Alternate Old West Universe "The Teacher"
Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em damnit!
Summary: John Daniel Dunne came west to take an apprenticeship with Steven Travis, only to find when he arrived, that Steven had died. Penniless, and just after his arrival and Chris saving him from being killed by a departing stage, JD meets all six peacekeepers, and they quickly become close friends.
Mary Travis offers JD the vacant post of Schoolteacher. He decides to stay on and accept the position and his adventures with six peacekeepers in a small western town begin.
Two stories in this AU are archived. The first is Lessons in Life, followed by In Those We Trust
Thanks to Mari for the awesome wall. I ask and you always deliver, girl. Thank you :o)
And to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home.
From the boardwalk outside the saloon, Buck stared at the stage. In a few minutes it would take JD away from them, and his heart ached at the thought. He had grown extremely fond of the young man, hell truth be told, the kid was like a brother to him. But now he was leaving. Buck was sure JD didn't want to go, but he was going all the same.
Why had it come to this?
FOUR CORNERS FOUR WEEKS PRIOR
"Has anyone ever told you how full of crap you are, Buck?"
Buck chuckled as he and JD entered the saloon. Noticing the other peacekeepers sitting in their usual corner, they walked over to join them.
"You aren't the first kid, and you sure as hell won't be the last."
"How was school today?" sipping on his whiskey, Josiah greeted the pair with a huge smile. JD dropped into a chair as he joined his friends, his smile fading.
"Jake Charvis hasn't turned up to school for almost a week now. Do you think he could be sick?" The schoolteacher smiled at Buck as he handed him a glass of milk, and took the seat next to him.
The men cast knowing glances to each other.
"What what am I missing?" JD demanded. He had been in this position once before, only that child had died. Suddenly the young teacher felt nervous.
Nathan answered. "Miz Charvis had a baby last week and it's a busy time for farmers. I'm guessin' young Jake is needed by his pa."
"Oh." JD sipped at his milk. "But he was doing so well maybe I should go visit him "
The youth's jaw dropped open at the six instantaneous replies. He couldn't help himself. "Why?"
Chris put down his beer. "JD, you shouldn't interfere in folk's business. If Jake's pa says he's needed that's it, you just let it go."
"But " JD saw the look on Chris's face and snapped his jaw shut, suddenly looking very interested in his milk.
Ezra took pity. "Mister Dunne, I have a patrol later and I pass quite close to their property. Would you like me to call on them and give them your regards?"
JD grinned, oblivious to Larabee's glare toward the southerner.
"Yeah, that would be great, thanks, Ezra. I'll go put a workbook together and you can drop it out to him, no sense in him falling behind, I'm sure he must have a little spare time."
With a scrape of his chair across the wood floor, the youth left and headed out to the schoolhouse to prepare some work for Jake. All eyes turned to Ezra.
"Something wrong, gentlemen?"
"You couldn't just let it go, could you?" Buck was a little angry.
Ezra frowned. "Surely helping the lad out is of no consequence to Mister Charvis. I am sure he would want his son to keep up with his schoolwork."
Vin sipped on his whiskey, then spoke. "Jake's older brother, Findlay, has been pretty vocal about Jake wastin' his time with schoolin', I'm guessin' he finally won his pa over to his way o' thinkin'."
Buck continued. "No one's told JD didn't want him upset by it. Since Kitty died and Amos and his family moved on, ain't but nine left in the school now."
Chris stood. "Mary says the town council is thinkin' on scrappin' the whole idea and closin' the school until the railroad comes."
Ezra paled. "JD will have no employment oh my."
Josiah sat back and looked around at them all. "You're concerned JD will leave here if the school folds?"
Chris stared; Buck nodded.
"Hell yeah I mean, what's he gonna do 'round here if he can't teach?"
They all looked at Vin, Buck huffed.
"Yeah, right. You lost your mind, Tanner? He'd get shot his first day on the job."
"Got him six deputies."
Chris smiled and tipped his hat as he left the saloon, the others returning the gesture. Buck stood and leaned into Vin's space.
"You're loco, Vin you been out in the sun too long."
The Texan's expression never wavered. "Kid's a good shot we'd watch his back, and he'd have money, and a place to live just a thought, Bucklin."
Wilmington looked at the others and saw no argument. He shook his head.
"You're *all* loco," but as he walked away and out into the sunshine, he was already considering the possibilities.
On hearing his name, the southerner stopped and turned before he entered the saloon
"Mister Dunne. I assume school is over for the day."
JD nodded. "Did you get to see Jake yesterday? How was he? Did you give him the workbook I gave you? Did he say if he was coming back soon ?"
"JD please one query at a time." Standish pulled two chairs on the boardwalk toward them and gestured for the easterner to sit. The youth looked at Ezra, his eyes wide with anticipation.
"Now " the gambler continued, " let me see if I can answer these inquiries in order. Yes, I did the boy was in good health I attempted to hand over the package you gave me for him no, I do not believe any return date was forthcoming."
Before Ezra could draw breath JD was speaking.
"What do you mean, *attempted* to hand over the package?"
Standish sighed. "Findlay was with him and refused to allow Jake to take it I'm sorry."
"Oh." JD's shoulders dropped slightly. "Well, at least he's okay, Thanks for trying to help, Ezra."
