshal's deputies who were riding along as escort.
As the stage pulled out, the seven men watched it go until it was a distant dust cloud. Chris glanced around, satisfied everyone was ready. "Let's ride." He laughed as JD's voice rose above the sound of the wagon's wheels rolling through the dirt.
"Let's ride...very funny...give me my horse, then I'll ride..."
The town of Freedom would finally be able to live up to its name, thanks to the peacekeepers of Four Corners, who were on their way home and still seven strong.
And quietly contemplating what might be waiting for them when they got back.