The Best Laid Plans
Two figures approached the town just before sunset. With the sun behind them, it was difficult to see their faces, but their posture spoke volumes. The taller of the two riders had his head turned toward the shorter and sat in a relaxed pose. The shorter of the two rode rather stiffly in the saddle and stared straight ahead.
The jovial laughter of the taller one echoed off the walls of the small town as did the impatient protest of the shorter.
“Enough, Buck,” JD Dunne repeated, impatience and anger tinged his words as he guided his horse toward the livery. He had noticed that his friend had seemed burdened, had noticed the dark shadows that danced in the normally light-filled blue eyes and had been making allowances, but his patience was nearing an end.
Buck Wilmington laughed aloud once more. His voice carrying the length of the street, he teased, “Well, boy, if you were able to sit a horse like a man, this wouldn’t have happened. I tell you I can’t keep looking out for you like this. I’m trying to teach you how to be a man, but you keep ignoring my advice.”
JD's cheeks, already stained red, grew to a deeper shade as anger continued to burn brighter. He had put up with Buck's constant teasing and advice, some of which had to be taken with a grain of salt, for almost a week now. He had set aside his own feelings and worries about it, knowing he had a lot to learn and knowing his six friends could teach him. But he'd proven himself, or at least felt he had. Over the past year he'd contributed to their plans, had acted with a cool head and had learned a lot. He wasn't the greenhorn he had been.
JD felt he had finally earned his spot among the seven, but to hear Buck tell it right now, he wasn't much more than a stupid kid playing grown up games. What was worse than the teasing, though, was the effect it seemed to have upon the townspeople. Unlike the rest of his colleagues, JD was not necessarily afforded respect by the townfolk. Oh, they were polite enough when the others were around, tipped their hats and greeted him, but he'd noticed more and more that many of those same people didn't pay him the same respect when he was on his own.
That lack of respect had been gnawing at him recently. But what bothered him even more than the lack of respect from the townspeople, was the lack of respect he received from his friends. It wasn't just that they called him "kid". He was, after all, quite a bit younger than most of them, but his ideas were immediately dismissed, his offers to help frequently discarded, his actions and statements backed up with a smiling acceptance rather than a considered acknowledgment. It was really beginning to annoy him.
Lost in his angry thoughts, JD ignored Buck's monologue. It wasn't until his horse stopped on its own that he realized they had reached the livery. As he dismounted and moved to bring his mount into the building, he was startled by a second set of reins being dropped into his hands. "I'm not grooming your horse for you, Buck," he stated, handing the reins back.
Buck smiled and held up his hands, refusing to take the reins back. He knew JD was tired and wanted to get to the saloon, but Buck was also aware that JD seemed particularly upset with him, though that hadn't registered until JD completely ignored him. Doing something he enjoyed, like working with the horses would allow the young Easterner time to cool down. "We all have our strengths, JD," he said. "Yours is taking care of the horses." So saying, he rushed a few feet along the boardwalk and fell into step with Margaret Mitchell, the daughter of a local farmer.
Glaring after the ladies' man, JD turned and saw the faces of several of the town's residents. What he saw were not looks of respect. His ears began to turn red as he imagined their discussion. He could just hear what they were saying, that the others only kept JD around to take care of their horses, that he was little more than a glorified stable boy. Well, they would learn. JD had been a stable boy and knew he wasn't one any longer.
"Give ya a hand?" Yosemite asked, as he stepped out of the livery.
Taking a deep breath, JD blew it out and tried to allow his anger to leave as well. "Thanks," he agreed, nodding to the man. Handing over the reigns to Buck's horse, JD led his own into the building, deciding to take extra care, thus allowing himself to cool down.
Finally, the task was done; his horse was gleaming and very happy. As for JD himself, the fire was gone out of his anger, but he still wasn't happy with Buck's teasing and its effects. He vowed to try and talk to his friend about it again and this time he wouldn't give in to Buck's tactics. It seemed every time JD tried to bring up the subject, Buck turned it around to make it seem that he, JD, was the one being unreasonable and overly sensitive. That wasn't going to happen again.
Striding up to the saloon doors, JD scanned the room, a habit he'd learned from Chris and Vin. As he looked around, he could see Chris, Vin, Ezra and Buck sitting at their usual table. He vaguely recalled seeing Josiah and Nathan repairing the roof they'd already repaired once. JD was just about to enter the building when he heard laughter from the others. It was Buck relating their latest ride.
Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, JD could feel his cheeks begin to burn in embarrassment as Buck's loud voice filled the saloon and spilled onto the walkway. It wasn't bad enough he was telling that story after JD had asked him not to, but Dunne could see the other patrons listening intently and laughing along with the peacekeepers. One of the men listening closely was Conklin, one of JD's greatest detractors.
With teeth gritted and head held high, JD pushed the doors open and strode into the dim room. Walking past his friends, JD stopped at the bar and ordered a beer. When it was served, he made a point of scanning the saloon rather than going to sit with the others.
Seeing JD walk past them and go to the bar, Buck assumed that he was getting a beer and would be joining them as usual. He was surprised, therefore, when JD continued to stand at the bar. Shooting a puzzled look at the others, he called, "Hey Kid! You coming over to join us?" His smile dimmed when JD ignored the request. Glancing at the other faces, he saw Chris was still staring at his drink, unconcerned, and Ezra was fiddling with his cards. Vin was watching JD and looked concerned. Shrugging, Buck called again, "You comin' over, JD? Or you still got mud in your ears from when you fell off your horse earlier?"
JD had heard Buck the first time, but wasn't interested in company just now, especially Buck's. At the second call, Dunne heard the snickers and chuckles of the other men in the saloon. His cheeks flushed in anger once more as several of them shot him amused looks. Setting his beer mug down with a solid thump, he turned and glared at Buck.
Vin saw the anger rise in JD and saw Buck about to make another comment. Reaching out, he placed a hand on Buck's arm to keep him silent. When the puzzled blue eyes met his, Vin said simply, "Leave it." He had a good idea what was going on with JD. The two of them had previously discussed the lack of respect the town had for the two of them. While they did respect Vin as a dangerous man, they did not respect him as a person because of his beliefs and dress. While they would talk to JD and were comfortable with his ways, they didn't see the young Easterner as dangerous in the least.