Both men stood, Ezra touched his hat. "My pleasure, JD." He gestured toward the saloon. "Care to join me for a beverage? I believe we may be about to embark on a little undertaking for the judge sometime soon, so we may not be around for a few days."
Dunne sighed, he hated when the other six were away. "Naw, I'm good, thanks. Maybe later?"
"I shall look forward to it." The southerner watched the youth walk dejectedly away. Josiah approached.
"Chris wants us at the jail." He extended a courteous hand in an 'after you' gesture. "Shall we?"
Standish raised an eyebrow. "Well how can I possibly refuse such a polite request?" The two men laughed as they proceeded to the jail.
Around early evening JD looked up to a knock at the schoolroom door, turning his head to see Buck remove his hat and step in.
"Hey kid, the fellas kinda wondered where you were. You comin' over to the saloon any time soon?"
JD smiled. "Sure soon as I finish up here got a few things to look over."
Satisfied with the answer, the brunet attempted to leave.
"Are you and the others going somewhere for the Judge soon?"
Buck walked back toward JD and propped one foot up on his chair, resting on the elevated thigh as he leaned forward slightly.
"Yeah Judge wants us to escort a prisoner over to Ridge City where he'll continue on by train with the sheriff from Carson. Judge figured it'd be safer if we all go shouldn't be more'n two days." Buck's heart sank as he saw the disappointment in the youth's eyes.
JD nodded. "Okay, thanks." He playfully slapped Buck's boot off his chair. "I'll be over soon."
Returning his foot to the floor, Buck nodded, turned and left. The kid was fooling no one.
Entering the saloon, Buck picked up a beer at the bar and joined the other five peacekeepers; Noting his demeanor, Chris watched the tall man take his drink and join them.
Buck took a long draw of his beer and wiped at his mustache with one hand as he put his glass down on the table with the other.
"Naw just been talkin' to the kid about our upcoming trip."
Chris frowned. "And?"
The ladies' man smiled to himself, "And he just seemed a li'l down that we wouldn't be around, is all." He looked around at his friends. "Thing is I'll kinda miss him, too."
Nathan puffed on his cigar. "You just don't like not being able to keep an eye on him, is all."
The others laughed.
"Yeah, that too," Buck chuckled.
In the schoolhouse, JD stared at the unopened package Ezra had returned to him, turning it in his hands a few times before setting it back on his table. He looked around the small room. He hadn't planned on coming west to be a teacher, but had soon settled and was actually enjoying himself. It had been a tough few months but the young college graduate had finally felt he had been making headway. He fully expected people to move away but losing Kitty to influenza just over a month ago had about broken JD's heart. Now Jake no longer attended, and the easterner felt he was possibly witnessing the school's demise. Even Mary refused to discuss it with him, asking him to be patient for now.
Realizing he would have none of his friends in town tomorrow, he decided he would take a trip out to the Charvis farm and say hello to Jake himself see if he could persuade Jed Charvis to allow his son to return to school.
JD packed up the few things he had been working on, and locked up the schoolhouse,
before walking on over to the saloon to join his friends.
Next morning, just as the sun rose, six out of seven men couldn't help but smile as they sat atop their horses and watched a sleepy, tousle-haired youth amble toward them.
"Li'l early for ya kid?" Vin grinned
JD yawned and nodded as he rubbed his eyes. "How d'ya guess?"
The men chuckled. Buck leaned to one side and lowered his upper body to speak to the youth.
"Now, we'll only be gone a coupla days mind you behave yerself."
"Aw hell, Buck I planned on getting dead drunk, flirtin' with some of your 'fine ladies' and then shootin' up the town. You always have to spoil my fun."
They all laughed as Buck ruffled the boy's dark hair and JD indignantly swiped at his hand.
"Boy," he grinned, "I seen you after one beer and those 'fine ladies' you plan on chasin', will chew you up for breakfast an' spit out your bones. And as for shootin' up the town " Buck bobbed his eyebrows. "...the stable door's thataway let me know if ya hit it."
JD shook his head attempting a glare but failing miserably. He noticed the prisoner shifting uncomfortably in his saddle and realized they had to go. He looked at each of them in turn, resting on Buck.
"Watch your backs."
Each man touched his hat or nodded.
"You too, kid."
"Take care, John Dunne."
"Don't be doin' anythin' dangerous, JD."
"Ensure your own safety at all times, Mister Dunne."
"See ya soon, kid."
Chris leaned forward. "JD stay out of trouble."
Fighting the urge to offer a sassy reply, the youth simply nodded, appreciating the true meaning behind the words.
"See ya, fellas."
Stepping back, JD sighed as he watched them canter off, until they disappeared into the distance. He walked over to the restaurant for breakfast, his mind already planning his day ahead.
After a short ride, JD approached the Charvis homestead. He was greeted with less than friendly stares from the farm hands or family members, he wasn't sure which. Jake was in the yard drawing water from the well and spotted his teacher instantly, running toward him.
"Mister Dunne Mister Dunne hi!"
JD grinned and halted his horse. "Hi, Jake how are you?"
Jake skidded to a halt in the dust. "I'm doing good, Mister Dunne how are you?"
"I'm doing good too, thank you, Jake. Is your pa around? I'd like to talk to him for a minute."
"No but I am, talk to me."
JD did a half-turn in his saddle to see Findlay Charvis approaching.
"I'd really rather speak to "
"I said...*Mister* Dunne speak to me." Findlay insisted.
