Windows of the Soul

A Dunne's Darlins 'Challenge' Response

by May Robinson

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fan fiction based on the television series, The Magnificent Seven, formerly of CBS. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, TNN, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters and settings. I do not claim ownership of the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from it.

Rating: PG-13, language.

Warnings: Some foul language. H/C and smarm warning! Spoilers and references to 'Achilles'. Minor references to other episodes.

Author's Notes/Comments: This story is written in response to the Darlin Scene Challenge posted to the Dunnes Darlins list, winter 2000/01. Thanks to my co-listmom Leslie for coming up with the challenge idea and writing the inspiring scene. Thanks also to Penny, Jennie, Shellie, Carolyn and Cindy for betaes, comments and encouragement!

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Part 1

"Chris, you know this is the only way to figure out their plan."

"I don't know, J--"

"I can do this, " JD interrupted, "I'm the only one who can. . . and you know it."

Damn kid is too smart for his own good. But he's right. Chris looked away briefly, gathering his swirling thoughts. After a long moment's pause, he returned his gaze to JD, staring intently into the kid's hazel eyes and imparting his patented 'look'. . . the one that told JD that Chris was deadly serious and that he'd better pay close attention to what the Seven's leader was about to say, "It's dangerous."

"I know."

"You won't have anyone to watch your back."

"I know."

"All right," sighing, Chris looked at the young man before him, so full of life and brimming with confidence. Chris knew that this was going to be tough on all of them, especially Buck. And JD? Despite the kid's emphatic claims that he understood the risks, Chris also knew this would be hardest on him. . . and what made it even worse, was. . . that he'd be on his own.

+ + + + + + +

Three days later, Chris sighed again, roughly scrubbing his hands over tired, gritty eyes. He was furious with himself, guilt-ridden and positively heartsick. How could he have been so stupid as to let JD talk him into this? Especially after everything Buck had said before he'd ridden off to Red Fork. Hell, even without considering Buck's concerns, Chris, of all people, should've known better.

The kid's self-appointed big brother had taken Chris aside and specifically requested that his old friend keep an eye on the boy. Buck had told Chris he had a bad feeling the kid was up to something, just waiting for his watcher to head out of sight. Chris knew the big man had hated having to leave, knowing damn well that there were wheels turning in that shaggy black head that would surely lead the rest of him straight into trouble.

Chris knew Buck would have never left had Judge Travis not insisted he needed him in Red Fork. Would have never left JD to his own devices while a group of young marauders preyed on the outer-lying homesteads. Chris knew his friend felt bad enough about leaving the town short-handed, but even worse, Buck was all too aware he was leaving behind a kid who'd constantly tried to convince them how easily he could infiltrate that gang if they'd give him half a chance.

Larabee hated to admit to himself that he'd considered the idea at first. The members were all under 20, misguided and dangerous teenagers who idolized the likes of Billy the Kid and the Dalton gang enough to try their hand at emulating their heroes. Some heroes.

As expected, Buck had been adamant against any part of JD's plan. Damn well cut the kid off at the knees with a resounding NO every time JD even looked like he was going to bring up that 'cockamamie suicide mission' as Buck had called it. Despite JD's best efforts, Buck countered every argument with a surprisingly rational and logical answer.

Even though Chris had a lot of respect for the kid's tenacity, the boy simply couldn't compete with Buck in that department, at least when concern for JD was Buck's motivation. Buck knew exactly how that kid's mind worked and, though at times it amazed Chris how well his old friend could read the boy, most often it was to the Seven's advantage, helping to keep a trouble-magnet of an 18 year-old out of danger and remaining safe and sound and at Buck's side.

Chris had agreed with Buck and had told his old friend not to worry. He had no intention whatsoever of letting any of his men ride into the enemy's lair on their own. . . especially JD.

But that was five days ago. And oh, God, how things had changed.

