The wind now plaguing town had turned fierce and everybody was scurrying along, trying to get as many windows boarded as possible. Jimmy looked around from where he was, trying to ascertain where his help was most needed, and saw a young blond woman struggling against the wind. He groaned. This is no place for a woman, she should be inside, he thought. Walking swiftly to her, he took the board off her hands, shouting in the wind "Get back inside, woman!" to have flashing angry blue eyes turn to him.
"Woman?!!" she shouted angrily.
He just shrugged, totally oblivious to her, put the board against the window and hammered it in place in a well-trained movement. And when he turned to get more boards, he was faced with one irate woman, apparently bent on telling him what.
Mary Travis waited for the stranger to turn around to tell him what she thought about his high-handed ways, trying to get her composure back. But when he finally turned around and upon seeing her standing there, just lifted that eyebrow of his, the cool and collect she had barely managed to gather flew out in the wind and she opened her mouth to give him an earful. When another voice cut her short.
"Mary? What the hell are you doin' outside? You should be boardin' the windows inside with mattresses or blankets..." Chris stopped, suddenly aware of the stand-off. "What's goin' on here?" he asked in a cold voice, looking from one to the other.
"Beat the hell outta me," the stranger muttered. "I'm just tryin' to help her and she goes all huffy on me..."
"Huffy? I... He..."
"Yes?" Chris asked as she sputtered, at a loss for words in her indignation.
"He called me 'woman'!" She finally almost screamed.
"So?" Chris frowned. "Ain't you a woman?" he asked, eyeing her up and down. "You sure look like one to me..."
"This isn't my point, here, Mr. Larabee," she answered in a cold voice. "It's just..."
"Damn it Mary, if it's any of your goddamn 'sexist' things you are talkin' about, I doubt doin' it in the middle of a storm is the best moment. Besides, we have to finish boardin' up your shop. Get inside and make sure those windows won't blow in your face," he shouted over the gushing wind, pushing an indignant Mary into her shop. Then, he looked at the stranger, shook his head and muttered, "Women!"
The young man chuckled and picked up a board.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Buck jumped into the dim interior of the saloon as Josiah and Nathan were struggling to close the doors behind him.
"Whew, that's one hell of a storm outside... I bet if we look close, we'll see pigs and cows flyin'," he chuckled, as he dusted his jacket with his hat.
He had just come back from the last check of town, making sure that everybody was inside and any hole and windows would indeed leave no foothold for the wind.
"Inez honey, how 'bout wettin' my whistle with a beer," he drawled as he stepped up to the bar. Then, turning to look into the saloon, "Hey, aren't we missin' somebody?"
They all looked at each other, instinctively making a count of who was here and who was not.
"Where the hell is the kid?" Buck growled, straightening up. "Who saw him last?"
"And where the hell's Jimmy?" Vin frowned.
That stopped the others in their tracks.
"Jimmy?" Chris asked.
"Yep, you know, the injun..."
"Last I saw him, we were boarding Mary's shop," Chris frowned thoughtfully. "Can't remember where he went after that..."
"And last I saw JD, he was headin' towards the hotel. I figured he was gonna join Casey and Miss Nettie," Nathan said.
"And how long ago was that?" Buck asked. "As much as the kid loves that girl, I don't think bein' stuck with her and her aunt for hours really is what he wants. I'll go check on him," he said determinedly, stepping to the doors.
"Watch out, Buck," Nathan cautioned, "things are flying all over town and you could be knocked out before you know it!"
"I come with you... gotta check on Jimmy..." Vin muttered, clearly worried.
Josiah and Nathan were reaching for the handle on the doors, when a banging from outside startled them. It really didn't sound like something flying, more like fists demanding entrance.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Wrestling with his hat, trying to make sure it stayed in place, Jimmy gave a last look at the now deserted town, trying to gauge if anything had been forgotten that could be dangerous flying in the wind.
