Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!
Characters: JD, Buck, OC
Ratings/Warnings: Some violence
Summary: Appearances can be deceiving
Out on the dark prairie, and through the haze and smoke of the campfire, Buck stared across at the sleeping prisoner that he and JD were escorting. It was a huge responsibility. This outlaw's gang was one of the most wanted from pretty much all over the territory and beyond; so much so, that the upcoming trial was to be held in the small town of Coyote Gulch. One of the few places left that hadn't heard of the notorious desperados.
Buck knew Chris always trusted him and the kid to do a good job, but right now, they were all the group's leader had to call on as, in the process of taking down this renegade's gang, all but Chris, Buck, and JD were injured.
So while Chris held things together in town, Buck and JD were performing their sworn duty. One night and two long days on the trail, while under threat of attack at any minute.
A glint in the fire's glow from JD's direction told Buck that the boy was still awake. He'd barely taken his eyes off the prisoner all day, and with his own watch in two hours, JD was pushing his body to the limit. Buck tossed more kindling on the fire to brew some fresh coffee.
It was gonna feel like a long trip.
While he sat and waited for the water to boil, Buck pondered on the events of the last two days.
TWO DAYS PRIOR
A chink of spurs caused six regulators in the saloon to turn from their drinks and look toward the batwing doors. The earnest appearance of their seventh member had them all instantly standing.
"Cullen gang's headin' this way."
On Vin Tanner's warning, all six stepped out after him into the street and looked to the horizon. Chris Larabee directed the group.
"Buck, JD, head for the livery. Ezra, Josiah, Nathan, position yourselves opposite and around the bank. Vin…"
Chris nodded. He noted JD's curious look back at him, and offered him a wry smile. "I'll be the welcoming committee. Okay, let's do this."
As the Seven got into position, they warned townsfolk to stay off the streets. Within minutes all were ready and the only sounds were the distant hoof beats of approaching riders.
With one hand resting on his holstered gun, Chris strode out into the street to meet the incoming group. Before he could issue any kind of warning, he was drawing against two fast-approaching riders. Two shots rang out. Chris's gun smoked, and as one gunman's side-iron slipped free of bloody fingers, and another rider fell from his horse, he knew Vin had fired, too. Larabee didn't ponder it and dove for cover when the onslaught began.
Fearlessly, and despite one of them lying dead, and another injured and unarmed, the group made their way through town and hit most of what they aimed at. Later, Chris would conclude that one way or another, and regardless of ill-gotten gains, the gang intended to make any town they came to suffer as much as possible.
Defending the bank, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra became the center of the gunfight. With skilled horsemanship, the Cullen gang twisted and turned their steeds as their guns belched out bullets. When one gang member yelped in pain and grasped his shoulder, his nearest companion turned, aimed, and seconds later Vin was bouncing off the porch roof below the saloon, and into the street.
Buck hollered for JD to cover him. He was halfway to Vin's position when fresh gunfire from a new angle surprised him, and he was forced to take refuge. Ezra covered Josiah and Nathan as they too went to reclaim their brother of the heart. They successfully scooped up the unconscious sharpshooter, but on their way to shelter, Nathan took a hit in the arm, and Josiah, his thigh. In spite of their injuries, they managed to make it into the bank.
With his three friends safe, Ezra momentarily relaxed, but ss he looked around he quickly realized one rider was missing. He wasn't aware that the outlaw had come around behind him. Moments after a shot sounded, searing pain exploded in Ezra's shoulder, and the southerner hit the dirt.
JD spun on his heels when he realized the shots at Buck came from the livery. He glanced back at his friend and surrogate big brother, and once he could see the man was pinned down but otherwise okay, he went to investigate. More shots helped JD pinpoint the location, and inside the livery, he cautiously climbed the loft ladder. On seeing someone firing from the window, JD steadied himself and called out.
"Hold it right there, Mister!"
