Growing Pains

by Grey

The next day, Vin asked J.D. to ride with him over to Eagle Bend; the sheriff there had a prisoner standing trial, and wanted some backup assistance for the day in case the townsfolk got antsy. They left early in the morning, and planned to be back before nightfall if there were no problems.

The trial went smoothly and quickly, and the townsfolk were satisfied with the outcome. Vin and J.D. left by early afternoon, moving at an easy gait along the trail.

They rode silently for a while. Vin gave J.D. a sideways glance. It wasn't that he begrudged the quiet, it was just that it wasn't like the teen to stay quiet for very long.

J.D. finally sighed, and Vin waited.

"Thanks for asking me to come along today, Vin."

J.D. sighed again, and Vin waited, guessing there was more. He was right.

"Good to know there's someone who still trusts me to ride with 'em."

Vin spoke quietly. "It ain't that they don't trust ya, kid."

J.D. scoffed. "Come on, Vin, Chris said I couldn't be counted on."

Vin shook his head. "Ain't exactly what he said, J.D. He said you weren't using your head enough, and not using your head can get you killed out here."

"But I ain't been killed yet, have I?"

Vin just looked at him.

"Well, I haven't."

"Think any of that has to do with the folks watching your back, kid?"

J.D. flushed. "I've watched all of your backs plenty of times, Vin," he protested.

"I know you have, kid. Chris knows it too. So does everyone else—we count on you. That's why your doing foolish things gets all of us so bothered—we don't want nothing to happen to you."

J.D. fell silent, again, and Vin turned back to the trail.

They rode for a while longer, then J.D. spoke again. "Vin?"


"Sam seems like a nice guy, huh?"

"Don't rightly know, kid, didn't really see much of him. But if you think so, I reckon he is."

"Well, he is."

Vin nodded.

"His family seems nice, too. Got a nice ma and pa, some little sisters."

Vin nodded again. "Makes sense, a nice guy having a nice family."

"Funny thing is, though. . ." J.D.'s voice trailed off, then started again. "Funny thing is, while I was over there, I started to feel kind of funny. Kind of mad at him, and for no good reason."

"Well, what was goin' on?"

"Nothing much. Just sitting there with him and his folks, eating some pie. Pretty ordinary, really. But it—I don't know, it just seemed kind of strange." He paused. "Sam and me—we ain't much different, you know? But we—our lives—what we have—it's so—different. Just felt kind of mad, sitting there. Don't make any sense, does it?"

Vin thought for a moment. "Think maybe you was thinking about his family?"

J.D. looked at Vin, then away. "Yeah, maybe. I dunno."

Vin was silent for a while, then spoke again. "You know, J.D., you got a family too, now."

J.D. looked up at Vin. He was quiet for a moment, then sighed. "Yeah, I guess I know that too."

They rode the rest of the way in silence.

J.D. was sitting in front of the jail, whittling, when Sam rode into town early the next afternoon.

"Hey, J.D., whatcha doing?"

"Hey, Sam, your Pa finally let you out?"

Sam grinned. "Free as a bird. You feel like riding?"

J.D. looked over at Chris, who was slouched in a chair. "You need me for anything this afternoon?"

Chris shook his head slightly.

J.D. turned back to Sam. "Guess I'm free, myself."

He stood up, then turned back, realizing. "Hey, Sam, you didn't really meet any of the guys the other night. Sam, this is Chris Larabee, and this here is Vin Tanner. Guys, this is Sam Williams."

Vin nodded, as Sam said, "Pleased to meet you Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner."

Chris looked at the two, and the hint of a smile twitched at his lip as he said, "Don't be going near any old mines today, boys."

"Oh, we won't, sir," started Sam nervously, but J.D. just glared at Chris and dragged Sam away.

Vin grinned at Chris. Chris shrugged back. "It's just too easy," he explained. They both leaned their chairs back again.

+ + + + + + +

"So, where do you want to go?"

"Hey, I know. Let's go get Casey, see if she wants to go to the swimming hole. It's awfully hot out today."

"She? Who's Casey?"

"Aw, she's just a girl I know. Sort of my girl, I guess."

"Sort of your girl, huh?" Sam grinned at J.D.

"Aw, you shut your mouth." J.D. kicked his horse and took off toward Miss Nettie's ranch, Sam following along behind.

When they arrived, they saw Casey carrying a basket out of the barn.

J.D. and Sam rode up, and J.D. dismounted. "Hey, Case, whatcha doing?"

She looked at him and scoffed. "What's it look like I'm doing, J.D., giving birth to kittens? I'm carryin' eggs outta the barn, of course."

J.D. rolled his eyes. "Casey, this is Sam. He and his folks moved out here a week or so back. Sam, this here is Casey. She's liable to talk your ear off if you don't watch out, but otherwise she's okay."

Sam looked at Casey, then at J.D., and smiled. "Well, I survived you for the last coupla days, guess she can't be too hard to handle."

Casey gave Sam a hard look, deciding, then smiled suddenly. "Pleased to meet you, Sam."

He smiled back. "Likewise, Casey."

"Case, Sam and me were gonna head out to the swimming hole, you feel like coming?"

She frowned. "Well, Aunt Nettie said she had some chores for me to get done. . ."

