Clearing the Air
By: Susie Burton
Walking down the dimly lit upper corridor of the boarding house, Buck paused when he got to the bedroom he was seeking. The door was slightly ajar and he could just make out a dull thumping noise, as well as a soft, almost unidentifiable gasping sound coming from within. Frowning in confusion, the ladies’ man quietly tapped on the wooden architrave of the doorframe. Without waiting for an invitation or acknowledgement of his presence, he put his right hand on his gun butt in readiness and cautiously entered the room.
The first thing that caught Buck’s attention was the dishevelled state of the large bed. The counterpane, blankets and linens had been yanked off and were haphazardly hanging over the side of the mattress. One of the bed’s pillows was sitting in the middle of the ticking mattress, but the second one had clearly become the instrument of Kate Stokes frustrated anger and had borne the brunt of her violent, tearful outburst.
The young woman gripped the end of the bolster and was furiously pounding it onto a book resting on the small nightstand. As Buck watched in silent disbelief, the cotton covering of the pillow split at the seam and thousands of tiny white feathers wafted into the air. With a scream of impotent rage, Kate flung the ruined pillow across the room and snatching up the leather bound book, she then proceeded to frantically tear out the pages in great handfuls. Sinking to the floor in misery, she allowed the rent sheets of paper to fall around her before hurling the offending tome at the wall. A new flow of tears streamed down her cheeks and her entire body quivered as she lowered her head and wept inconsolably.
This wasn’t what Buck had expected to find when he’d left his friends and come in search of the bounty hunter. For several long seconds the moustached peacekeeper just stood rooted to the spot, staring unseeingly through the feathers that still floated around the dingy room. It was rare for the gregarious ladies’ man to be at a loss for words with a member of the opposite sex, but this situation had temporarily stymied him. He was unsure what he could or should say to the distraught young woman.
As the minutes passed, Buck realised that the hostility he’d directed towards Kate in the clinic had virtually dissipated; all he saw now was a desperately unhappy girl who was completely and utterly alone. His heart suddenly constricted in sympathy and the ladies’ man strode over to the sobbing woman, crouching down to kneel beside her.
"Hey, there, darlin’…. Ah, Jeez! C’mon, little lady, please don’t cry," Buck beseeched, placing his hand on the distressed girl and gently rubbing her back.
It was an instinctive response, a small gesture of comfort from one person to another, and it went a long way towards lifting Kate out of her misery. She gulped in a shuddering breath, and dragging her shirtsleeve across her tear-dampened face, the woman looked forlornly at the concerned peacekeeper. Several feathers had stuck to her skin and hair, but she said nothing as the man tenderly picked them off and blew them away with a gentle puff of breath.
Seeing that Kate had stopped weeping, the ladies’ man dug in his pants pocket for a handkerchief and carefully wiped away the girl’s tears. Passing her the square of cotton, he waited patiently as she blew her nose.
"I know you’re upset and think your world’s ended, but things will get better, Kate. You just have to give it some time, an’ think about what you’re going to do now."
"There ain’t no point. I’ve got nuthin’ le… ft," she mumbled, hiccuping on the final word.
"Course you have! You’re a smart lady and you’ve got the chance to rebuild your life, to put all this sorrow an’ pain behind you. I think you have the strength and courage to do that."
"Maddie was always the strong one, not me," Kate contradicted. "I’m tired of riding from one hell-hole town to another, but what else have I got? She was all I had."
"You have your freedom, plus hopefully many years of life in front of you. An’ you’ve got all your memories of…" Buck hesitated when he saw the scornful look etched on the woman’s features.
"There must have been some good times, Kate," the man continued, "’cos it appears that you an’ Maddie were fairly successful bounty hunters… although I ain’t just talking about money. It must’ve been a hard existence for two women on their own, but you watched out for and cared for each other, and were together until… the end. Now you have to console yourself with the fact that she can’t suffer any more."
