by K Hanna Korossy

Main characters: JD

Note: This story originally appeared in the Let's Ride 2 fanzine (2002 Neon Rainbow Press)

JD Dunne sat alone on the saloon porch and watched them ride off. Five figures, riding tall, soon disappearing from sight past the edge of town. Five figures that should have been six. He gave a pebble by his foot a disgruntled kick.

Okay, yeah, so it still wore him out to walk across the street, let alone mount a horse and ride out to face trouble. A gunshot did that to you, he had learned the hard way, spending nearly a week in Nathan's room before he could even manage to sit up. Mattie Stokes had plugged him but good. Still, it didn't rankle any less that his friends continued to ride, without him. Even Vin, still nursing a healing injury of his own, had gone along. They still had a job to do, and the request for help from some of the nearby ranchers had been urgent. JD understood, but he didn't have to like it.

Nor did it help that Buck wasn't going with the others, either. Wilmington had been quieter than usual since JD had started recovering, often choosing to go out on patrol alone. That was where he was at that moment; he'd left before the message arrived and the others hadn't been able to wait for him. JD didn't know if Buck's change of mood was because of JD's brush with death or because of those bounty hunter sisters. Frankly, he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

JD's scowl turned into a grimace and he sighed, giving another pebble a nudge with his toe. So many things seemed off at the moment, both between him and Buck, and inside JD. How was he supposed to get over nearly being killed, by a girl who had been interested in him and who was now dead so he couldn't even be mad at her? It would have helped a lot if Buck had been around to talk to instead of avoiding him. JD hated being alone almost more than he hated feeling useless, but even when Buck had been around of late, it still felt like JD was alone, which bothered him most of all.

The pounding of a galloping horse's hooves caught JD's attention, and he looked up with mild curiosity to see who was in such a hurry. Maybe it would be something to offer a distraction and lift some of his melancholy.

The horse came into sight at the end of the street, and JD found his mouth suddenly dry, the blanket falling off his lap unheeded as he stood. The horse was riderless, already a cause for concern. But JD knew that gray horse. He had seen Buck on it enough times.

He took a step toward it, almost tripping on the blanket at his feet, but JD shoved it aside with one foot. Already his side tweaked at the sharp movements, but JD paid it no mind, stumbling in the fastest limp he could manage down the saloon steps and toward the stable the horse was headed for. The curious and worried glances thrown his way by people in the street didn't even enter his awareness. All that mattered, all JD could think about at that moment, was that Buck was in trouble, quite possibly hurt. Maybe even badly. He didn't want to think at all beyond that.

JD reached Buck's horse at the same time the stablehand did. The boy caught the reins and was soothing the edgy animal, but JD didn't care about the horse. He was already examining the saddle, looking for any sign of what had happened. No blood--that was good. The saddle was cinched tight, reins unbroken--that was bad. It probably wasn't a simple accident then. Buck's rifle was still in its scabbard beside the saddle and that could be good or bad: there hadn't been an obvious danger Buck had needed to pull it out for, but it also meant the horse hadn't simply bolted while Buck had dismounted to take a closer look at something. JD knew his friend well enough to know he usually took his rifle with him when he was checking something out. So that meant . . . what? A sudden attack? But without shedding blood? None of the options eased the worry gnawing at JD's gut.

Mary Travis appeared next to him, alerted by one of the townspeople or drawn by the sound of the galloping horse, JD didn't know. He glanced at her grimly and her worried frown made his decision a little easier.

"It's Buck's horse--it came back by itself. I'm going out looking for him."

Her frown deepened, darkening her pretty eyes. "JD, you can't. You're still healing, and Nathan said-"

"Nathan's not here," he interrupted, finally, reluctantly letting go of the horse and determinedly stepping around it, heading into the stable. Over his shoulder he said to the stablehand, "I'm taking her back out with me."

Already his nerves were taut, his fingers lightly trembling as he reached for his own saddle blanket. Buck had been the one who'd taught him there was no shame in that, that it was just the body getting ready for action. Except that his body wasn't. It took JD two tries to get the blanket over the back of his horse. Even that hurt, the background ache in his side starting to come alive as it realized he wasn't taking it easy any longer. Nathan would have a fit, but then, as JD had reminded Mary, Nathan wasn't there. No one was, but him.

And Buck needed him.

JD was trying hard not to think about that part, about what had happened to his best friend. It shook him far worse than any gunshot wound could have. What would he do without Buck?

