Magnificent Seven Old West
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Solomon's Choice

by Marilyn Crawford

Summary: Buck is heartbroken when he has to choose between two people to save from a roaring river. As JD is fighting for his life after his near-drowning, Buck and the other members of the Magnificent Seven struggle with the consequences of Buck's choice.


Chapter One

Hunched in the rickety chair in Four Cornerís clinic, Buckís blue eyes shut briefly as he gave into his weariness and pain. Just as quickly, they opened, focusing intently on the unconscious figure lying in the bed beside him. Buck stroked the dark hair with his right hand and clasped the boyís hand with his left. Tears filled his eyes. How could he be happy one minute and sad the next? Conflicting emotions kept him in torment, washing over him like the surf from the ocean. The boy, his surrogate little brother, had not stirred, not when Buck had rescued him and carried him to safety and not in the hours Buck had been at his bedside. Nathan was outside, answering the call of nature and dealing with his own anguish. Josiah sat across the room, praying. Buck, not a praying man ordinarily. had been praying continually since his ordeal began. How can you be happy about half an answer? he thought. Buck wondered if Chris had been given the choice to save either Adam or Sarah Ė but not both, who would he have chosen? And would saving one of them be enough for Chris? Would Chris be happy or so guilt-ridden over the one he didnít save? What kind of a choice is that to make? Anger coursed through Buckís veins. He cursed silently, vehemently at the fate that had led him to this moment. Two scared faces, both shouting for help, trusting Buck to save the day. Buck, wasting no time as he ran, fell and tumbled in his hurry to get to the raging river and screaming out their names while praying he would be quick enough to save both of them . . . .

Despite his best efforts, that hadnít happened. Time and the inhuman, capricious river worked against him. As he flung his boots, hat and jacket off to dive in the swirling rapids, he could only swim in one direction. He swam so fast he could have easily beaten anyone else in the world despite his pounding heart and ragged breaths as he choked from the merciless rapids. Reaching the now unconscious JD as he was tossed from rock to rock much like a limp rag doll; righting him; swimming madly after the second face; seeing the terrified eyes and hearing the desperate plea for help, and then the crushing reality of knowing he could not hold onto JD and still catch the other.

"Iíll be back! Hold on! Gotta get JD to shore!" he had yelled, again swimming against the rapids as quickly as possible, then dragging the dripping JD onto the bank, checking quickly for JDís faint heartbeat as he lay his head by JDís chest, and then running along the bank, searching, searching for the other one and not seeing anything but swirling water . . .

Buck groaned. Josiah rose put his hands on Buckís shoulders. "Why?" Buck moaned. "Why?"

"There is no answer to that, Buck. All I know is that you had Solomonís choice."

"Solomon?"

"King Solomon, Buck." Josiah quietly told Buck the story of King Solomon and the two prostitutes who came to him, asking him to judge which one had lost their baby, and which one was the true mother of the one living baby. Buck half listened, but in the end choked out, "At least justice won out and the mother got her baby back. This is different, Josiah. I made a choice Ė and JD hasnít woken up yet. I donít know if he ever will. And saving JD and letting . . . letting," Buck broke down, burying his head in his hands.

Ezra Standish entered the room and waited at the doorway, his face solemn as he exchanged a quick glance and shake of the head with Josiah. "Mr. Wilmington Ė Buck," he said softly, "Please allow me to express my insignificant condolences for the turmoil you have experienced and my heartfelt wishes for our young colleagueís speedy recovery."

Buck raised his head and said dully, "Never know exactly what you are saying, Ezra --- but thanks."

Ezra inclined his head and then drew closer to the dark-haired boy lying white and still. "Is JD any better?"

Nathan entered the room, checked JD carefully for any signs of improvement and then sighed. "No change."

Buck moaned, rose and uncharacteristically fled the room as Nathan and Ezra gazed after him in surprise.

"Mr. Wilmington rarely leaves JDís side when the boy is injured," Ezra commented.

Josiah sighed. "Buck will never forgive himself for the decision he made Ė especially if JD does not recover."

