Growing Pains

by Grey

Disclaimers: I don't own any of the characters, except for the ones I made up. This story is purely for entertainment purposes, and no copyright infringement is intended.

Notes: This is my first story, and there may be places of factual error. My apologies to anyone whom I may have inadvertently stolen information (e.g., town names, horses names, etc.) from. Town names are mostly made up, as I am geographically challenged and didn't feel like checking a map.

J.D. kicked at the stone half-heartedly as he slowly walked through the town. He knew he should have been paying attention, scanning the town for signs of danger, but the truth was, the town was as quiet as a party thrown by the dead and about half as exciting. Had been quiet all day. Longer than that, in fact.

J.D. was bored. And disgusted. Maybe more disgusted than bored. Although bored came a close second. The guys had left three days ago to go after Rusty Jones's crew. Jones had escaped from the sheriff over in Reading while he was being transported to prison; his gang had been sighted along the trail generally creating trouble, heading in a direction that would eventually bring them toward Four Corners, and Chris wanted to get to them before they got here.

Chris. J.D. kicked angrily at the stone, sending it skipping through a swirling cloud of dust. Chris had stared impassively at J.D. as he told him that he wouldn't be coming along this time. J.D.'s face colored as he remembered the conversation.

"But, Chris—we need all the men we can get. . ."

Chris cut him off. "What I need is men who are paying attention. And who are thinking clear and acting smart. You haven't shown too much of that the last couple of weeks."

"But. . ."

"J.D., you're not coming. You and Nate'll stay here, keep an eye on things in town." And turning his back on J.D. to mount his horse, Chris effectively ended the conversation.

J.D.'s face burned as he remembered the guys, their glances flicking at him and at Chris, and then away. He'd thought at least one of them would say something, stick up for him, but even Buck had given him a grim look before swinging up into his saddle and turning away. Not that he thought Buck was likely to try and talk Chris into letting him go into danger, but Buck could usually be counted on to be sympathetic, at least.

'Keep an eye on the town.' Wasn't like it was going anywhere. And if something was going to happen—well, J.D. didn't think it took two of them to calm down Old Lady Jennings after her cane was "stolen", or to pull the Curry boy's pup out of the drain pipe, or to do any of the other "exciting" things that had constituted most of the peacekeepers' jobs over the last few days. Nathan had to stay behind because Missus Holden had been expecting her new baby any minute. J.D. had to stay behind because—well, because Chris was being a jerk. That was the only explanation he could think of.

Okay, maybe he shouldn'tve jumped from cover in that gunfight last week. The cattle-hands from over at the Circle Y had started a fight with some others from out near Eagle Bend-way, and the seven had ridden into the midst of their somewhat drunken stand-off. The men had all dived for cover, Chris yelling that this was "going to end, right now!", a stocky man with a glowering face firing a shot at him in response. Chris had sworn under his breath, and then directed the others to circle around behind the group from Eagle Bend; the ones from the Circle Y had backed off as soon as the seven got there. Chris wanted to stop this without too much injury—"just a bunch of idiots letting off steam", as he said. He had told J.D. to circle down to the men's horses, loosen their reins so none of the men would just take off.

It's not that J.D. hadn't meant to listen. But as he was sliding down the incline, avoiding the bullets that the cattle hands were now mostly sending up into the skies, he saw a man in dusty garb stand up from behind a bush and swivel toward where he was pretty sure his unsuspecting teammates were moving. Without thinking, J.D. leapt up from where he'd been hiding, shouting and aiming his gun. The dusty-garbed man swung around toward him—and so did four of his group, from the bushes which had been just outside J.D.'s line of vision. J.D. felt his insides clench, things suddenly moving in slow motion, as he realized he was standing—unprotected—in the middle of a circle of drunken men with guns. Just as he thought his heart was going to pound out of his head, just as he thought he was about to breathe his last breath, just as the dusty-garbed man lifted and aimed his gun wobbily toward J.D., a shot sounded and the man with the gun clutched at his hand—which was no longer holding the gun—and grabbed at the useless fingers that were now dripping with blood. Vin, Josiah, and Ezra had stepped from out of the bushes, their guns pointing at the others. J.D.'s feeling of relief bloomed and then faded just as quickly, as he saw the deadly looks the others threw at him.

J.D. kicked the stone. He thought Chris was going to have a fit, the way he yelled at him. How was he supposed to know that Vin and the others had made their way behind the men, and had just ordered them to drop their weapons? That the man in the dusty garb had seemed about to do just that when J.D. had stepped out onto the rise, providing distraction and temptation? Not like he could hear anything from where he was crawling. Not like Chris had given him an assignment befitting of his place as an equal member of the team.

J.D. kicked the stone. He was always getting stuck with the stupid assignments. "Kid, go take care of the horses." "Kid, go wait at the telegraph office for word to come back from Eagle Bend." "Kid, go wait by the horses—just in case they circle around and

come up from behind." Not, "Kid, how about you take the lead with Vin, or Ezra, or Buck, or anyone, and see if you can take some of these guys out?"

The incident on the hillside probably wouldn'tve been so bad all by itself—after all, they did round up all the cattle-hands, and the only injury was to the one man's wrist. But coming as it had so soon after the bar fight—well, Chris was already pretty pissed at him to begin with.