In the street, and at the same time their cover fire ceased, the Cullen gang regrouped and rode out as fast as they rode in. Buck and Chris were instantly in the street and checking if the downed man was dead. Both were heading toward the bank to check on their friends when they spotted Ezra. Buck directed Chris to go on, and he went to the gambler.
Relieved to see green eyes looking up at him, Buck eased Ezra over and checked his wound. A through and through to the shoulder. He huffed with relief.
"Reckon you'll live, Pard."
Ezra grunted. "Quite possibly…but with the knowledge that…my good shirt, and favorite…jacket are…ruined."
Unable to quell the rising chuckle, Buck eased Ezra onto his feet and half walked, half carried him toward the clinic. "This is gonna hurt some, so hold on there."
Standish failed to suppress a groan. "Mister Wilmington, you…are the master of…the understatement." He managed to stay conscious right to the clinic door.
Entering the bank, Chris scanned the interior. Several townsfolk were tending to Vin and Josiah so Nathan could stand guard at the door. Chris pulled out a bandana and tied it around Nathan's own bloody wound. He noted the man's clammy features.
"How you doing?"
Nathan nodded. "It ain't bad. Go check on Vin and Josiah."
Chris nodded. "I will, but then I'll take over here, they need you, more." With a pat to the healer's arm, Chris walked over to where Josiah and Vin were seated on the floor. Bank manager Henry Possett stood so that Larabee could get closer. The man in black crouched down.
Vin was upright, but out cold, and though his head was bandaged, he was bleeding through. Josiah was also sitting up, and his large hands held cloths to his leg. He looked at Chris.
"Bullet went through. Nothing Nathan can't fix, if he's able."
Chris glanced back at Nathan. "He's able." He reached out to touch Vin.
"Furrow to the side of his head," Josiah informed. "Broken wing from where he hit the ground, or the porch roof on the way down."
Chris nodded, his eyes never leaving Vin's slack features. "Let's get you all outta here and to the clinic. Can you stand?"
Josiah smiled through his pain. "With help, yes."
Rallying the men in the bank, and any who had ventured into the street, Josiah, with Nathan, was helped to the clinic. With a grunt, Chris hauled Vin over his shoulder and single-handedly carried the lanky tracker out of the bank.
Buck looked up sharply when the injured entourage burst into the clinic. After easing Josiah down onto a cot, Nathan instantly checked on Ezra.
"Damn, him too?" The healer looked at Buck "You?"
The ladies' man grinned. "Nah, always was lucky in a shootout." He noted Chris's raised eyebrow as the blond eased Vin into a large rocking chair. "Mostly."
Buck glanced around at his injured buddies. "Jeez-us."
Nathan looked up from Ezra's supine form. "You did a good job here, Buck. If you and Chris could get water into those there bowls and some fresh cloths…"
Gazes fell on a standing Wilmington. When Buck got no replies, and expressions showed no one had a clue as to where his mini protégé was, he left the room. Chris fingered Vin's bandage before unwrapping it, and silently hoped JD wasn't hurt, too.
Ignoring the undertaker measuring up the dead body in the street, and pushing through the gathering crowds, Buck headed back to where he'd left JD, only to find him gone. Hurrying along the boardwalk, he almost ran Mary Travis over.
"Pardon me, ma'am."
"Buck, does Nathan need help?"
He nodded. "Yes, ma'am, he surely does."
With a nod, she turned to leave.
"You seen JD?"
"Sorry, Buck, no."
Disheartened, but not defeated, Buck continued searching. He came upon the jail and figured it couldn't hurt to check, so he peered inside.
JD looked up from the desk he was leaning over and nodded. "You're okay!" He cried, elatedly, slapping Buck's inquisitive hand away as the gunslinger checked him for holes.
Buck huffed. "Not that you cared enough to come check."
JD jerked his head toward the jail. "I was kinda busy."