"He thought he could save both," Nathan added. "And he couldnítóbut if his efforts to save JD are in vain . . ."

"Then we have lost more than one of our friends," Josiah finished bitterly. He thought of Buckís anguished question and as he looked at JD, it came back to him. WHY?

Chapter Two

"Absolutely perfect!" Mary Travis pronounced as she took a bite of the apple pie placed on the red-checkered tablecloth. The pretty blonde took another bite, savoring it and sighing. "Mine are never this good. And Billyís favorite pie is apple. What is your secret?"

The gray-haired woman smiled through her many wrinkles. "Start with good apples."

Mary laughed merrily. "Oh, Nettie. You know it is more than that." She stood up. "I donít blame you if you want to keep it a secret. That must be the reason you win the pie contest in town time after time." She shot an arched glance at Nettie. "Maybe I could borrow some of your apples Ė for Billy?"

Nettieís eyes twinkled. Mary Travis was a beautiful, smart woman but not always the most subtle one. Nettie had known from the minute Mary arrived that her purpose was to wheedle some of Nettieís apples. But she didnít mind. "Speaking of the youngíun of yours, last time he was visitiní, I found him up in my apple tree, stuffing as many apples in his shirt as his mouth while holdiní on like a monkey. Fair gave me a turn."

Mary sighed. "Iíll speak to Billy about that. Billy has been giving me scares here and there Ė trying to grow up too fast. Taking chances. He fell off into the water trough yesterday. He keeps begging me to take him fishing. Iím teaching him to swim and he is great at it Ė but doesnít understand why I wonít let him go alone." For a moment a frown furrowed her brows. Then she smiled. "But I donít know Ė I may just do the same and climb the apple tree - a fall would be worth it if I get some of those apples," she finished with a silvery laugh.

Again, the shrewd brown eyes appraised Mary. Nettie liked Mary. And she knew of Maryís fondness for Chris Larabee. Chris Ė Nettie could not figure out why Chris did not court Mary. She knew he was attracted to her, and Chris loved Billy. Billy could use a father; his grandfather was so often away on business. Maybe Chris was afraid to have a family again for fear of getting hurt, though Lord knows the five men and the boy he commanded could sure be like children . . .

Nettie Wells! She caught herself. Ainít none of your business. You have work to do without match-making, and Casey is a handful enough, making eyes at that clueless boy-child JD. She saw Mary watching her and stopped her wool-gathering.

"Plenty in the bucket by the table without you riskiní your neck, Mrs. Travis or that young scamp of yours. Supposiní as you got what you came fer, youíll be headiní back to town. Landís sake, I gotta get on with the chores. Casey ainít back yet from getting supplies from Mrs. Potter. Probably dwaddliní, head in the clouds. Youíre welcome to stay here and have some more of that pie if you like."

"So I would," Mary said demurely.

"Suspected so," Nettie said tartly, but with a grin as she went past Mary to the barn.

Mary supposed she ought to feel guilty eating another piece of pie instead of helping Nettie, but she was tired from a long week in town and the strain of running the paper. Chris had not dropped by once and Mary was surprised how much his visits had meant, not just to Billy but her. She was planning a dinner on Sunday and inviting Chris. It would be Billyís tenth birthday, and she felt Chris would not refuse Billy; thus the visit to Nettie Wells. Billy was with Mrs. Potter because of his recent disobedience, she hated doing it, but knew he would miss seeing Nettie, so he would think before crossing her again. After another piece of pie, she hadnít had breakfast or lunch, Mary excused herself, she gathered the bucket of apples and headed to the front door. When she put her right hand on the handle and pulled it open, she was startled to see a man in black standing there.

Chrisís green eyes, as he lifted them from the hat he held in his hands, were just as startled. "Mary . . ."

Maryís mouth opened, taking in a quick glance the solemn and sad look reflected in Chrisí eyes, his hat in his hands, the gentle way he had said her name and then -- "Oh, no!" she screamed suddenly, dropping the bucket of apples and staggering forward, "Oh, no! Billy!"

Chris caught ahold of her as she stumbled and fell against him.