He was about to go back to the saloon, when an unsettled feeling washed over him. Once more, he turned to look around, trying to grab that elusive feeling of uneasiness that was quietly but definitely making its way inside his guts. Closing his eyes to the storm, he waited, concentrating on that feeling. There, something... opening his eyes, he stepped across the street and walked upwind. There it came again, more clearly to his ears... a moan... He was about to step between two buildings when a board suddenly went flying past his eyes... Only lifelong honed reflexes save him from having his head bashed in. Mostly since the board wasn't exactly flying but wildly swinging in the wind. Stepping aside to avoid it, he went down between the buildings and finally saw what he was looking for. A body was lying flat in the dust, hardly moving. Must have one hell of a bump on the head if that board hit him, he thought. Quickly, he walked to the body and kneeled down over him. Damn, it was that kid, JD. Standing up, he looked around, hoping that another one of the peacekeepers was around to help. But he was alone. He sighed.
"Okay, kid, let's get you inside," he said to the young man.
When no answer or acknowledgement was forthcoming, he knew the kid was in trouble. Crouching beside him, he carefully turned him over... and gasped. There was a deep cut over the left eye and blood splattered all over his face, as only blood from the face would be. The cut was deep, it would need stitches. Quickly and efficiently, Jimmy checked to see if anything else was broken, then, untying the kid's bandanna, he roughly tied it around the head to, at least, protect the wound from being further filled with dust. The only thing comforting him and telling him the kid was still alive were the groans his movements elicited. Thus done, he took a deep breath, grabbed the kid by his left wrist and in a swift movement, balanced him over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.
Wrestling with the dead weight and fighting against the wind, he drunkenly wove his way towards the saloon and its security. He knew all the other peacekeepers would be there, waiting out the storm. It was after all their headquarters.
The wind had picked up even more, as if trying to rid him of his burden. So it took him some time to finally realize he was standing in front of the saloon. Leaning on the doors to catch his breath, he lifted a heavy hand to hammer against them and waited. Nothing. Damn, he thought, they must be deaf with all this wind blowing around! And tried again. He was about to pound a third time on the doors when they suddenly opened... and arms reached out to grab him and his charge.
"What happened?" the leader asked.
"Loose sign swingin'," he breathed as he was discharged of the kid.
"Josiah, bring me light," Nathan said all the while working on the kid, trying to see if anything was broken. "He awakened yet? Spoke to you?" he asked Jimmy.
"Nope, just moaned... that's how I found him, in fact... hasn't uttered a sound since then though..." Jimmy frowned and nodded a thank at Inez who had brought him a glass of water.
"Nathan?" Asked an anxious Buck.
"Shoot... I gotta get to my place and bring some supplies back," Nathan swore. "In the meantime, Buck, think you could bathe his face and clean his wound with water? Good. Don't worry, Buck, except for one hell of a headache, he's gonna be fine... a few stitches here and he'll be good as new," he smiled reassuringly.
"I'll help you," Josiah said, following his friend.
"I'll get a bed ready for him," Inez said, hurrying up the stairs.
"I'll go and try to find something to be of use as bandages," Ezra said, following her.
"In the kitchen for the water," Chris frowned.
Jimmy raised a highbrow and looked at Vin. They both smiled then burst into laughter.
"What's so funny..." grumbled a weak voice.
"Kid... JD, you're okay?" Buck jumped.
JD winced at the sudden onslaught of noise next to his ears.
"Buck, please... not so loud..." he begged.
"You okay, kid?" Buck reiterated, whispering.
"Except for the herd of buffaloes stampedin' in my head... yeah... I guess..." he managed through clenched teeth. "What happened?"
"Looks like you tried to cross a street before a sign... and it got mad at you..." Buck smiled. And chuckled.
"Buuuccckkk... please... keep it down..." JD breathed.
"Here's the water, Buck!" Chris exclaimed.
"Jeez... somebody shoot me!" JD muttered.
"Hey, kid, you're awake! Good!" Chris smiled... Only to be answered by a moan. "What's wrong?"
