Rating: PG-13 Language, Sad story

Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven is owned by Trilogy, Mirish and MGM. No money is being made. This fanfic is purely for entertainment purposes.

Author's Notes: Thanks to Zen and Joy K for the Penance transcript on Zen's Magnificent Seven Page.

Thanks to Phyllis for a wonderful beta. I can't tell you how much I appreciate all the input she put into this story.

Please forgive any inconsistencies between the timeline of the show and this fic. I've had this written for quite a while, but decided not to post it because everything didn't mesh perfectly as far as the timeline with the show was concerned. But, Phyllis said I should go ahead and post it, and I figured what the heck. :)

Please let me know what you think. Thanks, Ruby :)

 

Death's Door

Missing Scene from Penance

By: Ruby

 

Why was he riding out here? What had he been thinking? He was *not* the man for this job. Sheriff, or not. JD shifted uncomfortably in his saddle as he made his way out to the Dunlap house. What was he supposed to say? What did he tell them? *How* did he tell them?

Twenty minutes earlier, in town, five peacekeepers had been standing around the body of Irene Dunlap, the seamstress.

"Someone needs to go out and tell her parents," Vin had said, his face somber as he stared at a spot in the dirt next to the dead girl's head.

"I'm the sheriff. I should do it," JD told him. 

Tanner looked around then, at the others, obviously not even considering what JD had just said.

But, JD looked around also. Who was going to do it? Not Ezra, who had a lost, faraway look on his face as he stared down at the body. Nathan was squatted next to her head, his eyes clinically studying the wound. Vin stood next to Buck's shoulder, watching Ezra, concerned - he was needed here, especially since Chris wasn't in town yet. Josiah was over in the saloon. Last time JD had seen him, he'd been screaming and drinking whiskey out of the bottle. Probably not the best choice to tell someone that their daughter was dead. And Buck? Buck was hovering over JD.

"I can do it," JD said again. And he'd been all fired sure that he could do it. Especially when Buck had immediately said that he couldn't.

JD puffed his chest out. "Sure I can. I can do it." 

Vin glanced at him, the grim look on his face belied his years. He'd shaken his head and looked over at Buck. "Buck, maybe you shou-"

JD interrupted him by growling, "I can do it, Vin! I'm not a boy." He'd jumped on his horse then and looked impatiently down at Tanner.

Vin was staring up at him, and JD wilted under the glare that rivaled Larabee's. 

Vin's look softened. After a moment, he shook his head unhappily before nodding, resigned.

JD made a face at Buck. But Buck was staring at him, his look hard, concerned.

"I can do this, Buck!" JD said, determined. He cocked his head to the side. "I'm not a kid."

Buck swallowed hard as he looked away, his eyes narrowing, but not with anger. "I know you're not a kid," he said sadly. He turned away then, but not before he said, under his breath, so softly, that JD almost didn't hear him, "And you'll never be again."

JD's brow furrowed and he was tempted to call his best friend back. But Buck was walking away, his shoulders slumped. JD knew that he'd done something wrong, but he didn't have time to think about it because Vin was at his knee, his hand resting on JD's leg, blue eyes gazing up at him from under the brim of his hat.

"There's no easy way to tell them, JD."

JD swallowed hard. "I'll be fine." 

Vin shook his head. 

Reining his horse away from Tanner, JD said, "I'll be back." He'd turned away then and had broken his horse into a trot when he stopped suddenly and looked back at Vin. Twisting in the saddle, his hand resting on the horse's rump, he asked hesitantly, "Um... Where do they live?"

Looking exasperated, Vin sighed and pointed west.

*****

JD rode slowly as he made his way out to the Dunlap house. He still had no idea what he was going to say to them. How he was going to tell them. He'd better have a plan before he got out there, though, so he ran ideas through his head and spoke softly to himself, "Hi, Mr. Dunlap..." Wait. Did you say Hi to someone who you were about to break terrible news to?

"Hi. Nice weather we're having. Your daughter's never coming back. You think it looks like rain?"

He laughed maniacally, startling his horse. He was going insane.

Oh, God. He was getting closer. What was he going to say? 

He thought about the dead woman, her throat cut, blood all over. JD squeezed his eyes shut, his stomach muscles cramping with nausea as he thought of the wound. He'd never seen anyone with their throat slashed. It was horrible to see, and it must have been a horrible way to die. She must have been scared, and hurting. And they couldn't do anything to save her. They were supposed to watch the town. Protect the citizens. And yet she'd died. Right there. In the town. Almost directly in front of them. Some job they were doing, he admonished, knowing he was berating himself so he could keep his mind off this - thing - he had to do.

Tell her parents. That she was dead.

He saw their place as he crested the last hill. It was a nice little house with smoke coming out of the chimney. 

His stomach churned as he stopped his horse in front of the house and stepped out of the saddle. Oh, God, JD, don't throw up on them. Don't throw up. He was afraid when he opened his mouth to talk to them, to tell them, he was just going to throw up. On them.