Chapter Three

"Címon, JD," Nathan urged softly as he shook the boy gently. "Give us something. Open those eyes. Come back to us, Kid."

Nothing. Ezra stirred, uneasily. "Donít think the lad would be any whiter or stiller in his coffin . . ."

"EZRA!" Josiahís voice boomed, causing Ezra to jump.

"Sorry, Josiah, Nathan," Ezra apologized. "I was just thinking aloud. I just wish the lad would give us some positive movements. Itís killing Mr. Wilmington for him to be so still."

"Not the only thing bothering Buck," Nathan rebuked.

Ezra inclined his head. "Yes, but if the lad would just be all right, it would greatly ease Mr. Wilmingtonís distress. He thinks of that boy like a little brother Ė well, like we all do."

Surprised to hear that admission from Ezra, Josiah clamped a big hand on Ezraís shoulder. "That we do, Ezra. Although the lad is so young, sometimes my feelings are a bit more paternal . . ."

Nathan wasnít surprised to hear that. Josiah was very protective of JD, calling him "son" and comforting and encouraging him.

"Iím almost as worried about Buck as I am JD," Nathan admitted. "Buck is hanging by a thread right now. But if JD doesnít show any improvement soon," and Nathan shook his head at the thought of what might happen.

Josiah moved to stand before the pale boy and gently stroked the dark hair much as Buck always did. "God be with you, my son," he said gently. Then he straightened. "Iíll keep JD in my prayers. Thatís all I can do now to help him. Iíll see what I can do to help Buck."

After a brief search, Buck was located in the bar, a mug of beer beside him and an untouched meal. Buckís head was buried in his hands and he was shaking

Inez Recillos was at the bar, pretending to wipe it down, but her eyes, sad and concerned never left Buckís form.

Josiah pulled up a chair and sat by Buck, who didnít move. "Looks like Inez surpassed herself cooking for you," he said, taking a couple of appreciative bites.

Buck raised his head, "JD?"

"No change, brother."

Inez moved towards them and put gentle hands on Buckís shoulders. "Señor Buck," she started. "I am so sorry. You must not blame yourself. Please try to eat something."

There was no trace of flirting in Buckís face or his dull eyes. "Oh, thanks, Inez, itís not the food Ė everything just tastes like dust to me. . ." and he took a swipe at his eyes. "Even the beer tastes as awful as one of Nathanís teas," and he tried to smile, but it ended up as a grimace.

A compassionate look passed between Josiah and Inez. "Señor Sanchez, how is the chiquito?"

"Iím afraid there hasnít been a change, Inez."

Inez took a breath, crossed herself. "I will say a prayer and light a candle for him. And you, too, Señor Buck and . . ."

"Praying!" Buck jumped up, sweeping the mug from the table and letting it shatter on the floor as he turned angry eyes on both of them. "Praying! I prayed, too! I asked God to help me save them both! I asked him! And look what happened! He didnít answer. JD ainít better, my little brother, and . . . and . . ." and he began to sob as he turned blindly towards the door.

"Buck," Josiah began, grabbing Buckís left arm.

"No!" Buck roared, jerking away. "I donít want any preaching! Just let me alone! I just wish it had been me that died, me!"

"Señor Buck," Inez pleaded, facing the grieving man. "Señor Buck, JD needs you. He is alone except for you and the others Ė but it is you he looks up to and loves the most Ė you must stay strong for JD!"

Josiah held his breath, but Buckís eyes and face seemed to respond to her plea. "JD," he said softly. "Of course Iíll take care of JD. JD needs me. I gotta go to him." Still wobbly, still dazed, Buck left the saloon.

"Madre de Dios," Inez said and repeated. "Madre de Dios."

"I couldnít have said it better, Inez," Josiah agreed softly.

Chapter Four

Nettie Wells hurried from the barn as she heard Mary scream. She took in the scene wordlessly. Chris had eased Mary in the rocker and was soothing her. Maryís eyes were still wide with terror and her breaths were ragged.

"Mr. Larabee," Nettie greeted.

