by Sarah B.

Author Comment: A few notes about this story before you read it:
- It takes place in an "alternate universe". You'll see just how in about nine paragraphs.
- It's not a dream sequence.
- It has a happy ending!

Webmaster Note: This fic was originally hosted at another website and was moved to blackraptor in August 2004.

The black-haired youth in the brown three-piece suit looked down at the ground and angrily kicked at the dirt as he walked along the streets of Four Corners in the setting sun.

After a moment he stopped, shifted the heavy saddle he was carrying, and looked over his shoulder. The crowd at the cemetery was still breaking up, wandering back into town to discuss the remarkable things they'd just seen. Two men, complete strangers to everyone and each other it looked like, saving some black man from getting hung.

Well, I tried to save him too, the young man thought bitterly as he started walking again. I could have shot that one guy, but that man in black stopped me. All I wanted to do was help...

He sighed, stopped, and gingerly lifted the saddle off his shoulder and set it in the street. Now what?

The youth looked around, a little afraid; he'd hopped off that stagecoach without even thinking about it; the moment he'd heard those gunshots, his heart started racing and he knew, he just knew, that he was supposed to be here. But now the sun was going down, it would be dark soon, and he had nowhere to go. The street he was on was a small one, but it looked safe enough, and he scooted the saddle closer to the raised boardwalk, sat down on the wooden boards, and thought.

The West! He'd dreamed about it all of his nineteen years. And now he was here, really here. If only mama could see me, the teenager thought ruefully as he took off his bowler hat and ran one hand through his thick black hair. She always said I could do anything I wanted, that I could be whatever I set my heart to. I want to go west, he'd said to her, a year and a half ago, was it? Just before Christmas. And she'd smiled at him and tousled his hair and said, after college, son. Clear a few of those cobwebs out first...

The boy winced as he felt his heart sink within him. Mama really did want him to go to college. But there hadn't been enough of the money she'd saved for him, not even for a small college. All that work she did, and not enough. All the long hours, all the days that he spent alone in their modest rooms so that she could work her fingers raw for him, for his dreams, and not enough. And those fancy stuck-up snobs whose horses he'd tended to, one of their all-night drinking parties would have paid for his college and maybe saved his mama's life too, but instead she died, poor and sick, all for him. Not enough.

The youth blinked, feeling the hot tears come, and put his head in his hands. He felt terrified suddenly, terrified and lonely and confused, and he still didn't understand why that man in black didn't think it was a good idea to shoot that running gunman. He could have gotten him, he was a good shot. And then they would have said, hey, you're pretty good. Come on, we're all going to the saloon, you can join us, what's your name?

As the black-haired youth sat thinking, he heard a couple of men walking up the boardwalk behind him, talking as their heavy boots thudded against the warped wood. And slowly, he caught enough words to make him really listen to what they were saying.

"...Indian village. Bunch of idiots."

"Well, it'll get that man in black out of Four Corners anyway. He looks crazy to me."

"Don't he! Anybody'd be crazy to let Standish ride with them. That man'd skin you as soon as look at you."

"Hm. It's okay with me as long as Nathan comes back. He's too good a man to be ridin' off to some Indian village with a bunch of gunslingers."

"Yeah, but you know Nathan. He got too much guts to sit around if folks is being hassled, 'specially the Indians. And by Rebels soldiers to boot!"

"Wish I could see it. Gonna be a hell of a fight."


The boy sat motionless, waited until the men had passed into the gathering twilight before standing up and eagerly biting his lip. A fight! And from their descriptions, it had to involve that man in black who shot at him earlier. They were still in town. There was still time to prove himself.

The youth's head spun with thought as he picked up his saddle. All he needed now was a horse, and to know where those gunmen would be. Then he'd just ride on in and impress them with his skills, and they'd have to take him, they'd have to!

"Where'n hell do you think you're goin?"

The boy almost jumped out of his skin at the voice - he thought he was alone in the darkening street. He looked around, then again, and finally saw a figure melt out of a nearby alleyway. It was a man, sharply dressed, but dirty, as if he'd been in a fight. He had black hair and a small goatee, and eyed the youth keenly as he took a puff on the lion's head pipe he held.

The youth gulped, listening to his heart pound in his chest. Finally he remembered the man's question and stammered out, "I - I'm just going to the, uh - "

"Never mind, son," The man waved a careless hand, "I know where you were off to. You really want to ride with Larabee?"

"Who?" The boy squinted in confusion.

"The man in black them fellers were talking about. The one from the cemetery."

"Oh." The youth looked down, chagrined. "Well, I...I was thinking about it."

"Well, don't." The man took another puff, stepped closer to the boy and circled him, looking him up and down as he spoke. "I know the man, and let me tell you he ain't never going to take to the likes of you, city boy."

The youth puffed up at bit at the sneering tone in the man's voice. "I can ride and shoot as well as him or anybody else! I just didn't get a chance to prove it yet, that's all."

The man laughed, took the pipe out of his mouth. "And you think Larabee's going to let you prove it? He's practically a criminal! That man is your role model?"

The boy opened his mouth, closed it again. It was true, he didn't really know why he wanted to follow Chris, except that he looked upright, standing there in that cemetery with his black duster flying around him like a knight's cape, and he shot so well. Noble and righteous, just like the heroes in the dime novels the youth loved. Him and the other man...they were criminals?

The boy glanced at this mysterious man, uncomfortable with the way it seemed he was being sized up. Suddenly wanting very much to be somewhere else, he leaned down toward his saddle and said, "I gotta go."

"Now hold up there, sonny boy." The man waved his hand again. "Ain't no need to be afraid of me, I'm trying to give you some advice is all. You new in town?"

The young man sighed, knew he couldn't hide it. "Yeah."

"Where's your folks?"

The boy shrugged, tried to stem that awful feeling of loneliness that was gnawing at his gut.

"Hm." The man took another puff on his pipe, took it out of his mouth and studied the bowl as he spoke. "Now that's sad. I'm sorry, kid, I didn't mean to scare you before, it's just I seen too many kids come out here idolizin' the likes of Larabee and endin' up dead. Hell, he nearly shot you today!"

The youth winced and looked up. "You saw that, huh?"

"Hell yes! Lot of nerve Larabee had, firing at you when you were just trying to mop up after him. And you would have got that man too, I could tell."

Despite his mistrust of this man, the boy couldn't help smiling at the praise. "You think so?"

"Oh, sure. The way you held your gun, your would have been right impressive, if Larabee had given you a chance."

The boy shrugged, trying to be modest about it, but he liked what this man was saying. Maybe his first impression had been wrong.

The man went back to studying his companion intently, "So, you want to be a gunfighter?"

The youth nodded.

A smile came over the man's face, half-hidden in the growing darkness. "Well, I bet you could. I bet you could be real good with a gun. I can help you if you want. What do you say?"

The youth started to answer, paused. "As long as it ain't against the law. I promised my mama I'd never make her ashamed of me."

"Well, that was right honorable of you." The man nodded approvingly. "Yes sir, very commendable. Very important, to be true to your mama. Don't worry, son, I won't get you involved in anything you can't handle." The man smiled again, gentler this time, and stuck out a hand. "Name's Lexington. Lexington Cross."

The boy hastened to shake this new friend's hand. "I'm JD. JD Dunne."

"Well, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Dunne. You got a place to stay tonight?"

"Ah - " The youth looked around, tried to think, failed.

