Only Wanted to Help
The next morning dawned cool and damp, fitting the mood of the six town protectors. Mary had written an article about Buck Wilmington for the paper on the previous day and told of the memorial service Josiah would perform at the church the following day. Chris and the others met Josiah at the steps to the small building as people began to show up. JD had not joined them for breakfast and Chris found out from Inez that the boy had come in early to get some breakfast and mentioned going for a ride. When they arrived at the church, JD was still out on Seven. As the church began to fill, he nodded to Vin. The tracker tipped his hat and headed for the livery to mount up and found their missing companion.
Vin didnt have to go far. As he approached the stables, he spied the boy riding in from the back side of the building. His shoulders were slumped and his hair hung in his face, hiding his features from the tracker. But Vin knew what he would see under that hair-profound grief and guilt. The grief was born of the loss of a brother. That loss had left a huge hole in the group of men, especially for the young man Buck had taken under his wing. Vin felt and understood the grief. But the guilt was a burden the boy did not need to shoulder. But they had not convinced JD of his innocence and the misplaced guilt was weighing heavy on the slender shoulders of their youngest member. Vin knew JD was putting on a face for them. He wasnt ready to deal with his loss yet. So, Vin went to front of the livery and called out loudly, "JD? You in here?"
He turned as the horse and boy entered. "Howdy, Vin. Sorry Im late. I lost track of time. Give me five minutes to wipe Seven down. Ill meet ya at the church."
Vin had stepped aside as JD came past. He dropped his chin and gave the boy as sideways glance. JD never looked directly at Vin.
"Honestly. Five minutes." He started unsaddling Seven and wiping him down. Vin turned and headed back to the church.
JD listened to him leave and then leaned against Seven "How am I going to get through this, Seven? I just dont know if I can do this." He tossed some fresh hay into the stall and made sure there was fresh water. He wiped his face with a clean kerchief and headed to the church.
+ + + + + + +
One hour later, Josiah concluded the solemn ceremony. The preacher joined the other five men at the front of the church. As people stood, some left quietly out the back, but the ones closer to the seven came to the front to offer condolences and a few words to them. The gathering was hushed, no one wanted to intrude in the thoughts of another.
Chris accepted the well wishes of the people of the town. People that included Mrs. Potter, Yosemite, Inez, and Mary. Of course, Nettie and Casey Wells were there also. Chris tried to stay close to JD during the course of the morning. So many people had stories about Buck that they wanted to tell. Things that even Chris had never heard. Stories of generosity, good humor, all things that he knew existed in the big-hearted man. The story telling evoked tears and laughter. One story led to another and the morning wore on to afternoon.
Chris had been distracted by all the warm memories. He was listening to a story Yosemite was telling when he noticed Casey approach JD for the first time. She sat down next to the young man and shyly reached for his hand. JD never moved. Casey whispered something in the boys ear and he turned red-rimmed eyes to her. The girl reached up to push a strand of dark hair from his eyes. Her hand stopped as he pulled away.
"Dont be kind, Casey. I dont deserve it." His voice was pitched low, but Chris could hear the words, and the pain that prompted them. "I should a never come here. I cant I gotta go. Ill see ya tomorrow. I promised Miss Nettie I d come help with that fence." He stood and left, never looking at the others.
Casey turned back to the group, chin trembling. She caught Chris eye on her and shook her head. Chris stood and joined her on the bench. Chris placed a hand on her arm. "Dont worry, Casey, well take care of him."
Chris suddenly found he had an armful of weeping teenage girl. He recovered quickly and wrapped both arms around the sobbing girl. He held her gently until Nettie came over and collected the girl. The older woman gave the gunslinger a pat on the hand as they left. Suddenly uncomfortable, people began to drift out of the church and back to their daily lives.
The five men exited the small building and split into two groups. Chris and Vin headed for the jail. There they found JD sitting in front of the jail, fiddling with his hat. Chris realized the boy usually shared that duty with Buck.
"Mind if we join ya, JD?" Chris took the chair next to the teenager. Vin reclined against the hitching rail, crossing his arms in front of him. He looked at the young man and the thought came to him that the light was gone from the boys eyes. The spark of life that shone through those eyes was gone and might never be back. It chilled the tracker to think that they had lost JD, even though he sat right in front of him.
Vin glanced over at Chris, his face shadowed by the brim of his hat. The tracker inclined his head at the boy. Chris took a deep breath and turned to JD. "You alright, son?"
JD continued to sit, working his hat around by the brim. His head hung down and his hair hid his face. Chris waited for an answer. When one didnt come, he reached over and took hold of the young mans hand. He could feel him trembling. JD stopped messing with his hat. He sat back and looked from one man to the other. The tears were in his eyes, but they didnt fall.