J.D.'s face flushed and he rubbed at the fading bruise on his cheek as he remembered the fight. So maybe he'd had a beer or two—and maybe it was true, like Buck was always saying, that J.D. couldn't hold his beer any better'n a newborn colt could hold his legs—but that other guy had provoked it, dammit!

They'd all been sitting in the saloon, Ezra beating the pants offa some fancy-looking guy who'd come in on the morning stage and was headed out the next day, Chris and Vin slouched at a table in the corner, Josiah and Nathan talking about something to do with coyotes and moons and sponge cake, of all things, and Buck had been leaning against the bar, making nice with Miz Sofia. J.D. had just turned to pick up his mug of beer when someone jostled his arm, making him spill the beer on the counter.

Wasn't the first time J.D. had spilled a beer—so he didn't know why he felt the flash of anger that surged through him. Maybe it had something to do with the beer he'd already drunk, or something to do with the fight he and Casey'd had that afternoon.

"Whyncha watch what yer doing?" he snapped angrily, whirling around to confront the man who jostled him.

The man looked to be around Buck and Chris's age, dressed rough but neatly, twin Colts resting snugly in the belt draped around his waist.

"Sorry, kid, didn't mean to jostle you." The man nodded and then turned away, dismissing him.

J.D. felt the surge go through him again. He was sick of being dismissed. The man's eyes would have flickered with fear if confronted by Chris's anger, or any of the other guys.

"I said, you better watch out," J.D. repeated, his voice getting louder and his hands moving down to rest near his guns.

Buck had turned away from Miz Sofia by now. "Whoa, J.D., what's got you all hot and bothered, son?"

"This guy thinks he can slam into anyone he wants and spill their beer." Even as J.D. said it, he knew it sounded as much like whine as it did threat, but he was feeling angry and righteous and drunk and didn't care.

The other man had raised his eyebrows, and now looked at Buck, talking over J.D.'s head. "Mister, I think you'd better teach your boy here when to back down. I bumped him by accident and apologized."

J.D. could see the others watching the situation quietly from their spots in the saloon, and began to feel hot with embarrassment. Embarrassment always made him feel angry. And angry made him act stupid. Buck had started to nod when J.D. spat out, "I ain't his boy. And I ain't got no need to back down from the likes of you—maybe you'd better learn to back down from me!"

And J.D. leaped toward the man. He got one punch in before the man decked him, sending him sailing back into Buck's arms. He struggled to right himself, but Buck's hands had him firmly by the shoulder and upper arm. The other man looked at him, snorted, and walked away, Buck dragging J.D. out of the saloon in the other direction.

Buck had chewed him out but good for that. Told J.D. that he didn't have the sense God gave an antelope.

"If you're gonna start a fight over something so stupid, boy, you might want to consider not doing it with a man who's a good head and a half taller than you, who's likely to think fighting you is just somewhat more troublesome than swatting a fly! What in tarnation where you thinking, boy?"

J.D. had stammered, trying to respond, but Buck would stop only long enough to take air in before adding, "And another thing. . ." J.D. finally just stalked away.

So now, here was J.D., kicking a stone through town, bored out of his skull, while the other guys rode off to capture the bad guys.

"Yeah, this is what I came west for," he muttered under his breath.

He kicked the stone viciously, sending it careening through the dust. Focused on the ground and lost in his thoughts, he was startled when the stone careened back to him.

"Huh?" J.D. looked up, and met the eyes of a grinning boy, must've been just about his own age. The kid had straight, sandy-colored hair and a hat that dangled off of his back.

"Thought you might've been getting bored, waiting for the tumbleweeds to pass it back to you."

J.D. couldn't help himself—he grinned back.

"Nah—they're as likely to make a run in the other direction—even tumbleweeds are bored today."

"Name's Sam." The boy held out his hand.

J.D. shook it. "J.D. Dunne. You new around here?"

Sam nodded. "We moved up last week—Pa bought a farm bout a mile east of town."

"The Jamieson place—I heard some folks were going to be moving in. Where you come from?"

"Had a place in Kansas—little town east of Topeka." Sam's voice was quiet. "Had a fire; lost most of our stuff 'fore Pa and I got it out." His voice grew slightly bolder. "Pa and I'd been talking bout getting outta there for a while, anyhow. Hard to draw much crops from the dried-up piece of land we were working, and Pa has some family over near Eagle Bend."

"Wow—I'm sorry to hear that," J.D.'s voice was appropriately sympathetic, and Sam nodded. "So—just you and your Pa?"

Sam shook his head, and cracked a small smile. "Nah—though it'd be a mite quieter if it were. There's me, my Ma, and three little sisters. My brother Liam's back in Kansas, got a job with the railroad, didn't want to leave. What about you—you live here with your folks?"

J.D. shook his head. He didn't know why, but Sam's talk about his family made J.D. feel kind of sad. Or maybe it was the question. Or maybe he was still thinking about the fire—that must be what it was. "Ain't got no folks," he said flatly. "Came out West bout a year ago, working now as part of the law around here."

Sam's eyes were wide. "The law? But, how? You ain't no older'n I am. How old are you, anyway?"

"How old are you?"

"Seventeen. You?"

