Gunfighter

By: Ruby

 

Rating: T - Suitable for teens, 13 years and older, with some violence, minor coarse language, and minor suggestive adult themes.

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: Author's Notes: Inspired by two of my favorite Johnny Cash songs: Don't Take Your Guns To Town by and The Last Gunfighter Ballad, written by Guy Clark. This is an alternate universe of the Old West. This story came from a discussion on the Darlin's list about other jobs JD could have if he came West. I've been working on it ever since. Phyllis has betaed it for me a couple of times. Many thanks to her... as always, she went above and beyond. ;) Any mistakes are mine, especially timeline mistakes or continuity. I've made some changes. I'm a short story writer. I'm pretty sure this is the longest story I've ever written... and I didn't enjoy it. LOL I've got the greatest respect for writers who write the long stories. I had a hard time keeping up with where people are. LOL

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

 

Gunfighter

By: Ruby

 

Part One

Josephine Turner glanced over at the young man who shared the stage with her. He seemed very nice. She'd watched, impressed, as he'd pulled his hat off his head when he'd first climbed up into the stage and seen her. His mother had taught him well, she thought.

He wore a three-piece tweed suit and a bowler hat, and he had a thick Eastern accent. Black hair flopped down over his eyes and dark, little-boy eyelashes stood out against very-pale skin. He didn't even look like he was shaving yet. 

She'd noticed that he looked tired and there were dark circles under his eyes. She frowned in concern, watching as he dozed on and off, sleeping fitfully.

He'd been silent, and, except for trading pleasantries in the beginning, hadn't said much. When he wasn't dozing, he just stared out the side window, looking young and lost, and far from home.

The mother instinct in her wouldn't let it pass. 

"Where you headed, son?" Josephine asked him.

He glanced at her. Swallowing hard, he ducked his head and then looked back up at her. "El Paso. I'm going to be a Texas Ranger!" He smiled proudly.

"You are?" she asked, surprised. "Are you old enough?"

He screwed his mouth up petulantly. "I'm older than I look."

"I'm sure you are," she soothed sweetly. She reached out and pinched his cheek, just couldn't help herself. She heard his sharp intake of breath. "Doesn't your mama do that anymore?"

He looked away, staring out the window. "She died two months ago and for a long time before that, she was too sick to move around much. But," he looked back at her, "she loved me... more than life itself."

*****

"This is your stop. The stage to El Paso will be through in three days," the stage driver told his passengers.

JD glanced out the small window at the dusty town before jumping down from the stage. He turned to help the other passenger down, the elderly lady who had struck up a conversation with him on the ride and who had pinched his cheek twice now. 'Dang it,' JD fumed as he smiled nicely at the woman. 'I'm a man. I'm too old to have my cheeks pinched.'

"You're such a nice young man," the woman told him... right before she pinched his cheek *again*. 

JD smiled tightly. 

"You be careful now, son. Being a Texas Ranger is a dangerous job, especially for a young man like yourself." She left him with those parting words and JD stared after her.

He sighed and then shifted the gunbelt strapped around his waist, his two Colt Lightnings gleaming in the sunlight. His mama always told him not to wear them in public. They were a Christmas present from her a few years ago and so far he hadn't used them for anything more than practicing a fast draw. His mama had been impressed with how fast he was, told him he had natural talent. And then she'd been doubly worried about his going to town with his guns on. But, now his mama was gone, and he was in the West. And in the West, men wore guns.

He sighed tiredly as he took another look around town. Weariness weighed heavy on his shoulders. The stage driver handed him his single bag. 

"Excuse me, sir," JD asked him, "do you know where I can get a good meal - cheap?" 

"Saloon." The driver motioned to a building down the street. 

"Thank you." JD tipped his bowler hat, and after adjusting his grip on his bag, started that way. He stopped off at the boarding house, renting a room for the next couple of nights, and dropping his bag off. Then he made his way back outside and down the street towards the saloon and a hot meal and a drink to quench his thirst.

The batwing doors slapped behind him as JD stood blinking into the hazy interior of the dark saloon. Heads swung in his direction, the men staring.

Swallowing hard, JD shifted his guns on his hips and then started forward. 

"Ain't no kids allowed in here," the barkeep told him. 

"Ain't a kid," JD said tiredly as he sidled up to the bar. "Need a drink and a meal. 

The barkeep sneered contemptuously. "Whiskey?" 

Actually, JD would rather have water, but he winced when he saw the rough looking men sharing the room with him. "Yeah," he answered. "Whiskey." He grabbed the shot glass that the barkeep slid down to him, reddish liquid sloshing over the edge. Tossing the drink back, JD grimaced and then coughed slightly.

A man sitting at a table behind him started to laugh. 

Slapping some money down on the bar, JD tried to ignore the laughing man as he turned to take a seat and wait for his meal. 

"You turnin' your back on me, kid?" the man snarled meanly.

JD gave him a glance as he sat down wearily. "No, sir."

"Sir! Ain't that rich! Well..." the man straightened in his chair. "I say you are."

Sighing, JD pulled his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. He stared at the man. "Meant no disrespect," he told him.

His eyes narrowing, the man stood. Bar patrons scurried out of his way. "I think you're a little pissant that needs stepping on." He looked JD up and down. "You wear those fancy guns like that, you'd better be able to use 'em."

"Now, Fuller, not in here," the barkeep begged. "It took me forever to scrub the blood off the floor the last time."

'Fuller' didn't look at the barkeep, but kept his dark gaze squarely on JD's face. "I think the 'boy' and I'll just take it outside," he said gruffly and then started for the door.

JD stared after him, his mouth open, his eyes wide. "Wha-?" he started to ask. 

Fuller stopped before he got to the batwing doors and said over his shoulder, "Or are you too much of a chicken shit mama's boy?"

JD stood, a feeling of déjà vu washing over him; this was like every dime store novel he'd ever read. He pulled his shoulders back, standing as tall as he could. "I told you I didn't mean any disrespect, Mr. Fuller. I don't want to fight you-"

Fuller interrupted him, snarling, "Talk talk, ta-" 

"But I will, "JD cut him off succinctly, making the man gape at him. JD tipped his hat down farther on his head. "I'm not a coward, sir," he told him, his voice trembled, sounded young, but JD couldn't help that. This wasn't the way his trip out West was supposed to go. He was going to be a lawman. A Texas Ranger... not get shot down by some gunfighter.

'But... better to die like this, now...' he thought, 'than as a coward a hundred years from now.' At least he'd get to see his mama again. And... who's to say that he was going to die? Maybe he'd win this duel. He *was* fast... everyone told him so, just not experienced in the real thing. He's spent every extra second he could find practicing his quick-draw back home. He wanted to be a lawman, and in those dime novels the lawmen fought gunfighters, and JD wanted to win. He never thought he'd be on the other side of the coin.

He stepped out onto the boardwalk, the glare from the midday sun glinting off the bank windows. Fuller faced him from the middle of the street, his coat tucked back behind his gun, his face dark.

JD sighed, straightening his shoulders as he walked out to take his own place. He checked one gun and then the other. After they were safely back in their holsters, he stared down his opponent. "You started this," he told him, "you can say when."

His lip pulling back in a sneer, Fuller smiled wolfishly. "It'll be the last thing you ever hear, boy." And with that... he scraped leather.

 

Part Two

JD flinched, pulled his gun and fired before he even thought about it. Wing! A bullet scraped the side of his throat under his right ear. 

Fuller started a slow crumple to the ground, his face incredulous.

Swallowing hard, JD's hand shook as he kept his gun's aim on his opponent even after the man had hit the ground and laid there for a good minute, blood pouring out of the gaping hole in his chest.

Someone thumped him hard on his back and JD whirled, gun pointed towards the gut of a townsman.  

"Sorry, sonny!" The man leapt back, hands up. "Just congratulating ya is all. You know who that is?" He cocked his head toward the dying man. 

JD shook his head, ignoring the man. He turned back, walking over and squatting next to the man he'd shot. 

Blood bubbled from between the man's pallid lips. His eyes were open, and he blinked sluggishly up into the sunlight. 

JD shook his head. "I didn't want this," he said quietly and then frowned when the man looked over at him. 

"I'd a never thought it..." the man coughed out. "Never thought someone like you'd be the one to take me down. Never... thou..." and his voice drifted off and his chest stopped moving. And he died.