Buck stared at the prisoner. "Is that who was shooting at me?"
JD nodded. "From the livery loft. When you got fired on trying to help Vin, I figured out where the shots came from." JD glanced at the prisoner, and Buck noted the haunted look in the boy's eyes. He raised a hand to squeeze the back of JD's neck.
"You did good. Lotta folk would 'a been fooled by appearances." He knew by the kid's demeanor there would need to be more discussion on the matter; but this wasn't the time. "I'll go wire the Judge. Watch your back."
JD nodded, and Buck left.
Buck's musings had taken him to first light. He smiled to himself. No point in worrying about sleep now. With the pot half evaporated from being left to boil, Buck refilled it. Later, when he had three coffees poured, he took one and gently nudged JD awake.
"Hey, sleepy head."
With a jolt, JD awoke. With a blink, he sat up and rubbed his eyes. "My watch already?"
Buck chuckled and mussed the boy's sleep-tussled dark hair. "Nah, you were sleeping so soundly, I left you sawing logs."
JD huffed, and supped appreciatively at the aromatic brew. "I don't snore, Buck."
"No son, you don't."
Buck looked toward the speaker, and on seeing the prisoner awake and sitting up, he stood, collected the third mug of coffee and handed it over. "Appears you slept good, too."
"Have done all my life."
"Guess that shows you ain't got no conscience," JD said, bitterly.
"Boy, don't be judging me. No doubt your ma did what she had to for you to thrive, just as I did whatever was needed for my eight boys."
JD sniffed at the shackled woman. "Yeah, but she didn't need to hurt or kill innocent folk to do so."
Ma Cullen sipped at her coffee. "She was blessed, then. And as for folk getting hurt, if they stay out of our way, they don't."
Momentarily thrown by the woman's mention of having eight boys when only five came to town, Buck joined in. "Your boys have gunned down folk in cold blood, so stop making them out to be innocent in all this."
She shrugged. "Like I said, we do what we need to survive." She looked at JD. "Sorry I don't measure up to your idea of the perfect Ma, son."
JD glared back. "Nowhere near," he rasped, "and I ain't your son." His head turned sharply toward Buck when his best friend spoke.
"I guess you never were gonna share that six or seven of your boys might be heading our way before we hit Coyote Gulch."
Ma Cullen smiled, and continued drinking her coffee.
Buck stood and gestured for JD to follow him. "We need to pack up and go."
"You think they're already out there?" JD asked, uneasily glancing around.
"They'd have hit us last night iffen they were close, but I reckon we're fast running outta time."
JD nodded. He tossed the dregs of his coffee into the fire, and went to prepare the horses.
Ma Cullen watched with interest. She spoke to Buck. "You leave me, and ride on outta here and there'll be no need for bloodshed."
Buck made a face. "Ain't either of us willing to let you go and miss going to trial, and I'd bet my horse those boys would still come after us even if we did leave you."
Ma looked over to JD. "My youngest is older'n him. You wanna sign his death warrant so surely?" She was pleased at the reaction she got.
Buck's stomach clenched and he glared at her. He leaned in close. "Ain't neither of us gonna die 'cause of you, lady."
Ma gave him a cold stare. "You keep me a prisoner, and you most surely will."
Buck passed by her to go help JD. "I ain't usually of a mind to prove a lady wrong, but then again, you ain't no lady."
The woman laughed, but once Buck was gone, her demeanor was anything but happy. 'Come on, boys, Mama wants out.'
Dog-tired, and relieved to have things quiet, Chris glanced around the clinic at his sleeping men. Makeshift pallets ensured all four injured regulators were together. Nathan's injury was bothersome, but not enough to stop him treating the others. However, Chris insisted he got some rest, too.
The blond was pouring his fourth coffee in an hour, when a raspy though familiar voice made him smile.
"One in the pot for me?"
Dragging over another mug, Chris poured a second coffee and joined Vin on his pallet. "How's the head?"