"The bed's ready," announced Inez as she came down the stairs. "How's he doing?" She asked as another moan was making its way out of the kid's mouth.
Before anybody could answer, the doors opened and Nathan and Josiah made their way in, hardly managing to shut the doors behind them.
"Buck, you done with the cleanin'? Oh, he's awake! Hi, kid, how you doin'?" Nathan asked, clearly relieved to see his patient had come to.
"So, Sleeping Beauty has awaken? Here you are, Mr. Jackson, fresh bandages for Mr. Dunne," Ezra claimed, sauntering down the steps in his enthusiasm at hearing the kid was finally conscious.
"WILL Y'ALL FINALLY SHUT UP???" JD screamed, exasperated... to moan and to clutch his head as the pain reverberated through his skull.
The whole room went suddenly silent at his outburst... safe for the chuckling that then became full fledge laughter from Vin and Jimmy. The others just looked at them, wondering about their sanity... until it dawned on them, that the kid had vainly been trying to get each and everyone of them to quiet down, only to be drowned in the next one words and relief. They looked sheepishly at each other, then at the kid, opened their mouths to apologize...
"Don't even say it... I know..." he breathed tiredly.
Mumbling, they all took seats around, letting Nathan work his magic upon the kid and try and relieve him.
"Here kid, you better drink this," Nathan grumbled, handing him a bottle of whisky. Then at the disbelief in his eyes, "That's gonna hurt some, to stitch you back up... it should do the trick until you can drink the willow-bark tea..." he smiled benignly.
JD nodded, took hold of the bottle and drank a few sips. Then nodded again, indicating to Nathan that he was ready for him to go on.
"Think I'll need one of those too," Buck grumbled, pouring himself a drink then passing the bottle along. Each one of them did the same, except for Jimmy, who answered their unasked question with a "Don't agree with me much... you know... firewater drivin' Indians crazy and all..." and half-smile that had them frowning and trying to remember that elusive feeling they had about him.
"There you go, JD, all new... I'll go get the tea while you take a breather," Nathan smiled and left. Coming back minutes later, "Here you are... sip this and you'll be better soon. Then Buck here will help you in bed. And remember, no standin' up suddenly and no runnin' around..."
"As if I could," JD grumbled, holding his head in his hand and quietly sipping the tea.
"I mean it, JD... with that gash you have, you might also have a concussion... and that means no ridin' for a few days until I'm sure everythin's okay," Nathan frowned.
"Yeah, yeah..." he sighed.
"And don't even think about patrol duty," Chris spoke up, "with this storm, there'll be nobody roamin' around. You just go and get some rest. We'll take care of everything."
JD smiled a little smile as he was being helped up to a room by his friend.
"Well, gentlemen, may I interest you in a game of chance?" the gambler drawled in his southern soft whisky voice.
The only replies were grumbles and moans as some of the guys walked up to his table and took seats. This was gonna be one hell of a storm... for the town and their wallet!
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
The storm had been blowing for hours now, thunderbolts clashing, lightning flashing... and still nothing had fallen, to the townpeople's great relief. A windstorm was enough to contend with, rain or hail would make the land a living hell.
In the saloon, the atmosphere could have been gloomy if not for the men actually playing poker and bantering, sending jabs to each other, trying to forget the reason for their all being cooped up. JD had joined them a while back, after having slept off most of his headache and not really wanting to stay alone in his room when he could have fun with his friends.
Inez was busying herself at the bar, cleaning a counter that could be called spotless if not for the dust that was actually flying around, due to the storm outside.
And the only other occupant in the saloon, Jimmy, the stranger that had helped, was sitting in a chair, looking out the sightless boarded window, his back not quite to the wall, still in a position to cover the whole room... a position each and everyone of them knew too well, taking it each and every time they were in a roomful of people where the unknown would be lurking...
Finally, not able to stand it any more, Buck put down his cards and looked over at the Indian, lightly clearing his throat.
Impassive clear blues met questioning dark blues.
"This man you're looking for... Why?" he asked in earnest.