No, he wouldn't go down that path. Buck had just been thrown, had probably already started on the long walk back to town, and JD would just go take him his horse. He'd tease his friend mercilessly about it, they'd have a good laugh, and be home by suppertime. If he let himself think the worst, he would probably start bawling like a baby, and what good would he do anyone then?

Mary had come up behind him just in time to see him fumbling with the blanket. "JD, look at yourself. You can barely saddle your horse, let alone ride. Your body needs time to heal. The others will be back soon--wait for them."

His hands were already slick with sweat and JD couldn't argue her assessment of him even though it made him flinch, but there was one thing he knew he was right about. He turned to look at her, on the edge of desperation.

"I can't. Buck might not have the time. Chris and the others won't be back before nightfall, which means Buck would be out there all night, alone and probably . . . needing help." It was the closest he could come to an admission of what shape he might find Buck in. Desperation turned to pleading. "I have to go, Mary. He'd do the same for me." Buck already had, in fact, somehow always managing to be there when JD needed help. How could he turn his back on that, on his best friend?

Mary bit her lip, then smiled soberly, putting her hand on his. "I understand. Here, let me help you." And with quick, economical motions she reached past him and finished saddling the horse. Then with a blush and a smile, she reached for his hand.

Oh, Lord, she was going to help him mount. A woman. Buck would never let him live it down.

The reminder of his friend was all he needed. Setting his jaw against what was sure to be an unpleasant experience, JD took the offered hand and, with Mary's boost, managed to get up on his horse.

It took a few seconds before he was ready to attempt breathing again. Well, that wasn't . . . unbearable. As long as he didn't have to get off the horse again, he might even survive this. JD swallowed a groan. He probably was crazy to try it.

Mary was watching him a little too closely. "Are you sure about this? Maybe I could find a few volunteers in the town. . ."

For all they had done for Four Corners, the townspeople still weren't quite sure about them sometimes, JD was well aware. He could easily imagine a search party giving up before too long, wasting precious time. He shook his head. "I'll be all right. Send the others out in the morning if we're not back by then."

He didn't give Mary a chance to argue, leading the horse out of the stall and to the stable door, where he claimed the reins of Buck's horse.

"JD, wait!" Mary called out. "Let me pack some food and supplies--you'll probably need them." And she rushed off, skirt lifted as she ran down the street toward her office.

Of course, supplies. They would need food and water at the very least, and maybe some bandages. JD could have smacked himself for not thinking of that on his own--he really was pretty useless. No wonder Buck had been finding excuses to be elsewhere.

JD flinched. Where had that come from? Buck wasn't disappointed in him . . . he didn't think. Actually, he didn't feel sure of a whole lot at the moment, except the need to go find his missing friend. Thinking could wait until after Buck was safe.

JD stared impatiently up the street, trying to hurry Mary as the horse danced under him in anticipation. At least his side had settled into a quiet throb. He could do this.

Mary was breathless when she returned, handing over a bulging saddlebag with a worried smile. "Take care of yourself," was all she said, and JD just tipped his hat, then turned and rode off.

Or tried to. He wasn't quite ready for a gallop, it seemed, and JD slowed his horse down to a lope with some chagrin. Well, at least he probably didn't have far to go. Buck had said he would be riding north that day to check out a few clearings rustlers were known to set up their camps in sometimes, an area JD luckily knew pretty well. It was only about an hour's ride or so out of town, shorter at a gallop, but this would have to do. It was still a lot sooner than if he had waited for the other five to return.

Unfortunately, it still gave him far too much time to think and worry.

The first mission they had rode on together, he had saved Buck's life, only to have the older man knock him off his feet for endangering him by "waving his gun around." It hadn't stopped Wilmington later from shoving JD out of the way and taking a serious sword blow in his place. It had been a strange start to the closest friendship JD had ever known. Buck had risked his life more than once since then for JD's sake, while the younger man worked on learning what he needed to know to return the favor. His friend had sat with him while he recovered from a stab wound, cheered him when he was in pain from a bad beating, stood with him when he had accidentally shot Annie Neuhaus, even when the town turned against him. And Buck had been the one to get JD to help when Mattie had shot him.

Of course, after that, he had all but disappeared. But still, Buck had always been there for him when he needed it. It was only fair he try to do the same.