Buck frowned at the tracker and turned back toward JD. His mouth was partially open when Buck met JD's eyes and whatever he had been about to say faded from his mind. For the first time that day, he really looked at his friend and shook himself at the intensity of anger he read in the boy's eyes and features. The intense and telling glare from the younger man stunned Buck, who didn't say anything as he watched JD walk out of the saloon.
Turning to Vin, Buck could only ask, "What was that all about?"
Vin looked at Buck, disbelief flashed briefly in his eyes. Glancing at Ezra and Chris, Vin could see they had the same question. With a sigh, Vin shook his head. He would have thought at least Ezra would have caught on to the problem, but then, the Southerner tended to discount other people's opinions far more than JD did. "Out here a man lives and dies by his reputation," Vin observed.
"Yeah," Buck agreed, not sure where Vin was going.
Taking a sip of his drink, Vin leaned back in his chair slightly. "Real hard for JD to have the kind of reputation he needs when you're treating him like he don't know which end of the horse ta feed," he observed.
Buck blinked for several minutes as he thought about Vin's words. Finally he understood that Vin was telling him he teased JD too much. “Well, hell, Vin,” Buck defended, “he knows I’m teasing. He knows how proud I am of him.”
“Does he?” Vin asked, blue eyes drilling into blue eyes. Moving back to his original point, Vin continued, “JD hears the teasing, and so does everyone else.” Tanner pointedly looked at the other patrons of the saloon before turning his attention back to Buck. He watched as understanding began to dawn and Buck turned his head, noticing the other people around them for the first time. When he once more had Buck’s attention, Vin drilled, “All they hear is the teasing. All they hear are the mistakes. When was the last time they heard that JD was really one of us? When was the last time they heard one of us say we trust JD to watch our backs?”
Buck leaned back in his chair thinking about what Vin had said. His initial reaction was to laugh it off; after all, he never cared what other people said. He knew the truth and the truth was he did trust JD. He just teased the kid so JD wouldn’t get cocky and do something stupid like… He quickly cut off that train of thought. His eyes shifted to the table next to him and fell on Conklin. That man had been a thorn in their side since the first day and took any opportunity he could find to try and turn public opinion against them. Buck had learned the hard way that men like Conklin could be dangerous, especially when they thought they were in the right.
Before Buck could respond, the saloon doors swung open revealing Josiah and Nathan. The two men were talking softly between themselves and smiled when they saw the others gathered together at the table. Josiah said something and headed off toward the bar while Nathan continued to the table where the others sat. "Hey," he greeting, taking a seat.
"Where's JD?" Nathan asked.
"Doin' his duty and watchin' the town," Vin replied with a pointed look toward Buck.
Nathan shot a look at Vin and then the others. Obviously he and Josiah had missed something. He was certain one of the others would fill him in if it were needed.
Josiah arrived a moment later with two mugs of beer. Setting one in front of Nathan, he took the other for himself. "Greetings, brothers," he smiled.
"So what news?" he asked, taking a deep drink of his beer.
"Spoke with the judge this morning," Chris announced, the first thing he'd said that afternoon. "Needs a prisoner picked up in Roweville and brought back here for trial. I figure you and Vin should be able to handle that, Josiah." Both men nodded their heads in acknowledgment of the assignment.
"Reckon we should get started early tomorrow," Vin advised. "Judge say when we had to be back?"
"Nope," Chris replied.
"Well, reckon it's two days out, part of a day there and two days back. Give us five days all total for the trip," Vin informed.
"Sounds good," Chris agreed. "I'll have all the papers ready at the jail tomorrow morning."
"As for the rest of us, there's something else we need to be doing. Seems a gang of six to eight men has taken to robbing banks in local towns. Travis asked that we take a look."
"Who's going to watch the town if we all go after these men?" Nathan asked, concerned for the town.
"I for one would be most pleased to offer my services as peacekeeper to the town and volunteer to stay behind..."
Chris shot Ezra an appraising look before a smile tugged up one corner of his mouth. "Thanks, Ezra," he interrupted, "but I think that JD is more than capable of handling the town on his own."
Vin raised an eyebrow at that. The original plan had been for JD and Ezra to both stay in town. Obviously Chris had understood Vin's comments about JD as well and wanted to show his faith in the Easterner before things got out of hand.
A small sound at the neighboring table at this announcement drew the eyes of the peacekeepers to the men sitting there. Feeling the weight of six glares, the men quickly finished their drinks and left. As they headed out of the saloon, Buck turned and found Vin's eyes boring into him. Huffing out a breath, Buck nodded his understanding and turned his eyes to Chris.
"Wouldn't it be better if we had Vin to help track?" Nathan asked. "I'm sure one of the others of us could go and pick up the prisoner."
"A couple of the men in the gang are ones I brought in when I was huntin'," Vin explained. "They know about the bounty and Chris thinks he's protecting me by sending me on a babysitting job," Vin finished, his tone even and slightly acidic.
Hazel eyes shot a searing glare toward the tracker who nonchalantly glanced upward and met the glare. Cool blue eyes dared Larabee to deny the truth of Vin's statement. A moment later the hazel eyes broke away, unwilling to admit defeat. "Travis promised we would have what information we needed on them. Vin and Josiah should be picking up their prisoner and be heading home before we have any problems. Any questions?" No one seemed to have any. "Good."
Vin rose at Chris' dismissal and looked at Josiah. "Meet at dawn at the livery?" he inquired.
"Wouldn't miss it," Josiah responded.
As Vin left, the remaining men allowed themselves to be drawn into a poker game.
It wasn't long, though, until they broke up. It was obvious Buck was distracted by something and the others felt they were taking advantage of him. Chris needed to leave on patrol anyway and Josiah and Nathan went off to find dinner. Ezra found a more lucrative game and Nell, one of the new saloon girls, found Buck.
2. In the gray light that signifies the opening foray in Day's most recent battle against Night, a lone figure moved quietly through the silent streets of the sleeping town. Light and shadow held no sway over the landscape as all existed in a monochromatic world where instinct could betray you as easily as save you.
The moment passed quickly, however, as Day's scouting party and advance troops reached into Night's territory. The battle had not yet been met, but when the two forces engaged, there promised to be a spectacular display as the powers clashed in the clear sky overhead.