J.D. started to answer, then paused and looked at the stranger. He didn't know why, but he liked him, felt a kind of kinship with him. "You promise not to tell anyone?"

Sam looked puzzled, but nodded. "Okay."

"Seventeen, too."

Sam still looked puzzled. "Yeah, that's what I figured. So what's the big deal?"

J.D. shrugged. "Guys I ride with, they ain't never asked and I ain't never offered it. Figure they think of me as a kid, enough, anyway, don't need them to have any more to talk about."

Sam nodded knowingly. "Yeah, my Pa and my big brother're like that too. Both of 'em treating me like I ain't got a dang brain in my head."

J.D. grinned. "That's about Buck's favorite thing to say to me." He pitched his voice deeper. " 'Boy, if you don't start using your head for somethin' besides a hatrack, you won't live to see"

"your next birthday," Sam and J.D. finished together.

J.D. laughed. "You got one of those too?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "My pa thinks I ain't old enough to do nothing worth doin' 'thout being told how to do it, and Liam ain't much better. Don't matter how much I remind Pa he was almost married at my age. His favorite line's, 'I'll stop treating you like a kid,"

"When you stop acting like one," J.D. and Sam finished together, grinning.

"But I thought you said you didn't have no folks?" Sam continued. "Who're the 'guys'?"

"Like I said, I'm part of the law around here," J.D. said proudly. "Me and six other guys—they're all out riding, 'cept for Nathan." Saying it, J.D. remembered why he wasn't out with them, and felt the flash of anger again. He changed the subject. "Hey—you want me to show you round town? You gotta be somewhere?"

Sam shook his head. "Pa and I got most of our stuff settled for now. Can't do much else today cause we're waiting on some supplies, should be in tomorrow. He said I could do what I liked this afternoon, as long as I got back before suppertime to do my chores."

J.D. and Sam started walking up the street, J.D. pointing out the livery, Josiah's church, and Mrs. Potter's store.

"Guess there ain't too much to see, really. We could go see what's doing in the saloon, if ya want."

Sam shook his head quickly. "Nah—my pa," he flushed slightly, then sighed, "well, he ain't a big fan of me spending much time in saloons, just yet."

"Oh." J.D. was silent, thinking about this. He guessed if his ma was still alive, she might've felt the same way. But he'd been out here for so long, he'd almost forgotten the little thrill he'd felt in the beginning, going into the dark, smoky saloon, the tantalizing mix of fear and excitement, of doing something you knew you probably shouldn't; then, over time, the growing realization that nothing much magical happened behind the batwing doors. "Well, around here, the saloon's also where most folks in town get meals, so maybe he'll get over that."

Sam shrugged. "Maybe," he said, but didn't sound convinced. "You got a horse? I ain't seen much of the countryside round here, except what's 'tween here'n the farm."

J.D. grinned. "Have I got a horse?" He looked Sam up and down. "Me'n Pup'll ride circles around you!"

Sam grinned back. "You're gonna eat those words."

J.D. rolled his eyes and started toward the livery, then stopped. "Guess I'd better tell Nathan I'm goin'."

"Who's Nathan?"

"He's one of the guys I ride with. He's a healer, too, does most of the doctorin' for folks in town."

"He's a doctor?"

"Nah, a healer. But pretty much, yeah. He learned it in the war."

Sam looked suitably impressed, and followed J.D. toward the clinic and up the stairs.

J.D. pushed the door open, and Nathan looked up from the book he was reading.

"Somethin' wrong, son? Any trouble out there?"

"Nah, ain't nothin' even barely movin'," J.D. said disgustedly.

Nathan chuckled. "Don't seem right to complain about there not being trouble. 'Specially for you, son," he added, his eyes twinkling.

J.D. sighed and made eye contact with Sam, who nodded knowingly.

Nathan noticed the exchange. "Who's your friend, J.D.?"

"Oh, sorry. Nathan, this is Sam, he's new in town, he and his folks moved into the old Jamieson place. Sam, this here is Nathan."

The two shook hands.

"Pleased to meet you, sir," Sam said. He had been momentarily taken aback when he first saw Nathan's skin color, more from surprise than anything else, but had recovered quickly.

"You too, son. You can call me Nathan."

Sam nodded.

J.D. broke in, impatient. "Nate, just wanted to let you know Sam'n I are goin' for a ride. I'm gonna show him around for a bit. Not much happenin' here, anyway."

Nathan nodded. "Well, since Missus Holden had her baby girl yesterday, I shouldn't get called away unless someone gets hurt. Guess I can keep an eye on things."

"Thanks, Nate," J.D. pivoted to leave, but felt Nathan's hand on his shoulder.

"Hold up there, son. You keep your eyes open—ain't no way of knowing if Chris and the boys caught up with Jones yet, and he was heading out this way. Don't go out too far."

J.D. pulled away, disgusted. "Nathan, you know as well as I do that Chris wouldn't let no one slip through his fingers. And even if he did, I'd just like to see Rusty Jones try to sneak up on me—I'd blast him so full of holes he'd look just like a fishing net."

Sam looked impressed, but Nathan's voice was stern. "J.D., I'm serious, now. I'm sure Sam here is a good man, but he don't know this territory and that means you're pretty much out there without backup if anything happens. You keep your eyes open, and don't you ride too far, you hear me?"

