Finding Family by Sue M

Summary: Forging bonds day by day that go deeper than friendship

Happy 12th anniversary to our Seven Magnificent Men

Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!

If you'd like to know what happened between Vin and JD and the wanted poster, read Interlude: Missing Scene

JD Dunne steadied his horse while he waited in line with five of his mounted fellow peacekeepers. He didn't think it could get much better than this. The seven men only in town for a few weeks, and having just defeated big-time rancher Stuart James, were now overseeing the town where it all began. And things had been going reasonably well, until the Moulton gang breezed into town.

An ornery bunch, they had heard about the little frontier town of Four Corners. Deciding it was easy pickings, the gang headed there, intent on robbing the bank and taking anything that wasn't nailed down, including the women. Their disgust and frustration on learning of the seven men who watched over the town was evident, their mistake was ignoring that fact. Now they were running for their lives…or in this case, riding. JD had noted they rode quality horses, an observation that wasn't missed by their accepted leader, notorious gunslinger Chris Larabee. This hunt would not be an easy one.

Leaning forward to settle his horse with soothing words and a scratch to the ears, JD glanced across the line of men he had admired since the first day he met them, and whose welfare he had quickly come to care about. Despite their individuality, as a group, they worked well together and every day for him, was an adventure, as he took life's lessons from each one with good humor, and a promise to himself to do better each day.

However, even though JD was the only duly sworn-in group member, and enjoyed spending time at the jail performing his…how did Ezra put it? Oh yeah, obligatory, yet tedious duties, Larabee made the decisions, so it usually worked out pretty well. Besides, if Chris wasn't around, ex- bounty hunter Vin Tanner was, and he seemed to know a whole lot about keeping order. JD smiled, reckoning that big ol' mare's leg likely had a lot to do with it.

And if Vin wasn't around, self-confessed ladies' man Buck Wilmington was never far away. As JD looked at the man on the big gray next to him, his grin widened. Sure, at first the man had been in his face over everything from how to wear his beloved hat, to which way to hold his guns, and yeah, JD might be young and inexperienced, but it didn't take a genius to realize there was more to Buck's advice than mere bragging. In Buck's quieter moments, JD saw a man that cared deeply enough to share his knowledge, his secrets, and even take a sword for him.

During their first days together and after the success over James, the pair had been inseparable, until word got around of Buck's brave deed at the Seminole village, prompting comments and suggestions from the townsfolk along the line of JD following Buck around like some pup and acting out of obligation. Not averse to cruel comments through his young life, JD was surprised at how much the suggestions affected him and so backed off and buried himself in his new duties. The memory of Buck seeking him out, dragging him into the saloon and ripping into him for his foolishness for listening to a bunch of mean-minded nobodies, still made him smile to this day, and probably always would. For the first time since his mother's passing, JD didn't feel alone.

JD's gaze landed on Ezra Standish and the southerner grinned and touched his hat. While liking the gambler, he initially found him a little intimidating. The man had a fast wit and an even faster tongue and could verbally cut down an adversary in seconds. Growing up on the big estate his mother worked for, JD was no stranger to fancy words, but Ezra's vocabulary was something else entirely, to the point that, after talking with Josiah, JD would make a note of the more interesting words for the preacher to translate, if he could. On discovering this, Ezra had approached JD and the younger man expected, by the time Ezra was through, he'd have a whole gaggle of words to ask Josiah about. Instead, the southerner had promised to tell him the meaning of any word he used, should JD want to know. Dunne found himself grinning again. Since that day, he swore Ezra was using even fancier words…and would wink at him when some unsuspecting sap was about to get an `education'.

Josiah Sanchez was great to talk to. Always full of interesting stories and deep ponderings, though, sometimes JD didn't quite get their meaning, and suspected, every so often, others didn't either. Also, he could get a mite prickly when riled or drunk…or both. But mostly, the man was gentle, caring and helpful, with kind eyes and a warm smile that drew JD to him often. Watching the man resting on the saddle horn, JD noticed he had that look on his face again, the same one often directed at him…a sort of…amused expression. JD shrugged inwardly. He couldn't for the life of him figure why Josiah would find him so entertaining. Now Buck…sure…the guy was a hoot once he got going.