"Nothing that can't wait," Nettie's voice came from behind them, and she appeared in the doorframe of the house. "Heard you boys get here. Too darn hot to work, anyway. You go on ahead, Casey—just be sure you're back to help with the chores later."


Nettie's gaze turned to the others, and rested on Sam. "You're the Williams boy." Sam nodded. "Met your folks in town the other day. Seemed like good people. I'm Nettie Wells."

Sam nodded again. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am."

Nettie nodded, satisfied. "You boys be careful." She gave J.D. a hard look and waited until he nodded before turning away.

Casey mounted up her horse, and rode with the others toward the pond where they swam. As they neared the pond, she had challenged Sam to a race. On cue, all three took off, headed for a distant tree. When they pulled up, each immediately claimed victory, arguing profusely over the outcome of the race.

"You must be blinder'n a newborn kitten, J.D. I had you beat by a mile."

Sam spoke up. "You're nuts, Casey—I had both of you beat—I was here waiting when you two pulled out."

J.D. scoffed. "You're so full of it, Sam—I beat you both so bad, I sat and had myself a piece of pie while I waited for you two to show up."

All three had dismounted by now, tying their horses reins loosely around the tree.

Sam grabbed J.D. around the shoulders, and the two began wrestling, dropping to the ground and emitting occasional war cries.

Casey rolled her eyes and headed over to edge of the pond. A few seconds later, she heard whoops as Sam and J.D. sprinted past her, kicking off their shoes and tearing off their shirts as they headed for the water. She sighed—one J.D. was hard enough to handle, two was going to be dang near impossible.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was out riding after an afternoon patrol. Hot and sweaty, he decided to head to the pond to cool off before heading back to town. As he came closer, he heard noises, although the people making them were still hidden by the trees. Listening, he realized that this must be where J.D. and Sam had ended up. Listening closer, he made out Casey's voice as well.

Vin shook his head ruefully. 'Them three'll make a frightening combination,' he thought to himself. He decided not to intrude on them, and started to turn away when he heard Casey call out, "J.D., be careful!"

Against his better judgment, he stepped out from the treeline. Casey was standing at the edge of the pond, Sam at the base of a tree, and J.D. was almost to the top of the giant tree standing next to the pond, making his way steadily toward a slim horizontal branch growing out over the water.

It took Vin roughly two seconds to realize what J.D. was planning on doing. He swore softly, and Casey turned around.

"Hey, Vin," she said, surprised. "Whatcha doing here?"

"I oughta ask y'all the same thing," Vin growled back, staring down at her. He lifted his eyes, and his voice. "J.D., what the hell do you think you're doing?"

J.D. looked down, then wished he hadn't. He clung tightly to the tree trunk, calling down, "Hey, Vin, that you?"

Vin counted silently to three, trying to decide if he was exasperated or amused. "Yeah, J.D., it's me. What are you doing?"

"Oh—gonna climb up to that branch. Sam dared me to jump offa it into the pond."

Vin shot a deadly glare toward the boy at the base of the tree, who flushed and quickly looked away.

"J.D., that branch is too dang high and the pond ain't deep enough. You'll break your fool neck."

"No, I won't," J.D. called down.

Vin counted silently again, this time to five before he spoke. Definitely exasperated. "J.D., come on down here. I mean it."

Vin's keen eyes could just about make out J.D. shaking his fool head up in the tree. "But I said I would do it. Sides, Sam said he'd do it if I did."

Vin shot another glare at Sam, then turned it up into the tree. The hell with counting. "Ain't neither of you jumping off the damn tree, J.D. Now, get the hell down here! Now!"

J.D. looked up at the branch, then down at Vin, then back up at the branch.

"J.D.," Vin growled.

J.D. started to climb back down. When he finally made it down, he brushed off his hands and turned to glower at Vin.

He started to talk, but was silenced by the look in the tracker's eyes. Vin held J.D.'s eyes for a moment, then widened his gaze to include Sam before resting it on Casey and then finally back on J.D., before turning away and shaking his head.

"It's just a tree, Vin," J.D. called to his back as he walked away. Vin didn't respond, just kept walking.

+ + + + + + +

Later that afternoon Chris was sitting outside the saloon, drinking a beer, when he saw John Williams ride up.

"Afternoon, Mr. Larabee," the man said, nodding.

"Mr. Williams. And 'Chris'll do just fine."

Williams nodded. "John, then."

"John," Chris replied, then surprised himself by saying, "Care to set a spell, have something to drink?"

John eyed Chris's beer. "Hot enough to be tempting. All right, then. I'd appreciate the company."

John sat at the small table, and Chris signaled to a waitress inside to bring them each a beer. They sat silently until she brought them, then lifted their glasses to each other in a silent toast.

John drank deeply, then lowered his glass. "So, Mr. Larabee—Chris—Four Corners seems like a good place. I hear you have something to do with that."

Chris acknowledged the statement with a slight nod. "Much like where you're from?"

"In some ways, but not others."

Chris nodded. "What made you decide to head out here?"

"Had a fire." John was looking into his glass, didn't see the fleeting expression on Chris's face before it hardened again. "Lost most of our things, thought we might want to start over somewhere new. My brother lives over near Eagle Bend way, thought this was as good a place as any to give it a go."

"Starting over's never easy."

John looked over at him. "No, I suppose it's not. Guess anything's doable, though, you got the right folks with you."

Chris gave a slight nod. He was silent for a moment, then stated, "Sam seems like a good kid."

