* * * * * * *
The six of them lounged outside the jail. Josiah and Nathan sitting
on the bench, shoulders propped against the wooden wall by the door.
Vin on a tilted-back chair, legs crossed and resting on the hitching
rail, JD hip-perched by his ankles. Ezra, cards flickering in his
hands, sitting by Vin and Buck, leaning against an upright post. All
in a position to cover each other's backs, assumed second-nature and
all, except JD, keeping one eye on the street, even while they
listened with amusement to JD's voluble complaints about what he
declared roundly had been a crooked poker game.
"You should of called him." That was Vin, straight-faced.
JD scowled at him. "I couldn't prove it! He would just have said I
was a sore loser!"
Ezra smiled mockingly, cards flipping faster as he drawled, "You
just need to watch carefully, my boy. Want an ace? Help yourself!"
He offered the deck, fanned out, one card protruding.
JD looked at him suspiciously. "You're kidding, right?"
Buck lost the battle to keep a straight face and laughed aloud.
"Would I lie to you?" Ezra was all mock innocence.
JD took the card and stared at it. "It's an ace!"
Buck cracked up, Vin and Nathan laughed and even Josiah's eyes
gleamed with amusement.
"How'd you *do* that?" JD demanded, ignoring the general amusement
at his expense.
"Years of devoted practice, my boy, in the most unsuitable of
"Can you teach me?"
Vin chipped in. "You don't want to learn to be no card-sharp, JD."
Ezra assumed an offended air. "I, sir, am no card-sharp! I am
simply naturally dextrous with a keen eye for detail."
Nathan snorted and Buck advised, "You keep away from Ezra, JD. He
won't teach you nothing but trouble. Now me, I can show you ways to
charm the ladies you'd never believe!"
JD shot his friend an irritated glance and huffed a sigh as Josiah's
sonorous tone advised, "Walk the path of righteousness, my friend."
"Look, guys, I don't want to be a card-sharp, all I want is to know
if I'm being cheated!"
"A worthy goal!" Ezra declared.
"You'd be better off tryin' to learn to hit what you aim at." Vin
Sending him a disgusted look, which bounced off, JD informed
him, "I can shoot just fine!"
"It ain't the shooting, it's the hitting."
"Man's got a point, JD." Buck was grinning widely.
"Well, if he has then that's your fault." JD shot back at his
supposedly expert instructor in the fine art of pistol shooting.
Nathan chuckled, Vin tipped his hat lower, a satisfied air about
him and Buck held up his hands in surrender, still grinning.
JD returned to the attack. "So, Ezra, will you show me how it's
"I can give you a few pointers, my boy, of course."
JD's face lit up with instant enthusiasm. "You can? When?"
The older men smiled tolerantly at his excitement as Ezra drawled
"Why not right now? No other pressing engagement seems to present
"OK! Great! Thanks, Ezra!"
Buck leaned forwards, to whisper confidentially, "You might want to
delay that, JD, you look like you got a visitor."
The other four men's eyes flicked to check the newcomer out, losing
their alert readiness as they spotted Casey on the opposite boardwalk,
her attention on JD.
"What? Who?" The youngster was much more obvious, craning round
to see. "Oh."
There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm in that and the others
fought to hide their grins.
Not wanting to lose this opportunity, JD said quickly, "Ezra, just
give me a second. I'll be right back," and crossed to meet his
friend. Normally he'd have been happy to go fishing or get a soda
but right then he was preoccupied. The sidewalk was crowded, so they crossed the street again, standing just down from the jail.
"You ready, JD?" Casey asked.
"Ready? For what?" JD had forgotten all about their tentative
Hands on hips, Casey complained, "JD, you said we'd go riding!"
"I did?" JD saw his chance to pick up some potentially very useful
tips sliding away. Ezra wasn't always prepared to be so forthcoming
and after all, he could go riding anytime. "Look, Casey,
something's come up. We'll go later, OK?"