On the very same night that Buck had left, Nettie's place had been hit by the outlaws. No one hurt, thank the good Lord -- the Welles had been in town that night -- but a fair bit had been stolen and even more damage had been done to the house and property. JD had been furious and once again he'd tried to propose his plan to Chris. But the leader had stood firm, heeding Buck's wishes and his own common sense. Telling himself this was too big for any one man to handle, let alone a half-grown one.

And then Mary's old place had been targeted next. There hadn't been anything left of any material value out there, but the fences had been torn down and trampled, remaining furniture smashed and both the barn and house riddled with so many bullets, the walls were beyond repair in some places. Little Billy was still reeling, devastated that what was left of the home he'd shared with his ma and pa had nearly been destroyed. Mary had felt violated. And Chris? His slow boil had escalated into a bubbling cauldron of fury. Still, he ignored JD's arguments.

But when, Hiram Nieuhaus' family was robbed and threatened, with Hiram suffering a severe beating at the hands of the outlaws, well, that had become the last straw for both Chris and JD. Nobody terrorized parents and children and got away with it -- not right under Chris Larabee's nose. And knowing how protective the kid was of that family, Chris had known it would've been pretty damn futile trying to stop the boy from doing something to prevent another attack.

Although to the casual observer, the young gunslinger might have seemed to have forgiven himself for the accident that had taken Annie Nieuhaus' life, all of the Seven knew there wasn't a day that went by that JD didn't think about what he'd done. Chris knew that Annie's children were precious to the boy, and her husband Hiram stood on the same hallowed footing as well.

Knowing this, Chris understood there was simply was no way in hell JD Dunne was going to stand back and let that vicious gang get away with the possibility of another attack. Not if he could do anything at all to stop them.

At least that's what Chris had told himself at the time.

And God forgive him, to justify Chris' own desire for revenge, he had agreed to let JD go in.

So now Chris sat, in Nathan's clinic, keeping watch over their youngest. Waiting for Buck's arrival to take his rightful place at JD's side. After he busted Chris' head wide open that is. Or worse. Put a bullet in him. Hell, maybe that was better?

For not only had Chris betrayed Buck's trust and broken a solemn promise made to his old friend to keep JD safe, he'd allowed his own need for vengeance to cloud his thinking. And now JD -- the life most cherished in Buck's heart -- was lying here in bed, much too still, unconscious, hurt. . . maybe dying. . .

Nathan honestly didn't know.

How could three days change everything?

Three days after the kid had promised he wouldn't do anything stupid or too risky. Chris shook his head. Too risky? Hell, going in there in the first place was too risky. Hadn't that been Buck's point in the first place?

But JD had been beyond adamant. That he'd learned from his own experiences -- Annie's loss, Mattie's shooting, surviving this past year in the west -- and he'd learned from the best. He could do this; he was the only one who could. That's what JD had said, and Chris had agreed. Because he'd wanted to believe him.

And damned if the little shit hadn't come up with a pretty good plan, too.

It could've worked. It would've been something ole big brother Buck could've even been mighty proud of, if Chris ever dared tell him what he'd gone and let JD do, that is.

Not that he had any choice in the matter, now. Goddamn that Rafe Mosely. Chris knew in his gut that that no-good kid was responsible for this. Responsible for JD's cover being blown.

But the responsibility for JD lying here fighting for his life? Well, that fell solely on Chris.

Larabee could still remember Vin's moan of utter dismay as he'd looked through his glass and spotted the new riders coming into the outlaw camp. He'd recognized Rafe almost instantly, maybe as quickly as JD'd had, just before all hell broke loose at any rate.

Too late, no matter what.

From what Vin could see, JD'd acted quickly and never once lost his composure, even as he'd worked his way to the horses before anyone could have known what was happening. But once he'd mounted his bay, whistles and shouts had erupted from the camp, and Chris, Vin and the others had provided as much cover-fire as they could so the kid could make good his escape. But there were just too many guns down there. Too many men.

JD had ridden like the expert he was. Hell, even bareback the kid was better than most, but not even JD Dunne could outrun that much flying lead. And not even JD could stay in the saddle after a shot in the leg. . . and one to the head.