John smiled and leaned back in his chair. "Yeah, he is at that. Hardheaded and foolish, sometimes, but a good kid. Making his way toward being a good man, too, if he don't kill himself before he gets there."

Chris flashed him a smile. "Sounds like someone else I know."

John smiled back. "J.D. seems like a good kid, too."

The smile disappeared and Chris leaned back, folding his arms. "He'll do," he said, nodding.

Williams gave him a look of understanding, and nodded. "Ain't easy, is it?"

"What's that?" Chris asked.

"Raising them."

"Raising them!" Chris started to protest, then stopped and thought about it. He shook his head ruefully. "I guess you're right, at that."

He raised his glass, once again, Williams doing the same, and both of them downed their beers.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. was reading later that night when he heard footsteps stop outside of his door. He waited for the knock, then nodded when it came, followed shortly by Buck's, "J.D.? You in there?"

"Come on in, Buck."

Buck entered and made his way to the chair, sighing tiredly as he lowered his frame and lifted his legs up to prop them on the bed.

J.D. lifted his eyebrows. "Sleeping at home tonight, Buck?"

"Well, kid, I decided to give the fair ladies time to recover this evening."

"Sure they appreciated it, Buck."

Buck looked at him sourly. "Ain't no need to be smart, son."

J.D. grinned, then sighed. "So whatta you want to talk about, Buck?"

Buck tried to look innocent. "Now, J.D., do I gotta have something in mind, to come in here?"

"Don't have to, but I know you do, anyway."

Buck tilted his head, looking at J.D., then shook his head.

"So what was with you and Vin tonight?" That wasn't what he wanted to talk about, but it'd do for now.

J.D. was the one trying to look innocent now. "Whatta ya mean?"

"If you were a little better at Chris's glares, we'd be saying purty words over Vin's grave about now."

"Ahhh, nothing." J.D. shook his head disgustedly. "Just Vin poking his nose in. That what you came in here to ask about?"

Buck sighed. "No, I guess not. Truth is, guess I was just wondering—you seem distracted, last few days. You still mad about Jones?"

J.D. thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. "Nah, I guess not, not really. I mean, I get why Chris was mad. I just didn't want to be left behind."

Buck nodded, and was silent for a moment. He was surprised by J.D.'s next words.

"Buck, you ever wish you grew up different?"

"Different?" Buck asked, trying to figure out where J.D. was heading. "How do you mean, J.D.?"

J.D. picked at his bedcovers. "Just—different, you know? More regular."

Buck thought about it for a moment. "Guess I never really gave it much thought, J.D. Things felt pretty regular to me. Didn't no one have a better mama than mine. Had some good times, got in my share of trouble—don't know that I would rightly have changed anything. Why? What're you thinking about?"

J.D. grimaced slightly, then shook his head. "Nothing, I guess. Just thinking."

He leaned back, then looked over at Buck. "Guess I'm kind of tired, Buck. Think maybe I'll turn in."

Buck looked at him searchingly, then nodded, pulling himself up out of the chair. "All right, kid—see ya tomorrow."

+ + + + + + +

Out on the street, Chris had finished strolling through town and now leaned up against a rail, puffing on a cheroot and enjoying the cooler night air. He felt Vin step forward out of the shadows, and shifted slightly to allow Vin space to lean. They stood in comfortable silence for a few minutes before Chris spoke.

"Got a wire from the judge; he'll be heading up here in a coupla days."

"He say why?"

Chris shook his head. "Guess he'll let us know when he gets here."

Vin nodded. They were silent a few minutes more, when Chris spoke again.

"Somethin' going on between you and the kid?"

Vin gave a quick grin. "You noticed, huh?"

Chris smiled slightly. "Thought he was going to trip over those looks he was sending you."

Vin shrugged. "Ahh, he's jist mad cause I ran into him down at the pond with Sam and Casey today, stopped him from pulling some fool stunt Sam'd dared him to do."

He gave Chris a wry grin. "I swear, Chris, I ain't never had such an urge to knock two people's heads together as I did just then. Starting to feel a mite old." He cocked an eyebrow, then tilted his head. "Course, I don't know what that makes you, old man."

Chris gave him a withering look before responding.

"Sam dared him, huh? Ain't like J.D. needs help, finding himself trouble. Had more'n his share lately, I'd say."

Vin was quiet for a moment, before responding. "J.D.'s been going through a tough time, Chris. Seems to be working some things out, in his head. Sam seems good for'm. It's just that two of 'em are jist naturally gonna find trouble more easily'n one."

"I ain't saying Sam ain't a good kid, Vin."

Vin waited.

"I'm just saying, maybe we should lock both of 'em up till they grow into some sense."

+ + + + + + +

J.D. was playing checkers with Buck when Sam rode into town the next day. He called out what was getting to be his standard greeting.

"Hey, J.D., whatcha doing?"

"Hey, Sam, nothin' much."

"Well, I'm hurt, son, really I am," Buck said, neatly jumping three of J.D.'s checkers.

"Oh, sorry, Buck—didn't mean it like that. Hey, Buck, you ain't met Sam yet, not really."

"So you're the famous Buck!" Sam said, grinning at the big man.

Buck cocked his eyebrows. "Well, now, son, that depends on which stories you been told."