"Dang it." JD sighed. He had just killed a man. Bile burned his throat and he swallowed hard. He looked up and then around at all the townsfolk gathered. Murmuring turned into words. JD caught snatches of the speeches.

"He killed Firehand Fuller," someone said.

And then another, "The fastest gunfighter around." 

"The kid must be a gunfighter," someone else breathed out.

JD shook his head. He wasn't a gunfighter. He just wanted to get to El Paso and join the Rangers. Killing this man, it was just him trying to stay alive.

"What's your name, son?" a man holding a rough-edged notepad and a stubby pencil asked him as soon as JD stood.

JD sighed. "Dunne," he told him before walking past. 

"What's your first name, kid?" the man called out to him but JD didn't turn around. "Kid?" the man called again.

***** 

JD woke up the next morning and slowly made his way down to the saloon for breakfast. As soon as he sat down, someone threw a paper on his table and then scurried away.

JD picked the paper up and read the headline. "Kid Dunne Kills Firehand Fuller." And then in smaller print below it: "Kid dubbed Fastest Gun in the West." JD stared at the paper, reading the words over and over.

"You'll have to back that up, now." 

Blinking, JD brought his gaze up to meet the barkeep's. "What?" he questioned.

" 'Fastest Gun in the West'? You know everyone wanting to make a name for themselves will come gunning for you, now."

JD swallowed hard, looked around at the other early morning patrons and shook his head. "I didn't want to kill him," he defended.

The barkeep smiled meanly. "Don't matter now, kid. What's done is done." 

Sighing, JD laid the paper down on the table, put a few coins down on top of it and then stood. He turned and made his way to the batwing doors.

"Watch your back, kid!" one of the patrons called out. " 'Cause no one else will," he added cryptically and then laughed uproariously.

JD glared over at him and then walked out into the bright sunlight. 

***** 

JD spent a whole day in his hotel room, trying to stay out of sight and out of trouble. He woke up early the next morning. He fiddled away the time, but finally just couldn't stand to be cooped up any longer. The stage to El Paso was scheduled to arrive at 1:00 and it was only 10:00 but JD gathered up his belongings and checked out of his room. He only had three hours, what could happen in three hours, right? So, JD sat down in a chair outside of the stage office and settled down to wait.

The townspeople stared at him, but gave him a wide berth. He sighed. 'They're treating me like a killer,' he thought and then his jaw snapped shut. 'Because I am.' He shook his head. 'I'm a killer. 'Kid Dunne - Fastest Gun in the West' he saw the words again. 'I'm not a gunfighter,' he thought. 'I never wanted to be a gunfighter. I wanted to be a lawman - from forever. But... now...' he sighed. 'It's all gone.'

'I never wanted to kill him. He *made* me. I don't even know how I lived. Figured for sure I would die... but I couldn't run away. Couldn't be a coward. Not if I ever want to face mama again, face myself. It was pure dumb luck that I shot him first.

He reached up and fingered the side of his throat, feeling the bloody gouge behind the bandanna that he'd tied tightly around his neck. He'd cleaned the gouge out but the skin around the cut was hot and felt infected. He'd woken up with a headache and spent most of the early morning hours sick to his stomach.

He was lucky that throwing up was the worst that had come from the injury. Lucky that it was just a gouge. Just dumb luck that the bullet hadn't ripped his throat out. Just dumb-

"Kid Dunne!"

JD whipped his head up, had been almost dozing in his chair. 

A man stood in the middle of the street about twenty feet away from him. 

"I'm calling you out, Dunne!" the man told him.

"What?" JD shook his head. 'No. Not again.' 

The man threw a copy of the morning paper down on the street and then ground it into the dirt with his boot. " 'Fastest Gun in the West'?" he sniggered. "I don't think so. Why don't you come on out here and try to back that up? Everyone knows that Bill Tyson's the fastest gun around these parts."

The townsfolk were staring at him and for a moment, JD thought he'd fallen asleep in the uncomfortable chair in front of the stage office. He squeezed his eyes shut and then reopened them. Nope. The man was still there.

JD slowly stood. "I don't want a fight," he called out to him. "Just want to get on the stage and be on my way."

"Well, you got a fight. I'm going to kill you. Then *I'll* be the fastest gun in the West!" The man puffed up. 

JD scowled. He was going to go find that damned newspaperman and stuff his bloody bandana down his throat. 

The man waited. 

JD huffed out a sharp breath. 'Here we go again,' he thought, and then another thought entered his mind. He hoped to hell the first time wasn't dumb luck. Just really hoped all to hell that he could do that again. 'Cause, if not, he was going to be the one bleeding out his life blood on this dusty street.

***** 

"Mary, where you going in such a hurry?" Buck Wilmington called out to the pretty newspaper lady. 

"A friend of mine just came through town, had a copy of the paper from Red Rock Station. I wanted to get something in the paper for this week's edition."

"Must be mighty important." Josiah grinned.

Mary smiled. "Guess you'll see... when you *buy* the paper." She winked.

Buck laughed.

 

Part Three

JD watched the man writhing on the street, gurgling up bloody words, hands going slack, and the life leaving his eyes. 

'Damn it.' JD jammed his gun back in his holster. 'Two men in four days. He was surely going to hell, now.' He stalked away. 

"Son," the newspaperman ran up to him and JD gave him such a glare that the smaller man stumbled back and had to catch himself on a hitching post. He still had that damn little notepad in his hand, his pencil ready to write.

JD walked past him. 

"Kid!" the man stopped him with an outstretched hand. "You need to get out of town fast." He cocked his head toward the dead man. "That was Bill Tyson. His brothers are gonna come after you. You're gonna have the law on your tail."

"But there are witnesses who saw him call me out. I had no choice," JD defended.

"Witnesses?" the newspaperman scoffed. "There won't be any witnesses."

"What are you talking about? Of course there are witnesses." JD shook his head.

"You don't understand," the man said. "His brothers are going to come for you. And they're gonna come all legal like."

"But how can that be?"

"Their uncle's the Judge. He won't take too kindly to you killing one of his own. He raised those boys since they were little kids. You're going to be a wanted man, an outlaw. And there aren't any men in this town that will stand up and say somethin' bad about one of his kin. He'll have a Poster out on you before you can even think twice. You're already tried and convicted."

"But that... that's not fair," JD's voice rose an octave.

"Maybe not," the man shrugged. "But that's the way it is here in Red Rock. You really should get gone. Now that you've killed one of his boys, Judge Tyson won't stop until you're behind bars or dead, and I'm sure he'll prefer dead."

"The stage is leaving in a couple hours," JD said.

"You shouldn't take the stage, too easy for them to follow. No, you should make tracks in a different direction. You'll have to rent a horse, or buy one. Livery's that way," he pointed.

JD glanced in that direction.

"If you head straight west, you'll run into a little town called Four Corners. A stage to El Paso goes through there. You can catch that one."

"You don't think I can just wait for the stage? Head on to El Paso from here?"

"Nah, it'd be better to get the one in Four Corners."

"I didn't start that fight. That man called me out." JD huffed. 

"Won't matter to the Tyson boys when they find out what happened."

JD gave him a dark stare. "And how are they going to find out?" 

The man yelped slightly and then turned on his heel. "Good luck to you," he called over his shoulder as he practically ran for his office.

Watching him go, JD's shoulders slumped, tired to his bones. He just wanted to get on that dang stage and get to El Paso, not buy a horse and start cross-country. It wasn't so much the buying a horse - JD loved horses, had been a stable boy at the mansion back East most of his life. No, it was the 'riding cross-country' in a land he knew nothing about that bothered him. All the way to Four Corners! 'How would he even find this place?' he wondered.

He stumbled towards the livery. His neck throbbed, dizziness swept over him and he felt sick. It was going to be a long ride.

The man at the livery was happy to sell him a small boned little bay mare. JD grudgingly paid too much money to buy the mare and all of her gear. He looked around, suddenly not sure where his bag was, couldn't remember the last place he had it, and then spied it next to the chair in front of the stage office. He walked down to get it.

At the livery, he moved the items from his bag into his new saddlebags and then made some money when he sold the now-empty bag to the livery man. He swung himself up into the saddle, dizziness and his headache making his gasp.

After he thought he could speak without throwing up, he looked down at the livery man. "Which way to Four Corners?"

"West. About a day's ride."

JD nodded once and started on his way. He stopped, grimaced and looked over his shoulder. "Which way is west?" he asked, his voice small.

The liveryman smiled gently at him as he pointed out the direction. 