Nathan Jackson was glancing at him. Shoot was that a smile? Nah…the healer man didn't like him, why else would he yell at him so often? It's not like he yelled at the others. JD frowned recalling a recent visit to the healer. During their confrontation with Lucas James, JD had walked into a support post. Okay…maybe he didn't exactly admit he walked…well, ran into it, and he must've been concussed…why else would he have then run onto the boardwalk and straight in front of Vin's rifle? But Nathan wasn't buying it. Just told him to wake up and smell the cow dung or he'd get his fool head blown off his shoulders. Nice bedside manner, but Nathan did make the pain in his head go away, which was good, it had been bugging him for days.

Vin Tanner was looking toward the jail…JD figured that meant Chris was about to join them. The tracker was funny that way…he seemed to sense when trouble was stirring or someone was near. JD wished he could do that. Maybe, just once, he'd stop Buck from knocking his hat in the dirt. JD liked Vin, too. In many ways, he was quiet, but there were also times he would get a twinkle in his eye, and that usually meant Vin would end up saying something that would have JD snorting beer from his nose. They were rare moments, but always worth waiting for. Nothing much bothered Vin, but…JD recalled the other day…when he uncovered a whole stack of old wanted posters and said he'd go through them, and wondered if Vin would be able to tell him if some of those fellas were still alive. JD had been surprised at Vin's response. He may not be able to speak Injun like Vin could, but he sure knew cussing when he heard it.

When Chris Larabee appeared, everyone took notice, and that's what was happening now. Approaching his tethered horse, Chris's black duster flapped behind him as he strode purposefully toward them. The six men straightened in their saddles while people in the street stared. And why wouldn't they? The man was fearless and had a look about him that oozed menace. JD had hero-worshipped him from the day Chris told him it was wrong to shoot a man in the back…well, that and from reading the dime novel about him that JD carried in his saddlebags. Buck had explained at the Seminole village why Chris was so detached, and very different from years ago when he was married. JD remembered some of what Buck said…but he was pretty drunk that night, and felt sure he'd forgotten a few things. Chris could be scary, but since returning to the town, JD had also seen the kind, honorable man Buck seemed to remember more. A moment he held close to his heart was when Chris came crashing through the saloon window to help JD, and stop Judge Travis from being killed by Lucas James and his men. JD shook his head and smiled at the memory. This man leaps through a window, upends a table, shoots a coupla guys dead, checks on him and the Judge…and all JD could do was lose the barrel of his gun and run into a support post. But the moment that beat all, was that second before he sent JD to get Nathan. That moment when Chris grabbed his arm and said `…be careful…' That had meant the world to him. JD often wondered what Chris thought of him now after Vin had likely told him about what happened directly after. It hadn't yet occurred to JD that Vin never did.


"Oww! Damnit, Buck!" A tap to the back of his head sent JD's bowler forward and onto the bridge of his nose. Glowering at Buck, he pushed it back up.

"You done woolgathering? `Cause we're heading out."

Turning from Buck, JD glanced at the others, to see them wheeling their horses around, as Chris called out `Let's ride'. He grinned and urged his horse to follow. Finally, some action.


The Seven had been trailing the Moulton gang for two grueling days and nights. Camping out overnight was always risky, and with a sadistic gang on the loose, they had to be doubly careful. Finally coming upon them early one evening at the bottom of an arroyo, the seven lawmen lay on their bellies in the underbrush, observing from a safe distance.

"How we gonna do this?" Buck asked.

Chris pursed his lips. "Looks like they're getting liquored up for the night. I say we wait…let 'em get drunk. Then we'll just have the lookout to deal with."

They all nodded as they lay there in a line, on the ground.

"We need to keep real quiet," Vin reminded, barely whispering. "Even the smallest sounds bounce around these canyon walls, and make 'em louder." He made a point of looking at JD, who noticed Chris seemed to be doing the same. JD wasn't really surprised, he had asked a lot of questions during their ride…but still, he could be quiet when needed.

As the sun began its descent, and almost an hour of motionless waiting, each man ached. JD moved his right arm restlessly, suddenly aware of movement in the long grass next to it. He looked in alarm, glancing back at his friends, who were so focused on the gang, no one noticed his worried expression. JD had hoped he was wrong, but another movement confirmed it. 'Aww hell…it's a rattler'.