This battle was of no concern to the man slipping through the quiet town. He had one destination in mind this morning, one goal. A broad smile crept across the man's face, shining in the weak light. He could feel success within his grasp.
Reaching his destination, Josiah opened the door to the livery and stepped into the building. As his eyes adjusted to the lamplight within, his smile fell. "How did you beat me here?" Josiah demanded of Vin Tanner who was doing a final check of his saddle and gear. When his only response was a smile, he moved toward his own saddle and gear and asked, "Did you sleep here?"
Vin's smile widened as he responded, "Nope. Just ready to get an early start on this." Finishing his check, Tanner moved out into the livery, leaned against a post and watched as Josiah prepared his horse. "How much did you lose?" he asked.
Josiah stopped, turned and looked at the Tracker. "You knew?" he asked. He looked at Tanner another moment before laughing and shaking his head. "I should have known," he added as he settled his saddle on his horse.
"Ezra only bets on a sure thing," Vin smiled.
Shooting a look at the young man, Josiah's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Ezra told you about the bet?" he asked. His response was a small smile. He laughed again and shook his head. "Well," he continued, "someday one of us will be ready for the trail before you."
Vin just smiled a cocky smile. Seeing Josiah was about done, he pushed off the post and headed back to claim his horse's reins. Walking the animal out of the livery, Vin mounted and waited for Josiah to do the same. The duo then proceeded to make their way to the jail.
As they stilled their mounts, Larabee stepped out of the jail, a few papers in hand. He walked up to the two men and handed the papers to Vin who passed them to Josiah. Josiah opened and skimmed them before tucking them away in a saddlebag.
"You two go straight there and straight back. We don't need you collecting any trouble out there. Most likely JD will have enough here by himself," Chris admonished.
Vin and Josiah exchanged small, amused smiles. "Reckon we can manage that," Josiah replied.
Chris looked intently at each man in turn before offering his hand to the former Preacher. "Josiah," he acknowledged with a nod and a quick handshake. "Vin," he said, turning toward the younger man and offering his hand. He smiled slightly as Vin grabbed his arm just below the elbow. Chris returned the grip, holding on a moment longer and ordering, "Safe journey."
He was rewarded with two small smiles and nods of acknowledgment as Vin and Josiah encouraged their mounts to move and headed out of town.
Watching the two figures as they disappeared from sight, Chris didn't seem to be able to shake the odd sense of foreboding that teased his senses. He couldn't help but wonder why it felt wrong to send those two on that job. Shaking off the indeterminate feeling, he headed back into the jail where he had a hot cup of coffee waiting.
JD stepped out onto the boardwalk and took a deep breath. A lifetime of service had trained him to rise early in the morning. Smiling as he looked around the quiet town, he caught sight of Chris standing outside the jail staring at the road out of town. Following the gunslinger's gaze, JD could just make out two small forms in the distance. With a soft chuckle and a shake of his head, JD headed toward the jail. Chris most likely had some coffee ready and waiting. Since it would still be a while before breakfast was ready at the boarding house, he figured spending some time with Chris would help pass the time.
As he was lifting his foot to step onto the boardwalk on the other side of the street, JD was distracted by a call. Turning toward the greeting, he spotted Buck and smiled. Unfortunately, his momentary distraction caused him to misjudge his foot's placement. Catching the edge of the boardwalk with the toe of his boot, JD felt the sole slide along the edge as he fell forward into a heap. As he fell, he managed to pull down a stack of boxes that quickly buried him.
More embarrassed than hurt, JD felt his humiliation grow as he realized he was now covered in all sorts of produce. Pushing himself to a standing position, JD brushed off his clothes.
From across the street, Buck has seen JD and was about to call over and find out if the young man wanted to have breakfast with him, determined to change his ways and let JD, and everyone else, know exactly how capable the Easterner was, when he saw JD fall. He was slightly concerned by the fall, but seeing a stack of crates fall on top of his young friend caused worry and fear to flare through him and take a deep hold as he thought “not again”. A simple fall could seriously injure a man, especially if something heavy fell on them.
He raced across the street, fearful of what he would find and ready to call for Nathan should the need arise. In fact, should it be necessary, he was fairly certain he could carry JD up to the clinic. With those thoughts in mind, he felt intense relief when JD stood up and began brushing at himself. His relief was such that he couldn't stop his reaction as his resolve not to tease his friend fell away to be replaced by the more familiar, almost habitual teasing.
"Whoo, boy," Buck called, his voice carrying throughout the town. "Guess we don't only have to learn you how to survive in the West but how to walk too. That was one heck of a spill, there, JD," he teased, his relief over JD's being all right adding volume to his friendly jibes. Seeing the sour look on Dunne's face, Vin’s words from the previous night sounded in his head, but his relief that JD was fine overrode the caution. Buck continued, "Aw, hell. Don't worry so much about it, son. Why, by the time you're full growed you'll be able to walk down the street just like anybody else."
JD shot a glare toward Buck hot enough to sear a cactus. Clenching his teeth, JD ground out, "It's not funny, Buck"
Seeing the reaction, Wilmington almost winced. "Aw, JD," Buck admonished, not wanting any hard feelings between them. "There ain't no cause... JD!" he called as he watched the young man turn on his heel, step up onto the boardwalk and stride past the jail.
"Best leave him be a while to cool down," Chris' soft voice sounded.
Buck turned his head, startled. He hadn't seen Chris in the doorway of the jail. "Hell, Chris. I was just so relieved he was OK I forgot... Hell."
Chris nodded. He hated getting involved in these sorts of things, especially because he knew Buck had only been expressing his relief. In all the years they had known each other, Chris had gotten to know the other man's moods and mannerisms almost as well as his own. It was only natural for Buck to tease JD as a way of keeping the boy on his toes. He’d seen Buck do it before. During the war there had been a kid, younger than even he and Buck, who had taken to following the big man around. Of course, Buck had been devastated when the kid didn’t make it. Releasing a sigh as he looked at the toes of his boots, Chris contemplated Vin's words and caution from the previous night about how others were seeing JD. "Best just let it go," Chris advised before turning and heading back into the jail.