Kate’s eyes scanned around the room, until they alighted on the wrecked and discarded book.
"That’s what yer preacher said. He said I had to find faith of the heart, and that the answer was in the words of Jesus. He gave me that Bible" - she snorted derisively – "an’ told me to look fer guidance an’ comfort in the Holy Scripture. Thing is, that ain’t my way, ‘cos I lost all m’trust in the Lord when ma died. But this ain’t about me, is it? This is all about doin’ what’s right fer Maddie. Which is why she has to be buried proper, jes’ like other folk. I meant what I said… I will take Tanner in if ya don’t do as I ask."
There was a determined set to the woman’s mien and Buck knew he faced an uphill struggle. Not that he would let that deter him.
"Kate…. we may not be able to do that. The Town Council…."
"That’s hogwash! I’ve seen how much respect these folks have fer ya. If you give the word, an’ the judge backs ya up, they’ll turn a blind eye."
Buck put a hand under Kate’s elbow, pulled her to her feet and guided her towards the bed. The pair sat side by side, neither saying a word as they surveyed the feather-strewn room.
Five minutes ticked by before the man spoke. "Perhaps you’re right, but I think there’s only one person who should have the say on this."
"Ya mean… JD has to decide? But he’s just a ki…"
"He’s all man, Kate, an’ don’t you forget that!" Buck asserted in a sharp tone.
"I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sell him short."
"I know you didn’t," the peacekeeper soothed. "Look, it may sound strange, but I believe the final choice has to lay with JD. He’s the one who’s been grievously wronged by Maddie, an’ no matter what you say or threaten to do to Vin, it won’t mean nuthin’ unless you’ve got my friend’s forgiveness. If he can dig deep, an’ find it in his heart to let your sister rest in peace with God, then I don’t think anyone else can argue with that."
"Do you mean that?"
"Yeah, I do. So Kate, what do you say?"
"I… I…. Dammit!"
Kate swallowed nervously before trying again.
"Buck, I’m… not sure I can face him. You may not know this, but out on the trail, he… he saved me from Del, an’ then I stood by while… Maddie deliberately gunned him down. It scared me to see her like that, but all I could think of was runnin’. I left JD there… injured, bleeding, alone, an’ rode off with m’sister. It was a cowardly act, an’ I ain’t proud of what I did. How can he forgive that? I know I wouldn’t if someone had done that to me or mine."
"Waal, two wrongs don’t make a right, I agree, but you have to let go of all that anger and guilt before it twists you up inside. Why don’t you try talking to him? Tell him how sorry you are for what happened."
A faint light of hope crept into Kate’s eyes, as her gaze locked with the man’s.
"You’d… let me go to the doc’s place to see him? Even though I threatened to turn Tanner in, you’ll still let me go make my peace with JD?" she breathed, hardly daring to believe what she was hearing.
"I’ll need to run it by the others and of course, JD, but… yeah, I think you both need to clear the air. You have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to leave behind all the killing from your past, and I truly believe it will make your grief that much easier to bear. But first I want your word that you’ll not do anything rash with that wanted poster," Buck responded, his voice softly persuasive as he said the last part.
Kate nodded, sitting up straighter. "You have my word. I… hated m’self fer making that threat, but Larabee got me so…. so riled up, an’ it jes’ kind of… came out. I’d already made up m’mind to leave straight after burying Maddie, an’ not let on that I’d seen an’ recognised Tanner. I made some enquiries jes’ t’be sure I was doin’ the right thing. Folk here hold him in high regard, said he’d saved many lives since arriving in town. He struck me as a good man, an’ I would’ve burnt those posters without giving it a second thought."
The peacekeeper smiled crookedly. He could see the woman was telling the truth. But it irked Buck to think that this particular problem could probably have been avoided had he and Chris just kept a grip on their feelings earlier that night.