He stayed stock still, silently praying the snake would settle down as the sun sank and the heat slowly evaporated into the cloudless sky. JD knew he couldn't call out, and feared if he moved to alert Nathan, who was next to him, the snake would strike. He recalled Vin telling him snakes were more scared of them than they were of it. Right now though, it sure didn't seem that way as the reptile rose full height and seemed to stare at him. Beads of perspiration gathered on JD's upper lip and forehead as he lay there in silence, watching, and wondering if he flicked his hat, could he get it to land over the snake.

In the arroyo, it seemed the gang was settling for the night, and the softest of murmurings amongst his friends gave JD hope they would soon be moving. However, he quickly realized he was out of time, and luck, as the snake, possibly agitated by the other six men's stirrings, rattled its tail, reared, and struck out at his wrist. Somehow, JD bit back the scream that was desperately trying to emerge, holding his breath as the rattler prepared to strike again. A whistling noise over the youth's head, was followed by the snake rolling backwards, its head sliced off by Nathan's knife.

Thinking he'd killed the snake before it struck out, Nathan winked and nodded to JD before turning to catch Chris's signal. Six men moved, and swiftly entered the camp, calling for the outlaws to stay down and dealing swiftly with any that chose to ignore them. Leaping onto an outcrop, Vin glanced around to ensure his friends' backs were covered, his mare's leg barking out occasionally as one or another was exposed and their position threatened.

Ezra held out his Remington and urged two men to move toward a gathering group of captives. A noise behind him had him activating the rig that sent his Derringer smoothly into his free hand and pointing at a man attempting to jump him from behind. "I suggest you bathe more, I detected your odor long before I heard you," he deadpanned. Gesturing for him to join the others, Ezra nodded to Vin, relieved Tanner already had him covered.

Josiah banged two outlaws' heads together and tossed the dazed men toward the growing huddle of no good varmints, barely flinching when Vin's rifle took out a man on his left. Chris and Buck took off after Moulton himself, laughing heartily as the drunken man ran straight into a tree and knocked himself senseless.

"Saves us a job," Buck grinned.

A scream went out when Nathan's aim was true and one of his knives thunked into a man's arm, his numb fingers instantly releasing his gun.

It was over in minutes. With the lookout easily overpowered, the rest of the drunken gang was taken prisoner and shackled in record time. Eventually, Buck looked around, frowning.

"Where's JD?"

The men shrugged. "He was next to me just before we moved in," Nathan offered, his eyes widening as a thought struck him.

"Ah hell…"

Buck and Vin saw Nathan head quickly back to their original positions and followed him. On arriving, the healer's heart thudded in his chest as he realized JD had clearly tried, but failed to get up from his original position. Sliding down next to him, Nathan gently eased the boy over onto his back. JD groaned softly with the movement.

"What is it?" Buck asked in alarm, as he and Vin joined them. He watched as Jackson pushed back the sleeve of JD's jacket and rolled back the cuff of his shirt.

Even in the fading light, Tanner could see the twisted, headless body of the rattler in the grass a short distance away. "Damn," he said, softly.

Hearing Vin's voice, JD's damp eyelashes fluttered open and he made eye contact with the tracker. "I…didn't make…a…noise," he whispered with pride, before finally giving in to the poison working its way up his arm.


Larabee looked around the camp. He addressed Josiah and Ezra. "Before we left, Mary told me there are two other posses out looking for these yahoos. We'll move all their kit to one side and set up our own beds for the night, then set out at first light…it'll be safer than trying to make it to town in the dark. You two take first watch."

The two men agreed. With the gang corralled against the canyon wall and the outcrop, the only way out was past the Seven Peacekeepers, so the lawmen were pretty confident that this fact, coupled with the gang's inebriation and shackles, made it a safe bet they were going nowhere fast.

All three men had noticed the others wandering off; more surprised that neither of them had yet to come back, than why they initially left. An uneasiness passed between them…something was wrong.


Buck's breathing was almost as rapid as JD's. He rested a hand on the boy's sweaty forehead and looked at Nathan. "His skin's cold and clammy, not hot. Is that good?"

Nathan chose to ignore the question. He looked at Vin. "Any Spanish Dagger close by?" Tanner nodded and disappeared into the gloom, returning just minutes later. Stripping off a long tendril, Nathan used a small knife to open the wound up and jabbed the spiky leaf directly into it, causing JD to jerk and groan.