Chrisí eyes traveled from the still shaking Mary to Nettie, who stood stoically and waited.

Chris sighed. "There was an accident at the river."

"Billy," Mary began.

"Mary, I didnít know you were here. The buggy must be in the barn. I havenít seen Billy. Is he in town?"

"With Gloria." Maryís breaths finally slowed. "You didnít come because something happened to Billy? When I saw you standing there looking so sad . . "

Chris shook his head. Mary sighed with relief. Chris looked up at Nettie, whose right hand moved above her heart and he knew she understood, though she merely waited.

"I donít have all the details. Buck, well, Buck is still in shock. He was riding and heard shouts and went into the river. It has been swollen from the recent rains Ė well, Buck saw two people and tried to save both of them. He reached the first, pulled him out and went back, but lost sight of the second. JD, well, JD is in Nathanís clinic. He was unconscious when Buck reached him and he is still out."

Mary had lifted her head, eyes fixed on Chris. Nettie Wells waited.

Chris silently cursed. "Iím sorry, Nettie. Casey . . . Casey was the second person. Buck couldnít reach her."

Nettie Wells was a pioneer woman, born and raised during hard times. She didnít flinch, even though inside it felt as if a light had gone out of her. Mary stood, tears in her eyes as she hugged Nettie. "Iím so sorry, Nettie."

Nettie allowed the embrace, then reached for her hat and coat. "Iíd like to go to town, Mr. Larabee. Get some answers."

"You can ride with me," Mary immediately offered. Her eyes met Chris in silent anguish. Chris nodded.

Chapter Five

Buck stared into the sky as he sat on the porch by the saloon, untouched drink in his hand. He had sat there, unmoving for the past ten minutes. Josiah, heading from the church where he had lit candles for JD and Casey, started towards him when a rider pulled up by him.

"Vin. Didnít expect you back until later."

"I heard," Vin said briefly. "JD?"

"Still unconscious. Nathan is worried. You know he had a cold before this and with the bump on his head and the water he swallowed. . . " Josiahís voice trailed off. "Buck is beside himself. Iíve never seen him in such torment, not since Mattie shot JD and we thought we would lose him."

"Iíll talk to him and check on JD." Vin gave Josiah a quick pat on the arm, then moved to sit beside Buck, who gave no sign of noticing.

Buck finally said, without looking over. "Just shoot me, Vin."

"Why would I do that, Bucklin?"

"You know what happened, Vin?"

"Tell me."

And Buck did, feeling the anguish all over again at his failure to save Casey Wells, not to mention his concern that JD was not going to live.

Vin listened quietly, passing no judgment. When Buck stopped, he asked, "So you got to JD first? And he was unconscious while Casey was still swimming and battling?"

"I thought I could get JD to shore Ė he was being tossed around like a rag doll, heíd drown for sure if I didnít Ė but Casey, I should have gone to her. She looked strong, I know she can swim, but sheís just a girl, Vin and . . ."

ĎAnd JD is your little brother,í Vin thought. Either way, he knew Buck would blame himself. Not saving a girl . . . Casey, especially, or not saving JD who would have surely have drowned if Buck had not pulled him out . . .

Buck rubbed his face as he slumped. "What would you have done, Vin?"

"The best I could, just like you did, Buck. Buck, I donít blame you. Does anyone know why JD and Casey were in the river? Both should know better than to mess with a swollen river like that."

Buck shook his head dully. "I donít know, Vin. If JD donít wake up Ė we may never know. I . . . I canít lose him, Vin."

Vin gave him a sympathetic shoulder squeeze. "Bucklin, JDís tough. Heíll lick this. Iím going to see him and then Iíll find Casey."

Buck gazed at his friend and then down at the porch, shame showing in his face. "Thanks, Vin. I just couldnít leave JD until I know heís okay."

Both rose and walked to the clinic. Opening the door, they could see Nathan frowning by JDís bed as he checked the boyís forehead.

Vin nodded to Nathan and went to the left side of the bed and Buck went to the right. Buck stroked JDís dark hair. "Hey, kid. Open them eyes for oleí Buck."