+ + + + + + +

Chris couldn't stand this. He'd thought after they'd gotten JD home, the kid's frantic and delirious screams and shouts had been agony enough, but the complete and utter silence that followed and still reigned, was sheer hell. The boy hadn't moved a muscle, twitched or even blinked in the last 24 hours and Chris knew Nathan was afraid. The leg wound hadn't been too bad, all things considered, but the other bullet had done a helluva lot more than just graze the boy's head.

Yeah, Nathan was afraid. The healer didn't know if JD'd ever wake up again, and even if he did, whether he'd be their JD anymore.

Buck's JD.

And Buck had yet to even find out what had happened. Josiah'd sent the telegram to Red Fork. For a man of eloquence and of damn near as many words as Ezra, the message was simple: "Come home now. JD's hurt bad."

Chris expected Buck at any time. No one meant more to him than JD, so come hell or high water, Buck would get here in record time. And Chris would have to face him -- guilty and ashamed.

It was shame that kept the legendary gunslinger from wanting to look into JD's face, but it was this same shame that forced him to do so. He'd hoped his presence and his touch would provide JD with some measure of comfort until Buck's arrival. Chris owed them both that.

He'd been holding the boy's hand for what had to have been hours, now. So lax and ominously cool before, JD's palm finally felt warm in Chris' own. Chris couldn't tell if that was a reflection of his own body heat or if JD's temperature was actually improving, but he was thankful either way for the warmth he now felt in his grip. The alternative had chilled Chris down to his soul; the sense of loss and foreboding it had given him had nearly been more than he could bear.

But now, maybe there was hope. Maybe those long ebony lashes sealing eyelids sunken much too deep into bruised cheekbones, would finally flutter open to reveal the sparkle of life that was JD Dunne. The innocent soul who'd lived through too much sorrow and yet still had so much courage and joy left to share with those around him. All that was good was reflected in those shimmering hazel eyes.

And maybe those big child-like eyes would open in time for Buck's arrival, so Buck could look into their depths and not at the awful bruising that had traveled along the kid's skull from the bullet wound to his temple. Nor would he have to look at the scrapes and bruises that peppered the boy's face from his fall. If JD's eyes would just open, everything would be all right. Everything would have to be.

Tightening his hold of the boy's hand, Chris squeezed gently as he tenderly cupped his other palm against a too pale cheek. Lowering his face to JD's, he spoke his plea. "C'mon, kid. Wake up for me. Come on, please. Wake up for Buck."

Chris' voice was a whisper. His words a prayer he'd been repeating for hours.

A prayer that remained unanswered.

+ + + + + + +

Exhaustion and worry having taken their toll, Chris had fallen asleep in the chair at JD's side. He wasn't sure what had awoken him so abruptly until it registered that the pounding he could hear wasn't the all-too-familiar thrumming that often visited his head the morning after too many rounds, but rather the actual pounding of boots upon a staircase; the one outside Nathan's clinic.


Loosening his grip on JD's hand, Chris straightened up, not yet fully awake and definitely not ready to face his old friend. To face that look on Buck's face. The one he rarely used, the one that could rip the heart out of anyone who cared for the big man.

It was the unfathomable depth of emotion that he wore at those times. The devastation in his eyes, reflecting every hurt ever delivered upon him, and worse. . . upon those he loved. That grief, combined with a terrifying hatred, the utter loathing towards those who had been its cause, who had inflicted such pain. Although Chris hadn't often witnessed that look cross his old friend's face, and only a few times since they'd gotten back together, it always affected him deeply.

The first time Larabee'd seen it in years was when Buck had killed that bastard Wickes.

And when Mattie'd shot JD, Buck had worn it like a badge.

Chris Larabee wasn't afraid of much of anything but he knew damn well he didn't have the fortitude to face that look, not when it was directed at him. Oh, he'd come close already. That time he hadn't stood up for JD after Annie'd been shot and the townsmen had begun talking about running JD out of town. Chris hadn't immediately defended the boy and Buck had shot him a look then.