"Well, tell you what." Lexington walked around the young man, around his saddle, and ended up on the boy's right-hand side. "I got a place just outside of town, me and some friends of mine. You 're welcome to stay if you'd like."

Some vestige of the boy was protesting, some part was telling him to be careful, a part that sounded a lot like his mother. And he thought about it for a moment, thought about how Larabee's words had hurt and confused him, how he had then been ignored, as if he didn't exist, and Lexington really didn't look any more dangerous then Larabee had. And he could teach him to be a gunfighter, just like he always wanted to be...what his mother wanted for him, to achieve his dreams, this man was offering him. He would live his dreams for her, and she'd be proud of him, and rest peacefully. It would finally be enough.

The youth smiled at Lexington and hoisted his saddle onto his shoulder. "Okay. Thanks, Lexington."

"My pleasure." Lexington kept smiling and puffed on his pipe as he led the young man out of the alley into the pitch-black night. "By the way, where you from?"

"Back east, Boston."

"Well, the men I work with all go by where they came from. So welcome to the West, Boston Dunne."

Three months later...

Buck Wilmington cursed as he tried to guide his white horse through the narrow canyon. Damn hot day to be out ridin', he thought sourly, then turned a little in his saddle to make sure everyone was still following him. They were.

There was Chris, his old buddy, right behind him. Funny how Buck hadn't seen Chris in years, then one day he just shows up and says, we got a job, you interested? Buck was interested, all right, anything to get together with Chris again, but it was different now than it had been before Chris' wife and child were killed in that fire. Chris was a changed man, hard now and unreachable, not anything like he used to be. Buck had tried to draw Chris out, but he could tell he was just irritating his old friend when he laughed and joked, and so Buck had mostly left Chris alone. But he hated it.

And right behind Chris, there was Vin Tanner. Vin, who it seemed had replaced Buck as Chris' right hand man. Not that Buck minded - he could see that Vin's quiet, unassuming nature fit better with Chris' new moodiness than his own, more boisterous personality, but grated him that the friendship they had shared so long ago wasn't right anymore, and this practical stranger was getting the privilege of healing his best friend in the whole world. Well...Vin was a good man, so Buck decided to swallow his pride and let it pass.

Behind Vin, Buck could make out Ezra Standish's scarlet jacket. Damn it, he thought, leave it to Ezra to wear something you can spot a mile away when we're trying to stay hid. Still, even though the gambler had proven at times less than reliable, he was handy to have in a fight. Buck's mind went back over their adventures together since forming three months ago, and knew that without Ezra's help in a few of them, things might have turned out very differently.

Take the Greer girl, Olivia, for example. She was kidnapped, and Ezra was the one who'd spotted her in the second floor of that hotel. Without his help, she might have been killed...

Of course, Buck might have been killed a whole lot earlier, he ruminated, remembering how he'd been kidnapped himself by Coltraine's gang and taken to Purgatorio. Nobody had seen him leave, and it took a while for his friends to realize that he was gone, and Olivia's mother Terry too, and to put things together and figure out that they had in fact gone involuntarily. Buck smiled as he remembered Chris' response when they finally rescued him - sorry, we thought you two had run off and gotten married...

Buck turned his attention back to the trail, not needing to see Josiah and Nathan to know that they were back there, keeping an eye on things, looking out for everyone else, as always. Josiah had been a priest, and was now on a quest to achieve his own redemption; and Nathan was the steady thinker of the group, the one who'd nursed them all through bullet wounds, fevers, and Chris' bad bouts of temper. Hell, Buck thought as his hand went up to his neck, Nathan had been the one who stitched him up after that Indian Imala had cut him back when they first started working together. Renegade nearly killed me, Buck thought dourly. Between the two of them, Josiah and Nathan had kept the group sane and together, which hadn't been easy even though they were technically all in this thing together, ever since the Judge hired them...

Buck squinted into the sun and chuckled to himself. Now that had been one hell of a week. First they save an Indian village, then come back to Four Corners to find a man dead, and Judge Orin Travis looking for a sheriff. Nobody had stepped forward, so Judge Travis was prepared to go things alone, but then an angry mob had almost torn the jail down to free the murderer inside - and would have, if Vin hadn't stopped them - and the judge had been shot, and just to get a little peace and quiet Buck finally agreed to be the sheriff of Four Corners.

I've done some stupid things, he thought, shaking his head...

The canyon was getting wider, and Buck heard the jangle of Chris' spurs as he guided his horse to the front of the group.

"You got a plan, sheriff?" Chris said in his flat voice, smiling at Buck in a shadow of his old teasing self.

Buck looked back at him and shrugged. "Pull out the guns and hit the dirt. Worked last time."

Chris frowned, more serious now. "We weren't going after Lexington Cross last time. This is a tough group, we need a plan."

Suddenly both men heard the loud snap of Vin's sawed-off Winchester, and an instant later a shot rang out, and a body fell into the path in front of them.

Buck and Chris looked up just as Vin fired again and yelled , "Look out! Snipers! "

A bullet hit the dust in front of him, and Buck knew they had to get out of the confines of the canyon or be trapped. Instantly, he spurred his horse ahead, and without even looking to see who was still behind him, galloped amid a hail of bullets out of the canyon and into the rocky plain beyond.

Buck knew what they would find once they got there - he'd staked Lexington's hideout before, knew the low, ramshackle ranch house would be sprawled in front of them, amid a jumble of broken boulders and low shrubs. Scanning the area quickly, Buck saw that they had at least taken the outlaw by surprise - there were only a few men outside, and they were scrambling for cover as Chris shot past Buck and screamed, "Come out, Lexington!"

Smiling at his friend's forthrightness, Buck headed for the nearest boulder, swiftly dismounted, and threw himself behind it. He risked a look over his shoulder, saw the others following his lead, trained his eyes upward. There was no one else on the canyon ledge - Vin had picked them all off. Buck reminded himself to thank Vin, later.

There were loud shouts and gunfire coming from the house, from behind broken windows and ragged curtains, but no one had come out. Chris was crouched next to Buck, and half-rising out of the boulder's protection he screamed, "Give it up, Lexington! We're here to take you in!"

Buck saw Nathan and Ezra go forward, slipping between the boulders and firing off shots as they went. One of the bandits who had been outside when they approached rose, fired, and was immediately cut down. Buck bit his lip; how much longer were they going to have to keep killing people?

Finally, the warped door of the house opened, and someone emerged, but it wasn't Lexington. In fact, it wasn't anybody Buck had ever seen before. It was a young man, a kid really, with jet-black hair, wearing an incongruous-looking three-piece suit and a brown bowler hat. He must be new, Buck thought, but noticed that his clothes were torn and patched up, and if his shirt had been white before, it wasn't now. The kid was looking around, his ivory-handled Colt held up in one hand, and even though he was at a pretty fair distance, Buck could see the gaunt hardness in the youth's flushed face, the too-cocky belligerence of the young-old criminal.

Buck turned his head to make a wry comment about the situation to Chris, but to his surprise his friend was staring at this kid with a look of shock.

"Jesus Christ." Chris breathed softly, and dipped his head down to check his gun.

Confused, Buck looked at the kid again, then back at his friend. "You know him?"

At that moment the kid with the Colt looked around the rocks and said, "You hired guns better just ride out of here if you know what's good for you!"