"It hurts, Chris. I keep hearing him telling me to jump." The boy shook his head. I wouldnt because of the horses. I didnt want the horses to be dragged over."
He stood and walked to the end of the boardwalk. He was once again fiddling with the bowler hat. He turned suddenly and the tears were gone. The hazel eyes were dry and lifeless, sunken back. The late afternoon sun shadowed his face and it was easy to see the bones of his face. "I screwed up again and it cost Buck.. it cost him his life. I never thought that .." He looked as Chris with such pain filled eyes. "Im sorry, Chris. You should a shot me that first day. Annied still be alive; Buck would still be alive. Dont seem like Ive learned much since I been here. Just keep messing up and apologizing for it."
He stood for a moment, then placed the bowler hat on his head. "I gotta go help Yosemite."
"JD. Hold up a minute." Chris called out.
JD didnt turn around, but called over his shoulder. "I gotta go, Chris. I promised." And he hurried down the street.
Vin sat down in the vacated chair. He turned to Chris. "I think we got a problem, cowboy."
Chris watched as JD disappeared. "Yeah. I just aint sure what to do about it."
+ + + + + + +
Early the next morning, JD got ready to get to the Wells ranch to help with the fence. He rode to the edge of town and found Vin waiting for him.
"Morning." Peso fell into step beside Seven.
"Morning, Vin. You following me? Chris want ya to keep an eye on me?" JD didnt sound angry, but he did sound and look tired.
"Nope. Bucklin and I were supposed to help with the fence together." He saw the raised eyebrows of the younger man. "Guess he forget to mention it to ya."
"Yeah, I guess so. Be nice to have company, though." The two rode in a comfortable silence and arrived at the ranch while it was still cool out.
Nettie Wells had the two young men hard at work for most of the day. After finishing, they went back to the house and were greeted by the woman with fresh towels. "You boys can clean up over there and then come on in for some supper."
JD opened his mouth to protest, but the woman cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Dont be telling me you got to get back to town. Whatever youre in such a hurry to get back to will wait until you can eat a little something." And she turned and walked back to the house.
Vin looked over at the boy who was only a few years younger than him. "Cant fight it, JD. She does this to me every time I come out here. She tells me Im too thin and tries to feed me."
JD laughed for the first time in days. "Hell, Vin, you are too thin."
Vin tossed a towel at JDs head. "I aint thin. Im ..ah ah, Hell. I just aint." He made a grab for the younger man, but JD ducked under the reaching hand and slipped around him and made for the barn door. Vin took the challenge and took off in hot pursuit. He caught up with the youth half way across the barn and tackled him around the legs. Both men went down. They wrestled with each other, trying to pin the other to the ground. The fight did not last long. They were both tired from the days hard work. JD yelled his submission and fell back. Vin joined him on the ground and they lay there catching their breath.
Finally, Vin rolled over and stood. He reached down and pulled JD to his feet. The slight youth staggered as he stood and stumbled against the tracker. Vin frowned as he put out a hand to steady the boy.
JD stepped back. "Sorry, Vin. Must be more tired than I thought. We better get cleaned up and get inside before Miss Nettie comes looking for us."
"Okay, JD. Go ahead and Ill be out in just a minute."
"Okay." JD left the barn. Vin stood for a minute, remembering the feel of JDs ribs against his palm. He made a note to talk to Chris when they got back.
They joined Casey and Nettie Wells for supper and Vin kept an eye on how much JD ate. He became aware that Nettie was doing the same thing. And what they saw was JD rearranging his plate, but putting very little into his mouth. JD talked throughout the meal and Casey seemed to enjoy his banter. The meal ended and the boy offered to help with cleanup, while Vin and Nettie went outside.
The woman sat in a chair while Vin squatted on the porch facing her. Her eyes bore into him, as he sat, thinking. She watched as he flexed the muscles in his jaws. The woman had a special spot in her heart for the young tracker and she didnt want to argue with him, but she had something to say and not much time to say it in.
He drew eyes back to the present and looked at the woman. "Yes, maam. I think I know."
"Good. Then you wont disagree that that boy is wasting away. My question is why havent you or Mr. Larabee or any of his other friends noticed and done something?"
Vin chewed on that for a moment. "Aint no excuses, Miss Nettie. He keeps to himself and we just figgered he was grieving for Buck. Its natural for somebody to not eat when theyre grieving. But youre right. Hes losing too much weight and sleep. Boy looks bad."
"Well, Im glad one of you men had noticed. I was looking at that boy yesterday at the church. Are you aware that hes wearing at least 2 undershirts and 2 shirts as well as his vest?" She smiled at the raised eyebrows. "Thats what I thought. You men are not watching after the boy, youre only watching him. His guilt is eating him up, Vin. I noticed yesterday and today that the boy is not strapping his gun belt on, but carries it over his shoulder. Youll need to be more vigilant. I know that all of you are grieving, but the boy was the closest. Add that to feeling responsible and you have a deadly situation." She leaned forward, placing her hands on her knees. "Hell work himself to death to make up for yalls loss. Not his-yours."