Well, if looks could kill. . .

It had cut so deep Chris had spent the next several hours reevaluating the circumstances surrounding the shooting and had ultimately come to the conclusion that Buck had been right. JD hadn't been to blame and Chris sure as hell didn't want to see him run out of town. Or leave on his own for that matter, especially not out of guilt or shame. Chris hadn't realized he'd wanted JD to stay a part of the Seven until then, but with that one look from Buck, he'd come to realize the truth, and realize his mistake.

And still, that look wasn't as powerful as Chris knew it could've been. As powerful as the one he now deserved. The one that would be infinitely more painful.

+ + + + + + +

Heavy footsteps faltered outside the door, confirming for Chris that it was indeed Buck on the other side of the doorway. Chris knew his old friend was pulling himself together before facing his greatest fear -- watching JD fight for his life.

Buck quietly opened the door and in the lamplight Chris could see the lines of worry, guilt and grief already etched on his expressive face. Chris inhaled a shuddering breath and stood. . . to relinquish the chair and to face his friend.

Buck brushed past him quickly and knelt next to JD, ignoring the chair and Chris, and turning all of his attention to the unconscious boy in the bed.

"Aw, JD." Buck's voice quavered, but he gathered the boy's limp hand in his own and leaned in so close to the boy's ear, Larabee could scarcely hear his whisper, as Buck tried to reach JD. "Hey, kid. I'm here, son. Buck's home. Everythin's gonna be all right, now, hear?"

Chris rested a hand on his friend's back; eager to impart to both Buck and JD all the strength and comfort he could muster. Buck flinched away so sharply; Chris was barely able to keep his balance. "Get out."

The words were spoken softly, yet Chris could feel their thunder vibrating deep within his own chest. God, he was so sorry. He tried again. He owed them both this apology. "Buck, I--"

"I said. . . get out." Buck never turned his attention away from JD's battered face, never stopped running a gentle hand through the boy's hair, never released his grip on JD, and still Chris felt the violence of Buck's words, saw it in the tight clench of his jaw.

What Buck had spoken was beyond a threat. Chris already felt as if he'd been sucker-punched and had the wind knocked out of him. He could barely breathe. But even with the initial impact, Buck's tone held within it the promise of even greater violence, if Chris didn't back off.

"All right," he whispered, defeated. Ashamed. Lost.

Chris stepped back from Buck and his adored charge, clearly an unwelcome intruder. Reluctantly, he turned away from his two friends and crossed the floor to leave them to their privacy.

Reaching for the doorknob, Chris looked back once more at the heartbreaking scene, regret and sorrow burning a hole deep within his gut.

At the sound of the door opening, Buck looked up briefly and his wounded eyes met Chris' guilty gaze.

Chris barely stifled his groan. There it was. That soul-wrenching, devastating mixture of supreme hurt, betrayal and loathing. Directed at him and only him. Chris Larabee would have given anything to spare his old friend the grief necessary to put that look on his face.

But instead he was the cause of it.

God forgive him. Buck never would.

+ + + + + + +

Buck looked away from Chris as the door closed behind him. Goddamn him.

Josiah had briefly explained what had happened. And Buck was still in shock. How could Chris have gone back on his word like that? Betrayed him like that. Allowed JD to get so badly hurt. Buck would never forgive him. And if JD died, Buck would kill him.

Returning his focus to JD, Buck shoved aside the anger he felt toward Chris. Momentarily. JD's bedside was no place to feel that kind of rage. He loved the boy and if he was going to reach him, he didn't want JD to sense anything that frightening. All he wanted the boy to know and to feel was the intense pride, faith and love that Buck felt for him.

The big man shook himself, trying to shutter away all negative thoughts. Hell, he wasn't Chris. Buck Wilmington wasn't into vengeance. It didn't solve anything, didn't help. But, God. . . this was JD. This was his kid. This time it was his boy.

