DISCLAIMER: The following is an original work of fan fiction based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. No profit is being made - enjoy!!
Mary Travis stepped from the room at the back of The Clarion that served as her living quarters and looked about the newspaper office for the maker of the noise she had heard. She was surprised to see Rebecca and Elizabeth Kennedy standing patiently by her desk.
"Why, hello girls... how are you today?" she asked as she moved forward with a smile, then she frowned as she remembered the date and asked cautiously, "Where is your father, Rebecca?" Her voice was gentle, her eyes filling with sorrow as she realised that it was exactly a year to the day since JD Dunne had shot their mother accidentally, during a bungled bank robbery. The event had shattered the young man who acted as sheriff and seriously affected the other six men who guarded the town of Four Corners against any trouble, as well as leaving Hiram Kennedy a widower and his two daughters motherless.
"We're fine, Mrs Travis.... Papa said that we were to stay here with you for a while," Rebecca answered, standing tall by her younger sister's side, hands clasped in front of her. Elizabeth was busy looking about the print shop with wide eyes.
Mary frowned; since Annie's death, Hiram had been possessive with keeping his attention fixed on the children, hardly ever allowing them to venture about the town without him... almost as if he feared that they, too, would be snatched from him if he weren't there to watch them.
"Papa said that we could stay with you," piped up little Elizabeth, her smile innocent. She was still too young to understand the anniversary of the date.
"Where is your father?" Mary Travis demanded again, a sudden cold feeling clutching at her stomach when she noted that at each child's feet was a small bundle that looked suspiciously like clothes.
Rebecca looked startled by Mary's sudden change of tone, but she answered, her young voice clear, "He said that... that he had some business to take care of...."
The child's words trailed off as Mrs Travis snapped in sudden fear, "You wait here... until I return." Then Mary was gone, rushing out the door into the main street, her face pale as her worst fears suddenly came to light.
Up the street she saw Hiram standing, his arm outstretched, his whole body intent on one thing: aiming the gun in his hand at JD Dunne, who seemed to be frozen in place. Mary frantically looked about and noted that there was no one else she could turn to, so she began to run towards them, calling out a warning as she did so. "Hiram, noooo...."
Her words were lost in the sound of the single gunshot that seemed to echo about the town, and she watched in the horror of slow motion as JD spun about and slipped to the ground, a boneless body. The young man had made no move to defend himself, even though he could so easily have drawn and at least returned shot for shot.
As if the explosion of noise had broken the spell that a few seconds before had rested over the town, people spilled out of the saloon and the neighbouring shops. Along with the sudden crowd were JD's friends, Chris, Buck and Vin; all three men had their guns out, ready to defend their comrade, but it was too late.
Hiram Kennedy let the gun slip from a hand that was shaking too much to hold it, and he, too, slowly slumped to his knees, clutching at the earth, unable to stop the bitter sobs ripping through his tortured body. As Mary drew closer, she could hear him rant over and over, "Oh God what have I done...? My God... I'm sorry.... Forgive me, Lord.... Annie... oh, Annie... I'm so sorry... my Annie... my babies... what have I done?"
She paused as she passed him, unsure who needed her the most, but then, seeing Mrs Potter moving to his side, she exchanged a nod with the older woman and moved on towards the downed body of JD Dunne, who was now surrounded by his friends. Nathan was harshly giving orders, and Ezra and Josiah rushed off to follow them. As Buck and Chris carefully assisted by lifting the boy between them, Nathan kept up with them, maintaining a constant pressure on the wound. "How...?" Mary began, as they rushed past her, but a sharp glance from Larabee silenced her question. Closing her eyes against the intense pain she saw reflected there, she slowly turned and saw that Vin Tanner was standing over the still-weeping Hiram, his own weapon lamely held in his hands as he waited for the distraught Kennedy to pull himself together enough so that he could be moved.
Mary moved towards Tanner and asked, "What are you going to do with him?" Her own voice was strained with emotions, and she felt tears well in her eyes as she watched the torment of the man at her feet, who was still begging forgiveness from his dead wife.
"I'm going to put him in the jail, ma'am," Tanner said and, whilst his voice was cold, his expression was torn. He had suffered a great loss in his early life and knew the pain the man had been suffering for the past year.
"But..." Mary began, shocked at Vin's words, yet at the same time not even sure what she was going to say.
Whatever it was became meaningless when Vin's eyes flashed and he snarled, "JD didn't even have a gun drawn... they were still strapped down...."
Mary knew what that meant: the guns were still fixed into their holsters by the small loops that prevented them from slipping out when running. Kennedy had not given JD a chance to defend himself. "It was a year ago today, Vin... Annie's... death..." Mary said, her voice husky with her own tears as she realised the terrible revenge that Hiram Kennedy had sought.
Tanner closed his eyes, seeking to push aside his own pain at the possibility of losing a friend. Opening them again, he took a deep, steadying breath and stated firmly, "I know that, Mary... but that don't make murdering JD legal...."
"Surely the circumstances, Vin...? His two girls... what will happen to them... if he... if he..." Mary argued, her heart torn by the thought that those two small, beautiful girls had now lost their father as well as their mother.
"Then he should have thought of that before he shot JD in cold blood," came a harsh voice from behind her. She spun about and came face to face with a furious Chris Larabee. The man was not a person to be crossed, and his eyes hardened as he took in the weeping man still huddled on the ground at their feet, totally ignoring the conversation above him as he begged his God to forgive him. Larabee continued bitterly, "He's going to jail.... Judge Travis is here next week... he can decide."
"How's JD?" Tanner asked, his face lined with worry.
Chris looked at his friend and slowly shook his head, saying, "Don't know.... Nathan's working on him... but it's not looking good," he added, swallowing his own fear as he fought to keep his mind on what he needed to do.
"But the girls..." Mary butted in, trying to explain her main area of concern.