It was such a young voice, but roughened by too much whiskey and bad times, and Buck saw Chris wince in a way that he'd never seen before. Leaning forward, Buck said in a low voice, "Somethin' goin' on here I don't know about?"

Chris shot him a look, then squinted at the youth swaggering in front of the door. "I've seen that kid before. In the cemetery, in Four Corners."

"So?" Buck paused, then popped his head up from behind the rock.

As he expected, the youth didn't fire on him, in fact jumped a little when he saw Buck. Buck smiled and leaned over the small boulder, placing his elbows on the round surface, and said, "Son, get out of the way please. It's been a long ride, and we wanna get in that house real bad."

The youth blinked at him, in fear it seemed to Buck, then squared his shoulders and said, "Just try it, mister. Me and my friends'll shoot you to bits."

Buck tried not to laugh; it wasn't humorous really, this boy was trying so hard to be bad, but there was something about his bravado that made Buck laugh out loud as he lounged over the rock.

The youth's face screwed up in annoyance, and he lowered the Colt and glared at Buck. "What's so damn funny?"

Buck ignored Chris' hissed warnings and chuckled, "You got a name, son?"

The youth tried to stand as tall as he could, which wasn't very. "I'm Boston Dunne."

"Well, git your head down, Boston Dunne." Buck said as he lifted his gun and aimed at the door. "I'll tell you what's so funny later while we're hauling your ass to jail."

"You're not hauling MY - " The youth began, but a split second later bullets started flying everywhere and he didn't get a chance to finish.

Somebody fired at Buck first, splintering the rock and sending painful little slivers in every direction. Buck ducked down quickly, then jumped back up and fired, noticing that Boston Dunne had dived for the nearest cover, which turned out to be behind a wide, low horse trough.

Chris looked over at the other men. "We gotta get into the house before Lexington has a chance to escape." He gritted between gun bursts.

"Tell me something I don't know." Buck quipped as he returned fire.

Vin was rising, firing steadily, and Buck peered through the thickening smoke to see several men pouring out of the side of the house, firing everything they had. Buck and the others fired back, hitting some, but still no one Buck recognized as Lexington had appeared.

Chris rose into a half-crouch. "I'm gonna run for the house. Cover me."

Buck nodded tersely, the acrid smoke stinging his eyes. He noticed Vin was watching Chris too, and when the former bounty hunter looked in his direction Buck knew that their eyes had met, and they were both going to do the exact same thing. Buck's eyes flicked to the water trough as he thought Boston might try to stop them, but he didn't see the youth there anymore, and put it out of his mind.

Chris stood up and yelled, "This is your last chance, Lexington! Give yourself up or we're comin' in!"

Through the smoke, Buck saw Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan stand to join Vin, and knew they were preparing to rush the house. Good plan, he thought to himself as he stood himself. Glad I almost thought of it.

The gunfire from the house had ceased, and a split second later Vin cried out and started pumping bullets at the back of the house, where it seemed Lexington's entire gang was trying to escape into the desert.

The noise was deafening, bouncing off the canyon walls until it sounded like an entire regiment firing, instead of a scarce dozen men. Buck's friends all ran toward the back of the house, except for Chris who ran through it, guns blazing, and a few minutes later the dust settled around the still, bleeding corpses of Lexington's men as they littered the desert floor.

Buck looked around at the sudden stillness as Vin lowered his sawed-off Winchester. "We get all of them?"

Vin shrugged as his sharp eyes scanned the area. "Maybe."

Buck frowned as he studied the bodies that lay strewn at his feet. Lexington wasn't there; neither was that Boston kid.

"Damn." Buck said, "Cross got away."

"If he was ever here." Josiah said solemnly as he took his hat off and shook his head at the carnage.

Buck sighed and gazed toward the house, and thought of Chris. His gun still out, he sauntered toward the open back door, then entered the house itself.

It was a mess, a close, smelly hovel, and Buck couldn't believe people actually had lived there. Trash was strewn everywhere; there was almost no light. "Chris?"

"In here, Buck." Came Chris' voice, lighter it seemed than it had been before. Buck followed the sound, to a corner of the largest room, the front one, where Chris was standing nonchalantly pointing his gun into the corner.

"Find somethin'?" Buck asked, then noticed Boston Dunne, huddled against the wall as if trying to flatten himself into it, his gun jittering in one hand, his hazel eyes huge, terrified saucers as they stared at Chris.

"Oh." Buck said, holstering his gun. This kid's scared half to death, he thought, and taking a step toward the trembling youth said softly, "Now, son, put the gun down and come on."

Boston didn't say anything, his eyes seeming to grow bigger against his face as he stared at the two men. His skin glistened with sweat.

Chris lowered his gun and looked at Buck in irritation. "Do I really scare people this bad?"

Buck chuckled, and was about to reply when Boston suddenly yelled out, raised his gun and fired it.

Buck and Chris both hit the floor, guns out and trained on the still-huddled Boston, but a quick glance at Chris told Buck he hadn't been hit; Buck knew he hadn't either. Both men looked at Boston, whose gun was still up, his red face frozen in absolute numb shock, and as Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah ran into the house, Buck finally thought to look behind him.

And saw Lexington Cross' body, sprawled out on the floor.

+ + + + + + +

The ride back to Four Corners had been hot and dusty, but Buck didn't mind; he was always happy when things worked out, and this afternoon had worked out just perfectly.

Well, almost. Lexington Cross was dead, but they had a prisoner, and Buck didn't like prisoners since that meant he would have to spend some time in the jail, instead of with Blossom Call. But, those were the breaks.

Chris had tied Boston Dunne's hands together and put him on the only spare horse they could find, so Buck assumed it had to be the kid's. At first Boston was all spit and vinegar, after he'd recovered from shooting Lexington, that is. He fought hard against the restraining ropes, glared at everyone, including Nathan who kept asking if he was okay, and Buck could swear he saw him spit at Chris, but since the boy was still alive he thought he must have imagined it.

But that was before; now, as they neared the jail in the growing twilight, Boston had gotten quieter, slumping dejectedly over his saddle, and Buck thought, he's realizing this is all for real. And felt a little sorry for the kid.

They pulled up to the jail, and Buck dismounted, swung the door open, and went to Boston's horse, where the youth was staring sullenly at the pommel of his saddle, where his hands were tied.

"Final stop, kid." Buck announced as he untied the rope from the pommel and gave it a tug. "Come on, now."

Boston gave Buck a half-hearted glare and didn't move.

Josiah came around and, reaching out his huge arms, grabbed Boston by the waist and lifted him down. Boston gasped and turned white, then stared at Josiah in amazement.

"Thank you, brother." Buck grinned.

"Don't mention it." Josiah replied.

Ezra ambled over, brushing dust from his sleeve. "Mr. Wilmington, perhaps a drink to celebrate your victory over the forces of evil?"

"In a minute, Ezra." Buck said as he tugged on the rope again and backed toward the jailhouse door. Apparently stunned, Boston offered no resistance this time, and as he bundled him through the door Buck looked over to see everyone else gravitating toward the saloon. Chris looked back over his shoulder and warned, "Be careful. He's a better shot than he looks."

"Don't I know it." Buck mumbled as he herded Boston through the jail and into the large, vacant cell.

As he worked to untie the rope, a little of Boston's fire came back and he spat, "When my friends come to rescue me, you'll be sorry."

