Vin Tanner

 

Sooner or Later

By: Ruby

JD Dunne

 

 

Rating:  PG-17 (I know that's not a real rating. I would say this story just sneaks under the R Rating. It is Violent!) Language, Violence, Dark Story!

Warning: Subject matter is disturbing. (I'm never very good at these warnings. I don't want to give away the story, yet I don't want to offend anyone. I will say that this deals with a hanging and contains subject matter that is not very nice at all.)

Disclaimer:  The Magnificent Seven is owned by Trilogy, Mirish, MGM, and some others I'm not sure of. I'm not making any money.

Author's Notes:  I wrote this story as an answer to the July challenge for The Magnificent 7 Challenge Community: 'Enola Offers a Challenge: would like to see stories where a physical change of some kind happens to one or more of the Seven, how he and the others react to it. Any change you want, as long as it's physical -- some kind of disability, sense removal, becoming another gender or another age -- anything! All I ask is, please, no death stories. If it's temporary or permanent, that's up to you. Any universe. Have fun!!' This answer actually fits the challenge...I'm so excited. <g>

This story is not a documentary. I've taken some liberties with medical reality. :)

I want to thank Heather for reading this story for me and letting me know what she thought. She's so sweet!! And thanks to NotTasha for betaing the story for me. She's great! I did make a few changes after the beta, so any mistakes are mine. Thanks, Nancy, for the great advice. And for the help, always. :) And, Jeane, thank you for the feedback, it meant more to me than I can ever say.

Feedback is always greatly appreciated. Please let me know what you think. Thank you, Ruby :)

 

Part one   Part Two   Part Three

 

Sooner or Later

By: Ruby

Part one 

"JD, come on away from the window. It ain't helpin' none to watch."

The kid turned, his face ashen, a little green around the edges. He moved cautiously towards his friend, his hand resting gingerly on his side. With a groan of pain, he winced as he sat down hard on the dirty, blood and sweat stained mattress. "This is it, ain't it, Vin?" Glancing over at the sharpshooter, who shared the cot with him, he gulped hard and then looked down.

Vin watched the kid for a long moment before shaking his head and looking away. " 'Fraid so, kid. Don't look like the fellas are gonna get here any time soon."

JD nodded, resigned to his fate, his eyes on the dusty floor between his feet. "I know ya didn't want to go out this way, Vin. I'm really sorry."

Vin clapped the kid on the back lightly. "Hell, ain't none a yer doin'. It was that damn bounty that got us into this."

"Yeah, but..." JD looked over at him, his eyes red rimmed. "If I hadn't a pulled my gun, you maybe could a gotten us out of here. Now I got a bullet in my side and yer gonna get hanged in the morning."

Vin grimaced, his lip raising up in a sneer. "Ain't yer fault, kid," he said again as he stood quickly and walked over to the small barred window. "Was bound to happen sooner or later." He watched as the workers hammered another nail into the gallows. The sun had been down for a few hours, but with the light of the full moon and quite a few torches, they kept working on the wooden structure. "Been runnin' a long time, almost like a relief." His voice was raspy, hoarse, and he turned to JD to see if his words had relieved the kid's guilt any.

"Bullshit," JD hissed as he stood, one arm wrapped protectively around his side. "That's bullshit, Vin, and you know it. Ain't no relief for you. You want to live more than any person I've ever known. And you sure as hell don't want to go out that way," he pointed in the direction of that gallows. " 'Strung up like some mangy dog.' Ain't that what you said?"

Tanner let a ghost of a smile cross his face. "Thought you were drunk that night, kid." He tucked his hand into his gunbelt and leaned back on his heels, looking JD up and down with a speculative eye.

"Well, doesn't take much for you guys to think I'm drunk, or not listening, or too young, or not smart enough, or not tough enough, or..." his voice drifted off. He narrowed his eyes. "I heard what you said, Vin. You didn't want to be strung up like some mangy dog." He shook his head as he frowned. "Do ya?" His voice had a hard edge to it.

"No." Vin shook his head as he looked down. "Damn, kid, why can't you make this any easier. I's just tryin' to make you feel better." He reached out and grabbed JD by the back of the neck, pulling him in close. "I never thought you were dumb, JD. In fact, I always thought you were too damn smart for yer own good." He smiled, leading the kid over to the cot and sitting him down. JD gasped when he hit the hard mattress. "Sorry, kid." Vin squatted down in front of him.

JD breathed through clenched teeth. " 'S okay, Vin." He swallowed hard. 

Tanner smiled sadly. "Yer a good kid, JD." He reached out, pulling JD's arm away from his side. "Let's take a look at this again. Don't want the boys findin' you dyin' from an infection." His grin didn't reach his eyes.

JD reached out and grasped Tanner's arm. "Stop, Vin. Just stop, please." He sat there for a second, his face tight, tears running down his cheeks. "I don't want you to die, Vin." He looked up. "Isn't there anything we can do?"

Tanner slowly stood and then gently sat down next to the kid on the cot. "I don't think so, kid. There ain't no way the boy's'll get here before tomorrow afternoon, and by that time I'll be swingin'." He put his arm around JD when the kid groaned and leaned forward like he was about to be sick. "Sorry, kid." He felt bad for his choice of words.

JD sucked in his breath as he straightened himself back out. "I can't watch you die, Vin. I can't. We can't just go out without a fight."

Vin sat for a long second, deep in thought. He cursed the job that sent he and the kid to this god-forsaken town. He cursed the bounty hunters that found them here. And he cursed the damn sheriff and the 'Judge' who had, within a half-hour, tried and sentenced him to death.