"Jeeze, Nathan…that hurt him." Buck's gaze dropped back to JD to avoid the withering look from the healer.

"I need the rattler's tail, too."

Vin searched the grass. In seconds, he had cut off the rattle and handed the tail over. Nathan placed it open side down on the wound, and bandaged it in place.

Buck ran a shaky hand over his face. "What the hell is that for?"

Jackson huffed. "I know you're worried Buck, but I know what I'm doing, alright?" He glanced between the pair. "We need to get him to the campfire…I gotta sweat it outta him." He placed a hand on JD's head as the youth moaned and tossed restlessly. "Easy now. Vin run on ahead and get that fire stoked up. Buck, help me get JD to the camp."


Guns were raised as footsteps sounded close to the encampment, but Vin's incoming whistle seconds before he appeared from the darkness, relaxed the three lawmen.

Chris approached. "Problem?"

Vin nodded as he dumped a load of kindling next to the low flames. Pushing his hat off his head to hang on his back, he started tossing wood onto the fire. "We need to get this built up."

Before Chris could ask another question, Buck and Nathan were carrying JD toward them. Larabee cussed. "Damnit."

As they lay JD down, Chris closed in. "Was he shot?"

Not looking up, Nathan shook his head. "Rattler."

Larabee stared at Tanner. "When?" Noting Vin's gesture to move away, the pair walked into the gloom. Concerned by the Texan's demeanor Chris spoke first. "What am I missing here?"

Vin stared into space for a moment, then looked at his friend. "I told him to be quiet."

"You told us all to be quiet, Vin."

"Yeah, but I looked right at him."

"Alright, as I recall, I did too, but what does that have to do with…?"

"The snake struck afore we went in. When we found him, the kid looked at me and told me he didn't make a noise. It musta hurt like hell."

Pondering Vin's words, Chris finally looked at the Texan. "You can't blame yourself…you know JD sure as hell won't."

"I don't," Vin said hoarsely, but it was clear it wasn't sitting well in his gut.

Chris touched his arm. "C'mon…looks like we got a long night ahead of us."


Josiah and Ezra watched the activity with concern. Glancing at each other, their eyes met. Compassion shimmering from green orbs, Ezra nodded. "Go ahead…I'll be alright." He gestured toward the quiet gang. "They're going nowhere, their accommodation is reserved for the night."

With a tight smile, Josiah moved toward the group next to the fire. "Can I help?"

"Get some water boiling," Nathan instructed. "And bring me my saddlebags." Fast hands were taking off JD's clothing.

Buck held Nathan's arm. "What are you doing? He'll freeze."

"Gather up spare blankets, Buck. I'm gonna swaddle him. We gotta sweat the poison outta him…and quickly." He glanced up at a returning Vin and Chris. "I need a mouse or similar…dead and sliced open. Hurry with those blankets, Buck."

Vin nodded. "On it."

JD's eyes opened and he went rigid as he groaned in pain. Nathan leaned in. "It's alright…take it easy, you're in safe hands."

Shaking his head, JD grabbed at Nathan's jacket with his good hand. "No…no…it's gonna…gonna bite me again…kill it…please, kill it."

Holding the hand curled around his lapel, Nathan smiled. "I got it, remember? Now calm down."

Dropping the blankets next to Nathan, Buck placed his hand on JD's head and stared at the healer. "Why's he talking crazy?"

"It's the poison, Buck. Once I get something in him to make him sweat, I'll give him laudanum for the pain." Before he wrapped the boy up, he undid the bandage and removed the snake's tail, replacing it with the freshly killed and sliced open mouse from Vin, ensuring the warm flesh was over the wound before re-bandaging.

Buck picked up the discarded tail and examined it. "It's gone green."

Vin nodded. "That's the poison bein' drawn out."

Josiah handed over half a tin mug of hot water. From his saddlebags, Nathan pulled out a pouch containing cayenne pepper and tapped some into the mug. He stirred it thoroughly before cooling it with water from his canteen. Looking at Buck, he nodded. "Sit him up and hold on, he ain't gonna like this."

Buck did so, smiling thinly when Chris crouched down to help. Nathan encouraged a semi–conscious JD to drink, Seconds later, most of it was spat back at him. As Nathan wiped off his face, Buck scolded his best friend.