J.D. sighed. "Yeah, I hear you. I'll be back in a coupla hours." He pulled Sam behind him, out of the clinic.

Once outside, he grinned at Sam. "So, you were saying somethin' about me eating my words?" and he leapt down the stairs toward the livery, Sam right behind him. Inside the clinic, Nathan watched through the window as the two boys rushed across toward the livery, jostling each other out of the way and laughing. He heard J.D. say, "Hey, I know a great place we can go," as the two disappeared into the livery. Nathan smiled and turned away.

+ + + + + + +

A few hours later, Nathan was sitting outside the jail, reading a book and sipping a cup of coffee. The sun had just started to go down, and he was enjoying the peace of the early evening. Well, mostly he was enjoying it; he had expected J.D. back before now, but knew that boy had no decent sense of time. And he had been bored silly the last few days; probably was hankering to do anything besides sit and watch nothing happen in town.

Nathan heard the sound of hoofbeats and looked up, surprised to see five familiar horses riding toward town. He put his book down and nodded as Chris pulled up his horse in front of where he sat.

"Nathan." Chris acknowledged the nod.

"Boys," Nathan stood and stretched. "Ya'll're back a little quick, aren't you?"

"Would've taken longer if Randall's boys hadn't been setting there waitin' for us," Vin drawled.

Nathan raised his eyebrows questioningly.

"The dismal excuses for outlaws we were attempting to apprehend proved no match for our illustrious tracker," Ezra stated with a slight smile. "Of course, it is entirely possible that they would have been somewhat more successful in masking their destination had they not consumed such copious amounts of alcohol to celebrate Mr. Jones's newly acquired freedom."

Nathan smiled. "They were drunk?"

"They were drunk," Chris replied. "Found em not more'n a half-days ride away, passed out cold. Decided to deliver em back to Reading ourselves. Couldn't figure out how Jones ever escaped from the sheriff in the first place—man don't have much more sense'n a wooden log."

Nathan nodded. "Well, glad it went that way."

Chris looked around, his trained eye taking in the streets of the town. "Here?"

Nathan understood the question. "Things have been pretty quiet here. No trouble."

Buck and Josiah returned from leading the horses to the livery. "Where's the kid? He still off pouting somewhere?" Buck asked, glancing around. He would have expected J.D. to have shown up by then. Even though he knew J.D. was mad about being left behind, he was sure J.D.'s curiosity about the outcome of the trip would have won out over his anger.

Nathan shook his head. "Met up with some new boy, name of Sam, of the family that moved into the old Jamieson place. Boy's about his age. They went out for a ride three, four hours ago. Truth to tell, I expected him back here by now, but you know boys. He should be along any time now."

"He still mad about staying?"

Nathan shrugged. "Don't know for sure, Buck. Wasn't saying much to me. But iffen I had to, I'd guess, yeah, he's still plenty mad."

Buck looked down, then over at Chris, whose gaze turned dark. "You rather have him mad or dead, Buck?"

Buck glowered for a moment, then sighed. "You're right, Chris, I know you're right. Just don't seem right to leave him behind when we go."

"You know he's part of this team, Buck. But he needed a few days to think about the kind of choices he makes. His life—and ours—depends on it."

Buck nodded and ran his fingers through his hair, then grinned and turned back to Nathan. "Who'd ya say he was with, Nate?"

"Boy name of Sam. Seemed like a nice enough boy. He and J.D. looked like they were having fun together."

Buck winked. "Well, since the kid is otherwise occupied, think I'm going to find some 'fun' of my own, fellas. Three days out is a long time, yessir, a long time!"

"Better watch where you have that fun, Bucklin, don't want to have to shoot no angry husbands this soon after getting back," Vin said from under his hat, from the chair on the porch he was now perched on.

"Now, Junior, you wound me," Buck protested. "I'll have you know that I conduct myself with the utmost honor at all times." As the snickers rose around him, he looked defensive and stated, "Well, I do."

He had turned to head toward the saloon, Ezra behind him muttering something about a poker game and a decent meal, when a horse cantered into town and pulled up near them. A tall man dismounted from the back of the large palomino and touched his cap, nodding to the group. "Gentlemen, my name is John Williams. My family and I just moved into the widow Jamieson's place up the road a spell."

"Mr. Williams," Chris had stood as the horse pulled up, but had shifted into a relaxed stance as he quickly assessed that there was no danger. He held out his hand. "Chris Larabee. Welcome to town."

"Mr. Larabee, I've heard about you and your men. A pleasure to meet you." The man looked distracted, his head glancing around the street and then back to the men.

"Mr. Williams, something we can help you with?"

Williams laughed ruefully. "Well—I'm sure it's nothing. But my boy Sam was supposed to be back at our place by suppertime, to do his chores. Now, it's certainly not the first time Sam's been late for chores, but it's starting to get dark and he doesn't know the area. I was hoping to find him here in town."

Chris looked over at Nathan. "He the boy J.D. rode off with?"

Nathan nodded.

Chris turned to Williams. "Mr. Williams, Nathan here saw Sam ride off with J.D., a young man who rides with us and is about your boy's age. They went for a ride a few hours ago, should've been back by now. I'm guessing they probably lost track of time. I wouldn't worry—J.D. knows his way around here."