The bounty hunters had smiled, patting each other on the back, knowing that it would be easier to take a 'body' back to Tascosa than it would be to take a live Vin Tanner. The ex-bounty hunter was a legend and any working bounty hunter knew that the only way to get the sharpshooter to Texas was if he wasn't breathing.

The town was getting a big draw for the hanging, and putting its name on the map as a place that got 'justice.' And the poor kid was going to have to watch the whole thing, that is, if the infection didn't get him first. The whole thing reeked and Vin couldn't get the smell away from him. "Damn," he hissed. "Dammit it all to hell anyway."

JD looked over at him, his eyes narrow slits. His breathing was labored and Vin could tell how hard it was getting for the kid to pull each breath in. He reached out and gently guided JD down onto the cot, wincing as the kid curled in on himself with a groan.

"Damn, kid, yer sicker'n a dog." He wiped the sweat off the kid's face with his shirtsleeve. "Stay here for a few minutes, JD. I'm gonna see about gettin' ya a doctor. You need a better patchin' up job than what I gave ya."

"Won't work," JD hissed as he reached out and grabbed onto Vin's arm. "You know the last time you asked they beat the hell out a ya."

Vin grinned. "Yeah, but it was worth it, kid. I got the big feller right in the balls. You know he ain't gonna be walkin' right for a few days." He smiled evilly, laughing.

JD smiled in spite of himself. "Yeah." 

Patting him on the shoulder, he stood up and walked over to the bars. "Hey!" he yelled, clanging on the bars with his boot. "Hey, we need a doctor in here."

With a loud crash the outer barred door opened and the sheriff and his deputy sauntered in looking smug. "What's all the yellin' about, dog?" The sheriff's mouth twisted in a snarl underneath his shaggy mustache.

"The kid needs a doctor," Vin spoke carefully, trying not to let his hatred seep through.

The deputy smiled as he looked over at the sheriff then back at Vin. "Kid don't need nothin' where he's goin'. "

"What's that supposed to mean?" Vin grabbed the bars, his face touching the cold metal. "The kid ain't got nothin' to do with this. He shouldn't even be in here with me. He should be at the doctor's gettin' fixed up."

"That's not how we see it, Tanner." The sheriff stepped forward, his face hard. "The kid was found with a known fugitive. As far as we're concerned, he's gettin' just what you do."

Vin blanched, taking a step back, his hands falling away from that bars. "You can't mean that!" he hissed.

Just then the tall Judge walked in, a paper in his hands. "Get 'im up, boys." 

The sheriff unlocked the cell door and pushed his way through, gun in hand. With lightening speed, he lashed out, catching Vin across the side of the head.

Tanner faltered, losing his balance and falling hard on the ground. He was quickly turned over, his hands tied behind his back. Then he was pulled roughly to his feet. He could only watch as the deputy woke the half-conscious boy by kicking him hard in the ribs.

"Agghh," JD yelped as he was pulled to his feet. He turned fear-filled eyes on Vin. 

Tanner pursed his lips, shaking his head slightly at the boy.

JD looked down.

The deputy grabbed JD's arms and pulled them roughly behind him, tying them with a length of rope. 

Vin could tell that JD was about to pass out. The kid's face lost all color and he started to sway. He cursed when the big deputy shook the kid's ragged body, yelling at him to 'wake up.'

"JD Dunne," the Judge stepped forward, reading from the paper in front of him. "You are found guilty of riding with a known fugitive. The sentence is death, to be carried out along side your friend here." The Judge glanced over at Tanner, a smile on his face. "No one escapes justice in my town." His smile widened. "Especially sons of bitches like you, Tanner."

Vin narrowed his eyes at the man. "You bastard. He's just a kid. He didn't do anything wrong. You can't hang 'im!" He went to move forward but a sharp blow to his kidneys brought him to his knees. Suddenly, he heard a pain-filled yelp and then JD was lying beside him, face down, not moving. Vin tried to get closer to his friend, but a boot in his ribcage stopped him where he was. He looked up to find the Judge squatting down in front of him.

"You're a murderer, Vin Tanner. And your friend was ridin' with you. That makes him a murderer too. Yer both gonna hang in the morning at ten." He smiled. "People get what they deserve in 'my' town. You hear?"

Vin sneered up at him and then spit in his face. 

The Judge slowly stood, pulling out his handkerchief and wiping his face off. He looked over at the Sheriff. With a nod to the big man, he turned and left.

Vin heard a scream and turned to find that the deputy had his hand woven into JD's hair, pulling his head up and back, his neck stretching painfully.

"See, kid," the deputy laughed. "That's what it's gonna feel like tomorrow. Ain't no neck-snappin' for you and the murderin' dog there. Yer gonna *wish* that you could die quick. Yer gonna kick and scream-"

"Shut up!" Tanner screamed.

The deputy looked over at him, pulling JD's head back even farther. JD's face was turning blue, his eyes rolling back in his head. "Kick and scream and wet yerself." The man said into JD's ear while he stared at Vin. The kid looked like he was past listening. He let go of JD's hair, watching as his face bounced off the wooden floor with a thud.

Vin couldn't tell if the kid was breathing anymore or not. He tried to get closer but a foot in the middle of his back pinned him to the floor.

"You think yer gettin' off that easy, Tanner?" The sheriff hissed in his ear. "No one treats the Judge the way you just did."

A kick caught Vin by surprise and he rolled onto his side. Another kick caught him in the back of the head and dark spots danced in his vision.