With a slight sigh, JD nodded. "It's about Jake coming back to school, I was wondering "
Findlay positively snarled and JD watched Jake's face change from happiness to despair.
"Don't be he ain't comin' back, he has chores he's needed here now."
"But maybe when Missus Charvis is back on her feet?" JD argued.
Findlay shook his head. "Nope not even then. Jake's got responsibilities now, he ain't got time for no fancy book-learnin'. Now get off our property."
Dunne frowned, "Findlay, please, Jake was doing so well."
The man raised a rifle. "I said git!"
JD's horse Milagro, pranced nervously as the youth tried to steady him. He focused his gaze on Jake.
"Jake, would you go get your pa, please?"
With a nod, the boy ran toward the house, halting as the sound of a rifle shot echoed around him, before again running flat out toward the house, afraid to look back.
Findlay growled at JD. "I said GIT"
JD felt a sharp pain in his thigh and barely hung on as his horse reared. Realizing he had been shot, he turned his horse and trotted off, calls of "Go on git," and "Good riddance," coming from the workers around him as he left the property. Fighting the rising nausea, his hand clutched desperately at the bleeding wound.
A half hour on and struggling to stay conscious, the youth made for a small stand of trees. He painfully dropped to the ground and unhooked his canteen from the saddle horn. JD took in water greedily, then remembered how he had been told not to do that, and re-capped it.
Grateful for the momentary shade, he attempted several times, to re-mount his horse, only to slump to the ground and pass out from the pain, effort and blood loss. He fell awkwardly against the animal as he went down. The horse spooked and raced off, leaving the boy bleeding and unconscious on the ground.
JD had been in and out of consciousness most of the night, waking to the first rays of dawn. Shivering, yet soaked with sweat, he managed to pull himself up to rest his back against a tree, dragging his canteen with him. He took a few shaky sips of water then re-corked the bottle to preserve the precious liquid. Resting the bottle against his good leg he tentatively examined his damaged thigh, hissing as he tried to pull away the sodden, bloody material. JD again picked up the canteen, uncorking it to pour a little over the wound. He screamed in agony, gritting his teeth and barely replacing the canteen's stopper, before he passed out again.
The next time he awoke, the sun was higher likely close to noon he figured. JD had no idea where his horse or his hat was as he was again attempting to check the wound. The bullet was still in there, nestling somewhere in the side of his thigh. Peeling away some of the material, it burned and was still seeping slightly. Fishing out a bandanna from his pants pocket, JD spun it several times then wrapped it tightly around his leg, covering the wound in an effort to protect it.
Desperately trying to control his emotion and nausea as his pain-racked body slowly weakened, the youth filled his mind with all that had happened to him since leaving Boston. JD eventually drifted off again, thoughts of his six heroes in his mind, and one in particular who had given him a sense of security that he hadn't known since before his mother had died.
Mary paced. The schoolhouse was locked despite it being well after 2 pm, JD's horse was not in the livery and the six peacekeepers were not due back until later that day. Despite a small search party, JD had not been located, townsfolk confirming the last time he had been seen was the previous afternoon.
The newspaper editor sent the five children that had turned up, home, suggesting they leave it for a few days until the six regulators returned and JD was found. The residents of Four Corners knew JD to be reliable, and their affection for the young man showed in their concern.
Mary wrapped her arms around herself, willing the time to pass quickly, so Vin could be here to track the young teacher. If anyone could find him, Vin Tanner could.
Despite their weariness, the closer they got to home, the more relaxed the six peacekeepers became. Buck chuckled.
"'Ornery li'l cuss, wasn't he?" His comment was directed at their recently delivered prisoner.
"I concur, Mister Wilmington, the man was indeed a contemptible degenerate," Ezra agreed.
"Hell JD woulda got a kick outta the way ol' Vin tackled him to the ground that time." Buck remembered the incident where the guy had tried to make a break for it. Vin rubbed at his bruised chin as he too recalled it.
On mentioning JD's name, each man reflected for a moment.
"Sure hope he didn't burn the town down," Buck finally added.
The others snickered and subconsciously urged their horses on a little faster.
At first look, the town seemed normal, peaceful even. Before the men had reached the livery, Mary was hurrying toward them. Chris dismounted and walked toward her, instantly recognizing the signs of distress. He placed one hand on her shoulder.
"I know this is a foolish question but I have to ask, did JD catch up with you at all?"
Now Buck was off his horse and next to them. Chris shook his head.
"No, we ain't seen JD since yesterday morning, why?"
Buck looked alarmed. "Mary?"
The editor sighed, sadness evident in her whole demeanor as she looked to each man, then back to Chris and Buck.
"No one here has seen him since yesterday, after school."
Buck groaned and dropped his head, pulling off his hat as he ran his fingers through his hair.
All eyes turned to the blacksmith Yosemite, who instantly acknowledged the six men, and addressed all of them.
"Milagro just came in."
Vin jumped down and was in the livery in seconds, closely followed by the others. He looked over every inch of the horse, tracing each leg with his hands and checking its feet. As he rubbed a finger and thumb together he drew attention to one flank, in particular, the saddle .
"No injuries to the horse but there's blood here and on the saddle."
Buck's gut clenched in fear when he examined the blood, not fresh, but wet due to the sweating horse. He looked at Chris then to Yosemite.
"I need a horse."
The blacksmith nodded.
"Make that four," Larabee called after him.