Buck chuckled as he finished loosening the thick rope, and unwound it from JD's hands. "You mean your dead friends, or your runnin' scared friends?"

Boston's eyes widened and looked away, and Buck suddenly thought, my God. This was his first real chance to see Boston up close, and Buck thought, he's even younger than I thought he was. The youth's face was thin and gaunt, and there were a few scars on his fair skin, but the eyes - the eyes were still young, young and open and pleading for acceptance.

Then something shut over them again and Boston gave Buck a bitter glare and said, "You just wait. You'll be sorry."

Buck frowned. "Why'd you shoot your boss?"

Boston looked down suddenly, then looked away and hunched toward the back wall of the cell. "Leave me alone."

"Uh-huh." Buck backed out of the cell, locked it, and hung up the key. "Well, while we're both waitin', make yourself comfortable, Boston Dunne. Judge'll be here in a few days, but that's a long time to stand up."

Boston slumped down on the cot, rubbed his sore wrists as he watched Buck saunter toward the door.

"Hey!" Boston hollered as Buck opened the door. "What makes you so sure I won't run off?"

Buck leaned against the door and grinned. "Oh, probably the fear of flamin' death from half a dozen sets of six-shooters comin' from the saloon across the street."

Boston turned pale, and gulped.

"That's all." Buck said, and walked out the door.

+ + + + + + +

The other five men had already gotten a table by the time Buck swung through the doors, and he wasn't surprised. Everyone in town knew Chris and his friends, and it always made Buck feel appreciated to know that whenever they entered the bar, a table would immediately open up. Appreciated or feared, he was never sure which.

But in any case, there they all were, except as Buck drew closer he noticed that Chris was sitting apart, clutching a bottle of Red-Eye whiskey, and he thought, uh-oh. The others were giving Chris concerned looks, and as Buck approached the table Nathan took the cigar out of his mouth and said, "He's waitin' on you."

"Come again?"

Ezra was shuffling a deck of cards, kept his green eyes on them as he spoke. "Mr. Larabee wishes a word with you, Mr. Wilmington. You'd best get a drink first."

Buck's eyebrows came together in confusion, and he looked at Vin, but the former bounty hunter was drinking his beer and looking elsewhere. All right, then.

Buck ignored his need for alcohol and walked over to the small table where Chris sat, hunched over, his eyes rock-hard and bitter. As Buck took the seat opposite his old friend, he felt that prickly sensation he always felt just before Chris went on a rampage, and he knew he couldn't stop whatever would happen. Maybe he shouldn't even try.

Chris eyed Buck a moment, took a drink of whiskey, but didn't say anything.

Buck folded his hands, waited.

Waited some more. Chris took another drink, shook his head, and said, "That kid."

"Hm?" Buck didn't quite hear him. "What'd you say, Chris?"

"That kid." Chris repeated louder. "The one you just locked up."

Buck nodded. "Boston Dunne? What about him?"

"Tough-looking little shit, isn't he?"

Buck thought about it. "Mostly, I guess. He's in a gang, you know."

Chris shook his head in disgust, but didn't say anything else, took another pull off the bottle. Exasperated, Buck leaned forward. "Chris - "

The eyes flashed, and Buck stopped.

"I ran him off."

Buck sat back. "Come again?"

"I ran him off." Chris tipped the bottle into his mouth again, a long time. "That day in the cemetery. He couldn't have been here more than an hour, by the looks of him. I ran him off."

Buck scratched his moustache. "Why?"

But Chris was ruefully shaking his head. "Cross must have found him that night. Bastard."

Buck was having trouble following Chris' thread, shrugged. "Nobody pushed that kid into joining Cross' gang, Chris. You sure didn't."

Chris didn't look at Buck, just studied the whiskey bottle. "Goddamn vultures."

Buck nodded in agreement, and waited, but no further conversation came. Saddened, Buck could almost see Chris folding in on himself, and after a few minutes Buck knew the talk was over and he stood up. When Chris didn't protest, he slowly walked away from the table, and didn't look back.

Josiah gave Chris a compassionate glance as Buck wandered over. "Did he say anything?"

Buck shrugged passively. "Nothin' worth sharin'."

Vin took another drink of beer, looked at the felt-covered table.

Nathan eyed Buck. "Have a seat."

Buck shook his head. "Better head back to the jail, make sure that kid hasn't tried to dig a tunnel or something."

Josiah shook his head. "Very sad. That boy probably had promise once."

"He still might." Buck found himself saying. "He just fell in with a bad crowd, is all."

Ezra chuckled as he flipped the cards in his hands. "Why, Mr. Wilmington, has Four Corners' only sheriff decided to turn philanthropist? Are you considering rehabilitating the little scoundrel?"

Buck opened his mouth, shut it again, hated the curious look in everyone's eyes, finally shrugged again, simply because he couldn't think of what else to do. "I'm just sayin' he ain't like Cross, is all."

"That's true." Nathan said. "He shot Cross. For a boy, he's pretty cold."

"Yes, the traitor's heart is made of stone." Ezra said absently as he turned the cards.

"Scuse me." Buck said, and abruptly left the saloon.

Ezra gave the gunslinger a quizzical glance, then eyed his compatriots. "Gentlemen, does anyone feel like a game of cards this fine evening?"

Josiah and Nathan nodded, but Vin took one more drink of his beer and rose. "No thanks, Ezra. I'm gonna catch some air."

Ezra nodded obligingly and watched Vin leave as he swiftly dealt out the cards.

"Mind your luck, gentlemen," the gambler said as the cards flew. "You never know how Lady Fortune will smile on you tonight."

Buck walked out of the saloon, felt the cool night air on his face, and stopped on the porch. His mood was getting black, and he didn't like it.

He didn't like that Chris wasn't talking to him anymore. He didn't like how, just when he thought it was going to be like old times, his friend would draw back like a frightened turtle, hide in his whiskey bottle, and feel sorry for himself. And he especially didn't like how he couldn't do anything about it.

And then he didn't like what happened this afternoon. Yes, they won, but eight dead men because of it, and one scared kid probably headed for Yuma Prison, if the judge didn't sentence him for killing Cross. Well, Travis probably wouldn't do that, but hell anyway! What was a wet-behind-the-ears kid like that doing running with a gang anyways? He was maybe nineteen, could hardly hold a gun right, much less shoot it. And why did Buck even care what happened to him? Kid or not, he was a criminal, and Buck was the sheriff, so there you are. Boston Dunne, or whatever his name really was, was an outlaw, and deserved whatever he got.

But no. The eyes.

Buck sighed, suddenly feeling tired, and didn't notice Vin standing beside him until the former bounty hunter said in a low voice, "How's the boy doing?"

It was strange how Vin could make you aware of his presence without scaring you, Buck thought suddenly. Lifting weary eyes to the jail, Buck said, "Proud. Scared. 'Bout what you'd expect."

Vin tilted his head. "Chris tell you we met him before?"

Buck looked at Vin curiously. "You saw him too?"

Vin nodded, his eyes on the jail, misty and far away. "That day in the cemetery, right after we took care of the boys that were hassling Nathan. One of 'em was running away, and the kid ran out to shoot him, yellin' like a damn fool."

Buck almost chuckled; he could see that image. "And Chris stopped him?"

Another nod, the eyes farther away still. "One shot, right between the kid's feet. Stopped him in his tracks."

Buck's eyebrows went up, but he really wasn't surprised. "Then what happened?"