He tied his horse to the wooden hitching post and then straightened his jacket before walking towards the front porch. Pull it together, Dunne, he told himself. You're the Sheriff. You told Vin you could do this. He walked up the steps. But he was having second thoughts as he knocked on the door. Second thoughts. Third thoughts. Fourth...

Oh, God, what had he gotten himself into?

JD heard laughing from inside the house and then a tall man opened the door, his eyes crinkled in mirth. His face lit up in a smile when he saw JD. "Sheriff Dunne," he greeted him warmly, reaching out, clasping JD's hand in a hearty shake.

JD glanced behind Irene's father to see that her mother was standing at a small table next to the cook stove. Kneading dough? His eyes darted around. There were pictures on the mantle. Of Irene. Oh God. Oh God. Mrs. Dunlap looked up then, smiled at him as she wiped her hands on a towel and started their way.

"What brings you out here today?" Irene's father asked.

JD's heart raced. They recognized him. He'd met them before, seen them in town, at the general store. He'd spoken to them. They'd been nice. Oh, God, their daughter was dead. And he had to tell them.

"Mr. and Mrs. Dunlap..." JD cleared his throat loudly as he quickly pulled the hat off his head and then shuffled nervously. "I need to tell you. I mean, inform you..." he paused. "I have to tell you... that... Irene, your daughter," he froze, the words dying in his throat. His mind screamed, Stupid, they know she's their daughter!

The father stood there, looking at him, his face paling slightly, the brightness in his eyes dimming with terrible anticipation. The mother stood behind him and a little to his left, her hand at her throat, her smile curving down as her brow furrowed with question.

"Miss Irene. I mean, Miss Dunlap, I mean..." JD swallowed hard, his hat in his hand, staring at her parents. Oh, God. Oh, God. He sniffed. He wanted to just shoot himself. Just pull out his Colt and *shoot* himself. Surely it would be less painful than this. They were looking at him. Staring at him.

The father took a half step back, his hand reaching behind him for his wife's. She automatically grabbed it, squeezing it tight in her own as she made a sound in her throat, a terrible, scared sound.

He had a horrible vision of a cat playing with a mouse. He was torturing them. "I'm sorry to have to tell you..." he started again, surprising himself with the calmness of his voice which was deep and clear, when he continued, "But Miss Irene was found..." don't say murdered don't say it. They don't need to know that right now. "She was found - dead - this morning."

The mother dropped. Just dropped right there where she'd been standing, her legs gone out from under her. She sat down hard on the floor. She still had a hold of the father's hand so she almost pulled him down with her but at the last moment, she'd let go, because he caught his balance and stood, slightly sideways, bent over, still staring at JD with this look on his face - this awful, disbelieving look. His mouth opened, in protest, JD could tell. He hoped the man didn't scream. Oh, please God, don't scream.

But the father didn't scream. His mouth snapped closed and his eyes watered. Tears started running down his face. Still, he didn't blink. He stared at JD. Still stared at him - as he cried. JD didn't even think the man knew he was crying. Oh, please God, I wish he would scream.

"I'm... sorry," JD told them, his voice cracking. He sniffed as he looked down at the mother, who sat on the floor, staring at him, dumbstruck, one arm still reaching up as if grabbing for the father, or just letting go.

"Oh, God," JD heard himself say. "I'm *so* sorry." And then, because he didn't know what else to do, or say, he turned and started back down the porch steps, stumbling slightly. He heard movement behind him, but didn't turn to see what it was - only assumed it was the father, leaning down, helping the mother to her feet, or maybe grabbing onto her, holding her. But JD didn't look. Couldn't look. Didn't want the picture in his mind - forever. It was bad enough that he'd see, always see, the looks on their faces. The terrible foreboding that stole over the father's face. The mother, looking at him, not understanding what his stuttering and gibberish meant. But the father knew, JD could tell; because the light had left his eyes - it had just... vanished.

JD sniffed as he untied the reins and then pulled himself up onto his horse. He almost looked back, but didn't. Jesus, Dunne. Jesus, don't look back. Don't see them. Don't keep that in your mind forever. Just ride away. Leave. Go. Run.

And he did. He kicked his horse much harder than he'd needed to. And the little bay ran. Away from the place. Towards town.

He hadn't even made it a mile when he stopped, jumped from the horse and was so violently sick he thought he might bust a rib. Then he was sick again and again, never-ending it seemed. On all fours, he held his horse's reins in one hand while the other held him up off the dirty ground as the vomiting at last turned to dry heaves, and then finally he was just breathing hard. He didn't realize tears were running down his face until he saw them falling onto the ground, mixing with his sickness. Oh God, he moaned, and would have been sick again if there'd been anything at all left in his stomach.

He sat back on his heels, looking up at the sky, trying not to think about what he'd just done. He swayed, suddenly dizzy, and he caught himself on a rough scraggly bush before he could fall sideways. The world tilted, his vision going dark on the edges. He stayed still, breathing hard, trying not to pass out.