Larabee again roughly cut her off, saying, "Mary... no more.... He should have thought of that before he pulled the trigger...." With that, Chris Larabee moved past Mary, bent down and pulled the sobbing man roughly to his feet. The crowd that had gathered moved restlessly, but were still in frozen fear as Larabee's harsh gaze rippled over them. "He shot a man in cold blood... and he's going to jail." The words were clear, precise and deadly in their intent. If anyone objected, now was the time to voice their views or forever hold them inside.
No one said a word, as there were only six other men in Four Corners who would face Larabee's wrath and survive; one stood by his side, ready for action, the other four waited with the fifth member and prayed that he would survive the day. Much as they had prayed exactly a year ago for another helpless gun victim to survive.
Mary slowly made her way back to the printing shop and home. As she approached, she noticed that the two small girls had been obedient to her wishes and had not even ventured out to see what the commotion had been on the street. As she entered, she paused, looking at their expectant faces, and felt tears well once more.
Rebecca slowly moved forward, not sure what had upset Mrs Travis but wanting to fulfil her father's last request to her, so she held out the letter that he had given her, saying, "Papa said that I was to give this to you...." She frowned and offered, biting her lip in concern as she confessed, "Papa was upset last night.... He cried... he cried when he wrote it."
Mary knelt down and pulled both the children into a tight hug as she offered over their small, bony shoulders, "Your papa was very sad... but don't worry... everything will be all right, just you wait and see...." As she said the words, she marvelled that she could lie so calmly to the two children who had lost their mother exactly a year ago and their father that very day.
"Is papa coming to get us soon?" asked Elizabeth innocently, her voice free of the fear that clutched at Mary's heart.
Mary leant back and gently raised a hand; with a shaking finger, she pushed back a strand of hair that had slipped free of the small hat the child had on. It was only then that Mary noticed that the children were both dressed in their travelling clothes. "Not... not quite yet.... He's been... detained.... He asked that you stay here with me for a short while..." she finally said, looking from one concerned face to the other.
"Did papa do something... wrong?" Rebecca suddenly asked, her older years giving her maturity to ask the question.
Mary felt her throat close as she struggled to shake her head. "Your papa did... what he thought he had to..." she finally conceded. Seeing that people were pausing to look in at the youngsters through the big front window, she carefully drew the children back, away from the prying eyes, and directed them into the small room that sat behind the office.
"Why don't we get you girls settled and see if I've got any of those cookies left that I baked yesterday."
A few minutes later, she watched as the two children tucked into the milk and cookies that she had placed in front of them. Seeing that they were fully absorbed in eating, she sat down and took the letter from the pocket into which she had slipped it. Slowly she opened it and began to read the contents, her face paling even further as she comprehended exactly what Hiram had planned for his two daughters.
Chris Larabee had never felt so helpless, not since the morning that Buck and he had returned to his small homestead to find nothing but a burning shell where once his family and home had stood.
The shooting that morning had rocked the small town of Four Corners, tearing at the fabric almost as much as the original shooting of Annie Kennedy had a year ago - except, this time, the placing of the bullet had not been an accident, and now a man - the father of two motherless children - sat in the jail cell trying to inform anyone who would listen that it had been a mistake, a dreadful mistake, and that shooting JD Dunne had not brought the man the recompense that he had thought it would.
"I thought if I killed him... the pain would end..." Hiram was mumbling for what must have been the hundredth time, and Larabee closed his eyes against the bitter grief he heard behind the words. "I didn't... I didn't expect him... to just stand there...." Suddenly Kennedy surged up and rushed to the bars, clutching at them desperately as he demanded of the two men who sat on the other side, "Why...? Why did he just stand there...? He knew... I was going to shoot him.... He saw me.... I waited for him to draw... but he... he...." The man swallowed convulsively several times before he rested his head against the cold metal and confessed bitterly, "He just stood there... he allowed me to shoot him...." Slowly his eyes opened as he pleaded, desperately, "WHY?!"
When he didn't get an answer to his question, he challenged the man in front of him, saying, "Mr Larabee, you know... you know that I had to kill him.... You've lost a wife... you know that I had to.... It was my right.... You... you'd do the same thing... if you ever caught the men who...."
Before he could finish, Larabee was out of the chair he had been sitting in, his arm snaked through the bars and he roughly yanked Kennedy forward, slamming him up against the bars as he snarled, "No... that was different.... My wife and son were murdered... in cold blood... left to die in a burned out cabin.... Your wife was shot by accident.... JD didn't mean to kill her... he's suffered every day since it happened; every time he sees you or your daughters the guilt eats at his soul a little bit more.... That's why he just stood there... let you shoot him... 'cause, like you, he thought that it was the 'right' thing to do...." With a disgusted twist, he flung the man backwards so that he sprawled half-on and half-off the small bed as Larabee pushed on, his eyes blazing, "If my son was still alive, I would never - NEVER - have risked leaving him an orphan... not just to get revenge.... That wouldn't have been MY 'right'." With that, he spun about and slammed out the door, the glass rattling dangerously as it closed.
Vin Tanner watched his friend storm from the room and wondered bitterly if any of them would survive the anniversary of Annie Kennedy's death.
Larabee left the sheriff's office and headed determinedly over towards Nathan's room. He had seen enough bullet wounds to know that JD was critically injured. He cursed himself for not having considered this event happening. For the last few days, Buck had been clucking about the youngest member of the seven and the others had been on hand constantly to show their support for JD, who seemed to be slipping further and further away from them. Hell, even Ezra had drawn the younger man into a poker game last night and let him win for nearly the whole evening. That had been the Southerner's way of keeping the other man's mind occupied and his presence within arm's reach.
Yet, the worst of it for Larabee, was that he could not honestly say that he would have acted differently from Hiram if it had been Sarah who had been killed that way. In his heart he knew that, if Adam had lived, he would have postponed his mission of revenge until after the lad was old enough to fend for himself and understand why Chris had to go after them, then... then nothing would have stopped him... even if it had been an accident, but that was Larabee.... Even he had to admit that at times he was simply a cold-blooded killer - yet, for all of his bad reputation, he could also truthfully say that he had never drawn on a man who was not prepared to defend himself.