Vin felt the heat rise in his face. She was right. They were failing the boy and, if they didnt act soon, they would number five instead of six.
Casey and JD came out of the house. The boy slung his gun belt onto his shoulder and tipped his hat to Nettie. Turning to the girl, he smiled tenderly. "Ill see ya tomorrow, Casey. Evening" He stepped off the porch and turned back to the group. "Miss Nettie, thanks again for supper. It was delicious. Vin, Ill go saddle up." He quickly left.
Casey turned to her aunt, tears in her eyes. "He talks, but he aint saying nothing, Aunt Nettie. Just rambles on about whatever comes into his head. You try to say something important, he just changes the subject" She sat down on the porch next to her aunts chair and placed her head on her knee. Nettie reached out and patted the girl on the head.
"I know, child. He has a lot to work out. But hell come around. We just need to watch over him til he does."
Silence descended on the three as the sun slowly set behind the house. JD returned with the horses and the two men rode off. The two women watched as they disappeared. Each was lost in thought, but both were thinking about the same thing- one grief-stricken boy from Boston.
+ + + + + + +
It was dark when they got back to town. After stabling and tending to their mounts, they headed to the saloon. There, they found Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah.
"Evenin, brothers. How are the ladies doing?" Josiah asked.
Vin flipped a chair around and straddled it. "Casey and Miss Nettie are just fine. Got a lot of work done today. Mostly heavy stuff that they shouldnt be doing anyway."
Nathan looked at JD, who had taken a chair next to the preacher. "Yall ate yet? I think Inez has some stew in the back for ya."
JD removed his hat. "Yeah, we had supper with Casey and her aunt. I could use a drink, though. Vin, you want something? Beer?" JD stood and turned to the bar.
"Sure, kid. Thanks." As JD walked over to the bar, Vin felt three pair of eyes looking at him. Nathans eyes asked to the question again. Did JD eat? Vin glanced toward the bar to see JD talking to the woman behind the counter. He turned back to the healer. "Very little."
JD rejoined the others with a beer and a glass of water. He saw the glances of the others. He knew they were worried about him, but he didnt have the words to explain yet. How can you explain a hole in the middle of your heart or the loss of emotion that that hole had created? He felt numb, totally disconnected from everything. He found pleasure in nothing anymore. Not even riding evoked a tinge of happiness. And the only time he could sleep was when he went into Bucks room each evening after leaving the others in the saloon. He didnt tell the others. He knew it was foolish. Buck was gone and lying on his bed would not bring him back. But JD felt calmer and more at peace surrounded by Bucks things. What little sleep he managed to get, happened in that room.
He looked around and asked, "Wheres Chris?"
The three looked at each other and then at the table. Vin frowned and JD began to panic. "What happened? Is Chris okay? His voice rose in fear.
"JD, calm yourself. Mr. Larabee is perfectly fine. He has simply not made an appearance in this establishment yet this fine evening."
"Well, hell, Ezra, we can see he aint here. Do yall know where he is?" Vin pointedly asked.
Josiah sighed and leaned heavily on the table. "Chris said he wanted to take care of some things.." he dropped his eyes as he hesitated . "..in Bucks room."
JD paled, his chair falling over as he quickly stood. "Bucks room." It was a whispered statement. The four men sitting at the table refused to meet his eyes. The boy ran from the building. Vin stood up. "Shit, Chris, you couldnt wait?" He followed in JDs wake to the boarding house.
+ + + + + + +
JD entered the room to find Chris packing Bucks things. "No!" He ran across the room and grabbed a small box from Chris hands, just as Vin came through the door. The tracker had hoped to catch the boy before he reached the room and Larabee.
Vin stepped next to the boy. "JD, you know its got to be done." Sympathy was written on Vins face.
"Not right now, it dont. The rooms been paid up for two months. Just leave things alone." The boy started pulling the few possessions out of the box. Chris took hold of the slim wrist.
"JD, putting it off wont help. You need to move on. Keeping his things around, tending to his horse, just keeps the wounds open. Let the room go. Sale the horse and put his stuff away. Til you do that, the pains going to stay with you." Chris looked at the pale face of the boy and felt as if he were kicking a puppy. He hated to say these things to the boy, but he knew from experience that the pain was worst when you had to look at daily reminders of the ones you had lost. In time, JD and Chris could look into the box and see fond memories, but the loss was too fresh and Bucks horse and room with all his things lying around as if waiting for him to return were painful reminders that he wasnt. "We need to do this, JD"
"No. Its not your place to make that decision, Chris. You gave up that right a few months ago. Im Bucks best friend and Ill decide when to put away this stuff. So you and Vin, well, you just leave all this to me. Okay?" JD never looked up. He simply held on to the box that he knew contained Bucks few memories of his mother and Sarah and Adam, precious tokens of happier times.