JD's vision blurred momentarily, no doubt from the strain of riding. It was only fair? Who was he kidding? Yeah, Buck's behavior bothered him, a lot, making him wonder what he'd done wrong and if Buck thought less of him for letting himself get shot like that. But that wasn't what was twisting his gut into a tangle, or chasing the thoughts around in his head like a prairie windstorm. He was scared. Buck could be dead, and the possibility drove the wind out of his lungs. JD could forgive Buck anything as long as the idiot was alive to forgive.

Oh, God, please.

The town was long out of sight behind him, and JD started examining the ground as he went. He was no tracker like Vin, but off the beaten path, maybe he could make out the hoof prints of Buck's running horse. It would save some time searching all the northern clearings. There was nothing there he could see, but he continued to look.

And almost missed Buck in the intensity of his search.

A glance up at one point revealed the familiar sight of copses of scraggly trees, lots of grass, the occasional shrubbery. And, in the distance, what looked like a dark lump lying on the ground. Or perhaps the figure of a man.

JD spurred his horse on with disregard for what his body thought of the bouncing around. It had to be, he could feel it. He prayed hard it would be.

It was Buck.

JD rode the last few feet with his heart in his throat, able to see now the form of his friend lying awkwardly on his stomach, one arm beneath him and legs bent, face turned away from JD, and very still. There was no blood that he could see--yet--but there was still cause for deep alarm, and JD felt it right down to his boots. He was already calling Buck's name as he pulled his horse to a stop and slid off, nearly sliding all the way to the ground as his legs refused to support him, but JD locked his knees and just as stubbornly refused to cave in. It took a few more precious seconds to tie the two horses to the nearest tree, seconds in which he was too aware that Buck hadn't stirred or answered him. And then he was sinking to Buck's side, utterly terrified by what he might find.

There was some blood, he saw now that he was closer, staining the grass by Buck's head and his shirt collar. It seemed to be coming from the back of his head, and JD felt carefully for the spot even as he rested a hand on Wilmington's back. And felt him breathe, slow and easy.

JD started breathing, too.

With shaking fingers, he found the stiffened, blood-encrusted lump behind Buck's ear, just out of sight. He had hit his head, then, probably thrown from his horse as JD had guessed. Nathan had warned him once about moving someone who had been thrown or had a fall, and JD reluctantly withdrew, leaning down carefully, painfully, so his face was on the same level as the injured man's.

"Buck?" he said softly.

The reaction was far more dramatic than he had hoped for, or expected. Buck's eyes snapped open, his head lurching up off the ground. And then, with a groan, dropping back down, his eyes wincing shut once more.

"Buck?" JD tried again more cautiously, his hand returning to Buck's back again to try to stifle any other unwary moves. "Can you hear me?"

"Ain't you got no respect for the dead, kid?" Buck whispered hoarsely, eyes still shut.

Normally the words would have made him laugh, but they hit a little too close to home this time. JD gave Buck's back a light pat. "Buck, c'mon, wake up," he ordered, his voice a little shaky, too.

One blue eye opened, frowning as it took in the ground inches away. Then it looked up at JD and the frown deepened. The other eye opened. "You look like hell, JD," Buck said bluntly.

JD managed a weak smile. "I've seen you lookin' better, too."

Another puzzled glance at the ground and their surroundings, and Buck stirred, trying to push up with hands and knees. He didn't get far. A moan got past his gritted teeth as he slumped again, this time JD easing him back down.

"I don't think you're ready yet for that, Buck. Just take it easy--let's make sure you're okay."

"I'm fine," Buck murmured, pale skin now tinged with green. "What happened?" He was back to one open eye, staring at JD as if he couldn't quite see him clearly.

JD was busy feeling along limbs, looking for other injuries. Nothing felt broken or wrong, but what did he know? Far more reassuring was the fact Buck seemed to be moving easily. Absently, he answered, "I was sorta hoping you could tell me."

"Where are we?" Buck finally got his breath back and, with typical Wilmington stubbornness, tried to rise again. He managed to make it to his hands and knees, shaking off JD's attempt to keep him flat, only to give a heartfelt groan and start to retch.

JD sighed and made a face, then awkwardly leaned forward to wrap an arm around Buck's middle so he wouldn't tip over. He knew about nausea and head injuries from his own experience, and knew that all you could do was ride it out.

Buck was finally finished and sagged abruptly, pulling at JD's side. He grunted as he took the weight, then manhandled Wilmington away from the mess. So much for not shifting him, but the older man seemed to be moving well, no sign of a broken back or neck. Just one hellacious wallop to the head. Just.

