J.D. Dunne leaned back in his chair until the top of his head met the late-day sun shining in through the front window of the jail house. Things had been quiet around town for some time, and, while it was nice to be lazy, JD was starting to get just a bit bored. He had done everything he could think of from re-oiling his tack to actually scrubbing the insides of the jail cells. He had perfected flipping playing cards into his bowler, mastered tossing his knife into the wooden slats of the boardwalk outside his office, and even managed to shave a good second off his gun draw. He had taken to hanging out at the saloon, the church, the dry-goods store, and even the Clarion Newspaper office. Never in all his boyhood imaginings had JD Dunne thought that the West could get boring.
As the sun continued to sink lower into the western sky and JD was truly at a loss for something else to occupy himself, the door of the jail was flung open and Vin Tanner stumbled inside.
"Lock up this piece of dirt!" Chris Larabee ordered as he stepped into the Sheriff's Office, close on the heels of the younger man.
JD shot out of his chair to look behind Chris for the 'piece of dirt' to which he had referred, but there was no one there. He looked from Chris to Vin and back again, thoroughly confused. Chris, calmly but firmly, clarified, "I said, lock him up!" as he pushed Vin toward the nearest jail cell.
The kid's brows furrowed in even more confusion. It was not like these two to play jokes on him no, that honor seemed reserved for Buck, and, on the odd occasion when he was thoroughly bored with the marks at the saloon, Ezra but certainly Chris could not be serious. Vin was their friend. A good friend. A man who had both morals and integrity. A man perhaps even more worthy of JD's loyalty than Chris Larabee was.
"What's going on, Chris?"
"Just do your job ... Sheriff." The title was spoken with narrowed eyes and an almost-patronizing tone, and JD half expected to see Chris spit a bad taste from his mouth. The kid did not move until the older man brushed aside his faded poncho to expose the six-shooter at his hip. JD recognized a threat when he saw one, but he never expected one from Chris Larabee. He looked to Vin for some explanation, but the other man glanced away, suddenly interested in something on the far wall near the ceiling, and for a brief second the kid wondered if he had missed a cobweb during his earlier cleaning spree. JD quickly put aside the digression of thought, and just in time, as the metal ring holding the keys to the jail cell came sailing at his head. Chris's expression was firm as he waited for JD to open the cell door. With a heavy sigh, the kid obliged, and Vin was unceremoniously shoved inside, tripping and falling to his knees on his way in. JD moved to help Vin up, but Chris barred the way as he reached over to slam shut the iron-rod door. Then he turned to the kid, staring hard for a moment before speaking again: "Don't talk to him. Don't let him out. And don't leave him alone."
JD narrowed his eyes at Chris's request, which he knew to be as much a direct order as if the older man had been some West Point-bred general and JD was just some dumb, hick private. The kid then watched as the older man turned without another word and left the jail house, closing the door more than a little loudly behind him.
JD watched out the front window, following Chris's path as the man stepped off the boardwalk, heading in the direction of the newspaper office. The kid then turned back to the cell. "Vin, what in blue blazes is going on?"
Vin Tanner, having picked himself up off the recently-cleaned floor, sat down slowly on the single cot before replying, "Didn't Chris tell ya not ta talk ta me?"
"Well, yeah ... but...."
Before JD could even formulate a response to Vin, the door of the jail banged open again, this time admitting Buck and Ezra. "You skunk. You low-down, dirty skunk!" Buck began as soon as he caught sight of the jail cell's occupant. "This town trusted you. Paid you to keep 'em safe, and this is how you repay 'em?! Even Ezra wouldn't stoop so low."
The former Mississippi-gambler raised an eyebrow at his companion's comment. "I do believe I've been insulted, JD," he said quietly to the still-confused sheriff. "And in the guise of a backhanded compliment. I didn't think he had it in him." Ezra smiled slightly as he tilted his head towards the tall, lanky man who had taken to pacing back and forth in front of the cell. Every once and again, Buck Wilmington would pause, glance up at the prisoner, begin to say something, but then shake his head in frustration and barely-contained anger before resuming his pacing.