"Vin is one of the most honourable men I know, and he’s done a lot of good things for folks around here," the peacekeeper agreed with a fond smile. His eyes crinkled as he thought of the young Texan who he was proud to call friend.
Crossing to the closet, the woman retrieved a bag from the top shelf. Buck watched silently as she pulled out a rolled up sheet of paper.
"Here," Kate said, offering the item to the man. "Do what you want with it."
Buck unravelled the yellowed wanted poster and gazed thoughtfully at the pencil drawn portrait. It was a reasonably good likeness of Vin Tanner, and it sent a chill through the ladies’ man to see the stark wording – ‘Wanted, dead or alive’. How did his friend cope with this unfair burden? Would the tracker be a different kind of man if he didn’t have this shadow hanging over him? Buck couldn’t say. All he knew was that he couldn’t withstand the pressure of continually looking over his shoulder, or able to exist with the constant threat to his freedom and life.
Rolling the poster up once more, the man re-fastened the ribbon tie and held it out to Kate.
"I think you should give this to Vin. Why don’t you meet me in the restaurant for breakfast tomorrow, and once I get the say so from Nathan, I’ll take you to see both JD and Vin."
"Thank you, I’d like that. Buck…. I… I was wrong about you. I thought y’were jes’ another man lookin’ down on me like I was… an insignificant bug in the dirt. Y’know, like somethin' t’be squashed under a boot. That’s… what I’d bin used to wit’ pa, an’ then I found out Del was an even bigger bully. I made a big mistake by tarring ya wit’ the same brush as them."
"Kate, I reckon all of us made mistakes along the way."
"Yeah, I s’pose we did."
The peacekeeper moved to the door. Resting his fingers on the handle, he gave the girl a warm, broad smile.
"I know it must be hard to see beyond tomorrow, but your courage will get you through this, and you’ll be that much stronger for it. Kate, I have to get back and speak to my friends, so I’ll see you in the morning, darlin’." With an exaggerated wink, and a polite touch of his hat, Buck left the room.
Kate sighed, and turned the rolled up poster over and over in her hand. Buck Wilmington had surprised her with his selfless, caring attitude and she wondered how she could have been so wrong about him. He had offered his kindness and compassion in spite of everything that had occurred, but she was even more astonished that she’d met him halfway and willingly accepted his warm generosity. It seemed that her despairing grief was that much lighter and more bearable after her frank talk with the understanding peacekeeper. Maybe Buck was right - perhaps tomorrow would herald a new chapter in her life.
There was utter darkness, a black choking nothingness that surrounded him completely, cutting him off from everyone and everything. There was pain too, an intense smouldering ache that emanated from deep within his chest and throbbed outwards like hundreds of burning tendrils, even reaching as far as his sock-less feet. That thought confused him, but with the realisation that his feet were bare it also hit him that he was out in the open air and the rest of his body was naked.
Vin knew he was walking – well, climbing actually – because every upward step sent a fresh ribbon of agony shooting through his shivering form. However, he was given no charity or kindness as he was pushed along a flight of wooden stairs. A pair of dispassionate hands, that chilled where they cruelly gripped his nude body, kept him moving. Helpless, hurt and blind, he could do nothing to fight back.
The summit was finally reached and he was roughly propelled forward, stumbling but unable to get his balance due to the tight bonds immobilising his arms against his sides. The icy, impersonal hands hauled him upright again, and then placed something over his head. It was a suffocating black hood, and was the only thing he wore. A thick, coarse rope suddenly made contact with his skin and as the noose was yanked tighter around his neck, he began to sweat and pant. This was it, the perpetual threat that had tortured him in many nightmares - and the one thing that scared him witless - was about to become reality. He desperately sucked in what would probably be his last breath on this Earth and cried out his terror as he felt his body lifting from the platform.
"Oh, God…. no!"