JD nodded once and then gigged the horse on. His next stop would be Four Corners. 

***** 

Josiah walked up, frowning down at a piece of paper in his hand. "Might be trouble. Just got this telegram from Red Rock Station," he told his four friends when they looked up at him.

"What kind of trouble?" Vin asked softly. 

Josiah shook his head. "Gunfighter. Headed this way from there. Any of you ever heard of a Kid Dunne?" 

Buck huffed out a harsh breath. "Not another one." 

Ezra shook his head. "Land's filling up."

"Think it means trouble for Chris?" Nathan glanced from one friend to the other. 

"Not if we can help it," Buck told him. "We'll keep a watch out for this guy."

Vin nodded grimly. "And if we have to, we'll take him out 'fore he can do any harm."

 

Part Four

JD rode wearily into town. There wasn't a sign saying Four Corners, but this had to be the place. And, if not, he was stopping anyway. He rubbed his little mare's neck. She'd been a trooper, and if he could get anything good out of this situation, it would be this little horse. They got along great.

He glanced over to find two men leaning against a post outside the sheriff's office. 'The law?' he wondered. They sure didn't look like it. One was tall, really tall, with a dark mustache and a hat pulled low, hiding his eyes. But JD could tell he was watching him. The other was a big bear of a man with gray hair, a grizzled face and deep-set eyes. Neither looked like someone JD wanted to meet.

He found the stage office, which also housed the telegraph, and stopped his horse in front of it. He slowly swung his leg off and slid down, surprised when his knees buckled. He grabbed onto the stirrup, keeping himself from falling. He swallowed down bile and shook his head, trying to get rid of the dizziness.

"You okay, son?"

A gentle voice spoke to him and JD glanced up to find a dark man watching him with concern. "Yeah," JD croaked out, straightening up. "Thanks," he smiled gamely.

The man didn't leave, just stood staring at him intently.

JD nodded. "Really, I'm fine." He reached up and adjusted the bandanna twisted around his neck, wincing when the fabric stuck on the wound.

The man shook his head, but started on his way.

JD walked up onto the boardwalk and then stepped inside the stage office.

*****

Nathan walked over to stand with Buck and Josiah across the street.

"You talk to that young fella?" Josiah asked him.

Nathan nodded. "Yeah. Looks sick, thought he was going to keel over when he got off his horse."

"We saw that," Buck told him, his face dark.

"Yeah, I asked him if he was okay, course the dang little fool said he was." Nathan sighed. "Tell you the truth, he looks bad, pale, almost gray, with red cheeks - looks like infection. Seen a lot of that in the war and I seen that look before."

"Well, if the little rooster doesn't want help, what can you do?" Buck shrugged, watching the stage office door.

"Nothing," Nathan agreed, shaking his head as he sighed. "Can't do nothing."

*****

"When's the stage to El Paso come through?" JD asked the man behind the counter, who was hovering around the telegraph equipment.

The weasily man ignored him until he finished what he was doing, then he looked up. "Two days."

JD nodded. "Want to go ahead and buy passage."  And then JD spent almost all of the money he had left to do it. 'Shoot!' He looked down, counting the few dollars he had left.

"What's your name?" the man asked him.

"Dunne," JD answered, still looking down. 

The man gasped and JD jerked his head up to find the man gaping at him. 

"What?" JD asked.

The man squeaked. "Nothing... Mr. Dunne."

JD wilted. 'Oh.' He frowned. 'Yeah.' And JD knew, someone had sent a message through the telegraph office warning the town that he was coming. 'Damn that newspaper man, anyway.' And then another, worse, thought struck him. 'What if that newspaper man told those Tyson boys that he was headed to Four Corners? They'd be right on his trail.'  JD reached across the counter and grabbed his money back.

"On second thought, I think I'll take my chances that I'll get a seat when the stage gets here." JD told him. 

"Oh..." The man frowned when the money left his sight. "Okay... Mr. Dunne.. wha... whatever you want."

JD snorted out a mean laugh. "Yeah. Thanks." And then turned to go.

When he came out of the office, he glanced around and found that the black man who'd spoken to him before he'd come in was standing across the street with those other two men. All three of them were now watching him. 'Dammit. How could this happen? How could he become a 'gunfighter' in three days? An outlaw.' He hung his head.

Untying his mare from the hitching post, he walked her down to the livery he'd passed on his way into town. A door slammed behind him and he glanced over his shoulder to find the telegraph operator running across the street and straight towards those men.

'Damn it. Everyone in town was going to know what happened in Red Rock.' JD shook his head as he sighed wearily. He didn't know why he was this tired. He knew why he was tired, but not *this* tired, not this mind-numbing, joint-stiffening tiredness. It weighed him down, body and soul.

He rented a stall for the night and was happy to find the hay was thick enough that he could sleep in the corner without being noticed. He'd done it before, and it would save him some money.

The one thing he had to have, though, was some food... and something to drink. Two things, then.

First thing, he'd take care of his horse. Then he'd head over to the hotel. 

*****

"Nathan!" The telegraph operator ran towards them.

Buck took a step back when the weasily man tripped coming up on to the boardwalk. No way was he going to try to catch him if he fell. 

"That boy..." The little man was gasping. "That boy that just left my office..." He glanced at the young man's retreating back. "That's the gunfighter from Red Rock Station."

All three men turned to stare at him. 

"No way!" Buck breathed out. "That kid?"

"Dunne! That's his name. He gave it to me when he was going to buy fare for the stage to El Paso."

Ezra walked down the boardwalk on the opposite side, passing the boy they were talking about. He crossed the street and then joined up with them. "What's all the commotion?" he asked in amusement.

"That kid you just passed, Elroy here says he's that gunslinger we got the telegraph about," Buck told him.

"Surely you can't be serious." Ezra chuckled slightly. "This boy cannot be the aforementioned feared gunslinger 'Kid Dunne.'" 

"Sure 'nuff looks like it. Said his name was Dunne when he was getting a ticket for the stage. How many Dunne's you know?" Nathan asked.

"Hmmm." Ezra rubbed his chin. "It would be quite a coincidence." 

"Think we maybe better go check him out?" Vin asked, making the men jump.

"Jesus Christ, Tanner!" Buck clutched at his heart. "You wanna warn a man? Glad Nathan was here." He bobbed his eyebrows as he grinned wryly at the tracker.

Vin chuckled, then his face darkened as he glared at the telegraph operator. "Don't you have someplace to be?"

The little man's eyes widened and he whirled, running back to his office. 

Tanner glared. "I just can't stomach that man."

"Know what you mean," Buck agreed.

Vin glanced down towards the livery. "Come on, Buck, let's go check this kid out. Chris won't be coming to town 'til the morning." He shrugged, his face dark. "And if we have to take care of him, rather do it 'fore Larabee gets here."

Buck stared at him. Vin would do it, too. He would kill this kid if he thought he'd come to town to draw on Chris. Tanner wouldn't even bat an eyelash, not if it was for a friend.

"Let's do it," Buck said, as he stepped off the boardwalk, Tanner on his heels.

*****

"I never wanted this to happen," JD spoke soothingly to his mare as he carefully brushed her down.

The only other occupants in the livery were horses. 

"Finding you 's about the only good thing that happened on this trip," he told the little horse. 

She flicked her ears towards him and nuzzled his chest. 

"And it was going to be so good," JD continued. "Was the only thing I wanted to do since... forever. But then that man, he called me out..." He shook his head. "I didn't want to go. But..." His shoulders slumped. "I had to."

He sniffed, brushing her to a sheen. "I was going to go to Texas, be a Ranger... if they'd had me. But now..." he sighed, "it's all gone. I'm an outlaw. A gunfighter?" He snorted. "I didn't want that. I sure wouldn't want mama to know. I'd never be able to face her, shamed as she's apt to be. She's looking down from Heaven, now, and I'm gonna be going to Hell." He laid his forehead against the mare's neck. She whickered softly at him.

*****

Swallowing hard, Buck glanced at Vin, made eye contact and shook his head. 

Both lawmen backed silently out of the livery without being noticed.

"Damn," Buck hissed, not looking at Vin as they crossed the street. 

Vin nodded, glancing up at the sky.

"He *is* just a kid." Buck said sadly.

Sighing, Vin looked down.

***** 

Buck and Vin came into the saloon to find the others sitting at a table. 

Buck slumped down into a chair. 

Vin leaned against the wall behind them, his hat down, hiding his eyes.

