Main characters: JD, Buck & Chris & Nathan
Originally published in Legends of the Magnificent Seven 6 (2005, Demon Bunny Press).
It never got old.
JD Dunne rode into the town with the excitement that still accompanied seeing a new place, a new edge of the frontier, and the rough mining town of Desert Springs certainly qualified. He'd learned to corral the excitement, keep it hidden from the teasing wit of Buck or the quiet amusement of some of the others of the Seven, but it had never completely left. This was the West of his childhood fantasies.
If a little dirtier and smellier, JD wrinkled his nose as he passed the first row of squalid tents that made up the outskirts of the town. Red lights were burning in front of several, marking "houses" of prostitution, and the tidiest structures in sight seemed to be the occasional outhouses visible behind them. The unsung side of the West, it hadn't taken him too long to discover, and yet his enthusiasm hadn't waned. This was still the adventure he'd always wanted to live.
Few looked up at the new arrival, no doubt used to a steady stream of local miners in and out of the town. Strangers were barely given a second glance. It was surprising a town like that would even have regular law, let alone one competent enough to find and catch a wanted man passing through, but then, Four Corners didn't look like a town with seven peacekeepers guarding it, either. Just went to show how much looks were deceiving.
But he was there to work, not look around, and JD turned his attention to finding the sheriff's office.
Nothing. At least, nothing obvious. None of the series of lean-tos and bigger tents in the center of town seemed large or strong enough to hold a jail, and none had signs to identify them, except for the saloon. JD nearly passed through the other end of the small town before he realized it, and turned his horse around to try again.
Nope. The town didn't seem too worried about orienting newcomers, and the regulars would already know what was where. JD gave a mental shrug and stopped in front of the saloon instead. As different as Western towns were, one of the few constants was the central role saloons played. Any bartender worth his job would know everything going on in his town.
As befitting the rough-hewn community, the saloon was dark and dirty. Filthy miners just off their claims drank rotgut at tottering tables and admired heavily painted, barely dressed saloon girls. Men packed the bar that lined one side of the room, and the bartender didn't even bother cleaning glasses between customers, reusing them as fast as they were emptied. JD hid a grimace. As wild as he liked his West, he couldn't help be glad Four Corners was a little more civilized than this quick-and-dirty little town.
Well, the sooner he got started, the sooner he could leave. Straightening to his full almost-imposing height, he nudged his way through the throng to the bar and waited for the bartender to reach him.
The man, just as unkempt as his customers, was already pouring JD a drinkapparently everyone drank the same belly warmer therewhen the young sheriff put his hand out to stop him.
"Actually, I'm just looking for the sheriff."
Small eyes squinted at him, noticing him for the first time. "He ain't here," the bartender said shortly.
"Uh, well, could you tell me where I could find him?"
The bartender stared at him in suspicious silence.
JD forced a smile. "My name's JD DunneI'm the sheriff in Four Corners. I was sent by the circuit judge to pick up some evidence against someone we got locked upyour sheriff caught his partner."
The small eyes narrowed.
JD's smile faltered. "Uh, I don't wanna keep youcould you just tell me which one's the sheriff's office?"
"Evidence," the bartender finally said.
"That's right," JD brightened. "Some fake deeds and maps"
"Jim!" The holler was directed at one of the nearby tables, and JD turned, hoping to find the town's lawman approaching. Instead, a large, dark man with an eye patch and an air of menaceand no sign of a badgerose and coldly elbowed his way toward the bar. The bartender waited until he was in hearing distance, then jerked his head toward JD. "Look who showed up."
The newcomer, at least Buck's height if not more, stared hard enough at JD to make him self-conscious. He couldn't even manage a smile at that intimidating gaze.
Nor did it help when the corners of Jim's mouth suddenly turned up in a smile that sent a shiver down JD's back. "Kurkul."
"Excuse me?" JD asked, confused. How did he know about the man they had locked up back in Four Corners?
"Says he's here for the deeds an' stuff the sheriff got from his partner," the bartender said.
"Is that right?"
"No," JD was shaking his head. "Not my partnerthe partner of the guy we got locked up in Four CornersKurkul. The circuit judge's gonna be in town for the trial soon and he sent me"
"And you thought we'd just hand it over to you, Kurkul?" Jim leered.
He didn't quite understand what was going on, but it was obvious it wasn't something good. "I think you've got things confused, Mister. Look, I'll just go find the sheriff's office myself, okay?" JD stepped back from the bar, and Jim's and the bartender's steel glare.
And into the broad chest of another man. A glance up at the face above him revealed him to be one of Jim's drinking partners.
Definitely not good.
JD's hand strayed nervously to his gun. "I don't know why you think I'm
"Think we were born yesterday, Kurkul?" Jim moved toward him. One more step and JD would be effectively pinned between him and his friend.
Jim started taking that last step.
The time for talking was over, had probably been over as soon as the bartender had looked at him. However they knew Kurkul, he clearly wasn't popular around there, and with at least three against one, it didn't seem likely JD was going to straighten them out about the mistaken identity any time soon. Buck had said more than once there was no shame in running from an unfair fight.
JD immediately broke to the right, away from the bar and the two men, toward the saloon door.
There was a growl behind him, followed by a string of curses. JD didn't wait to see who the speakers were, just ducked low and dashed out the door. His horse looked up in lazy surprise at the sight of him.
JD jumped over the hitching post in one leap, snagging the reins as he did and yanking them off with one tug. Another trick he'd learned from Buck, but there was no time to think about that as he swung himself up in his saddle in one fluid motion.
A large shape hurtled through the saloon door after him.
He wasn't going to linger to say any good-byes. Whipping his mount around, JD rode for the edge of town. The sound of shots finally rang behind him, and he ducked lower as he rode.
The punch in his back, near his hip, didn't hurt, not yet, but it told him he hadn't quite made it.
How had things gone all wrong? This was supposed to be an easy errand, not even worth two of them going, just a quick trip to pick up some documents. Even Chris hadn't had any reservations about him going alone, although Buck hadn't liked it.
You were right, Buckagain. Something warm and wet trickled along his tailbone. I sure wouldn't mind if you showed up now to say "I told you so."
There was the distant sound of hoofs and cries, and the first streak of pain shot up his side.
JD ignored it all, just bent over the neck of his horse and raced on for dear life.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington sat lazily on the porch of the saloon and watched the passersby, especially the pretty ones. One or two paused to smile at him, and he smiled back but didn't pursue it any further. It was hot, he was tired, and yeah, okay, a little restless without JD there.