Casey Wells had arrived at the clinic before six that morning with a covered saucepan, telling Nathan that she’d cooked the nourishing porridge especially for JD’s breakfast. The perceptive healer hadn’t been fooled by the girl’s rather garbled explanation for her early visit; he knew what had transpired between JD and Casey. All of the peacekeepers had felt the tension in the young couple from the moment Maddie Stokes had approached JD, and Nathan could see how badly Casey wanted and needed to spend time with the convalescing man.
However, what did surprise him was the young woman’s somewhat flustered reaction on discovering that Vin Tanner had been hurt again and was also a patient at the clinic. Casey looked slightly ill at ease when she’d stared at the sleeping Texan, although she assured the healer that she could help out whilst Nathan took a break. Having been awake throughout the night delivering Mrs Osborne’s fourth baby, the former slave had readily agreed to let the troubled girl sit with the slumbering sheriff. He’d also asked her to keep a close eye on the tracker, as the man appeared to be developing a fever.
Chris had, with some reluctance, left the clinic not long after Casey had got there. The gunslinger had already spoken to Buck, Josiah and Ezra concerning Kate’s demands and after relaying all the facts to Nathan, the blond had gone to grab a few hours of much needed sleep. Once satisfied that his two patients were still resting comfortably, the exhausted healer had also fallen into his bed in the back room and had probably been asleep before his head hit the pillow.
There was a peaceful tranquility in the clinic as Casey sat in a chair between the two beds and dutifully occupied herself with some needlework. She detested sewing, but the steady rhythm of the needle going back and forth along the ragged tear in the material helped to soothe her frayed nerves. Nathan had left specific instructions about what the injured peacekeepers could have to eat and drink if they woke, and Casey was determined that she wasn’t going to be found lacking in her care of either man.
The girl jumped, dropping the cotton vest she was darning as Vin’s hoarse cry suddenly broke the comfortable silence in the room. Glancing at the closed door to the healer’s living area, she snatched a damp cloth from the table and pulling her chair nearer to the bed, attempted to settle the restlessly thrashing tracker.
"Shhh! You’ll wake JD! It’s all right, Vin. It was just a bad dream. You’re in the clinic, and there ain’t anything here to hurt you. Try an’ relax, ‘cos Nathan said you have to keep as still as you can."
Casey gently wiped the sweat from the man’s face as she continually talked to him in a soft, reassuring voice.
Vin immediately quietened, his breathing slowing to a more even cadence and he cautiously opened eyes that had been squeezed tightly shut. Relief flitted across his features when he recognised Casey, although he instantly became aware of his undressed state and the absence of covers on his bare legs. Although he had no recollection of being stripped of his underwear, he prayed she hadn’t been at the clinic when it had happened. Hastily adjusting the blankets so no part of his nude body was showing, Vin threw the girl a sheepish, wan smile.
The peacekeeper’s shy, tentative greeting helped to chase away Casey’s worried frown. Dropping the cloth into the basin, she then filled a cup with water from the pitcher. "That’s better. I was afraid you’d disturb JD, or fall out of bed and hurt yourself more," she explained.
"Casey. How long… ya bin here?"
"Not long. Nathan was at the Osborne’s all night and he sat with JD for most of the previous evening, so he’s catching up on his sleep in the other room. Chris left for the boarding house an hour ago, but he said to tell you he’ll be back at around ten o’clock," she informed the tracker, as she helped him sit higher in the bed.
The man gratefully accepted the drink Casey handed him, draining the vessel completely. The petrifying nightmare had seemed so real and Vin was sure that he could feel the tingling heat of a rope burn from the hangman’s noose around his throat. Placing the cup on the side table, he gingerly rubbed his neck, noting the dry, papery warmth of his skin.
"Is it… hot in here?" Vin asked.
"Not ‘specially, but Nathan said you’ve got a mild fever which is most likely making you feel warm," Casey supplied, watching the man out of the corner of her eye. Wringing the washcloth out once again, she competently bathed Vin’s face, neck and shoulders, being careful to avoid the thick bandages. "I promised him I’d take real good care of both you and JD. Nathan left some herbal tea for you. Do you need it?"