Vin's eyes went to the ground, stayed there. "Don't recall exactly, but I guess it must have rubbed the kid's pride pretty sore to make him end up with the likes of Cross."

Buck thought about this, shook his head sadly.

Vin sighed softly and looked down the street, the cool evening breeze stirring his long hair. "Kid sure had fire, though. Reckon Chris is thinkin' on how joinin' Cross put it out."

Buck felt something inside him lurch, thought, that's it. That kid is just like Chris. Dead inside.

"It's wrong." Buck said, without even realizing he'd said it.

Vin turned his head at the gunslinger's words, and Buck's expression grew quizzical as he looked at the former buffalo hunter. "Don't it feel wrong to you, Vin?"

Vin shrugged noncommittally, thumbed his hands into his belt loops. "Everybody got to make their own ride, Buck. Can't stop it."

"I know, but - " Buck shook his head, tried to ignore the uneasy feeling creeping up his spine. "But there's somethin' just ain't right about all this. That kid, don't you reckon if he hadn't joined up with Cross he mighta come back an' joined us instead?"

Vin smiled a little at the thought. "Chris woulda scared him right off."

Buck tilted his head, "I bet he would have come back though. He's got a lot of gumption."

"Yeah, well," Vin leaned back against the wall, dug a piece of jerky out of his pocket, "Whatever he's got, it don't matter much now. He's gonna be lookin' at the inside of a prison for a long time."

"Yeah." Buck said, and felt the uneasy feeling tighten, and ventured another glance into the saloon.

Vin watched him, and said softly, "Reckon Chris'll be here for a while."

Buck nodded, knew what Vin was suggesting, looked toward the jail. "I'm gonna go check on Boston Dunne. See ya."


Vin watched Buck go, and chewed on his jerky thoughtfully until the gunslinger was across the street, and in the jail. Then he hunched his shoulders and went back into the saloon.

+ + + + + + +

When Buck came back into the jail, it was almost totally dark. After fumbling with the matches for a few minutes, he lit one of the lanterns and set it on the edge of the desk. Noticing it was quiet, Buck walked toward the cell to check on Boston, and saw that the boy was curled up on the little cot, his hat off, his face to the wall, asleep. Good, Buck thought, and walked as silently as he could back to the desk and sat down.

I should get some sleep too, he decided, and folded his arms. He was exhausted, weary, but it was an emotional weariness that Buck wasn't used to, and it irked him. Maybe it's time to move on, Buck thought idly, and when the thought didn't go away he brought it back, and picked at it some more.

Chris sure don't need me, Buck thought. He's shut himself up for good, and Vin's always there if he feels like talking. There really isn't any other reason to stay around; I been here a long time, three whole months, longest time I've ever been anywhere. Maybe I'll go to Kansas City, or Tulsa. Or, you know, I've never been to San Francisco, bet there are some lovely ladies there.

But he didn't really want to go, not really. It was kind of nice, being with Chris again, and the others were good friends. Even Ezra, who wasn't the world's friendliest sort sometimes, was getting better. And their work was appreciated, by Mary Travis and her father-in-law if no one else. You're making a difference, town's getting better, hang around for a while and see what shakes out, he thought.

What shakes out, Buck thought bitterly, casting an eye to the faraway cell. That's what shakes out, constant reminders that life is tough, and then you die. Who needs all these daily confirmations that people are lousy, that life is bad, that the good, the innocent get trampled on and there's nothing you can do about it? Buck thought of Chris' wife Sarah, his son Adam, two more dead, and what did it matter? He felt powerless then, just like he did when he found out about their deaths, and it was the feeling Buck hated more than anything in the world, the knowledge that your friend's life was slipping through your hands, that he was hanging on and you let go, and another good soul is gone. Powerless to stop it. Get out now, while you can. Just go...

Buck hadn't realized he'd dozed off until he reawakened to find the room much darker, the lamplight much stronger in the little room. Huh, he thought, and looked toward the cell again. Boston had taken off his jacket, and Buck saw the shoulders of his white shirt in the amber light, stark against the darker satin of the back of his vest. Buck rubbed his eyes and thought, damn, I need a drink.

As he was rubbing his eyes, Buck heard a soft noise. He stopped, listened, heard it again.

It was coming from the cell.

Buck listened again, harder, made out quiet hiccoughing sounds. Good God, he thought as his stomach lurched again, is he crying?

That was sure what it sounded like. Slowly, Buck got up and walked to the cell, peered inside. He could hear the sounds clearly now, could see the youth balled up on the cot, clutching his middle like it hurt.

Concerned, Buck rapped gently on the bars. "Hey, kid? You OK?"

"Leave me alone!" Boston sobbed, and it really was a sob.

Damn, Buck thought, a little thrown. I've had criminals yell and break things, but I never had one cry on me before. "You in some kind of pain? We got a doctor-type fella."

"I'm fine." Boston gulped, wiping his face furiously. "Just go away."

Buck paused; he felt suddenly sorry for this kid, who but for one predatory scoundrel might be married somewhere, or happy at least. Chris was right, Buck thought darkly. Vultures.

Boston's head came up, glanced, went back down again, the voice was quieter, more controlled. "I said I'm fine. Just, please, go away."

"Okay." Feeling helpless, Buck backed away from the bars. "I'll be right here if you got any questions."

He was halfway to the desk, hating his life, when a quiet voice from the back of the room asked, "What'll they do to me?"

Buck turned around, cocked his head. "What'd you say?"

Boston was sitting up, still wiping his face, blinking at Buck with frightened hazel eyes. Scooting to the front of his cot, he took the bars in his hands and said, "What's going to happen to me now? Are they going to hang me?"

Buck wiped his mouth, picked up the lantern and walked toward the cell. "Well, that depends, son. You broke the law, you ran with a gang, you shot a man. "

Buck hated the way the kid's face dropped as he said those things, the listless manner in which his black hair fell in his face as he looked down at the floor.

Quietly, Buck picked up the jailhouse keyring and continued, "But the judge, the one that's comin'? He's a good man, he's fair. He'd listen to your side of the story, if you got one."

Boston sat back on the cot, drew his legs up to his chest, winced and wrapped his arms around them as he stared at the floor miserably. "It don't matter. I hope I hang."

There was such agony in that young voice that Buck winced himself. Looking at Boston seriously, Buck asked, "Now what would make you go and say a thing like that?"

Boston looked up at Buck then, those huge, pleading eyes, and he shook his head. "I messed everything up. My mama - " His eyes filled up suddenly, and Boston hid his face on his knees.

Buck was quiet for a moment, then said softly, "You miss your mama?"

Boston's head jerked up, and Buck read in that tear-streaked face distrust, the fear that he was being made fun of. But Buck's eyes must have reflected the sincerity of his heart, because Boston just nodded forlornly and tucked his chin on his knees.

There was silence for a few moments, then Buck said gently, "Mind if I come in?"

Boston shrugged, and Buck opened the door. There were two cots in the large cell, and bringing the lantern in with him Buck sat on the one opposite Boston, and put the lantern on the floor. He looked at Boston, and noticed that the boy had scooted back against the wall, and seemed to be shrinking from him.

"Hey, take it easy, son," Buck said, somewhat surprised, "I ain't gonna hurt you. Just want to talk, is all."

Boston nodded, but didn't move.

Oh well, Buck sighed. "Now. You got a name, kid?"