"Kickin' and screamin', Tanner. You should've known it was comin' sooner of later," the sheriff said as he delivered another blow to sharpshooter's back.

Vin's breath came in sharp gasps. He tried to look in JD's direction to see how the kid was doing, but another kick in the ribs brought his attention back to the sheriff.

Suddenly, the beating stopped and he looked up to find the sheriff and his deputy smiling down at him. "Don't want you too far gone. Want to make sure you feel that rope tightening around yer neck in the morning." The deputy laughed as he clapped the sheriff on the back, the two of them turning and leaving with a sharp clanging of the cell door.

The sudden silence was deafening and Vin tried hard to catch his breath. When he thought he could move without throwing up, he crawled over to JD, sitting Indian style beside his friend's body.

The kid lay face down, with his head turned to the side enough that Vin could see that his eyes were badly bruised and his face was bloody. He could hear his chest rattling. Vin sighed as he squeezed his eyes shut. Looked like the kid wouldn't be around to be hanged in the morning. Vin couldn't decide if that was good or bad.

Vin couldn't do much to help him with his hands tied behind him. He noticed the blood coming from the kid's nose and mouth. He was glad that JD was on his stomach or he might be choking to death on his own blood. "Christ," he hissed, shaking his head sadly. This was a hell of a mess that he'd gotten them into. He watched as black eye lashes fluttered. Glassy hazel eyes blinked at him.

"Vin?" the voice was almost unrecognizable. 

The kid coughed, his body twisted and then he was throwing up blood with a harsh groan. He started to roll over and Tanner yelled at him to stop.

JD looked at him, his scared wide eyes panicked.

"Easy, kid," Vin soothed. "Didn't mean to scare ya. Just didn't want ya rolling over and hurtin' yerself."

JD nodded once as his eyes drifted closed. After a few seconds, he worked them back open again. "You okay, Vin?" ha rasped out.

Tanner chuckled lightly. "Yeah, kid. I'm all right." He shook his head sadly at the kid's thoughtfulness. "How you doin', JD?"

JD coughed again, wincing. "Oh, I'm fine," he half smiled.

Vin smiled also. "Figured as much. You breathin' okay?"

JD nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay."

Not wanting to mention it in case the kid hadn't heard or didn't remember, Vin kept his mouth shut about the kid's sentence. The two men were silent for a few minutes before JD sighed.

"They hangin' me too?" He rubbed his face on the floor, looking up at Vin with resigned eyes.

Tanner stared down at his friend. Finally, knowing there wasn't much either of them could do for each other with their hands tied, and being oh so very tired, he thought he would lie next to the kid for a few minutes, just to get his strength back. He didn't see any blood gushing out on the floor around the kid, so he hoped that the gunshot wound hadn't started bleeding again. With a moan, he settled himself down on the floor next to the young sheriff and then rolled onto his side so he could look JD in the eyes.

"Yeah." His stomach rolled as the smell of blood and vomit assaulted him. He cleared his throat. "Yeah, kid, looks like yer hangin' along side me."

JD nodded once. "Thought I heard something like that." He looked Vin hard in the eyes. " Least you're not goin' out alone." He raised his eyebrows. "We'll be goin' out together."

Vin frowned and moved his head enough so he could look down, away from the kid's piercing hazel eyes. When he looked back up, the kid had a distant look on his face.

"Don't know if I'm gonna make it that long, Vin," JD apologized, his face drawn, sad. "I'll try. I don't want you to have to go through that alone." He nodded, a slight almost imperceptible move. "We shouldn't be alone when we die."

Vin moved a little closer, the sudden chill in the air making him worried for his friend. "Yer not gonna be alone, JD. I'm gonna be here." Tanner knew that sometime during the six or seven hours before their sentence was to be carried out the kid was most likely going to pass on. Vin hated this. He hated having to lie here and watch his friend die. And Buck. Poor Buck. JD's death was going to kill him. Chris too. Vin knew that Chris thought of the boy as something close to a son, though he wouldn't often admit it.

Chris and the boys would get here probably sometime tomorrow afternoon and they would find JD's bloody, broken remains and they would find Tanner still hanging from the gallows. Vin was sure the Judge would leave his body up as a 'reminder' to his townsfolk that 'Justice' was served.

"Vin?" the hoarse voice brought Tanner out of his ruminations. "Vin?" JD sounded panicked. "You here?"

"Easy, JD. Easy, now," Vin soothed.

JD's eyes fluttered open. "Thought you'd left. Couldn't see you."

"I'm here, JD." Vin smiled.

JD closed his eyes again, his face growing paler. "Do you think, do you think it's gonna hurt, when they hang us?"

Vin squeezed his eyes shut, having this conversation was the very last thing he'd ever want to do.

"Vin?" JD moved a little, crying out in pain.

"Whoa, kid." Vin tried to calm his friend. "Just stay still now."

Nodding once, JD complied. Sniffing, he gulped. "What's it like, being hanged? I ain't never seen a hangin'."

Vin grimaced, the word leaving a bad taste in his mouth. He wanted more than anything to sugarcoat it, so the kid wouldn't know what was coming, but Vin had more respect for the kid than that. And, he knew, most likely, JD wouldn't still be alive in the morning to have the rope tossed around his neck. And if those bastards hanged the kid after he was already dead, Vin swore to the devil that he would come back and make every person's life in this town a living horror.

"Well, kid," Vin finally replied. "It depends, I guess." 

"On what?" JD asked tiredly.

"On how they do it. They could snap our necks, it would be quick, probably don't feel a thing 'cept that first hard tug." His voice drifted off.