"Mr Larabee... Mr Larabee!" a voice called from behind him and he stopped, turning to see Mary Travis trotting across the street towards him. He sighed and pushed down his anger at her. If she was going to plead for Hiram Kennedy's release, then she was going to have to do it with her father-in-law.
The pretty woman came to a stop in front of Larabee, her face flushed from her run. "JD... how is..." she began, then stopped. Gathering her breath, she asked more clearly, "How is JD?"
Chris felt his shoulders slump as he answered, "I don't know... I'm just on my way there now...."
Mary bit her bottom lip and ventured, knowing the subject she was about to instigate would not be welcome, "Would you mind if I walked with you?"
Larabee would have liked to deny the woman, but he knew that he could not; she had been an ally on too many occasions not to afford her the courtesy she deserved here. So he waved his hand forward and began to walk alongside her.
Silence ruled for only a few seconds before she began: "Hiram... left his daughters with me... this morning...." Seeing the sidelong look this earned her, she rushed to clarify, "I didn't know what he was going to do... in fact, I had only just found them when he...." She stopped; this was not the way she wanted the conversation to go, and she so wanted it to be right. She forced her mumbling words aside and began again, "He left a letter and some money... enough to pay for passage... for the two girls to New York - they have family there. He also enclosed a letter from his sister, inviting them all to go live with her and her husband... she wants him to start a new life... with her...."
Chris felt his jaw tighten in anger as he realised where this conversation was going. Turning, he confronted Mary and demanded heatedly, "How can you...? How can you walk there and ask me to just let him go...? You...! You of ALL people want justice and peace brought to this town, and yet you want us to let this man go... this man who less than two hours ago shot down a young boy in the street... in cold blood.... How do you justify that, Mary Travis?"
Mary winced with every word that was tossed at her, paling at her so-obvious double standard, but she held her head up high and countered angrily back, "Because of the two small girls in my kitchen... Mr Larabee, they are the ones I am thinking of.... Those children lost their mother a year ago today... and now their father...." Seeing the look this earned her, she tried a different route. "Do you think that JD would want them to lose...." Larabee was suddenly in her personal space, his face twisted with rage, his eyes piercing Mary's heart and soul, and she suddenly realised that this, this was what men saw moments before they died.
"Don't you dare... dare... finish that sentence.... I don't give a damn about what JD would want, even if he was able to voice his opinion.... This isn't about JD... nor the accident that happened here last year.... This is about a man shooting another man in cold blood... for revenge, Mrs Travis... pure and simple... there isn't anything honourable about that. Nor can you justify that kind of murder..." he snarled.
Mary swallowed, and offered with the foolishness of one who honestly thinks that they are right, "And you, Mr Larabee... when you go after your revenge... will you remember that there isn't anything honourable in that?"
Chris stilled and suddenly Mary was even more afraid; she had never really pushed this man, never found out just what it would take to unleash the beast that she knew rested within him... never, that is, until this day. Slowly, painfully, she witnessed the internal struggle that Larabee fought to draw back the animal that darkened his soul as he answered, his eyebrow raising and his lips twisting into a rattlesnake smile, "Unlike Mr Kennedy, I'm prepared to pay the price - and, when I follow my demons into hell, I won't be dragging any children after me.... And, Mrs Travis... my family were murdered in cold blood; JD accidentally shot Annie... ACCIDENTALLY.... Hiram and his daughters weren't the only victims here... it damn near broke that boy.... You didn't see him... when he went to retrieve Annie's body from Achilles.... For every tear that that man," Larabee pointed back towards the jail, "cried for his dead wife..." this time he pointed towards Nathan's clinic, "that boy wept in blood...." Taking another steadying breath, Larabee drew back and ended bitterly, "You're getting your safe town, Mrs Travis... now I suggest that you take up any further discussion you have on the matter with your father-in-law, when he arrives to try Kennedy for the shooting of JD Dunne...." With that, Larabee spun about and left Mary Travis standing shattered in the middle of the street.
The room that Nathan used as his clinic was deathly quiet when Larabee entered, causing him to pause in sudden fear on the threshold. Jackson was standing by the bed, resting a gentle hand on JD's forehead; the boy was still deeply unconscious, for which the healer was grateful as removing the bullet had not been an easy task. Even now, he was not sure if the boy would survive the deadly shot.
"How is he?" Chris croaked, his voice breaking with his concern. He glanced from JD to Nathan, then on to Buck, who was sitting by the bed holding the boy's hand, as if the mere touch could keep the lad from slipping away from them. Finally Larabee's glance slipped over to Josiah, who was standing near the window, looking out over the town; his features seemed to have aged in the last few hours.
The healer looked at the leader of the seven and shook his head sadly as he explained, "I don't know, Chris.... I got the bullet out, but it dragged an awful lot of clothing and dirt in with it.... He also lost a lot of blood, that with infection...." He shrugged, turning back to face the injured youth, his face twisting into anguish at his helplessness at the situation. He could not help but remember that he had felt exactly the same way a year ago, when it had been Annie lying in that very bed... he shuddered as he felt the cold chill of that particular memory steal over him. Turning back to face Chris, he finished harshly, "It's really up to him, now...."
"He's a strong lad," Larabee muttered, his words sounding hollow even to his own ears. Then, giving himself a mental shake, he asked, "Josiah, can you go and back Vin up at the jail?"
"You expecting trouble?" Jackson demanded, his eyes flashing with anger at the thought of further injuries to his friends.
Remembering the small gathering of people and the looks he had received when he walked over to the clinic, Larabee looked concerned as he offered, "Not everyone is happy that we have Hiram in jail... Mar...." He paused and altered his words before he finished, "Mrs Travis seems to think that we ought to consider the children in this... losing their mother last year... now their father...."
"He shot JD..." Buck suddenly spat out, his face twisting in pain. "Damn it, Chris..." he turned his tormented eyes on his long-time friend as he concluded, "JD didn't even attempt to defend himself...." He looked back at the unconscious boy and snarled, "He just stood there...." Wilmington had been following their youngest out of the saloon when he had been side-tracked by one of the working woman there; he had turned just in time to see Kennedy raise his gun and fire. In Buck's eyes, the boy had not stood a chance to defend himself.