Casey chuckled at the face Vin pulled, smiling widely when he shook his head to say no.
"I know what you mean. It tastes horrid, and smells even worse! Okay, can I get you some porridge then? Or do you want to wait until Nathan gets up?"
"I’ll wait, thank ya, ma’am," Vin murmured politely, relaxing back with a weary sigh. "How’s JD doin’?"
As Vin asked the question, Casey paused in her ministrations and stared unblinking at the unmoving form of the young sheriff.
"Nathan’s pretty hopeful, an’ says the worst is over – thank the Lord. But I won’t feel happy ‘til he’s sitting up in bed and telling me one of his awful jokes."
"Hmm. JD’s got sand t’burn, Casey, but he’s gonna need yer help t’recover from this."
"I… don’t think he’ll let me," she muttered hesitantly.
The girl turned her head to the side, but Vin saw the doleful look on her features before she lowered her face. "Why not? Ya care fer each other, don’t ya?"
"He… we… did, but I think I’ve driven him away for good this time."
Vin’s uninjured arm stretched out and he cupped his fingers to Casey’s chin, gently pulling her head around until she faced him.
"I doubt it. He’s allus looking fer ya, an’ it’s clear he’s got some mighty strong feelings fer ya," he replied in soft, raspy drawl.
"He… may have done once," she responded, "but I destroyed some of that when I flirted with Peter Nichols that time. I thought JD was being possessive of me, that no one else had the right to talk t’me. He was acting like I belonged solely to him, even though he’d never told me how he felt, or given me any encouragement about… you know…. how a man and woman behave together. Things got even worse after Annie got shot, an’ they haven’t really been the same b’tween us since then. So when I found him getting… fresh with that… that… lady bounty hunter, I just saw red. I was so mad, and thought I’d show him it could be as good for the goose as it was for the gander."
"I know," Vin whispered, snatching his hand away from Casey’s face as if her skin had suddenly scalded him. He swallowed hard as a wave of heat abruptly raced up his cheeks, making him feel weak and light-headed. The tracker hadn’t anticipated his body’s response, and he pointedly looked away from the girl.
Vin knew it wasn’t just his injuries or the mounting fever that caused his sudden discomfort. The memory of his confrontation in the barn with the angry but tearful Casey made the Texan wriggle uncomfortably in his bed. His reasons for staying and talking to the dispirited girl on that occasion had initially been noble, innocently loaded with good intentions. But when she had literally thrown herself at Vin and boldly offered to ‘sow her oats’ with him, the tracker had felt an unaccountable – or at least a previously unacknowledged – pulse of sexual desire surge through him. Vin’s panicked yelps of ‘No!’ to the persistently provocative girl had been as much a denial and a reigning in of his own inflamed needs as it was a desperate rebuttal to Casey.
Thinking such amorous thoughts was intolerable to Vin Tanner. What kind of man lusted after a close friend’s woman? Certainly not one who had a shred of decency and honour. Not only that, he had no business getting involved with any woman whilst he was still a wanted man. Vin carried too many sins from the past, lived on the edge of the law and flirted with danger every day. He couldn’t put someone he loved and cared for through that type of pain and uncertainty. Settling down into family life would have to wait until he cleared his name.
However, it was the dramatic awakening of such complex and unnerving emotions that had caused the tracker to avoid the girl after that incident. With the startling realisation that he was physically attracted to Casey, he’d scuttled away from the knowledge and hidden behind his usual enigmatic façade. Yes, he’d offered the frightened young woman solace and support when Buck had returned to town with the sorely wounded JD, but after that Vin had warily distanced himself from her. He was frightened by the powerful cravings that had inexplicably bubbled to the surface, but had carefully re-buried the burgeoning emotions, knowing he couldn’t afford to let his feelings take control. No one must ever know how he felt about the lovely Miss Wells.