"Judgin' by the way it's poundin', I'd say it's still on my shoulders."
Chris nodded. "That it is. You broke your arm, too."
The Texan gestured to his strapped arm. "Figured."
"You been taking a leaf outta JD's book?"
Vin looked up. "Huh?"
Chris grinned. "'Flying'."
Tanner huffed out a soft laugh and then touched a finger to his bandaged head. He winced. "Can't say I recall much about it."
"How bad?" Vin asked of the others as he stared around the busy room.
"Bad enough, but better than I first feared." He noted a look of dread in Vin's eyes.
"Buck and JD?"
Chris reached out to squeeze the Texan's good shoulder. "They're fine, and taking the leader of the gang that hit us to Coyote Gulch for Trial. Judge Travis is meeting them there."
"They got him?"
Chris paused. "Her. They got her. It's their Ma."
Tiring, Vin rested his head back against the wall. In less than a minute, he was asleep.
Chris went for his gun when the clinic door creaked. He relaxed when Mary appeared and gestured for him to come outside. On the veranda, she took his arm.
"I've been doing some digging through the paper's files, and wired a few papers in some towns the gang has hit. It would seem there are more gang members than rode in here. Witness descriptions have up to seven or eight men."
The nerve in Chris's jaw jumped as he clenched his teeth. "Damn." He put his hand on top of Mary's. "Can you take over here and help Nathan? I need to get after Buck and JD; they may be heading for more trouble than even they can handle."
"Of course, but, they already knew there were three…"
Chris interrupted. "Yeah, we killed one, and injured another two. Figured they could deal with who were left if they came looking. But another five or six…" He pointed.
"Go wire Coyote Gulch and get the Judge to raise a posse to meet up with Buck and JD. When you get back here, I'll leave to go help." He called down over the rail.
The blacksmith came out of the livery and looked up. "Yeah, Mister Larabee?"
"Could you tack up my horse for a long ride?"
Once Mary returned to the clinic, and bringing with her news that the Judge replied and would do as asked, Chris left.
An hour later, Mary entered the clinic with a tray of meals from Gloria Potter. As she was handing the food out, she realized the room was a man down. It became apparent some while later that the missing lawman wasn't simply visiting the outhouse.
Several hours into the trail and Ma Cullen snapped at JD. "Quit staring at me, boy."
Riding alongside the woman, JD actually blushed. "I, it's just that…"
"What? You thinkin' how I don't look like a desperado?" she jibed.
JD shrugged. "Not as such."
She looked over at Buck. "What does he expect one to look like?"
"Hey, I'm right here," JD barked. "And, well, I don't know what I expected from a mother who leads her kin into bad ways."
"You really need to get out more, son," she retorted. "There's a whole lot of bad in the world."
"But Mamas are supposed to be about what's good," JD said with conviction, while Buck smiled fondly, and noted that, for the first time, the woman had no answer.
JD clucked his tongue and rode a few yards ahead. Ma Cullen looked at Buck.
"He really that dumb?"
Heat raced through Buck's body and flared in his gaze. "He ain't dumb, just innocent enough to believe women, 'specially mothers, do no harm. I guess you showed him, huh?"
"Well, seeing as you're watching out for him, I figured you'd 'a told him what to expect by now." She noted Buck's face sadden.
"Ma'am, on this particular subject, I kinda held the same views, so…" he turned his head away from her, "...you showed, me, too."
A shot rang out. Buck grunted and fell forward. He grabbed the horn to keep himself in the saddle. Gun in hand; JD was at his side in an instant. He took the lead reins of Buck's and Ma Cullen's horses.
With a kick to his horse's flanks, he guided them into rocky ground and while riding as hard as they dared, JD led the pair to higher ground. Picking his spot, the young sheriff hauled the prisoner off her horse, sat her down and against a rock face, and then he helped Buck to dismount. The injured brunet leaned heavily on him.