Williams raised his eyebrows. "This J.D. is Sam's age and rides with you gentlemen? That certainly is. . .unusual."

Josiah smiled. "Well, sir, I would have to say that the boy is, in fact, unusual himself."

Williams waited, but Josiah didn't say anymore.

Williams cleared his throat. "Well, I'm sure your J.D. is unusual, but Sam knows better than to be late getting home. Do you think something could have happened to them?"

Nathan spoke up from where he had moved to lean against the porch railing. "J.D.'s been a mite bored in town the last few days. Seemed pretty excited meeting your son. I'm guessing they just forgot the time. . ."

"But if they don't come back soon, we'll go look for them before it's too dark," Josiah finished. "Why don't you set a spell, Mr. Williams? I'm Josiah Sanchez."

Williams thanked him and moved up to sit on the porch, introducing himself to each of the other men.

They hadn't been sitting long, when two horses raced into town, running neck and neck and then suddenly coming to a dead step near the livery. The group on the jail porch had risen at the sound of the thundering hooves, and now stood watching with mixed expressions as two grimy-looking teenagers jumped off the horses and began arguing.

"I beat you by at least a nose!" Sam declared, brushing his sweaty hair back from his forehead.

"No way," J.D. shook his head decisively. "I was a good two noses ahead of you."

"No way!" Sam exclaimed, punching J.D. lightly in the shoulder.

"Yes I was," J.D. responded, punching him lightly back.

The men watching tensed, ready to intervene with the boys who hadn't yet seen them, when both grinned at each other.

"Bet you can't get your horse watered before I can get mine," J.D. said, slinging his arm across Sam's shoulder. "Better hurry—I'm about starving for supper."

"Supper!" Sam paled and pulled away from J.D. "I'm gonna be late! My pa's going to kill me."

His voice stopped abruptly as he heard the sound of someone clearing his throat. Turning toward the sound, both boys stopped in their tracks at the sight of the seven men standing on the porch.

"Oh, shit," Sam whispered softly, his eyes focused on the one man J.D. didn't know, who was wearing a decidedly unhappy expression.

The two walked slowly over toward the porch, looping their horses' reins around a post.

"Pa," Sam started, "I just. . ."

"I thought I told you to be home for your chores." Mr. Williams voice was stern, but even.

Sam looked down, then back up. "I know, Pa, I just lost track of time. J.D. and I—this here's J.D., J.D., this is my Pa,"

"Hullo, sir," J.D. said, looking up, feeling a little sorry for Sam. Must be rough, having a Pa to give you a hard time just for coming back a little late. "It was my fault, sir. Sam wanted to see the area, and I took him out riding. Didn't realize how far we'd got."

Nathan spoke up. "Thought I told you not to go too far, J.D."

J.D. looked around. "Well, if everyone's back, must mean Jones and his group are behind bars, don't it?" He looked at Vin, and got a quick nod before turning back to Nathan. "So I guess there wasn't no harm in going further, anyway."

Nathan sighed, exasperated. "You didn't know that, J.D."

Williams had watched the interaction in some amusement, realizing that his initial concern that a boy J.D.'s age might be taken advantage of by hired gunmen was off the mark.

He cleared his throat. "Well, J.D., I appreciate you taking Sam out riding, and I appreciate you taking the blame, but Sam knows to be home when he says he will." Turning to the others, he touched the brim of his hat. "Thank you, gentlemen; it was a pleasure to meet you."

The others nodded back. "Likewise, Mr. Williams," Josiah said, smiling. "And, Sam. Welcome to town."

Williams turned to his son. "Come along, Sam. You've got chores and your mother's got supper waiting. And you and I need to have ourselves a little talk."

Sam had tried to be solemn, but his natural exuberance quickly took over as they walked to their horses. "You should have seen it, Pa. J.D. took me out to this old abandoned mine, it's got like a million bats inside. . ."

"You went inside the MINE!?!??" Buck's outraged voice startled Sam and his father, and they both turned back quickly to see Buck shooting out of his chair and towering over J.D., who was shooting deadly glances over toward Sam, who looked instantly abashed as he remembered that he hadn't been supposed to say anything. "You WENT INSIDE the MINE? Damn, boy, how many times you gotta be told something? Ain't you got no common sense at all?"

Williams had paused, looking concerned again, and turned toward Chris.

Chris calmly answered the silent question. "Old abandoned mine coupla miles outside town, not too safe for folks to go inside. Best if your boy don't try that again. J.D. shoulda known better," he finished, turning to cast his gaze at him.

J.D. squirmed under Chris's look, until Chris turned back to Williams, who nodded and thanked him once again. The rest watched as the man and his son mounted their horses and rode out of town.

J.D. watched them go, then turned toward the men. He took in their facial expressions, Chris and Buck both looking mad, the rest some combination of exasperated and entertained, and he reminded himself that he was mad at them, too.

"Guess I'll go take care of my horse," he mumbled, backing away.

Chris held his gaze for a moment and then nodded. J.D. sighed as he turned away. From the expression on Chris's face, he guessed that they'd be having themselves a little "talk" later, too.

+ + + + + + +

He had led his horse a few feet toward the livery when he heard someone else falling into step behind him. Without turning his head, he said, "Hi, Buck."