"Yessir, Mister Larabee."
Buck smiled at his old friend, the gratitude evident in his eyes. Chris turned to his men.
"Josiah, Ezra I need two men here. Vin needs to track, Nathan should be with us in case the kid's injured and Buck wouldn't stay behind if I shot both his legs from under him."
Both men nodded. "We will anxiously await your return, Mister Larabee."
"God's speed, boys, bring our lost lamb home."
Larabee turned to Mary, speaking quietly. "Go prepare my room, transfer what you think you might need there from Nathan's clinic."
With a squeeze to his arm, Mary nodded to Chris and left, wishing them good luck. In less than ten minutes, they were gone.
Late afternoon, and Vin had spent a long time walking his horse as he searched the ground for Milagro's tracks. Finally picking them up again, he re-mounted and urged the men in a direction, his concern growing due to there being only a few hours of light left. It took an hour or so before the tracker spotted something in the distance beneath some trees, and he took off at a gallop purely on instinct. Trusting Vin's keen senses, the others followed and could soon see the young man lying on the parched ground. Vin and Nathan were at his side in seconds.
Together they rolled the small body onto his back, Vin resting the youth's head on his knees. Chris dismounted but scanned the area constantly, soon joined by Tanner when a worried Wilmington took over from the Texan.
Buck pushed back the sweat-soaked hair from the boy's face and looked anxiously to the busy healer. "Nathan?"
"Hold on there, Buck." Cleaning the wound on the boy's thigh and binding it, the healer then checked over every inch of JD's unconscious form. He finally looked up at three anxious faces
"He'll live, I reckon, long as there's no serious infection."
They all looked a little relieved.
"But this wound's gonna need more attention like I said, might be infected. I need to get the bullet out, then we need to get him home."
"What happened to him?" Larabee asked, now squatting down with the others as Vin kept a look-out.
"He's lucky. Took a bullet at close range, but the angle stopped it tearin' straight into him and takin' off half his leg. Lost some blood an' I reckon he's gonna be a mite sore an' thirsty when he wakes up." Nathan looked up at the sky, "It'll be dark soon won't be safe for him, or us to travel, so I'd best get this bullet out now, while I still got light to do it."
Chris nodded and stood, glancing at Vin. "That's settled then, we make camp here until first light. I'll start a fire and boil some water."
Vin instantly went off to find firewood, while Buck and Chris set up camp. In less than an hour, Nathan had removed the bullet, grateful the boy had remained unconscious. JD was now wrapped in blankets, lying on Buck´s bedroll, as the others finished their meal, and enjoyed their coffee. Buck remained next to the youth the whole time, constantly fussing with his hair or his blankets, while trying to force little sips of water into him. Chris couldn't help but smile as he watched the ladies' man. He turned to the others.
"He's like a big ol' mama bear, isn't he?"
They nodded. Vin stared at the healer. "Nathan he really gonna be okay?"
Jackson nodded. "Reckon so, Vin. It ain't too far to town and I'll clean out the wound again once we're there."
They all turned on hearing Buck speak.
"Easy easy there, kid. You're safe, okay no one's gonna hurt ya ol' Buck is here."
JD was parched. He could barely swallow; his throat was so dry. And he ached oh God, he ached. And what was with his leg? His leg was on fire. He groaned. "Uunnhhh hurts.
The brunet leaned in, "Sure it does son, but Nathan's gonna fix you up real good, JD don't you fret none, just get some rest."
Eyes still closed, and licking his lips, JD turned to the voice. "Leg "
"Yeah, kid you hurt ya leg. Try not to move it, okay?" Buck lifted JD's head and helped him take some water. Nathan had joined them and was checking the dressing on the boy's leg, deciding it needed changing. Alarmed at the cry of pain from the youth, Jackson pulled out some laudanum from his medical bag and between him and Buck they gave him a few sips. In no time, JD was sleeping, and Nathan continued with his ministering.
Chris had joined them and while Vin continued to keep a look out, the blond watched the whole procedure, finally speaking when it was over.
"Let's get some rest, I wanna leave at sunup. Sooner JD gets back to town, sooner he gets well."
Nodding their agreement, the men took their places to settle down for the night. Buck lay close to the sleeping boy, putting his hand protectively across JD's chest, both as a comfort for the youth, and to enable him to be aware if the boy should wake. As they slept, Chris kept watch.
The journey back to town was slow and arduous, especially for the young teacher. Despite being tucked in front of Buck, it clearly hurt him to be moving and his fevered cries of pain reduced the group to a crawl. By the time they arrived in town, they were all spent.
Chris and Vin had helped Buck get JD to Chris's room and then went on to see to the horses. Mary had been a great help, moving everything Nathan needed into the larger room. As Nathan worked on the unconscious boy's leg, Buck paced, twisting his hat in his hands as he watched, and occasionally wincing at Nathan's actions. Eventually, the healer rose to his full height and stretched his aching muscles. He smiled at Buck.
"Done 'bout all I can do for now. There's an infection due to fragments of cloth being lodged in there, but I think we caught it in time. He's gonna be real sick for a day or two but I reckon he'll be fine."
The brunet nodded. "Can I sit with him?"
Nathan smiled, "Sure. I'm just gonna get me some food. Would you like me to bring you some back?"
"Naw, I'm good for now, thanks Nathan. You go 'head," he looked fondly down at JD, "We'll be fine."
