CLOSURE: (AN EPILOGUE TO ACHILLES)
Author: Penny M.

********************

Rating: PG13
Disclaimer:  I do not own the characters portrayed here, don't make any money, etc.
Comments: I've had this in my mind for a while and not really sure if it all came out as clear on paper as it played in my own warped imagination. I wanted to post it here and hopefully gather suggestions to improve it in the
rewrite, before I post it to Maggie and Cassie's page.
Warnings: Spoilers for Achilles

*********************

J.D. opened the cell doors and watched as the grumbling railroad workers filed out, nursing hangovers and bruised bodies from the Friday night before. For the last month that they'd worked outside of town, Four Corners had become a livelier, yet more dangerous place. The same crew usually, almost every night, and they always met the same fate. They drank too much, shot off
their mouths too much, then trashed the saloon and ended up spending the night in jail.

"See you fellers tonight," Vin quipped as the parade passed him outside, some of them grinning at the idea of another night of debauchery.

"How much longer is this gonna go on?" J.D. asked, walking up behind Vin.

"Not long. That stretch of rail'll be done in another week and they'll move on," the tracker answered.

"Good," J.D. added, not hiding the pleasure in his voice as he removed his bowler to push a wayward strand of hair back into place.

It had all been exciting at first, but now J.D. was feeling the strain as the relationship between the workers and the peacekeepers was beginning to deteriorate. Most of them had lost most of their earnings to Ezra, Buck was constantly defending the townswomen from their crude comments and Chris was just downright fed up with the likes of them all. J.D. wasn't exactly on
their list of friends either, since he was usually the one escorting them to their ironclad rooms for the night and he was feeling uneasy about the whole situation. Any fun had gone out of these men and all that remained was a restless air of viciousness.

J.D. didn't like this jittery feeling, but he couldn't help it. He didn't long to draw his colts and head into a fight like he once did, after what had happened with the bank robbers a couple of months back. Even though he knew the town's confidence was somewhat restored in him, he still wasn't convinced of the soundness of his own judgment anymore. He didn't want to get hurt, but he was even more terrified of hurting someone else, someone innocent…again.

Buck exited the hotel and noticed J.D. on the porch of the jail, focusing intently on the men he'd just released as they mounted to ride back to the rail camp. He sighed heavily as he saw his young friend's face etched in worry, his mind obviously not on where he was at the moment. Buck socked his hat on his head and walked to him. J.D.'d been doing a good job hiding his
distraction from the others, but not Buck. He'd looked for it, because, frankly, he just knew the kid too well.

Buck realized J.D. hadn't gotten over killing Annie, and from his own experience, he figured a part of him never would. Hell, he, Chris, and the others were used to dealing with regrets and demons that haunted the deep corners of their minds. Buck knew that in time J.D. would be able to push the doubt and grief far enough below the surface to keep it from interfering with
living, just like they had.

The older gunslinger's worry had prompted a few talks with the kid, trying to help him keep a realistic perspective on it all. Buck also made sure he told J.D., in as subtle, yet straightforward way as he could, that they all had a responsibility, not only for the town, but to also protect each other and themselves. He just prayed the boy's hesitation didn't get him killed in the meantime. Buck didn't realize he only had to wait until later that night to have his fears proven.

*******

It had been raining off and on since morning and the muggy air inside the saloon reeked of tobacco, sweat and whiskey, adding to the patrons' irritability.

The usual group of workers had returned to the saloon late that afternoon after a brief rest at their camp, preparing to stay until dawn. It was just after midnight when Josiah, Ezra, Vin and Buck had grown weary of their antics and decided to break up the party. All the men were used to the same routine by now and begrudgingly complied, except for Charlie and his sidekick, who Buck unaffectionately referred to as 'Goat Boy.'

This pair had become notorious for causing ninety-nine percent of the trouble the protectors were having from the laborers, and night after night they'd get a little drunker and a lot meaner. Now, the inebriated friends had cornered Inez behind the bar, demanding a good-bye kiss when Buck lost what little patience he had left.

"You boys mind taking your little party somewhere else," he seethed, grabbing each man by the shoulder and squeezing viciously as he pulled them away from the woman.

"Yeah, we mind," Goat-Boy spat and swung at Buck.

Buck turned his head slightly and the man only halfheartedly grazed his face. Buck simultaneously slammed his fist into the smaller man's jaw, knocking his temple against the bar and causing him to melt to the floor. Buck quickly turned to the man beside him, ready to continue the fight, instead finding the barrel of Charlie's gun pushing into his belly.