Not that he needed the kid around to have fun; Buck usually preferred a different kind of companion for that. But the kid was a good accompaniment the rest of the time, and could usually turn boredom into a pleasant kind of contentment Buck wasn't used to. Without it now, he felt fidgety, almost uneasy.
No, Buck corrected himself, JD's whereabouts made him uneasy. Chris had been right, it had been just a milk run to the neighboring mining settlement to pick up some documents, certainly not a trip that needed two men. But a lot could happen in between two towns out in the West, or even in a town as raw as Desert Springs. A man, no matter how able and sure of himself, could still easily end up outnumbered and in over his head. Which was probably why Buck would be sitting in that chair, waiting for JD to appear on the horizon, until the kid arrived sometime that evening.
God help him, he'd turned into a mother, Buck thought with a rueful grin.
The batwing doors behind him swung open, and Buck could already tell from the sound of the spurs and the lingering smell of smoke who it was who'd come out. Chris Larabee stopped just behind him, also scanning the street with misleading disinterest.
"You worried about him?" came the calm question after a long minute of silence.
"Me? Naw. Just admiring the scenery," Buck grinned. Miss Patty came out of Mary Travis's office, gave him a beguiling smile, and walked slowly in the opposite direction. Even Chris was admiring the view.
"He's not a kid anymore, Buck."
Buck leaned his head back to glance up at his friend. "Shoot, Chris, none of us are. Doesn't stop any of us from gettin' into trouble." He didn't figure he had to bring up the prison the six of them had liberated Chris from a little while back.
From the stiffness in Chris's voice, he'd thought of it, too. "You think he's in trouble?"
"Don't have any reason to," Buck didn't quite lie.
Chris didn't answer, but Buck could almost hear his old friend thinking.
Things had changed between them. Once best friends, then painful reminders of a past neither of them could forget, they'd finally both found healing in their own way in that small town. Chriss had been in the form of a rugged tracker who could offer him a friendship without the burden of memories Buck's presence inevitably brought. And Buck had found someone else to look after whose innocence and joy was a real refreshment after Chris's darkness. In a way, the new ties had salvaged the one between them, and they could be friends again without the destructive pulls of need and pain.
Buck had gotten a lot more from that "kid" than JD ever would from him.
The door of the telegraph office across the street opened, and freckle-faced Martin, the kid who delivered messages for the telegraph operator, stepped out, frowning first at the piece of paper in his hand, then up and down the street. His gaze lighting on them, Martin's face cleared and he hurried toward the saloon porch.
"Maybe this'll smooth some of your ruffled feathers," Chris said with a trace of humor, and stepped forward to intercept Martin. A coin earned him a smile from the kid, and he crossed back a moment later to Buck with the telegram in his hand. Frowning.
"'S it from JD?" Buck asked, not liking that look.
"Sheriff of Desert Springs," Chris answered. "He's wondering when our man's gonna get there. Says they already had a fella try to con the deeds from them."
Buck's jaw tightened, his gut feeling curiously hollow. "JD shoulda been there by now."
"Yup." Chris looked up at him, eyes dark. He felt it, too. "What do you think about this other guy?"
Buck climbed to his feet and evenly met Larabee's gaze. "You think there was more to the gang? An' maybe they caught up with JD?"
"Had no reason to do that," Chris reminded him.
"Unless they were just gettin' revenge for us locking up one of their boys and the Desert Springs sheriff shooting another one."
Chris's mouth thinned. "Big 'if', Buck. I'm gonna wire the sheriff, see what else he can tell me about this third partner an' if he's seen anyone that looks like JD."
"Chris, I wanna head out."
The leader of the Seven didn't need to ask him where. "Should have an answer in an hourit'll give us more to go on," was all he said.
Buck shook his head. "Something ain't right about all thisif JD needs help, I don't want to wait. We can meet up in Desert Springs."
But he didn't move, waiting for Chris's answer. A no wouldn't stop him, but he still preferred his friend's blessing. Besides, Chris Larabee had turned out to be a darn fine leader those last two years. Buck respected his judgment, even as his own gut knew unequivocally he had to go, soon.
Chris nodded, a hint of worry lurking in the green eyes where few would have seen it.
"Desert Springs, then. If I don't send word, I'll be there by nightfall with Vin and Nathan."
Vin to track, and Nathan to tend. They were already planning for the worst. Buck nodded sharply, and strode down the saloon steps toward the stable. The worst wasn't going to happen if he had any say.
The ride to Desert Springs was usually several hours. Buck pushed his horse as much as he dared and made it in just over two. The farther he got without any sign of JD, the more he hurried.
Wilmington had been to Desert Springs before, but they'd been unmemorable visits. The men were barely civilized, the women trapped and empty-eyed. It wasn't the kind of place he cared to stay any length of time in.
But none of that mattered now as his eyes passed over the inhabitants and dwellings of the shanty town, looking for one particular face, a bowler hat, a familiar brown horse. And anyone who was watching him as carefully as he was watching them. But there was nothing of the former and plenty of the latter.
The sheriff's office, if Buck remembered correctly, was an unremarkable lean-to three doors down from the saloon, and Wilmington went straight there. He didn't bother knocking.
The sheriff, a heavyset man with unusually intelligent eyes, gave Buck a hard look as Wilmington came inside. His hand rested on his gun but he made no move to rise, letting Buck take the lead.
"Name's Buck WilmingtonI'm here from Four Corners."
The sheriff's posture didn't change. "You got any proof of that?"
Buck moved slowly, non-threateningly, pulling out the voucher they all had from the judge for official business.
The sheriff studied it a minute, then nodded, tension easing a fraction. "Here for the documentsI was expecting you earlier today."
"That's why I'm herefriend of mine's the sheriff in Four Corners. He came out this morning to pick up the deeds. You know anything about that?"
The sheriff's eyebrows went up in what looked like genuine surprise. "Fella named Larabee telegraphed me earlier mentioned him, too. Never saw him, and I asked around and no one remembers him. What's he look like?"
"Young, 'bout up to here," Buck sketched a line at his chin. "Dark hair, wears Eastern clothes, suits and those funny hats..." He trailed off.
The sheriff was frowning, and it wasn't in lack of recognition.
"You know something," Buck growled, not questioning.