"They ain't gonna do that, though. Are they, Vin?" JD asked softly.

"No," Tanner answered honestly. "I don't think they are. I think they're gonna make it as painful as they can. They'se gonna strangle us to death. Most likely it's gonna hurt like hell. I seen men hanged that way and it ain't a pretty sight."

"How longs it gonna hurt?" JD asked.

Vin shook his head. "Sometimes it ain't long, but if the rope catches ya just right and ya can get a little air in, you last longer. A while, JD. Sometimes it can take a while. I've seen hardened criminals cry and bawl, gasping while their skin turns blue..." he quieted down, not telling the rest of the horrific details.

JD shuddered, aware enough to know that his friend was leaving the worst out. "I hope I'm brave, Vin." JD sniffed. "Hope I don't cry."

Vin frowned deeply. "If you do, JD, it don't mean yer any less of a man. Just means that those bastards are making it as bad as they can for us."

"Why are they being like this, Vin?" JD asked, innocence coating the words.

" 'Cause, JD, that Judge is proving something to 'is town. Proving that 'Justice' prevails here."

JD giggled a little. "You said 'prevails'. You been around Ez too much."

Vin smiled. "Yeah, guess I have been at that. I'm gonna miss that sorry son of a bitch."

JD nodded. "Yeah, me too." He swallowed hard. "I'm gonna miss Buck too."

Sighing, Vin agreed. "I know, kid. I know. The big dog's gonna miss you too."

" 'S the best thing I ever done, meetin' up with you guys." JD opened his matted, swollen eyes to look at Vin. "The best thing."

His breath catching in his throat, Vin had to take a couple moments before he could talk. "It was good ridin' with you, kid. Real good. You made all of us proud."

"Even Chris?" JD asked, a hopeful tone in his voice.

"Especially Chris," Vin answered sadly. "He's real proud of ya, JD. I know he don't say it much or act it, but he is. You've learned a lot since you been with us. Yer making a real good man," he grinned, "kid."

JD blushed slightly under the bruises and the blood. "Thanks, Vin," his voice cracked and he coughed slightly, blood mixing with saliva to land on the floor by his head.

Tanner nodded, seeing that the kid was slipping away from him. "You go ahead and rest for a while, JD. I won't let you miss nothin' in the mornin'," he teased half-heartedly.

JD opened his eyes, his mouth turned up in a half-smile as he joked, "Don't want to sleep through my own hangin'," he barked out a painful laugh.

Vin laughed also, a hollow, sad sound. "Gonna miss ya, kid."

JD's eyes didn't open this time. Softly, he replied, "You too, Vin. Gonna miss you too."

"See ya on the other side, kid." Vin's voice was raw, pain-filled. 

"I'll be there," JD answered and then faded away.

Vin watched as the kid's rough breathing slowed, quieted, and then was silent. The kid's face went slack, his gray pallor almost blue-tinged. 

Tears ran down Vin's face mixing with blood. "Damn kid." Tanner shook his head. "God damned kid." He squeezed his eyes shut and wept.

 

Part Two

The morning sun shone brightly through the bars as the cell door was thrown roughly open, waking Tanner up with a start. The first thing he did was look over at the kid's body. He choked a sob down, not wanting to give these sons of bitches the pleasure of knowing he was hurting bad.

Footsteps came into the cell and then stopped close to his head. He looked up to find the sheriff looking down at him with disgust.

"This one's had it." 

Vin looked over when he heard the deputy speak to see that the man had pulled the kid's head back again, peering into his slack face. He once again let the boy's head go to slap back down on the floor.

Vin's eyes narrowed, his world crashing down until it came to just that moment in time. These men were going to pay. He didn't care if he had to come back from Hell, these men were going to pay. He heard more footsteps and looked over to find the Judge leaning over the kid's prone body.

"Shame," he said as he looked over at Vin. "He's still got to hang."

Vin screamed, bucking in his restraints, trying to gain his feet so he could get close to the Judge. He wanted to rip the old man's throat out. And he'd do it too, with his bare hands, if he could just get close enough.

A kick in his gut brought his body back to the ground.

Tanner lay there glaring at the Judge, his eyes blue hate-filled slits. "You ain't gonna hang his dead body," Vin hissed. "You ain't gonna do it. The kid's been through enough already. Your men beat him to death last night." He shook his head viscously. "You ain't hanging his body!" he screamed, his rage back full force.  Another kick, this time to the back, had him gasping for breath.

The Judge made a show of nonchalantly pulling out his pocket watch and opening it up. "Looks like it's time, Tanner." He looked over at the deputy, nodding his head.

The deputy picked the kid up by his bound arms, his body bowing and hanging limp in his grasp. 

Vin screamed obscenities in every language he'd ever known. He was a madman, kicking and biting. Finally, a hard blow, most likely from a rifle butt, brought him to his knees. He sagged in the sheriff's grasp. The world suddenly blurred and twirled around him. He threw up while on his knees, which earned him another kick.

"It's time, boys." The Judge smiled. "Let's not keep the good people waitin'." 

Vin was only half-aware as he was pulled to his feet and then pushed out the door. He stumbled and wavered, but walked under his own power. He glanced over to find that the deputy had tossed JD's body over his shoulder. He shook his head.

He tripped when they came to the first step of the gallows. The sheriff pulled him back up by his bound arms, eliciting a yelp from him. He made it up the rest of the stairs without faltering. He got his first look at the two nooses hanging there. He looked away, glancing over to the steps to see the deputy huffing his way up the wooden stairs with the kid's body.

