Buck Wilmington sat in the corner of the smoke-filled saloon trying to make sense of what had transpired in the last 48 hours.
How had things gotten so out of hand? he wondered to himself. It was not supposed to end up like this.
It was his long-awaited reunion with his brother. A brother that Buck had not seen in close to 10 years. A brother that Buck had always looked up to, admired, and yes, even worshiped when he was much younger. But now now Buck had to stop himself from wanting to kill him.
What had gone wrong? What had come between them?
A little thing called JD Dunne.
+ + + + + + +
48 Hours Earlier...
"I'm telling you, Buck, I saw it, with my own two eyes," JD exclaimed.
"And I'm tellin' you, kid, it can't be him," Buck replied. Damn sometimes the boy really got on his nerves, and today was one of those days.
JD had been telling Buck that he saw a manifest at the stage office, and one of the passengers due in on the noon stage was Tom Wilmington. JD knew that Buck had a brother named Tom, and had come flying over to the saloon to tell him.
The others just sat around the table, watching JD and Buck go at it, as usual. The two did a lot of bickering and teasing, but there was a lot of brotherly love between the two, also. JD had grown up as an only child back east, and had latched onto Buck almost from the first minute the two met and Buck doing the same to the boy. There was a strong bond between them, and neither one was ashamed to admit it.
"Oh, come on, Buck. It's almost noon. Aren't you even going to meet the stage? It's just gotta be him," JD persisted.
"Kid I got better things to do than waste my time waiting on the stage. Just stay out of things that don't concern you, OK?" Buck snapped as he walked out of the saloon.
JD stared after him, but did not follow. He could tell that Buck was upset with him, and it hurt him.
JD turned and walked out of the saloon.
When the stage did arrive, there was only one person waiting for it - JD Dunne.
Three men got off of the stage. JD carefully eyed each one. When he saw the last man exit the stage, he knew he had to be the one he was waiting for.
The man favored Buck tall and lean, with dark hair.
JD approached the man. "Excuse me, sir. Are you Tom Wilmington?"
The tall man looked down at the boy, and replied, "That depends on who's asking?"
JD blushed with embarrassment. "Oh, I'm sorry. My name's JD. JD Dunne. I'm a friend of Buck's."
"Well good for you, boy, you've got a friend. But I don't know anyone named Buck," the tall man said.
"Really? Are you sure? You're not his brother? You are Tom Wilmington, right?" JD rattled on.
The man was obviously becoming a little perturbed by the boy's persistence.
"Look, kid, I said I didn't know anyone named Buck. Now why don't you run along and find someone else to play with."
"It's just " JD began, before the stranger grabbed him by his collar and lifted him off the ground.
"Kid I told you to git now do as you're told." and the man tossed JD against the wall like a sack of flour.
As the man turned to leave, he came face to fist with Buck Wilmington, who punched him so hard he stumbled and landed on his backside in the street.
"You son-of-a-bitch. You ever touch that boy again, I'll kill you. Brother or not."
Buck knelt next to the crumpled youth, who was beginning to focus on what was going on. "You OK, kid? Let's get you up and over to Nathan's."
JD just stared at Buck. He seemed more dazed by the events that had transpired in front of him than the physical assault.
"Buck, he really is your brother?" JD asked, timidly, afraid he would set Buck off again.
"Yeah, kid, he really is my brother." Buck seemed ashamed to admit.
JD was totally confused. "But he said he doesn't know you, Buck."
"I wish he didn't, JD. It's a long story. I'll tell you about it some other time. Come on. I want Nathan to look at that lump on your head." Buck helped the boy up off the floor.
The man from the stage was pulling himself up and had a few choice remarks for Buck in the process. "You got lucky that time, Buck. Next time, I'll be ready, and it won't be so easy for you."
Buck just ignored the comments, and went about the business of getting JD steady on his feet. "You OK to walk, kid? You dizzy?"
"I'm fine, Buck. Let go of me." Buck was beginning to smother JD, and the boy hated that.
The stranger approached the two in the street. Buck became very uncomfortable as the man squeezed his way between himself and JD. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your little friend here, brother Buck?"
The three stood silently in the street for a short time, the two older men, staring each other down, eye-to-eye. JD got the impression that the two had not gotten along for quite some time.
Finally, Buck broke the silence. "JD, this is my brother, Tom Wilmington. As I'm sure you already noticed, he's a real pain in the ass, and a lying, thieving, cheating, son-of-a-bitch," Buck seethed.