Boston looked confused. "Yeah, Boston Dunne."

Buck smiled a little. "No, son, your real name. Less of course your mama called you Boston, but I kind of doubt it."

The kid laughed, a little, and Buck felt gratified. Wiping his eyes on his sleeve, the youth said, "My mama called me JD."

"JD." Buck repeated, thinking oddly that yeah, that sounded right. "JD Dunne. Well, all right, JD Dunne, suppose we have a little talk. Your mama, she been gone a long time?"

JD shook his head. "Last year."

Buck nodded, but before he could say anything more JD's breathing hitched and he said, "She'd be so ashamed of me. I told her I wouldn't do anything to hurt her, and look at me." He ran one hand through his hair and squeezed his eyes shut.

"Well, now, JD," Buck said quickly, "You tellin' me you didn't mean to hook up with Cross and his gang?"

"No!" JD said emphatically, "I - I was supposed to go to college. Mama worked her whole life for that. She wanted me to be educated. Yeah, right." He cast his eyes to the floor sullenly.

Buck caught something there, cocked his head. "You not into book learnin'?"

JD looked up at him, self-recrimination in those glistening eyes. "I'm too dumb for college. And there wasn't enough money anyway, so I came out here."

"And fell in with the wrong crowd." Buck said sympathetically. "Happens all the time, kid."

"I was so stupid." JD said angrily, wincing again as he hugged his knees to his chest. "Cross said if I watched him, and learned from him, I'd be his right-hand man in no time. He said I had potential."

"Well, you're not a bad shot." Buck observed.

JD's eyes flew to his face, full of such yearning, such begging for approval that Buck almost recoiled. "You think so?"

"You took Cross down pretty neatly." Buck noted.

JD was back to looking at the floor. "Mama's probably wishing she never had me now. I never shot a man in my life, and now I killed one."

"Well, I'm grateful to you." Buck said, and he meant it, "That alley cat was gonna gun down my best friend."

JD blushed, kept his eyes on the floor, seemed deep in thought. After a long pause he said in a small voice, "Wish I had a friend."

Feeling a rush of compassion, Buck said, "Cross wasn't your friend?"

JD shook his head, the black strands of hair falling into his eyes. "He said he was, but then after a while I guess I was so dumb he got mad at me. Said I was too stupid to be in the gang. Said..." JD trailed off, put his chin back on his knees, and shut his eyes again.

Buck sighed. He'd tell the judge all this, maybe Chris too. This wasn't a hardened criminal sitting opposite him, it was a kid, a scared, mixed-up, lonely kid who missed his mother and who didn't have a soul in the world who gave a damn about him. It was unfair, but maybe there was something Buck could do about it. Chris didn't want to be saved; maybe this kid did.

Buck felt like he wanted to know more, but JD had dozed off, or something, because he was staring off into space like Buck wasn't there anymore. Poor kid's exhausted, Buck thought, and lifted himself off the cot.

"Just put him out there and let 'em shoot him."

Buck stopped, blinked at JD. "You say something?"

JD looked up at Buck and with a chill Buck saw that his eyes were bright, too bright, and his face was flushed in the lantern's glow. "Cross said that, this afternoon when you and your men showed up. I told him I could prove myself, and he hit me, told me to shut up and get out there and die already, and get out of his way."

Buck sat down on the cot again, his knees suddenly weak. "That bastard." He said.

JD's eyes teared up again, large drops hanging on his black lashes and spilling down his cheeks. "I was standing there, hoping you guys would shoot me, I just want to get it over with, the pain won't go away, and they don't have a doctor, and Cross said that kid is so useless somebody should have shot him three months ago and saved me the trouble - "

Buck was trying to follow what JD was saying, and was actually becoming alarmed. Swallowing, he said, "Uh, JD? You with me, buddy? What'd you say about a doctor?"

"And then they left me there," JD rattled on, staring into the lantern as if hypnotized, his thin face etched with agony, "I couldn't ride, it hurt too bad, so they just - But he came back, and he was gonna shoot Chris in the back, and I couldn't.. I just had to make it stop..." JD buried his head on his knees, and sobbed softly.

Really nervous now, Buck stood up and moved closer to where the youth was huddled.

"JD, you OK?" He reached out to give the boy a pat on the shoulder, and drew his hand back in surprise.

JD was radiating heat. Buck put a hand to the boy's forehead; it was white-hot with fever.

What the hell, Buck thought, then noticed that JD had stopped mumbling and was still. Cautiously, but quickly, Buck unwrapped JD's arms from his legs and leaned him back. The boy didn't resist, looked asleep, and when his shirt front hit the lantern light Buck saw that JD's vest was unbuttoned and his shirt was open, revealing a crude bandage bound around his middle colored with huge splotches of dark brown, bright red, and a sickly yellow. The skin around the bandage was bright red with infection.

Jesus Christ, Buck thought, and yelled for Nathan at the top of his lungs.

+ + + + + + +

Buck couldn't stop pacing.

Nathan came, shooed everyone out of the jail, Buck paced on the sidewalk. Chris asked what had happened, Buck told him, bellowing sometimes until a window opened somewhere and he was asked politely to shut the hell up, and he kept pacing.

Finally, Nathan came out, his face grim, but he thought JD might make it; a deep gash, probably the kid had been shot at, a week ago looked like, then it had gotten infected. Buck cursed a blue streak then, wished Cross was still alive so he could kill him, and kept pacing.

The sun came up; Mary Travis came over, wanted to know what all the shouting was about last night, and left looking sick to her stomach. And Buck kept pacing.

Nathan thought JD should be treated somewhere other than the public jail. Buck offered his room. Ezra wondered whether transporting a felon to an unsecure location was wise, Buck threatened to deck him. And kept pacing.

A day passed, two. JD's fever raged, and Vin wondered quietly to Chris why Buck suddenly seemed so concerned with the young man's welfare. You don't know Buck, Chris said, and didn't say anything else, but Vin noticed the quiet glint in Chris' eyes when he talked about his old friend. And Buck kept pacing.

Circuit Judge Orin Travis arrived, puzzled that there was an empty jail cell, and blood on the sheets. Chris explained, Buck explained, Orin felt there was perhaps something he could do. But JD's fever wouldn't go away, and Josiah lit a candle in the church for him. And Buck kept pacing.

The sheriff from Eagle Bend showed up, with a prisoner in tow, one of Cross' men. Chris and Buck dragged him to the jail, sat him down and asked him about JD. Who? Oh, Boston you mean. Well, he was an OK kid, but worse than useless, I mean he didn't want to drill nobody, didn't want to steal, he's kind of a klutz, why the hell did he join a gang? But Lex couldn't just let him go, he'd rat on him, so one day he 'accidentally' shot him. Well, he tried, but the kid moved, and he just grazed him, and hell, what are you gonna do? Kid gets scared, hides from him, nobody can find him till the day you guys showed up, he turned up hiding out in this cave, all infected and everything. Yuck! Well, we just wanted to leave him there, but Lex says, nah, let's put him to good use. We got company, see? Just put him out there and let 'em shoot him.

Buck beat the living crap out of Cross' man, and felt a lot better. And kept pacing.