"That was uncalled for Mister," Charlie whispered, the cold stare in his eyes frightening Buck as much as the pistol in his gut.

"Not from where I was standing," an icy voice spoke up from behind him. "You want to put that back where you got it from or you wanna die right here?"

Buck breathed a sigh of relief as the drunk man holstered his gun, but the hard eyes never softened as he turned to Chris.

Buck looked around nervously, and saw Vin, Ezra and Josiah watching for any signs of trouble from the man's drinking buddies. So far the other men were only watching, but they all knew things could change in a heartbeat.

"Why don't you and your friends just leave all peaceful like and we'll pretend this never happened," Chris drawled, as he stepped toward the troublemaker, his steely eyes never blinking.

"Hey," the man smiled. "We're just having a little fun!" He laughed and helped his groaning partner to his feet. "Sorry, for the inconvenience, gentlemen."

Buck looked at Chris, both knowing Charlie wasn't sorry, nor was he finished. The glint in his dark eyes told the truth, that he had other plans, he was just waiting for the right opportunity.

"I'm giving you fair warning, mister," Chris spoke, his voice low and serious. "Next time I promise you won't be able to walk out of here."

"Oh, I know, I know, sir, I appreciate your generosity," he gushed, leading his groggy friend with him as he headed for the door. "It won't happen again."

The others watched, tensed for something else to happen as the man made it to the saloon doors. He turned around, his pistol suddenly in his free hand as he lifted his lighter companion in front of his body, and aimed his gun at Chris.

"C'mon Charlie," one of the railroad workers said, standing up and stepping confidently toward him. "You know what the boss said about you causin' trouble like this, now put it down."

Charlie turned slightly, aiming his pistol at the man then squeezing the trigger.

"Good Lord!" Ezra gasped as the man fell at his feet and the other workers sobered up enough to take cover as best they could. Only the protectors stood rooted to their spots as Charlie turned the gun back on Chris.

"Never liked him…too damn chatty," the man chuckled as he took a couple of steps backwards through the door. "Never liked you much either," he said, firing his comment and his weapon at Buck and sending splinters flying from the bar.

*******

J.D. was already on his way to the saloon when he heard the first gunshot and immediately increased his pace to a run.  He stopped short on the boardwalk as he saw Charlie pushing backwards through the batwing doors, his weapon
pointed inside the saloon. The big man's gun exploded again as he held his friend in front of him like a shield.

J.D. yanked his own pistol from its holster and pushed himself up against the building. The voice inside his head screamed for him to shoot, but the sight of the hostage brought on a nauseating sense of déjà vu, and he stood frozen, unsure of what to do next. The kid knew he was a good enough shot if he didn't panic, but the dim light and the blurry effects of rain still dripping
in his face made him doubt his ability.

J.D.'s heart skipped a couple of beats and his knees almost buckled when Charlie turned and pointed the barrel at him, but the thought of missing - of hitting another innocent was too overwhelming.  J.D. was no longer aware of anything except the pounding in his ears as he let his colt fall to the wooden floor, then the blinding flash and finally hot lead tearing through
his shoulder.

*******

The peacekeepers watched as Charlie made his way outside and Vin, taking advantage of being in the man's blindside, quickly moved to the window and aimed his mare's leg at the escaping fugitive.

Vin held his breath, as he saw what the others did not - J.D., staring wide-eyed as Charlie turned his gun at the youth. Vin pushed his own panic aside and drew a bead on the back of the man's head and pulled the trigger, the bullet exploding out of the gunman's skull.

In an instant it was over, and for a brief second Vin thought he'd hit Charlie before he had a chance to shoot the kid. The tracker's heart sunk as he saw J.D.'s terrified eyes staring in shock just before his body dropped like an abandoned marionette onto the hard, wet planks.

Vin pushed through the crowd gathered at the entrance as the workers realized the threat was over. His worried expression and insistence on rushing outside alerted the other protectors and they followed.

"J.D.!" Buck shouted, seeing the boy lying a few feet from Charlie's body. He rushed to his friend and dropped to his knees beside him. Buck carefully placed his hand on J.D.'s left arm, watching in horror as the wet shirt dripped pink rivulets under his fingertips and he stared in helpless shock at his friends gathering around them.