Buck stared after Chris. That last comment was very unlike his old friend. Thinking about what Chris said, he had to agree. He supposed he had let his relief get the better of him. He just worried about the boy so. Not knowing where JD had gotten to, he was about to follow Chris into the jail when he spotted Constance Drummond pulling into town with her buckboard. The lovely oldest daughter of the Drummond clan was in town early, but that was fine by Buck. She’d been looking downcast recently, ever since Max Thornton moved to California. Buck hated seeing a woman so sad and dispirited. Straightening his clothes and smiling brilliantly, he made his way to greet the fair maiden and coax a smile from her.
After succeeding in his mission, he headed off to a warm breakfast.
Stepping into the boarding house, Buck inhaled deeply, relishing the savory scents that filled the air. Making his way to the dining room, he noticed that JD was already seated with a large plate of food and a glass of milk before him. The earlier incident forgotten in the wake of his pleasant thoughts about Constance Drummond, Buck slid into the empty seat next to JD, a broad smile on his face. "Beautiful day, today," he greeted, taking a deep breath and laughing slightly when his stomach rumbled.
JD glanced at Buck, still smarting slightly from the teasing he had suffered earlier. Turning his attention back to his food, JD lifted another forkful toward his mouth only to have it fall off the eating implement when Buck slapped him on the shoulder. "Buck," he ground out.
"There you go!" Buck cheered. "I knew you had a voice in there somewhere. Now, as I was saying, it's a beautiful day today made even more so by the lovely lady I was speakin’ to just before I came in here." Lowering his voice and leaning in conspiratorially, Buck continued, "I don't have to tell you that the old Wilmington charm was in full effect this morning and we all know what that effect is on the fairer sex," Buck observed. Then, leaning back, he laughed and slapped JD on the shoulder again, deliberately timing it so the food would once more fall off JD's fork in the hopes of getting a laugh out of his dark haired friend. He was just in too good a mood to worry about anything other than trying to share his good humor. Besides, JD would laugh about it all later. "Aw, hell, kid," he began, picking up the coffee that had been placed in front of him, "I'd tell you more, but I don't reckon you're near old enough to hear what I got to say." Mentally wincing at the words that so easily slipped from his mouth, he still expected JD to shrug them off.
Closing his eyes briefly, JD reminded himself that Buck only teased him because he cared for him. He tried to remind himself that the older man wasn't being serious. No matter how hard he tried to push aside the anger that had been lingering since the day before, he just couldn't do it. The fact that the other people in the room were snickering only added to JD's frustration. He could feel his face getting red and took several deep breaths to try and calm himself. Finally feeling he had himself under control, he opened his eyes and let a tight smile appear on his face. "That's fine, Buck," he replied. "I'm sure it wouldn't be anything I couldn't read in any romantic novel anyway." Then setting his fork on his plate and pushing away from the table, JD picked up his hat and left the room.
Buck was stunned by the reaction of his normally easygoing friend. Normally, even when he knew he’d pushed the boy too far, JD wouldn’t just up and walk away. Something else had to be going on with him. He would wait a while before seeking JD out and seeing if he could find the answer.
Shaking off the serious thoughts invading his mind and focusing once more on his plans for later in the day with Miss Drummond, Buck sat up straight again and dug into his food. "Romance novel," he scoffed as he finished the last of his breakfast. A thoughtful look crossed his face as he glanced at the door. "Wonder if the kid knows where to get one?" he wondered to himself.
After leaving the boarding house, JD had made his way around the town. He liked to make a quick patrol early in the morning to make sure all of the storekeepers were doing well and didn't need anything. The routine and the familiar morning interaction did much to lighten JD's dark mood and ease the self-doubt that had been gnawing at him since the afternoon before. Greeting Mrs. Potter and helping her shift a table outside for a display, JD began to feel confident in his own abilities and his position in the town.
Accepting the Mrs. Potter's thanks with a tip of his hat, JD continued on his way, greeting various shop owners on his way. He was headed toward the jail when he happened to wander near a small group of men who were talking. Though he hadn't intended to, he overheard part of their conversation.
"He's done the job better than the last one," one of the men said.
"He's nothing more than a boy playing a grown-up game," the second voice declared bitterly. "He's no more threatening than a new born colt. If it weren't for the other six carrying him and backing him up, he wouldn't be anything more than a stable boy."
JD felt shame burn on his face. They were talking about him. He knew that Buck teased him about his youth, all the guys did at one time or another, but did they see him as inept as these men did?
"Well, I have heard the others say things about him," the first voice stated, his town unsure.
"He does seem a little accident prone," a third voice added. "And he looks about the same age as my Henry."
"And would you want Henry running around pretending to be sheriff? Would you trust him with the safety of the town?" the second voice, which JD now identified as belonging to Mr. Conklin, queried. "If they're going to leave us with only him for protection we're going to have to take things into our own hands."
JD had heard enough. Slinking down the alley, he found a place in the shadows behind some crates and leaned his head against the wall. Was that really how people saw him? A kid incapable of protecting himself, let alone a town? A stumbling incompetent who they wouldn't trust to watch their back?
He knew the other six didn't see him like that, not any more. Buck might treat him like a stupid kid and, JD had to admit, sometimes he was. Still, he'd come an awful long way from the person who had jumped off the stagecoach thinking he knew everything and nearly getting himself killed that first day.
No, he wasn't that same stupid kid, not anymore and he would prove it to Conklin and all the other doubters in town. He would show them that he was worthy of his job, just as he had proven it to Chris and the others. He was JD Dunne, peacekeeper and one of the seven.
"Mr. Larabee?" a small voice said.
Looking up from where he was sitting reading, Chris saw Sawyer Miller, the telegraph operator's son, standing in front of him, holding a small piece of paper. Marking his place, Larabee retrieved a penny from his pocket and handed it to the boy as he took the telegraph. Seeing excitement dance in the boy's eyes as he took in the sight of the penny, Chris couldn't help the smile that appeared on his own face.
"Thanks, Mr. Larabee!" Sawyer said excitedly before running off to show his father and his friends his good fortune.
Chris watched the boy scamper off and felt a pang of loss sound in his heart. He idly wondered if he would ever be able to see a young boy smile and play and not feel the loss of his son. Shaking off the melancholy that was threatening, Chris turned his attention to the telegraph in his hand.
Reading the brief message, Larabee stood and glanced around town. He managed to catch JD's eye and, with the tilt of his head, indicated that Dunne should gather Ezra and Buck. Seeing the young man head off toward the saloon, Chris turned toward the clinic. He spotted Jackson just about to enter his room.