Another day passed. Orin watched over the jail, worked on getting a pardon for JD while Buck helped Nathan. The fever needed to break, but JD was weak and sinking, and Nathan told Buck not to hold out too much hope, that sometimes the fever won. But Buck didn't listen, sat by the youthful felon's bedside, pressed cool cloths to his scarred face, practically begged him to not give up. Chris showed up sometimes, and Josiah, and Vin. Ezra came in, and told Buck he sympathized with JD's plight, having been alone so much himself. Buck knew this was important, but hardly took his eyes from the wasted youth on the bed to answer. Then Nathan would change the bandages, and Buck would pace.

The following morning, JD opened his eyes.

He looked around the room, which was bright with morning sunlight, puzzled to find himself in a deep, soft bed instead of on a cot in the jail. He turned his head and saw through blurry eyes the man who'd talked to him the night before, sitting in a chair with his arms folded, dozing.

A moment later a black man appeared next to him, tapped his shoulder and said, "Hey, Buck. Buck, he's awake."

"Hm?" The man named Buck started, blinked at Nathan, then looked at JD and said, "Well, hey! Hey, pard, welcome back to the real world."

JD was terribly confused, and his mouth was so dry. "Where am I?" He asked in a raspy whisper.

"Buck's room." The black man answered as he leaned close to JD and put a hand to his forehead. "I'm Nathan. How you feelin', son?"

"Thirsty." JD answered, closing his eyes.

"Uh-huh. I'll bet. Hang on." Nathan walked away, and JD's gaze went back to Buck, who was eyeing him in a way that was both friendly and angry.

"Now, son," Buck said as he leaned forward in the chair, "Just what the sam-hill were you thinkin', not telling anybody you was hurt? That ride back here could have killed you."

"Well - " JD settled back into the yielding pillows, more confused than ever. "Well, why would you care?"

Buck looked at him in exasperation and blustered, "Well, it just so happens I do care when my prisoners fall over dead before they reach the city limits! You could have let us know, is all."

Nathan reappeared with a glass of water, and put one hand behind JD's head so he could drink.

"Just take it slow, now." Nathan cautioned as JD gulped at the water. "You been out for three days with the fever. Reckon it's gonna take you a few more to get your strength back."

JD leaned back against the pillows, eyed both men quietly. "Then am I going to Yuma Prison?"

Nathan and Buck looked at each other. Buck cleared his throat and said, "Well, now, that's up to the judge, son, but I'd put my mind to gettin' better before worryin' about that. You hungry?"

JD nodded. Nathan wiped his hands on a nearby towel and said, "I'll go see about gettin' a tray sent up."

JD didn't argue, in fact didn't have the strength to hide his astonishment as he watched Nathan leave. Why were these people being nice to him? Why weren't they hitting him and calling him useless and stupid, like Cross and his men did? JD had honestly thought - even hoped - that his infected wound would kill him, and he wouldn't have to live with the guilt and humiliation anymore. At the very least, he thought maybe he'd wake up in a gutter someplace, that Buck would toss him out to die like Cross had. But he was in a bed, in somebody's room, and this Nathan was taking care of him. It reminded him of how his mother would care for him when he was sick, and suddenly JD was very scared, because he knew how fast those feelings of security could vanish. He also knew the last time he met someone who said they were his friend, they were lying, and JD hated it that this could be a lie too. But it didn't seem like one...

After Nathan left, JD looked at Buck again, and scooting himself up in the bed a little asked in all sincerity, "How come you didn't let me die?"

Buck's face softened as he shrugged. "You saved Chris' life. Reckoned I owed you one."

JD's face became grim. "I did shoot Lexington Cross then. I thought maybe I dreamed it."

"Oh, it really happened, all right." Buck said softly, "And now that I know that you were half out of your head with sickness at the time, I'm doubly impressed. "

JD's eyes flicked up, then back down, and he blushed.

Buck's gaze didn't waver from JD's face. "So you mind tellin' me why you didn't think twice about puttin' your boss in the ground?"

JD looked at Buck, surprised. "I - I told you. I was mad at him for shooting me."

But Buck was shaking his head. "That don't explain why you'd mind him shooting Chris. After all, I hear Chris tossed a bullet at you himself."

JD's face went red again, and his hands clutched the quilted coverlet on Buck's bed. "That was different."

"Mind telling me how?"

JD's lips pursed in thought, his eyes riveted on the patterned quilt. "I was stupid that day. I...I wasn't thinking, just showing off. You don't shoot a man in the back." He looked at Buck then, solemn knowledge in those too-large hazel eyes. "You know? You just don't. It ain't fair, it don't give him a chance to fight back. I just...I don't know." JD shook his head, giving up.

"No, you got it." Buck said encouragingly, and gave JD a gentle smile. "You got it just fine. See how smart you are?"

JD's head came up, quickly, and his face said, you're making fun of me? Then his expression relaxed a bit as he read Buck's eyes and he said, "I felt so bad when I was in that place, Buck. The things Cross did, robbing banks and shooting innocent people... I just wanted to go home so bad, but Cross said I was stuck there until I either grew up or got killed. He didn't care about fair or not fair. And I saw him behind you, fixin' to shoot and I just ... " JD's hand went to his middle, where the clean bandage was, and his face grew dark and he winced.

Buck shifted in his seat and said, "Well, kid, you know what?"

JD looked at the gunslinger, his one friend in the world. "What?"

"You did grow up. And you ain't stuck in that place no more."

JD stared at Buck for a moment, and then with a reassuring smile Buck added, "And I think your mama'd be right proud of you."

JD's gaze dropped to the coverlet, and he bit his lip. When he looked back up at Buck, there was a sudden wisdom in those black-lashed eyes.

"I ain't never gonna shame her again." JD said resolutely, his jaw set in determination. "As long as I live, I swear it, Buck."

"I believe you, son." Buck said as the door opened and Nathan appeared with a tray of food. He helped Nathan get JD up in bed to get something to eat, then gave the youth one more dazzling smile, and went to find Chris.

+ + + + + + +

Two days later the saloon was closed temporarily for the bench trial of JD Dunne, also known as "Boston", Circuit Judge Orin Travis, presiding.

JD was nervous, in fact terrified, and hardly heard Buck's assurances as the gunslinger led him from the jail to the empty saloon. There was a small crowd outside, the curious mostly, and JD noticed some of them shaking their heads, felt a brief rush of shame. Well, that's what you get, he decided, and knew he deserved whatever he got.

JD was surprised to see that the saloon wasn't quite empty. The judge was there, of course - he didn't look too mean, stern maybe, but his face didn't have those frown lines some people had; he just looked concerned, eyeing JD with sympathetic solemnity.

There were other people in the saloon too; Buck's friends, all lounging in the back of the saloon, no doubt they were the witnesses. There was the man in black, Chris Larabee. He gave JD a quick glance before looking away, and JD wondered what it was that made it so hard for Chris to look at him. He's ashamed of me too, JD decided, and knew he deserved that too.

That red-jacketed gambler was also there, shuffling his cards and staring at JD almost morosely. Next to him was the man who'd lifted JD off his horse, and there was Nathan, whose compassionate look told JD he wasn't convinced the boy was altogether healed yet. JD tried to calm his fears with a jaunty smile, and couldn't figure out why that man would care about a loser like him.

Travis waited until Buck had led JD to the small raised platform that was serving as the dock, then picked up the gavel and pounded it down again.

"Court's in session." Travis said in a throaty growl. JD swept his hat off his head, tried to wipe away the black strands that fell in his eyes.