Buck chuckled. "That obvious, huh, son?"

J.D. didn't bother to reply.

"Oh, come on, now, son, I've been gone three whole days, aincha missed me?" Buck grinned, draping his arm around J.D.'s shoulders.

"Cut it out, Buck," J.D. muttered, shrugging his shoulders to move Buck's arm.

Buck looked at him, a little hurt. "Now, J.D., you can't still be mad at me, can you? After all, you got to spend three days all alone with the pretty women here in town while I slept on some hard bedroll and listened to Josiah snore."

"Yeah?" J.D. replied angrily, "Well, it's not like I asked to stay. I woulda traded places with you, if I coulda. Who does Chris think he is, anyway? Saying I don't 'think clear' or 'act smart'," he repeated Chris's words. "What gives him the right to tell me what to do?"

Buck had pulled away, his face growing serious as he listened to J.D.'s rant. As J.D. paused, Buck looked at him hard. "Maybe you just ought to think about some of what he said, J.D." Buck's voice was stern. "Taking that boy into that old mine sure wasn't any way of proving that you can be trusted to do sensible things."

"Aw, we didn't do nothing that. . ."

Buck cut him off. "You know better than to even go in that fool place, and you brought that boy in there too. What if something had happened? Didn't nobody know where the two of you were. Who do you think would have come after you and saved your sorry hides?" He looked at J.D., waiting for an answer. "Well?"

J.D. flushed. Buck had a point. He hadn't told Nathan where they were heading, because he knew no one was supposed to go in there. And if something had happened. . . "But it didn't!" He pulled himself out of his reverie and glared at Buck. "Nothing happened, just like nothing always happens."

Buck raised his eyebrows. "Like when nothing happened in the bar and that man didn't punch you in the face? Or like the nothing that almost happened up on that hill when you jumped in the middle of something you shouldn't have? Or the nothing. . ."

"Fine—okay? FINE—just leave me alone, Buck!" J.D. cut him off and stomped away, leading his horse into the stable. Buck debated going after him, but decided to leave him be and headed for the saloon. Yes, sir, a man could get mighty thirsty after three days on the trail.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. entered the saloon an hour later, having bedded down his horse and taken a quick bath to wash away some of his griminess. He saw Chris, Buck, and Vin seated at a table, eating, and Ezra playing poker with three strangers. He sighed, averted his gaze from his teammates, and headed toward the bar. He hadn't gotten far when he was stopped by a smiling Buck.

"Now, son, you're not going to sit way over there, are you? The boys and me ain't seen you for a few days."

"Not my fault," J.D. muttered under his breath, but didn't resist as Buck pushed him over to the table.

Vin hooked a chair with his foot and pushed it out. "Hey, kid."

"Hey, Vin." J.D. looked at the tracker and smiled. His expression faltered as his eyes turned toward Chris's, and he looked down again. "Chris," he said, neutrally.

"J.D." Chris answered evenly, matching his tone. Vin caught the spark of amusement in his voice and rolled his eyes slightly.

"You hungry, kid?"

"Boy, am I," J.D. admitted, turning to Vin. "We had some ride, Vin—you should've seen it. That kid, Sam, he ain't too bad. Not as good as me, of course," he added hastily.

"Of course," Vin nodded solemnly.

"But pretty good, anyway," J.D. continued without pausing. "Had us a coupla races—is he fast! Near had me beat a few times. But he didn't, of course," he finished.

"Of course," Vin smiled.

"I swear, I could eat half a buffalo. Oh, hi, Inez," he smiled, as she walked up to the table.

"Hola, chiquito," she smiled back. "I saw you met a friend today."

"Yeah, that was Sam, he just moved to town."

"Well, have him come in here sometime, you can introduce me to him."

J.D. shook his head. "Oh, I can't do that."

Inez looked at him, puzzled, her expression mirrored in the other men. "Why is that, J.D.?"

J.D. looked at her. "Well, it's the funniest thing. I offered to show him inside, but he said his Pa wasn't too happy about him going into saloons. Guess he don't know everyone eats here, too."

Inez smiled. "Well, J.D., there are many saloons that would be good for a boy to stay out of. Sam's father may be a wise man."

"Seemed like it," Buck offered. J.D. just shook his head, as Buck turned toward Inez. "Now, Miz Inez, what say you and me have ourselves a little welcome home soiree, just the two of us?"

Inez ignored him and turned to J.D. "What can I get for you?"

"Umm—the chicken and dumplings sounds good. And some milk."

Inez smiled and walked away.

The table was silent after she left, J.D. playing with his hat and looking away from Chris's silent gaze.

"J.D., you ain't even asked us how our trip was," Buck broke the silence. "Dontcha want to know what happened?"

No, he didn't want to know what happened. Well, okay, he did, but he didn't want to give them the satisfaction of knowing he wanted to know what had happened. And he wasn't going to ask. He wasn't going to. . .

"So what happened?"


Buck grinned. "Well, son, those fools were no match for ole Buck here. Why, I single-handedly scared those varmints into dropping their guns and beggin for mercy!"

Vin kicked Buck under the table.

"Ow!" Buck glowered menacingly across the table. Vin grinned back. "Oh, okay, I guess Vin here helped a little."