J.D. shot Sam a deadly look, and Sam couldn't completely stifle the giggle that escaped him. "Oh, I can't repeat 'em, my Ma'd wash my mouth out with soap."

Buck grinned. "Well, then, son, in that case, it sounds like you've got the right man." As he spoke, he reached out his right arm and, without turning his head to look, smacked J.D. on the back of his head, knocking his hat off. "Despite any blemishes which may have been shed on my character."

"Ow! Dammit, Buck, why d'ya hafta do that all the time!?"

Buck just grinned. "Just keeping you on your toes, son."

Sam spoke up. "So, J.D., you feel like doing something?"

"Well, I gotta relieve Ezra at the jail in a coupla hours. Can't really go too far."

Sam looked impressed. "You got any prisoners in that jail?"

J.D. shrugged. "Just a coupla guys sleepin' off a bad drink. Chris'll let 'em go in the morning."

"So I guess you don't want to do nothing?"

J.D. stood. "Didn't say that." He turned to Buck. "You feel like going for a ride, Buck?"

Buck gave a snort. "J.D., it's so hot the fire ants are melting. You couldn't pay me enough to go bake on the back of a horse."

"You mind if we finish our game later, then?"

"Nah, it'll keep."

+ + + + + + +

J.D. and Sam were in a meadow outside of town, having a shooting contest. Sam had asked J.D. to show him how to quick-draw his gun.

J.D. had looked at him, shook his head, and repeated what he'd been taught. "Ain't how fast you draw, Sam, it's how deadly you shoot."

"Well, my aim is pretty good, just can't draw that fast."

J.D. had grinned. "How good's your aim?"

Sam grinned back. "You want to find out?"

And that was enough to land the two of them in the field, aiming toward the treeline. Sam lifted his gun first, pointing at a branch on a far tree.

"Gonna knock the leaves offa that," he said matter-of-factly, then carefully aimed and fired.

J.D. whistled as Sam did just that, and nodded his head in admiration. "Pretty good—where'd you learn to shoot?"

"Ah, my Pa and Liam started teaching me when I weren't no bigger'n Jessie. Pa says a man needs to know how to protect himself and his family. Won't let me carry the guns around, much, though—says carrying it's an invitation to get shot."

J.D. nodded, then Sam said, "Okay, your turn."

J.D. grinned, pointed to the same tree Sam had shot at. "You see that branch?"

Sam turned and nodded, then a split second later jumped as J.D. drew his gun, aimed, and fired, the small branch exploding off of the tree.

J.D. laughed. "Hope you got a good look at it," he said, as he re-holstered his gun.

Sam shook his head in admiration. "Damn, J.D., that was some shooting. Betcha can't hit that oak, though," pointing to a tree even further back.

"Betcha I can. Betcha you can't, though."

They looked at each other, then both grinned and lifted up their guns again. They aimed and fired in unison.

"Too far to tell," Sam said, squinting toward the tree.

"Well, guess we'd better go check it out."

They holstered their guns once again, then loped toward the tree, leaving their horses loosely tied to a sapling behind them.

As they approached the start of the treeline, they passed first the tree they had shot at the first time. Sam whistled once again, as he picked up the branch J.D. had shot at.

"Damn, J.D., you shot clean through the branch. How'd you aim so fast?"

J.D. started to respond with a boast, then stopped himself. "Well, I guess some of it's Vin's doing. He's been showing me how to quick-sight. Maybe he can teach you some, if you ask."

Sam looked skeptical. "Don't know, J.D. He seemed kind of mad yesterday, out at the pond. Don't guess he'd want to show me much."

J.D. laughed. "Aw, don't let that bother you, Sam. Vin don't carry no grudges, and he weren't really mad at you, anyway. He's real good about showing me stuff, too. Bet he'd show you how to shoot and all."

"Maybe," Sam said doubtfully, as they continued toward the oak. They walked another 10 yards or so, then stopped in front of the tree and grinned at each other as they saw two bullet-holes at about the same height in the wide trunk.

"Good shooting," J.D. said, tipping his hat to Sam.

"Likewise," Sam grinned back, saluting.

They turned back to the tree to compare their shots, and were engrossed enough in their debate over which shot was which that they never heard the men coming up behind them through the trees. Not until they heard the distinctive sound of a hammer being cocked, followed almost immediately by a man's voice.

"You boys want to turn around real slow, now, and keep your hands where I can see them."

+ + + + + + +

In town, Chris strode up to Vin, who was sitting outside the jail. "Got another wire from the judge. Looks like we may have some trouble."

Vin nodded, then stood. "I'll get the others."

Within a few minutes, six men stood inside the jail. Chris had let the temporary prisoners go, with a dire warning of what would befall them should they even think about getting drunk and shooting at the ceiling again. Chris looked around. "Where's J.D.?"

"Went riding with Sam," Buck offered. "Knew he had to be back to relieve Ezra; should be here any time now."

Chris nodded. "Well, we'll catch him up when he gets here. Got a telegram from the judge. Seems there's been a string of bank robberies, over in Lansing Territory."

"Lansing's mighty far off, Chris," Josiah said.

"Seems they've gotten closer, last week or so. Hit the banks in Whiskey and Latoosa over the past few days. Killed a man in Whiskey. Been sighted headed out this way. Judge was heading out here, going to have us help the folk over in Lansing, but seems like the trouble may be headed our way instead."