Behind him, unseen, his friends winced. "That boy is never going to get married." Josiah prophesied.
Buck snorted. "Married? Hell, he's never even gonna get *laid*!"
The others grinned.
Casey, having extracted the reason for JD's sudden reluctance for
her company, was furious. Squaring up to her almost-boyfriend she
demanded, "So you think playing cards in a smelly old saloon is
more important than riding with me?"
Buck covered his eyes with his hand and Vin tugged his hat down as
if to avoid the impending storm.
Caught, JD protested, "No! Well, not really! It's just this once,
Casey! You don't have to take on about it!"
"Me take on! Oh!" Pushed too far, she slapped his face and
without thinking JD slapped her back.
It wasn't a hard blow but it shocked them both into silence. A
silence that was instantly broken as Josiah appeared out of nowhere,
a large hand descending to grip JD painfully on the arm, as he
growled, "Apologise to the lady."
JD attempted to pull free and found a hard-eyed Buck on his other
side. "Now, boy." Buck's tone wasn't any friendlier.
Shaken by the abrupt change in atmosphere, JD said sincerely,
"I..I'm sorry, Casey, I didn't mean to do that."
Angry as well as unnerved by the tall men looming over them, Casey
announced, "I'm going home."
Josiah hardly waited for her to turn round before he was hauling
JD the few steps back to the jail, where he found himself
surrounded by cold-eyed men. Nathan and Ezra on their feet, Ezra's
hands empty of cards. Vin had let his chair drop back to all fours.
They all looked angry. Josiah's grip didn't slacken in the
slightest. "You never hit a lady."
JD was abruptly aware of the combined age and experience of the men
and felt his own lack of years keenly as he protested feebly, "I
didn't mean it. I didn't hurt her! I wouldn’t!"
Vin spoke up, voice flat and unfriendly. "That ain't the point,
boy. You don't raise your hand to womenfolk."
Nathan nodded agreement. "My pappy would have whaled the tar out
of me if I'd of done such."
JD didn't like the way this was going. "She hit me first!"
Buck tugged at his other arm, pulling him around to face him. "A
woman hits you, boy, you take it as a compliment. You don't hit
"It's a cowardly act, to strike a female." Josiah joined in again,
tone deeper than usual with disapproval. "They are the gentle sex,
to be nurtured and protected."
"Women *can* be provoking, as I have good cause to know, but it
isn't the act of a gen'leman to resort to violence." Ezra's drawl
was as pronounced as ever, but the mockery had vanished from his
Vin tipped his hat back with a finger. "Seems to me you got some
l'arning to do, boy."
JD's eyes were jumping from one hard face to the next in rising
worry and the round of nods that statement won alarmed him further.
"Guys, come on, it was just a mistake! Casey won't stay mad!"
"Not the point." Josiah rumbled.
"Spare the rod..." Ezra offered with a shrug.
JD swallowed. "Guys, you wouldn't..."
Buck grinned without humour. "You need your ass kicked, JD."
"Uh huh." Nathan agreed.
"I'm up for it."
JD looked at Vin in something close to horror and said, "Buck?
You wouldn't let him, would you?"
"Hell no, JD. I reckon I'll do it."
"The lord will provide strength to my arm."
JD stared from Buck to Josiah, searching for some sign that they
were kidding around. He didn't find one.
Nathan shifted. " I doan gen'rally dish it out, but I reckon a good
whuppin's a powerful argument."
"Whilst I agree a salutary lesson is in order, I regret it's just
not my style. However, I could act as arbiter if required." That
Vin shrugged. "We could take turns."
Ezra counter-offered, "You could draw for it. High card wins."
Buck rolled his eyes. "The way *you* handle the deck?"
"Short straw then." That was Nathan.
Doing his offended bit again, Ezra said, "I take it you trust me
not to fix the straws?"
The group exchanged glances and shrugged agreement, ignoring JD's
unavailing attempts to pull free.