"Nate!" he called out to the healer.
Nathan, hearing his name turned and spotted Chris looking at him. Seeing the blond incline his head toward the jail, Nathan nodded his understanding and altered his course. Obviously something had happened that they needed to discuss. His mouth pressed into a line at the thought of the information Larabee had shared the previous night.
With Vin and Josiah gone, their strength was down to five. With one staying behind, that brought them down to four. Granted they had faced much worse odds in their time together, but that still didn't mean he enjoyed entering into situations like this was sure to be.
His long legs allowed him to catch Chris before the blond made it to the jail. "What's up? News on that gang?" Jackson asked, wanting to see if his fears were correct. His response was a curt nod. He swore softly under his breath, knowing that Chris would want all of them together before he revealed all the information. That was fine with the healer. Nathan would much rather have the others there as well so they could begin working out a plan immediately.
As he opened the door to the jail and stepped in, Nathan found a seat to wait for the others. Chris took a position by the window and stood still, staring out at the town.
It wasn't long before the others arrived and they settled in to hear the news.
Studying the faces staring at him, Chris could see that the others at least suspected what was up. He read their concern over the task and the determination he had come to count on. These were all good men, even JD. "Got a wire from Travis," he informed. "They hit the bank in River Ridge last night."
"Isn't that on the other side of our town from where they last hit?" JD asked, puzzled by the information.
Chris nodded in agreement and watched the others shift uncomfortably. Something didn't seem right about that, but they had a job to do. "Six men were spotted. I want to set out first thing tomorrow."
"Are they headed here?" Buck asked, his face grave, focused on the task at hand.
"Not sure," Chris admitted. "They started off in our direction, but that doesn't mean they're headed here. We'll just have to find them and ask them what their plans are," he finished with a feral smile. He saw the confident glint in each man's eyes as they found themselves agreeing to the plan. He saw a hint of disappointment in JD's eyes and knew the young sheriff was wishing he could come along. "Buck. Nathan. Ezra. Meet me at the livery just after dawn. I want to find their trail by noon." Chris received three nods of agreement.
Turning toward the remaining member of the peacekeeping force, he sad, "JD. You'll have the town. I know you can handle it."
JD drew himself up straighter, his chin lifting slightly. Chris Larabee didn't trust many people and here he was saying he trusted JD with the safety of an entire town. True, it would be an adventure to be out there on the trail, sleeping under the stars, hunting the gang, but JD also knew that part of being an adult was accepting the responsibilities of one. His responsibility was making sure the town, and the people in it, were safe. He nodded at Chris in acknowledgment.
"OK," Chris said, pleased to see JD was taking this seriously. "Here's everything I know..."
Josiah tore his eyes away from the small green patch he saw off to the side. He and Vin had been traveling steadily through the morning and he felt he could really use a break. Clearing his throat to get Vin’s attention, he offered, “Reckon we should water and rest the horses.”
Vin slanted a look at his traveling companion, an amused smile curving his lips. He knew the break was as much for Josiah as it was for the horses and had actually only been holding off to see how long Josiah would go before calling a break. “Reckon you’re right,” Vin agreed quietly, amusement dancing in his eyes.
Josiah caught Vin’s look of amusement and laughed as he realized what the younger man had been doing. Shaking his head, Sanchez followed Tanner toward the small oasis. As he dismounted, he did his best to suppress a groan and looked enviously at his young friend’s easy movements. Just at the edge of his memory he could recall the time when he was able to ride all morning and then dismount and move as easily as if he hadn’t been riding at all.
“Getting’ old there, ‘Siah?” Tanner teased as he heard the suppressed groan.
Eyes twinkling in amusement, Josiah retorted, “Still young enough to take you down, pup.” This response earned him a full-throated laugh from his young friend.
“Reckon you could at that,” Tanner replied softly as he led his horse to the small pond. “Figure we can stop here for a while and eat lunch ‘fore we head on.”
Stopping beside his young friend, Josiah allowed his own horse to drink. “Sounds good,” he agreed. A small smile began to brighten his face as he watched Vin crouch down to drink. “Inez gave me a few pieces of that chocolate cake she made.” He nearly laughed as Vin suddenly turned toward him, eyes wide and pleading. "Alright! I'll share!" he laughed, not even attempting to resist the little boy he saw in his friend.
Vin smiled, thankful for good friends and good cake. "Thanks, 'Siah," he offered softly. "I 'preciate it."
"So how much farther are you planning on taking us today?" Josiah asked, trying not to groan as he stretched his aching muscles.
Watching the former preacher as he stretched, Vin considered their options. He really wanted to use Parson's Ridge as a shortcut, but the trail was dangerous. Still, it would cut a good half-day off their journey. The question bothering him now was whether or not Josiah was up for it. "Reckon we've got two choices," he offered, deciding to let Josiah make the decision. "There's a hard way and an easy way. Hard way will take a half-day off our journey. Easy way is, well, easier."
Josiah smiled at his friend's explanation that didn't entirely answer his question. Looking over the landscape before them, Josiah contemplated the options. Either way he would be spending the night on the ground rather than in a bed. "Never was one much for the easy way," he replied, grinning at his friend, pleased when his grin was returned.
As night fell on the town, JD was stalking away from Buck. He knew in his heart and in his head that Buck's teasing was the rogue's way of showing he accepted the Easterner. Unfortunately, after what he'd overhead that morning, combined with the comments the previous night, he wasn't really in the mood to be teased.
"Now if you really want to impress that little filly of yours, JD, you'll take her out on a moonlit ride down to the pond. Then, when that silver moonlight reaches down and caresses her hair, you tell her she's a godess..."
"Buck!" JD snapped, stopping and turning around to face his friend. "That's not who I am. Casey likes me for me. "
"Now son," Buck began again, shocked by the response. He'd made a conscious effort not to tease JD, had stopped himself several times, instead treating JD as he would any of the others. But women were Buck's forte, this was an area he felt JD could really use his skills.
"I'm not your son!" JD snapped again, not realizing he sounded like a little kid. "I know what I'm doing. I can handle the responsibilities and I don't need you second guessing everything I do!" Taking a step closer to the mustached man, he looked up and hissed, "I'm not a kid. Stop treating me like one." With that said, he spun on his heel and stalked off.