Jimmy turned back to the window, as if searching for an answer that would be written there, on the dusty glass. When they thought he would not answer, they finally heard his voice, whisper soft and yet clear to each and every one of them.
"Maybe to tell him he ain't lonely anymore... maybe to make sure 'I' ain't lonely anymore..." he shrugged helplessly.
"He family?" JD asked.
"Maybe..." he sighed. "The only I have left..." Turning to look at the kid, "Maybe the only he has left... if he wants it so..."
"If he want it so?" JD exclaimed, thinking that he'd give anything to have his family back, thinking how much the other peacekeepers were his family now... thinking how much he didn't want to lose that sense of belonging he had found among them.
"Open your eyes, kid, I ain't the regular relative you wanna show around, you know," Jimmy chuckled ruefully.
"Why not? You look like a good man to me! Anybody should be right proud to call you family," JD said, matter-of-factly.
"Thanks for the vote, kid, but I also happen to be very 'Indian-like'... and some folks just don't cotton to that," Jimmy explained in a gentle but sure voice.
"But... that man you're looking for, you know him?" Then at the shake of his head, "Then how can you know he won't want to know you?"
"Life, kid, life... no matter how much you want some things, you don't always get them..." Jimmy said in a voice that sounded decades older than he looked like.
"JD..." Buck warned, frowning at the kid, letting him know that maybe it was time to drop the subject.
Silence stretched once more, the men not knowing what to do or if they should resume their game.
"Pardon my asking, my friend, but you have never actually encountered the man, right? Then, how can you be sure he is around here? And how will you know you have found the right man?" Ezra asked.
Jimmy shrugged. "I haven't thought that far yet," he smiled ruefully. "I guess I kinda hope I would just 'know' him, you know... Guess I haven't figured that part out yet."
"How about you tell us, brother... maybe we could be of some help?" Josiah said quietly.
Jimmy turned his head toward them, looking each and every one of them in the eyes, as if gauging the truth in their interest in him... and could find nothing but attentive ears and non-judging earnest faces. They would listen... and maybe, just maybe, they would be able to help. He slowly nodded his head in acceptance of the facts and turned back to the window, as if taking comfort and courage from its sightless view.
"My Grandfather told me the whole story a long time ago... His son, my father, met that white woman at the river, a few miles away from camp. Said he fell in love at first sight. Said she looked like a doe, with her dark brown curls flying around her face, her dark long lashes framing her light blue eyes. She was at the river and was not happy. He went to her and was surprised when she wasn't scared. Grandpa told me they got to know each other over the spring and the summer. He met her too, and he knew she wasn't 'all there'... He said there was something in her eyes... something that told him she might be walking with the spirits..."
"Walking with the spirits?" JD shushed to Josiah.
"He means that she wasn't all there... that she was... well, one card short of a full deck, Brother Ezra would say..." Josiah answered as quietly.
"... You know, for my people, the ones walking with the spirits are to be taken care of... they are precious to us 'cause it is said they have a link with the spirits, that they talk and walk with them... and so, they are precious 'cause they can't take care of themselves..." Jimmy explained, his back still partly to them, and continued. "Autumn was almost there when my father came back to the village with the news that she was with child. His child. By then, her father had caught on that she was running wild... and when he found out she was pregnant and her not being married... you know... he locked her in her room and nobody was allowed to see her. He told the folks in town that she had taken ill... and people never questioned him or the fact that nobody was allowed to visit her... as if they wanted to... Grandpa said they believed him 'cause he was their spiritual guide... a preacher, you call them... so his words were the truth, even if he was wrong. My father spent all his time, watching her from outside her window, sneaking inside when everybody had gone to bed... Grandpa said he was waiting for the child to be born with so much joy that nothing could make him stay away from her. He tried to make it up to her for the way her father was treating her. At least, as she was getting closer to her time, her father had stopped beating her. Grandpa said it was like he was waiting to see what the baby would look like so he could go find the father. Anyway, a few days before she was due, our village was attacked. Men were killed defending it and women were stolen. Among them, our Medicine Woman. My father had no choice. He had to be among the hunters to get her back. He made my Grandfather swear he would take the vigil at her window and would be witness to the birth so the child could be blessed by the spirits and his birth could be shouted among the People. And so Grandpa started his watch. He also saw how her father was getting more and more restless as her time was coming. And then the baby was born."