When he got to the top, the deputy threw JD's body down onto the platform, shaking out his arm. "Damn whelp's heavy." He cursed.

A soft gasp brought everyone's attention to the floor. 

JD moved, his eyes fluttering open then drifting closed again.

"Thought he was dead?" The Judge asked as he walked up the steps to meet them. 

"Thought he was," the deputy answered, staring at the kid's body. "He sure as shit looked dead."

Vin hadn't taken his eyes off the kid. He could not believe that his friend was alive. He couldn't decide if he was happy or upset. "Damn, kid," Tanner hissed under his breath. He glanced around at the townspeople who'd gathered for the 'show' hoping beyond hope that he would catch a glimpse of his friends. He knew that he and the kid wouldn't have been missed until early this morning, and then, even if they started out then and rode hard, the rest of the peacekeepers wouldn't make it here until early afternoon. But a man could hope, right?

He looked back down at the kid as JD groaned and turned over on his back, hit his bound hands and then quickly turned back over onto his side.

The deputy picked the boy up, shaking him as he whispered something in his ear. Vin's eyes narrowed as he watched the kid swallow hard and squeeze his eyes shut.

Tanner was pushed forward with the butt of a rifle until he stood directly under a noose. He glanced over to find JD being held up by the deputy under the other noose. The kid's knees were too wobbly and he wasn't going to be able to stand under his own power. The deputy seemed to be taking great glee in torturing the kid, whispering in his ear and hitting him where he was already hurting.

Vin smiled proudly when he watched JD bring his head up, look directly into the deputy's face, and spit. The action caused the kid more hurt, a gun barrel up side his head, but it also brought the young sheriff some peace.

JD glanced over at him, his eyes clearing. The kid nodded once, closing his eyes and smiling sadly. After a moment, he opened his eyes again and turned back to face front, waiting stoically now for the end. Vin was never more proud of JD Dunne than he was right at that moment.

JD didn't move, didn't even wince, as the noose was brought over his head and tightened at the base of his neck. 

Vin also faced forward, knowing that both of them were going to die with as much dignity as they could muster. He wished he could tell the kid how proud he was of him, but he knew any sentiments now would ruin the kid's hard won stoicism. So he vowed to somehow get word to the young sheriff after they got to where they were goin'. Someone grabbed him by the shoulder, holding him still while the rope was brought over his head and then jerked tight around his neck. He couldn't hide the involuntary shudder that ripped through his body at the feel of the rough hemp biting into his tender skin and the knowledge of what was coming next.

A preacher behind and off to Vin's right droned on and on. Neither he nor JD were given black hoods to wear and Vin was at least thankful for that. Nothing could be worse than standing there with that coarse fabric suffocating you, breathing your own air as you waited in darkness for the end. At least Vin could look up at the sky, at the passing clouds, at a lone hawk circling slowly above them.

Finally, the meaningless words were finished and it was time. He chanced a glance over at JD to find that the kid had done the same thing and was looking back at him. The kid was a sight. A bloodied white shirt untucked from stained pants. His arms pulled back behind him, tied at the wrists. The noose, tight around his neck, already denting into the skin. The deputy standing next to him, holding him up with a hand on his upper arm, smiling evilly.

JD just grinned at him, a 'ain't this the shits' kind of grin. Vin couldn't help but smile back. JD was some kid. Vin quickly corrected himself. He was a man; Vin would have to do anything he could to get up to Heaven to at least let the kid know that, he vowed to himself.

It was time. The deputy backed off, JD's knees instantly buckling. Vin had to wince as JD went down, the rope tightening harshly around his neck. He didn't have long to think about it.

A sound like a shot rang out and he was dropping through the trapdoor. He jerked to a stop and then swung back and forth, twisting, the world spinning crazily around him while his head felt like it was being screwed off his neck. His chest was on fire, burning white hot, his heart feeling like it was going to burst out of his body. He was right. It did hurt. It hurt like a son of a bitch.

He could only hope that the kid's neck had broken when JD went down. He wouldn't wish this on his worst enemy.

Vin kicked his legs, trying to get leverage where he knew there wasn't any. He twisted enough and looked up just in time to catch a glimpse of JD in his same predicament. Poor kid's face was red, his legs kicking just like Vin's were. Damn. Vin steeled himself to go limp, to stop fighting, hoping that would be easier, that JD would do the same and the end would come quickly. At the exact moment that his body stopped twisting, he heard shots and then he was falling with a bone-jarring stop at the bottom. 

He still couldn't breath, the rope tight against his throat. Black spots danced in his vision. Suddenly, fingers were beneath the rope, pulling it loose. He tried to look around, find JD. Hands on either side of his face got his attention and he looked up to find Chris Larabee's serious face inches from his own. He was about to say something to him, but lethargy took over and he quickly drifted away.

 

Part Three

Chris Larabee rode ahead, his black duster flying in the wind. The other four peacekeepers kept up with him but didn't ride abreast, letting the gunslinger ride alone with his demons.

Sanchez had been coming on patrol and Standish just getting off when Chris slammed into the jailhouse, his face dark and his eyes bright. All he'd said was, 'Got a bad feelin' about the Vin and JD,' and that was it - the rest of the peacekeepers were up and ready to go. Wilmington had to be pulled out of bed and Nathan from his clinic, but soon all five lawmen were saddled up and riding under the light of the full moon.

Chris hadn't said much, he just rode hard, knowing that the others would keep up or they wouldn't.

Buck knew that when Chris got like this there wasn't anything to do but go along with it. The ladies' man hoped that they would get to Rockhill and find their two friends in fine shape, ready to start the trip home, but from past experience with Chris and knowing how trouble liked to follow the two youngest, Buck seriously doubted that.