"Ezra," JD began in a hushed tone. "What's happened?"
The dark-haired gambler lazily shrugged his shoulders, which immediately told JD that the man knew more than he was willing to say. He was acting too calm not to know something.
The sudden clanging of iron against iron forced JD's attention back to the cell, where Buck stood with fists clenched on the bars, shaking them violently.
"I'd lynch ya myself, but the fact is yer sorry hide ain't worth my time!" Buck spat before spinning on his spurred-heel and marching out of the jail without even a side-long glance in JD's direction. Ezra Standish smiled his usual, non-committal smile before following, closing the door behind him.
The young sheriff stared at the back side of the door for a few moments before shaking his head in frustration. "This is crazy. Completely crazy."
It was a good ten minutes of JD sitting down then standing up again, of him trying to get Vin to say something, of him looking out the window of the jail to try to see if there was any indication outside of what might have happened.
Vin remained calm, lying down with his hat pulled over his eyes, and his boots crossed one over the other on top of the clean, folded blanket at the foot of the cot. He did not stir through all of JD's frustrated movements around the sheriff's office, until JD began to wonder if his prisoner might actually have fallen asleep. The kid decided that a decent look outside was definitely in order, but when his hand reached for the door knob, he knew that his friend was as alert as ever.
"I wouldn't go out there, if I were you, JD."
"And why not?" the kid asked as he turned back to the cell. Vin just shook his head slowly. "Crimmeny, Vin! Say something, would ya? I think I've got a right as sheriff heck, as part of this group to know what's going on."
"Chris told ya not ta leave me alone," the older man replied without even lifting his hat to look at JD.
"Chris!" the kid sighed in growing frustration. "Ya know, Judge Travis didn't leave him in charge here. He's got no more rights to tell me what to do than any of you"
JD's rant was cut short as the door to the jail house swung open yet again. The kid turned to see the doorway filled with a large, dark figure, the glare from the late-afternoon sun making it impossible to see any of the visitor's shadowed features. The man took a few steps forward, then closed the door.
"Josiah! Thank goodness you're here," JD said, crossing the few feet which separated him from the preacher. "Can you please tell me what is going on?"
The imposing man placed a large hand on JD's shoulder. "Time is short, JD, and I must speak my peace to Mr. Tanner before it's too late."
Short? JD silently mouthed the word. Time is short? "Josiah, what are you saying?"
"Not now, JD. Not now." The calmness in the man's voice was almost more frightening to the kid than Chris's and Buck's anger had been. Josiah Sanchez walked slowly over to the cell. Vin did not stir from his prone position on the cot, except to lift the rim of his hat to stare up at his visitor as Josiah spoke. "Mr. Tanner. I've come to tell you that there is not much time left. What you have done ... there will be consequences. Should you survive, no one in this town I among them will ever be able to trust you again."
"Survive?!" JD almost shouted as he rushed to stand next to the preacher. "Josiah, what's happened? What's he done??"
The preacher turned then, as Vin pulled his hat down over his eyes to resume his nap, and placed his hand again on the kid's shoulder. "JD, do not turn your back on this ... man. Do not take your eyes off of him. We are all lucky that nothing like this has happened before. Had I known sooner, I would have taken seriously my second thoughts about riding with the six of you." He then left, as silently as he had come, without a backward glance at JD or Vin.
The kid stood, gape-mouthed, staring at Josiah's back as the man stepped into the street. A moment later Nathan came running down the boardwalk to the jail house. Out of breath, he leaned against the doorjamb pointing up the street.
JD looked out the window to see the stagecoach rolling into town. As he glanced back at Nathan, the kid noticed Mary Travis leaving the newspaper office and making her way up the street. He caught her eye but she quickly averted her gaze. What is wrong with everyone? JD thought.
