by Bonnie Kate Pardoe

Just a week ago, J.D. had been happy with his job as protector of this growing western town, happy with his new friends, happy with his budding relationship with Casey. Happy with his life.

Just days ago, that all changed.

A woman, by his own gun, lay dead. And what had been the dream of his life lay beside her. In a single moment, his act of heroism turned to tragedy — a senseless murder. For it was murder, in his mind — and in everyone else's — even if his friends called it an accident and the Judge refused to try him. But it didn't matter what words people used or thought — the fact remained that J.D. had lost his courage. He didn't want to kill again — his guns felt foreign to the hands they had been made for, and the sound of gunfire tore through him like a hail of bullets, shattering every nerve. In all the months since he had come west, he had never lost his fear of confrontation, of battle, but that fear had never stopped him from risking his own life to protect others. Until now.

Just hours ago, his life changed again.

He was headed back east — another new life. Not back to Boston; he'd left there for reasons he had never fully explained to his friends and returning would neither fix the past nor erase the present. He needed a new life, a new place to prove himself, but a place without guns. A place where his job wasn't to protect — or to kill — other people. He'd find another town, like he'd found this one, and the first step was an eastbound stagecoach. Had he known that stage was carrying Federal Reserve gold, he would have thought twice about boarding it, but he had not known and he had boarded, along with another man — a gambler not nearly as brave as Ezra, even if he was a better con man — and two young women on their way to visit relatives in Santa Fe. Had he been alone when the stage was attacked, he could not say what he would have done — probably given into every inkling of fear and cowered in the corner as he had done during the shoot out with Achilles and his band of outlaws — but there were others to think about and his mind involuntarily rejected every selfish thought that tried to form.

Moments later it was over.

With the driver gone, JD had crawled on top of the stage, fought off and killed the bandit Achilles, and saved the passengers. The reality of the fear didn't seep into his mind until the ride home. He could have been killed. He could have been responsible for the death of the other passengers. And he had murdered that outlaw — another accident, but the man died because of him. Still, somehow, this day felt right. Achilles was wrong — in so many ways: who you killed and why did matter, and who you saved mattered too.

It would be a difficult battle — to rebuild his confidence in himself and to re-earn the faith and respect of his friends and the townspeople — but, suddenly, he knew that it was a battle he wanted to wage. And to win.

Had he been a military man, a strategist, he would certainly have selected his first skirmish better, but he was JD and he did what his heart lead him to do. He let Ezra drive the stagecoach back to town, and, borrowing the gambler's horse, he told his friends he'd meet up with them later.

After a short but quiet ride, JD pulled the horse up in front of the ranch house and dismounted. As nervous as the first time he'd asked Casey to go for a ride with him, he approached the steps. Suddenly the door opened and J.D.'s heart stopped, only to start again when the elderly Nettie Wells stepped out onto the porch.

"Evenin', ma'am." J.D. swept the bowler from his head and waited for whatever words she might have for him.

The old woman started, obviously not expecting company. "JD? Is that you, son? I thought you were headed back east?"

"Yes, ma'am, I was, but . . . but I guess I've changed my mind." J.D. knew that Nettie would speak her mind to him, if she had the inclination, but he didn't know if he was ready to hear from her. At least her words would be easier to deal with than the stares and the silence the town folks had been giving him.

"You're a brave man, J.D.. And you've done good for this town, for these people. Don't you ever let yourself forget that."

J.D. smiled. Perhaps the battle was not lost before it had even begun.

"I suppose you wanna talk to Casey. She's in the barn."

J.D. tipped his hat and turned to go when Nettie spoke again, "She's like you — idealistic, stubborn . . . with a brave heart. Give her time. She'll come to realize there ain't nothing to forgive."

The kid looked back over his shoulder and smiled at the white-haired woman, suddenly realizing why Vin had so much respect for her and why her approval was so important to him.

JD crossed the yard and pulled the barn door wide. Inside he saw Casey pitching hay — she tossed her last fork full then turned toward the door, peering into the darkness. Closing the door behind himself, JD stepped into the sallow light of the single lantern, hanging off the center post.

"JD?" The girl's voice was barely a whisper as if she spoke without realizing it. She cocked her head slightly to the side, squinting despite the low light, his presence both a surprise and a puzzle to her.

"Hi, Casey. I— I didn't get a chance to say good-bye."

"You came back to tell me that?" Her voice was hard, like it had been that day last summer when the new Marshall arrived and J.D. told her he was thinking of leaving town. But then it had been because she wanted him to stay.

"No. I came back to make things right with you, Casey. I'm just not sure how."

Casey set the tines of her pitchfork on the ground and leaned slightly against the wooden handle. J.D. went on, "What happened to Annie . . . I'll never forget as long as I live, and if I had it to do over I can't say that I wouldn't have tried to stop those bank robbers, but I'd give anything to bring her back."

"But you can't bring her back, can you?" As the tears welled up in Casey's eyes, J.D. could hear the catch in her throat as she tried to control her emotions.

"No . . . I can't bring her back." J.D. hung his head as Annie's pale face, lying still in the wooden coffin, filled his mind. "And I can't ask for her forgiveness. But I can ask for yours."

The two stared at each other, neither daring to move, or to speak another word. Casey had to decide and there wasn't a single argument in the world J.D. might use to convince her. Give her time, Nettie had said, and maybe she was right. J.D. turned to leave, but as he reached for the barn door something stopped him.

Without daring to turn to face her again, J.D. said, "I almost left for good. I never would have seen you again." Like all those times he'd nearly gotten himself killed protecting this town and these people. "I never would have had another chance to tell you." He paused, wondering if she was still standing there behind him, wondering if she even cared to listen to him right now. "Casey, I . . ." but as usual words failed him. He waited, prayed, for Casey to prompt him, to tease him into blurting out the words — any words — like she usually did, but this time she remained silent.

The growing chill of the evening was palpable in the barn. J.D. could hear the horses chewing the hay Casey had been feeding them, hear the lazy swishing of their tails, hear the rapid beating of his own heart. J.D. could not believe that Casey was listening to him, that she even cared right now what he had to say, but somewhere inside him that energy which had made him ignore his fears and save that stagecoach full of people today forced the words out of his mouth.

"I care about you, Casey, more than anyone. And I don't regret anything more than gettin' on that stage without telling you that."

He turned then. Casey had not moved. She still stood in the center of the barn, pitchfork in hand, stray bits of hay in her dark hair. But tears marred her cheeks now, and her lower lip trembled. As she met his eyes, the pitchfork fell forgotten to the ground. Someone moved and they were in each other's arms.

He'd never held onto anyone so fiercely in his life, and the only thing he feared at that moment was her letting go.

The End

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No copyright infringement is intended.
Much thanks to Mr. Watson and associates for bringing these characters to life.