"So, did you two intrepid law keepers find the nefarious villain and do him harm?" Ezra smirked.

Shaking his head, Buck sighed. "Didn't talk to him, heard him talking to his horse as he brushed her down."

Vin coughed.

"It's a damn shame," Buck said, his voice rough, as he stared at the table top, not looking at his friends. "He seems like a pretty nice kid. He said that he's afraid he's going to Hell when he dies, that he won't be able to see his mama."

"Damn it," Vin hissed out, pushing himself away from the wall to loom over them. "Talked about not wanting to kill that guy. Must have gotten called out. And he won."

Josiah frowned. "Red Rock Station? That's where the telegram came from, right?"

Nathan nodded.

Glancing at Buck, Josiah cocked his head. "Isn't that where that paper was from that Mary had?"

"Yeah." Buck slowly nodded. "Think she's still up?" 

"Night before the paper goes out? She's up," Nathan said.

"Think I'll head on over there and ask her if I can borrow it. Be right back, boys." Josiah grinned and walked out. He wasn't gone two minutes before Dunne walked in.

 

Part Five

As soon as JD walked into the hotel and saw the prices he knew he'd have to find another place to eat. He didn't want to go in the saloon, just really didn't want to, but it seemed like it would be a better-bet, price wise.

He started down the street. Before he got to the saloon, he saw the big bear of a man walk out and down the boardwalk. Well, at least he wasn't in there; that would be one less threat. But still he hesitated before he stepped inside. Finally, he sucked it up, and walked in. As soon as he stepped through the bat wing doors, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and he glanced to his left.

Up on the raised platform sat four men, two of which he'd already seen before. The tall, dark cowboy with the mustache, and the black man who'd asked if he was okay outside of the stage office. The dandy in the red coat looked familiar and then JD remembered passing him on the boardwalk when he was on his way to the livery. He'd never seen the longhaired, hard looking man in buckskins.

Jeesh, JD quickly looked away from the hard eyes watching him intently. If they were the law, there was sure a lot of them, he thought. Maybe they weren't, and then he couldn't remember what exactly had made him think so to begin with. Except that the two men had been standing in front of the sheriff's office when he'd first seen them, they hadn't given any indication that they were the peacekeepers hereabouts. But, somehow down in his gut, JD knew - they were the law.

There'd never been a time in his life before this when he wanted to run from the law, had never been in trouble, never even met a real live lawman before. He had actually seen a Boston policeman once, from far away. But he guessed that it was different in a big city. Out here was the other side of the moon, as far as JD was concerned.

But now, he didn't want those hard eyes on his back, watching him. He glanced at them in the mirror above the bar when he stepped up to get a drink.

They were all still looking his way, and the longhaired man actually caught his gaze in the mirror, kept it, and wouldn't look away. He looked like a hard man, but to JD's eye, didn't look like he meant him any harm, even had a softening to his features suddenly - pity or kindness, JD couldn't tell.

Swallowing hard, JD looked away before the other man did, so had no idea if he was still watching. 

The pretty dark-haired barmaid behind the counter *was* watching him and she smiled sweetly. JD pulled his hat off in a flash. "Ma'am," he greeted, nodding his head at her, and then had to push the dark hair out of his eyes.

"Señor." She tipped her own head, her smile growing. "What can I get for you?"

He cleared his throat. "A beer, please," he rasped. "And..." he looked around. "A meal? Am I still in time for supper?"

"Of course," the corner of her mouth turned up.

Suddenly someone was looming at JD's shoulder and he blanched, looked over, and then up... and up, into the dark eyes of the mustached man. JD quickly looked away, and then sidled a few steps down the bar, using the mirror to keep a surreptitious eye on the man.

*****

"Inez?" Buck asked. "Another beer, here?" Then he looked over at the boy, not liking what he was seeing. He looked young, too young for the life he'd been thrown into.

The close up look was what Buck needed, wanted, so he could see right into the boy's eyes, and it felt like he was looking into his soul. Nathan was right, the boy looked sick. He'd noticed that there was a dark, rust colored stain on the bandanna wrapped tightly around his neck, and it made Buck wonder.

He knew the boy was watching him in the mirror, it was what Buck would have done in his shoes, what he was doing right now, in fact. The kid looked tired, beaten and worn down. The lines in his face should have made him look older, but they didn't, and Buck could feel the freshness off him, the youthfulness that was still there, turned suddenly wary but not stamped out.

Hell, Buck thought, he was still growing, or, if he was done, wasn't ever going to be very tall. But that was okay, some of the best men Buck had ever known had never had the advantage of height and the intimidation that came with it and had had to make up for it with smarts and nerves of steel.

"Passin' through, boy?" Buck asked him, his voice soft, friendly. 

The boy looked over at him, his face pale, his cheeks red. "Yeah," he croaked out. 

Inez brought them both their beers. "I'll bring your supper, if you want to have a seat," she said to the boy.

"Thank you, ma'am." He pushed the hat back on his head, glanced quickly at Buck and then turned away, walking over to sit down at the farthest table.

Buck watched him go, and then, after giving Inez a sweet smile, walked over to the stairs and back up to sit with his friends.

*****

JD quickly walked away from the bar, away from the tall man with the sharp gaze who still stood there. He wasn't sure where to sit. Away from the table at the top of those stairs, was his first thought and then, thought, not with my back to the door. He actually had to check a grin, then, knowing that that bit of knowledge had come from some past dime novel, where the gunfighter faced off against the lawman. He sighed. The lawman always won.

Suddenly sad, he sat down at the farthest table from those men, his back to the wall, facing the saloon and anyone who might come in those batwing doors. He took a drink and then sat the beer mug down with a thunk.

Oh, god, he was tired. He couldn't think of anything that would feel better than resting his head down on the table and closing his eyes. He rubbed his face hard and then squeezed his hand into a fist so he wouldn't have to see the trembling there.

Sighing, long and deep, he pulled his hat off and threw it on the table. He ran both hands through his hair, scratching his head and then pushing his hair back into some semblance of normal.

He pulled at the bandanna around his throat, not liking how hot it made him feel, like he couldn't breathe. Ouch! He almost yelped when he touched the gouge there. Shouldn't it be healing by now? He shook his head and dropped his hand down to the table.

He'd have to get a haircut sometime soon. He frowned down at the table. Did gunfighters do something as normal as go to the barber? Did outlaws care what their hair looked like?

JD felt like his life had stopped the second his bullet had hit Fuller. His life as he knew it, anyway. The hardworking stable boy, who had taken care of his mother until the day she closed her eyes forever, died that day. He was someone else now. Someone who was going to have to live carefully, always watching his back, never having anyone to watch it for him. Isn't that what the cowboy in the Red Rock saloon had said?

JD sighed, it was all over now. No friends. No family. He was alone. He had to fight an urge to look over at those men sitting at the top of those few stairs, had a feeling they were watching him, but couldn't prove it and wanted to.

"Here you go." 

JD jerked his head up to find the pretty barmaid standing next to him holding a plate. "Thank you!" He smiled as he took it from her and then sat it on the table. He drew the rich scent into his nostrils and grinned.

"I'll bring you another beer." 

"Ah... ma'am?" He looked up at her, and lowered his voice, "Could I... would you just bring me some water?" He wrinkled his nose and then looked around conspiratorially. "I don't... really like beer that much."

She didn't laugh, and he thought she would. She just stared at him, her eyes bright. "Si," she answered him and her voice was rough. Nodding, she stepped away and hurried to the back.

JD swallowed down his first bite, sighing in contentment. The batwing doors opened and that big bear of a man walked in holding a newspaper. Shoot! JD grimaced. Surely a town this size had their own paper, right? That couldn't be the paper from Red Rock, JD was sure, or... almost sure. He hoped it wasn't. That man in Red Rock might have sent a telegram that he was coming, but he couldn't have put much in there. The paper, though... it had way too much information, and most of it out and out lies. 'Fastest Gun in the West', JD thought. Right!

He kept an eye on the man as he walked up to sit with the others. They unfolded the paper out on their table and then all hunched over to read it, casting furtive glances at him every once in a while.

JD's stomach felt like a lead weight had just dropped in it and his appetite was gone. In fact, he thought he'd do good not to throw up right there in front of everyone.

"Here you go," the barmaid sat a glass of water on the table.

JD looked up at her apologetically. "Sorry, ma'am. But... I..." He smiled at her. "I'm full. Can I just pay?"