Nathan came inside the jail, closed the door, then leaned back against it. He stared across the room at Vin. "I can't believe you've done this." The prisoner rolled onto his side, and propped himself up on his elbow to listen to the healer. "When I heard, well, I just didn't think it was possible. But, now, well, I see all to clearly that it is. Ah, Vin." Nathan shook his head.
JD continued to stare out the window as the stage pulled to a stop in front of the saloon. Mary Travis approached as a few occupants disembarked. JD immediately recognized the man Mary greeted. "It's Judge Travis!" JD looked at Nathan, who looked at Vin, who rolled onto his back again. "Nathan, what's the Judge doing here? His circuit shouldn't bring him back this way for another few weeks."
"It's because of Vin," Nathan replied, with a sigh.
JD looked out the window again, Mary was speaking to the Judge and gesturing towards the jail house. She then kissed his cheek before heading towards the saloon. Judge Travis headed straight to the jail. JD pushed Nathan aside in order to open the door to receive the man who had hired him as Sheriff of Four Corners. "It's an unexpected honor, sir," JD said, extending his hand in greeting.
The Judge shook JD's hand before asking, "Sheriff Dunne, do you have the prisoner?"
"Yes, sir. Right in here, but ... would you kindly tell me what he's been arrested for?"
"What? You're the sheriff of this town, son! If you don't know why your prisoner is in jail then who does? On your toes. Where is the blackguard?" The Judge steamed right ahead into the jail house, walking past Nathan without even seeing him, to stand before the prisoner who ignored him. "Get up, you lazy cuss! Get up, I say."
Vin lifted the brim of his hat, then slowly got to his feet. "Judge. Back so soon?"
"Of course I am. And all because of you! Unbelievable." Judge Travis sighed heavily before turning back to JD and Nathan, whom he finally acknowledged. "You there: Mr. Jackson. Has the saloon been prepared?"
"Yes, sir, Judge. We're just waitin' fer you."
"Very good, then. Let's get to it. Bring the prisoner and I'll meet you there." The Judge nodded to Nathan then to JD before heading straight out the door in the direction of the saloon.
"We're gonna have a trial? Today? Now?" The very idea seemed preposterous to JD.
"Right now, kid," Nathan said, retrieving the cell keys and unlocking the door "But, the hangin' will have to wait 'til later."
"Hanging? Nathan, Vin's our friend. We can't hang him!"
"After what's he's done? I'd sure wanna hang him!" Nathan then took Vin by the arm and led him out of the jail house.
JD came running up behind, taking Vin's other arm. "He's my prisoner. I ought to be the one to escort him," JD told Nathan who then released Vin to the kid's custody before dropping back to take up the rear. "I supposed at least now I'll find out what you've done," he mumbled to Vin who merely smiled as they continued to walk toward the saloon.
As they stepped onto the wooden boardwalk, Nathan fell in step beside JD, then, as the three reached the saloon, the healer placed a firm hand on the kid's shoulder. "Well, this it. Vin, it's been nice knowin' ya. JD...." Simultaneously, Nathan and Vin turned, then shoved JD through the doors of the saloon.
"SURPRISE!!" the crowd inside shouted.
Stunned beyond thought, JD merely looked around. The saloon was full of people people he had met since coming to Four Corners. He looked behind him to see Nathan and Vin standing in the doorway, smiling. Whaa? was the only word the kid's mind was able to form.
Buck Wilmington was the first one to break from the crowd. "Happy Birthday, pard!"
"B-birthday? But...." JD still could not comprehend what was happening. No rational thought told him what he should say, no instinct told him what he should do. So he stood, with mouth open, staring way up into the beaming face of one of his friends as he allowed his hand to be vigorously shaken.