"How bad, Buck?"
"Shoulder," Buck gasped, "But I'm okay. Just put a gun in my hand, point me in the right direction, and I'm good."
JD doubted the 'good' part, but did as he was asked. Soon the pair was firing back at unseen gunfighters in the valley below, while taunts from an elated Ma Cullen flew thick and fast.
Convinced that he was being followed, Chris dismounted and led his horse behind a boulder. He waited, and just as a rider approached, he heard a familiar whistle.
"Vin comin' in."
Chris walked into the open to meet him. "What the hell are you doing off your sickbed and way out here?"
"Good to see you too, Cowboy," Vin drawled.
Mounting up, Larabee scrutinized Vin. "Riding with a bum arm? Shoot, Tanner you look like hell."
"Yeah, kinda feel it, too, but I'd be feelin' a whole lot worse lyin' on my back in that bed, while you, Buck, and JD are out here fightin' the bad guys."
Chris's concerned look searched his friend's eyes. "I can't afford to take it easy, Vin."
Tanner nodded. "Wasn't askin' you to. Come on, all this jawin's wastin' daylight."
With a chuckle, Chris lined up with his friend, and they galloped off.
Using a break in the firing to rest up, Buck gratefully accepted the offered water from his canteen. JD re-plugged it. "How many do you reckon on being out there?" He pushed a cloth against Buck's wound and winced at Buck's groan. "Sorry."
"Don't mind me, do what you gotta do." Buck glanced at Ma Cullen. "At least five, I reckon."
She laughed. "And the rest."
"Lessin' you wanna be gagged, I suggest you keep quiet," Buck hissed.
JD tried not to stare at his mentor, but was a little surprised at the venom in Buck's tone. "Buck…"
"Don't be feeling sorry for her, boy. Those men out there, and this woman, are wanted for murder all over this territory, and beyond. She'd shoot you dead in a heartbeat. You'd do well to remember that."
JD's brow furrowed. "I ain't forgotten, Buck, just…" He nodded. "Sorry."
Buck's smile worked from his heart to his eyes. "Don't be. Wouldn't want you any other way." He gestured to their surroundings. "It'll be full dark, soon. They know we're here, so lighting a low fire ain't gonna hurt us none."
"Sure." Refreshing the cloth over Buck's wound, JD wagged a finger. "Keep some pressure on that."
"Yessir," Buck grinned.
When JD moved out of earshot, Ma spoke. "He's a good lad. He your pup?"
"No, but I'd be no more proud iffen he were."
"So, like I figured earlier, you're lookin' out for him."
"Yes ma'am, for as long as he's willing, and I got breath in my body."
"Well, that won't be too much longer," she warned.
Buck glared back at her. "Not if I can help it."
In the Cullen camp, the youngest brother, Lyle, was getting antsy. "Why are we just waiting around like this? We got 'em cornered. Let's go get Ma."
The oldest, Sam, shook his head. "Ma done told me if ever we were in this situation, we wait on her signal."
"Dunno, but we're gonna wait, just like she told us to."
"All night?" Lyle whined.
"If that's what she wants, yeah." Sipping on his coffee, Sam looked up at the top of the rocky arroyo. "Come on, Ma, give us a sign."
The next morning Mary stood in the middle of the clinic holding three pairs of boots.
"Give them back," Josiah growled.
"No. No more of you are leaving here. You're not fit to ride…any of you."
"Our compadres may be in need of our assistance," Ezra rasped.
"You try leaving here, and you'll be needing assistance," Mary warned. Her stance softened. "While I commend your courage, loyalty and concern, you will be of no help if you bleed to death, or pass out before you reach them."
"I'm not too hurt," Nathan challenged.
"Not as such, but you bled some, and you haven't stopped working since you were injured. You need rest, Nathan."
There was a collective sigh. She was right, but it stung to know they couldn't help.