After what seemed like hours, he felt almost normal again and he slowly, carefully stood, grabbing onto the stirrup to keep himself steady. "Jesus, Bat," he told his horse, his voice raw, "I don't ever want to do that again." And he knew he wasn't talking about what he'd just done on the dusty desert floor.

*****

He wearily pulled himself back up into the saddle. Giving the horse its head, he started for home. 

Wiping his face, he wished he had brought a canteen along so he could wet his handkerchief and clean off the traces of sickness and tears. But then he realized that he hadn't even remembered his handkerchief this morning, so he had to make do with using the cuff of his suit coat. Agh. He groaned. He was going to smell.

He sniffed again. His mind flashed back to their faces. No! He told himself. Don't think about it. It's over. Over.

God, he really, truly, with all of his heart, did *not* *ever* want to do that again.

His horse started trotting when the town came into view and JD let him. He caught movement off to his left and turned that way. A rider was coming up on his side, black hat, black horse - Chris.

Stopping his horse, JD waited for the man to come to him.

Larabee stopped a few feet away. His eyes roved him up and down and then his gaze rested critically on JD's face.

By the look on his face, JD could tell that Chris knew what was going on, knew what he'd just done.

'I'm the sheriff. I should do it.' JD cringed, hearing his own voice in his head, hearing the way it must have sounded to the others, childish, petulant, like what he was about to do wouldn't change him, wouldn't stay with him - forever.

He was suddenly so happy that Chris hadn't been there, hadn't heard what he'd said - and how he'd said it. He was disappointed in himself, no need to have his hero disappointed in him also. But the man stared at him, almost through him, and JD had the strange thought that the gunslinger *did* know what he'd said, how he'd sounded.

He shuddered, picturing in his mind Vin telling the story to Larabee. Oh, JD was pretty sure that Vin would leave the part about JD acting like a three-year-old out of the story, but those two men had a bond, seemed like they could almost read each others minds, see into each others souls.

JD shuddered again. Chris was still staring at him and for a moment, JD felt like his own mind was being read. But, he scoffed, that was silly. The man was just looking at him, not into... He visibly shook himself, glancing down and then back up at Larabee. He swallowed hard. He knew he was a mess, a pale face under dirt, dried tear tracks - and worse. But he looked the gunslinger in the eye. He shifted in his seat, feeling like he'd been beaten.

Chris opened his mouth, started to say something, and then stopped. He cocked his head, his gaze searching. He must have found the answer to the question he'd wanted to ask, because he just slowly nodded his head at him.

JD nodded back, weary. 

Chris sighed. "You okay, JD?"

"Yeah," JD croaked out.

Chris didn't dispute the obvious lie, he just shook his head sadly.

JD swallowed hard as Larabee stared at him. 

After a few minutes, Chris sighed deeply and reached into his back pocket, pulling out his handkerchief. Frowning, he tossed it to JD, who caught it one-handed. "Wipe your face, son," he said, his voice soft, kind. He shook his head. "You don't want to go to town looking like that."

Nodding once, JD squeezed the dark piece of fabric in his hand, his eyes burning.

Chris tipped his hat, backing his horse away from JD's and turning. "I'm on patrol, better get back to it." The man in black had only gone a few feet before he looked back over his shoulder. "Ya did good, JD," he said softly.

JD coughed as he tried to clear the lump in his throat. He couldn't say anything, so he just nodded once and watched Chris ride off.

*****

When JD made it into town, people were still milling about and it made him cringe. Then he saw Buck. His friend was waiting for him. Would he be able to tell what had happened to JD? Would he say something? 'I told you so'?

But when he got close enough to see Buck's face, he only saw kindness, pain, and regret.

"How'd her parents take it?" Buck asked in greeting.

"Buck," JD confessed as he got off his horse. "I've never had to tell somebody something so terrible in my life." He flipped the reins around the hitching post twice and then walked over to his friend.

Buck nodded, looking down.

"I think I'd rather shoot myself than have to do that again," JD said, stopping next to him.

Buck nodded sadly at him, grasping JD's shoulder and then quickly letting go.

"Well," JD said, looking beyond Buck to the revelry surrounding the Wild West show. "I guess a little thing like murder's not going to stop people from having fun, huh?" he scoffed, changing the subject before Buck could ask him more, his eyes telling the man that he didn't want to talk about what he'd just been through.

Buck looked at him, his gaze assessing. "Folks need something to take it off their mind," he told him, his voice warm and caring. And JD could tell that Buck wanted to talk about it, wanted to ask, but instead, his best friend clapped him on the chest and said, "Come on, I'll buy you a beer."

JD nodded his head, knowing his friend was concerned. "Appreciate it," JD said, hoping that Buck knew he was talking about more than just the drink.

Buck gave him a sad smile and JD smiled back. The two friends walked towards the saloon.

 

April 2004

 

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