"Uh... sure." She faltered as she looked at his still-full plate. "Was there something wrong with the meal?" she asked hesitantly.

"Oh, no!" JD assured her. "It was great. The first real meal that I've had in... well," he ducked his head, "a while. But... I'm just... I need to get out of here." He glanced over at those men and then back. "But the meal was great." He stood, handing her the coins to pay for his food and drink.

"Well..." She looked down at the money in her hand. "Come back for breakfast, eh?"

He smiled. "I will. Thank you." After putting it on, he doffed his hat to her and then turned and walked away. 

*****

Inez watched the boy leave and then stormed up the stairs to confront the peacemakers. "What did you do to that boy?" She accused, looking mostly at Buck, because she knew no one could upset people like Buck Wilmington could... or *her* at least.

"What?" Buck looked innocent, holding his hands up, palms out. "Why, darlin', we didn't do nothin' to him." 

"Well, he didn't even finish his meal, looked like he was going to lose what he *did* eat. And I saw him glance up here."

Josiah sighed. 

"We're just reading this paper about him, Inez." Nathan scrunched his mouth up and then looked at the others. "He couldn't have known, right?" 

"Nah," Buck shook his head.

"The boy might be very astute." Ezra settled back in his chair. 

Vin stared at the bat wing doors.

"A paper about him?" Inez stepped forward. "About that boy?"

"Sure 'nuff," Buck answered, turning the paper so she could read it. 

"'Fastest Gun in the West?'" She looked doubtful as she glanced at the others. 

Ezra waved a hand at the paper. "This is really just a bunch of hoo ha. Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Tanner overheard the boy speaking out loud, saying that what happened in the municipal of Red Rock was nothing more than a case of 'wrong place at the wrong time'. That he was called out by a gunslinger and had to answer that call accordingly. Somehow young Mr. Dunne won said fight."

"And now, being dubbed 'Fastest Gun in the West', he's going to get called out again," Vin said quietly. "And again until he's not fast enough. And then he'll just be dead."

"You don't think..." Inez looked up at them. "That Mr. Chris would... call him out?"

They stared at her. 

Inez shivered at their dark looks. "Okay." She stepped back, smiling slightly. "He wouldn't."

*****

JD watched quietly as the town finally went to sleep for the night. After he was sure no one was around, he snuck into the livery and into his mare's stall. Pushing the hay in the corner of the stall into a pile, he finally laid down, taking his hat off and resting it on his chest. He stared up into the dark rafters for hours, the pain from his neck and his dark thoughts keeping him awake. After some time, he finally fell into a deep sleep.

He never noticed the silent, longhaired man watching him from the shadows.

 

Part Six

Before the sun even came up, Chris Larabee walked in the jailhouse door. He was surprised to find Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington waiting for him.

"Boys," he smiled sardonically.

"Chris," Vin rasped out.

Buck nodded.

"We got a bit of a situation," Vin told Chris, handing the Red Rock paper over to him. "Might want to read this."

"Mary's reprinting it in this morning's edition, but we thought you'd better get a jump on it." Buck eyed him warily.

Chris sat down on the edge of the desk and slowly read the article. When he was done, he threw it on the desk and looked his two friends up and down. "What's this have to do with me? You think he's coming here to call me out?" He snorted in disgust.

"Nah," Vin answered, leaning forward in his chair. "He's here, but not to call you out." He cocked his head towards Buck, and he took it from there.

"Vin and I followed 'im into the livery yesterday after he got here, just to find out if he was going to cause trouble. Heard him talking to his horse. Seems like he got called out in Red Rock, and answered it. He won, and then that damn newspaper printed an article calling him the Fastest Gun in the West. Of course, someone else came calling, and the kid answered that one, too. Won again. But not without cost. Now he's on the run."

Chris stared at him and then glanced at Vin and then back. "Again, Buck, what's this have to do with me?"

Buck shrugged.  "Nothin'. Just giving you a heads up. Seems like he's a good kid. He might have some trouble now. He might need some help. Thought..." he shrugged.

"You thought I could take him under my wing, another gunfighter and all, and teach him what's what?" Chris asked, the corners of his mouth turning up.

Buck scrunched his mouth up and sniffed. "Something like that."

"Oh, this is good, Buck." Chris shook his head, grinning wryly. He glanced at Vin, who was watching him with hard eyes. "You're in on this with him?" he asked his best friend.

Vin shrugged. "Kid's alone."

Chris stared at him. After a moment, he sobered up. Giving them both a hard look, he stood and started for the door. "I don't need this. He got himself into this situation, he can get himself out of it," he hissed, and then was slamming the door behind him with a bang.

Buck watched him go and then glanced over at Vin. Swallowing hard, he sighed. "Just can't expect him to pick up a boy like that, take him under his wing, not after..." And his throat closed up on the word, 'Adam.'

Vin looked away and then down, nodding once.

After a moment, Buck said softly, "Kid's getting on the El Paso stage, anyway. He won't be here past tomorrow."

"How long you think he'll last out there?" Vin accused.

Snorting out a mean laugh, Buck looked skyward. "Honestly, Vin..." he looked over at him. "Not even a week."

Vin nodded. " 'S what I think too."

Both sat in silence.

*****

At first light, JD was up and out of the livery, dusting hay from his clothes and trying to act normal as he walked down the boardwalk. He just had to wait one more day until the stage came. Then he could get on it and forget that any of this ever happened. Or, could he? No, JD, he silently berated himself. It would never be the same. He was an outlaw now... a wanted man. He was sure that the law from Red Rock would be looking for him by now. He killed two men there, they wouldn't let that go.

He would never go to El Paso and join the Rangers. They'd never have him now. 

He sighed, defeated. Dizziness swept over him and he reached out a hand, grabbed the first thing he could, which happened to be the back of a chair in front of the saloon. Sitting down hard, he dipped his head between his knees while he waited for the world to right itself and the nausea to go away.

Damn. He fumbled with the bandanna at his neck, wanting it off. But it was stuck to the wound and he finally gave up and let it go.

He needed to eat, he knew it, could feel deep in his bones that if he didn't get some food in his body he wouldn't last long. So, wearily, he got up and walked into the saloon, hoping that the pretty barmaid had breakfast going.

He spotted her right off and her face lit up when she saw him. He pulled his hat off and smiled weakly at her as he walked up to the bar.

"You here for breakfast, chiquito?"

He frowned at the word, not knowing what it meant. "Ah... yeah."

She beamed at him. "Have a seat and I'll bring it right out."

He nodded and looked around. When he saw that none of the men from the night before were in there, he wilted in relief. 

Finding a table, he sat down hard, tossing his hat on the chair next to him. His mouth watered as he watched her bring his meal out. And she had a glass of... was that milk? JD loved milk, hadn't had it in forever.

She winked at him when she noticed where his gaze had gone. "Just for you, chiquito."

He sighed. "Thank you."

"Dig in," she told him as she took a step back and watched him do just that. Satisfied that he was eating, she turned back to the bar... just as five men walked into the saloon.

JD's shoulders slumped when he saw them come in, the same ones from the night before. The ones he thought were the law. And they were looking at him. Dammit! He didn't care, he just wanted to eat. At least when they tossed him in the jail he'd have a full stomach. So he took a big mouthful and washed it down with a large gulp of milk.

The tall mustached one who'd spoken to him the night before smiled at him. 

JD didn't smile back, couldn't, his mouth was full. So he swallowed down what he had and then tossed another heaping fork-full in his mouth.

The tall man shook his head, grinning wryly and then looked away, as he followed his friends over to a table only a few feet away from JD's.

Darn it. Why couldn't they go up there to that table at the top of the steps? Why'd they have to sit so close? JD glowered at them, fork up to his mouth, frozen, still chewing from the bite before.

The black man and the gray haired man both tipped their heads at him. They seemed friendly, JD thought. So, they must not know who he was. JD figured that he must have just been paranoid the night before.

And then, every head in the room turned as the batwing doors swung open again. 

A tall man, dressed in black, walked in, blond hair peeking out from below his flat-brimmed hat. He cast his gaze around the room, resting on JD for just a moment and then walked over and sat down with those others.

Another one! JD shook his head. Man! This one looked hard, mean, and the gun on his hip looked well used. Now *this* was a gunfighter, JD knew instantly, and it made his blood run cold. Well, hell.