Larabee felt his own anger grow, but he was angry at himself: he should have realised that something like this could happen; he ought to have arranged for JD to be out of town for the week, got Vin to take him off on some errand. As the leader of the group it was his responsibility to think of his men - but this time... this time he had not been thinking. Hell, they all knew the day was coming; had witnessed JD's subtle withdrawal from all their attempts to keep him occupied. Over the last two weeks, one by one, JD had gently but firmly pushed them away - even Casey had been wise enough to retreat to her aunt's farm and stay there, after JD had been particularly short with her the day before. Close on the heels of that thought came another, as he said, "Someone needs to ride out and fetch Casey." The young lady would want to be with JD at this time.
"Ezra went..." Nathan said, then seeing the look of surprise this earned him, he shrugged and stated, "He... he offered...."
Larabee was just about to comment on that when Josiah suddenly leaned towards the window and said, "I think we had better get over to the jail... looks like there's a committee heading that way."
"Damn..." Chris snarled as he spun about, tossing over his shoulder, "Nathan... Buck, stay with the kid."
He rushed down the steps and cautiously made his way towards the crowd, coming up behind the small gathering of townspeople standing in front of the jail. He was pleased to note that Buck had done as requested; his volatile temper at this time would act as a power keg. Larabee also noted with relief that Mary was not with the group.
Larabee could see that Vin was out in front of the jail door, his mare's leg held firmly in his hands as he asked in a tone that informed the people before him just how dangerous he could be, "What can I do for you people?"
"What are you going to do with Hiram...?" one member of the crowd called out. He was a portly man who considered himself an important member of the town committee.
"He's going to stand trial for shooting JD Dunne," Vin fired back, his face grim.
"You know that boy shot his wife a year ago... don't you...?" another man called out; this one could usually be found stirring up trouble.
"Don't make his shooting the lad legal," Larabee answered softly from behind them. They swung about as one to face him in shock; although he had not spoken the words loudly, they had carried across the whole group clearly.
"He's got those two girls to look after," a female voice ventured; she was a church-going woman who had children of her own.
"He should have thought of that before he picked up his gun..." Chris countered coldly, feeling his patience running thin.
Suddenly another voice spoke up - one of the older men who was standing off to the side, not one of the group who had marched on the jail. "Kennedy didn't have a rig on... the gun was already in his hand... he didn't give that boy a chance to fire back.... Just walked up to him, called his name and fired.... That's not giving a man a chance...."
"But he killed Annie..." another voice argued, though this one not so certain. The crowd was starting to wilt as the knowledge that Hiram had not taken JD out in fair fight swept across the small group.
"That was an accident..." an angry voice slashed out across the crowd, and Chris spun around to see Buck standing there, his stance straight, his anger barely restrained.
"That WAS an accident..." reaffirmed a woman's voice, and Larabee was surprised to see Mary Travis standing just behind the womaniser, her own face strained as she continued, "but what Mr Kennedy did this morning wasn't.... Now, either we agree to have the law in this town or we don't... but we can't pick and choose... as Mr Larabee kindly pointed out to me earlier, the law doesn't work like that...." She glanced at each person in turn, allowing her words to slip over the entire group.
Finally, after what seemed like hours but was in fact only minutes, the broken crowd slowly began to disperse, until only Vin, Chris, Josiah, Buck and Mary were left standing in front of the jail. Mary glanced towards Larabee and offered with a sad smile, "I'm sorry for what I said earlier... it was unthinkable of me... and of course, you're right... this IS different...."
"Thank you, Mary," Chris said, and he truly meant the words; the situation could have turned ugly fast.
Mary looked slightly flustered to be the object of such intense attention from the men, and she swallowed and asked, wanting to distract her own thoughts, "How... how is JD?"
Buck answered, his voice cracking with emotion, "Nathan got the bullet out... but now we have to wait...."
"I'll pray for him, Buck..." Mary said sincerely, reaching out and resting her hand lightly on the taller man's arm, moved by the obvious pain she was witnessing in his eyes at the thought of losing his younger friend.
"Amen," Josiah agreed, knowing that the lad needed all the help he could get.
Mary glanced downwards, biting her lip as she stated, "I'd better get back... the girls...." She stopped, suddenly unsure how to go on.
"We'll keep you informed on JD, ma'am," Vin offered gently. He, like the others, was very aware that JD was not the only victim in this tragedy.
Wiping her hair back from her face with a tired hand, she smiled weakly and offered, "Thank you, Mr Tanner...." With one last, long look at Chris, she turned and slowly made her way back to the Clarion office.
Chris turned to watch her leave, a feeling of unease sweeping over him. This matter was far from settled, and all they could do now was wait: wait and see if they would be calling the judge in to try Kennedy for the shooting of JD Dunne or for his murder.
"I'm going back to sit with JD," Buck stated, wiping a hand over his face. He looked shattered and far older than Chris could ever remember, and he suddenly felt a twinge of fear for his long-time friend. Reaching out, he grabbed his arm, stopping the taller man. When Wilmington looked back at him, a puzzled frown on his face, Larabee let go, feeling suddenly foolish for letting his emotions rule his actions so keenly.
"Let us know as soon as there's a change," Chris said gruffly, standing back and away from Buck. The other man looked at Larabee for several long, silent seconds before he nodded slowly, as if understanding what Larabee was really trying to say and, turning, he made his way back to Nathan's clinic and JD's side.
"I get the feeling it's going to be a long week before the judge gets here," Tanner said dryly, watching the town as it slowly began to return to as normal as it was going to get after the events of the morning.
Larabee nodded his agreement as he walked past the tracker into the jail, saying, "Can you and Josiah take the patrol this afternoon?"
Vin shot Chris a hard look before he nodded slowly, saying, "Hey, no problem cowboy...." Then he looked slightly concerned as he offered, "Do you think it's wise to only have one person keeping a watch in the jail while the town's so restless?"