Chris looked at Vin, who shrugged. "JD, it wont get any better with these things around all the time. You need to put them away and let go of the pain. You need to move on with your life and forget."
Chris hadnt meant to say it that way. He knew JD wouldnt forget Buck, none of them would. He has meant to forget the pain and guilt that brought on that pain, but all JD heard was forget. He went from sorrowful to enraged in a split second. Before Chris could finish his statement, JD snarled and, dropping the box, struck Chris twice in the face. The blond gunslinger was unprepared for the attack and staggered against the bureau.
Vin grabbed JD by the elbows, pulling him away from Chris. JD tossed his head, throwing his bowler to the ground. He kicked out and felt his boots connect with the buckskin-clad leg of the tracker. Vin grunted, but did not release the slight youth. JD slammed his head back and caught Tanner in the chin. Tears sprang to Vins eyes, but he could still see Chris. Tanner saw Larabee recover from the blows JD had given him. He saw the matching rage that burned in the blonds eyes. Chris reached out to grab the lapels of the younger man, but Vin spun him away from the enraged man.
"Chris! Calm down." Vins voice was not loud, but it drew the attention from the boy to him. He watched as Chris glared and then blinked a couple of times. He saw Chris regain control of his anger.
The green eyes cooled as he regained control. He looked at Vin and, then JD. "JD, Im sorry. I didnt mean it the way it sounded."
"Get out." JD growled. JD seemed totally unaware that he had punched Chris Larabee not once, but twice. He was shaking with the intense emotion Chris words had evoked. Chris and Vin saw the raw fury in the boys eyes. Tanner gripped Chris by the arm.
"Come on, cowboy. We need to leave." Chris nodded and led the way out of door. The door slammed behind them and they heard the lock being engaged.
In the room, JD stood with his hands against the door as if to bar entrance to the world. He turned and leaned heavily against the barrier. As fast as the adrenaline had come, it evaporated from his veins, leaving him weak-kneed. He pushed away from the door to unpack the things Chris had disturbed, but felt his knees give way and he stumbled back against the door and slid down to sit on the floor.
Chris and Vin listened as the boy hit the door and then the floor. Vin reached for the knob, but his hand stopped inches away as the sound of the boys gut wrenching sobs came through the wooden barrier. The two men looked at each other. Chris reached a shaking hand up to wipe the blood from his lip.
"I dont know about you, but I could use a drink." The tracker nodded in agreement. They looked at the door one more time, then left the boy to his grief.
The bloodied lip and bruised chin of the two men told the story when they joined the others in the saloon. Chris ordered and downed a whiskey, then ordered himself and Vin a beer. He took a chair at the table with the other four men. Vin accepted the drink and took a deep draw from it.
Chris sat with his arms resting on the table. He wore a dark expression of worry. Without looking at the others, he asked, "You think hell be okay-up there alone?"
Ezras head came around sharply. "What would prompt you to make such an inquiry, Mr. Larabee? Do you believe the boy has reached a level of despondency to which he might cause himself injury?"
"I know what hes feeling. And how hes thinking. My reaction was to get drunk. Only reason Im still breathing is Buck. He couldnt stop me from drinking, but he did take my guns. Then he stayed around to watch over me." Chris brought the glass to his lips, grimacing as he touched the sore spot.
Vin sat back and rubbed his chin. "Unless Buck had another brace of guns, kid aint got any weapons." His head inclined to the gun belt still hanging on the seat JD had abandoned. "Miss Nettie mentioned seeing him carrying his guns, instead a wearing em. She also mentioned how hes wearing extra clothes so we dont notice all the weight hes lost in the last few days."
All four men frowned at their lack of observation.
"I should have made sure he was eating." Chris stated.
"Chris, you cant force him to eat. He aint a kid." Nathan told him. Chris shook his head.
"Nathans right, Chris." Josiah reached over to place a hand over Chris. "What we dont need to do is start berating ourselves for our lack of care taking. What we need to do is figure a way to get through to JD and convince him to take better care of himself."
"I understand, Josiah, but I know what hes going through. He does not care. The only thing keeping him going is repaying the debts he thinks he owes. If and when thats done, if he finds out that we already took care of it, he is gone. Hell die. Hell lay down and not get up again." Chris finished off the beer in his hand. He placed the glass on the table and rose to his feet. "Im going to go over to the boarding house."
Ezra stood, "Do you feel that a confrontation is absolutely necessary at this time?"
"Dont plan to confront him. Just want to be close. In case he wants to talk or something." Chris shook his head. "I dont want to come out to tomorrow and find him gone."
Chris saw the stricken look on Ezras face.