He swallowed down the bite of food in his mouth and then laid the fork down with a clatter. He needed out of there, had an urge to run, but fought it. Gulping, he glanced over at the barmaid, who was staring at him. JD nodded at her, and she came right over. He gave her a few coins for his meal and then started to stand.

She jumped when the doors crashed open and the storekeeper ran in.

"Trouble," he called out, staring at the man in black. "Looks like gunfighters, three of them."

The men all turned to stare at the blond gunfighter.

*****

Chris sighed. Not again. 'How many of these upstart gunfighters were going to come to town, trying to make a name for themselves by killing him?' Chris wondered. And he was getting ready to stand when he heard a commotion outside. And suddenly, a loud booming voice...

"Dunne! We're calling you out!"

 

Part Seven

"What the hell?" Chris darted a look over to the kid. 

Buck stood quickly and walked over to the window, Vin on his heels. 

"Oh, shit," Buck breathed out.

"It's the Tyson brothers," Vin finished for him.

"Tyson? Wasn't the man that young Mr. Dunne killed in Red Rock named Tyson?" Ezra asked. 

They were surprised when the kid answered. 

"Yeah." Dunne stood wearily, his shoulders slumped, defeated. "I killed their brother. He called me out." He shook his head as he reached down and scooped his hat up off the chair and put it on, only then looking up at them. "They're after me," he said, his voice small. Ducking his head, he pulled first one gun and then the other, checking each carefully before re-holstering it, all the while his hands trembling. He looked up to find the men all staring at him. His gaze moved to the door. "Well..." he took a deep breath and let it out, straitening his shoulders. He nodded once and started for the door.

"Kid, this is suicide," Buck hissed out, walking over to block the exit.

"It's not suicide," the boy defended, swaying slightly, his cheeks red. "I don't want to die. But I gotta do what's right."

"Kid, you're sick. Can hardly stand on your own feet, let alone take on three men." Nathan stood, looking around at the others beseechingly.

*****

JD stared up at the tall black man. "I'm fine," he told him, trying to look brave. He started for the door.

"Dunne!" the man called again. "Get out here. We're gonna kill you, like you did Billy."

One of them sniggered meanly. "Only we're not gonna make it quick! Figure we'll gut-shoot you and let you die like a dog."

"Well, that doesn't sound very promising."

"Shut up, Ezra," Chris said darkly, glaring at the gambler.

"Well, son," Ezra glanced over at JD. "Guess you better go take your medicine."

Buck turned to stare at Ezra. "You better shut your trap."

"What?" Ezra held his hands up innocently. "I'm just saying... is all..." He looked around at them, the smirk on his face turning to a frown.  "Unless one of us has a say in the boy's well-being...?"

Puffing up, Buck stepped up behind JD, protectively. "I've got a say what happens to the boy!" he blustered.

Ezra glanced at him, eyes half-lidded, a smirk on his face. "Well, hell," he said nonchalantly, as he threw his cards down. "Guess I've got a say, too." And he stood, pulled out each gun individually.

The kid's eyes widened at all of the hardware the gambler was carrying. "What?" JD shook his head, confused, his gaze moving from the guns up to the gambler's face.

Buck didn't speak, just stared hard at the kid, his jaw clenched, determined.

"Well," Ezra shrugged, gold tooth gleaming. "Can't have you bleeding all over our boulevard, now can we?"

"No," Vin answered tersely. "We can't." And he pulled his mare's leg out, ratcheting it open to check his ammunition.

Then, Buck, Josiah and Nathan were doing the same. 

Josiah grinned wryly, his eyes twinkling merrily. "Yeah, think you're right, Ezra. Guess we do have a say in the boy's well-being." And he snapped his pistol closed.

"But..." JD stared at them. "I don't understand." He swallowed hard. "This is my fight."

"No, son." Chris stood, staring down at him. "It's our fight."  He checked his gun and slid it back in his holster. "This is our town."

"You *are* the law," JD breathed out as he shook his head, gaping at them.

Chris nodded once and then started for the door. He walked out, the rest on his heels.

They came out of the saloon and then quickly moved into a V formation, stepping out into the street, Chris at the head. 

The three Tyson brothers backed away warily, staring at Chris.

"Larabee?" the tallest said, his voice an octave too high. "This ain't your fight. We're here for the kid. He killed Billy."

Chris stared at him and then, finally, said, "Billy needed killin', Tom. So do the rest of you sons of bitches.  Now, either draw on all of us, or ride away. But you're not getting the kid."

What happened next was all a blur. 

JD was darting forward from where he'd been in the back. The middle Tyson boy's lips pulled back in a snarl as he drew on Chris. Chris' gun was out and breathing fire. JD's gun barked once and then again.

Seven against three - it was over in a moment.

When the smoke cleared, all three Tyson brothers were lying on the ground. 

Chris looked around, sighing when he saw all of his men were still upright. Vin had a graze on his arm, but was talking, looking like he would live.

Stalking towards the kid, Chris snarled. "What in the hell were you thinking?" he snapped out. 

JD stepped back, his face blanching white. "It was my fight," he defended. "Didn't want any of you getting killed on account of me," his voice broke and he swallowed hard.

Chris loomed over him. "You have no idea what you're doing in a gunfight," Chris told him disgustedly. "I don't know how you've lived this long."

"I'm fast!" JD squeaked out.

"Fast's all you got, kid!" Chris hissed.

"I hit what I aim at," JD defended petulantly.

Chris paused, his mouth pursed as he eyed him critically. He nodded once. "Yeah, you do. I'll give you that much. But you sure as hell don't have any sense." His eyes narrowed and he leaned into the kid's space, his finger at his chest. "If you're gonna live long in this life, you've got a lot to learn!" he snarled.

JD took a step back and then stumbled. He would have fallen, but Buck was there, grabbing him by the arm, holding him up. 

"Easy," Wilmington soothed. "I got 'cha kid." And then Buck spared a quick smile for Chris and then darted a wink over at Vin.

Vin ducked his head, grinning. 

Then Nathan was there, prying Vin's hand away from the graze in his arm, tsking and wrapping a bandanna around it.

"Come on, kid," Buck steered the boy toward the saloon. "Let's get a drink in you."

JD darted a gaze towards Chris, who was still looking at him darkly. 

Chris shook his head. Glancing at the nearest townsperson, he said, "Get this rubbish cleaned up." And then looking back at the others, added, "Kid owes us a drink." And with a slight smile he started over to grasp JD around his neck. "Kid," he told him. "Just don't do that again."

JD's head bobbed as he agreed. Then, he frowned, swallowing hard and asked as all seven were walking into the saloon, "Am I really buying you guys drinks? Because... I'd really like to... want to... it's the right thing to do, and all... but... I don't have any money left. Just spent what I had on breakfast and-"

"Kid," Chris cut him off. "How about we buy you a drink?"

"Oh," JD sighed. "Yeah. I mean, no, you don't have to. But... yeah, that would be-"

"Kid," they said in unison. "Just have the drink."

And they walked up to the bar.

 

Part Eight

JD stood at the bar, slowly drinking his glass of milk, glancing around at the six men who'd just saved his life. And there was no question that they *had* saved his life. He would have been shot down by the Tyson brothers, no doubt about it.

"Come on, kid," the tall mustached one clapped him on the back. "Let's have a seat."

JD went with him, really felt like his body was moving without his accord. He slumped down into his chair, and then looked around at the rest of the peacekeepers who were sitting around the table, watching him. He looked down, frowned, and then took a deep breath in, slowly letting it out. "Thanks," he said, and then looked back up, catching all of them with a sweep of his eyes.

"Guess introductions are in order, kid," the tall man said to him. "I'm Buck Wilmington. Longhaired feller sitting next to you is Vin Tanner. Nathan Jackson," he pointed at the tall black man. "Josiah Sanchez, our preacher. Ezra Standish, your knight in shining armor." He grinned wryly at the dark look Ezra gave him. "And, finally, Chris Larabee."

JD gasped as his eyes lit up. "I've read about you!" He gaped at Chris. 

Chris didn't say a word, just stared, a frozen scowl on his face.

His shoulders drooping, JD shifted uncomfortably as he looked away. 

Buck sucked on his top lip, the corners of his mouth turning up as he tried not to smile. He stared at the top of JD's head and then shot a quick grin over to Chris.

Chris rolled his eyes, watching JD look uneasy.

"So, Dunne..." Chris cleared his throat loudly, making JD jump. "You got a name... besides 'Kid'?" He grinned wryly.