J.D. looked exasperated. "Someone want to tell me what actually happened?"

"They were drunk," Vin said simply. "We had 'em cuffed and halfway back to Reading afore they woke up."

"Oh," J.D. said. "Well, I guess it's good you didn't run into no trouble."

He looked down at the table. He was feeling angry again. The more he thought about it, the angrier he felt. Who did Chris think he was, anyway, telling J.D. he couldn't come along cause he didn't act smart? What could he possibly have done to mess this up—poured Jones's gang coffee to sober them up before the boys got there? No, he should've been along. But he wasn't going to say anything. Let them come to him. He wasn't going to let on how mad he was. He wasn't. . .

"Chris—I can't believe you didn't let me come." His voice sounded petulant and high-pitched, even to his own ears.


Chris looked at him levelly. "You really want to do this now, son?"

J.D. gulped slightly, but drew on his anger. "We're supposed to be a team. How could you keep me out of this?"

Vin and Buck watched warily as Chris continued to look at J.D., but leaned back in their chairs to let this play out.

Chris's face was stern, but his voice wasn't unfriendly when he spoke. "That's right, J.D. We are a team. That means every man on it needs to be able to depend on every other man. And that means earning each others' trust and respect, every day. Proving that we can be counted on." His voice hardened. "When you jump into things without thinking and put yourself in danger, you're not showing you can be counted on."

"You saying you don't want me on this team?" J.D. shot back, his voice angry. 'Please don't let that be what you're saying,' he thought desperately to himself. 'Not that I care,' he quickly amended in his head.

"What I'm saying, son, is that every one of us is responsible for everyone else. You ain't even been showing lately that you can be responsible for yourself."

"Well, sorry I ain't perfect," J.D. spat, glaring at Chris. 'Did I just glare at Chris Larabee?'

Chris's voice was stern. "It's not about being perfect, J.D. It's about thinking about what you're doing. You need to stop and think sometimes, instead of rushing headfirst into things. You knew that the mine was dangerous, but you chose to go into it anyway. Did you stop once and think about what would've happened if a part of it had collapsed?"

He paused for a moment, giving J.D. a chance to answer. When he couldn't, Chris continued, "And what about on that hill? What you were told to do was to take care of those horses. We count on, depend on, each one of us doing our part. By not doing what you were told, you put yourself and everyone else in danger."

"But I thought that guy was going to. . ."

Chris cut J.D. off. "J.D., if you had stopped to look you would've seen he didn't even have his gun raised. You jumped in without waiting to see what was going on."

J.D. started again, "But. . .", and then stopped. He didn't have anything to say. He pushed his chair back and stood up.

"J.D., where you going?" asked Buck, who had been silent through this whole exchange.

J.D. flicked his glance at him. "Out."

"But—what about your food? You ain't had your dinner yet."

"Guess I ain't hungry," he said softly, and then turned to walk away. As he passed Chris, Chris's voice stopped him.

"J.D. This isn't about kicking you off the team, son."

J.D. looked at him for a moment, holding his gaze, and then nodded quickly, turning his head so Chris wouldn't see the wetness in his eyes. He turned and walked toward the doors, ignoring Ezra who looked up and called to him as he walked by.

Chris caught Vin's eyes. The two of them looked at each other silently, then Vin nodded once and Chris looked away, satisfied. He looked over at Buck, who was still looking toward the doors.


No answer.


Buck turned to Chris. "I know, pard, I know. But—I just—you think I should go talk to him?"

Chris shook his head. "Leave him be, Buck. Let the boy work it out himself for a little while. He'll live through it."

Chris's mouth twisted up suddenly in a half-smile. "Sides, pard, seems to me you still ain't had that 'fun' you were hankerin' after."

Buck's face broke out in a wide grin. "Now, I do believe you're right about that, Chris. And what finer time than the present? Excuse me, boys, I think I see Miz Sofia sittin' over there."

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, J.D.'s anger was largely forgotten. Yeah, he was still mad about being left behind, but he was glad the boys were back. He figured the town had to be less boring now that everyone was around.

He went on the early patrol with Josiah, then sat for a while in front of the jailhouse when he returned. No one was inside, so they didn't need to post a guard, really, but he had to sit somewhere.

He watched some folks go by. Then he watched some other folks go by.

Taking his knife out of his pocket, he began to whittle on a piece of wood.

A horse plodded by. A fly landed in the dirt.

The stick was down to just shavings now, so J.D. put the knife away and leaned back.

A black and white cat crawled out from under a building, arched its back, and laid down again in the sun.

He took his knife out again and flipped it down toward the wooden planks. It stuck. He pulled it out and flipped it again. It bounced. He picked it up disgustedly and put it away.

Another fly landed in the dirt.

J.D. stood up, frustrated. Where was everybody, anyway?

He headed toward the saloon. Pushing through the batwing doors, he saw the place was mostly empty. Ezra sat at a corner table, nursing a cup of black coffee.

"Ah, Mister Dunne, how are you this morning?"

"Morning? Ezra, it's just past noon."

"As I said, Mister Dunne."

J.D. rolled his eyes and answered the original question. "Bored."

"Bored?" Ezra arched his eyebrows.