Casey bit her lip. She sensed the turmoil within the man, and was convinced it was linked to her abysmal and unladylike behaviour in the barn. She had appalled and embarrassed Vin that day, and now he felt uncomfortable in her presence.
"Vin," she began, "I never meant to shame you when you… found me crying about JD. If Aunt Nettie ever found out what I did…. how I threw m’self first at you, and then… Ezra of all people! Darn it, she’d thrash me with a belt for acting like a hussy! An’ I’d deserve it, too. It was wrong of me to treat a friend like that, but I was just trying to hit back at JD. I wanted him to notice me for what I really was, and you listened, gave me sympathy, which made me…"
Casey stopped talking when she saw the unnatural flush to the tracker’s skin and noticed how strained he looked. Pouring out some fresh water, she pressed the cup into Vin’s hand.
"You don’t look too good. Do you want me to go fetch Nathan? He said to wake him if I thought there was a problem."
"No. I’m fine. Jes’ a… mite tired… ‘s all," Vin mumbled, evading her puzzled stare, as he gazed at the opposite wall. He slowly drank the cold water, carefully masking his thoughts and hoping Casey wouldn’t detect his anxiety, or guess that her close proximity was the cause of his discomposure.
"Are you sure? It’ll be no trouble."
Casey directed a perplexed look at the pre-occupied man, but attributed his odd behaviour to pain and fatigue. "Okay," she smiled brightly. "I figure the best thing for you is sleep. That’s what Aunt Nettie always says whenever I’m sick. Vin… I… hope we can still be friends. The silliness that happened the other day is probably best forgotten. I’ve already apologised to Ezra, but he wasn’t offended and just said it had amused him more than anything else. Guess I gave you a real good laugh too, huh?"
"Yeah… I reckon ya did," Vin drawled quietly, although he still couldn’t look the girl in the eye.
"Well, that’s a huge relief, ‘cos I thought my stupidity had destroyed our friendship. Now all I have to do is somehow make amends to JD."
"I don’t think it’ll be hard, Casey. He holds ya in high regard, so he’ll forgive ya."
"Do you really think so?"
"Oh." There seemed to be nothing left to say, so Casey took the cup and then busied herself with straightening the blankets over Vin.
Easing down in the bed, the peacekeeper yawned widely, closing his eyes and willing his body to relax as the self-appointed nurse fussily tidied the side table. At least he’d been able to conceal his true feelings from Casey, and was hopeful they could revert to the easy-going - almost brother-sister - relationship they’d had before. It wouldn’t be from want of trying on Vin’s part.
As the darkness descended and the tracker started to drift off to sleep, he briefly wondered what the outcome had been with Kate Stokes. His last conscious thought before becoming wrapped within the beckoning arms of torpor was fairly optimistic. If the blond gunman was relaxed enough to leave the clinic unguarded, then perhaps the situation wasn’t as grave as the tracker had believed. Vin trusted his life, heart and soul to Chris Larabee, and it felt good to be able to share his heavy burden with such a loyal friend.
JD stared incredulously at Buck, unsure what he should say in reply to the question his best friend had just asked. Glancing over to the bed beside his, he gazed at the tracker, suddenly wishing the three other men would go so he could talk privately to Vin. This important matter affected the Texan in a profound way and JD’s answer – particularly if his response was a negative - would have a disastrous impact on the ex-bounty hunter. But it was more than that; the confused Bostonian needed to ask the more worldly-wise tracker his advice and honest opinion on this controversial problem.
The young sheriff had roused an hour or so ago, and after being fed some warm cereal by an overly attentive and chatty Casey, JD had felt strong enough to sit up in bed for the first time since being shot. With Nathan once more up and about and waiting to tend to his patients medical needs, the girl had taken her leave, promising to return later that afternoon. It wasn’t long after her departure that Chris and Buck appeared, both men having just finished breakfast.