"Maybe." The sheriff nodded with obvious reluctance. "Fella you describe sounds just like the one that showed up this morning. And the one we've got a poster on from working with Hillman I shot last weekby the name of Kurkul. Few of the townsfolk thought they recognized him and chased him out of town."
Buck had never made the connection, but Kurkul did bear a passing resemblance to JD, down to his Eastern-made suits. He could see how the two men would be confused, but not why a few questions hadn't cleared the matter up. And if they still thought JD was Kurkul
Buck took a step toward the man, face darkening and voice growing dangerously quiet.
"We got Wendell Kurkul locked up in our jail. Whoever your rabble was chasing, it wasn't him, it was our sheriff and my friend. So you want to tell me now what happened here today, or do I have to go find out myself?"
The sheriff swallowed.
Five minutes later, Buck rushed out of the building and jumped on his horse. The sheriff said he'd already told Chris what he'd just shared with Buck, so help would be on the way soon. But Buck wasn't wasting any more time waiting, and he quickly turned toward the eastern end of town, the way JD had reportedly headed hours earlier, a posse on his heels, shooting at him. Buck only hoped they were as lousy shots as they were judges of character.
But knowing JD's knack for getting into trouble, he wasn't counting on it.
Praying as he rode, Buck spurred his horse to go a little faster.
+ + + + + + +
By the time he'd sent the telegraph off, Chris came out of the office just in time to see Buck ride out of town. His canter turned into a gallop when he reached the town's edge, and he was soon out of sight down the road. Chris shook his head. He knew Buck was worried, and a knot of concern had settled in Chris's own stomach in the last ten minutes, but he was still hoping they were both just being old women.
Still, he stayed close, walking the few steps to the pillar in front of the telegraph office and leaning with deliberate casualness against it. He might as well wait there for an answer.
It took nearly an hour before he had it. Chris felt his expression harden as he read, then he stuffed the piece of paper in his pocket and strode with long steps toward the saloon. With any luck, he'd find Nate and Vin both there that time of day.
Vin was leaning against the bar, nursing a drink as he watched Ezra play poker with Josiah at his favorite table against the wall. As the gambler caught sight of him, Chris saw him nudge Sanchez, and the two of them abandoned their game, Ezra pausing only long enough to sweep up the cards before rising to join him. Vin's eyes had sharpened, knowing something was up, but he was waiting for Chris.
Larabee didn't disappoint him. He moved to join the tracker by the bar, restraining his impatience long enough for the other two men to join him.
"Said he had some work to do in the clinic," Josiah answered, hooking his thumbs in his gunbelt.
The ex-preacher shook his head. "Don't think so."
"Ezra, when we're done, go get him, tell him to bring his bag and meet us in the stable. We're riding for Desert Springs."
"Is Mr. Dunne in trouble?" Ezra asked, voice casual, eyes intent.
"Probably. Just heard from the sheriff in Desert Springshe doesn't know about JD, but says somebody matching JD's description was chased out of town earlier in the day by a posse who thought he was Kurkul."
Anger and worry flitted across the faces of each of the three men, followed by hard determination.
"Buck?" Vin asked.
"Rode out an hour ago for Desert Springs. I told him we'd meet him there if the news didn't sound good. Vin, I want you and Nathan to go with memight need you to track down JD." If the posse hadn't already found him; Chris didn't need to add what they were all thinking, or why Nathan was coming with them. "Ezra and Josiah, you'll stay here to keep an eye on Kurkul and the town."
They were anxious to go, too, he could see it in them, but they both nodded, and Ezra hurried away without comment to get Nathan. They were a good group, and experience and time had honed them into a fine team. Chris didn't want to lose any of them.
Josiah also left to get them supplies, and Vin waited until he was gone to slip a step closer to Chris. "If JD's hurt an' Bucklin gets there before we do "
"I know," Chris said tersely. They might arrive just in time to clean up.
If JD was hurt. Chris wasn't a man with a lot of hope, but that was something else that had changed those last few years. He had every intention of bringing the young man back home alive.
Or maybe it was just self-preservation. It wasn't likely he'd survive intact another loss.
Ten minutes later, the three of them were riding for Desert Springs.
+ + + + + + +
Riding had never hurt so much.
Every jolt of his horse brought tears to JD's eyes until they streamed unchecked, blurring his vision. He'd have been embarrassed to be crying in other circumstances, but the burning, tearing in his back made that irrelevant. It had long eaten up everything but the need to hang on and keep going, riding on through the fire.
Then his fingers started to weaken.
JD fought it, trying to tighten them around the reins until his hand cramped, paradoxically so cold. But it was a doomed effort. He wouldn't be able to hang on much longer and he knew it, his seat already slipping like a green rider.
He blinked his eyes clear and looked for a place to stop.
The vegetation was sparse, trees scarce, but up ahead was a patch of high prairie grass. It wouldn't do much to hide a man, but maybe it would conceal his stop and dismount. And it was the only thing he could come up with, pain derailing the train of his thoughts at every turn.
JD didn't dare slow his horse too long or the tracks would be noticeably different to any halfway decent tracker. But he did ease the rein back a little, biting his lip at the deep hurt that flared at the motion. Surely even a moving dismount couldn't hurt a lot more than that excruciating burn.
He was wrong.
JD timed it as best he could, struggling to keep his vision clear as he gauged his landing. And at the right moment, just as they reached the thickest of the grass, he let go of the reins and threw himself clear of his horse. And landed on his back.
He must have blacked out because he awoke retching, the remains of his breakfast already on the ground next to him. JD pushed himself weakly away and curled around his damaged body, trying to push down the nausea and dizziness and battering agony.
The prairie grass was coarse on his skin, and tickled his face as he gasped in great shuddering breaths of air. JD buried his face in it, trying to concentrate on the feel of its rough edges, the whisper of the chilly blades against his hot skin, anything but the awful rending pain in his back.
Buck. That's who he wanted to think about. There was nothing lonelier than hurting alone, and while JD would have been delighted just then for the presence of any of the Seven, Buck was the one he really wanted there. The older man had a way of making everything seem manageable and all right. He probably could have shaken their pursuers and gotten them back to Four Corners without a scratch. Or at the least sat there and talked to him in that soothing, low voice he'd used when Maddie had shot JD.
He certainly wouldn't have just lain there and felt sorry for himself.