"You can help by getting well for their return. Who knows what they may encounter out there."
Realizing she had likely just made things worse, she opened the door and tossed the boots over the rail. It never hurt to be cautious.
Tanner and Larabee had ridden all night. The gray, pre-dawn light slowly brightened, and Chris waited patiently while Vin used his spyglass.
"I can see smoke from two fires up ahead. One in the high ground, one low."
"No prizes for guessing which is which," Chris commented.
"Good two hours ride," Vin replied as he stowed the instrument into his sling.
"Best get going, then. You sure you're up for this?"
Tanner shrugged. "Nope, but I ain't stoppin' now."
Seated on his bedroll with his gun trained on their prisoner, JD glanced toward Buck who was asleep propped against a rock. Well, he hoped he was sleeping, but feared he may have passed out.
"Let me free boy and you can save you and your partner."
JD looked up at the lightening sky. "Can't do that. You have a trial to get to."
"My boys will get to me long before my neck is stretched on a rope."
The youth made a face at the image her words projected. "Maybe, guess we'll see."
She smiled. "Plucky li'l thing, ain't ya? I'll bet your mama's real proud of you."
JD swallowed and glanced at her. "Yeah, I'd like to think so."
Ma coughed. "Could I get me some water, son?"
His gun never wavering, JD stood, stretched his stiff limbs, and reached for a canteen. He first walked over to Buck. "Hey, Buck. Water?"
Buck's eyes flickered open and he smiled and nodded before gratefully taking a few gulps. "Thanks, Kid."
JD nodded and moved to the prisoner. "You hungry, ma'am? I got jerky in my saddlebag." He reached out to offer the canteen.
She raised her shackled hands to take it. "That would be good, thank you." The canteen dropped from her fingers. "Oh!"
JD bent to get it, and in that moment her outstretched arms slipped over his head. One foot kicked at his knees, buckling his legs, and with a quick twist of his falling body, she pulled back her shackles against his throat, choking the young sheriff. Buck struggled to his feet and swayed dizzily, even as he aimed his gun at her.
"Let him go."
JD choked and his fingers scraped fruitlessly at the tightening chain. Ma increased the pressure and made sure she kept JD directly in front of her. "Never gonna happen. He'll be dead before you kill me, so drop your gun."
"Last warning. Let him go!"
"COME AND GET ME BOYS, IT'S TIME!"
Ma smiled. "His life for mine." She pulled tighter and JD struggled for breath before he started to wilt. "What's it to be, Lawman?"
"YOU BOYS COME UP HERE, AND SHE'S DEAD!" Buck hollered out. He glared at the woman. "Two can play at that game."
She pulled JD back tightly against her, kissed his head and stared back at the ladies' man. The boy stopped struggling and she smiled. "We sure can."
The instant he saw JD fade, Buck's hand relaxed and his gun swung on his trigger finger. He raised his hands and took a step forward to give up his sidearm, but suddenly jolted at the sound of a gunshot. A moment later and right before his eyes he watched Ma's head explode. Buck turned sharply to see Chris and Vin were hunkered down at the top of the arroyo, only it was the former with the rifle in his hand.
The wobbly brunet dropped to his knees and released JD from his stranglehold. As Buck wiped the spatter and gore from the boy's face and hair with the sleeve of his jacket, he realized JD wasn't breathing. He shook the youth hard.
"Damnit, Kid, breathe!"
When JD didn't, Buck raised a hand and slapped him hard across the face. His eyes welled when JD gasped, and then coughed. Buck pulled the boy he considered a brother in close. He heard JD release a soft moan.
"That's my boy, easy now."
By the time Vin and Chris joined them, distant gunshots heralded the arrival of the Coyote Gulch posse. Chris dismounted and looked his struggling friends over, and then to the bloody body of Ma Cullen.
"Well, looks like there'll be a Cullen trial, but not for her." He smiled tightly when JD's confused gaze looked up at him. Buck just looked… beat.