"Sorry, I dont mean that way, Ez. I meant could see him mounting up and riding off with both horses and wed never catch him, the way he rides. I made a promise to Buck at the arroyo that Id watch over the kid. Guess its time I acted on that promise."
Chris started out the door when Josiahs voice stopped him. "Would you care for some company, brother?"
Chris turned to welcome the solemn man and found four men standing behind him. He nodded his head, unsure of his voice, and marveled at this brotherhood they had formed. He wasnt sure when it happened, but there was no denying that they were closer then just friends. The five men headed down the street to give comfort and support to an ailing brother.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning JD came out to find five men sprawled around the front room. The idea that they were concerned enough to spend the night on the various chairs and sofas in the front room of the boarding house brought tears to the boys eyes. How could they still care about him after what had happened; after all the trouble he had caused from them? Why would they care so much? He felt if he could understand that, he could feel again. JD headed for the door and then stopped. He couldnt just walk out on them. If they cared that much, he owed it to them to stay. So he sat down on the floor next to the door and waited.
He didnt have to wait very long. Vin was a known early riser. He was stirring within a few minutes. JD watched him stretch and look around the room. When he saw JD, he sat up and laughed. "Damn great bunch of protectors we are."
The sound of the trackers voice created a ripple effect throughout the room. One by one, the men woke up and looked embarrassed as he realized the object of their concern was watching over them.
Chris stood and walked over to JD. "Morning, kid. We..ah.." he shrugged. "Sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about. Were all tired. Chris, I really need to get down to the jail. Dont look like anyones been there all night." Dunne stood and turned to leave. He paused and turned around the others. "Thanks, fellows. I know why youre here and I really appreciate it."
He turned again only to have a hand stop him. He turned back to face the man that personified the very thing he had come west to find.
"Jail will wait. Lets go over to the saloon." It wasnt a question or a suggestion, but rather an order. They started out the door and Chris tossed over his shoulder. "Someone wake up Ezra."
The six men headed to the saloon. Inez was behind the bar and she smiled as the men entered.
"Well, good morning, gentlemen. How nice to see you all so early in the morning." She looked pointedly at the gambler of the group. The morning sun had not seen his face in a long time. He was not exactly in a good humor at having been awakened so early, so Inez was a little more than surprised that he smiled and tipped his hat to her.
They settled at their usual table and she brought out food that she prepared in the small kitchen for them each morning. Next she brought coffee and a glass of milk for JD. After she had placed everything on the table with some help from Vin, she left the men Josiah offered a quiet prayer and the men began to fill their plates, discussing the plans for the days work. JD was quiet, unusual for him, but understandable. He took some food and began to move it around on his plate. He seemed unaware of the five pairs of eyes watching him.
Finally, Nathan commented, "Boy, it aint any good if its cold. You better eat so we can get to work."
It seemed to work for a moment, as he took a piece of bread and munched on it. Well, its a start. Chris thought to himself. The others were mostly finished and JD had only eaten the one piece of bread and a small portion of egg. He still had half of his milk sitting in front of him.
Chris felt it was time to speak up. "JD." He looked first at the plate in front of the boy and then the face under the lackluster hair. "JD, you need to eat."
"Im finished, Chris." He made to stand up. "I really need to get to the jail. I need to check the mail pouch for the wanted posters."
"No. Sit down, kid." Chriss stern voice put the boy back in the chair. "Im serious about eating. You hardly ate anything. If you plan to work the jail and outlaying areas with us, you need to eat."
"Chris, Im not hungry. Besides, I did eat something. I can work up an appetite for lunch." JDs face pleaded to be understood, but Chris ignored the look.
"JD. We know that its hard to eat when youre upset, but you arent doing yourself any good. Please eat."
"I cant, Chris."
Chris took a deep breath. "Just a little bit, kid."
JD looked at the others for support, but found only compassionate eyes that agreed with the blond gunslinger. The hazel eyes once again came to rest on Larabee. The voice was small when JD spoke. "I cant, Chris." He stood.
"JD! Damn, boy, why cant you?"
Josiah stood and placed a hand on the boys shoulders. "Son, were just worried about ya. You aint sleeping. And if you lose anymore weight, youll blow away with the next big wind."
JD nodded. "I know, Josiah, but I cant."
Chris slapped his hand on the table. "Damn, kid, ya been eating all your life. Just put the food in your mouth, chew, and swallow."
"You dont understand, Chris. I cant. It just I cant keep anything down." JD looked to Nathan. He would understand. He was a healer.
"JD, if you dont eat, youre going get sick" the black healer told him.
"I aint stupid, Nathan. I know that. It aint like I aint trying. I eat some and then I throw it right back up." He looked at the faces of the men he knew as friends. He could see the concern and the fear. " I aint trying to kill myself. I know thats what yall are thinking, but Im not. Really."
