Nathan saw it first--the wagon, the woman from the cafe, another man . . . or two? A campfire in the making. They hadn't yet seen Grayland Adams riding toward them furiously. Nathan motioned for Chris Larabee to cross behind the group, while he took off toward a ridge directly overlooking the site. The trail up the ridge wound out of sight of the little clearing. Nathen wished he could see the "reunion" but he knew he would be more help to JD and Chris if he were in a position to cover them. But although he couldn't see Adams reach his party, he could hear it.
And, praise Jesus, JD had gotten away.
JD didn't feel Lucas' body fall heavily on him. He didn't see his glassy dead eyes. He didn't hear Buck and Vin talking to him as they pulled Lucas off. He didn't know Vin had shot Lucas, and, thank God, he couldn't feel his injured hand.
It was a good time to have passed out. He didn't have to endure Vin's examination of his hand. The small blade had gone straight through right beside his thumb. If he were lucky, it hadn't messed up too many little bones and muscles inside. He was lucky enough not to hear Vin and Buck discuss whether or not to leave the knife in his hand until they could get him to Nathan. But Nathan was miles away. If they could clean the wound and dress it, they could likely ward off infection. They could bind it tightly enough to keep it from bleeding too much. Yes, the knife needed to come out and Vin was glad the boy didn't have to be awake for it. With Buck supporting JD's arm, Vin moved the knife very slowly, careful not to injure the hand any more than it had been. It was tedious and difficult. Buck kept wiping the blood away, but it was still hard for Vin to see what he was doing.
"You need more light?" Buck asked.
"Yea, but I need you to keep doing what you're doing more." Vin grimaced. "I wish I knew what the hell I was doing."
"You're doing great."
JD moaned and both men froze and remained silent, like that would keep him from waking up and feeling this whole procedure.
He didn't wake up. And Vin was able to get the knife out without any complications. Buck poured whiskey into JD's hand on both sides, and took one of his clean undershirts out of the saddlebag to make a bandage.
Vin put a hand on the kid's forehead. "No fever."
Buck nodded. "Reckon if we give him lots of water and get him home and in bed soon, he'll be ok." He framed it as a statement, but Vin knew it was a question.
"He'll be fine." Then Vin's eyes stole across the horizon. "If that's all he has to deal with."
Buck frowned. "That man won't get anywhere near him."
"Lucas did." Vin didn't mean it as an accusation, but Buck felt the jab just the same.
"I never would have left him. . ." Buck breathed.
"I know that," Vin said. He nodded to JD. "He does, too." The tracker stood up and stretched his legs. "I better find a good place to keep watch from."
"I won't leave him this time."
"I'd like to have had this when the Nichols' boys came through here," Josiah said, studying the strange rifle.
Ezra frowned. "May I?" he asked and Josiah handed it to him. The gambler ran fine hands over it. Josiah noticed how different their hands were. Ezra's had manicured nails and a dexterity he'd never seen in any hands other than a surgeon's. His own were beefy and thick--calloused with work.
"I wonder, Brother Sanchez, what would happen if each of the Nichols' boys had had one of these."
"No one would have survived."
"But if we'd have had them, more lives could have been spared." Ezra admired the firearm. "It's quite an achievement, wouldn't you say?"
Josiah nodded, unsure of where Ezra was headed with this conversation. He waited while Ezra studied the craftsmanship, examined the workings of the weapon. And he took the rifle back when Ezra gingerly returned it to him.
"In the hands of the law, it protects; in the hands of the outlaw, it kills more efficiently than any other rifle there is." Ezra popped his little derringer into his hand, and looked it over. "Makes this look like a capgun." Ezra sighed. "I hate to think of a world in which one man has so many chances to kill." He chuckled wryly. "But if someone facing me down has that capability, I want it to."
"I just think that, as the law, we should be armed with the very best weaponry available." Josiah didn't sound defensive. Rather, he sounded . . . resigned.
"But imagine . . . JD Dunne armed with a weapon like this. He has turned into a fine shot and he's saved my life more than once. But if he has the capacity to fire successive shots, he may not yet have the eye to focus that quickly for each shot."
Josiah nodded. "I figure I'll let Vin try this one, see what he thinks about it. Then we can see if it's something any of the rest of us want to fool with."
Ezra stood up, took off his jacket and replaced his pistol in its holster on his forearm. "Aren't you a little . . . forlorn that there is even a need for this kind of weapon?"
"Yes, Mr. Standish. Indeed I am."