"Come on, let's finish this, and go home."
It was four days on from the gang's attack on the town, and from their seats on the boardwalk, Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan smiled on seeing familiar riders coming into town. All but a still weakened Ezra stood to greet them, and all were dismayed by their friends' disheveled appearances, and brooding demeanors.
Like Nathan, Ezra, and Vin, Buck's arm was in a sling, and he was pale. Vin looked gray, Chris, tired, and JD was sporting the darkest of blue bruises on his throat and neck that they had ever seen. Yosemite was instantly next to the group and offering to take their horses. The four men nodded, gratefully. Josiah spoke.
"Welcome home, brothers. Tough journey?"
"Yeah," Chris nodded. "Let's get a drink, then we'll talk."
JD looked back at them and thumbed toward the boarding house. "I'm gonna get me some sleep," he said, huskily. "You should be resting, too, Buck. You lost a lot of blood out there."
"Soon, Kid," Buck replied as he watched him shuffle off.
"Not the usual clarity and volume we're accustomed to from Mister Dunne," Ezra pointed out.
"Saloon," Chris urged. He wanted to get this over with, so he, Vin, and Buck could also rest up.
Seated at their table, the five men watched Buck as he dallied at the bar. Josiah eyed his recently returned friends. "I take it Buck and JD have been more than physically affected by recent events."
Chris knocked back his whiskey, grimaced, and then nodded. "I don't think women in the roll of desperado sits too well with them."
"I think we were all a mite shocked when we learned who JD locked up in that jail," Nathan stated.
"JD said from a distance she looked like a man. If Ma Cullen hadn't been caught, no one might ever have known who the brains behind the gang was," Vin drawled, tiredly.
Buck joined them, and all five touched their hats.
"How you doing, Pard?" Chris asked.
"Been better, but I'll get past it. I always do." He glanced toward the doors. "Just hope the kid can, too."
"I doubt it will be the last villainous female he will encounter," Ezra mused. "After all, he hasn't met Mother, yet."
The tension melted as the men chuckled.
"How'd you both get hurt?" Nathan enquired as he leaned over to examine Buck's shoulder.
"Cullen gang bushwhacked us and I got hit." Buck smiled. "The kid did great. Got us to high ground." He shook his head. "Darned ole biddy sure was a piece of work. Was just biding her time 'til her boys got there." Buck shuddered. "She got the kid, good. He almost…" Buck looked at Chris.
"Good shooting, Stud. Sure glad JD didn't see it, though."
Larabee raised an eyebrow. "Just glad I made the shot, since ole 'eagle-eye' Tanner was seeing double at the time."
After a wry grin, Buck drank his whiskey and stood. "Think I'll go check on JD before I get me some shut-eye."
Nathan held his wrist. "Meet me at the clinic after you've visited with JD, I need to check that wound."
There was hesitation from Buck, and then he nodded.
Still suffering with infirmity from his own injury, Ezra gingerly stood up. "Buck, may I speak with JD a few minutes before you?"
Buck looked into the southerner's eyes and after a few moments, he nodded. With an extended hand, he gestured for Ezra to go ahead but not without a look warning him to go easy, before the usually lithe gambler shuffled off. Buck looked at Nathan.
"I guess I'll take that checkup now, Pard."
Perched on the edge of his bed, JD stared at the photo of his mama that he held in his hand. He sat quietly, while silently thanking all that was Holy that his mother had done right by him. At first, he'd considered maybe Ma Cullen was forced into such a life, as she suggested, but now he figured she was just plain mean to the bone. His head turned on hearing a knock at his door.
"Come in," he rasped, his throat sore and a little swollen from his encounter with Ma Cullen. A frown formed when, instead of Buck, as he'd expected, it was Ezra. JD instantly stood. "Is Buck okay?" he asked, huskily.