The others soon closed in around him, to shake his hand or clasp his shoulder, and to lead him over to a table holding a cake and a few fancy-wrapped packages. A chair was pulled out for him and he was eased into the seat as everyone gathered around to stare at him. "How, how did you guys know"
"That today is your birthday?" Mary Travis finished for him. "Running a newspaper, Mr. Dunne, is all about acquiring information. The party, however, was Mr. Tanner's idea."
"Vin? You mean...."
"Well, we had ta keep ya occupied. Every time we started ta fix a place up fer the party, ya'd just wander in, bored, lookin' fer somethin' ta do. So, we gave ya something ta do watch me rot in jail fer the afternoon."
"You ... set me up?"
"And it was brilliantly executed, I must say, Mr Tanner," Ezra complimented the man. "Even without my assistance in the planning of it."
"So, you didn't break the law, Vin? Judge Travis isn't here to hang you?" JD asked, still stunned by the very unexpected turn of events. The former bounty hunter shook his head slowly and smiled. JD nearly leapt out of the chair at the man. "I could string you up myself for putting me through that!"
Josiah and Nathan both leaned over and whispered to Vin, "Told ya," while Chris silently handed Ezra a gold coin.
"Well, don't get riled up, Sheriff. Aren't you going to cut into this lovely cake Mrs. Wells made for you?" the Judge asked.
"You made this, ma'am?"
"I surely did. The lightest, most buttery, golden cake you'll ever taste in these parts, too," the old woman beamed as if she held a blue ribbon for the very cake that sat on the table before JD. "And Casey, here, made the frostin'." The woman gestured to her now-blushing niece who was hanging her head in embarrassment.
JD raised his eyebrows as he reached over to sample a bit of the confection with the tip of his finger. He furrowed his brows for a minute as the creamy texture washed over his tongue. He almost failed to recognize the flavor, not having tasted any since coming West. "Chocolate. My favorite. Thank you, Casey, Mrs. Wells."
Mary then handed him a medium-sized parcel. The kid untied the yellow, grosgrain ribbon, which he set on the table, then tore back the brown wrapping to reveal a new shirt thin, pale green and blue stripes on a white percale background. JD smiled. The West was really wearing on the clothes he had brought with him from the East Coast. "Thank you, Mrs. Travis."
JD then notice, out of the corner of his eye, a small scuffle going on between Buck and Casey. As all of the party guests turned to stare at them, the pair stopped their horse-play: Buck hung his head like a guilty dog; Casey glared as she pulled the yellow, grosgrain ribbon off her head, then moved away to stand on the other side of her aunt.
JD wondered at Buck's behavior, as the others in the group smiled in amusement, before turning back to the presents which sat before him. The other packages contained a pony-curry for his horse, to replace the one that had recently gone missing, a pair of wool socks, a comb, and, from the judge himself, a gold-tone pocket-watch.
Finally, Vin set a box before the birthday boy the last gift. "We all got together to get you this, JD," Buck explained. "We just figured ... well, that you could use a new hat."
A hat? JD thought, disappointed. But, I love my old hat. Sure, it had that bullet hole in it from the bank robbery last week, and the brim was torn from the time he helped stop the runaway stagecoach. But hadn't he told them enough times how much that hat meant to him? That the great Bat Masterson himself wore one just like it? That it set him apart, made him feel like more than just another cowboy or gunslinger?
But, it is the thought that counts, JD reminded himself as he pulled the lid off the box and pushed aside the white paper. His eyes grew wide, and, as he reached inside, a grin spread across his face. He pulled out a brand-new, pristine, almost-shiny derby hat, practically identical to the one he already owned, except this one had yet to be worn. "Thanks, everyone. You're about the best friends a man could ever have."
Nathan picked up the hat and plopped it on the kid's head as Vin leaned over and asked, "JD, does this mean you're not gonna kill me?"
"Oh, no. You're still dead. But not until after we've all had some of this here cake," JD smiled as Mrs. Wells handed him a knife to do the honors. Vin stepped out of range, just in case, as the kid cut the first slice.