JD glanced up at him, noticed the smile, and brightened. "My name's 'JD'... JD Dunne." He hesitated, frowning suddenly. His voice roughened. "And I really did kill that man in Red Rock. Killed another too." He looked at them intently. "They called me out, and I had to go."

"We know," Buck said quietly.

"We read the paper from there," Nathan told him.

"You did?" JD's voice squeaked. "You know what happened there, what I did there, and..." he swallowed hard, "you still helped me?"

None of them answered, just gazed at him with knowing eyes.

JD nodded, looking down, his eyes too bright. "Thanks," he said again, his voice husky.

Buck reached out and hit him on his side with the back of his hand. "What are friends for?"

JD grunted loudly. Dammit, that *hurt!* He didn't say the words, could hardly draw a breath. His vision grayed, and he blinked rapidly. His mouth watered, and he swallowed down bile, thought he was going to be sick right there. He glanced up to find the black man watching him intently.

"JD," Jackson asked, he leaned forward, started to stand. "Are you okay? You don't look so good."

He wanted to answer him, but couldn't seem to make his mouth work. He swayed. "I'm..." and then his vision dimmed, went dark. He didn't feel himself sliding from his chair. He thought he heard yelling and then everything was gone.

***** 

Buck frowned. He didn't think he'd hit the kid too hard, just tapped him, friendly-like. But the boy's face had grayed and he seemed to stop breathing.

"JD," Jackson asked him. "Are you okay? You don't look so good."

Then the kid was swaying where he sat. He tried to answer, said something, and then was slipping from his chair, sliding towards the floor. 

Buck grabbed him, held him while Vin knocked his chair away. And then Buck laid the kid on the floor. 

Nathan was there, checking him, bringing his hand up to show the blood. "Oh, god," he hissed. "He's been shot."

"What?" Buck blurted out.

"Right here." Nathan pulled back the kid's vest and showed them the bloody wound in the boy's side.

"Shit. Shit. Shit," Buck hissed out. 

"Come on," Chris said, the voice of reason. "Let's get him to the clinic. Nathan, can you move him?" 

"Give me a second, Chris. Got to get this bleeding stopped." And then Nathan was grabbing any material the guys could give him and pressing it on the bullet hole. "This doesn't look good."

"How could he not know he was shot?" Josiah asked.

"The body can do funny things," Nathan said, from where he was feeling for JD's pulse. "Okay," he huffed out. "Let's get him moved." 

And they carried him up to the infirmary, JD a motionless, dead weight between them.

"Need to get his clothes off, get him cleaned up. I need to see about getting this bullet out and get the wound cleaned real good."

"Nathan," Buck hissed out. "Look at this." And Buck was pulling back the bandanna from the kid's throat, showing the men the angry red gouge there.

"That's infected!" Nathan barked out. "Dang fool kid. He could die just from that, he don't need no bullet to kill him." He blew out a harsh breath and then stilled, thinking. "Okay..." he looked around at the five men standing around his room. "I don't need all of you. Just..." he looked at Buck, saw the raw-boned worry there. "Josiah, you stay. The rest of you, skedaddle. I'll let you know how he's doing as soon as I know."

So they grudgingly left, but stayed outside on the balcony, waiting for the news. 

Buck leaned against the railing, looking down at the street below. Chris stood next to him.

"Kid *was* fast," Buck said softly.

"Yeah," Chris agreed. 

"Don't look like he's going to make it," Buck breathed out a sigh.

"Don't count him out 'fore he's gone," Vin told Buck. "Kid's scrappy. Tough."

"And Vin would know." Ezra came up to stand with them, grinning slightly, breaking the tension.

It was a long time before Nathan came out, a grim-faced Josiah on his heels. Nathan was shaking his head.

Buck gasped. 

"He's still alive," Nathan told them, his face lined with fatigue. "But..." he sighed. "It don't look good. I got the bullet out, but...the kid bled a lot. Could have bled out in not too much more time. And... that's a hell of an infection he has on his neck. Looks like a bullet graze." He sighed deeply, wouldn't look at Buck. "Just..." he shrugged helplessly, "...don't think he's going to make it. Can just make him comfortable until he passes on."

No one spoke, hardly seemed like anyone breathed.

Buck shook his head. "He's going to...?" And he snapped his mouth shut.

Chris turned away, stared at the far horizon.

Vin looked down, shaking his head sadly.

"Is there not anything you can do, Mr. Jackson, to keep the young man among the living?" Ezra implored.

Nathan shook his head. "Rest is up to him. I'll keep the wound clean, try to get that infection down. I'm just telling you all how it is. Don't hold out any hope for him. I doubt he'll make it to the morning. But you know I'll do everythin' in my power to keep 'im alive."

"We know that," Buck breathed out. "You always do," he said, his eyes wet, as he stared at the floor. "Can I... Can we see him?"

"Don't see what harm it can do." Nathan nodded. "Just don't rile him none. Talking to him would be good, though. I think he'd hear you, even if he's not awake. They say so, anyway. Might do him some good to know someone cares."

Buck stared at him. "Someone cares."

"I know." Nathan nodded once, keeping his gaze on the tall man.

Buck swallowed hard, looked away. "I'm gonna go sit with him a while," he said and then grasped Nathan on his shoulder warmly as he walked by.

"Buck's hit hard," Vin said.

"He always is," Chris agreed.

They both followed Buck into the sick room

Nathan, Ezra and Josiah stood uneasily on the balcony.

"Think I'll go do some askin' of God," Josiah said as he tipped his hat to his friends and started for the stairs.

Ezra and Nathan watched him go. 

Ezra stared at Nathan. "As Mr. Tanner put it, the kid's scrappy and tough. If anyone can make it, he can."

"Let's hope you're right," Nathan said, and then they both started back into the room.

 

Part Nine

Buck swallowed hard when he laid eyes on the slight body in the bed. Was this the boy? It didn't look like him. This looked like a child lying on the bed, sheet pulled up to his chin.

Slowly walking over to the bed, Buck stared. The only thing that looked the same was the jet-black hair, which was pushed out of the boy's face to lie across his forehead. But the skin looked different, instead of pale, it was gray, with a fever-sheen to it.

Sitting down hard in the chair next to the bed, Buck whipped his hat off and leaned forward in pain. Oh, Jesus. Such a young boy. When he'd been awake, the kid had been all bluster, and it had made him seem so much older. But, now, he looked like he was in his teens. Fourteen? Fifteen? Surely not sixteen yet. Buck shook his head. Too damn young to be on his own, to be living this life he was thrust into. Just too damn young.

Buck glanced over at Chris and Vin, who were standing side by side against the wall on the far side of the room. Neither spoke. Vin stared down at the kid. Chris looked anywhere but at him.

Movement from the bed startled him and Buck jerked back. 

Eyelids slowly blinked open and then Buck was staring at glazed hazel eyes. 

"Hey, kid," Buck croaked out. 

Blinking, JD slowly looked over at him. "Hey," he whispered, barely audible.

Buck gulped and nodded. "You've got yourself in a mess, kid."

The corner of JD's mouth turned up slightly. "Not... the first... time."

Chuckling nervously, Buck rocked forward. "I bet." He glanced over at Chris and Vin. 

"What happened?" JD tried to look around, but dropped his head back onto the bed with a moan.

"Now, you just lay still." Vin stepped forward to stand on the other side of the bed. "Nathan's fixed you up and you don't want to go and ruin it."

Chris still stood against the wall, his face dangerously dark under the black brim of his hat.

"Fixed me?" JD swallowed a few times. "Fixed me... from what?"

Buck grabbed a glass of water and Vin helped hold the kid's head up while Buck tipped the glass towards his mouth.

JD sipped halfheartedly and then turned away, spilling a few drops down his neck. 

Buck quickly set the glass back on the side table and then wiped the wetness away with his shirtsleeve.

Gently lowering him back to his pillow, Vin shook his head when JD's eyelids fluttered closed. He looked over at Buck, who was frowning.

"He's out." Buck pursed his lips as he glanced from the boy over to Vin and then back at Chris. 

Chris sighed, stepping forward. He opened his mouth to say something but then snapped it closed again. He turned on his heel and left the room, almost running over Nathan and Ezra on the balcony.

"Chris?" Nathan called out. "Is he...?"

Chris shook his head as he cleared his throat. "Kid woke up, talked a bit to Buck and Vin. He's asleep now." And then he turned away and stalked over to the stairs and down them.