"We know which trail they're taking?" Vin asked.

Chris shook his head. "Folks saw them pass near Compton's Point few days back. Could be a few ways they'd take, if they decided to head here."

"Any idea how many, Chris?" Buck asked.

Chris shook his head again. "No more'n five have hit any of the banks, but folks's descriptions are different. No way of knowing how many they got altogether."

He looked around. "I'm thinking we make a wide pass around town, see what we can see. Vin, I want you to head west a little ways, see if you see any signs of them. Too late to mount a full search now; we'd run into dark too soon. Tonight, we patrol a perimeter around the town. We'll decide what to do tomorrow, depending on what Vin finds."

He checked the faces of the men; each indicated their agreement with the plan. Vin, Josiah, and Ezra left to saddle up their horses, and rode off in opposite directions.

+ + + + + + +

"What are we going to do, J.D.?" Sam whispered, struggling once again against the ropes which bound his hands behind his back.

"Nothing yet, Sam," J.D. replied calmly, continuing to methodically loosen his own bindings. He had kept his fists clenched when they tied him, the way Vin had showed him, and he was sure he had enough slack that he could loosen himself if he had enough time. He didn't want to think about what it would mean if he didn't have enough time.

J.D. glanced over to see how Sam was doing. Sam's freckles stood out in stark contrast to his overly pale skin, and his eyes were darting nervously around the clearing in the trees the men had led the boys to.

Sam's face had turned almost white when they heard the sound of the gun being cocked, and he had darted a glance at J.D. J.D. had given him what he hoped was a reassuring glance, and had lifted his hands in the air and slowly turned, hoping Sam would follow suit.

When he had turned, he had felt his insides clench as he saw the circle of men holding guns who were surrounding them. 'Damn, how did I not hear them coming!?' The man who had spoken was tall, with dark stubble and piercing black eyes. His eyes were frightening, but his voice was more so. Softly, he murmured, "And now, what do we have here?"

J.D. had felt Sam trembling beside him. They both still held their hands in the air. "Mister," J.D. had said as calmly as he could. "We don't want no trouble."

The man had smiled, but not in a nice kind of way. "Is that right? And here I thought boys were always looking for some kind of trouble."

He had rested his gaze on Sam, and J.D. gave a quick glance to his side. Sam looked about as scared as J.D. remembered feeling back in the Indian village that first time.

"Really, mister," J.D. said, trying to keep the man's gaze away from Sam. "We were just shooting some trees, didn't mean to bother you folks none. We'll just head on back to town."

The man had turned his gaze back to J.D. "Well, now, son, it seems that some of us will be heading to town, but not others. I'm afraid you two will be among those who must stay behind."

"Wha—Whatta ya mean?" Sam's voice had been high-pitched, and one of the men in the circle had laughed. Not in a nice kind of way.

"Well, boy, my friends and I were just talking about how things have been somewhat—hot lately. How we might need a little bit of—shall we say, collateral. You can imagine our surprise when our collateral came walking right up into the trees."

"Whatta ya mean, collateral?" J.D. had asked before he could help himself.

The man's eyes had darkened, if that was possible. "I prefer my collateral to be silent." And he had shot his hand out, the back of it connecting with J.D.'s cheek.

The two boys had been quickly disarmed and led away further into the trees, J.D. trying to send Sam looks that told him things would turn out okay. The looks Sam sent back told J.D. Sam didn't completely believe him. J.D hadn't been too sure he believed himself.

Now, they sat tied hand and foot, propped against a tree and left largely alone since the men had brought them here.

"Nothing, for now," J.D. repeated.

"But. . ." Sam started, then stopped, his eyes still darting around.

"Sam," J.D. said, sounding calmer than he felt. "The boys'll come looking for us. You'll see. It'll turn out okay."

Sam nodded, but didn't look convinced. J.D. continued to silently work on his ropes.

+ + + + + + +

Chris, Buck, Nathan, and Josiah stood outside the jail. None of them had seen anything amiss on their patrols in and around the town. Ezra rode up, dismounting and tying his horse to the railing.

"Anything?" Chris asked, looking at him.

"Not a thing, Mr. Larabee."

Buck suddenly looked up. "Hey, the kid ain't back yet?"

Chris pursed his lips. "When was he due in to relieve you, Ezra?"

"Approximately an hour ago, Mr. Larabee. Perhaps he returned and, seeing all of our absence, thought to go searching?"

Buck shook his head. "I been patrolling through town, if he'd a come through I woulda seen him."

Chris looked at Buck. "You said he went riding with Sam?"

Buck looked back at Chris and shook his head again. "I know what you're thinkin', but J.D. was real clear on when he had to be back. Told Sam they couldn't go too far."

Chris started to respond, when they heard the sound of horses coming in. Looking up, they saw one rider leading two riderless horses.

Buck practically leaped toward Vin. "Vin?" he asked, his eyes a little wild as he recognized J.D.'s horse.

Vin dismounted quickly. "Found them wandering just a little ways west of town, near the meadow. Had some branches twisted in their reins; looked like they'd been tied poorly."

"That boy—how many times I gotta tell him to tie his damn horse up right? I bet them two fools are wandering around right now, wondering where their horses have gone to." Buck's harsh words didn't mask the relief he had felt at Vin's description.