Chris was careful to stay out of sight. He inched closer to the little camp and listened to the ravings of Grayland Adams. JD was long gone, evidently, and Adams could have killed someone.
"You helped him!!!!" he screamed at Magda, grabbing her dress collar. The woman's body stiffened in self-defense and she twisted her head away from the backhand that was sure to follow.
But it didn't yet. Adams just shook her, and Chris could imagine a black-haired twelve-year-old being grabbed like that and hauled off his feet. Chris forced his rage down. He had to think clearly. JD's life could be at stake.
"You wanted him to escape!" Adams said.
"No sir," Magda answered, her accent thicker as her fear became more prevalent. "I gave him the medicine to make him sleep. I did everything you said."
"Everything except keep him!!" Adams hands tightened on the woman's collar and she started to choke. Chris almost dove into him, but thought better of it. He couldn't help any of them if he didn't have the advantage. He would have jumped up anyway if Adams hadn't thrown her to the ground, with a gutteral oath, "Damn you . . ."
Adams thundered over to the rig's driver, who cowered against the wagon. "Lucas went to find him, sir." The man's voice quivered, and Chris wondered what Adams held over these people. Adults couldn't be that terrified of a bully. Why would they stick with him when he treated them like shit?
A kid wouldn't have a choice. A poor kid like JD who only wanted to do right by his mother.
Damn you, Adams.
Buck helped JD sip on the willowbark tea he'd made for him. That would take the edge off of the pain. That and some of the whiskey they had. JD was none too comfortable when he woke up, but he finally settled again.
Buck thought the kid was asleep when he felt those wide eyes on him. "You all right, son?" Buck asked easily.
JD didn't answer. Instead, he asked, almost fearfully. "Did you hear what he was saying?"
Buck scooted closer to the boy. "JD, I heard you scream at him and then I saw him holding you with that knife in your hand. I didn't pay attention to anything else but getting you away from him."
"Are you sure?" JD's voice sounded more agitated, a little higher.
"I'm sure. Everything's ok now."
JD was still laying propped up on his side. Vin had rolled up his big coat to make a pillow for him and JD watched Buck sideways. Buck wondered if he may have felt . . . safer not having to look him square in the eye..
"Lucas said . . . if you knew . . . everything . . . you guys wouldn't want to have anything to do with me."
"That's just crazytalk, JD. You're a good kid. I know you."
"No you don't, " JD said quickly, his eyes filling.
"But I know all I need to know."
JD stared into the fire. His eyes looked bigger, the pain in them deeper. He didn't even look scared anymore, just . . . sad. Buck took a long drink of whiskey, then spoke softly.
"JD, you don't have to talk about anything you don't want to talk about. Not ever." Buck's voice grew softer yet and very serious. "I will never push you to talk about something you don't want to."
The kid's eyes brimmed with tears, but his face never changed expression. He never looked up at his friend. Buck continued. "There's something you need to be very clear about, son." Buck's voice became husky. "You can tell me anything and I won't think any differently about you." There was a long pause. "I know you--I know the kind of man you are. You're my friend, and that's all that matters."
The tears that had glistened in his eyes now rolled slowly down JD's face, but still, he showed no other emotion. The boy whose feelings were always readable in his expressive face now seemed . . . numb.
Buck waited for a moment, thinking carefully about what he was about to say. "JD, I know what it's like to carry a secret around with you. It can eat you up. You feel like a. . . fraud."
JD just lay there watching Buck. And Buck understood that the young man was deciding. Deciding just how much he trusted his friend. "I . . . need help with this, Buck. I can't carry this around no longer." It was odd hearing the usually articulate young man slip into an old familiar vernacular. Buck realized that JD had to work to speak well. He was letting his guard down in increments, and Buck let the moment unfold at the boy's pace.
The boy's voice was very low--very different from what it usually sounded like.
"I worked in his stables. He was mean. Mean to everybody. Especially mean to his animals. He'd beat 'em sometimes and when I tried to stop him . . . he'd beat me."
Buck's heart clutched. He'd suspected as much, but hearing the kid actually say it . . . well, it made his heart hurt.
JD didn't seem to notice the change of expression on Buck's face. He just kept staring into the fire as though he could see the story playing out in the flames.
"It went on like that for a long time. One time one of his horses died--and he beat me for it." JD's voice was devoid of emotion. "I didn't see my mother much. She lived in the big house and I lived in a room over the stable. I think if she'd known what was going on, she'd have moved us."
"Why didn't you tell her?"