It took all JD had to get Buck flat on his back a few feet away, then he had to catch his breath, a hand pressed hard against his burning side before he could muster the strength to get back on his feet. Oh, yeah, they were in great shape. He staggered over to his own horse, pulling off the full saddlebag, and returned to Buck.

Wilmington was back to just being white, one arm draped over his eyes as his panting slowed into a more normal rhythm. "Sorry, kid," he muttered without looking up on JD's return.

JD shrugged, realized it wouldn't be seen, and said softly, "I threw up on you once, too, 'member?"

Buck's forehead creased, then he laughed, feebly. "Yeah--at the Indian village, after you got drunk. Not something a man forgets. I hardly knew you then, too." He snorted. "You make a heck of a first impression."

JD ignored that, busy unpacking the bag. Mary had thought of everything: food, water, a blanket, a roll of bandages, even a small flask of laudanum. JD debated that one, glancing at what he could see of Buck's pinched face, but seemed to recall something about Nathan not giving laudanum to someone with a head injury. Buck didn't seem to be suffering terribly, anyway. JD laid the flask aside and picked up the empty saddlebag instead, gently raising Buck's head and slipping the soft leather bag under it as a pillow.

Buck tightened up, mumbling a curse, but soon began to relax again, his arm slipping off his face so he could look at JD. "Would you tell me what we're doin' out here, and why I feel like I just spent the night at the saloon, without the good memories?"

JD slipped into a tired smile, spreading the blanket over Buck with a weary snap. "You were out here on patrol. I'm not sure what happened, but your horse came back to town without you."

"I don't remember." He frowned, but the missing time didn't seem to trouble him too much. Not like the thought that followed soon after. "An' you were the only one who came lookin' for me?"

JD couldn't tell if Buck was outraged or hurt by the thought, and opened his mouth to answer as Wilmington's eyes suddenly sharpened, staring hard at him.

"Wait a minute - you're not even s'posed to be on a horse yet. Chris is crazy, lettin' you-"

"Chris had nothin' to do with it," JD said stubbornly. "Everybody else was gone, out answerin' a call for help. It was me or nobody."

Buck's eyes softened. "That was a right stupid thing to do, kid. Coulda gotten yourself hurt again." But he said it quietly.

"Yeah, well, you always said I wasn't too bright." JD was starting to feel cross, pain gouging a hole in his side and everyone telling him he shouldn't have done what he knew he had to. He could feel Buck's gaze on him, his friend's unease with JD's terseness, but he didn't care all that much. He was tired and worried and still upset, and he had a lot to do before they settled in for the night because there was no way the two of them were mounting up for an hour-ride back to town that afternoon. One of the others could've probably done it, but not JD, not "the kid."

Wisely, Wilmington changed the subject. "So, what's the plan?" he asked around a yawn.

JD didn't miss that, or Buck's being so still, uncharacteristically content to just lie there. No doubt he was far more exhausted and hurting than he wanted to let on. They were definitely spending the night. He uncapped the canteen and turned back to the older man. "We make ourselves comfortable 'til morning. You want some water?"

"I prefer whiskey," Buck said with humor, but he drank eagerly when the younger man held the container to his mouth. JD was a little sorry when he had to stop Buck, but neither of them were up for the man's stomach turning again.

Even drinking seemed to wear the older man out, and he yawned again, watching sleepily as JD set up camp, gathering wood and clearing a space for a fire, starting one and then seeing to the horses, fixing food. He looked ill at the very sight of it and JD ate alone, offering Buck another drink when he was finished. He checked Buck's head again, glad to see no fresh bleeding, and decided against bandaging it. Nathan could do it the next day if it was necessary.

Night was beginning to fall and JD rolled out his own blanket a few paces from Buck, settling on it with a grateful sigh.

Wilmington hadn't succumbed to sleep yet, alternately staring at the fire and staring at JD, while the younger man pretended not to notice. The last thing he needed that night was an emotional workout on top of the physical one.

Apparently Buck didn't feel the same way. "What's eatin' at ya, JD?" he asked, slightly slurring the words in fatigue.

"I could ask you the same thing," JD answered guardedly. "If you hadn't insisted on going out on patrol alone, this wouldn't have happened."

"Had some things to work through." Buck's voice was the very soft one he used when he was being completely serious.

"Yeah, well, me, too." JD didn't know why he was being so difficult, when a few hours back he would have given all he owned just to have another conversation with his friend. But now, maybe it was just the weariness talking, or maybe it was fear coming out as anger, but he felt raw and irritable.