"Yes, yes, Mister Wilmington's health is no worse than when you last saw him." Ezra signaled for JD to sit. "It was as to your wellbeing I was enquiring." He pointed to the bed. "May I?"
JD nodded, and Ezra placed a comforting hand to his wound as he sat down.
JD's gaze was drawn to the grimace of pain from the man. "How's the shoulder?" he asked.
"Healing nicely, thank you. How is your throat?"
Raising a hand to gingerly touch the welts and bruises on his neck, JD shrugged. "I'm fine, thanks."
"Of course you are," Standish said, knowingly.
The youth looked at the gambler. "Really, my throat's fine – but it hurts to talk, is all. Is that why you're here, to ask after me?"
"It is, and also to give you some insight." Ezra composed himself. "My mother, bless her frozen heart, has the nurturing ability of a coyote to a rabbit. Her idea of life skills was to teach me to cheat, steal, and swindle folk out of their hard-earned finances, and how to think on my feet so I may live long enough in order to use those skills. Do I wish she had occasionally taken me in her arms, or read to me at bedtime, and sung me to sleep? Indubitably. Do I love her, despite her lack of compassion for such maternal things?" He smiled.
"Absolutely, as I also have no doubt that, in her own way, she loves me." He noted JD's confusion of Ezra's conversational topic.
"The Cullen boys' home life, such as it was; was all they knew. I have no doubt in my mind that their mother loved them, as they too loved her. It showed in the way they followed her every whim, even when death was a possibility." He touched JD's arm.
"When it comes to mothers, you, my friend have been blessed. Buck too, I think. Hold onto that. Your mother was a good woman in ways myself and the Cullens can only dream of. Women like Maude, and most definitely Ma Cullen, are rarer than you might fear."
JD pondered the southerner's words for several long moments. "Thanks, Ezra."
The southerner slowly rose. "You are most welcome. Will I see you at breakfast tomorrow?"
JD's grin appeared. "You'll be up that early?"
Ezra returned the smile. "You have my word."
JD wondered if he was teasing. He shrugged and decided to let the new dawn answer that.
Ezra closed the door and stepped out into the corridor to see Buck emerge from the shadows.
"Real nice, Pard."
Standish touched his freshly appointed hat. "Don't ever let Mother hear you say that." With a warm handshake between them, Ezra went downstairs.
Buck knocked the door and went on in. JD was about to step out of his pants.
"Jeeze, Buck!" he rasped, hurriedly balling up the material and placing it strategically in front of his body.
"Settle down, Kid, ain't the first time I seen your draws." He sat on the bed.
JD scooped up his hat for added coverage. "Uh, can I help you with something?"
Buck laughed. "Not dressed like that." He waited for JD to climb hastily into bed and then went serious. "How are you doing?"
"Me? I'm fine, Buck, why?"
"Well, after..." he touched his throat,"...after what you suffered an' all."
JD made a face and pointed to Buck's shoulder. "Reckon we're on equal footing there, don'tcha think?"
Buck nodded. "Close to, I guess." He eyed the boy. "You're really okay?"
JD nodded. "Uh huh."
"Good, good." His glistening gaze caught JD's.
JD climbed out of bed and snatched up his pants off the chair. "Buck? What is it?"
"Well, seeing as you are…doing okay, I..." Buck swallowed, hard. "D'you think you could help me through it, Li'l Brother?"
JD felt emotion clogging his throat. Pulling on his pants, he sat down next to Buck, and stayed still and quiet for a few moments before he gently nudged the man. Buck smiled, and put his arm around JD's shoulders.
"Thanks, Kid," he whispered.
JD gently leaned into the tall man's hold. "Anytime," he croaked in reply.
Mary walked through the bustling main street and handed out the newest edition of the Clarion newspaper. Its headlines and lexis told the tale of how the Cullen gang was rounded up to stand trial for their crimes, and how this particular bad element was finally brought to justice by . . .
. . . Seven Magnificent Men.
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