Josiah leaned down and quickly scooped up the injured boy as Buck supported his bleeding arm and placed it gently across his chest. J.D. moaned and stirred, but the preacher cradled him tighter against his body as he stepped out into the steady drizzle.

J.D. felt himself being lifted and carried in strong arms as a chorus of panicked voices rang in his ears. He couldn't focus in on the sights or the sounds, but unfortunately for him, the sense of touch took over where the others failed. He felt someone moving his left arm and tried to break free. He just wanted to lie there until he felt better, until the fire radiating from his arm to every fiber in his body was extinguished just a little. Instead the movement continued until he slipped under enough to not care
anymore.

**************************

Vin watched Josiah carry their wounded friend toward Nathan's clinic until they disappeared into the mist. He finally dared a look at the man lying at his feet, entranced as a river of dark blood pooled beneath his boots, fighting the wave of nausea and regret that washed over him.

The tracker was no stranger to killing. He'd learned too often that it was just a necessary part of doing what you had to do to stay alive, or here lately, to keep your friends alive. Still, he never found redemption in it and certainly no joy, no matter how justified. Vin couldn't help the feeling of resentment of being backed into a corner, forced to take someone's life when it all could have ended so differently.

Vin felt a hand on his shoulder and flinched before he realized it was Chris.

"Vin," he said forcefully, apparently he'd been talking to him already and he just hadn't noticed.

"Huh," the tracker said, looking into his friend's concerned face.

"I said, let's get him outta here."

Vin nodded and reached down to grab Charlie's shoulders, stopping short as he looked into the grizzled face and soulless eyes staring back at him.

Chris gently pushed his friend away from the dead man. "We'll get him, you go check on J.D.," he said, motioning for Ezra to help with the disposal of the worker's body.

*******

J.D. came to, the burning worse, if that was possible. He felt wet material being peeled from his blood-coated shoulder, felt the protest from damaged muscles when he was forced to sit up and the filthy garment removed completely. He sighed heavily as his bare back touched crisp sheets, then cried in agony as fingers prodded his injured arm. He tried to tell them to stop, but his words slurred into gasping moans so he pulled away, his inability to communicate verbally sending him into a panicked attempt to escape.

Strong hands, it seemed like hundreds of hands, held him fast and J.D. was sure his limb was being ripped off at the socket. He struggled in vain against the impossible forces keeping him still and resorted to doing the only thing left available to him. With the last ounce of strength in his drained body, J.D. screamed until his voice faded into the darkness that beckoned him.

*******

"Take it easy," Buck snapped at the healer as he watched him clean the boy's wound. Buck knew Nathan was doing his best, but the kid's struggling and pitiful cries were killing his soul. He looked over at Josiah, who effortlessly pinned J.D.'s legs to the mattress. The look in his eyes told Buck he too hated resorting to holding him down for the painful procedure, but it had to be done.

J.D. let out an agonizing yell as Nathan finished with the carbolic acid and mercifully for them all he passed out.

"Went clean through, he oughtta be alright," Nathan said, looking into the gunslinger's questioning gaze. "We just gotta keep the dressings changed and him quiet for a few days."

Buck smiled and licked his lips nervously. "The first won't be hard, but we'll probably have to hog-tie him to the bed to keep him quiet."

Nathan grinned back, both still shaking from the rush of adrenaline coursing through their veins.

"Why don't you go tell the others he's ok," Nathan suggested.

Buck nodded in agreement, but he couldn't make his body move from the boy's side. "In a minute, Nate," he said, brushing off the rain-plastered hair from the youth's cheeks. Buck watched his friend, knowing he wasn't exactly sleeping peacefully, but he didn't seem to be in any pain either. The tired gunslinger remained there, trying to gather his composure and assure himself
that Nathan was speaking the truth.

"I'll go," Josiah said softly, knowing it'd probably take a team of wild horses to drag Buck away right now. Buck nodded and looked up at the big man, tears of frustration and gratitude glistening in his blue eyes. Josiah briefly laid a supporting hand on his friend's shoulder before heading back out into the waning storm.

*******

J.D. opened his eyes. He wasn't sure where he was, or if he was anywhere at all. Very strange. He could see Buck and Nathan looking down at him and Josiah leaving, but there was someone else. A woman standing in the back of the room, smiling at him, motioning for him to come to her.

J.D. got up and walked across the room, the lack of pain from the effort surprised him. He was equally perplexed that neither Buck nor Nathan had prevented him from leaving the bed in the first place. He swallowed hard and approached the woman who beckoned him. His head spun as he realized who the fair-skinned blond was.