"You're right.... Ezra should be back before too long... he can double up with me...." He turned and looked back over the street. "See how things go tomorrow... if possible, I only want one in the jail though... I think we need to keep up as normal an appearance as we can.... And we're all close enough to answer any trouble that arises."
Sanchez and Tanner exchanged looks; that was not going to be easy with one of their own number lying injured, maybe dying. Whatever they were going to say was lost, as Casey noisily rode into town at breakneck speed, followed closely by a bedraggled Standish as he attempted to keep up with the young woman. She pulled her horse to a rough stop and fled up the stairs to Nathan's room, frantically calling JD's name as she did.
Larabee, unable to bear the anguish in Casey actions, turned and strolled into the jail, firmly closing the door behind him. The other two men stood silently for a few seconds, before they both shook their heads in sadness and moved to obey their leader's last orders.
The next few days passed as the tension grew to lie over the town. People edged their way about, as if afraid that they would cause the fragile peace to shatter. JD lay, tossing and turning in a fever as his young body fought the infection that raged though him, Nathan, Buck and Casey remaining constantly by his side as they battled to save him.
Larabee, Tanner, Sanchez and Standish did their best to keep the townspeople's confusion from spilling over into violence. Mary Travis kept the Kennedy children hidden from sight as she waited for the weekly stagecoach to arrive that would carry her young charges away from the scene of their family's destruction. Once, Mary had visited Hiram to let him know that the girls wanted to see their father, but the man had violently objected and Chris had to silently agree with him; he would never, ever have wanted Adam to see him in jail.
No one questioned why the man had shot the young sheriff, only how they had not seen it coming. Some of the townspeople retreated to the bible for answers and spoke openly of an eye for an eye, while others retorted that Jesus had spoken of forgiveness. Josiah found himself inundated by people stopping him in the street while they questioned him on the matter, and he could only shrug in helplessness at Larabee's frown when he was delayed from his duties because of this demand on his time.
Hiram finally retreated behind a shell of fragile silence. Every morning he would ask if JD had survived the night. Other times he would openly kneel in his cell and pray for the man he had shot and the wife that he had lost; at times he would include his lovely girls and would weep openly at those time. Larabee, who seemed to be constantly in the jail, would watch him silently for a few minutes then, rising, he would storm from the office, his jaw clenched and his eyes blazing. No one stopped him as he marched into the saloon and sat for several hours, a full bottle of whiskey in front of him. No one mentioned the fact that he never actually poured a drink from the bottle, but would just sit staring at it, as if it could give him the answers he so desperately wanted.
On the third morning, Larabee was sitting behind the desk in the sheriff's office, his mind tripping back over the events of the last few days and those of just over a year ago. He could remember his cold reaction to JD's killing of Annie Kennedy, and how he had made no move to defend the boy when the townspeople had wanted the kid to give up his guns. Hell, in some respects he could sympathise with how they felt: JD had acted rashly, without thought, and it had cost a young mother her life. That was the one thing that Larabee had found hard to forgive JD for at the time. The boy had seemed so young back then, so eager to prove his worth, so enthusiastic about dying, never looking beyond his actions to see the consequences of them. Well, JD Dunne had learned the consequences of his actions just over a year ago, and it had been a harsh lesson indeed. It was not until the lad had laid quivering with reaction in the dirt beside Annie's stolen body that Larabee had realised just how affected the boy had been by this accident, and then only when JD had insisted on giving up his guns and leaving the town did Chris begin to realise that he, Larabee, had reacted badly; instead of supporting JD, he had in fact assisted the boy in making his decision to leave them. He had never told anyone that he had been pleased when the kid decided to return to town with them. It had been a hard year, but between them all they had struggled to survive and make something good grow out of the dry, bitter land that the town of Four Corners rested on.
Suddenly the door was flung open, and Chris had his gun out and pointing towards it before he even thought about it. Ezra Standish froze on the threshold and carefully held his hands up and away from his body. "I do hope that you are not intending to use that thing on me, Mr Larabee."
"How's JD?" Chris asked, his weapon slipping away with the same ease as it had been drawn.
"The fever has broken...." The joy was clear in his tone and Larabee felt the sweet relief also wash over his own body. "He woke a short while ago... spoke to Casey, then Nathan shooed us out while he checked him over.... But our good healer is confident that he will heal... given time and plenty of rest...." As he spoke, Ezra shot a look over towards the man who had sat up in his cell at the news.
"Oh, thank God..." Hiram breathed, his pale face cracking under the pressure of his guilt. "Thank God..." he breathed again and again. Larabee turned and could only stare at the man for several moments. Finally, he turned away in disgust.
Ezra saw the look that filtered across Chris's face and offered gently, "I'll keep a watch on our repentant prisoner if you want to go and check on JD for yourself."
Once again Larabee looked over towards the man and, slowly nodding, he advised, "I'll send Vin or Josiah to back you up... once news of JD's recovery hits the street, the good townsfolk might take it into their heads to attempt to free him again."
"Don't worry, Mr Larabee," answered the man in the cell, his tone one of conviction. "I know what I've done and I am prepared to face my punishment."
"It's a damn shame your punishment has to include your children..." Larabee snarled, before he felt a hand calmly clasp his arm. He glanced down at Standish's hand. Then, realising that he was not helping the situation, he swallowed back his anger and offered, "I'll be back as soon as I can...."
After Chris had left, Ezra moved to stand near the cell and asked, "Was it worth it?" His tone was not condemning, merely curious.
Kennedy looked at the gambler and thought carefully before he answered. "I spent the last year missing my Annie, Mr Standish... she was the first thing I thought of when I awoke and the last thing on my mind before I slept. Every meal I prepared for the girls... each new thing they did at school and told me about, I thought Annie would never know that.... She should have been here to hear them... to see how her lovely, beautiful children were growing. I hated him...." He stopped, his voice catching. "I hated... him so much, that I used to watch him... walking about the town... and think... think... how can he just walk there, just walk away from it... to even breathe... when my Annie is lying buried under six feet of dirt...." He stopped again, closing his eyes and fighting to pull back his raging emotions.