Acknowledging the man, Nathan tidied up, washed his hands, then grabbed his hat and left. Buck settled into the chair and stared at the youth.
"Who did this, kid? Wake up and give me a name I need to rip off a head or two." He rubbed a weary hand over his face. "What the hell were you thinking, goin off on your own like that? You shoulda waited for one of us to go with you." Buck paused as if expecting JD to answer him. He sighed. "Come on, JD, wake up boy you can do this."
"And we all know his propensity for adhering to your instructions, Mister Wilmington."
Buck jumped at the southerner's sudden appearance, relaxing slightly and dropping his hand from over his gun as Standish approached the bed. He was taken a little aback to see such compassion in the man's face when he looked down on the sleeping form.
"Careful there Ezra, you might give the impression that you give a damn," Buck teased.
The southerner smiled but didn't look up, "Well now that would never do, however, I feel compelled to ask how the young man is faring."
Buck grinned. This kid had somehow broken through the toughened hearts of all six of them, and most of the town, too. His smile faded as he answered.
"Nathan says he's gonna have it rough for a few days, but he should pull through."
Ezra nodded, finally meeting Buck's gaze. "That does indeed sound encouraging. May I sit with you awhile?"
Wilmington nodded, "Help yourself. Grab that chair from over by the window."
Ezra dragged the chair to the bed and the two men sat in companionable silence as they watched the youth sleep.
By the second day JD's fever was raging, keeping Nathan constantly busy, and grateful Buck turned up to offer help. Chris came in as JD's head was restlessly tossing from side to side, the movements weakening as the youth became exhausted. As if connected by an invisible thread, Vin, then Josiah, and finally Ezra arrived, all standing silently as JD mumbled something. At first Buck leaned in to catch the words, but then the youth spoke clearly and no one was in any doubt as to what and who he was referring to.
JD was in hell. He kept replaying the discussion with Findlay over and over.
"B but h he was doing so well " he mumbled.
Buck leaned in. "What are you tryin' to say, kid?"
"P please please don't Findlay!" JD tried to clutch his leg, but Buck grabbed his hand and held on tight. Dunne sobbed. "Oh God he shot me "
Buck stood bolt upright, his face a reflection of pure hatred.
"Findlay Charvis " he growled. "Findlay Charvis I'm gonna take his damn rifle and stick it where the sun don't shine...just before I fire it!" Releasing JD's hand, Buck turned to leave the room.
Chris halted him with a hand to his chest. He looked around at the other angry faces. "Wait."
The brunet glanced down at the hand on his chest, then up into Larabee's face.
"Buck I know what you're saying, but if JD got shot simply by riding in there alone, I can only imagine what kind of reception one or several angry men will get, doing the same."
"I'll take my chances." Buck's voice vibrated with emotion. "Unlike the kid...I'll be ready for them."
"Buck help " The small voice halted Buck's tirade. His expression softened and he went to the boy.
"Gentlemen, if I may "
All eyes turned to Ezra.
"Once a week, Findlay and his father come into town for supplies. As I recall that day is usually a Wednesday."
"Tomorrow " Buck turned from Ezra and looked down at the now quiet boy. " I can wait 'til tomorrow."
Larabee nodded to Ezra. "Tomorrow it is, then."
"Just a thought," Josiah added, "If Charvis shot JD would he necessarily risk coming here?"
The blond pondered that observation for a moment, then settled on an answer. "Well if he doesn't come in *then* we'll go there."
Satisfied for now, Buck returned to cooling JD down with a damp cloth while the others, bar Josiah, left.
Mary looked out of the window of Chris's room, to watch the activity on the street. She could see Buck and Ezra hovering near the saloon, Chris and Vin sitting outside the jail, and Nathan and Josiah outside Watson's hardware store, the six men looking for all the world as if they were simply sleeping or chatting. Her stomach flipped as she saw Jed and Able Charvis riding in on a wagon, with Findlay bringing up the rear on his big black. She could only imagine how Buck would be struggling to control his temper right about now, and hoped they could apprehend Findlay with a minimum of fuss. A noise from behind her caused her to turn. She smiled.
"Hello, JD it's so good to see you awake. Would you like a drink?"
The boy nodded and was soon gratefully swallowing down the tepid liquid that, at that moment felt more like cool spring water on his parched throat. Mary lay him back down and smiled again. She noted his eyes searching the room.
"This is Mister Larabee's room. You've had everyone very worried, and until an hour ago they were all here at one time or another, Mister Wilmington especially."
"They'll be here again soon, they just had some business to take care of in town."
Wearily JD nodded. "Thank you," he rasped. In minutes, he was asleep again, but this time his fever was gone and his slumber was a healing one. Mary brushed damp hair from his face and whispered a small prayer, and then went back to the window.
It took Buck no time at all to recognize the nod from Larabee Findlay was coming in. Touching his hand to his gun, Buck relaxed back to wait for Chris to make his move. The wagon pulled up outside Mrs. Potter's store, but before either man could alight, Chris and Vin were next to them, guns drawn.
"What in hell's name is this, Larabee?" Jed asked.
"We're arresting Findlay for the attempted murder of schoolteacher John Dunne."
As Findlay reached for his gun, he suddenly froze.
"Now, personally, I would love for you to go for that side-iron, then I could blow that gun-totin' hand o' yours clean off. But I made Chris a promise I'd be good, so I'm gonna give you a warning instead, which is more than you gave JD. Don't."