"Yeah, bored stiff. There ain't nothing to do. Just like there wasn't anything yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that. This town is so dead the ghosts moved out. And none of the guys are around, neither."

Ezra smiled internally, but kept his face neutral. "Well, I believe Mr. Tanner mentioned that he would be assisting Mrs. Wells with some tasks today. And Mr. Larabee was headed out on patrol. I would assume that Mr.'s Sanchez and Jackson are in their usual locations, leaving Mr. Wilmington to undoubtedly be 'spending time' with a paramour."

"Well, fine," J.D. said grumpily. "Everyone might just as well have stayed out of town."

Ezra kept the amusement out of his voice as he looked at J.D. "Well, son, if you are, as you so elegantly put it, 'bored stiff', then it seems as if it would behoove you to discover some useful task in which to engage."


Ezra finally smiled. "Sam's family just arrived, J.D. Perhaps they could use your assistance settling in."

"Oh—hey, yeah, that's a great idea, Ez. Why didn't I think of that?" J.D. bounced out of his chair and headed toward the saloon doors again.

He turned. "Thanks, Ez—see ya later."

Ezra nodded and touched his fingers to his hat.

+ + + + + + +

The ride to the Jamieson's—now the Williams—farm was a short one. As J.D. rode in, he could see Sam working on a fence over in a field behind the barn. A woman stood to the side of the house, hanging laundry on a line with the help of two girls, while a third, smaller than the others, played under the flapping sheets. Mr. Williams stood near the front of the barn, sawing wood. He stopped as J.D. rode in, and then smiled as he recognized the young man.

"Well, hello there, J.D. What brings you out here this fine day?"

"Howdy, Mr. Williams. Wasn't much going on in town, and I know you folks must have a lot to do with having just moved in and all, and so I thought maybe there was something I could give you a hand with," J.D. answered, all in one breath.

Williams smiled at the boy. He was glad that his son's positive impression—and his own, from his brief meeting with the boy the day before—seemed accurate. "Well, that's mighty neighborly of you, J.D. And I'm sure Sam wouldn't mind some help fixing the fence railing. How about you give him a hand for a bit, and we pay you back with some of the fine blueberry pie the missus cooked up just this morning?"

J.D. grinned. "Sounds awfully good, sir—I do have a weakness for blueberry."

"Then it's a deal."

J.D. turned and went behind the barn; Sam hadn't seen him ride up, and looked up now, startled.

"Oh, hey, it's you. Whatcha doin' out here?"

"Bored. Thought I'd help."

Sam grinned. "Ain't going to say no."

He showed J.D. how to nail the flat boards across the posts, and the two were soon working in a steady rhythm.

"So—you get in much trouble yesterday?" J.D. asked.

Sam shook his head ruefully. "Nah. Well, yeah, a little. Pa was pretty mad, said I couldn't leave the farm for two days. Sure is finding plenty of work for me to do, too. What about you?"

"What about me?" J.D. asked, startled.

"You get in any trouble?"

J.D. laughed. "They ain't my fathers, Sam. I'm a little past 'getting into trouble'. I am the law, you know."

Sam just looked at him, raised his eyebrows.

J.D. sighed. "Yeah, a little." Sam smiled. "Buck was pretty mad about the mine, and Chris—well, Chris seems mad at me for just about everything lately."

"Pretty neat, you riding with those guys," Sam commented.

J.D. smiled. "Yeah, I guess it is."

Then he amended it. "Well, most of the time, anyway. Except when everyone's always telling me what to do and what not to do and how to do it and how not to do it."

Sam laughed. "Just like me'n Liam. One older brother's bad enough—six must be a real joy, huh?"

J.D. rolled his eyes. "Well, they think so, anyway."

The two continued to work, finishing a good portion of the fence before Mr. Williams called them in for a break. J.D. followed Sam to the pump to wash up, and then into the kitchen.

J.D. wasn't sure why, but he felt shy as Sam introduced him to his mother.

"Ma, this here is J.D. who I was telling you about. J.D., this is my Ma, and these are my little sisters Mary, Jessie and this here's Becky," pointing to the littlest one. J.D. judged their ages to be around three or four, seven, and ten. They all smiled shyly at him, and J.D. smiled back before turning and holding his hand out to Sam's mother.

"Mrs. Williams, nice to meet you, ma'am."

She smiled warmly and took his hand. "Nice to meet you, too, J.D. I'm so glad Sam has already met a good friend out here; it can be so hard to pick up and move to a new place. I hear you came out here a year ago?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"You must be quite a brave young man to come out here on your own."

J.D. blushed. "I don't know about that."

She smiled. "Well, I do. Now I hear you like blueberry pie?"

"Yes, ma'am!"

She smiled again. "Well, then, why don't you sit on down there, next to Sam. Mary, go bring in some glasses. Jessie, you fetch the milk out of the icebox." She gave directions and bustled around, and soon everyone was sitting and eating blueberry pie and drinking milk. J.D. felt oddly at home, and at the same time strangely discomfited by the whole experience. He couldn't understand the mixed feelings, so he pushed them away and focused on the conversation.

After they ate, J.D. and Sam returned to the fence. J.D. helped out for another hour or so, then decided to head back to town.

"Come find me when your Pa lets you off the farm again, okay? We'll go riding or something."

"Sure thing."


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