Vin sat with his hands folded in his lap. "We believe ya, JD. We just .."
JD turned toward the door. He threw out his hands to slam open the batwing doors. "I know, yall are just worried. Well, stop worrying. I eat and I sleep as best I can, so just leave me alone."
Chris rose and quickly crossed the room. He grabbed the slight youth and spun him around. "Aint going to happen. Youre going to eat"
"Dont tell me what Im going to do. I aint your son." JD pulled away from the man in black. He slammed the doors wide and left the man standing there.
The four men at the table reacted by softly swearing and jumping to their feet.
Chris followed him out. The others followed them both. On the boardwalk, they heard Chris call JD again as the kid headed for the jail.
"JD, hold up a minute."
"No, I can do my job." JD suddenly stopped and turned. "Unless, you think I cant. Is that what you think? Do you want me to leave?"
Chris stopped and stared at the boy. "No, I dont want ya to leave. I want to make everything alright, but I cant." He looked into the angry face of the boy. He started to speak again when he saw JD was looking past him. "JD?"
The boy did not acknowledge the blond. He stepped past Larabee and into the street. Chris turned and looked past the kid. He could see a mule pulling a wagon at the far end of town. It was being driven by what was probably the oldest living thing Chris had ever seen. But what caught and held his eye was surely a vision, be because he was dead. But it surely looked like Buck Wilmington. "Buck?"
JD made his way up the street; slowly at first, but gaining speed as he got closer. The four men at the front of the saloon watched as JD ran past. Turning, they also saw the apparition.
"Good Lord, is that who I think it is?"
Josiah smiled and tossed up a prayer of thanks. Nathan started toward the wagon, but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. He heard Vins soft drawl. "Give the kid a minute."
JD approached the wagon as it drew to a stop. Buck stepped gingerly off the wagon and waited. JD slid to a stop in front of the man that had become his world. Eyes that brimmed with tears looked the tall man up and down. "Buck?"
Buck grinned. "Hey, JD." As he took in the appearance of the boy, his smile faded. "I was worried about ya. Looks like I had good cause. You look like hell, kid."
JD just stared. He reached up to touch the face he thought he would never see again. "Damn, Buck, we thought you drowned." Then his eyes rolled back and his knees folded up and JD went to the ground with Buck yelling his name and grabbing for his lapel.
The two were quickly surrounded by the others. Buck looked up at the faces of their friends. "What the hell is going on here, boys?" he asked angrily. Five guilty faces stared back.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah and Vin lifted the unconscious boy and carried him up to Nathans clinic. Buck started after them, but Chris voice stopped him.
Chris stepped up to his friend and stood much as JD had, a look of shock on his face. Buck wanted to check on the boy, but he also wanted to talk to Chris. He stood in front of the blond and waited. Finally, he was graced with a gift the Chris didnt often bestow-Chris reached out and wrapped his arms around the big man, hugging him. They stood that way for a few moments and when Chris finally released the big man there were tears in both mens eyes. The two smiled and stepped away from each other.
"Damn, Buck. I cant believe that youre here." Chris looked at Buck and saw the cuts and bruises and noticed the posture that hinted at more damage hidden beneath his clothes. The blond gunslinger frowned. "Are you alright?"
"Ah, hell, Chris. You know I always seem to land on my feet-more or less." He placed a hand on his injured shoulder, grimacing. "Whats wrong with JD, Chris?" Buck asked. He caught sight of Ezra standing to one side and reached out to him. Ezra placed a hand on Bucks arm and smiled, his gold tooth glinted in early morning sun.
"Hes just weak from not eating or sleeping, Buck. He blames himself for what happened and cant get it in his mind to eat." Chris dropped his eyes to avoid the look he felt he deserved.
Buck chuckled. "Chris, that boy dont eat enough to keep a bird alive when were on the trail, no matter how much we goad him. If he dont want to eat, there aint too much we can do about it. You know that and I know it. Dont blame yourself because you cant make that hard-headed little squirt do something."
Chris looked at Buck and saw the hint of humor in his brown eyes. Chris shook his head and nodded his head toward Nathans office. "Well, lets go check on him. I know thats where you want to be."
Buck nodded in agreement and they started toward the room they were all familiar with. Buck stopped suddenly and Ezra almost ran into his back. "Homer." Chris turned back, as Buck returned to the wagon. "Sorry, old man. I clean forgot my manners." Buck saw Ezra standing at his shoulder. "Ez, could you do my a favor? Take Homer over to the saloon and get him anything he wants. Ill pay Inez after I check on the kid."