JD gritted his teeth and pushed himself up on weak arms, ignoring the pressure in his back that threatened to squeeze the air out of him. Still no sign of his pursuers, thank God, but they were there, he knew it. Which meant he had to get moving.
Rising to his feet took too long and more energy than he thought he had. He felt nearly as exhausted as he did hurt, and the soft sounds of pain he involuntarily made turned his stomach nearly as much as the motion. But he'd be damned before he'd just lie down and die.
JD stood unsteadily in the midst of endless terrain, and looked for a way out.
And found it in a rangy string of hills to the east.
High ground. He could almost hear Buck's voice. You got someone dogging your heels, you head for high ground. Easier to see anyone coming and to defend yourself.
"Yeah," JD muttered. "High ground. I know, Buck."
Wrapping an arm around his ribcage to support his heavy lungs and aching body, he staggered resolutely off for higher ground.
+ + + + + + +
Tracking was an art, and Buck Wilmington was no artist.
There had been little use looking for tracks until he was well outside the town; with the heavy traffic Desert Springs saw from miners and a few small local farmers, it was a miracle if there was a patch of ground smooth or soft enough to leave a print in.
It was only outside the town, where the road disappeared into any number of more lightly trod paths stretching in all directions, that Buck started to make out different impressions that told stories he couldn't read.
But one way stood out.
Northeast, straight toward Four Corners, the scrubby patches of grass was torn in a wide swath that couldn't have been mistaken for anything but a group of riders having gone that way at a fast clip. Any tracks they might have been following were obscured in the destruction they left behind, but how many groups rode out fast from a mining town that was usually home to loners? Not many, Buck wagered. He'd probably just found his posse.
He sped up again, heading in pursuit, one eye on the ground as he rode.
Of course, he couldn't follow the posse all the way. Assuming they were even able to keep on JD's trail, anyplace they reached he'd only reach hours later, and that would be hours too late. No, if he wanted to find JD before they did, he'd have to use the only advantage he had over the posse: he knew JD Dunne.
After a mile, the trail curved away from Four Corners, and Buck's eyes narrowed, wondering what had led JD to change course. If he'd gotten a good lead, he could have gained the town before the posse did, and would know his friends would back him against the pursuers. So either they were too close to outrun or he was hurt and not thinking too clearly.
Buck's face scrunched in worry but he didn't slow, following the trail.
Okay, if JD was hurt, what would he do? Well, if he was out of his head, there'd be no predicting him, but he'd managed to keep his saddle and stay ahead of the hounds, so chances were the wheels were still turning. So what would he look for? A way to either escape or to hide.
Escape would be hard for a lone, injured man. Out there in the wild, his tracks would be clear enough to lead anyone who was paying attention straight to him, and there was no river nor rocks nearby in which he could hide his trail. No, if JD was thinking at all, sooner or later he would realize he needed to hide, somewhere he could also defend himself if needed. And that meant
Buck abruptly pulled his horse up, turning quickly in all directions. Back in the direction of the town, there were some hills and highlands, but he couldn't see JD turning back toward the town that had tried to kill him, even if he was half out of his head. Which left a low strip of hills toward the north.
Buck studied the tracks again. They headed toward the northwest as far as he could see, gently curving away from the range. Following them would mean turning away from the hills. Then again, if he made for the hills and was wrong, he could end up a lot farther from JD and doom the kid for sure. There was nothing to indicate JD had ended up going in that direction, and if he was hurting, it might not even occur to him.
But something was pulling Buck in the direction of those hills. Maybe JD was young and more stubborn than was good for him, but he also listened when Buck taught him something, and he was smart. He would know high ground was his best chance and would head that way, Buck was sure of it.
He was staking JD's life on it.
Eyes blazing, Buck turned and headed away from the trail and toward the hills.
+ + + + + + +
They'd taken the road to Desert Springs as fast as was reasonable, but as they neared the town, Vin started to slow. Chris took his cue and motioned Nathan to do the same, keeping pace with the tracker, stopping once as Tanner got down to examine something on the ground.
"Maybe. 'Bout a dozen men, headed away from the town. Looks like they were in a hurry."
"A posse?" Chris hazarded a guess.
"Maybe." But Vin was still looking, taking small steps as he studied the tracks. And then suddenly he was springing up onto his horse, turning it back toward the way theyd come.
Chris didn't ask, just followed, and waited for the explanation.
He never had to wait long. "Found one of JD's tracks in the mess," Vin called over. The wind threatened to whip his words away, and Nathan rode up on Vin's other side to hear. "Recognize them fancy shoes he got his horse anywhere."
Chris urged his horse on.
Some time later they were slowing again, and even he could see the trail diverge ahead, the mass of trampled dirt heading one direction, a single rider the other. Vin got down again, but he didn't look long before he gave Chris a surprised look. "Think this one's Bucklin."
Chris frowned. "Why would Buck head off in a different direction than JD went?"
Vin's eyes traced the line of hoof prints. "Maybe he knows something we don't."
"Probably knows JD better 'an any of us," Nathan put in.
Vin nodded toward the hills that lay in the path of the lone trail. "If you were bein' followed, where would you head?"
Chris followed his gaze. "High ground."
Vin nodded again. "Wanna bet Buck taught him that?"
"No bet," Chris said shortly, and glanced along the posse's trail. Still "Vin, you and Nathan go after Buck. If he leads you to JD, you know what to do. I'm gonna follow the posse just in case they got there first."
Nathan looked like he was going to ask what Chris would do then, but one look from Chris and he closed his mouth again. Vin met Chriss eyes and exchanged a long glance: he understood. A nod of parting, and Tanner turned his horse toward the hills, Nathan reluctantly following behind.
Expression grim and eyes hard, Chris took off after the posse.
+ + + + + + +
JD rested his hot cheek against the cool rock and sighed. He felt like a used candle, burned down to nothing, a melted puddle of heat.
He'd sobbed his way up even the low hill he'd finally reached on foot, and fell more than climbed into a crevice between two rocks near the top. It was a tight fit, but it kept him from falling over on his face and concealed him while still giving him a view forward down the hill and back toward the path he'd used to get up there. He'd drawn his heavy gun, only able to manage one, rested it on his drawn-up knees, and briefly given in to blackness.
For better or for worse, however, the sharp stabs through his back hadn't let him rest long. He'd jolted awake to the sky just starting to turn the red and pink of sunset, and the certainty he was going to die there.