"She needed the money and jobs were hard to come by. Besides, she'd have blamed herself. She'd have made us leave if she'd known how bad he was to the horses. But if we'd left, I couldn't have done anything about it. I knew I had to stop him. What he was doing was so wrong.
"So one night, I opened the stable doors. . . and ran the horses out--let 'em all go." JD's voice trembled slightly. "Then I set the stable on fire." JD paused and Buck figured that JD'd never said that out loud. "Everybody came running and they all started throwing water on it and trying to stop it. It . . . distracted Gray enough that most of the horses were long gone by the time he got around to tracking them. Everybody was saying that I'd done well getting the horses out . . ." JD's voice grew softer. "But Grayland knew. He knew what I'd done."
The flames were burning lower and some had died into embers. The night was getting chillier. "Mama. . . she'd been so scared. She thought . . . that I'd been in there. I think that Gray must've told her that I was dead. She got so sick right after that.
"I found her trying to get into the stable. She'd have died just trying to get me out. She was coughing and she'd burned her hand." Another long pause. "I was carrying her back to the house, when he . . . came up behind me. He made one of his valets carry her the rest of the way. And I really thought he would kill me--just kill me and get it over with." Finally a great sob caught in his throat. "And I wish now that he had."
Buck had to work to control his reaction. JD meant what he was saying, and that scared the hell out of Buck. Any other time, Buck would have gone over to the kid and clapped a big hand on his shoulder. But somehow, he recognized that the boy needed space--a little distance. Buck didn't speak and slowly JD's eyes turned to him, as if to judge Buck's reaction to what he was saying.
Buck made sure that what he found in his eyes was understanding. Buck's eyes told him that it would be all right for him to go on with his story. Now JD's face was saying so much. There was more . . . and it would be worse. Ever so slightly, Buck nodded. JD looked down at the ground. Was he really even seeing anything anymore?
"He dragged me out across the fields and got a couple of the workers' horses. He . . . tied me up and threw me over the back of one of them. On my stomach--like a corpse. He tied my hands and feet under the horse's belly and then . . . he pulled me upside down so my head was under him. And he ran that horse all the way to town." For a moment, Buck thought JD was falling asleep with his eyes open. Everything about the story was suspended for a moment. Then he went on. "By the time we got there, I was unconscious. Hurt my neck and I caught the corner of a hoof once or twice. . ."
Now JD seemed to withdraw. He curled up smaller and he could hardly talk.
"He took me to a part of town I'd never been to . . ."
Buck felt his own heart pound. He couldn't stand what he was hearing. JD went on, still staring at the ground.
"He took me to a strange tavern. It was quieter than the saloon. Some folks were drunk. Some were smoking strange things. They had opium. They were all in a kind of haze. Gray made us sit at a table in the corner and he told me I had to pay him back for what I'd done. And since I didn't have any money . . . I'd. . . have to . . . work in the tavern at night. I didn't like the place. It felt . . . evil, and I knew my mama would never let me come here, much less work here. But Gray said that if I didn't, he'd bring her here to pay off my debt. There was no way I would let that happen." A sound between a chuckle and a sob bubbled from JD's throat as he remembered how naive he'd been. "I thought he'd want me to work at the bar. . ."
JD crossed his arms tightly around his knees and closed his eyes. There was a ragged sob that choked him. He'd have to say this all at once or he'd never be able to.
"He . . . sold me, Buck. To whoever'd pay the most. He said if I ran away, my mother would have to work there. And I could never let that happen. He bargained for me. He sent me to a room . . . with . . . someone I didn't know." Suddenly, JD gagged and he pulled himself up on his good arm just in case. He didn't look at Buck. It was almost as though he didn't dare. "If the . . . man . . . wasn't happy with me, Gray beat me. Sometimes they'd hit me, they'd . . . hurt me." There was a long silence. Buck's hands clenched in painful fists, and tears rolled down his face. Finally JD could speak again. "I worked like that for a while. It didn't happen all the time, usually when Gray was drunk. I did it, because I was so scared for my mother. She never got well after that fire." Another long pause. "When Mama died, I ran. I ran as far as I could. I worked odd jobs or do stable work just to have money to move farther and farther away. Until I got here. I've really been happy with you guys, Buck." JD turned his face into Vin's coat, leaving only his mouth exposed. "I thought he was out of my life. I thought he'd never be able to find me." Then he said it. "I was too stupid to think I could be one of you." And with that, JD pulled himself back up and faced Buck, a look of utter dejection on his tired face. "I understand if you don't want to ride with me." JD smiled sadly in the fire. "Lucas was right. I am a whore."