Vin bent over and grasped JDís hand. "Hey, kid. Youíre working Nathan too hard. Come back to us now before Josiah burns down the church with all them candles heís lightiní."

JD turned his head and moaned, but his eyes remained shut.

"Heís feverish," Nathan informed them, even though they could tell by the flushed face and sweat on his body. "Keep sponging him down, Buck. If he wakes, I have tea all ready for him to drink to help with the fever."

"Hell, Nathan, as bad as your tea tastes, he wonít wake so he doesnít have to drink it," Vin tried to lighten the mood. But the look on Buckís stricken face made him regret his words instantly. Vin motioned Nathan to come outside the room. Ezra joined them holding a tray with food and drink.

"Mr. Jackson, I thought you may need nourishment. Inez sent this and her best wishes for our lad."

"Thanks, Ezra. If you put it on the table, Iíll eat in a minute."

Vin nodded to Ezra and waited for Ezra to put the tray down and step back outside. He said softly, "Iím going to search for Casey. It ainít right to leave her in the river. Nettie would want," and his voice broke. "Sheíll want to give her a proper burial."

Ezra and Nathan nodded sadly as their eyes moved to JDís still form, hoping there would not be the need for another burial.

Ezra swallowed hard, and said tentatively, "Can I be of assistance, Mr. Tanner? Mr. Jackson and Mr. Wilmington will need to remain with JD, but I would like to make myself useful."

Vinís blue eyes searched Ezraís face, sensing that Ezra was having a hard time dealing with the tragedy. "Yes, thanks, Ez."

Ezra swallowed hard. "Iíll give my regards to young JD, and meet you at the stables."

Vin had walked out to the porch and paused as he spotted a familiar rider and horse with a buggy trailing behind him. Vin groaned, feeling he would rather face a whole outlaw gang than this. But he stood still as Chris dismounted and tied his horse, then helped both Mary and Nettie down. Nettieís eyes met Vinís and he saw the anguish behind her stern face. He pulled off his hat. "Maíam, Iím so sorry about Casey."

"Thank you, Vin." Nettie glanced at Mary. "I want to see the boy."

"Iíll come with you," Mary offered gently.

When they left, Chris looked at Vin. "Iím going to find Casey."

Chris nodded, noticing Ezra riding up on Chaucer. Ezra tipped his hat.

"Ezra and I will be back as soon as we can." Vin tilted his face in the direction of the clinic. "Buckís going to need you, Chris. Heís falliní apart more and more." Vin could tell Chris wanted to come with them, but just as Chris had taken it as his duty to inform Nettie Wells about Casey, he also knew his duty was with his oldest friend and youngest peacekeeper.

Chris wearily turned away. Josiah hurried to catch up as he exited the church, glancing as Vin and Ezra rode past.

"You told her?"

Chris nodded. All of the peacekeepers, as well as the rest of the town, were fond of Casey Wells. The innocent relationship between young JD and Casey was a topic of fond amusement. To think of the spirited girl as dead would bring sorrow to the entire town.

Josiah put his large hand on Chrisí shoulder. "Itís hard, brother."

"Yeah."

"If we lose JD Ė weíre going to lose Buck, too. Heís hanging by a thread now."

"Nettie Wells and Mary are on their way to the clinic. Things are going to get harder for Buck."

"Then weíd best check on him and JD." Both men turned, dreading this more than any gunfight.

Chapter Six

Buck didnít even notice at first when Mary and Nettie entered the room. Both women stood silently, watching as the sunken-eyed Buck stroked JDís raven hair tenderly as he clasped JDís left hand. "Come back to me, little brother. Donít worry oleí Buck like this. Open them eyes and get well, and then Iíll tan you like a little kid for swimming in that river."

Chris and Josiah walked silently to Buck, Chris putting a supporting hand on Buckís left shoulder. "Buck," he said softly, shocked at the pain on Buckís face when Buck turned to him.

"Hey, Chris," he answered dully. "I messed up, Chris. Messed up bad." He turned back to look at JD.

"Buck, we have company," Chris said quietly.