Funny, the tears wouldn't come. Maybe he'd cried them out in pain already, or maybe he was just dried out because he was so thirsty, his tongue thick and dry. Whatever the reason, they were gone, leaving him feeling hollow and heavy. No one would be rushing to his rescue that day, and he wouldn't be living out the night, between the cold and the posse. Wounded and defeated, JD huddled against the rock and prayed for it to happen fast.
And then thought of his mother.
She'd been so proud of his every achievement, and so determined he go to school and become a learned gentleman. It had been her one dream, and try as he might, he hadn't been able to fulfill it. And yet JD had the sense she would not have been disappointed by the turn his life had taken. Yes, the violence would have pained her, and she would have worried daily about him if she'd lived to see it. But helping others, protecting a town, earning an honest day's pay with those he trusted and admiredJD liked to think she would have been proud of that, too. Like Buck. She would have liked Buck.
Mouth curling faintly at the thought, JD raised his head and struggled to focus. No, he wasn't going to give up. He'd be ready when they came for him. It was time he got himself out of this mess and found his way home again.
He'd nearly fallen asleep when he heard the faint scratching.
It took a moment to separate the fever dreams from reality, but there it came again, too perfect a noise to be his imagination. The scratch of something against rocka boot, maybe?
JD tightened his grip on his gun and waited.
It came closer, although still soft. Someone was trying to be quiet and not succeeding. JD traced the sounds coming up the way he'd crawled, pressing his forehead against the rock to stifle a moan when another wash of pain swept through him, then listening again with dull attention to the scraping rattles.
Metal on rock now. Spurs. His head was heavy but he turned it back toward the way he'd come and blinked sweat out of his eyes, resting his gun on his knee to steady his aim.
A flicker of motion appeared, dark in the lengthening shadows.
JD pulled the trigger.
There was a yelp, but it sounded like surprise, not pain. He'd missed, a scrabble of sound telling him his pursuer had taken cover now.
JD tried to peer through the growing gloom, looking for any more movement, searching for a flash of out-of-place color. There was a murmur that could have been a voice, but he could barely hear it in the low buzz of his ears. At that rate, anyone could sneak up on him and he'd be a pinned rabbit.
Gathering strength he didn't think he had, JD pushed himself to his feet and fled.
And a moment later, somethingsomeonesnagged his arm.
He kicked out blindly, managing to free himself for a moment, and scrambled away again as fast as he could, but the unwary movement took its toll as pain lanced through his back again. His legs gave out, and with a gasp, JD was falling.
He was caught again, another grip on his arm, a second one curling around his side. He jerked to a stop, injured muscle contracting, and cried out breathlessly.
"Easy, son, easy."
What? Buck? His pain-stuffed head was hearing what he wanted to hear. It couldn't be Buck.
The arm around his side moved higher up, under his shoulder, then another moment of agonized stretching and he was eased down. Cold and hard under his legs, warmer and soft under his chest and cheek as he was leaned forward. The ease of his back helped, inching the pain slowly down from agony to merely awful. JD gulped, trying to gather his wits enough to figure out what was going on and what he was supposed to do about it.
"Relax, JD, I got ya."
Oh, God, it was Buck. JD couldn't fathom how, but a much deeper part of him than his pain-muddled thoughts knew that voice. Relief momentarily outshone the pain, and he tried to squint up. "Buck?" he whispered.
Worried, crinkled eyes appeared in his limited view. "The one and only. You're gonna be fine, JD, just relax and let ol' Buck take care of things for a little while."
JD dug his forehead into Buck's arm, stealing just one moment to collect himself. The smell of leather and sweat mixed with a hint of perfume would have made him smile in other circumstances. But he was still hurting too much for euphoria at Buck's arrival to last long, and the danger remained. "Buck they're coming " he croaked.
"It's okay, JD, I'm ready for them, you just relax, don't worry about a thing." Buck was moving, doing something JD couldn't figure out, but his one arm remained cinched around JD's shoulders. A canteen appeared at his mouth, and he drank thirstily until it was moved away. "Trust you to churn a milk run into butter," Wilmington scolded gently. His rough hand brushed over JD's head, then drifted down to rest lightly above the hole in his back. "Geez, kid, don't you ever do things halfway?"
Another knife of heat dug into his back, and he tried to arch away from it, trapped by Buck's arm. "Buck 't hurts."
"I know, JD. Try to ride it outit'll get better." Buck was still moving, trying to get him comfortable while checking his back.
Tears welled in JD's eyes again. Apparently he could still cry, and, stupidly embarrassed, he reached up to rub them away. " hurts " he murmured.
Hands stopped him, gently wiped the wetness away instead. "I know." Buck's voice was tight but soft. Just like when Maddie had
His back cramped and he could almost feel the torn muscle. JD gasped. He didn't think he's last the night, after all. " hurts."
His hair was smoothed out of his face. "I know. Get some sleep, JD." Something warm was slung over him, and he realized he was shivering just as it started to ease, as did the cramp. Buck inched him down onto his stomach on something soft, but his hand stayed on JD's shoulder, his hip against the younger man's stomach, a warm reminder he wasn't alone. JD curled against him.
He was so tired. But letting Buck take care of things was trust, not surrender. Not indefinitelyhe wasn't a kid anymorebut for right now it sounded nice he hurt and was so tired
+ + + + + + +
One time, he'd gotten sick on the trail going south with Chris. Buck had managed to hang on through the dusty and exhausting trip back to the Larabee homestead, but then had succumbed to a fever that kept him delirious and bed-ridden for days. Chris and Sarah had nursed him through it, but what he remembered clearly was waking up one morning, weak as a newborn calf, weary beyond words and warm for the first time in forever, to find three-year-old Adam Larabee cuddled up next to him in the bed. The boy had insisted on staying with his "Uncle Buck" as soon as the contagion passed, and fell asleep while keeping his watch. It was the first time he'd had some inkling of what a gift having a child was. Protector and protectee; Buck still remembered the mixed feeling, one of the most treasured memories of his life.
It was the same way he felt now, JD lying there next to him feverish and with a bullet lodged in his back. The kid had proved an able partner over those last few years, saving Buck's life more than a few times already, and could hold his own in most situations. Even now, he'd managed to evade a posse, hide out like Buck had taught him, then nearly shoot off Buck's ear before Wilmington had been able to catch him. And yet seeing him flushed and hurting like that made Buck feel every bit as protective of him as he had of little Adam.