Buck was stunned, then a smile spread across his face. JD was finally standing up for himself and in a good way. Following after JD, he called, "Aw, hell, Kid..."
JD stood on the boardwalk in front of the jail and inhaled deeply of the afternoon air. A renewed confidence filled him, allowing him to hold his head high and lending him an air of authority that was normally missing from the young man. The passer-byes noticed the change in the peacekeeper and smiled their own greeting.
Thinking back to that morning, JD couldn’t help but feel pleased. He had gathered with Chris, Buck, Ezra and Nathan at the livery. Buck had been talking at him, as usual, though he wasn't actually teasing JD about anything. Of course, the fact that Buck's chatter bothered him only upset the young Easterner even more. JD knew why it was bothering him, as Conklin’s words echoed in his head, but he wasn’t sure how to overcome it.
Chris walked up to JD and rested a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “JD,” Chris said softly, waiting for Dunne to turn and acknowledge him. “The town’s in your hands. I know you can handle it or you wouldn’t be here by yourself.” Then, with a final squeeze of his shoulder, the gunslinger mounted his horse and prepared to ride out.
Next Ezra walked up to him. “Mr. Dunne,” he greeted with a smile. “My sincerest wishes that your days will be quiet.”
Nathan approached next. “JD,” he acknowledged, his eyes warm with friendship. “Town’s in good hands.”
By this point JD was beaming. These men who he had admired and tried to emulate were letting him know that he belonged and that they trusted him to keep the town safe.
As the last of the men mounted, JD looked for Buck, not wanting the gregarious man to leave without saying goodbye. Catching his eyes, JD called, “Buck.” He tried to think of words, but they failed him, so he only kept his eyes locked with the blue ones of the man who had become his big brother.
Easily reading the message in JD’s eyes, Buck grinned and advised, “Watch your back.” Message delivered, he moved forward to join the others as they headed out of town.
For all of the other three men’s encouragement, it was Buck’s simple message that meant the most to him. “Watch your back,” was what you said to another man, an equal. It was a way to show that you care, that you’ll worry while you’re away, but that you have confidence in the other person’s ability to take care of himself.
Then it happened, Buck added the word that had been haunting the Easterner for days now, "Kid."
He felt it then, the disappointment, the resentment that had started several days ago when he first noticed some of the townspeople looking down at him, looking at him with pity. JD Dunne was no kid. He'd earned his place among the seven and it was time everyone in town knew it. JD was more determined than ever to prove he was up to the challenge of being a peacekeeper.
His thoughts returning to the present, JD turned and headed down the road, planning on making a round of the town before the afternoon stage arrived.
As he was bidding a good day to Mrs. Potter, he spotted a cowboy stumble out of the saloon, obviously drunk. He registered the event in his mind and continued on his patrol, unconsciously following the cowboy’s progress from the corner of his eye. As he was greeting Mr. Watson at the hardware store, he saw two other rough looking cowhands force the first one into an alley. Heading off across the street, JD had his hand resting on the butt of one of his Colts.
Reaching the far side of the street, JD slowed his pace and approached the alley opening with caution. Peering around the corner, he saw the two rough looking men had the drunk up against the wall. Taking a deep breath and pushing aside his nerves, JD drew his gun and stepped into the open. “You gentlemen having a problem here?” he asked in his most authoritative voice.
The two men who had been intent on robbing the third froze and turned at the voice. Taking a look at JD they easily dismissed him. They did not, however, dismiss the gun the young man had aimed at them. “You going to shoot us, boy?” the larger of the two roughnecks asked, his eyes never straying far from JD’s gun.
“I’m the law around here,” JD informed. “I’d recommend that you leave this man alone and be on your way.”
The smaller of the two men chuffed out a laugh, figuring the young man was all talk and no action. “We’re where we need to be. We have some… business with this here fella. Now you just move along sonny and leave us to handle our business.” He then turned his back, knowing that his friend would keep an eye on the kid.
JD felt his cheeks burn in anger and a little humiliation. Cocking his gun, he steeled his voice and commended, “Leave him be, or you can come to the jail with me.”
Turning back around, the first man sneered, “You think you can take the both of us?”
JD set his jaw and stated with a confidence beyond his years, “I don’t think it. I know it.”
With that statement, the smaller of the two men headed toward him. Quickly pulling his other gun out of its holster, JD flipped it around and used the butt of it against the side of the man's head, stunning him enough that he fell to the ground.
Seeing his friend fall to the ground, the other man released the drunk and lunged for JD.
Not having time to react, JD dropped one of his guns and began struggling with the larger man for control of the one still clutched in his hand.
Though he put up quite a fight, the other man's superior size and weight was wearing Dunne down faster than JD would have thought possible. He could feel the gun bending in his hand to aim back at himself when some other sounds drew his attention away.
Before he could figure out what was going on, the sound of something solid impacting flesh filled the ally followed by a muffled grunt of pain. The next thing he knew, the man he'd been struggling with a moment before was slumped on top of him, unconscious.
Pushing the man off and rising as quickly as possible, JD looked around and saw Conklin and a number of his cronies standing around, all armed.
"Told you we needed to take care of things ourselves," Conklin muttered.
JD bristled at that statement. Drawing himself up to his full height, he gave the troublemaker his best stare and said, "Thank you for your help, but I think you should leave the rest of this to the law."
Conklin just stared at the young whelp and snorted in disbelief.
Ignoring the man as best he could, JD looked at two of the other men in the group and commanded, "You two, help me get these men over to the jail." When they didn't immediately respond, he scowled slightly and added, "Today." That got them moving, albeit slowly.
As he was helping the would-be robber he'd knocked on the head earlier across the street, he glanced over his shoulder and saw Conklin glaring back. One thought ran through his mind. This was going to be trouble.
Chris slowed his horse and waited for the others to catch up. They were headed out toward the last reported location of the gang and had been riding steadily all morning. Now it was time to rest the horses for a bit and have a bite to eat. Guiding his horse toward the stream that was currently running parallel to their course, Chris drew to a stop and dismounted.
The other three men followed suit and soon the horses were drinking while their riders set about finding some food for themselves.
Chris settled under a tree not far from where Pony was now grazing. He was concerned for JD back in town, but even more so for Josiah and Vin. It bothered him that he couldn’t figure out what was wrong, what was causing his disquiet. He didn’t flinch when another form settled next to him.