If JD died. . .

No! Clamping down -- this time on his dread and the fear that was doing its damnedest to consume him -- Buck admonished himself. JD was going to live. He'd be all right. The kid was a survivor, as tough as nails and with an iron will to boot. And nearly as stubborn as his big brother. Between the two of them, they'd fight this. And they'd win.

"JD?" No response. The boy lay still as death.

The big man sat back and took in the sight before him. JD looked awful. His hair -- black as coal and slick with sweat -- was swathed in a stark white bandage, mercifully covering the wound in the boy's skull. Nathan had told Buck the bullet had hit hard enough to take a piece of bone with it as it had gouged its way alongside the kid's head.

Thankfully it hadn't lodged at all, but the healer'd believed its impact had been powerful enough to knock JD cold, before he even fell off of his horse. The hard landing was cause for additional concern, too. "Damnit, boy," Buck sighed. "I surely wish you'd quit thinkin' of all these new 'n different ways to get yourself hurt. I'm not up to this anymore, kid."

His voice trailed off as he continued to look at the boy's battered face. The wound was no longer bleeding, but the grisly signs of earlier seepage stood out in bold contrast against the bandage and against the kid's pale skin. A large bruise crept out from underneath the dressing and beyond JD's hairline, testimony to the hard hit he'd taken. Buck stared at the stained cloth, overwhelmed by the surrounding cuts and bruises mottling the too young face and quickly had to look away.

But he never broke contact.

Shifting his hand to JD's chest, Buck breathed a slow, long sigh, reveling in the combined life-affirming sensations of a steady heart-beat against his palm and the comforting rise and fall accompanying the boy's breaths. JD was still alive and his big brother was home now to make sure he kept him that way. "Ain't that right, kid," he smiled sadly. "You 'n me are gonna lick this. Aren't we, boy?"

When only silence answered, Buck finally let the tears fall from his long-stinging eyes.

"Oh, son. You gotta be all right." Even his whispers were choked, but Buck continued to try to reach JD. "You know I need you, kid. I've told you that more 'n a few times already, but I reckon it can't hurt to keep lettin' you know it. I need you, boy. Right here with me."

+ + + + + + +

Buck's weariness and worry, together with the silence of the sickroom and stillness of night, were more than he could combat in his efforts to stay awake. He'd remained alert and at JD's side all through Nathan's repeated ministrations and the visits of the others -- with the exception of Chris, who wisely stayed away -- but the big man finally fell asleep well after the stroke of midnight.

As usual he'd found himself in an awkward and uncomfortable position, but at least this time he'd had the good sense to get his butt out of that damn chair or off of the cold, hard floor and claim a corner of the bed. To hell with convention or Nathan's bemused looks, the bed might not've been big, but neither was JD. 'Sides, the kid needed him close.

So Buck had planted himself on the dresser side of the bed, on top of the covers, placing a pillow on the top of the dresser when he finally gave in to the exhaustion claiming him and lay his head down.

He'd woken with a bit of a start, more than a little used to sharing a bed, but rarely finding himself come morning sitting upright, and instinctively knowing that that sure weren't no woman snuggled up next to his leg.

Reality and the tragedy encompassing his world came crashing down upon him with a heavy weight, but he managed to remain calm and steady, not wanting to jostle JD in any way or do him any additional harm.

Thankfully, he could tell straight away that the boy was still breathing, could feel the steady rise and fall beneath the arm he'd rested upon the boy's chest all night. When his senses became fully aware, Buck spoke a silent thank-you to the good Lord in heaven -- JD was still with him.

Looking down at JD's face, Buck couldn't help but feel a resurgence of anger and fear. JD looked so bad. In fact, to Buck's experienced eye, the kid looked even worse than he had the day before. Lines of pain were etched along JD's scraped and scuffed brow and along his mouth. The boy's eyes seemed locked even tighter, as though he were fighting a pain he hadn't felt the day before. Buck felt the lump in his throat swell. Aw, son. As if you haven't suffered enough already.