"It was only after I called out to him and he just stood there... ready to let me kill him... allowed me to shoot him... just stood there and let me... that I... that I realised that he... that he hadn't just walked away from it.... He knew what I was going to do... and he allowed me to.... As the bullet struck him, I was looking him in the eye...." Again a pause while breath was dragged into tortured lungs. "I thought that I owed Annie that much... but all I saw was his pain... his torment... and I remembered... when he came into the room... just after Annie died... how he reacted... how he had cried, and I suddenly realised that I had spent the last year... hating a boy.... A boy... who hated himself far more than I ever could... for what he had done.... No bullet that I fired could ever cause him any more suffering than the guilt that I saw reflected in those eyes.... I thought him a monster... Mr Standish.... I honestly thought that he was some kind of monster... that I was doing the town a service by killing him, but as soon as the bullet left the chamber I knew that I was a far more dangerous creature than he would ever be.... He shot my Annie by mistake... he was aiming to save life, not take it... but me..." the tears could no longer be held back, as they slowly began to spill over lashes that refused to hold them back, "I just shot him in cold blood...."
The man collapsed on the bed, his legs refusing to hold him any longer, his head held in his hands as his body shook against the rages of internal guilt that now buffeted him. He had refused to believe that his prayers would be answered, that the boy would be allowed to live, but now that he had, he no longer had the strength to stand against the dark strangulation of guilt that now gripped his soul. Where before he had been silent, it was as if the news of JD's recovery had loosened his tongue and he needed to get his guilt out into the open.
The door suddenly swinging open had Ezra spinning about, barely being able to prevent himself from firing his small, hidden weapon, which had slid into his hand on Josiah's entrance. He self-consciously pushed the derringer back in its rig. "Mr Kennedy seems to be uncommonly upset at the moment," he mumbled, grateful for the preacher's presence. He had not been aware of just what a storm his simple question would unleash, and the man's raw pain had numbed the gambler. He was unsure how to react to such an open, honest confession of such torment.
"Chris asked me to come and sit with you... while he spoke to JD.... The boy seemed mighty eager to pass words with him, and he wanted Vin to remain, so I offered my services here...." Josiah threw a glance over towards the still shattered man in the cell. "And I feel that Mr Kennedy's needs are greater than JD's at the moment."
Ezra nodded, still unable to display his usual verbal skill, clearly unwilling to admit that the man's words had affected him so deeply. Instead, he snatched up his hat and offered about a cough, "I'll... I'll just sit outside and make sure you are not disturbed."
Josiah looked long and hard at Ezra before he smiled slightly and offered, "I think that might be wise."
Standish took that as his cue to escape and gratefully accepted it, firmly closing the door behind him.
Chris could not believe what he was hearing. "It was an accident?" he roughly questioned the injured lad for the fourth time.
JD looked weak, tired and oh, so young as he silently nodded; the mere effort of doing that was quickly draining him of strength.
"JD..." Chris asked again, wanting to be totally sure that he was hearing his young friend correctly, "the man walked up to you in the street... called your name, stood not more than six feet away from you, and then gunned you down in cold blood... and you're telling me it was an... accident?"
The boy looked from Chris to Nathan and then Buck. Finally his eyes rested on Casey. Vin was standing just outside of his vision, his own face etched with a frown. "Yes..." JD gasped, before he licked at dry lips. Nathan moved forward and held out a cup of his herbal tea, which he carefully held while he lifted the boy's head to allow him to swallow a few more sips. "He was showing... me his... gun..." he finally managed to gasp.
"JD..." Buck snarled, not sure if he was more angry at the memory of seeing the boy laying in his own blood, or at the fact that the lad had the same stubborn look on his face that Chris sometimes got when he was not to be swayed or tampered with. "The man SHOT you."
Eyelids closed over a weary expression as JD slowly nodded again; this arguing was tiring him out, but he was determined to have his say. "I know... Buck..." he panted, "but it was an accident... an ACCIDENT..." he stressed, before he grimaced in pain and slumped even further into the bed.
Chris shot another angry glare at the boy in the bed and then demanded, "All right... everyone out.... I want to talk to JD... alone...."
"Chris..." Nathan began, not wanting to leave the still badly injured youth alone with the volatile Larabee.
"Now, Nathan...." Seeing the real concern, Chris let his face soften as he added, "I just want to speak to him privately for a few minutes.... I won't eat the lad... I promise." Buck looked as if he might argue, but one smouldering glare from Larabee halted his actions. Jackson was the last to leave, and he reluctantly closed the door behind him.
Larabee waited until he was alone with JD. If possible, the boy had paled even further. Chris took the now-vacated seat by his bed and began to speak: "JD... I know...." He paused, searching for the right words. He took another breath and began again, "I know that you feel guilty over what happened with Annie... and there isn't a day that goes by when you don't play 'what if' or 'I should have', and I know that every time you see those young girls you wince and remember exactly how much it hurt when you realised that you had shot their mother...." He held up his hands when he saw the shattered look that crumpled JD's face. Leaning forward, he offered warmly, "I'm not saying these things to bring you more pain, JD... God knows we all carry a pain or memory that we'd much rather not... but I want you to fully realise what you are saying here... to understand the full consequences of your words.... If you persist in saying that it was an accident... that he shot you by mistake, then I will release him.... He's already arranged to send his children to live with his sister in New York.... Hell, if it's want you want... I'll make sure that he's on the same damn stage with them... but you have to understand that doing this... it won't..." he paused, wanting desperately for the boy to understand, "it won't make the pain go away, JD.... It won't stop you from waking up in the night and remembering.... The guilt will still be there..." Larabee pointed gently towards the boy's chest as he offered wisely, "nothing will ever take that away.... It will ease with time... but you'll always carry the knowledge that you shot and killed an innocent person...."
He halted when he saw JD's lip quiver and cursed himself; he was not one with fancy words like Ezra. He could not speak dandy words - he could only say the words that he carried in his own heart, could only speak his own plain language. "JD, I'm not saying this to hurt you more.... I just want you to be sure... to understand... this isn't a way to absolution." He finally stopped, waiting while the injured lad absorbed his words.