Nathan and Ezra stared after him.

Ezra glanced at Nathan, his brow furrowed. He started to say something, but then stopped and shook his head. "Might we see the young gentleman?" He ushered Nathan into the room ahead of him.

When they came in, Buck was sitting on one side of the bed, while Vin was standing on the other. The boy was asleep, or... at least Nathan hoped so. He walked over, nudging Vin out of the way, so he could reach down and lay his fingertips on the boy's throat.

He sighed. Still beating. And then he saw the slight rise and fall of the boy's chest. Still breathing.

So, Nathan glanced around the room, thinking... what next? He needed to bring the fever down. Do everything he could do to make sure that the infection didn't kill the boy. He'd cleaned out the gouge on his throat and re-bandaged it. Now, to keep the kid's temperature down, keep him among the living.

If he could keep the infection at bay, did the boy have a chance at living? Would the bullet wound in his side kill him? Nathan just didn't know, and he really wished he did.

He believed that the boy wouldn't make it, and felt like he had to tell the others that. He never wanted to give false hope, make people believe in something that wouldn't happen. But... he sighed, could the boy live? Maybe. Maybe... if he-

"Nathan?" Buck asked.

And Nathan turned his dark gaze that way to find the normally affable man staring at him with wounded eyes. 

"Yeah?" Nathan grunted out.

"Kid woke up, spoke to us, can we take that as a good sign?" Buck hoped.

Nathan swallowed hard, staring at the other man. After a moment, he looked at the boy. He shrugged. "Always a good sign when the patient wakes up. He wasn't out of his head with fever?" he asked.

"No," Vin answered softly. "Seemed to be 'here'. Didn't really remember what had happened to him, but that seems to be expected."

"Yeah," Nathan nodded. "Hmmm," he glanced sideways to find Ezra standing next to his shoulder, also looking down at the boy. Nathan sighed. "Well, we'll take it one moment at a time. Try to get him through this infection." And then he walked over to his worktable and started pulling down pots of herbs.

Ezra went over and stoked the fire and then filled a kettle from the bucket of water that sat next to the stove. 

Nathan glanced over at the gambler and then smiled warmly. "Thanks, Ezra."

"My pleasure," Ezra nodded back.

And they settled down for a long wait.

 

Part Ten

"No! Mama!" JD Dunne writhed in the bed, a bright sheen on his face, his young body trembling, and his head thrashing from side to side, his mind lost in fever induced nightmares. "Please, Mama, don't die. Don't..." he whimpered, his voice breaking.

"Easy, easy," Buck ran a hand over the boy's head, soothing him. "It's okay, kid. You're going to feel better soon." 

Early the next morning five of the six peacekeepers were in the clinic, situated around the room, keeping an eye on JD.

Nathan walked over, cup in hand. "Can you raise his head, Vin?" 

Vin complied, grasping him under his hair to hold his head up.

Nathan fed him the herb infused tea. 

Sputtering, liquid sloshing from his mouth, JD coughed and then grimaced. He turned his head to the side. 

Nathan motioned for Vin to lay him back.

Josiah sat in a chair in the far corner, beads in hand, muttering a soft prayer, while his bright eyes stayed on the boy's form.

The door opened and they turned to watch Chris walk stoically into the room. He glanced at the bed and then over at Nathan.

"I know it looks bad," Nathan said to Chris, and then addressed the others. "But he's doing better. Feels like his fever's coming down. He's sweating. We're getting tea in him and I think it's doing the job."

Buck looked hopeful.

"Both wounds are looking better. They're not red, or hot to the touch. So..." Nathan shrugged.

"He might make it?" Vin rasped out.

Nathan sighed, and looked down at the boy. "He might."

"Well, coming from you, Mr. Jackson, those are encouraging words, indeed." Ezra smiled slightly.

*****

Late that afternoon, the peacekeepers were sitting around JD's bed, talking softly amongst themselves.

"Mary reprinted the Red Rock article in the paper. I tried to convince her otherwise, but she'd have none of it. 'People's right to know' and all of that," Josiah shook his head.

"Sometimes I'd like to take her 'right to know' and stick it-"

"Vin..." Chris admonished, laughing lightly, the corners of his mouth turning up.

Vin shrugged. "Sorry. Just... a man's business is his own. Not fodder to sell papers," he huffed out.

"I agree wholeheartedly, Mr. Tanner," Ezra told him.

"Yeah," Chris said softly. And then, said, "The townsfolk want to know what we're going to do with the 'fugitive.' " He shook his head.

"Damn." Nathan hissed out.

Buck sat silently, his gaze on the boy's healing body, but his mind on the conversation. "He's wanted in Red Rock. Got the Wanted Poster this morning," he said softly.

"Shit."

"If the events were as described in said newspaper, the boy should have no problem negotiating a fair outcome to a trial."

"And if he's found guilty, he'll be hanged. You want to take that chance, Ezra?" Buck glared at him.

Ezra shook his head.

"So, the kid can run, a fugitive for life..." Chris said.

Vin hissed softly, his face growing dark.

"Or... " Chris continued, "he can head back to Red Rock, stand trial for the 'murder' of two gunfighters who called *him* out."

The rest shook their heads.

"Or... " Chris shrugged.

"He can stay here," Buck interrupted, his voice dangerous. "And we can fight off anyone who dares to come claim him."

Eyebrows went up as the peacekeepers stared at him silently.

Buck looked unapologetic, his look daring them to argue.

"Aren't we forgetting something, gentlemen?" Ezra asked. When the others just looked at him, he continued. "We are forgetting that our very own Judge Travis affected a pardon for my own so-called crimes. Might we also hope that he'd do the same for the boy here?"

"Yeah." Buck looked unconvinced.

"Maybe." Chris shook his head.

"There's one other thing. Even if he's pardoned, his name is still out there. 'Kid Dunne.' And there's going to be others wanting to make a name for themselves. They'll keep coming... until the kid's dead," Chris said.

"So?" Buck shrugged. "We'll watch out for him. We won't let him get called out. And, if he does, we'll go instead. *That* will get around. That if someone calls the Kid out, they're gonna get seven for the price of one." He smiled evilly. "They won't be coming for long."

"Can't... " the raspy voice spoke from the bed, "let you do that."

The men startled, glancing over to find JD's eyes open, half lidded, as he stared at them. His eyes were clear, the fever gone.

"Well, well, lookie who's decided to join us." Buck patted JD gently on his sheet-covered leg.

JD yawned hugely and then tried to sit up. 

Nathan jumped up to help him. "Here. Here. Don't pull those stitches out, now," he said, as he adjusted pillows behind the kid's back and head, propping him up against the headboard.

"Thanks," JD whispered. 

"Here, kid, have a drink." Buck held a cup of water out to him, which JD drank greedily.

"So," JD said, looking around the room at each of the men. "What's going on?" he asked, his voice hoarse. "What happened?"

"Well," Vin told him, "you took a bullet from one of the Tysons."

"Oh," JD frowned in consternation and then jerked his head up. "Are all of you okay? No one got hurt because of me, right?" He winced.

"We're fine, Brother Dunne," Josiah soothed him.

"Good," JD wilted back into the pillows. "So, what's going to happen now?" he asked. He trembled slightly from a chill and his skin started to lose some of the color it had regained.

"Tell you what, kid. Why don't you get some sleep, we'll talk about it tomorrow morning."

JD tried to cover a yawn, but failed. "Well... okay." He looked around at them, his gaze lingering on Chris for a moment longer than the rest.

Chris nodded at him. "Get some rest, kid. We'll figure all of this out tomorrow."

Sighing, JD let Nathan take the pillows away and get him situated back into the bed. 

"Thanks." JD sighed.

"You're welcome." Nathan smiled warmly.

JD glanced around at them. "So... I'll see you tomorrow?" he asked hesitantly.

"You can rest assured that we'll be here," Josiah told him.

Buck patted JD on the foot as he started to go. "You just rest up, get your strength back. We'll talk to you later."

Vin tipped his hat and Chris nodded at him, and then they both walked out the door.

"Have a good respite, Mister Dunne." Ezra tipped his hat and then followed Vin and Chris out the door.

Buck was walking out with Josiah, but turned his dark gaze back on Nathan, one eyebrow cocked up in question.

Nathan just smiled. "I'd be glad for the company," he answered the unspoken question.

And so the two peacekeepers settled down to watch the young Easterner sleep.

 

the beginning...

 

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