They stopped and let their horses rest when the sun crested the horizon. Standish took the horse's reins like he always seemed to do and walked them around, cooling them off before letting them drink from the small, clear brook.

Chris stood, staring in the direction of the little town that JD and Vin were in. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. He'd had a dream, a dream so vivid that it left him shaking and sweaty in his bed. In his dream, Vin asked him for help. The kid was hurt and they were dying. Chris wasn't about to shake something like that off. His 'intuition' had saved himself and others more times than he'd care to admit.

He threw his cheroot down and ground the flame out with the heel of his boot. If only he'd listened to his intuition the night Buck wanted to stay in Mexico. If only. He shook his head as he walked towards his horse. No use thinking on that now. Two of his men needed him and he wasn't about to let them down.

Grabbing the reins of his big black, he mounted and then looked around to see that all of his men had done the same. Pursing his lips, he nodded. "Let's ride, boys!"

*****

Hours later, they were close enough to Rockhill that they could hear cheering. The men all looked at each other, recognizing the bloodlust in the voices.

"Let's go!" Chris yelled as he spurred his black. They came around the corner to see further down on Main Street, in front of the jail, a gallows had been erected with two men standing on the platform, nooses around their necks.

Chris's heart stopped and he glanced over when he heard Buck gasp. The tall gunslinger's face was white as he stared at the scene before him.

"JD!" Buck breathed, looking over at Chris, his face enraged, and then back at his young friend.

Chris brought his gaze back to Tanner. The ex-bounty hunter stood rigidly under the noose. He watched as Vin glanced over at JD, the kid had just looked over at him. The two shared a look for a moment, then both turned back to face front.

Chris shook his head, his voice deadly. "I've got Tanner."

Buck nodded. "I've got JD."

Standish snarled, "I've got the miscreant to Mr. Dunne's left."

Josiah glanced at Nathan and then back, "We've got the other two." 

Each man grabbed his rifle. Chris nodded, giving them all a feral grin before digging his heels into his horse's side and yelling out a battle cry.

The four peacekeepers raced behind the man in black and his charging steed.

The floor dropped out of the platform and both young peacekeepers fell through, snapping to a stop and then twisting and kicking.

Nathan screamed, "Get 'em down!"

Chris pulled the reins up and clenched them between his teeth, then brought the rifle up, sighting his shot.

Townsfolk parted before the lawmen's charging horses with screams and gasps.  

Chris calmed, seeing only the thin strand of rope, then he fired, getting the rope on the first try. He smiled as he watched Vin drop to the ground.

Buck wasn't so lucky. He had mirrored Chris's actions, but he'd missed the rope on his first try when his horse darted around a frozen on-looker. Buck had to pull the reins out of his mouth and take another shot one-handed. It was a miracle, but the rope split, slamming JD to the ground.

A bullet whizzed past Buck's ear and he looked up just in time to see the sheriff tossed backwards, a bullet in his chest. The deputy was already down.

Buck was off his horse and next to JD in a second. He cried out when he saw the kid up close. The first thing he did was loosen the noose around his best friend's neck. Chris was beside him, doing the same for Vin.

"Nathan!" Buck screamed when JD didn't take any breaths in. "Nath-"

"I'm here," The healer pushed him out of the way. Nathan felt for a pulse, his face grim. Glancing over at Chris and then down at Vin, Chris nodded to him and he caught it. Looking back down at the kid, he sighed. "JD!" he slapped his face as he yelled. The pulse was weak but there, but the kid wasn't breathing. "JD!!" Looking around frantically, he clenched his fists in rage. Leaning down to the kid suddenly, he held the young sheriff's nose closed and covered his mouth with his own. He blew air into JD's chest, watching as it rose and then quickly fell again. He did it again and again. Suddenly, the kid coughed, a rough harsh sound. His eyelids fluttered open and then closed.

Nathan shook his head, a ghost of a smile on his face. "Damn."

Buck reached out and grabbed onto JD's arm, smiling. Pushing the dark hair off the kid's bruised forehead he leaned in, whispering something in his ear.

Standish and Sanchez walked up then, prodding an older man ahead of them with a rifle butt to his back.

"How are-" Ezra's voice drifted off as he looked down, spying the smiles on both Wilmington and Larabee's faces. "Thank God," he whispered.

Sanchez snarled. "This here is the Judge who sentenced the boys to hang."

After making sure that Vin was sleeping, Larabee stood, stalking up to the old man. "Judge?" He looked him up and down. "Didn't know there were any Judges over here. Orrin Travis has jurisdiction over these parts."

The old man looked down, his face reddening.

"Judge, Jury, and Executioner, I'd say," Buck spat out from his place by JD's side. 

"He ain't no Judge," Josiah hissed. "Just a self appointed mad man. He's going to jail now where he can await his sentence from the real Judge." Josiah rammed the end of his rifle into the man's back again, starting him towards the jail.

"Let's get these two someplace." Nathan looked around, trying to locate a hotel or boarding house. Or, better yet, a doctor. A man scurried past him on his way into the closest building.

"You got a doctor here, Mister?" Nate stopped him in his tracks.

The man turned, wide-eyed to find so many rough looking men staring him down. "No, no doctor," he answered. "But there's a couple nice beds in the back here if you want to use them." He motioned towards his building.

"Much obliged," Standish drawled as he stepped forward to check out the state of the rooms. He came back out. "Gentlemen, this building should suffice to house our ailing brothers." He tipped his hat and then started back inside.