The three men turned to see Buck speaking and he, Nathan, Ezra and Josiah holding guns on them. They raised their hands, though only Findlay was carrying a weapon.
"Now you just hold on there," Findlay countered, "I was jus' defendin' our land ain't no law against that, tell 'em Pa it was my right."
Chris stepped forward. "You sayin' JD was threatening you?"
Findlay shook his head, "No but I asked him to leave twice got me witnesses an' everythin' he just kept on askin' the same question so I fired a warnin' never aimed ta kill 'im, jest ta wound him."
Larabee looked to the oldest man.
"Is this true, Jed?"
Jed nodded, "As much as I regret what happened, Mister Lar'bee, Fin did ask him to leave."
Buck was anxious as he looked at Larabee's expression. "Chris I know that look you can't let this bastard go he shot a kid *our* kid JD wouldna hurt him. Chris!"
Chris sighed and looked over at his long-time friend. "JD was wearin' his guns, Buck my hands are tied."
"Jesus, he's a teacher, not a gunslinger..." Buck protested.
Larabee's expression was grim. "They have a right to defend what's theirs..." He watched the brunet stomp away then turned back to the three Charvis men.
"Get what you need and get out of town. Findlay Charvis, I see you in this town again I'll shoot you where you stand, y'hear me?"
Findlay puffed out his chest. "You cain't do that I got the law on my side you cain't stop me from "
"This is *our* town," the blond interrupted, "And what we say goes you are no longer welcome here. Now get your supplies and get the hell outta my town."
Before Findlay could speak again, Jed threw him a warning look and within the hour the family had gone.
Buck was furious and before he realized, he was back at Larabee's room. He took a breath to calm himself and stepped in.
"Mary," he greeted, "How is he?"
"His fever broke, Buck. He woke for a few minutes, took some water and now he's resting. He was asking after you."
Buck grinned as he took a seat next to the bed, touching his hand to JD's forehead. "Nice 'n cool at least we got some good news today."
"I assume it didn't go well?" Mary queried.
"Sump'n like that," Buck answered, not looking up.
"Well, I should get on, is there anything else I can do for you, Buck?"
The brunet smiled as he glanced at her. "Naw we're good thanks."
With a nod, she swept from the room. Buck leaned back in his chair and stroked the boy's hair.
"I swear to you kid as long as I have breath in my body I'll look out for you."
"Could be a long commitment." Larabee stood in the doorway.
Buck started to anger as he glared at his oldest friend, then he turned back to JD and let it go. "Yeah, well some things are worth it."
Chris placed a hand to JD's face and smiled at the coolness there. He looked at Buck. "Guess so."
Buck ignored the amused stares, clearly exasperated as he chased after the limping youth. "JD what in hell are you doin'? It's only been two weeks. Nathan said you need to rest up."
JD grinned as he looked back. "I'm fine, Buck just off to get the school ready to start back next week."
"*Next week* next week, kid that's three whole days. Now do as you're told and rest."
JD chuckled, stopped, and raised his hands. "Okay okay does the saloon count as resting?"
Buck flashed a huge smile and placed an arm around the youth's shoulders. "Now you're talkin'."
On entering the drinkery, Buck guided JD toward the table the other five peacekeepers were sitting around, and went to the bar to get some drinks. They all greeted the youth. Vin sat forward.
"Anythin' you need help with, kid?"
JD smiled. "I think I'm about finished, but thanks Vin I'll let you know."
Tanner nodded and sat back. Nathan blew out smoke from his cigar.
"You better be restin' that leg, JD it won't heal right if you don't rest."
"I am, Nathan honest. Jeeze, you sound just like Buck."
Ezra laughed, "Oh my now there is a sentence you would rather not hear."
"Hey " Buck sat down and handed JD his milk, "I may be stupid, but I ain't deaf."
"You're not stupid, Buck," JD defended, "hard headed annoying, noisy but not stupid."
The others laughed.
"I fear he's got you pegged, brother," Josiah grinned.
"What's this a conspiracy?" He looked at Ezra, "See, I know fancy words."
Standish saluted. "Well at least one."
Laughter rang again. Buck just huffed and drank his beer.
Chris moved slightly but it was enough to cause JD to look at him.
"You're your own man, JD, but we've talked about this, I'd prefer it if you let someone know where you're going next time, maybe wait until one of us can go with you."
The youth nodded, "I will, I promise." He chewed at the inside of his cheek. "I never went there to cause trouble."
Buck grunted. "Yeah, well, ain't gonna be no *next time* kid, from now on, one of us is *always* gonna go with you."
JD laughed, Buck frowned.
"What no argument? Hell, Ezra, I shoulda taken odds on that happenin'." He turned to JD. "What's so darned funny?"
"You make it sound like I got me six big brothers."
As the words left his mouth JD blushed and suddenly found the table interesting. In doing so, he missed the expressions that went around it, looks that would have told him not one man there objected to the endearment.
A few hours later and Buck nudged the youth.
"Hey, you're 'bout fallin' asleep here. Come on, I'll walk you to your room."
JD rubbed his eyes. "No need, Buck I'll be fine."
"No trouble, c'mon."
Saying goodnight, the youth left. Five minutes later, Buck returned.
"Kid okay?" Chris wondered.