But Vin was shaking his head. "Don't think it's just that. Followed some tracks into the trees, looked like seven or eight other men came through that way. Followed their trail a little ways, then thought I'd better come back and get the rest of you."

The men looked grim, moving as one toward their horses. As they mounted, Chris looked at the others. "Williams place is on the way; better stop and let them know. It'll be dark soon; they'll be wondering about Sam."

The rest nodded, Buck reluctantly, knowing they needed to stop but wanting to do nothing more than get to J.D. and get him home.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. could just barely make out what the men across the clearing were saying. The dark-eyed man, whom the others had referred to, alternately, as "Boss" or "Mister Starling", had posted two men on watch on either side of the camp. The others had gathered near a small collection of rocks and twigs which, to J.D.'s horror when he realized it, appeared to be a layout of Four Corners. Starling was speaking softly and using a long stick to point out different parts of town. He appeared to be particularly focused on one stone, and J.D. quickly mapped the town's layout onto the stones.

"Shoot—they're planning on robbing the bank," he guessed softly.

Sam had been silent, but now turned his head. "How do you know?"

"Take a look over there—see how they've got those stones'n things laid out? That empty area—that's the main road through town. That one big stone Starling keeps pointing at, I'm pretty sure that's s'posed to be the bank."

"But what do they want with us if they're gonna rob the bank?"

J.D. thought for a moment. "I dunno. He was talking about collateral—guess they're holdin' us in case something goes wrong in town, and they need somethin' to bargain with."

"You mean—us?" Sam's eyes grew wide as J.D. nodded. "You think maybe that means they'll let us go, if everything goes okay for 'em?"

J.D. shrugged. "Don't know. M'hoping it don't get that far."

"Whatta ya mean, J.D.?"

"I'm gonna tell you somethin', but I don't want you to make any noise, okay, Sam?"

Sam looked unsure, but nodded.

"I've got my hands free."

"But—how!?" Sam kept enough control that his startled words came out in a whisper.

J.D. kept his eyes on the men across the clearing. "Vin showed me how to loosen ropes."

"Well—what're you waiting for, then? Why don't you untie us?"

J.D. shook his head. "Can't. Not yet."

"Why not?!" Sam looked angry, darting his eyes between the still-huddled men and J.D.

"Look around, Sam—it's still too light, they'd see us movin'. Even if we get untied, we can't get away from nine armed men. Either they'll stop us before we get to the trees, or they'll see we're gone and come right after us. Better if we wait till it gets dark. I been watching—they don't post no more'n two guards at a time. I think we can slip away when they're sleeping, get to town before they even realize we're gone."

Sam nodded; J.D.'s plan made sense. "But what if they try to do something before then?"

"I don't think so. They ain't planning on heading to town before tomorrow; I heard 'em say so. And they ain't gonna hurt us too bad if we're their "collateral". Sides, I was s'posed to take over watch for Ezra ages ago. Ten to one Buck's all in a lather, wondering where I've got to. And if Buck's all lathered up, likely they'll come searching sooner rather than later."

Sam suddenly grinned. "Well, since I missed chores, I'm guessing my Pa'll be right up at the head of the posse. If for no other reason than to give me hell."

J.D. grinned back. "I'd like to see the look on their faces if they rode in, and we had all these guys tied up and facedown."

Sam's grin faltered as he looked around, and he sighed shakily. "Yeah, guess I'd settle for not being the ones tied up, right about now."

"Just hold on, Sam. We'll be outta this soon."

+ + + + + + +

The six men stopped their horses in front of the small farmhouse. John Williams stood in front of the barn, his face paling as he saw the horse they were leading.

Chris dismounted and led the horse over to Williams.

"John—seems we got some trouble," Chris said, his direct gaze meeting that of Williams.

Williams seemed unconscious of the hand that reached out to touch the head of his son's horse.

"Sam should've been home by now. Thought he must've lost track of time again."

Chris kept his explanation as simple as he could. "Sam and J.D. went riding early this afternoon. J.D. was planning on being back near two hours ago. We'd heard there was some trouble heading our way, had been out patrolling. Vin came across their horses, knows which way the boys were headed. We're heading back there now."

Williams looked confused. "What kind of trouble? Why would the boys leave their horses?"

Chris held his gaze. "We don't think they went willingly."

Williams looked pale, but held himself together. He looked at Chris. "I'm riding with you."

Chris examined him for a moment, then nodded. "We'll wait. Do you what you need to. But make it quick—we don't have much daylight left."

Within minutes Williams had spoken to his now-frantic wife and saddled his horse. Mounting, he chucked at his horse and the seven men turned and rode out.

+ + + + + + +

The dusk was growing, and deep in the trees the boys were now covered in shadow. J.D. leaned over and whispered. "Sam—see if you can lean over toward me a bit more. I'm gonna start loosening your bindings."

Sam nodded, and inched his way closer to J.D., both of them keeping a careful eye on the men who were now beginning to settle down on their bedrolls. The nearest guard was a good ten yards away, and had his back to them.

As Sam leaned in, blocking him, J.D. slowly eased his hands out from behind his back and then quickly went to work freeing Sam's hands.

As he worked, he spoke softly. "Once you're free, keep your hands behind your back and lean back in against the trunk. Don't want to warn'em before we're ready to go."