Finally JD offered, his eyes telling Chris that he was speaking the truth and speaking from his heart, "I would give... anything... to be able... to give those... little girls... their... mother... back...." He stopped and swallowed hard against the lump that now blocked his throat, but he pushed the pain of his throbbing wound aside and pressed on, knowing that this was very important. "But I can... give them... their... father back... Mr Larabee... Chris.... I need to do this... not for them... not Mr Kennedy, not... even for me.... I want to do... this for Annie..." he paused as a tear slipped down his pasty-white face as he admitted, "but I can't...." He met and held Larabee's eyes, matching the determined expression he saw there as he said in a stronger voice, "But you can... for me.... Please Chris... don't make me... the reason... for their losing... their father... as well." Another tear followed the first, and then another, spilling like droplets of rain on a summer's day.
Larabee reached out and carefully cupped the other's face as he promised, "I won't.... I'll see that Hiram Kennedy is on that stage with his daughters when it leaves today...." He stood and, moving towards the door, he paused. Turning back, he offered with deep sincerity, "JD... don't ever try to be like me... you are a far better man than I could ever hope to be." Then he was gone, the door opening again almost immediately as Nathan, Buck and Casey burst into the room to check on their injured friend. JD just smiled up at them; it was a warm, hopeful smile that they suddenly realised they had not seen in a very long time.
Larabee marched from the sick room, to be closely followed by Tanner, who was tossing his friend deep troubled looks of concern. "Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot anyone," Chris offered about a slight smile, as he caught one of the guarded looks. The tracker had no way of knowing exactly what had passed between the gunslinger and the sheriff in the small bedroom.
"Just wanted to make sure cowboy," Tanner tossed back with a smile of relief.
Larabee chose to ignore him as he marched towards Mary Travis's office. On entering, he stopped as he spied the two girls sitting at the table, drawing on some paper. Each looked up expectantly at the men who had entered. Neither smiled; their short lives had carried far too much pain to allow a smile to easily cross their lips. They were once more dressed in their travel clothes, as they waited for the coach.
Mary came forward to greet the two men, her pretty face paling in fear as to what their presence could mean. She had heard that JD was fever-free and recovering; had the boy taken a turn for the worse? "Mr Larabee... is JD...?" she began.
Chris interrupted her, saying, "I heard that they're booked on the stage due today." He knew that they were, but he just wanted to confirm it.
"Why yes... I mean... I did think about keeping them here longer, in the hope that...." She trailed off; she had hoped that Hiram would relent and see his daughters, but when it became obvious that he would not, she could not stand to see them suffer any longer. She had told them that they were visiting their aunt for a holiday. She could not bring herself to explain the real reason behind their trip, and hoped that their aunt would be a braver person than she.
"I would like Mr Kennedy to travel with his daughters on the stage today... can you arrange an extra ticket for him?"
"Hiram...? Will..." Mary began, tossing a confused look from Chris to Vin. She noted with some mild shock that Tanner was looking as perplexed as she felt by Larabee's words.
"Can you arrange it?" Chris asked again. This time his temper was wearing thin; the stage was due in the next two hours, and he wanted the man out of their town as soon as possible.
"I suppose I could... I mean..." Mary stammered but then, straightening her back, she stated firmly, "Yes... of course I can.... I'll go and get the ticket right now. Come on Rebecca, Elizabeth, we're going to get your father his ticket for the stage." She bustled the children up and guided them out of the office as fast as she could, as if afraid that Larabee might change his mind.
Watching her go, Tanner questioned, "Mr Kennedy is going to be on the stage with his daughters?"
Larabee shot the tracker a dry look before he offered, "JD is insisting that it was an accident, and I believe him... so it would be wrong to condemn the man for an accident."
"But you're gonna make damn sure he's on the stage this afternoon?" Vin offered with a slight smile. He knew exactly where Chris was coming from, as he also intended to make sure the man left Four Corners that afternoon. He also planned on accompanying the coach to the nearest railway town, to ensure that the family boarded the train.
Larabee froze, his expression turning deadly as he answered, as smoothly as a snake going over a warm stone, "I don't like those sort of accidents in my town...."
Tanner held up his hands in surrender and backed off, as he smiled and offered, "You won't get any arguments from me, cowboy."
Larabee's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing as he turned and headed out the door. He was too late, however, as Tanner had caught the slight curve of his lips.
As they approached the jail, both men saw Standish sitting outside, his stance casual, but both men knew that it was anything but. The gambler rose when he saw Larabee and Tanner approach. "I take it that everything is going well with our youngest member of the group?" he asked, unable to hide the edge of concern that filtered into his tone.
"If you mean JD... he's fine," Larabee answered, before he marched past and entered the jail. Inside, Josiah was quietly talking to Hiram, who was sitting beside him on the bed. Chris could tell that the father of two looked tired, almost shattered, but he pushed that aside; the man could capture his lost sleep on the stage or on the train. Right now, Larabee just wanted him out of his town.
"Mr Kennedy," he stated, moving to open the cell door wide. Seeing both Hiram's and Josiah's startled looks, he continued, "JD has confirmed that his injury was an accident...." Seeing the confused look that fell across Hiram's face, he offered again, "He said that he asked to see your gun and it went off by mistake.... That being the case, I'm releasing you... but only on the understanding that you take your daughters and leave on the stage when it arrives today...." There was no room for argument, but the shocked man felt compelled to.
"But... I..." Kennedy looked at each of the men before him as he stammered, "I... shot him.... I know it was wrong... now... and I'm so sorry.... I wish... I want him to know that...." He stumbled to a halt as Josiah took up the slack.
He stated clearly and firmly, "Hiram... you've been praying for a miracle... you've now been given two.... JD will survive, and now you can leave this town with your daughters and make a new life for yourselves.... You've just been telling me how you want to thank God for the first one... the best way to do that is to grab the second one and both your daughters and leave here... go to your sister in New York... your girls deserve better than the memories this town has to offer...." He paused, letting his words sink in.