Chris didnít miss the look of panic and then resignation that showed on Buckís face, but Buck stood, facing the women as if he were a man going to his execution.

Maryís green eyes shown with compassion and Nettie stood stoically, looking from Buckís anguished face to the boy in the cot.

"Mary, Mrs. Wells, youíll never know how sorry I am about Casey," he struggled to say without his voice cracking in pain. "I . . . I donít blame you if you hate me . . . if I could have done anything differently . . . that dear little girl . . ."

None of the people in the room could fail to see the pain in Buckís face or not hear the sincerity in his voice.

"I hear tell it was an accident, Mr. Wilmington," Nettie said crisply, hiding the anguish she was feeling. "Howís the boy? My Casey thought a lot of that young man, foolish children both of Ďem. Sheíd want him to be all right."

"No change, Maíam," Nathan answered. "Weíre all so sorry, Mrs. Wells. Just donít make sense for JD or Casey to be in that river. Both are young and reckless, but . . ."

Mary said absently, "I just canít understand it, either. Now my Billy . . ."

"Billy!" JD screamed suddenly from the cot. "Billy, no!"

Everyone had jumped as JD had sat up in the bed, face sweaty from fever and hazel eyes glazed, breaths coming rapidly.

"JD," Chris tried to soothe. "Take it easy, son."

"Chris?" JDís hands clawed at Chrisí shirt. "Whereís Casey? Casey, no! Let me! Itís too dangerous!"

Buck reappeared at JDís side, stroking his hair and trying to soothe him. "Easy, JD."

Maryís heart seemed to stop when JD cried out, now she rushed to the bed, pleading, "Billy! JD, whereís Billy? What happened?"

JDís eyes fluttered, losing his battle with consciousness as he now clung to Buck, "Casey. Whereís Casey?"

"JD, sheís gone," Chris said softly.

"No! No, Chris! Not Casey! Casey, hold on, Iíll get you, Casey!" And with another heart-rending scream, JD fell back into the cot.

Chapter Seven

For several minutes, Vin and Ezra searched the river bank, looking for any sign of Casey.

"Itís so fast-moving, it could have swept her a long ways," Ezra broke the silence.

Vin frowned, thinking. He went back to where Buck said he had jumped in. He could see the signs where Buck had jumped in and further down where Buck had dragged JD to shore, and further back where it appeared JD and Casey had rode up. JDís boots still lay on the ground, Buck apparently in his haste not gathering them up. But other things made him pause. A simple fishing stick with a line, discarded near the river.

"They were fishing?" Ezra asked incredulously when Vin showed it to him.

"Think, Ezra. First, JD and Casey would know not to fish in the rapids; two, this is a pole too small for either of them. Itís a childís fishing pole. And the reed for the pole is still pretty new."

"So whereís the child? Good Lord. Is that why JD and Casey were in the water? Trying to rescue a child?"

"Likely," Vin answered.

Ezra was stunned at the idea there could be a third victim.

"I found the tracks where Buck dragged JD to the bank. But I donít see any signs of anyone else on this side."

"Mr. Tanner. What about the other side?"

"Good thinkiní Ez. Letís find a place to cross. Keep your eyes for any signs across the river."

"Like itíd do good against your abnormally excellent vision, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, sounding a bit more Ezra-ish. "Anything else?"

"Pray."

Chapter Eight

After scanning the area for a safer crossing, Vin and Peso plunged across the river to a group of small bushes. Hearing sounds of anguish, he dismounted and came upon a blond-haired boy, face stained with tears and terror.

"Billy," Vin greeted with relief. "Are you all right?" He knelt beside the distraught boy.

Billy Travis shook his head. His face showed anguish and tracks of tears nine-year-old Billy thought he was too old to shed. Vin stood up, waving his hat as a signal to Ezra who crossed as well. Billy looked from Vin to Ezra, who brought a small blanket to wrap around him. "Come on, Billy, weíll get you back to town."

"Canít go," Billy mumbled. "My fault Ė theyíll hate me."