“Worrying about them isn’t going to help us out here,” Buck said softly.
Chris nodded his agreement. “Knowing you don’t need to worry doesn’t make you worry any less.”
The two old friends sat in silence for a few minutes before Buck’s nervous shifting drew Chris’ attention. “What’s got your knickers in a twist, Buck?” the blond finally asked.
“Do you really think JD doesn’t know how much I trust him, how proud I am of what he’s done?” Buck asked worriedly. The question had been nagging at him since the day before.
Chris thought about the question before reaching in for one of his small cigars. Lighting up, he kept his eyes on the horizon as he contemplated his answer. “For all he’s learned, JD’s still young,” Chris observed. “When you’re young, especially out here and in the line of work we have, it’s important to have someone watch your back.” Exhaling a breath of smoke, he watched it dissipate in the noontime air. “The kid knows we watch his back, and that’s a comfort to him, but you remember what it was like to be that age. Young, impulsive, you know everything and you want to spread your wings. You also want to know someone will be there to catch you if you fall.”
Buck allowed his mind to wander back to the early days of his and Chris’ friendship. They had been young, headstrong, full of vinegar and, in many ways, not nearly as wise as JD. JD was smart enough to admit he didn’t know everything and accept the help that was given to him. But the kid was still very much a kid in a cruel and very adult world. That vulnerability triggered the protectiveness in Buck causing him to be almost smothering in his care. Buck did trust JD to watch his back in most situations, but the boy was still learning.
Chris watched his oldest friend from the corner of his eye. He could see Buck thinking over his words. It would probably be good to let him think about it. The truth was, Chris wasn’t completely at ease with his decision to leave JD in town by himself. At the time he had thought it necessary in order to give JD a break from Buck and to help prove in his own eyes, as well as those of the town, that JD had earned his place as an equal member of the seven.
Stubbing out the remnant of his smoke, Chris rose and patted Buck on the shoulder. “You’re doing a good job with him, Buck,” he encouraged. “Don’t doubt him, or yourself.”
Buck looked up and nodded.
“Are we continuing our journey, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra asked, rising from where he and Nathan had been talking.
With a nod of his head, Chris moved to his horse and prepared him for the journey. Mounting, he looked at the other three as a devil-may-care grin lit his face. “Let’s ride, boys,” he commanded. “We’ve got us some bandits to catch.”
The four men spurred their horses on their way.
Vin urged Peso up the small incline, knowing the mining camp was just ahead. Pausing on the top of the rise, he waited for Josiah to stop next to him. As he scanned the town, unease settled in his stomach. It looked like most other mining communities he’d seen, tents mixed in with a few hastily constructed wooden buildings, but something just didn’t sit right. The thought crossed his mind that Roweville would be the perfect location for a gang to use as a hideout.
“Ready to go?” Josiah asked. Upon reaching the top of the rise, he had drawn up next to Vin and waited patiently as his friend examined the camp.
Sweeping his eyes around the surrounding land once more, Vin nodded and urged his horse forward. On the surface, he seemed just as relaxed as before, but there was a subtle tension in his frame as they once more started along the path toward the town.
Josiah knew Vin well enough to sense the difference in his young companion. Curiosity bubbled to the surface as he began looking around the settlement. On his initial scan, he spotted the dirty forms of miners as they shuffled from their shifts digging ore. As he looked more closely, he noticed something seemed a little off, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
As they entered the community, there was no doubt their presence was noted and their every move watched.
“Feel like the prized pig at a fair,” Vin muttered.
Josiah couldn’t help the small smile that tugged at his mouth at that declaration. “Me too, brother,” he assured. “Me too.” Scanning the street, Josiah was able to identify the prevalent emotions on the faces he saw, fear and defeat. He knew mining to be a difficult and dangerous life, but many of these people seemed demoralized which didn't entirely fit with what he'd heard of the town. Passing by the general store, he spotted two men who appeared more desperado than miner, watching them carefully. A cold chill touched his soul as he thought of the empty eyes of the people of Purgatorio.
“Purgatorio of the North,” Vin muttered. His only response was a nod of acknowledgment.
The two soon found themselves outside of the small jail. There was a man sitting in a chair outside, shotgun across his lap. Not dismounting, they waited for the man to acknowledge them.
After a few minutes, the man in question lifted a hand and tipped back his hat with one finger.
As the silence dragged on, Josiah looked at Vin and raised an eyebrow in question. Seeing a slight dip of the Tracker's head, Josiah greeted the man. "Afternoon," he said, conversationally. "You the law in these parts?"
The man with the shotgun ran his eyes over the pair, evaluating them. The one on the left looked kind of familiar, but the old cavalry hat and the buckskin coat seemed to hide most of him. The other, older man, looked friendly enough. "Who's asking?" he demanded.
"My name is Josiah Sanchez," the ex-preacher greeted. "My friend and I are here from Four Corners to pick up a prisoner." Sanchez felt the palms of his hand begin to itch. He'd had enough run-ins with the law in various towns that he wasn't completely shocked by the cold reception, but something about this man set his teeth on edge.
"Reckon you can wait 'til the mornin' then," the man advised, glaring at the two riders.
"Sheriff be here then?" Josiah asked.
"Everything will be ready for you then," the man replied, an odd glint in his eye. “Be here at dawn.”
"Alright. See you then," Josiah replied, turning his horse to head toward the saloon, feeling Vin follow.
As they stopped outside the clapboard building, the two men dismounted and loosely tied their horses' reins to the hitching post. Grabbing his rifle and his saddlebags, Vin waited by his horse for Josiah to join him. "I don't like it," he declared when Sanchez was by his side.
Taking in the surroundings and the faces of the people Josiah saw, his heart went out to them and he felt a desire to comfort them. "Can't say I blame you, Brother Vin," the former preacher agreed. "I know you like the outdoors and this place is far from lively and cheerful," he observed, hoping Vin would understand his silent plea; he was looking forward to spending the night in a real bed.
Vin frowned at Josiah's statement. "Feel better if we stayed outside o' town," he stated, looking up to meet the pale blue eyes. Reading there a desire for the comforts of civilization, Vin sighed. "Reckon it might be best if we stayed here, though. Make sure nothing happens to delay us from getting here on-time." he finished, feeling he owed Josiah a night under a roof after the way he pushed them the last two days. The truth was, Vin had a bad feeling about this trip and wanted to get back as soon as possible.