The judge's eyebrows went up a little, then he continued, "I'll make this brief, gentlemen. Mr. Dunne, after looking over your case I have decided to conduct a bench trial, rather than hear your case before a jury. You have a problem with that, son?"

"No, sir." JD said, shaking his head as he fumbled with his hat.

Travis nodded, shuffled the papers before him. "Young man, you're accused of aiding and abetting a known criminal, the late Lexington Cross, and then causing his death. How do you plead?"

"Oh, I'm guilty, Your Honor." JD said as he nodded firmly, ignoring Buck's snicker. Why did that man find everything so damn funny? Travis looked like he was trying to suppress a smile as well, and folded his hands in front of him. "Very well, you've pleaded guilty to the charges. Got anything to say before I pass sentence?"

JD looked down, glanced at Buck, shrugged. "Well, I...I did it, and it was stupid, but that's no excuse! I mean, I'm sure whatever you give me I got comin', cause I should have known better, but like I said I was just dumb and...and I ain't never gonna do things like that again, just so you know, I mean I learned my lesson, but that don't mean I'm gonna argue with whatever you're gonna hit me with because - "

Buck lightly slapped JD on the back of the head, just enough to ruffle his hair, and as the boy gave him a surprised look he whispered, "I'd like to get out of here sometime today, son, if you don't mind."

"Um...sorry." JD said meekly, and shrugged again. "I guess the defense rests, Your Honor."

"Hm." Travis cocked his head. "You study law, Mr. Dunne?"

"Sort of." JD answered, twisting his hat brim in his hands. "Bat Masterson is a hero of mine, I wanted to be a lawman just like him someday. Well, I...well, I guess that's over, but I do know something about the - "

Buck tapped him again. "This *week* would be just fine."

Travis sighed as the men in the back of the saloon chuckled, then folded his hands and looked at JD sternly. "Young man, after reviewing the testimony of the eyewitnesses, I'm afraid I have no choice but to uphold your guilty plea, and sentence you to five years in Yuma prison."

JD's face fell, but he tried to swallow his sudden panic. It was his own fault, after all.

"However," The judge continued, shuffling the papers around some more, "After taking some further council, I have decided to commute your sentence. You know what that means, son?"

JD nodded. "I'm not going to prison?"

The judge leaned back in his chair and said, "Mr. Dunne, on the advice of the sheriff of this town I am reprimanding you to the custody of Mr. Wilmington and his friends for the period of one year. He's agreed to keep an eye on you, you know what that means?"

JD blinked rapidly, glanced at Buck in astonishment. The others had gotten up from their seats in the back of the saloon, were approaching the platform.

As Buck grinned at him, JD said, "I - I think it means if I mess up, he's gonna kill me."

"You got that right." Buck said with a wink.

The judge looked at JD seriously. "Young man, you fell in with the wrong kind of people. I'm taking your word that you'll not resort to that kind of behavior again. You've got six pairs of eyes on you now, and one word from any of them, you go to Yuma prison for good. You understand me?" JD was still looking around, unable to believe he wasn't doomed. "Um - yes, sir. Oh, don't worry, I ain't never gonna go back to that, I promise."

"Don't worry, Judge," Vin said as he stood close behind JD, "We'll make sure he keeps on the straight and narrow."

"You have our word." Chris said, and JD's eyes went wide as he looked at the man, and he knew Chris' word was good. It was that simple, and it awed him.

"All right." The judge nodded in satisfaction, and banged the gavel. "Court's adjourned, I'm gonna go see what Mary's cookin' up."

JD didn't move for a moment, was still dazed at what was happening. He wasn't going to prison? These men were taking responsibility for him? He looked around, saw they were all heading out of the saloon, and hastily putting his bowler hat back on JD followed them out the door.

"Sure am glad that's over." He heard the big man, Josiah, mutter as the group wandered into the street. Uncertain just what he was supposed to do, JD hung back on the porch as the other men walked away.

A dozen steps away from the door, Buck turned around and said, "Come on, JD. Don't dawdle, or we'll tell the judge on ya."

JD took a hesitant step forward. "Where you going?"

"WE - " Buck made a wide circle with his hands, "We are goin' to Nettie Wells' for supper, and she'll skin us if we're late. So hurry up, now."

JD stepped off the porch, still confused. "You want me to come along?"

The other men were unhitching their horses, which were tethered nearby. Josiah gave JD a gentle grin and said, "Awful hard to keep an eye on you if you stay here."

JD took another few steps forward. "I thought you guys did dangerous stuff. You're going to supper?"

"Goin' to Nettie Wells' IS dangerous," Buck insisted as he swung himself into the saddle, "She's got a niece that 's as rambunctious as she is!"

JD began walking to his horse, which he saw was tethered with the others.

"You okay to ride?" Nathan leaned over to ask as JD prepared to mount his horse.

JD nodded; he felt suddenly so happy, the dull ache in his side felt like nothing.

Nathan still watched in concern as the boy climbed onto his horse with only a small wince, and Nathan winced more, because he knew that the gash in JD's side had come from a bullet fired from the rear. He knew, and JD knew, and they were the only ones who did. But it still made him mad.

Chris led his black steed to JD's side. As JD settled himself in the saddle, the blond man stared at him fixedly and said in a low voice, "You commit to this, you better be sure. You gonna stick with us?"

JD grinned at him, and said proudly, "Try and keep me away."

Buck was watching all this, saw the mischievous grin, and thought, well, there's that fresh-faced kid Chris said he saw in the cemetery. Yeah, he's still in there someplace, under all those scars. We'll get him out yet.

"We'd best get to Nettie's," Vin said simply, and trotted his horse to the front of the pack. The others followed, and soon they were heading out of town and into the open prairie.

JD rode along silently for a few minutes, just enjoying the feeling of riding again, and the satisfaction that this time, it was right, he felt no fear, no anxiety that these were bad men, because he knew they weren't, just knew without being told, because they seemed good, they were kind to him, and they were led by a man who wouldn't let him shoot someone in the back. He had what he needed to climb to those dreams his mother had for him, and this time - he just knew it - it was enough. It was finally enough.

For Buck's part, he was almost singing, he felt so good. He couldn't even say why, except he was happy that Chris agreed to let the kid ride with them. It hadn't been easy, but maybe Chris saw the same thing in JD's predicament that Buck had - it was really just a bad run of luck, that was all. How many kids had Buck dragged to the jail, and buried some, and then he thought, maybe we can save this one, huh, Chris? Maybe this one'll die old in his bed. Maybe we can change his luck. Can't change ours. Maybe I'll hang around a while longer...

Buck felt that strange uneasiness he'd been feeling since they'd arrested JD lifting, and he looked around him, at the others. There were seven of them now; lucky number, he thought suddenly, and shook his head, I'm thinking like Ezra now. But it was true; he felt better about their number being seven than he did when they were six. And he had no idea why.

A moment later a dark horse appeared by Buck's side, and he looked over. It was JD, who said, "So who's Nettie Wells, anyway?"

"Widow woman," Buck answered, and grinned wickedly, "Her niece is about your age, JD, what do you say?"

JD laughed, realized Buck was serious, shook his head. "God, Buck, I'm a criminal! She'd have to be crazy to go for me."

"Well, it might work," Buck insisted as the group of seven thundered over the next rise and into the setting sun, "Yes, son, now that you're reforming, we might be able to talk Casey Wells into givin' you a chance. But first - lose that damn hat."