Chris reached up to assist the old man down and was taken by surprise when he leapt off the wagon, agile as a teenager. Homer cackled at the expressions on the two peacekeepers faces. "Boys, I may be old, but Im still spry. When I cant get around on my own, well... Heh, heh. I reckon Ill be dead. "
Buck laughed at the old man. He was a funny old codger and Buck was glad hed had a chance to meet him, though he wouldnt mind changing the circumstances surrounding their meeting. "Gents, may I introduce Mr. Homer Wisdom, the man that saved my life."
Chris held out his hand, "I want to thank ya, Mr. Wisdom. Buck can be a pain in the ass, but hes our pain in the ass and were glad to have him back."
Homer pumped Chris hand and winked. "Hell, I had to bring him back; I didnt want im cluttering up my cabin. Mans got to have his space, you know." The old mans eyes twinkled. Chris saw his eyes dart down, then quickly back to his own. "You spose youre grateful nough to part with one of them little cigars?"
"Be mighty rude if I refused." And he pulled one out of his breast pocket. Homer took it in his hand as if it were made of glass. He held it in both hands and stared for a moment and then he slowly drew his hands up to his face and, positioning it under his nose, took a long, deep breath. The look on his face was one on pure pleasure. It drew a laugh from the three men surrounding him and Homers cackle joined in the noise.
Ezra extended his arm to indicate the way to the saloon. "Mr. Wisdom, if you would be so kind as to allow me to accompany you, we will see what type of cuisine the fair faced proprietress is offering our small community on this fine morning. "
Homers brow furrowed. "Hell, boy, cant you just say lets go eat?"
Ezra looked at the old man, affronted, and shook his head. "Sir, I pray that I never communicate in such a drab and mundane manner."
Homer put a hand on Ezras silken sleeve. "Boy, I cant hardly wait to see what gawd-awful fancy name you got for a good old steak."
The two men headed for the saloon, leading the wagon and mule.
Chris and Buck headed to Nathans to check on JD. Crossing the street, they saw Mary coming toward them. Her face was a mixture of emotions. She settled on joy. As they approached, she slowly moved to meet them at the bottom step to Nathans office. When they were close, she reached out and touched the tall mans face.
"My lord! Buck. Youre " She gave up trying to talk and simply stood on tiptoe and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Welcome home, Buck. You were sorely missed."
"Thank you, Miss Travis." He smiled down at the newspaper woman. "Its good to be back."
"Mary, we were on the way to Nathans. Buck is hurt. And JD collapsed."
"Oh, no, Chris. Dont let me detain you any longer." She stepped away, but placed a hand on Chris sleeve as he moved past. "Stop by and let me know how they are."
Chris tipped his hat, smiling. "Yes, maam."
The two men went up the stairs and Buck entered. Chris paused moment to watch as Mary turned and want back to the newspaper office.
He followed Buck through the door to find Nathan trying to examine Buck and, as usual, having a hard time of it.
"Nate, Im fine. I just want to check on the kid." He swatted at Nathans hand and tried to step around him. Nathan spun the man around and shoved him toward a chair.
"JDs going to okay, Buck. Hes just weak from not eating. Hes sleeping, which he aint been able to do in the last week, so you sit down and leave him alone. I need to check you over."
"Buck! Sit down and let Nate look at ya." Chris ordered.
Josiah joined Nathan at Bucks side. "Brother, the sooner you allow Nathan check ya, the sooner you can check on JD."
Finally, Buck relented. Josiah helped Buck remove his shirt to reveal a deep gash across his shoulder and down his back.
Nathan shook his head. "You planning on telling me about this, or just letting it fester?"
Buck opened his mouth to say something and then thought better of it. He sat quietly as Nathan cleaned and stitched the gash. The healer found more cuts and bruises, along with a bump on the side of his head. He finished and insisted Buck drink something to relax him and, hopefully, put him to sleep, though he didnt tell Buck that.
"Are you finished yet?" Buck was losing patience with the proceedings and was anxious to see the kid-his kid.
"Yeah, Buck Im finished. Try not to wake him, okay?"
Buck jumped out of the chair and moved to one next to the sleeping boy. He reached over, but did not touch him. Chris gestured for the others to come out with him. Vin and Josiah joined Chris on the balcony. Nathan paused to tell Buck that he needed to rest after he satisfied himself that JD was well, or would be after some rest and food. Nathan joined the others.
Buck sat and watched as the boy slept. He felt the tension of the last few days melt away. Watching the boy sleep brought a peace to the big man. He felt his eyes growing heavy and his head dropped onto his chest. There was how Nathan and Chris found him a little while later. Chris shook him and told him to go lay down. Buck offered little resistance to the suggestion, indicating to Chris just how tired his friend was.
"Ill watch over him. You rest and Ill let you know when he wakes up."
"Deal, pard." And he settled into the bed. Within minutes, he was asleep.
Chris sat by JDs bed and waited. He waited until he fell asleep. Ezra came and went, quietly. Vin came and took a seat near the window. He watched as Josiah and Nathan came down the street and headed up the stairs. Vin cleared his throat. He was rewarded with movement from the black clad man slumped in a chair.