"JD, cut that out…you need…"

Chris steadied him. "Easy pard, he can't really hear you right now, and we kinda expected it." Reaching over, Chris pinched JD's nose and Nathan poured as much of the drink into him as he could.

JD had no fight left and just whimpered, absently trying to pull at the bandage on his arm. Making sure the injury was lower than JD's heart; Nathan wrapped the boy up tightly in three separate blankets before giving him a spoonful of laudanum and placing him on a bedroll close to the fire.

"What now?" Buck rasped out through his distress.

Nathan sat cross-legged on the ground. "Now we wait."


Returning to guard duty, Josiah leaned against a rock close to Ezra.

"Was he shot?"

Josiah shook his head. "No, he got bitten by a rattler while we were waiting to strike."

"I don't recall him calling out."

Sanchez smiled, sadly. "He didn't. Lord knows how, but he didn't. JD knew keeping quiet was important…"

Standish shook his head. "Good Lord."

A minute or so of silence later, Ezra spoke again. "I assume our Mister Jackson will ensure the young man will survive this ordeal."

"You assume right…about Nathan. Only God can truly be sure if JD will see the dawn."

"A poetic, but…horrifying thought." Ezra sighed. "Exactly when did we become close enough to give a damn?"

"The moment we fought our first battle together, I reckon," Josiah answered, turning to the younger man. "Yes Ezra, that far back. The fact you couldn't actually run out on us is testimony to that."

"I fear you may be delusional, preacher."

Josiah chuckled. "Well, one of us sure is."


Walking to the edge of the fire's glow, Vin and Chris stared out into the darkness, the smoke from Larabee's cheroot just visible in the blackness as it twisted away.

"I shoulda gone to Tascosa."

Chris inhaled, the glow of the cheroot intensifying for a second or two. He blew the smoke out. "Bit late for regrets. What prompted that? JD ain't gonna die."

"We don't know that. `Sides, iffen he doesn't, I reckon it's only a matter of time he'll learn about me."

"What if he does? You reckon he's gonna arrest you?"

For a split second, Vin's features reflected a look of defiance. It soon faded. "Maybe I should let `im."

"Maybe you should." Chris half-grinned at Vin's expression. "Except you already know he never would."

"What makes you so sure?"

Chris turned to him. "He never cried out, Vin. JD believes in you…believes in all of us. He'd never betray you…he'd walk away from the job first."

"Not sure I can handle that kinda responsibility."

"You already are." Chris sighed. "If you still wanna go, I'll come with you…but you might find another five men tagging along, too."

Tanner offered a lopsided smirk. "Reckon I should stay put then."

Chris puffed on his cheroot. "Reckon so."


Buck couldn't bear it. JD was burning up and crying out, as his head tossed restlessly from side to side. Nathan handed him a rag and a canteen.

"It won't really help, but it may soothe him some."

Looking up at the stars, Buck closed his eyes. "Tell me…is he gonna die?"

"I can't answer that, but…I reckon he's got a fair chance of pulling through. His biggest problem is how long it took before he got fixed up."

Buck looked back at him. Pouring water onto the rag, he dabbed gently at JD's sweat-slicked skin, and the dark hair clinging to his face and head. "When will we know?"

"When the fever breaks."

Unable to take it when JD's cries intensified, Buck scooped the youth up and talked to him as he held him closer than any man before. "It'll be okay, kid. I don't do this for just anyone, y'know." He paused for a moment. "I should really lay into you for keeping quiet like that…shoot, so what if the gang rode on outta here. We'd've caught up with `em eventually." He sighed; relieved the boy had calmed some.

"Then again…you took an order and listened to it. Can't rightly fault you for that. It's gonna be okay…you'll see. Me and you got a lot of living to do…I reckon the fellas think so too…that's why we ain't split up. It's gonna be a wild ride, kid…for all seven of us…you'll see." Buck smiled to see JD relaxed. "You rest up now…then we'll go home."


By sunup, no one but JD had slept for long. Walking away from guard duty, Chris and Vin stretched. They turned when Lonnie Moulton called out. "Hey, the kid dead yet?"

Vin placed his hand on his mare's leg. "Shut the hell up!"

Moulton laughed. "I was just askin'…that ain't a nice way to treat a concerned man."