Josiah smiled at the concession. "Well, then, I'll take the horses to the livery while you get a little something to eat. I'll join you when I'm done," he offered.
Vin nodded and undid Peso's reins. Handing them over to Josiah, he watched the larger man lead the horses down toward the livery. Moving his saddlebags to a more comfortable position on his shoulder, Tanner lifted his rifle and headed into the rather disreputable looking saloon.
Stepping out of the afternoon sun, Vin felt a chill race down his spine; a chill that had nothing to do with getting out of the sun, but everything to do with the hostile atmosphere he had just entered. Scanning the room, he quickly did a threat evaluation and determined the only people who didn't pose a threat to him were two of the girls and the barkeep.
Walking up to the bar, he took a position where he could easily see the whole room either in the mirror or via his eyes. When the keep finally came over, Vin looked the man up and down. He could feel the fear rolling off the man and stored the information away. Things were definitely not as they seemed. Hopefully, he and Josiah would be able to overcome the animosity and leave town without any trouble. "Whiskey," Vin ordered, dropping a coin on the counter.
The barkeep nodded and scurried away. A moment later he was back with a shot glass and a bottle. He filled the glass and reached for the coin, stopping only when an iron-like grip clamped onto his wrist.
"Leave the bottle," Tanner instructed. Seeing he had the man's attention, he asked, "You got rooms?"
Swallowing convulsively, the barkeep replied, "Y-yes, sir. We have rooms for travelers. Dollar a night."
"Reckon I'll take one of those. Two beds," Vin informed. "What about food?" he asked.
"Just sit and one of the girls will be by," the man said. "Anything else, sir?" he inquired, anxious to be away from this rough-looking man.
"That'd be it," Vin stated, releasing the man to take his money and scurry away. Reaching over the counter to snag a second glass, Vin grabbed the bottle, his own glass and headed off to an empty table in the corner of the room. It wasn't his ideal choice of location, but it would provide him with a wall against his back and a view of the room. He settled in to wait for Josiah.
Down at the livery, Josiah had found a rather cool reception. Apparently the stable master, as he liked to be called, had decided he had a full house. But for an extra fee, he would happily house both horses for the night, provided they were gone before lunchtime. Josiah eventually agreed to the conditions only to be told he would have to tend the horses himself. Negotiating for a horse to carry their prisoner proved to be even more trying, but eventually the deal was struck and all was in place for the morning.
Shaking his head at the uncharitable man, Josiah led the horses back to the stalls indicated and methodically tended to both animals. He was just brushing down Peso when he heard a sound. Turning, he saw a small boy duck back into the shadow. Deciding to see if he could entice the boy out, he continued his grooming of the horse.
"Sure wish I had someone shorter to take care of your coat farther down," Sanchez said softly to Peso. "It's not so much my arms today as my back. All that riding we did." Seeing the small boy creep out of the shadow and approach, Josiah figured he'd dangle a little bait to see if his small fish bit. "Sure wish someone were here to help," he repeated. "I'd even be willing to pay them," he admitted. He suppressed his smile as he saw the small head lift upward and wide brown eyes stare up at him. Apparently he had chosen the correct bait.
"I can help you," the small boy said.
Josiah turned and feigning surprise at the sudden appearance of the boy. "Well I surely would appreciate the help brushing down Peso here," he encouraged, hoping the horse would behave. He figured he really didn't have much to worry about since Peso enjoyed being brushed, but then, the horse didn't take to people much either. "You need to be a little careful around him, though."
The boy straightened his shoulders and stepped forward. "I am a good horse keeper," he declared, walking up to the large horse and holding out his hand.
Peso leaned down and sniffed the small creature before him. With a soft snort and a shake of his head, he butted the small human's chest, deciding he liked this little one.
"See!" the boy cried, excitedly. "I'm good with horses and can brush really well."
Smiling a broad smile at the exchange he'd just witnessed, Josiah replied, " You sure are." Then, schooling his face into a more serious expression, he asked, "How much for you to finish brushing down Peso?" He was surprised by the stated price and the rapid-fire haggling session that followed. Once they agreed on a price, though, Josiah shook hands and turned over the brush, moving to the side to allow the boy room to maneuver while staying close enough to intervene if something went wrong.
While the boy brushed the horse, Josiah asked him about the town. He nearly sighed in frustration when the boy said next to nothing. All he did find out is that the boy's name was Fred, his mother worked in the saloon and they wanted to leave here. When he mentioned why they were there and asked if there were any horses for rent, he saw what could only be fear race through the boy's eyes.
Finishing quickly, Fred returned the brush to Josiah and was paid. As he was leaving, he turned back and said, "You're nice. I'm real sorry about ..." Eyes widening in horror at what he'd almost said, the boy slipped away into the night before the traveler could stop him.
Josiah sighed as the boy disappeared and bid good night to the mounts. He then walked down the street to the saloon where he sincerely hoped Vin had a stiff drink waiting. He wasn't disappointed.
Settling into the chair across from the Tracker, Josiah sighed and downed the shot waiting for him. "We have a room?"
"Yep," Vin replied. He was slouched in his chair and looked relaxed. Anyone who knew him would know that he was actually fully alert.
"Something's not right here," Josiah said softly. Before he could continue, someone came to take his order. When the girl was gone, Josiah continued. "I don't know what's up, but the boy at the stable started talking and apologized about tomorrow. But before I could find out what's going on he up and left."
Vin took the knowledge in silence. Comparing Josiah's words to his own observations, he could only come to one conclusion. "We should get out of town while the gettin's good," he said softly.
Josiah took a sip of whiskey and nodded thoughtfully. He was uneasy about the boy's words, but honestly hadn't seen any indication that they were in danger. This just wasn't a very nice place to stay or live. "I think that might be overreacting," he said softly. “We have to get that prisoner and that sheriff wants us here at dawn.”
His face remaining impassive, Vin lifted his own glass to his lips. "Reckon we should get my dollar's worth out of that room." Then, sitting a little straighter, he said, "I'll take first watch tonight." His only response was a nod of Josiah's head.
Continued in Part 6 to 10
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