Buck tenderly brushed aside the bangs falling into JD's closed eyes. As perceptive as he was, especially when it came to the boy's welfare, it still took him a minute or two to make the connection. JD was curled up mighty close to Buck's side and yet Buck had been too afraid to move him once he'd settled in next to him last night. Sure he'd sat himself right beside the kid -- he'd wanted JD to know he was there -- but it hadn't actually been all that tight a squeeze. Until now. Just how in hell had JD got so close?

Could Buck dare begin to hope? Could the pained expression on the kid's face actually be a good sign? A sign that JD was sleeping, rather than unconscious? And could the kid have actually shifted closer to Buck on his own?

Only one way to find out. Buck held his breath as he lightly patted the cheek with the least bruising. And he prayed.

"C'mon, kid. Wake up for me, little brother."

+ + + + + + +

Damnit, Josiah! Would you cut it out? The words hadn't formed beyond thoughts when JD realized that the relentless pounding that he'd woken up to couldn't possibly be causing this much agony all on its own, at least not without a little bit of additional self-inflicted assistance. And since an intolerable nausea had started making itself known to JD's belly just about exactly the same time Josiah's incessant hammering had woken him up, JD figured that he only had himself to blame for his misery. God, how can Chris do this to himself all the time? How does he survive it?

Funny thing was, JD couldn't exactly remember tying one on last night. Hell, he couldn't remember much of anything for that matter. Had he and Buck gotten drunk? 'Course they had. What else could explain this skull-splitting headache? God, he was gonna kill Buck Wilmington for talking him into whatever the hell it was he'd talked him into!

Tomorrow. He'd kill Buck tomorrow. Once JD had the energy to lift his head or open his eyes. Let alone crawl out of bed.

Wait a minute. . .


Hadn't he just heard Buck's voice?

JD considered opening his eyes and checking to see if his way too cheerful, "never-had-a-hangover-that'd-keep'im-down" best friend was hovering about. Just waiting to greet him with an irritatingly infectious grin and brilliant words of wisdom, the likes of: 'if you can't play with the big dogs, you best stay on the porch', or something equally infuriating. Dang him.

But JD's eyes really did not want to cooperate. Nor did anything else, truth be told, and that was beginning to scare him, just a little. The longer he lay in bed, the more aware he became of the intensity of his pain. As his body continued to awaken, agony crept insidiously into every joint, every muscle and every bone in his body. But the worst of it -- the most extreme torture -- centered in his skull. To get away from it, he tried to shift his head, find even a remotely bearable position for it, but as he did so, JD simply couldn't prevent the hoarse cry that erupted from his throat.

"JD!" Buck's anxious voice broke through JD's agony.

Oh, thank God. Buck'll know what to do. He'll help. He'll make everything better.

"Easy. Easy, kid. I've got ya. I've got ya." JD had no idea how Buck had gotten to him so quickly, had known anything was wrong even before JD seemed to, but somehow Buck had gotten himself literally right there. Where JD needed him. The warm, heavy, soft something that JD had instinctively curled into when his brain exploded was in fact his best friend, and he had a hold of JD so fast, the kid never even got the chance to bring his hands up to his head like he'd wanted to, before Buck had latched onto them and pulled JD up into the warmth of his chest.

Strong arms encircled JD, promising comfort and protection from whatever evil was attacking him and the boy gave into that security as easily as he gave into his tears.

"It's all right. You're all right, son." The kid focused on Buck's soothing voice and allowed the words that pledged relief wash over him and JD began to relax. "That's it, JD. Just let the pain go."

JD did as he was told. Despite the torture still resonating in his head, JD's hitching breaths settled and his grip on Buck's shirt loosened as he allowed himself to settle into the familiar and inviting refuge that was his big brother's care.