Buck never had paid attention to his back-off warnings. He shifted slightly with a fleeting grimace, so he could better see JD. "Okay, if you wanna know . . . I'm still feelin' kinda guilty."

JD started. That wasn't what he had expected. Hostility easing back, he looked curiously at Buck. "Guilty about what?"

"You gettin' shot. I was the one who told you t' stay with the girls." He snorted. "I thought they needed protectin'."

"Well, I didn't exactly see it comin', either," JD allowed.

"I know. But I was the one who told you t' stay. I almost got you killed."

JD shook his head, frustrated. "You were tryin' to protect me--I know that, Buck. It wasn't your fault Mattie was crazy."

A long silence. "I 'preciate that. But what a man knows and what he feels ain't always the same thing. It'll take me a while 'fore I can forgive myself."

JD knew all about forgiving yourself. It had taken him a long time to do so after Annie had died. "I can understand that," he said slowly. "Just as long as you know I don't hold it against ya."

"Thanks." It was heartfelt. Another silence, then, "So, what's botherin' you?"

JD winced. He really didn't want to do this here, in the middle of nowhere, so tired he could barely see straight and with Buck sounding ready to drop off in the middle of his next sentence. "It's not important," he hedged.

Buck yawned again, then gave him a knowing half-smile. "Tell me another one, kid."

He needed sleep badly, JD tried to tell himself; they both did. Maybe in the morning they could talk, when they were both fresher. But even as he opened his mouth to say as much, the memory of the ride out there intruded, the panic and hope and fear. What he wouldn't have given then for one last conversation. He hadn't been thinking about unburdening himself then, too worried about Buck to even remember his own problems, but now, with an open invitation and no one else around to hear, and it being on Buck's mind . . . Maybe he was being a fool not to speak up while he had the chance.

"I don't get it," JD blurted out. "How could she do that? And she just rode off after, left me there to die. She said she'd liked me, Buck. It doesn't make sense."

Buck's eyes had cleared, his fatigue only evident now in the lines of his face as he looked at JD intently. "Sometimes it doesn't, JD. Mattie was . . . well, she had a hard life. Kate told me she found her ma after the woman had hung herself, when Mattie was just a little kid. Thing like that messes up a person."

"That's not an excuse," JD argued, eyes hot and his throat closed.

"No. No, it ain't. But it's the best reason I got."

JD pulled his head in, shrinking into his coat, suddenly cold. How was he supposed to make sense of it if it didn't make sense?

Buck's expression softened. "Don't try to figure it out, kid. Mattie's gone, you're still alive. T'ain't smart to argue with God about miracles."

JD uncurled a little - was that how Buck looked at it, a miracle? It didn't exactly sound like disappointment. Nor did Buck's guilt at his getting shot. Then again, this was the man who had spent hours at his bedside when he was so ill, according to Nathan. "I'm sorry," he finally said in a small voice, then added helplessly, "It's just . . . hard."

"I know," was all Buck answered, but he said it with a gentleness and understanding that made JD's eyes sting. Maybe it didn't have to make sense, maybe he could just be glad he was alive. And that there were those who cared that he was.

"Thanks," JD said softly. "I just-- Buck?"

The older man's eyes had crept shut. They struggled to open when JD called to him, but he was clearly wrung out.

JD shook his head, almost smiling. "Never mind," he whispered. "Go to sleep."

Buck didn't need a second offer, snoring within a minute. JD sighed deeply, feeling lighter than he had since, well, since the Stokes sisters had come to town. And also incredibly tired.

One more glance at Buck, just for his own peace of mind, and he couldn't help but notice Wilmington's color was finally getting better, no longer that awful pallor as when JD had found him. He looked asleep rather than half-dead, like someone who was mending, and comfortable. A closer examination revealed he was slightly shivering, and after thinking a moment, JD got up and dragged his blanket to Wilmington's other side, lying down so he was back-to-back with the injured man. Body heat would do more good than the fire, and sure enough, he soon felt Buck stop shivering and relax.

So much for being useless and alone. It wasn't the way JD would have chosen, but he couldn't think of a more potent lesson. Nor was he hardheaded enough to miss it, despite Buck's frequent teasing to the contrary.

JD was asleep before he could think any further than that, a smile still on his lips.