"Fine." Ezra collected some lengths of dried grass, snapped one
short, showed them around and tapped them into equal lengths
protruding from his clenched fist. "Short straw wins."
"Wins?!" JD squawked.
"Quiet, boy." Josiah shook him casually and reached to pull a
To JD's immense relief it was long. Josiah was *big*.
A black-clad figure peered over Vin's head, mouth quirked at the
corners, eyes amused. "What's the stake?"
"Hey, Chris." Buck spoke up, usually the most voluble of the team.
"We're drawing to see who gets to whip our JD's butt."
Chris checked out the group, reading the serious intent and his own
face lost it's lightness. "What happened?"
Buck continued as spokesman. "Young Casey got uppity with JD and
smacked his face. He hit her back."
The look Chris levelled at him had JD wishing he was a long way
away. Out of the State preferably. "That true?"
Casting a look round the circle of tall men, seeking help that
wasn't there, JD said defensively, "Yeah, but..."
Chris cut him off with a gesture. "No buts." Reaching over Vin's shoulder he snapped the end off one of the straws. "I win."
The others all shrugged, accepting his right to lead and only Ezra
commented sardonically, "It seems you do. Unusual technique.
Effective but unusual."
Disregarding that completely, Chris looked at the two who were
bracketing JD. "Josiah, Buck, take JD out back."
"Our pleasure." Josiah acknowledged.
Chris watched as they picked him up effortlessly by the arms and
carried him off, then looked at Vin. "We don't want to be
Vin got up, hand dropping automatically to check his gun.
"You got it."
As Chris followed the others inside, Ezra raised an eyebrow at
Nathan. "It seems I have some spare time, friend. Can I interest you in a game of chance?"
Nathan grinned. "If'n I get to set the stakes."
Chris was close enough to the others to hear JD's complaint as they
toted him across the back yard and dumped him back on his feet.
"Hey! You can't do this! I'm a grown man!"
Buck wasn't impressed. "You ain't but part-growed."
Nor was Josiah. "No decent man strikes a woman."
Squashed, JD looked up at a grim-faced Chris who told him quietly
"You want to ride with us, JD, you take this like a man. Elseways,
you're on your own."
That laid it out about as plain as it could be and JD swallowed and
gave in. "I'll take it."
Chris nodded. "Shuck your guns, boy."
JD did, handing the loaded belt to Buck who slung it casually over
the top rail of the fence, while Chris unbuckled his own belt,
fingers sliding bullets out of loops with the deftness born of long
practice. Slipping the bullets into his vest pocket, Chris said, "Drop the pants."
Not at all happy, JD appealed, "Come on, Chris!"
"Do it, boy."
His colour rising, JD undid his trousers, revealing the standard
faded red long-johns nearly all men wore.
Chris made no comment about his capitulation, just looked at the
other two men. "Buck, you want to hold JD?"
"Sure, Chris. Here, kid, lose that damnfool hat." Buck knocked it
casually to the ground, grabbing his young friend.
"Josiah, you want to read the lesson?"
"Be my pleasure." The tallest of the team agreed.
Moments later, JD was face down over the hitching rail, one arm
twisted behind his back, while Josiah sat comfortably on the ground,
leaning on the rail, facing away from Chris, who wound the buckle
end of the heavy leather strap around his fist and asked, "You set,
Scared but determined not to show it, JD said clearly, "Yes, sir."
then flinched as the belt walloped down on to his scarcely protected
"So beginneth the lesson." Josiah proclaimed, going on to state,
"Women are the weaker of the species, boy. Their strength is in
bringing us sinners into the world, for which we owe a debt of
gratitude and respect.."
JD closed his eyes, trying to keep still. He'd heard Josiah preach
before and knew he could keep it up almost indefinitely, even though
he was more usually the observer, rivalling Chris for terseness.
"You tell him, Josiah!" Buck whooped cheerfully.