Chris sat up and rubbed a callused hand across his face. He nodded to the tracker, just as the three men, Ezra having joined them, entered the room. Nathan checked both of the sleeping men. A nod told the rest that all was well with them both.
"Getting on toward evening, cowboy. We need to do a check of town." Chris stood and asked Nathan to take his place at the bedside. "I promised Buck, Id wake him when the kid woke up. Vin and Ill patrol town and get some supper and then well come back and spell ya."
Nathan told Ezra and Josiah that they didnt need to stay. Both men were okay, just tired. Josiah wanted to check on a family that come to town and were camping near the church with their four children. Ezra decided to go back to the saloon and wait for Vin and Chris to show up to eat.
+ + + + + + +
Darkness was taking over town as Chris once again sat next to the beds. Nathan had told him Buck had roused earlier, but then drifted off again after checking on JD. Chris turned the lamp up and went over the posters that had come in on the stage.
JD started to stir a few minutes later. Chris put down the papers and leaned over the boy. "JD?"
"Chris?" JD turned toward the man to say something, but he turned away from Larabee. Chris reached out to rub the boys shoulder.
"Whats wrong, JD? Should I get Nathan?"
He heard a muffled no and watched the boy huddle under the light blanket. He couldnt understand why the boy didnt ask about Buck. "JD." He waited, but did not get a response. "JD, I know youre awake. I want to know whats wrong." Again he got no answer. "Boy, Im not talking to myself here. You turn around here and answer me."
Chris saw JDs hand came up to wipe his face, then he turned over to face his idol.
"Sorry, Chris. I just didnt know what to say. I " JD sat up and clutched his hands. "I think maybe Im losing my mind. I thought I saw " The boy hesitated.
Chris couldnt help but smile. "JD, you arent losing anything. Fact is, you found something today." He reached over the took the boys chin in his hand and turned his head toward the him. He turned to look at Buck and JDs gaze followed Chris.
"Buck?" JDs voice was no more than a whisper. He threw back the blanket and went to stand, but was still weak and fell back into the bed. Chris reached over and helped him up. He staggered over to the big mans bed. He drew up a chair and took a seat. He placed a hand over Bucks. He didnt have to wait long for Buck to wake up.
Buck opened his eyes and found himself staring into huge, tear-laden hazel eyes. "Kid, you okay?" He sat up and leaned against the wall. JD looked him over, taking in the visible injuries.
"Am I okay? Youre one thats been missing for almost a week. Youre the one thats all beat up and bruised. Am I okay? The boy leaned forward and gripped his best friends leg. "Buck, I am better than I have been in a week." The boy had a solemn look on his face, but his eyes sparkled. He moved from the chair to the bed, sitting close to his big brother, leaning against him. Buck put an arm around his kid brother and pulled him in close, resting his chin on the boys head.
"What am I going to do with ya, kid?"
"Keep me around for a while?" JD asked. "Just dont leave me again. Okay, Buck?"
"Hell, kid, I dont think I can. I cant trust you to take care of yourself." He looked at Chris, who averted his eyes. "And I guess I cant trust the others to look after you, either. So I guess youre stuck with me for a while. At least til I can be sure you can take care of yourself . Or til I can find someone I can trust to do it."
Chris threw up his hands. "Okay, I give up. I cant take care of him. Its more than I can handle, so youll just have to stick close and take care of him yourself." He stood and stretched. "How about we go join the others? I think the kid needs to eat." Chris extended his hand and pulled the kid to his feet. Buck joined them and the trio made their way to the saloon.
They found the four remaining peacekeepers sitting at their usual table along with Homer. Inez came over and placed beers in front of Buck and Chris and a glass of milk in front of JD. She took their order for supper and turned to leave. Buck was taken by surprise when he suddenly found her at his shoulder. He turned and she took his face in her hands and kissed him. "I am very glad that you are back and well, Buck. I missed you very much," she whispered. And she was gone.
Buck merely blinked. The color rose in his cheeks, as he slowly settled back into his chair.
"Damn, boy, no wonder you were in such a hurry to get home." Homer slapped his hand on the table and laughed. The others joined him.
Chris Larabee sat back in his chair, taking in the scene before him. For the first time since that fateful day, he felt good and relaxed in his chair, enjoying the sensation. He watched the others picking on Buck as he and JD ate. They got Bucks story of the last few days. He didnt ask for their side of the story. He could see the worst of it, sitting next to him, slowly eating, finally. He could get the details later. Now, he only wanted to enjoy the company of friends.
He felt Chris hand on his shoulder. Turning, he looked into the green eyes of his oldest friend. No words were exchanged, but none were needed. The seven were together again. That was all that mattered.
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