"Who will hate you, Billy?" Ezra asked, noting the distress on Billyís face. "Everyone will be glad to see you, Iím sure they are all worried about you, especially Chris and your mother."

"Chris will hate me," Billy broke down. "Itís my fault. They were saving me Ė I got startled and fell in. JD and Casey . . . got me out . . . but, but . . . JDís dead!" he screamed suddenly.

"Listen to me," Vin said sternly. "JD is not dead."

Billy shook his head in denial. "I saw him. Buck got him out, but he wasnít moving. Itís my fault he is dead. And Casey . . ."

"What about Casey, Billy?"

"I tried, Vin! I tried! Casey was stuck on a branch and I pulled and pulled to get her out." His voice broke.

As Billyís voice faltered, Ezra brought some water to Billy and then prodded him gently, "Do you know where Casey is now?"

Billy nodded and pointed to some nearby bushes. Taking a deep breath, Vin walked over to look down at Casey and as he did, a tear dropped from his eyes.

Ezra, deeply moved, was tending to Billy, reassuring him that no one would hate him, not even JDís surrogate big brother, Buck. "Letís get them back to town, Mr. Tanner."

"Yeah," Vin answered. "We need to check on JD."

Conclusion

Chris had never felt so tired as he did now, excepting the time of Sarah and Adamís death. He was feeling pulled in some many direction, worry about JD and whether the boy would recover; worry about Buck, clearly cracking under the strain of despair and guilt, sorrow over Casey and Nettie; and now Billy and Mary. Mary had flown down the stairs at the clinic to check with Gloria Potter, hoping JD was delirious; but Gloria could not find Billy and was horrified that Billy had gone to the river while she was busy with customers though her two children were supposed to help watch Billy. Chris had persuaded Mary that Vin and Ezra would find Billy and he would be all right (at least Chris was hoping so) and that he would go let Vin and Ezra know about Billy as soon as Mary calmed down. Mary, though not used to being kept out of the action, was so emotionally drained that she and Nettie sat outside on the porch, both dabbing at their eyes.

Josiah was back in his church, saying a prayer and lighting another candle, this time for Billy. Buck still sat by JDís bedside, trying to soothe the feverish teenager, whose head tossed back and forth. Nathan sat slumped in the corner as he kept an eye on the scene, trying to get in a small bit of rest and dreading what Vin and Ezra were now finding. He was praying as fervently as Josiah for a miracle to end all the suffering. And like the rest, he was doubtful of even one miracle.

"Riders coming in!"

They would never know where the shout came from, but Chris paused in the livery, took a deep breath and stepped out into the street. Mary and Nettie had both rose. Josiah stepped out from the church, lips still moving in prayer. Nathan rose wearily from his chair and looked out the window.

"Mamma!" screamed Billy as he nearly jumped from Chaucer as Ezra barely held onto him. "Whoa, there, young man!" Ezra reined in Chaucer and lifted Billy down from the saddle.

Mary, crying in relief, flew to Billy and Chris let the breath out he had been holding. Mrs. Potter and her children felt an instant rush of gratitude. Josiah bowed his head and Nathan signed. "Billyís all right," he told Buck, though he doubted Buck heard him. JD moaned and tried to get up, so Nathan went over to help. He had gotten a quick glance at the second rider, Vin, holding a blanketed body in front. Keeping the thrashing teenager down kept Nathan and Buck busy for the next few minutes and JDís moans and yells from a swollen throat were all they could hear. Footsteps sounded on the stairs and Josiah, Chris, Ezra, Mary, Billy, and Nettie appeared with Vin still carrying the blanketed form.

"Buck," Vin started, then looked at JDís still thrashing form as he moaned, "Casey, Casey," over and over.

Buck stood, swaying as he stared at Vin and the burden in his arms. Buck swallowed, looking from Vin to JD and back. "Casey," he began.

Nathan went to stand by Vin and scolded him in a soft voice. "Vin, you shouldnít have come up here, itís bound to upset JD and Buck more."

Vin stared back. "Sheís cold, Nathan."

"Well, of course, the river, the weather . . ." and then Nathan Jackson was dumbfounded.