There was a moment of silence, as Jimmy seemed to be trying to gather his strength to go on. And when he spoke again, his voice was somber in the darkened room.
"Grandpa said he would remember that night all his life. The moon was full and high in the sky when he heard her screams as she tried to give birth. In the end, her father had to go for the midwife, 'cause he couldn't cope alone. Grandpa said he heard her scream for like, hours. And when everything stopped, when her screams quieted and there was no scream from a baby, my Grandpa cried for her loss... for his loss... and he waited. He didn't remember how long he waited, he was praying to the Spirits to take care of the little one that had never breathed life. He was about to leave when the back door opened and her father came out, holding a box of some kind. Grandpa waited, knowing the baby was inside and wanting to bury him like his people were used to... thinking he at least owed it to his son... and himself. The man went into the forest, deep, until he came to a spot with rocks, far away from town. He dug a hole, put the box inside and covered it back with dirt. And he left. Grandpa followed him, wanting to make sure he wouldn't come back. Then he went back to the grave and unearthed the box."
He stopped, his voice quavering, his breath catching in his throat. And they all waited, wanting to know, but at the same time already knowing the horrible truth. Knowing they needed to hear it about as much as he needed to say it out loud.
"When Grandpa looked into the box, his heart almost broke." Pained breaths echoed into the room. "The child was alive and breathing, eyes opened..." his voice broke as a murmur of horrified gasps filled the silence of the saloon. "He had been buried alive... 'I' had been buried alive, 'cause my mother's father couldn't face the town's people with a half-blood grandson..." his tone bitter, his words sharp as blades. "Grandpa returned to the village and said what he had seen. My Grandma was alive back then and they managed to find a wet nurse for me. And I survived. And my family, and my people made sure I never doubted I was loved and wanted among them." His voice was stronger now, taking comfort over that simple notion of being wanted. "The morning after my birth, the warriors came back from their hunt... with bad news. They had gotten the women back, but my father had lost his life as he was protecting the Medicine Woman. It was a time of joy and sorrow for the whole tribe, but during it all, Grandpa never forgot to have somebody watch my mother's house. I think somewhere he knew her own father had lied to her and told her I was stillborn or something. He wanted her to know I was alive and well and would be taken care of among the People. That's how he learned they were leaving town. I don't know how, he never told me exactly, but over the years, he managed to keep track of them. But he never tried to see her, 'cause her watcher told him she was now walking with the spirits and she wouldn't know day from night. But Grandpa wanted to know where she was, just in case I would ask questions about her... in case I finally wanted to meet her... That's how I know that a man came to get her out of her father's house... that's how I know he brought her to this town, Vista City, where he left her in the care of women... that's how I know she died a few months ago, just before I finally managed to make my way to her... that's how I learned about the man who was regularly visiting her and was paying for her care... the women told me he was her brother... That's how I know I still have one last family member, one last blood relative... and that's also why I don't know how and if I will be welcome in his house..." he finished, his voice fading away, so deep in his memories that he never heard the strangled gasp that escaped one of the peacekeepers or the concerned gazes of his friends.
"Don't you... don't you know anything about that... that uncle of yours?" a deep voice roughly rumbled.
"Only that, apparently, after visiting with his sister, he used to drink so much he would spend most of his time in jail, sleeping it off... to start over again the instant he stepped outside... and that when he was drunk, anything could set him off... the sheriff of Vista City is quite happy he hasn't seen him for a while... the man is so strong he could kill with his bare hands... and the sheriff wasn't too keen on trying to get his butt into jail when that happened..." his voice trailed off, as if he was thinking... "Reckon you might know him?" His question a mix of fear and hope as he looked at them.