The moustached peacekeeper had instantly gone to JD’s side, and started to fill his friend in on what had transpired the previous evening. Vin was propped in a half sitting position in his bed, but he looked uncomfortable – ashamed almost - and resolutely avoided the puzzled glances JD kept casting his way. The tracker had briefly spoken to Chris earlier, and although far from happy with the situation, Vin accepted that there was little he could do at present. The rapid onset of fever had weakened and exhausted Tanner, and he was being surprisingly co-operative and unusually docile as Nathan gave him a thorough examination.
On entering, Chris had immediately taken a seat next to the tracker’s bed, watching closely as the healer continued his checks of the silent Texan. The gunman said nothing, but the shrewd peacekeeper could feel the tension building within the room.
Nathan also caught the concerned and perplexed look on JD’s face as he listened to Vin’s breathing with his stethoscope. Jerking his head fractionally at Buck, the healer’s dark eyes then locked momentarily with Chris’, easily seeing the uncertainty in their hazel depths.
Vin’s quiet question brought Nathan’s attention back to his patient. Pleased with what he’d heard and seen, he unhooked his instrument and hung it loosely around his neck, before fussily adjusting the blanket over Vin. Putting a cool hand to the tracker’s forehead, he tested his friend’s temperature.
"Yer still a mite feverish, but yer breathing’s not as laboured as it was," Nathan responded in a neutral voice.
"That ain’t what I asked," Vin growled, jerking his head away from the former slave. "Quit hoverin’, Nate! I ain’t about t’croak. I want m’clothes, an’ I want ‘em now! If I ride out, JD don’t have t’decide."
"No, Vin! I won’t be the one responsible for you leaving!" JD exclaimed. "Buck, ask her to come in. I know what I want to say."
"Ya ain’t gotta do this on my account, JD. A man needs t’stay true to hisself, an’ not be…"
"I am sticking to my principles, Vin," the sheriff asserted.
The four other men saw the determined set to the younger man’s features, a look of maturity that his friends hadn’t witnessed before. In that moment of self-actualisation, JD seemed to come of age, had crossed the line between carefree youth and responsible adult.
"This is something I need to do for me. I have to face this sometime, so it may as well be now. Fellas, I want to speak to her alone. Well…. I mean… Vin has to be here, of course," the dark-haired peacekeeper added on spotting the puzzled frown crease the tracker’s brow.
Buck and Nathan glanced at one another before their gaze rested in turn on the two men in the beds. They’d discussed this in the early hours of the morning as Vin and JD slept, and had all agreed – even Chris - that the danger was minimal for the injured peacekeepers. Besides, the tracker had his mare’s leg within easy reach of his free hand and wasn’t completely defenceless. Not that any of them believed Kate Stokes was a threat, or given to violence. Too much was at stake from her standpoint, to squander this chance of bringing events to a satisfying conclusion.
"We’ll be outside," the healer said, his soft tone inferring he wouldn’t be far away if needed.
Chris hadn’t moved or said a word during the exchange. Studying the Texan for several seconds, he then held out his right hand. The tracker immediately grasped his friend’s arm, and their spiritual and corporeal enjoining was instantly reinforced by the pair’s exclusive forearm clasp. The many-faceted embrace acted like a conduit between the men, binding and connecting them in a way no normal handshake could.
‘We’ll be fine, cowboy.’
The gunman nodded in response to the unspoken assurance from Vin. Turning on his heel, Chris headed for the door with the healer and ladies’ man in tow.
JD and Vin said nothing in the few minutes they were alone, but both men sat straighter in their beds when the clinic door opened once again and Kate walked in.
The lady bounty hunter had patiently waited outside while Buck had informed JD of this latest problem, so she didn’t waste time on pleasantries as she took up a position between the footboards of the two beds. It was clear how awkward Kate felt just by being there.