"Save the concern for yourself," Chris suggested. A noise had the two peacekeepers looking up and they hurried over toward the fire.


His throat too dry to speak, JD opened his eyes to find his head resting on Buck's knees. He couldn't move anything, which would have bothered him if he had enough energy to care. Looking up, he smiled. Buck was sleeping sitting up, his chin on his chest.

"Drink this."

Turning his head slowly toward Nathan, JD nodded and gratefully sipped at the tepid water. "Thanks," he rasped.

With a snort, Buck awoke. Looking down, the big man grinned. "Hey…well, look who's awake." He looked to Nathan, the unspoken question on his lips.

"Fever broke about an hour ago." Nathan moved in. By the time he had opened all the blankets, and started untying the bandage, the others had joined them.

JD shivered. "Where are…my clothes?"

"We got `em, stay calm."

JD looked back at Buck. "I gotta go."

"We'll head home as soon as Nathan says…" Chris started.

"Nooo…I gotta…*go*." JD ignored the chuckles when he saw his wound for the first time. Already pale, he lost all color at the sight of a dead, green mouse on his arm.

"Oh God…what's that?"

"Something that helped save your life," Buck answered, glancing gratefully at Nathan while the man cleaned the wound and re-bandaged it before strapping the arm for support.

Guns were quickly drawn, when riders could be heard approaching. They all relaxed at the arrival of the posse from Gray Fork. Realizing JD was in no condition to ride yet, Chris approached them and it was agreed the posse would take Moulton and his men to town. As Buck and Josiah helped JD behind a rock to ease his bladder, the rest rounded up the gang, put them on their horses and handed them over.

Moulton glared down at the four men. "This ain't over, Larabee."

Chris grinned. "Says the man heading for prison." Watching the mounted posse surrounding the gang before riding away, the four lawmen turned back to the others, who were now returning to the bedrolls.

"God, that was embarrassing, " JD huffed.

More concerned at how weak his friend was, Buck shrugged. "You got one hand and buttoned underdraws, what were we supposed to do?"

"Can I get dressed now?"

"JD, rest up," Nathan urged. "We ain't leaving until you're stronger."

Ezra glanced around the group. "I am willing to stay here if you gentlemen wish to return to town."

Chris looked around. "Nah, I reckon we can wait on JD. Can't think of anything in town that needs our attention right now."

Josiah clapped his hands together. "Breakfast! Coffee, beans and bacon sound good?"

With enthusiastic nods, the six sat around as Josiah got things started. JD yawned and pulled a blanket around him; he was feeling a little chilled, despite the fact the rising sun was warming the air nicely. A few minutes later, Buck felt a weight against his arm. JD was sound asleep. By late afternoon, JD was much more alert, but Chris decided they would camp out one more night and ride back the next morning. Vin dropped down next to the lad.

"I'm sorry, kid."

JD frowned. "For what?"

"For makin' you feel you had to be quiet when…"

JD raised a weary hand. "No Vin…you were right, and I knew that. If I'd called out, the gang might've killed us all…or maybe just one of us…either way, you were right. Just my luck a rattler was sleeping next to me, huh?"

Vin chuckled. "Yeah…real bad luck." He hesitated for a moment. "Listen kid…when we get back, if you still want help with those wanted posters…"

JD shook his head. "Nah, I burned `em. They were real old."

The grin from Vin warmed the younger man's soul. He was glad he chose not to mention the one he had tucked inside one of his dime novels.

Later, as they ate the rabbits Vin had caught, JD glanced around his friends…friends… yeah, he could call them that now. His appetite had not quite returned, the thought of having a dead mouse on his arm earlier wasn't helping. Putting his half-empty plate on the ground, he made a little noise in his throat and smiled at them.

"Uh...thanks…for staying here with me. I'm fine now, if you wanna go back..."

Chris looked at him. "Reckon you'll be even better by morning."

JD nodded. "Fair enough." He turned to Nathan. "Thanks…I guess you saved my life…" He smirked. "…so I'll forgive you for the dead mouse."

"Best not tell him what you did to him with the snake then," Vin grinned.

They all laughed, JD paled. "Nathan? What did you do to me with the snake?" Buck nudging him and laughing harder wasn't helping.

JD gaped at them. "Fellas…what did Nathan do to me with the snake?"

The end