Sam nodded, and soon he could feel the rope loosening and then falling away behind him. He leaned back against the tree, and J.D. now slowly leaned forward, watching the guard. When he was sure no one was watching, he quickly brought his hands forward and untied Sam's feet, and then his own. He left each of their ropes draped loosely across their feet. He leaned back next to Sam, returning his hands behind his back.

+ + + + + + +

The men in the camp had dropped off to sleep one by one. J.D. and Sam glances flicked from each other to the clustered men to the two guards, twitching nervously any time one of the men seemed to turn in their direction.

J.D. watched the last man begin to settle down. He wanted to wait until they'd all been out for a little while; he figured they'd inch their way back into the trees when the guards were turned and then run like hell once they got out of sight. He was hoping it was dark enough that the men wouldn't notice they were gone for a little while. Given the dark and the unfamiliar territory, J.D. figured there was a good chance he could get Sam back to town before the men would be able to find them.

He had just leaned toward Sam to whisper his plan when they both froze, relaxing slightly when they realized it was just an owl calling.

J.D. began to lean again when they heard the owl call repeat. J.D. looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes widened slightly.

"Sam! I think that's Vin!"

"But—how? Where?"

J.D.'s grin was small but proud. "Told you they'd come." His eyes flicked around, trying to make out shape in the shadows around them. "Which way did that sound come from?"

Sam shook his head slightly. "Couldn't tell."

Both of them searched the darkness with their eyes, waiting for a sign. As they looked around, they noticed that one of the guards had disappeared.

"Don't turn around," J.D. whispered quickly to Sam. "Just be ready."

Sam nodded grimly, his muscles taut.

J.D. looked toward the second guard, and smiled to himself when he realized he could no longer see him.

They waited what seemed an impossibly long minute, before the clearing suddenly exploded with men. When the dust cleared, Starling and his men were surrounded by seven glowering men with guns trained. The fight was over before it had a chance to start.

At the first sounds of shouting, J.D. had grabbed Sam, and the two had dived behind the tree they had been leaning against. J.D. had held Sam there until it was clear the bank robbers were disarmed and were being tied, and then the two ran over to the others.

Williams moved quickly toward his son, and took him by the shoulders, holding him out and looking at him searchingly before pulling him into a fierce embrace. "Pa," Sam said, before wrapped his arms around his father, oblivious to the others around him or to the wetness on his face.

J.D. watched the reunion for a moment, feeling his eyes burn. The relief he had felt at their rescue was vanishing, replaced by an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach. He looked away, and then down. The ground blurred in front of him, and he surreptitiously brought the back of his hand up and flicked it quickly across his eyes. He didn't hear the approach, just felt the hand on his arm.

"J.D." Buck's voice was husky. He didn't say anything else, just pulled J.D. into an embrace, moving his hand from J.D.'s arm to the back of his neck and holding it there. J.D. stiffened, but Buck kept his hand there until J.D. let the tears come.

When Buck released him, J.D. looked up at him and tried to smile, the effort shaky. "Thanks, Buck," he said softly.

Buck's smile was shaky, too. "Anytime, kid. Anytime."

J.D. looked around. The others had stood apart, watching, and now moved in closer. Josiah came up first, first gently touching the bruise on J.D.'s cheek and then placing his large hands on J.D.'s shoulders and squeezing gently. "Good to have you back with us in one piece, John Dunne." He brushed one hand up against J.D's hair and then stepped back.

Nathan moved forward then, frowning as he tilted J.D.'s face up so that he could look at the bruise. J.D pulled back, pushing Nathan's hand away. "Aw, Nate, it ain't nothing."

Nathan dropped his hand, but held J.D.'s gaze. "You hurt anywhere else, son?"

J.D. shook his head. "Nah—big guy over there smacked me once, but they mostly just let us be."

The men had turned steely eyes toward Starling, and Vin stepped forward now. "Don't worry, kid—these men'll be behind bars for a good time to come." He gave them another fierce glance before resting his eyes on J.D. Finally, he nodded and then stepped back again.

Ezra spoke up from where he was standing. "Without a doubt, Mr. Dunne, you have the most prolific talent I have ever seen for attracting trouble." He paused for a moment. "I am certainly glad to see that this time, trouble has chosen to leave you behind relatively unscathed."

J.D. was surprised when he looked over at Ezra. If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn that was more than a twinkle in Ezra's eyes.

Chris still stood at the edge of the circle, a funny look on his face, watching J.D. J.D. tried to read his face, but couldn't, and felt that empty feeling gnawing at his stomach again. He looked at Chris almost pleadingly, but dropped his gaze quickly when Chris met his eyes.

Williams spoke up from where he stood, his arm still held firmly around his son. "Sam—how did the two of you get untied? We thought they had you bound."

Sam gave J.D. a quick smile, then looked up at his father. "J.D. got himself loose. Once it was dark, he got me untied. We were gonna wait till they fell asleep, then get away."

J.D. saw Vin look over at him with pride on his face, and felt a little glow, but then noticed that Chris was still watching him with that funny expression. J.D. looked down and then up again, trying to explain. "I think—I think they were planning on robbing the bank, Chris. I wanted—we were gonna get away and come back to warn you." Chris still stood silently, and J.D. felt his voice falter. "I'm sorry you guys had to come looking for us. We would've gotten away sooner, but—well, I tried to think about things, like you said, and I just didn't want to take a chance on trying to leave while it was still light out, and there were only two guards so I figured we could've gotten away pretty easy, but we had to do it when they weren't looking, and then they took so long going to sleep, and then they finally did but I wanted to make sure—but I thought we'd still have plenty of time to get back in and warn you." His voice trailed off, as Chris still stood, and J.D. looked down, his eyes burning again.