Josiah came back from the jail. "I'll get the trash off the street." He motioned to the two dead lawmen atop the gallows.

Chris nodded as he and Nathan gently picked Vin up, carrying him into the building. Buck picked JD up, cradling his limp form in his arms.

Nathan got both men settle into beds and then quickly went about looking their wounds over. He shook his head, tsk tsks could be heard every so often. Looking over at Wilmington and Larabee, he frowned. "Vin's been beaten, but looks like he's gonna heal okay. His throat will be sore, but most likely he'll still be able to talk."

He walked over to JD, looking down at the kid for a long moment. "Kid's been shot. Need to get the bullet out. And his throat is torn up something awful. Looks like he hung from that rope for a time. It's a miracle he ain't dead. I've seen it before, though. Sometimes people last longer than others when they're hanged." He got a far-off look on his face. "Heard a story once bout a slave that was hung for more'n a half-hour then miraculously lived. Most likely just a story, though." He frowned, looking back down at the kid. "But, the kid's alive." He paused, deep in thought as he examined JD's throat. "Don't know if the boy will ever talk again." He shook his head.

Buck looked up at him from his place beside JD's bed, his face sad but determined. "All you can do is your best, Nate. The boy knows that and so do we."

Nathan nodded. "Gonna need to get that bullet out, then." He went to work with the other men's help.

*****

A few hours later, Vin had woken up once but quickly went back to sleep. He'd whispered a few things to Larabee before he succumbed to Nate's healing tea. Chris had been watching JD with an odd glint in his eyes ever since then.

JD had pulled through the bullet's removal, but had not improved much at all. A fever wracked his body and his breathing was labored in his swollen throat.

Buck sat by his side the whole time, talking to him, comforting him. 

Ezra and Josiah had come and gone - watching the Judge at the jail, taking care of the two lawmen's remains, bringing food and then later something for the men to drink.

Larabee was sitting next to Vin when the ex-bounty hunter opened his eyes. 

"Hey, cowboy," Vin rasped, his voice raw, abused.

"Shhh, Vin," Chris shushed him. "Yer throat's sore. Don't be using it now." 

Vin nodded, looking around. "JD?"

"Kid's holding his own," Chris answered. "Nathan got the bullet out and is helping his throat out some now with some of that tea he has." He frowned then, wondering if he should tell Vin the rest of it. "Don't look like the kid's gonna talk anytime soon, if ever."

Vin sighed. "Damn." His voice cracked. They were right, his throat was sore, but the rope burn around his neck felt even worse, raw and burning, like something had raked venom soaked claws down his neck and then caught it on fire. Vin could only imagine what JD must feel like.

Wilmington was there then, leaning down and smiling gently. "Least he's alive, Vin. I've got you to thank for that."

Tanner shook his head roughly. "No. I'm the one that got him into this mess. That damn bounty on my head."

Buck shook his head. "Way that old man pretending to be a Judge talked, he just used that bounty as an excuse. Said he was gonna make up some charges for you two no matter. Said that he'd just been waiting for a couple strangers to come to town so he could prove his worth as 'Judge' to the townsfolk. That sheriff and deputy were just his lackeys, not even real lawmen. It was a bonus when the bounty hunters told him about the reward. The man's mind is gone, Vin."

Vin nodded, not able to dispute that.  "So delivering them papers here was just a 'ruse'?" He grinned slightly, thinking about JD's comment about Standish's speech rubbing off on him.

"Yeah, pard. I should have figured it out. I just..." Chris looked down, shaking his head.

"Don't beat yerself up 'bout it, cowboy. I didn't see it coming neither." Vin reached out, grasping Chris's forearm with a nod and a grim smile.

Nathan walked over to stand beside Vin's bed. "Hush now, Vin. You need to let yer voice rest. Yer throat ain't torn up bad as JD's is, but you still need to give it a rest for a few days."

Nodding, Vin glanced over in the kid's direction. "How is he, Doc?"

Nathan sighed, looking over at JD and then back. "He's holding his own. If this fever goes down, he'll have a fighting chance." He frowned, shaking his head. "Just don't want to be the one to tell 'im he ain't gonna be talkin' for a while."

Buck patted the kind healer on the arm. "You let me take care of that, pard. Old JD and me have an understanding. He'll get through it, even if I have to kick his tail from here to kingdom come." He walked back over to his friend's side. Sitting down next to the kid's bed, he grasped the boy's warm hand in his own. "Ain't that right, kid. We're gonna get through this."

*****

It was two days later before JD's fever broke and he woke for the first time since the hanging. He looked around, confused, large hazel eyes wide with fear.

Buck was quickly by his side, rubbing his arm, trying to calm him.

The kid opened his mouth to talk but had a harsh coughing fit instead. Nathan was immediately there, a warm cup of tea in hand. Buck sat the kid up so Nathan could get the comforting liquid down him.

"Easy now, boy," Buck soothed. "Don't try to talk none, now. Yer throat is all tore up. You won't be talking for a few days." He didn't add 'if ever.' He couldn't bring himself to say it at the moment.

JD furrowed his brow at him, coughing a few more times when the tea touched his throat. After it was all down, he looked around again. Chris and Vin sat in chairs close by, watching him with concern. His eyes stayed on Vin for a few moments. The sharpshooter winked at him and JD grinned slightly. He tried to move his hand, but it was too heavy. Instead, he closed his eyes and let the warmth spreading through him take him away to oblivion.