JD hissed through his teeth as Chris set a steady rhythm, the leather
cracking down hard and fast. He hadn't been thrashed since his brief
spell in the orphanage back east, but it was a familiar sensation,
was in fact the main reason he'd struck out on his own, figuring
whatever the world had to offer it could hardly be worse. Of course,
back then, he'd rarely deserved it and certainly never agreed to it.
Chris wasn't inclined to be lenient. He understood, they all did,
that JD and Casey were barely past childhood, that it had been a spat
with no serious intent, but that wasn't the point. Out west, raising
a hand to a woman, especially a good woman, could get a man lynched.
Or a boy, and a boy toting guns was classed as a man, no matter his
JD was starting to have serious difficulty not fighting Buck's grip
on his arm. Each whistling stroke seared a line of fire across his
ass and the growing heat was hard to bear. Gritting his teeth, he
tried to hold on, but a particularly hard blow had him jerking up
"Hang in there, JD." Buck advised, holding him easily.
Before many more had landed the youngster was grunting in pain and his right
hand fisted uselessly, unconsciously seeking something to grip.
Without pausing in his lecturing, Josiah extended his arm, big hand
closed in a fist, and let JD grasp his wrist.
The youngster clung on, fingers digging in, bracing himself against
the fierce strapping.
A dozen strokes later and JD was actively fighting Buck, voice raised
in pain and fear.
Frowning, Buck said softly, "Chris?"
Chris ignored him.
Pushed too far, JD shouted out, "I'm SORRY! Josiah!"
The big man tilted his head to squint at Chris, advising, "The sinner
that repents is blessed in the eyes of the Lord."
The strap landed on bruised flesh just as hard as before.
JD yelled, begging, "Buck! Help!"
Buck didn't let him go but he did level a distinct frown at the
black-clad man, warning flatly, "Chris."
Their eyes met and Chris nodded, swung the belt once more and
JD remained tense, braced against the two men supporting him, until
it penetrated it was over, then he gasped, relaxing against the rail,
fingers still locked around Josiah's wrist as he struggled to come
to terms with raging heat of his backside.
"You OK, JD?" Buck wanted to know, bringing the boy's trapped arm
around so he could grab the wooden bar.
The youngster nodded, but wasn't ready for conversation yet. Josiah
gently prised his wrist free and stood up, jerking his head at Buck
and they moved to where Chris was reloading his gunbelt, talking
quietly among themselves while they gave JD some time.
"You preach a powerful lesson." Chris shot a glance at Josiah, who
"The Lord inspires me, brother."
As if pleading the boy's cause, Buck offered, "He's a good kid,
Around a small smile, Chris nodded. "Everyone makes a mistake now
and then, Buck. We won't hold it against him."
Grateful to be left alone, JD got himself decent, surreptitiously
rubbing at his sore butt as he did, scrubbed the faint traces of
dampness from his eyes and turned to look at his tall friends,
suddenly shy in their company. Taking a deep breath, he crossed
over to them, halting as they turned to meet him. Checking out each
face in turn, he offered, "I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
Buck grinned, buffeting his shoulder. "Hell, I should hope not JD,
smart kid like you shouldn't need telling twice!"
JD turned to look up at the priest, lifting a hand to touch his
wrist lightly. "Josiah, thanks. I didn't hurt you, did I?"
Carefully keeping the broken skin on the inside of his wrist out of
sight, the big man's mouth quirked at the corner. "I don't think
you appreciated my sermon."
One hand creeping back before he could prevent it, JD assured him
earnestly, "Oh, I got the message, Josiah, believe me."
As Buck and Josiah chuckled at the fervent answer, JD switched his
attention to Chris, who was watching him with the tolerant affection
of an older brother.
"No hard feelings, JD?" He held out a callused hand.
Vastly relieved, JD shook it, agreeing at once, "No, sir. No hard
Chris grinned at him. "I reckon you need a drink."