"Whoís making all that racket? Sounds like a bull bellowing." And the figure stirred. "JD!" Casey squirmed out of Vinís arms. "Let me go, Vin!"

Vin, grinning, put her down and Casey ran to JDís bedside, nearly elbowing a startled Buck out of the way. "Let me talk to him," she commanded.

"JD Dunne," she said sharply as she took his hand and stroked his hair. "You just stop this foolishness before you wear yourself out. I told you it was too cold for you to be riding with you being sick. And then you had to jump in the water like a fool when you knew I can swim better and get Billy out. And I did, too!" she said triumphantly.

"Then I had to rescue her," Billy insisted. "I did, Mama. Does that mean I wonít get punished?" he asked hopefully.

Mary could only shake her head. Sheíd think of punishment later. Her smiling eyes met Chrisí eyes and he grinned back.

"Are you mad at me, Chris?" Billy asked as he went to stand by his hero.

"Should I be, Billy?"

Billy hung his head. But he said, "Caseyís all right, and JD will be too, right Chris?" as Billy looked anxiously at JD.

JDís thrashing and moaning had stopped as he seemed to be listening to Caseyís voice. "C . . . Case?"

"Iím here, JD. Good thing I am, too, you need more taking care of than a newborn kitten." Casey continued to scold.

Buckís face was lit up by happiness as he watched JD and Casey. The pain had left JDís face and he now appeared to be resting comfortably. "Iím so glad youíre all right, Casey," Buck said warmly. "When I pulled JD out, I thought you had . . . thought you had . . ."

"JD canít get rid of me that easily. We still have a race to finish, some more fishing to do, and I aim to collect on that bet about who is the better swimmer . . ." and Casey stopped as all eyebrows on the people around went up alarmingly, "but weíll let that go for now."

Signs of relief were heard around the room. Mary took Billy home to change. Billy was pronounced fine by Nathan except for a few small bruises. Nettie put her foot down and took Casey to the ranch as well after a quick assessment by Nathan showed no major injuries, just a few bruises and tiny sniffles from the cold. Casey protested leaving JD, but Nettie assured her after changing her clothes and getting some rest and food, she could come back to town the next day. Casey had bent over a now quiet JD and kissed his forehead tenderly before admonishing him in no uncertain terms to get better quickly or sheíd bring him some of Aunt Nettieís tonic.

"Crap, thatís worse than Nathanís teas," Buck said unthinkingly and then blushed from the stern look Nettie gave him.

"Iíll be bringing a batch to town if all you donít get some food and rest in you," she said crisply. "Come on, Casey," and she dragged her aggravating, but much-loved niece after her.

Chris signed. "Nettieís right. Everyone get something to eat, that means you, too, Nathan. No, Buck, I know you want to stay with JD Ė Vin, have a couple of meals sent up here. Now git," and Chris sounded fierce that all went, though some grumbled. When they had left, Chris went to put his hand on Buckís shoulder. "Let it go, Big Dog. Everyone is fine. JD will be fine."

"Iím so happy for Billy and Casey, Chris. But I canít fully rest until that boy opens his hazel eyes and smiles until I give him the worst chewing-out of his life for being so foolish. Heís not too old for a good stick of birch on his backside."

"You mean more silly than last week when he had the brilliant idea to see how many fence posts he could jump?" Chris said drily. "Just donít be too hard on him, Buck. If he and Casey hadnít been there, Billy might have drowned. And JD was a hero, going in after Billy and trying to save Casey. Be sure to keep that in mind.

"Hell, Chris," Buck said, stroking the dark hair. "If I tell him heís a hero, heíll go on playing hero like those fools in those dime novels he reads. Then Iíll never get any sleep, worrying about his pint-sized ass. Iíll just look all stern and sad and make sure the Kid knows how worried we were and how much he screwed up. Then heíll think twice about doing it again."

"Buck," Chris said as he put on his hat and stood to leave. "You are so full of crap." And Chris whistled as he stepped out of the clinic, leaving a happy big brother at the side of his little brother. Until next time.

THE END

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