"Annie?" he managed to croak in disbelief and he turned to get confirmation that his friends saw what he did. J.D. gasped as he saw both were still huddled at his bed…because, well, because he was still in it.

 J.D. whirled around quickly, confusion written on his young features. "Am I …" he started, but couldn't make himself say the word. He searched Annie's eyes for some type of explanation. "Are you…are you an angel or somethin'?" J.D. asked, his voice sincere.

Anne smiled and reached out to touch his face, her caress felt like a breeze brushing through the fine hairs of his cheek and he shuttered.

"I'm sorry, Annie. I wanted to tell you, I never meant to hurt anyone, especially you," J.D. said, his voice cracking with emotion.

She remained silent, but her sweet, understanding smile never wavered.

"I really meant it when I said I wish it had been me," the kid said, his eyes overflowing as he tried to focus on the woman he'd killed.

"No, please, no," she pleaded, her voice barely a whisper. "J.D., things happen that God doesn't mean for people to understand. But you will someday, I promise."

"Hiriam, the girls. They need you. I don't have anyone who needs me like that!" he cried, his voice getting louder as he expressed the grief he'd held in for months. "There's nothing I can EVER do to make it up to you … or to them."

"You have to believe me when I tell you it's all right, it was what was meant to be. Things are not always as they seem, and the girls, they have their father, they'll be strong women. Don't worry for them."

"But you won't be there to help him raise 'em or give 'em advice, all the things a mother's supposed to do," J.D. said sadly.

"A mother's love never dies. I will always watch over them," the pale figure answered.

"You can see 'em?"

"Oh, yes, whenever they need me, I'm right there," she said, her glowing smile confirming her words.

J.D.'s eyes flickered with mixed emotions as what Annie said sunk in. He wondered if the same applied to his own mother that he missed so desperately.

"She is very proud of you, J.D.," Annie's soft tone penetrated the youth's thoughts.

J.D. stared blankly at here, then realized she somehow knew what he'd been thinking. "How could she be?" he asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

"You follow your heart, you follow her dream for you," she said sweetly. "Your mother can't always help you, so she sent you here. To another family."

J.D. felt a wave of warmth throughout his body and he spoke without thinking, "I'm supposed to be here - with them." It was a statement, not a question, and he smiled at the realization.

Annie nodded. "And I am where I'm supposed to be."

J.D. looked into her blue eyes, seeing a peace and contentment he'd never seen in any human being he'd ever encountered. And something else shone in her gaze - forgiveness. It was like a boulder had been lifted from his spirit and his heart leapt.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"No, thank you," she said, her form growing brighter until it was like staring into the noonday sun and J.D. had to turn away.

When he looked again, Annie was gone, the only light was coming through the window of Nathan's clinic. He cautiously cut his eyes around the room, searching for some sign he hadn't been hallucinating, but there was nothing to confirm what he'd just seen. He glanced down and saw Buck, on the floor, propped up against the wall, his hat in his hands and his forehead resting on gangly knees.

J.D. blinked hard and tried to move his head, but all the furnishings began to multiply and he closed his eyes.

"J.D.," he heard Nathan's soothing voice and he forced open his heavy lids again.

Buck's head jerked up and he was leaning over the boy as well.

"How you doin'?" Nathan asked, relieved that his patient had finally come around.

"Hurts like…" J.D. started to say 'hell,' but Annie's words reverberated through his head and he tempered his statement, just in case his mother was watching. "Hurts like heck," he finished.

"Well, as soon as you're better, I'm gonna give you another lesson in how not to walk into a gunfight, boy," Buck ranted, trying, but failing, to hide his deep worry over his best friend's latest injury.

"That's ok, Buck," J.D. grinned. "I got enough guardian angels."

Buck looked across at Nathan, the bewilderment clearly etched on his face.

"Don't ask me, but if anybody's got spirits stickin' close, it's this boy here," Nathan laughed, shrugging his shoulders.

"You'll understand someday, Buck," J.D. smiled blissfully and for a brief moment he thought he saw a figure in the shadows by the door and he struggled to sit up.

"Don't even think about it," Nathan's voice and Buck's arms stopped his ascent, but the vision had already disappeared. The incredibly peaceful feeling that had washed over him while talking to Annie had returned momentarily, flowing through his body and he knew, without a doubt, his mother was with him, always.

fin