And they all knew how that had turned out.
Buck sighed, patting JD's cheek before turning away to add more brush to the fire he was building.
Night had fallen while he'd gotten JD settled, the dark settling in quickly like it did in the West. If Chris hadn't left right away after hearing back from the Desert Springs sheriff, he probably wouldn't be getting there until the next morning. Tracks could easily be gone by then, blown or washed away, assuming Vin even figured out their story. If no one showed soon, Buck would have to dig that bullet out of JD's back himself, a proposition that scared him like few things had, then find some way of getting them both down the hill and back to Four Corners in the morning with one horse and JD so sick. Buck cursed softly into the small fire, falling silent only when he felt JD stir next to him, either from the sound or sensing his agitation.
"Rest easy, son," he murmured, gently squeezing Dunne's nearest shoulder. JD frowned in his sleep but did as he was told. Figured it would take being shot for the kid to listen to him.
The soft sound of a horse's snort jerked Buck's head up to peer into the darkness beyond the circle of the fire. He pulled his gun and slid over to put himself more squarely between JD and the path up the hill, and a little forward from the fire so he could see better in the dark.
Nothing for a long minute. And then, the unmistakable sound of boots approaching, sliding on rock and grass, at least two men.
Buck took careful aim at where the first head would appear.
Nathan. Buck instantly reholstered his gun, never so glad to hear the healer's voice. "Here, Nate," he called, trying to be loud enough to be heard without disturbing the sleeper behind him.
Vin's face became visible first, reflecting the light of the fire, then Nathan's formed out of the darkness. No Chris, though Buck strained to see, but he was grateful for what he could get. Both men grinned to see him, picking up their pace the last few steps up.
Buck didn't rise to meet them, just settled back down to where he'd sat by JD's side, bringing the kid into view of the others.
Nathan's expression grew serious, and he immediately ducked past Buck to JD's other side, already reaching for the patient. Vin hovered a step away, watching the scene.
"What happened?" Nathan asked tersely. He tore the back of JD's clothes and eased the fabric free of the wound. Buck winced as a trickle of fresh blood rolled down JD's back, and rested a hand on the glossy black hair as he made a sound of protest.
"Found him wedged in those rocks," he pointed. "Almost blew my head off when I got here. As near as I can figure, that idiot posse put a bullet in his back while he was trying to get out of town." Buck shook his head, half sorrow, half admiration. "I don't even know how he made it up here."
"Anything else I should know about besides the back?"
"Not that I could find. It'd even stopped bleeding by the time I got here." Wasn't a bullet in the back enough?
Nathan was already getting his instruments out, and Buck swallowed and looked away. He'd been on both sides of a bullet removal before, but it wasn't something you got used to.
He met Vin's eyes instead, and the tracker gave him a small smile. "Good instincts," he told Buck.
Buck snorted. "First time he ever listened to me." Which wasn't true, but it was something to say. He glanced over as Nathan moved, then away sharply again as he realized the healer was heating some sharp-edged tweezers in the fire.
Vin crouched in front of him, and only later did Buck realize he probably knew how badly Wilmington needed a distraction. "Chris went after the posse. Figured might be a good idea to see where they ended up, 'specially if it's here."
Buck's face darkened. "Far as I'm concerned, he can send them all to Hell."
Vin didn't say anything, just dropped a hand on Buck's arm in tacit understanding.
"One of you wanna hold him steady for me while I get that bullet out?" Nathan asked from behind them.
Buck immediately turned back, nodding even though he felt the blood drain from his face. He took firm hold of JD's shoulders and met Nathan's eyes squarely.
Nathan nodded back at him, sympathy in his eyes despite the stoic set of his face, then bent over JD's back.
Even though he'd heard Nathan rouse JD long enough to take some laudanum, the kid jerked fully awake with a cry as Nathan began digging in his back. Buck's face twisted, but he firmed his voice as he bent low to talk near JD's ear.
"It's gonna be over in a minute, JD, just try to ride out. Breathe like me, slow and easy. It's gonna be done soon, I promise." JD's breath came in strained gasps, his hand curling and uncurling helplessly on the ground next to Buck, and Wilmington glanced up at Nathan, an angry admonition to hurry dying on his lips as he saw Jackson's taut face. He knew he was causing JD pain, too.
Buck leaned down again, trying to catch Dunne's eyes. "Hey, now, looks like you're gonna have another nice scar to show off to Casey. That girl's gonna be mighty impressed."
"Buck " JD's eyelids fluttered and he groaned.
"Almost there," Nathan muttered.
Another hand slid into sight and took JD's hand in a firm grip. Vin had knelt beside them, and Buck flashed him a grateful glance before returning his attention to JD. "Almost doneyou're doing real good, JD."
JD's body nearly spasmed out of Buck's grasp. The next moment, Nathan triumphantly held up the miserable piece of lead he'd dug out, a shred of JD's jacket still wrapped around it. JD collapsed back to the bedroll, limp and panting, hovering on the edge of unconsciousness.
"You did fine, son," Buck said warmly, letting go of the kid's shoulders to smooth damp strands out of his face. "When're you gonna get this mop cut, huh?" He teased gently.
JD's eyes were glassy, uncomprehending.
Buck made a face. "You just rest nowthe worst part's over." Well, almost. There was still the disinfecting and bandaging to go, but Nathan was giving JD a moment to relax, maybe even drift off. It would be easier on them all. Buck's nerves already felt like they'd been strung with barbed wire.
Two slowly lengthening blinks, and then JD's eyes shut and stayed shut. Another few moments and Buck nodded again at Nathan.
JD, mercifully, didn't wake for the rest, twitching lightly in his drugged sleep and moaning once, but otherwise still and silent, face flushed and hot. Nathan finished his doctoring by wiping JDs face and upper chest with a wet cloth, then pulling the blanket back over him and sitting back with a tired sigh.
"How's it look?" Vin was the one who finally asked.
Jackson made a face. "I've seen betterhe had some grass an' dirt in the wound, and every little bit can make the infection worse. But I've seen worse, too. Don't look like he hurt his spine, at least, or that the bullet went past the muscle into his gut. Blood poisoning and fever's the most dangerous part now. I think he'll be fine if we keep him warm, don't move him around until the fever breaks. I got a few herbs for that, too."
"All right," Buck said quietly. "We set up camp here, then. You stay with JD, Nathan, an' Vin and I'll get some more water and wood." The healer nodded.