Hiram swallowed hard a couple of times before he ventured, "Can I... can I please talk to JD...?" He saw the flash of denial even before it left Larabee's lips, so he pushed on, "I've got to let him know that I am sorry... that I'm truly, truly sorry and that I now understand... please?"
All eyes turned to rest on Larabee, who was fighting against the overwhelming urge to deny the man his request - yet there was a part of him that knew that if he did that, then JD would always wonder and Chris would always know that he had prevented this chance of healing on both men's part. "All right... but we'll be there...." Seeing the look the others gave him, he finished, "All seven of us." It was final and, closing his eyes, reluctantly Hiram agreed.
Six men stood silently about the room, while the seventh lay on the bed, digesting the request that Hiram had made to visit him. At first he had shaken his head in denial and Buck had been swift to back him up, demanding to know how Larabee could have agreed to such a meeting, but now - after a few moments' thought - the lad finally interrupted his friend's words, saying, "All right... I think... I think I want to see him... but..." he looked about, suddenly afraid.
"Not alone..." Chris stated, taking away the boy's need to reveal his fear. "I told him he could only see you if we were all present." He knew that he had made the right decision when he saw JD relax slightly. The boy was still far from healed; it would take several weeks before his waxen complexion returned to normal.
Josiah opened the door and indicated for Hiram, who had been standing with Mary, to enter the room. The man paused on the threshold; he had not been in this particular room since they had removed his wife's body and the memory assailed him, but the other men respected his flash of memory and waited until he had collected himself.
Finally Hiram moved towards the base of the bed. Seeing how pale and fragile the lad looked, he felt the bite of guilt once more wash over him. Looking at the six men who were stationed about the room, he took some slight comfort from the men who would watch over the injured man and make sure that he didn't rush himself to recovery. Swallowing hard, he offered, "Just over a year ago... Annie died in this room." All felt the tension inch up, but Larabee glared at Wilmington who bristled at the other's words. Buck subsided under Chris's glare.
Kennedy pushed on, determined to get the words out; he had spent long, hard hours since the shooting, thinking about them, about what he would say to JD if the young man survived. "I thought that was the worst day of my life..." he paused again, letting the pain wash over him, absorbing it and placing it in its rightful place - his past, "but now I know that's not true...." He looked JD straight in the eyes as he continued, his tone stronger, "That day was when I shot you, JD.... I thought... I thought that it would help me with the pain... make right the wrong that I believed you had done me... us... my family... but it only showed me exactly how awful you must have felt when you shot my Annie...." This time he had to hold up his hand to prevent the others from interrupting and, again, it was Larabee's backing of the man that kept the others silent.
"I shot you... I meant to shoot - I thought I wanted you dead.... I did... until I saw you lying there, until I realised exactly what I had done.... My God, JD... Annie's death WAS an accident... it hurts to say it, but it's true... but what I did to you.... I know... that you don't take life easily... I've seen that, in all of you, the two years you've been in this town...." He stopped and wiped at his face, saying, "I'm not explaining this very well... but I really just wanted you to know, JD... that I understand... that I truly understand that you didn't mean to shoot Annie; that you were sorry and would have taken the bullet yourself, if you could have.... I won't ever forget what happened, or how... but I can forgive you and understand.... I'm sorry that I caused you pain... that I hurt you... and if I could take back that second the bullet left the gun, then I would... but I can't... and that is what I have to learn to live with... just as you have had to learn over the past year. I'm sorry...." He stopped, unable to continue, as he waited, head bowed - for what, he was not sure, but he would accept any condemnation that JD tossed at him.
The injured man in the bed looked very uncomfortable as he swallowed and offered, his voice barely above a whisper, "We've both... done things... that we regret... but I think... it's time we both... put it in... the past... like you said... and... and get on with our lives..." JD panted, his words sounding far older than his actual age. The other six men standing in the room were frozen by the scene that was playing out in front of them.
Hiram looked away, moved by the boy's generosity; he had aimed to kill the lad a few days before, and JD had found it in his heart to forgive him. Kennedy always had been - and just recently rediscovered that he still was - a God-fearing man, and that meant more to Hiram than he could put into words. As he took a breath, he offered, "I guess I'd better gather the girls and go wait for the stage... I'm going to stay with my sister in New York... make a new life for the Rebecca, Elizabeth and me...." He looked up, and caught JD directly in the eyes with his own intense look as he finished, "I honestly want you to know... that I do truly understand now that it was an accident." With those words, he was gone, closely followed by Chris, Vin and Ezra.
JD slumped back on the bed and tiredly closed his eyes, his strength drained. As if from a distance he heard Nathan calling his name, but he just drifted. Then a gentle hand rested on his cheek and, opening his eyes, he saw that Jackson was holding out a cup and, from the smell of it, it was his herbal tea. Dunne was about to refuse when he saw the look in the healer's eyes: this was not a matter that was open for debate. He gratefully accepted Nathan's support while he drank the bitter brew, and within minutes he was slipping into the grateful arms of sleep.
Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner silently stood and watched the train as it pulled out of the station. Hiram Kennedy and his two daughters were on their way to New York.
The tracker had not been too surprised when the gunslinger had appeared at his side on his horse, ready to accompany the stage. As the train disappeared into the distance, Tanner ventured, throwing a sidelong glance at his friend, "Makes you wonder if revenge is really all it's cracked up to be... don't it?"
Larabee turned and headed towards the stable where they had boarded their horses while they awaited the train's arrival. "Revenge isn't for God-fearing people like Hiram Kennedy."
"But it is for you?" Tanner asked, unable to prevent the words leaving his mouth.
Chris smiled; it was not pleasant, as he offered, "There's one big difference between Kennedy and myself."
"And that is?" Tanner questioned, intrigued by Larabee's words.
The man in black stopped dead in the street, and the look he turned on Tanner had the man feeling the hand of death brushing over him, as he answered, "Kennedy isn't a killer."
The tracker stood for several seconds watching the gunslinger walk away from him, before he took a breath and slowly let it out. Then, giving himself a mental shake, he hurried to catch up with his friend.
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