There were several throats being cleared, some shuffling and uneasy glances exchanged between the peacekeepers.
"Well..." said one.
"As a matter of fact..." said another.
"Can't rightly tell, ya know..." said a third one, all speaking at the same time.
They stopped and looked at each other, waiting to see who would talk first. Josiah cleared his throat, took a deep breath and decided to throw caution to the wind, the idea bringing a slight smile to his lips considering the weather outside.
"Son..." he started.
A loud crash, yells and startled and panicked neighing had them all on their feet and jumping to open the door of the saloon to ascertain the danger. Then, they all gasped, some swore and the rest started running to the far end of town.
The stables had collapsed, trapping the horses. And the noise coming from under the fallen roof had them blanching in fright: trapped horses, wounded, dying maybe, being knocked and moved again and again as the storm played with the fallen boards and broken pieces of the building.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Nathan straightened up and sighed. His work was finally over. He had done all he could for men and beasts. All in all, they had been lucky. Except for an old horse that had died when a beam had struck and broken his neck, none of the other horses was in any danger. They were scared and downright edgy, some had deep gouges on their romp, others just scrapes... but not one of them would die, if he could managed to keep their wounds as clean as possible... but then, he sighed ruefully looking at JD, Vin and Jimmy, his helpers would make sure everything went right. A hand squeezed his shoulder, bringing him back to his surroundings.
"You should get some rest, Brother," Josiah's deep rumble intoned. "You did all you could here. Better get some rest in case the two-legged kind needs you later..."
Nathan smiled a weary smile and nodded.
"Go 'head, Nathan, we'll be okay here. Get some rest, we'll take care of everythin'..." Vin reassured.
"I'll go with you, Brother," Josiah said, seeing Nathan waver under a sudden bout of fatigue.
When they stepped outside the building currently housing the skittish horses, the men were surprised: the storm had winded down to a strong breeze and the thunder and lightning had receded. The skies were still dark and looked like they were almost ready to burst with an angry rain... yet, nothing seemed to happen. Maybe they were in the eye of the storm... Nathan turned to address the preacher when he noticed his brooding frown. And he remembered. The atmosphere in the saloon, the woeful tale of Jimmy Cloudwalker... and the start of something Josiah had been about to say, only to be interrupted by the disaster.
"So... you goin' to tell him?" he asked quietly over the wind.
"I was about to... but... well, the moment seems to be quite gone..." he slowly trailed, as if waiting for a confirmation.
"Josiah, your waitin' to tell him won't help. Might make him feel unwanted, you know. Besides, what are you afraid of? He didn't say he was here to blame anybody. He's here to get to know his last family before it's too late. Face it, my friend," Nathan smiled gamely, "You aren't that young any more. Besides, imagine that, it'd be the best way to undo what has been done all those years ago. Giving him back his white family and the right to call you his own." he added as Josiah was looking at him, with hope and doubt battling in his eyes, "Maybe the best way to let go of that guilt regardin' your sister and finally doing somethin' for her that you know she would love and agree with."
Gently, the healer lifted his hand to Josiah's face, his fingers hardly brushing the cheek, wiping off the tears that the preacher didn't even know were running down his face.
"Maybe you are right, my friend," Josiah whispered softly, "maybe, you are just right." And leaving the healer at the foot of the stairs leading to his makeshift clinic, Josiah walked back to where he had come from, back to the place where his future would be decided, back to the hope that awaited him.
Looking heavenward, he silently thanked the Lord to give him one more chance to make it right for what he considered his past sins. And the ray of sun that suddenly found his way through the dark clouds was like an answer to his prayers. He smiled, looking at the sky as the clouds were little by little leaving their little corner of land, and was rewarded with the most beautiful sunset he had ever seen... a sunset filled with hopes, preceding a new day of memories to make... clamoring the new beginning of his life.
And so he stared, thanking Life for that little gift he had been given, and whispering his heartfelt wishes to the setting sun.
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