+ + + + + + +

Morning found them both sore and stiff, but Buck was looking more like himself, even able to shakily stand and go take care of some business behind a tree. True, he came back drenched with sweat and needing to sit down, but JD figured they could make it to town okay if they took it easy. And skipped breakfast; Buck still looking a little queasy, just having some water.

If Buck had noticed the sleeping arrangements, he hadn't said anything, and neither of them brought up the night before. Whatever it was in the dark that had loosened their tongues was gone now with the light. But JD hadn't forgotten, and he doubted Buck had, either.

They packed as quickly as possible, or at least JD packed and Buck watched, then they carefully got on their horses like doddering old men and set off back toward town.

Five riders appeared in the distance before they had even gone halfway, riding at a gallop, and JD couldn't help a grin at the sight. He had known the others would come looking for them, but actually seeing the proof warmed him. Buck also seemed encouraged by the sight, and they slightly sped their pace to cover the distance between them.

The others looked equally relieved as they finally pulled up in front of them, Nathan immediately edging over next to Buck.

"Well, well, if it isn't our two lost sheep," Ezra drawled.

"What happened to you, Bucklin?" Chris asked by way of greeting, half-amused, half-concerned.

"I think I got thrown--somethin' musta spooked the old girl." Buck looked weary and wan, but he grinned gamely. Chris grinned back at him.

"You hurt anywhere else?" Nathan asked, already having leaned in to examine Buck's head.

"You think you can ride?" Vin added calmly from next to Chris.

Buck had never liked fussing. "I'm all right, I'm all right, just banged my head. JD fixed me up just fine."

Five pairs of eyes turned to him, and JD squirmed uncomfortably. Here it came, another lecture on how he was still supposed to be taking it easy and not riding.

But Chris didn't say a word, just nodded approvingly. "Good job." Vin and Josiah's grins echoed the praise, and even Nathan didn't look too put off at having his directions ignored.

Well . . . how about that?

Nathan and Josiah moved to flank Buck, to keep an eye on him the rest of the way, and Chris, Vin, and Ezra fell in next to JD. Adjusting their pace to Buck's wounded gait, they set off for home.

"How's he doing?" Chris quietly asked JD, leaning slightly in toward him.

"Better. He was out cold when I found him yesterday. He, uh, threw up some, then went to sleep after I gave him some water. But he was able to stand on his own today."

Chris nodded. "And how're you doing?"

JD blinked, surprised to be asked. He had almost forgotten about his own injury, he was so used to the quiet throbbing. "Better 'n he is," he answered wryly.

Larabee's too-perceptive eyes studied him. "I've seen both of you lookin' better. But it's a good thing you went after him - he might not've made it out there before we got to him."

It seemed all he was inclined to say, but if Chris said it, it was probably true, and both that fact and the unspoken praise warmed JD. There was a time when it would have puffed him with pride, but now he was just profoundly, quietly glad.

His gaze on Buck Wilmington, stooped but alive, JD let himself be led the rest of the way to town.

+ + + + + + +

Back at Four Corners, it didn't take long for Nathan to whisk Buck away for a thorough examination, after sternly telling JD he was to sit down somewhere and rest until he could be looked at, too. Ezra had taken it upon himself to make sure JD was settled back on the saloon porch, in his former seat, a blanket once more on his lap, before the gambler went inside. No doubt looking for a game.

That was where Vin found JD some time later. "Nathan says he's ready to prod and poke ya now," he said, grinning.

"So Buck's okay?" JD asked hesitantly. He hadn't been that worried until Vin showed up, but the peace was still fresh and easily disturbed.

"Sleeping like a log, but he'll be fine." Vin took the seat next to him, still moving gingerly himself, and glanced over at JD. "How're you doing, kid?"

Taken aback again by the concern for him, JD considered the question. He ached from exertion his body hadn't been ready for, felt like he could easily sleep for a week, and would probably be stuck on that porch for at least as long. But he smiled as he looked at Vin. "I'm all right," he said sincerely.

Vin smiled back. "Good. Ya scared us there for a while."

JD felt his cheeks redden and started an intent examination of the planks under his chair, but it was hard to deny how much the simple statement touched him. He couldn't imagine anymore how he could have felt useless. No matter what, he had a place there, and an important role to play.

He was saved from an answer as Vin stood. "Oh, and 'fore he went to sleep, Buck said to tell ya, 'thanks'." He gave a friendly nod before disappearing into the saloon, leaving a beaming JD Dunne behind him.

And sometimes, that role was simply "friend."