Wilmington nodded, scooping up the cards Ezra had just dealt. "Yup he surely is."
Vin's feet crashed to the floor from their position atop the desk in the jailhouse. There were no prisoners and he had been dozing. He jumped to his feet and ducked down to look out of the window.
"Aww, shit!" He strode out to the boardwalk and started banging on the triangular metal bar hanging just to one side of the jail.
In less than a minute, Larabee and Wilmington were with the Texan, staring in horror at a burning building. The church bell began to peel, alerting the town and the now growing number of peacemakers of the danger. Each grabbing a pail and, dipping it into a water trough, Nathan, Buck, Vin and Chris ran toward the burning schoolhouse, Ezra and Josiah quickly bringing up the rear.
Able Charvis had stared at the schoolhouse as light from the street bonfires cast eerie shadows across it. This building and all it stood for had caused his family grief outcasts in their own municipality, and it angered him.
It had angered him when the peacekeepers had ordered them out of town as quickly as possible and when they told Findlay he was no longer welcome there.
It had angered him when his seven-year-old brother had told Findlay he hated him for shooting Dunne.
It angered him now, to stand there and look at a threat to their simple way of life.
And he wanted it gone.
Picking up the charred end of a burning log from a nearby bonfire he walked to the back of the building and, shattering the glass, pushed it through a window. His eyes lit up at the flare from inside as the fire slowly took hold. He was no longer angry.
And he went home.
JD was sound asleep in his room above the schoolhouse and didn't hear the breaking glass. He didn't really rouse at all until a wisp of acrid smoke assaulted his nostrils. At first he twitched, desperate to remain asleep, but eventually his senses were on alert and he opened his eyes.
JD was shocked to see, from the low light of a lantern, the room filled with smoke. It took a moment to fully comprehend what was happening. The sound of men shouting and glass cracking and exploding below him brought JD fully alert.
Reaching toward his nightstand, he pulled a small cigar box from a drawer all that remained of his time with his mother. As he pushed it inside the vest of his long-johns, he was out of bed and pulling on his britches, all the while coughing as the smoke began to filter into his lungs. Taking tentative steps in the dimly lit, smoke-filled room, he stumbled over his boots. Tumbling forward, he cracked his head hard on the foot-board of his bed. He lay there, unconscious, while the smoke grew thicker and the fire ever nearer.
Chris was ordering people left and right while he and the other five regulators kept continuously throwing water at the building. Before long, the whole town was involved and the fire appeared to be slowly coming under control.
Urgently looking around, Buck stopped and wiped his sooty face. His heart clenched, and his parched throat suddenly tightened with fear.
"JD!...JD ANSWER ME, KID JD!!"
He grabbed Larabee's arm. "I don't see the kid anywhere." Buck looked at the others.
"Have either of you seen JD?"
At the same time, realization dawned on them and they all looked up to the room JD boarded at. Buck tore off toward the back stairs.
Each man was about to follow, Josiah halted them, his tone broached no argument.
Buck screamed in frustration as he bounced against the locked door at the top of the stairs, all the while calling out the boy's name. Josiah arrived and moved him aside.
With a mighty shoulder charge from Josiah, they were in, coughing as thick, black smoke enveloped them.
"JD! Damnit kid answer me," Buck called again.
Sanchez was already on his hands and knees feeling his way across the floor. Suddenly he felt a small hand, instantly grasping it and pulling.
"Buck here!" he coughed.
The brunet dropped to his knees and reached out, realizing he was touching two bodies as Josiah was attempting to drape the unconscious boy over his shoulder. He fisted the back of the preacher's shirt and slowly guided them backwards out of the room, both men coughing and wheezing due to not just the smoke, but the sheer effort involved.
While the townsfolk continued with the water, the four remaining lawmen watched the stairs with bated breath, waiting for the merest glimpse of life. Vin suddenly shot forward.
Four men rushed to the foot of the stairs.
Buck and Josiah reached the top of the stairs and carefully carried their prize down and away from danger. As they reached the bottom, they collapsed, coughing violently. JD's pliant body traveled to the ground with them, but Ezra and Nathan were quick to catch the youth before he hit the ground. Chris and Vin checked on Buck and Josiah, but both men waved them away as they moved to see how JD was.
"Is he alive?" Buck coughed.
Nathan had his ear to the youth's chest, first removing the box that had been stashed there. He listened and listened, then he turned the boy on his side and started hitting JD's back.
"He ain't breathing."
"Nooo!" Wilmington shuffled over and held the boy's face in his hands as Nathan pounded JD's back and Josiah mumbled a prayer.
"C'mon now, JD," Buck implored, "Take a breath kid please."
Nathan gave another smack between the shoulder blades and the boy gasped, then coughed and coughed until he vomited. Jackson sat down in the dust and pulled the gasping youth back against his chest. Now seeing the blood running from a gash to JD's head from when he fell, Vin handed the healer a soaked bandanna to wipe the slack face.
Noise from around him filtered into his quiet place, and JD blinked hard. He was struggling to open his eyes, but once he did, he could see several blurry faces. He heard a familiar voice.
"God, kid you had us scared half to death."
"Buck?" JD couldn't believe that raspy, weak voice belonged to him. He turned to focus on the brunet. "I'm not dead?"
Buck chuckled which in turn caused him to cough.
"Nah not dead. You okay?"
JD also coughed. "Think so " his eyes flew open, " my box!"