JD shrugged ruefully, still a bit embarrassed, but he relaxed as
Chris clapped him on the shoulder, saying easily, "Come on. I'm
Understanding the incident had been put behind them, JD broke into
a grin. "Sure, thanks. Reckon I could use one at that."
Moving back towards the building, Buck retrieved JD's hat, jamming
it on the boy's head, taunting, "Whyn't you get a *proper* hat
instead of this fool thing?"
Reacting as usual, JD countered, "There ain't nothing wrong with
Exchanging a faintly exasperated glance with Chris, Josiah reached
for JD's forgotten gun-belt and followed the two bickering friends
back outside, where the team reassembled by mutual consent in the
saloon where Nathan and Ezra were playing cards.
Taking in the relaxed air of the rest of them, Ezra concluded
justice had been dispensed and tugged out a spare chair. "Help
JD hesitated, colored, muttered, "Uh..." and they all laughed
tolerantly while Chris rebuked, "Leave JD alone, Ezra. Barkeep,
some beers here."
Josiah went to sit by Nathan, JD leant, as casually as he could
manage, on the bar by Chris, Vin the other side, while Buck jumped
up to sit on the counter kicking his heels on the bar. "You know,
I mind me a time when I hired out as help to get the corn in..."
Chris smiled into his beer, while the rest paid varying degrees of
"..and the farmer's daughter turned out to be the loveliest maid
I'd ever set eyes on!"
Ezra groaned, Josiah rolled his eyes and Vin muttered, "You'd never
Undeterred, Buck waved his hands in an improbable figure of eight.
"She was just too delightful to pass up, a lovely country girl,
very knowledgeable about the birds and the bees..."
Most of the rest were grinning now, or trying to hide it.
"..so I let her teach me about the flowers in the corn..."
JD was the only one looking puzzled about this and Chris glanced at
Vin, under cover of his hat brim, eyes glinting and it was Vin's
turn to bury his nose in his beer to smother the laugh.
"..and through getting lost in the moment I came very close to not
being the fine figure of a man you see today!"
JD, who'd finally twigged what the repressed sniggering was about,
accused baldly, "You just made that up!" while the rest laughed
"I did not!" Buck refuted indignantly. "And it was worse than
because it was her father with the scythe!"
"Was he mad?"
Buck winced. "You could say so, boy. The lovely maid was sent back
to her folks, never to be seen again and I got a whippin' that dang
near set my tail on fire."
Nathan looked over. "He didn't want you l'arning about the birds
Buck grinned. "I think his point was I should find another teacher.
The moral of the story though, is..."
"*Don't get caught*!" Chimed in Vin, Ezra and Nathan, while Chris
shook his head in amused exasperation, wondering how he was going
to teach JD anything with help like that.
"My ole man kept a big ole hickory switch." Vin put in,
reminiscently. "One time I was supposed to be guarding the ramuda and they scattered darn near back to Texas. Man, you should have heard me
Josiah nodded. "My father was a righteous man with a strong right
arm and a razor strop that could near on cut leather."
Buck stared at him. "Is *that* why you always use a whet-stone on your razor?"
Josiah's big head nodded solemnly. "The sight of a strop makes me
want to head for the hills to this day."
JD had turned around to follow the exchanges and Chris grinned
briefly, saying quietly, "What the boys are trying to say, JD,
is we all paid, one time or another, ain't no shame in it."
JD nodded, lifted his glass to tap Chris' saying equally quietly
It could have been about the beer but Chris knew it wasn't.
Then JD snorted, a laugh quickly suppressed and the older man
slanted an enquiring eye at him.
"Uh, I just thought...maybe it's just as well Casey's mad at me.
I ain't gonna be riding for a day or two."
Vin flicked a wink over the top of the youngster's head and without
missing a beat Chris said straight-faced, "You will if we get a job
"*What*?" JD stared at him in disbelief. "I can't! You
wouldn't...Buck, help me out here! Nathan..."