Buck sat a moment longer, studying JD's face, smoothing out his blanket, then determinedly stood and moved off after Vin.
It was nearly two hours later, as they sat around the fire eating beans and bacon and a can of peaches, that their quiet conversation was broken by the sound of approaching horses. Finally. The three of them scrambled to their feet without a word or glance at each other, and stood in an unyielding line in front of the sleeping JD, weapons in hand.
It didn't take long for the rough faces to start coming into view, amidst muttered curses and sharp footsteps. They kept appearing until Buck counted nine clustered a dozen feet away, watching them warily. Dirty, twisted with anger, cold-eyed; the Desert Springs mob had finally caught up.
"Who're you?" one man, taller and burlier than the rest, asked sharply, gun also in his hand.
Buck stepped forward. "Lawman from Four Corners. You?" he asked with lethal softness.
The man didn't know he was playing to fire. "Posse from Desert Springs," he answered belligerently. "We're lookin' for a grifter by the name of Kurkul. Followed his trail up here. All three of you the law?"
"Four," Buck corrected flatly, and stepped aside just enough for JD's face to be visible for a moment. "I think you've met Sheriff Dunne already."
The man did blanch at that, and an uneasy ripple moved through the crowd behind him. "But ain't that he looks just like Kurkul's supposed to," the man stammered.
Buck took a step forward, Vin immediately flanking him. "So that's why you run him out of town and shot him? Because he fit a description a thousand other men might've matched? Did you even bother asking, or checking his story?"
The man gave him a sullen look. "Town like ours, sometimes you gotta shoot first, ask questions later."
Buck hefted his Colt. "How 'bout I shoot first and ask questions later?" he offered softly. Maybe it had just been a lucky shot, but he suspected the bullet in JD's back had come from the gun that was pointed now at him.
The suffering in JD's eyes, the involuntary sounds of pain, had settled in his mind like a fog, blinding him to everything else, inescapable. And the monster in front of him had been responsible for it all. Buck aimed almost casually for a spot just between those two ruthless eyes.
His finger tightened on the trigger.
+ + + + + + +
The posse leader took a step back, also lifting his gun. As far as Chris could tell, just coming up on the scene from the darkness, the miner could see the absolute intention in Buck's face to kill him, but had talked himself into a corner he couldn't get out of. Foolishly, the man also raised his gun. "Far as I can tell, mister, we still got you outmanned three to one."
Chris could have let Buck shoot the man. Was tempted to, even, if what he saw of JD behind Buck was any indication of what the "posse" had recklessly done. But the murder in his old friend's eyes was a look Chris knew too well from his own mirror, and had no desire to see take root in Buck's.
"Two to one," he announced, making his presence known, and walked out into the light, hand resting on the butt of his Colt. He crossed to Vin's side and stood there with his men. Buck didn't even glance at him, his eyes firmly fixed on the leader of the posse.
The leader studied them with narrow eyes, hostility warring with fear and the knowledge he'd just gone from law-enforcer to law-breaker. His fellow posse members were all starting to back away, clearly less comfortable with the role-reversal.
"You made a stupid mistake. Walk away now and learn from it," Chris said impassively.
The posse leader pursed his mouth, chewed his lip, and finally lowered his gun, common sense finally winning over pride. One last hateful glance at them, then he turned to the mob behind him.
"Let's go home," was all he said. He didn't look back again as he followed the rest of the posse back down the hill.
Buck took a step after the retreating figures, his gun still cocked. Probably ready to wring an apology from the miner's throat. Chris understood, but didn't hesitate to reach out and grab Wilmington's arm, just hard enough to convey a message: let it go.
Buck glanced down at the hand, then at its owner, body still stiff with rebellion, but Chris just nodded past him, to the sleeper on the ground behind him.
He could see the struggle going on in his old friend, empathizing too well with that battle. And then the fight went out of Buck all at once, and he sagged, nodding his understanding.
Chris ghosted him a smile, and gripped his arm a little harder before letting go.
Buck immediately knelt down next to JD, Nathan already fussing with the kid, too, and Chris narrowed his eyes at the young sheriff's feverish face and labored breathing. He looked up at Vin with the question in his eyes. Without a word, the tracker stepped aside, out of the earshot of the small party by the campfire, to fill him in.
A few minutes later, they returned, Chris crouching down next to Buck, Vin settling on his other side. He put a hand on Wilmington's shoulder. "He's strong, Buck, and Nathan's good at what he does."
Buck nodded moodily.
There wasn't much more you could do for someone who was hurting besides just sit with him. Buck had learned that the hard way with Chris. But at least he could do that much, return the favor just a little. Besides, he was worried about JD, too.
Chris made himself comfortable, gratefully taking the cup of coffee Vin offered him, and settled in for a long night.
+ + + + + + +
He was awfully tired, and hot and stiff and sore, but it was the branch gouging into his back that had him clawing his way up through heavy layers of sleep. Just when he'd thought he'd never reach the surface, his body finally acknowledged him again, and JD shifted to move away from the sharp branch. That only made it poke more sharply, though, enough to make him gasp and jerk.
"Easy, JD," Nathan said from somewhere above him.
"Lie still, kid." That was Buck to his left, his hand gentle on JD's back to keep him from moving.
JD peeled an eye open to look at him, bewildered. What was going on?
Buck's mouth spread into a smile under his mustache, his eyes shining with more than his usual good cheer. "Glad to see you awake. Now just turn around and go back to sleepyour fever's broken and you need to get your strength back."
Strength back from what? JD blinked at him owlishly, trying to remember what had happened that clearly had everyone so worked up.
A blur of black moved in from one side, and darned if Chris Larabee himself wasn't smiling at JD, the way he rarely did when he was proud of one of them. "You did a good job, JDyou earned the rest."
He gaped at Chris a moment, then his eyes slid heavily back to Buck.
The older man slid a hand under his hair, rubbing some of the soreness out of his neck with careful strokes, and JD's eyes started to sink shut despite him as his body relaxed back into sleep. "I'll explain it all when you wake upyou just trust ol' Buck now and get some sleep, son."
Trust, praise from Chris son. JD still didn't understand, but that was all good, and he was feeling so warm and leaden. Even that stupid branch wasn't boring into him as hard.
He went to sleep again, but this time he floated instead of sinking, and knew for certain he'd be coming back.