+ + + + + + +

Buck released the tremulous breath he'd been holding since JD woke up in obvious agony. His desire to call for Nathan had been instantly overshadowed by his need to ease JD's suffering as quickly as he could. He'd hesitated for a heartbeat before taking JD into his arms, afraid of causing the boy any further harm, but when JD's cry was quickly followed by the poor kid practically rolling onto his lap, Buck took that as his cue to give JD the comfort he could offer him.

And now, although fairly certain JD was still awake, the kid was quickly settling, his anguish subsiding to whimpers and moans that still tore at Buck's soul, but were thankfully not as excruciating for either of them to bear. Buck continued to murmur his assurances to JD: that everything would be all right, that he was here and he'd look after him, but the big man couldn't fight the vice-like grip that both fear and dread still held on him. The paralyzing fear that JD was awake, but that he wasn't all right.

Not once had the kid uttered anything intelligible in his battle against the pain consuming him. Sure, Buck knew damn well that when anyone was hurting as badly as JD, they weren't paying much attention to what they were saying, let alone how well they were saying it. But JD's cries had been garbled, never once had Buck recognized a distinguishable curse, and worse, never once had Buck heard JD call his name. And that scared him to death.

Nathan had solemnly warned Buck about the gravity of any head injury and those very concerns were eating away at Buck's soul, even as JD lay with his bandaged head tucked beneath Buck's chin. Even as Buck continued to whisper his litany of hope.

JD shifted slightly in Buck's hold and another slight whimper parted the boy's lips. "Easy, son. Shhh." JD responded only with a sigh.

This was killing Buck. He had to know. As exhausted and hurt as the kid was, Buck had to know if JD was going to be all right. And he had to know now.


"Mmmm," was JD's only reply. That didn't help.

Buck's movements were infinitely careful as he slowly shifted the boy in his hold so that he could see JD's face. Gently tilting the scraped chin towards him, Buck spoke the kid's name again. "C'mon, kid. Try 'n look at me. Could you do that for ole Buck?"

Another groan followed and Buck watched with bated breath as JD's eyelashes fluttered weakly, struggling to open. Buck felt his heart swell with renewed hope. The boy understood his request. Half the battle was won. "Thatta boy. You can do it."

+ + + + + + +

JD felt just awful, but a fair bit better than he had when he'd first woke up. He knew he should feel embarrassed, after all a man wasn't supposed to be found in another man's bed, but JD couldn't help but think that a worried Buck Wilmington had never been taken into account by whomever it was who wrote that particular rule of manhood. Hell, Buck really wasn't much for rules, as it was. Buck was just plain Buck. He did whatever he felt needed to be done. No need to question it, or care what anyone else thought. Whatever it took to make things right, Buck was there to do it. Especially when it came to JD.

And since JD's head wasn't pounding and spinning near as bad as it had been before Buck took hold of him, and his guts weren't churning like they'd been before, JD figured that whatever Buck was doing he could just keep on doing it, 'cause it was working. 'Sides, he figured that this couldn't possibly be any more embarrassing than upchucking all over Nathan, which was more than likely gonna happen if the healer brought any of his putrid tea anywhere within a mile of JD's stomach any time soon. "Unh. . ." Just the thought of that stuff made his guts want to rebel.

Buck sure was beginning to sound worried though. JD'd been the recipient of just about every tone of voice Buck had in his repertoire, so he felt he had a pretty good understanding of the Wilmington voice. It still kinda amazed JD that the man who could boom like a cannon when he wanted to, could just as easily soothe JD's worst fears and make everything seem all right, just by talking to him. Even when he felt as bad as he did now, as though someone'd driven a railway spike through his head. Funny though, Buck wasn't nearly as good as he used to be at hiding his own feelings -- especially his worry. Or maybe JD was just getting better at reading Buck? Either way, he could tell that his best friend was worried now.

JD wasn't sure exactly why. Aside from the fact that his leg was mighty sore and he really wished his head would just go ahead and fall off already, JD was feeling a lot better. Couldn't Buck tell? Hell, even if JD really was getting better at reading Buck, he knew he'd never be able to compete in that department. Buck could usually read him like a dime novel.