*****

When JD woke up again, hours later, it was to the soft mutterings of his friends. They were talking, real low, about him most likely. He cleared his throat, the pain instantly overwhelming. Coughing, he curled in on himself, the pain of his bullet wound igniting. Finally, he noticed that his friends were beside him, talking him through it.

"Don't try to talk, JD," Nathan told him again. "Just ride it out. Anything you need to say to us real bad, you can write."

JD nodded, the pain lessening enough that, with Buck's help, he was able to sit up in bed again. His voice croaked and he chided himself, coughing roughly. He was only going to say 'Sorry' but even that was too much for him. He looked around the room to find his friends watching him, concerned. He shook his head, looking down, feeling low and useless.

Ezra stepped forward with a short, squatty pencil and a small writing pad made up of newsprint. "Mr. Dunne, I procured these items for you. I thought it would make communicating with us much easier." He smiled, dimples showing, as he handed the paper and pencil to JD.

Smiling, JD took the pencil in shaking hands. With his tongue darting out between scabbed lips, he wrote.

- Sorry. - 

He turned the pad around, showing the men, his eyes downcast.

"What'cha sorry, fer, kid?" Vin stepped forward, sitting down in the chair next to the bed. 

JD looked hard at the ex-bounty hunter, then pointed to Vin's rope-burned neck and then his own.

Vin shook his head. "We already had this conversation, kid. What happened weren't yer fault. If it was anyone's, it was mine."

JD glanced up at him and then back down. Turning the pad around, he wrote.  - Fine. -  The letters were sharp, the pencil having bit into the paper.

The men glanced at each other. Even writing, the kid was still the kid. Everyone was silent for a few minutes while JD wrote something else on the paper.

- How long before I can talk? -

The letters were ragged, the kid's hand shaking badly now.

All eyes went to Nathan who shrugged and looked kindly down at the kid. "Depends, JD, on how yer throat heals. Yer breathing good, so it's not so swollen that you can't get air in. So, I guess if you take it real easy and don't try to use it none, we'll see how it goes." He smiled when the kid frowned at him.

JD shook his head, not satisfied with the answer. He narrowed his eyes as he sighed, coughing slightly. After a moment, he wrote on the paper again.

- How's my horse? -

The men chuckled.

"Fine, kid. Just fine. We've all been taking care of her." Buck smiled down at his best friend.

JD nodded, slightly pleased. His eyelashes fluttered and he leaned back into his pillows. Tiredly, he wrote a few more words.

- When we going home? -

This time the men all looked at Chris. 

The man in black sighed, watching JD closely. "Well, we'd like to get out of here in the morning. A man's stepped forward here, saying he'll take the sheriff's job. Orrin's gonna stop here next week to try that old man pretending to be a judge." He grinned. "Think he'll have a pretty good talkin' to with the townspeople for lettin' it go on. Seems like he and his two men, the sheriff and the deputy, had all the people pretty cowed, scared, but still that ain't no excuse. So, we're clear to go whenever, and if you're up to it, I'd like to head out in the morning."

JD watched Chris closely, the first hint of a real smile crossing his face when his leader had finished talking. He nodded, then scribbled furiously on the pad.

- I'm ready. Let's get out of here. - 

Chris stepped forward, patting JD on the leg where he knew he wouldn't hurt him. "Well, get some rest then, kid. We'll head out in the morning." There was an awkward moment and then Chris cleared his throat. "I'm real proud of you, son. Vin told me how you held yerself when," he couldn't bring himself to say it, instead, he said, "when all of that was going on. Said you were a man through and through." He smiled sadly. "We're all proud of you, JD." He glanced at Vin and then back. "Proud of both of you." He pursed his lips, cocking his head. "And I'm damned glad that we got here when we did."

JD stared at his leader with awe. Shaking his head, he looked down at his blanket, then back up. Sniffing, he took his pencil in hand to write again.

- Thanks, Mr. Larabee. -

He turned the paper around, looking up at his leader with shining hazel eyes.

Chris smiled warmly, tipping his hat at the kid and nodding once.

JD pulled the paper back and scribbled on it again, it took him a while to get what he wanted to say written. This time, he turned it to Vin, a grin on his face.

- Good thing they didn't miss our hanging, huh, Vin? -

He'd scribbled over the 'our' a few times to make it bold and then underlined it. Vin got the joke and laughed along with the kid.

JD couldn't laugh much, but he could grin inanely at his friend's confused looks. 

Vin turned to them. "We'll tell you about it someday." He looked back at the kid, grinning madly.

"Kids!" Buck huffed. Reaching out and pulling the pad from JD's grasp, he helped him get more comfortable in bed. "Rest now, kid. We'll get out of this hell hole in the morning."

JD smiled, happy to be leaving. He couldn't help but wonder if his voice was going to come back; he knew it would be a restless night in bed wondering what the rest of his life would be like if it didn't. But he knew his friends would be there for him, no matter what. He'd know sooner of later if he was ever going to be able to talk again, and until then, worrying about it wouldn't help him any.

And if he couldn't talk anymore, well, he'd cross that bridge when he came to it. No use thinking now about the steps he would have to take if that happened. There wasn't much use for a mute lawman, he figured. And, well, being a lawman was his life now. Settling back into bed, he fixed his mind on his friend's warm, friendly voices. Friends. He smiled. It was good to have friends, especially when things went wrong. They'd stand by him, of that he was certain. Smiling slightly, his eyelids fluttered and he drifted off into a light slumber.

the end  July 2002

 

Feedback on this story would be wonderful. I would really appreciate it. Thank you, Ruby :)

 

Vin Tanner

JD Dunne

 

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