+ + + + + + +
Buck rounded the corner of the saloon, and grinned as he glanced up the stairs to Nathan's clinic. True to his word, the healer had let JD out onto the porch to sit for a while, and while the kid was bundled up tighter than a papoose, he was sitting up on his own and had healthy color in his cheeks again. Considering a week before he'd had a fresh hole in his back and had been out of his head with fever, this was definitely progress.
Buck took the first few steps in a bound, then slowed as more of JD's face came into view. His grin faded to something sadder. The young sheriff was recovering, but he'd been hurt on the inside, too, not just the outside. Buck hadn't seen him smile since he'd woken up, and whenever he thought he was alone, he wore that thoughtful frown that made Buck wonder what was going on underneath that mop of black hair. He'd known the West would beat the innocence out of JD Dunne, he'd just hoped it wouldn't be so soon. He didn't want to lose the "kid" altogether.
Buck's mustache twitched, then he continued up the stairs, loudly this time.
JD immediately turned to look at him, eyes lightening, if tiredly, at the sight of Buck, and bringing the smile back to the older man's face despite himself. He never could stay glum long around JD Dunne, even this sicklier shadow of the man.
"Nathan let you out?" he asked as he jogged the last few steps up to the landing.
"Yeah, all the way out here. I think he's afraid I'm gonna run off on him." JD made a face.
"Much as I've seen Casey hanging around here, I don't see why you wouldn't," Buck said cheerfully.
"She had to do some chores for Miss Nettie this morning. Said she'll back in the afternoon." No more blushing, no hot denial of his interest in the girl, Buck couldn't help but notice.
He hesitated, wondering if he should broach the topic the rest of them had decided could wait until JD was stronger. The young man who sat beside him now looked like he was ready for the news.
Maybe too much so.
Buck cleared his throat. "Uh, JD? We heard from Judge Travis. He said if you wanted to press charges, he'd have that posse in Desert Springs arrested and brought to trial for attempted murder."
JD didn't move, didn't acknowledge he'd spoken for so long, Buck thought he wasn't going to. Then he glanced at Buck, before shifting his eyes down to his lap. "I don't want them arrested."
Buck didn't say anything, just waited.
JD finally sighed. "I thought I did, at first, when I remembered. I was I was pretty scared when they were chasing me. I knew I'd been shot but I didn't know how bad "
Buck shook his head sharply. "Nothing to be ashamed of in being scared, JDanybody in your shoes would've been. What matters is you kept your head and did what you had to."
"But I guess they were just doing that, too, what they thought they had to. I'm not saying they did the right thing, but I know what it's like to make a mistake," he ended in a whisper.
Buck had an idea what had spurred that. Annie Neuhaus's death would always weigh on the young man's soul. "Don't go there, JD," he said gently.
"I'm not," JD shook his head, gave Buck another passing glance as if he couldn't quite bear to meet his eyes. "I just understand a little better, 's all."
"What?" Buck asked quietly.
"How you can do the wrong thing when you're trying really hard to do the right thing."
Buck reflected on that a moment. Well, that wasn't such a bad lesson to learn, right? JD's idealism had often come at the high price of crushing disappointment when he'd found himself or one of the others not living up to it.
The question was, would he accept the inevitable shortfalls and forgive and try harder, or would he just lower his standards to meet the failures? The West had too much of the latter and not nearly enough of the former.
He chose his words carefully. "You tryin' to tell me something, JD? 'Cause I don't think I can stand the suspense if y'are."
JD was startled into meeting his eyes at that, and Buck was relieved to find them the clear hazel of before, no turmoil or muddied emotion, nothing but thoughtfulness in them. And now, surprise. What? Youyou think I'm trying to quit or something?" he stammered.
It was Buck's turn to look away. "Well it'd crossed my mind. Lot of jobs out there that don't involve getting shot or knifed or beat up every couple of months. And here y'are talking about mistakes "
"Getting off here and joining you all wasn't a mistake, Buck. It's the best thing I've ever done and I I think Ma would've agreed with me. I woulda never made it out there if you and Nathan and Chris and Vin hadn't come after me."
Buck could have pointed out that JD wouldn't have gone to Desert Springs in the first place if he hadn't been there on business for Travis but then again, maybe he would have. If he hadn't settled in Four Corners, who knew where he would have ended up, but with no one to care. Buck bowed his head to the logic of it, but quietly admitted, "I just don't want it t'change you too much, JD."
"Aren't you the one always telling me to grow up?" JD burst out, clearly growing frustrated.
It wasn't what Buck had been trying for, though, and his smile was bittersweet as he looked his friend in the eye. "But not too fast." There were plenty of old youngsters running around as it was, and he never wanted to see the hard-bitten look in JD's eyes that he'd seen in so many others.
JD was startled, then awkward, clearly not knowing what to do with that. Buck had pushed him too much as it was, and opened his mouth to make a joke, change the subject.
JD beat him to the punch.
"So you don't think I did something stupid?" he asked, hesitant.
Buck stared at him. "Are you kidding? Chris couldn't've handled himself better in that situation."
"I just hated running away like that. Like I'd done something wrong."
"You woulda stayed, they woulda killed you right there, JD. No shame in running from an uneven fight."
The corner of JD's mouth curled. "I remember. You just all had to come looking for me, leave the town short, then stay out there for days. Seemed like I coulda done something different "
He was embarrassed! The revelation was like a bolt from the blue for Buck and the sudden melting of the chunk of ice that had gathered in his gut. JD was embarrassed at having created such a fuss and uncertain he'd handled himself right. Neither of which was valid, of course, but the hard-hearted and over-confident didn't worry about making mistakes or putting others out.
The JD Buck knew was still very much there. And if he was just adding a little more thoughtfulness and wisdom to the mix, well, that wasn't a bad thing.
Buck put a hand on where he thought JD's leg would be under all those blankets, and leaned in to him to say quietly, firmly. "You did good, kid, handled yourself like a man. You made all of us proud, so you just forget all this about 'running away' and 'couldve done something different,' y'hear me?"
JD swallowed, nodding, and faintly colored, but his eyes held Buck's a long minute. And his body visibly relaxed by degrees as he did.
Buck knew the feeling.
JD suddenly frowned at him. "Hey, don't call me 'kid', Buck."
The sheriff of Four Corners who'd outwitted a posse and gotten himself to safety while badly wounded, was pouting.
Buck grinned back happily, probably even sappily.
"Whatever you say, son."