As JD felt the gentle tilt of his own chin in Buck's hold and then heard his best friend's anxious plea, he figured he'd better find out exactly what Buck was so all-fired worried about.

He could open his eyes. He'd just try not to move too much in the process, since the last time he'd done that, it'd felt like someone had rammed two hot pokers into his eye sockets. JD sighed. Or maybe it was a moan, he wasn't really sure. Well, since it sure seemed awfully important to Buck, he'd open his lids.

"Thatta boy. You can do it, kid."

Shoot, Buck. This wasn't all that big 'a deal. . .was it? Buck sure seemed to think so. Okay, here we go.

"Aaaaaaah!" JD shrieked. What's with all the light? Oh, that hurts! "Oh, God!" He was gonna throw up, he knew it.

"JD?" Buck sounded strange. Happy, relieved and worried, all at the same time. "C'mon, kid. Talk to me. You all right?"

Really dumb question, Buck. If it hadn't meant opening up his eyes again, JD would've loved to throw the man a look. "What. . . do. . . you. . . think?" JD gasped.

Was Buck laughing? Well, if Buck didn't stop chuckling and soon, JD wasn't gonna feel the least bit guilty when he emptied his guts all over him. Oh, shit.

"'S 'all right, kid. I gotcha. You're gonna be fine." JD felt Buck ease him forward, still chuckling just a bit, and resting him once again against his chest. He began to gently rub JD's back until the kid couldn't help but relax and give in, his pain ebbing along with his thoughts, until the only thing remaining was. . . his immense gratitude.

+ + + + + + +

As the day progressed, Nathan had come in to see JD a number of times -- to poke and prod him mercilessly, if anyone within earshot listened to JD's side of the story -- and aside from a nasty incident involving the healer's tea and an awful bout of nausea, the kid's improvement had been remarkable.

Just as the big gunslinger would've easily predicted, JD'd kicked Buck out of his bed the next time he'd woken up. Long before the first sign of any visitors held any threat, grumbling some indignant nonsense about grown men needing their own space and reminding Buck what he'd said about his animal maggotism only workin' on the ladies and why didn't he just go practice on one 'a them already?

Buck had just laughed. He knew. And that's why he wouldn't leave. Oh, sure, he'd gone out to use the outhouse a few times and to change into some fresh clothes. He'd even stopped for a quick bite to eat while he'd been back at the boarding house. But he never stayed away very long.

Nathan had told him that as far as he was concerned the kid was out of the woods. And Buck truly believed him. But that didn't mean the kid still wasn't hurting and could use a friendly face around to keep him company. Hell Buck knew the boy, and despite JD's big talk, that kid didn't really want any more space than the span of a room.

And truth be told, Buck wanted to stick close and felt better himself, just seeing the kid making some progress.

Besides, there were still some things that had to be dealt with when it came to JD being hurt in the first place. Buck realized the hurt kid wasn't up to a talk yet, but it sure was comin'. This had been too close a call to ignore and what somehow made it even worse for Buck, if that were possible, was knowing that he hadn't been there when the kid had been so badly hurt. He hadn't been there to protect him.

'Course he had left JD in the care of someone he thought he could trust.

Something else he was gonna have to deal with. Soon.

Buck had survived the harshness of the west as long as he had for a number of reasons. Bein' as big as he was had sure helped, and he couldn't deny that being damn quick and deadly with his gun was definitely a big factor. And he might not have had much book-learnin', but he sure as hell wasn't stupid.

Growin' up as he had hadn't been very easy and he'd learned from the get-go that trust was not something to just give away recklessly. Trust had to be earned. Something he'd been trying to teach JD practically since the moment he'd laid eyes on the cocksure little brat.

Something Buck felt he was no longer qualified to teach.

Hell, if he couldn't trust Chris Larabee -- with JD's safety, no less -- he couldn't trust anyone. And he sure as hell couldn't ride with him anymore.


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