Chris touched his shoulder and held out JD's most treasured possession.
"Here, son it's safe."
JD sighed in relief. He rubbed at sooty eyes. "Y'know I'm beginning to think God hates me."
Josiah stepped forward. "Son, the way he pulls you through or guides us to you I'd say it's the complete opposite, I think he kinda likes having you around here."
"Wish he could do it a little quieter." With a small smile, the youth closed his eyes.
Nathan looked to the others. "Help me get him to my clinic, I can take care of him there. Buck, Josiah you should come too."
A huge crash caused them all to duck down, turning to see the smoldering building collapse in on itself. With a shudder, Buck, Nathan and Josiah, with a semi-conscious JD, headed for the clinic. Chris, Ezra and Vin stayed behind to ensure the fire was out and begin the clean-up.
The next day saw Buck shake his head, but smile with relief as he spotted the young schoolteacher standing next to the ruins of the still smoldering schoolhouse. He walked over to join him.
"What in tarnation are you doin' out here, boy?" He pointed to JD's bandaged head. "You should be restin'."
JD sighed and gestured to the ruins. "It's gone, Buck it's all gone."
The brunet put an arm on his friend's shoulder. "It's just a building, JD, it can be re-built, or you can set up somewhere else."
The youth shook his head. "It's over. Missus Travis said the town council ain't gonna re-build it until the railroad is built and that could be years yet. She reckons the town needs to grow more be safer." He turned to Buck, his eyes full. "I have no job, no home. I'm gonna have to go back east."
Buck was alarmed. "Now just hold on there. You still got your friends, kid."
"Ain't enough, Buck " the youth sighed heavily, " a man has to earn a living or he isn't a man.
And there it was. The stage had pulled in earlier, with it came Judge Orin Travis. JD stood on the boardwalk as he watched the coachmen preparing to leave. His heart was breaking. He didn't want to go, but had no choice. He could see his six friends standing outside the jail talking to the Judge. Suddenly all seven men looked his way. Dunne dropped his gaze to the ground, and in doing so, missed the grins that followed the gazes. The next time he looked up, all seven men were standing in front of him. The Judge spoke.
"Mister Dunne, I understand you are thinking of leaving us. That is truly a shame."
JD nodded sadly.
"You did an excellent job while you were here, JD, the town needs someone with your drive and enthusiasm around. I have a proposition for you."
The youth stared hard at the man, curious to know what it was.
"My daughter-in- law informs me, despite the lack of funds, several parents wanted to continue their children's education. We think it should be possible, once a week, to hold a school session at the Grain Exchange, while the town debates the merits of a new schoolhouse before the railroad hits."
JD's face saddened. "Sir, while I appreciate the offer, working once a week is hardly gonna keep me in a place to live, let alone feed me."
The Judge raised a hand. "Allow me to continue. Also, as you know, I have appointed six peacekeepers to protect this town; however, none of these gentlemen will wear the badge of office the sheriff's badge. Now, I couldn't simply hand this duty to just anybody, so I was wondering, as this job entails a considerable amount of paperwork, and seeing you are an educated man even if you haven't been exactly truthful about your age "
JD's face was a sight to behold as he contemplated whether the Judge actually knew he had lied about his age to get into college. Buck had to bite his lip to prevent the guffaw threatening to burst from him.
" but your age is of no consequence. Young as you are, with these six men to guide you, and watch over you, and with Mister Larabee firmly in control of the day to day decisions I ask you this, would you be interested in becoming this town's official, duly sworn in sheriff?"
JD swallowed and blinked hard, wondering if he was going to wake up in a moment. When nothing changed, the grin across his youthful face, grew broader by the second .
"What does it pay, sir?"
"A dollar a day plus board. I warn you, it is a dangerous job."
"I know that, sir."
"There's no glory in it."
"I know that too and I'm not looking for any." JD looked at each of his grinning friends, even Chris was smiling.
"I'd be a teacher *and* the sheriff?"
"And I'd get to wear a badge?"
After a short pause, JD extended his hand.
"I'm already a teacher, so I guess you also got yourself a sheriff."
The six lawmen laughed and Orin shook JD's hand.
"Excellent. Seven men I like the sound of that." Orin tipped his hat. "Gentlemen, I'm leaving on the stage out, I'll be in touch. Good luck, young man, and thank you."
The peacekeepers acknowledged the departing man then turned to JD. Chris spoke.
"I think we could do with a drink."
Josiah clapped the youth on the back. "And there you have it, John Dunne, it would seem you were sent to us by providence, the hand of fate. This truly is your destiny."
As they walked toward the saloon, JD grinned at Buck. "I get to wear a badge."
Buck placed an arm around the youth's shoulders. "Yeah, you do but remember to wear it *behind* your lapel, that way you won't get bothered by people lookin' to shoot you."
JD chuckled as they entered the saloon. "Lord, Buck you really are full of crap."
The brunet laughed. "Yep, and boy howdy, have I got a treat in store for you. We figured since beatin' off them Confederates a while back," he shook his head. " still can't believe you followed us out there and as we've seen off a range war with Stuart James an' the town just recently thought we'd have us a little celebratory trip to a li'l piece of heaven by the name of Wickes Town."
The others grinned as they took their seats around a table, JD smiled.
"Really? Wickes Town, huh? So what's so special about Wickes Town?"
They all laughed. JD frowned. "What?"