The word came out as a strangled squeak and Kate cleared her throat self-consciously before continuing. "I wanted to tell ya how bad I feel about what happened, JD. I knew how wild Maddie could be, an’ I should’ve kept her closer t’me, taken more notice of what she was up to. It was a mistake, an’ it’s somethin' I have to try an’ come to terms with. There’s nuthin’ I can do to change what’s happened, but I just need to know that you can forgive her, an’ let her go from this world with some dignity."
"Do you really believe she was sorry for her crimes? Or are you just saying that to get what you want?"
"You warn’t there when she died. She was just… a frightened young girl at the end. But I honestly think she had begun to do penance in the eyes of God, and that’s why I want her buried with Christian honours. Is…." - Kate swallowed, but pressed on determinedly – "that somethin' ya can give yer blessing on, JD?"
JD leant against his pillow, suddenly feeling very old and tired. Wasn’t forgiveness part of being a good person in the eyes of God? Did he have the prerogative to make such a choice? JD believed strongly in the Hereafter, had learned the doctrines of his Faith from a loving mother, and been a good child of the Church.
However, that belief in an all-powerful and beneficent God had taken a severe beating when his mother had passed away, although JD had quickly regained his religious conviction – and had had his idealistic views tempered into a more practical outlook since meeting his six friends. He had achieved his own peace through friendship and a notable brotherhood. How could he deny the dead girl a chance at eternal fulfilment? Could he truly call himself a devout Christian if he couldn’t find it in his heart to be magnanimous toward a stray sheep like Maddie Stokes?
"I forgive Maddie for what she did to me," JD suddenly blurted out. "If she’s taking a path to Heaven then, with our Lord’s help, I reckon she has the opportunity to fix her other sins too."
"Is that a… y… y…. yes?" Kate stammered, feeling a little light-headed from holding her breath.
The dark-haired peacekeeper inclined his head.
"Yes. I have no objections to you burying Maddie in the town’s churchyard."
Vin smiled faintly, staring at his young friend with eyes that spoke volumes. The man he saw stood ten feet tall in the tracker’s mind. No one would’ve criticised JD for refusing to grant Kate’s wish, but the sheriff had risen above his own needs and been generous to a fault. Vin knew of few men who would have handled this situation as well as his friend had.
The rustle of paper brought Vin’s focus back to Kate. A rolled-up sheet landed on his blanket-covered legs and he picked up the object, recognising what it was from his own bounty hunting days.
"I never saw ya. I have no idea who ya are, an’ if anyone ever asks me, I’ll tell ‘em Vin Tanner died in a hail of bullets from my gun years ago. That bounty’s been collected an’ spent as far as I’m concerned."
Vin blinked in astonishment, as he listened to the girl’s declaration. Before he could answer, Kate stole quietly from the clinic.
"Thank ya, ma’am," he said to the closing door.
Clutching the scroll to his bandaged chest, the tracker relaxed back on his pillows, too weary to even bother looking at the hated wanted poster. Turning his face towards the equally tired-looking sheriff, Vin nodded contentedly at his young friend.
"Ya done real good, John Dunne. Yer ma ‘ud be proud," he murmured.
JD blushed with pride at the other’s words of praise. "Thanks, Vin. The air sure smells sweet now it’s clear, don’t you think?"
"Yep, it does," Vin whispered in agreement.
Neither injured peacekeeper heard the three men creep back into the clinic. The soft snores and completely relaxed looks on the faces of the two sleeping men told Chris, Buck and Nathan all they needed to know.
The threat this time had been bravely met and dispatched. It was enough for now.
Author’s footnote: Whilst working on this lengthy series, my adult genre muse also got inflamed, giving me an idea about a further missing scene from ‘Lady Killers’. If you enjoy reading explicit (but very romantic), ADULT, heterosexual works, then check out my Buck/Kate Stokes story, ‘One of a Kind’. It’s not exactly linked to this three segment general piece, but you will see where the inspiration for it came from after reading this. My het story can only be found on Blackraptor: Adult and Oasis Het websites.