Then there was sudden movement, and J.D. felt an arm hook around his neck, pulling him in, the tears on his face hot against the dusty black fabric. A low voice was speaking in his ear. "You did good, son. You did just right."

Williams caught Chris's eye over J.D.'s head, and inclined his own ever so slightly, in thanks and in silent understanding. He wrapped his own arm tighter around Sam, pulling him in. Chris nodded back, one hand resting gently on top of J.D.'s head, the other wrapped around the slightly shaking shoulders. "Just right, J.D.," he murmured.


A week later, the men were sitting in the saloon. Chris turned his whiskey in his hands and looked over at J.D. "Got a wire from Lansing Territory. Starling and his men arrived; they'll go on trial there startin' tomorrow. Judge'll let us know what happens."

"Why'd they have to hold the trial there, anyway, Chris? Why couldn't Judge Travis just do it himself, here in Four Corners?"

Chris eyed him. "We've been through this, J.D. Lansing had jurisdiction; Judge didn't have no choice but to send them there."

J.D. scowled. "Well, I guess he didn't have no choice, but I sure would've liked to've seen 'em found guilty here." He thumped the table lightly, then brightened slightly.

"Hey, you think they'll sentence him to hang? I mean, they killed that one guy over in Whiskey, right? Maybe it is better that they do it there."

Chris just shook his head and looked back at his whiskey.

J.D. felt Josiah's gaze on him before he saw it. He turned. Definitely a preacher-stare. "What?"

The thunder-and-brimstones eyes held him for a moment longer, before Josiah said quietly, "Are you rejoicing in the taking of some mother's son, J.D.?"

"But, preacher, he ain't nothing but a. . ."

Josiah eyed him again.

"What!?" J.D. asked, in pleading frustration.

Buck kicked him under the table. "Ya shouldn't be all excited about someone getting' hanged, J.D.—don't matter who it is, you don't celebrate the taking of somebody's life."

"But sometimes you have to."

"Sometimes you have to take a life, J.D. Don't mean you ever got to rejoice in it." Vin's eyes held J.D.'s across the table, and J.D. looked at him and then nodded.

He looked down for a moment, then looked up, brightening again.

"Anyhow, guess all that mess sure livened things up here a bit!"

The others groaned, and Ezra stated, quite pointedly, "Son, if 'that mess' is what you would consider enlivening, then I must confess that I far prefer the 'bored stiff'-ness of which you were complaining only a few days ago."

J.D. grinned at him. "Aw, come on, Ez, don't tell me you didn't find none of that exciting."

Ezra was saved from replying by the swinging opening of the saloon doors, followed by John Williams and a very excited-looking Sam behind him. Chris stood up as Williams headed over, Sam glancing madly around. Chris held out his hand. "John".

"Chris." Williams shook Chris's hand, and nodded to the men seated at the table.

Chris sat, gesturing. "Care to join us?"

John smiled. "Don't mind if we do."

Vin stood and pulled a chair from an adjoining table for John, while J.D. motioned Sam toward a chair next to his.

J.D. leaned over to Sam. "So how'd you swing getting in here?" he asked quietly.

Sam sounded mystified. "Can't say as I know, myself. We were in town, getting' some supplies, and Pa suddenly looked over here and allowed as how it was a mighty hot day and he could use a drink. Next thing I know, we're walking in!" Sam pulled his gaze away from the busy saloon to focus on J.D., his eyes wandering down to the glass on the table. "Is that milk!?!"

J.D. looked down at where Sam was pointing, and then back up. "Yup."

"Well, what're you drinking milk for, in a saloon?!"

J.D. looked puzzled. "Well, because I was thirsty, of course."

"Oh." Sam nodded sagely, and then looked away again toward the room.

Williams couldn't hide the amusement from his eyes as he overheard his son's statements. He looked away quickly, and caught Chris doing the same. Williams cleared his throat. "J.D., I'm glad we ran into you. I've been wanting a chance to thank you for what you did while you were with Sam out there."

J.D. blushed. "Aw, I didn't do nothing."

Williams shook his head firmly. "Sam and I have talked about that day, J.D. Sam told me about how you acted, how you helped him stay calm and stay focused on a plan. From what Sam tells me, you are quite a young man, and I'm proud that Sam has you for a friend."

J.D. was beet red by now, glancing from the table to Williams and back to the table, but he couldn't hide the little grin tugging at his lips. The other men were all smiling as well; they hadn't heard this part of the story.

J.D. finally shrugged a little and looked up. "Truth to tell, Mr.Williams, I just thought about what these guys woulda told me to do, if they'da been there. Sam did real good too, stayed calm and didn't do nothing to rile them. I think, even if you guys hadn't come, we might have still gotten away. Not that I'm not glad you all came," he added hastily to the end.

Williams smiled. "I don't doubt it, J.D., not for one minute. Well, then, I guess I'd have to say you have some pretty good teachers, if that's how you knew what to do."

J.D. grinned now, looking around the table. "The best, Mr. Williams. The best."

The End

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