The man drew his arm back in preparation to take a swing at Buck. Even though the two men towered over him, JD jumped between them, trying to separate them, and received the full force of the punch right in the face, slumping to the ground.
"JD!!!" Buck screamed. He knelt down to check on the kid, who was out cold. He picked the boy up and cradled him close to his chest and made his way toward Nathan's. He turned over his shoulder and yelled, "The stage leaves at 8:00 tomorrow morning. Be on it."
Buck paced back and forth, waiting for some word from Nathan about how the kid was doing. He knew it was not real serious, the boy had started to come around as he was carrying him to the clinic, but he did have a nice goose egg on the back of his head. "Back of his thick skull," Buck thought to himself. "I told him to stay out of this."
Finally, Nathan emerged from his examining room. But no JD.
"How is he, Nathan? Is it bad?" Buck asked, his concerned face tight with the fear that maybe the boy was hurt worse than he thought.
"Well kid's got a nice shiner and a good size knot on his head. Gonna have a real bad headache, for a couple 'a days. He's liable to be little wobbly, too, so we gotta keep a close eye on him. Crack on the head ain't nothin' to take lightly. But like always he'll be OK. Told him to rest in there till tomorrow."
"Can I see him? I kinda need to explain something to him," Buck pleaded.
"I think he's asleep, Buck. At least I hope he is I gave him something. He needs the rest. Best thing for him." But Nathan could tell by Buck's face that he needed to see the kid now. Knowing how much the boy meant to Buck, Nathan relented. "I guess it'd be OK, but just for a little bit."
Buck quietly opened the door and peered into the nearly dark room. Nathan had pulled the shades and turned the lamp down low. He walked over to the slight form lying so still in the bed and pulled a chair up next to him.
"Jeez he looks even younger when he's sleeping" Buck thought. If that was possible. JD was maybe nineteen looked about sixteen Buck began to wonder "Is anyone really nineteen anymore??"
"Well kid I guess I owe you an explanation," Buck started quietly, as he reached to brush the black hair from the boy's eyes. "I bet I got you wonderin' real good. Trouble is I don't even know where to begin " he trailed off.
"Could start at the beginning," a tired, weak voice whispered.
"Hey, kid, how ya doin'? I didn't mean to wake ya. Nathan finds out, he'll throw me outta here for sure," Buck grinned.
"I'll put in a good word for ya, Buck." JD's trusting eyes met Buck's, and he knew the kid meant what he said.
"Thanks, kid," Buck smiled. The kid always had a way of melting Buck's heart. "I'm real sorry about what happened out there today. I sure as hell didn't want you to get hurt."
"It's OK, Buck. You're always tellin' me I've got a hard head," JD said, blessing Buck with a trace of his usual smile.
Buck cleared his throat, coughed nervously, and began to fidget in his chair. JD began to sense that Buck was uncomfortable.
"Buck it's OK. You don't owe me any explanation. You were right you and your brother are your business. I had no right buttin' in. If you don't want to talk about it, it's OK."
"JD, I need to talk about it, but I just don't know where to start. I'm so ashamed that I have these bad feelings about my brother. A man should care about his brother take up for him love 'im. I'm ashamed to admit I don't feel that way about Tom anymore."
A man should care about his brother take up for him love 'im. Like I do you, now, you little runt. Buck thought.
In spite of the pain it caused, JD managed to turn his head towards Buck, his huge hazel eyes staring at his closest friend in disbelief. "You don't love him anymore?"
"Well let's just say me 'n Tom have our differences. Like what's right and wrong. Like how you're supposed to treat people. Like what really matters outta life."
"Maybe you two just need some time together to fix things, Buck. Catch up. It's been a long time, ya know?"
"From the looks of how he treated you today, I'd say he's still the same 'ol Tom."
JD felt the back of his head and winced, feeling the large lump there. The medicine Nathan had given the youth was beginning to take hold again, and Buck could see the boy's long, thick lashes begin to flutter.
Poor kid's exhausted and here I am making him listen to me babble
"Look, kid I better get outta here before Nathan comes in swingin'. You get some rest, OK?"
"Sure Buck . But I wanna I wanna hear about ." The boy was asleep.
Buck pulled the blanket up under his chin and tucked the boy in tight. He brushed the ever-present hair from his eyes and said "Sleep tight little brother."
Buck was at the clinic bright and early the next morning. Nathan had said JD could leave, as long as he promised to take it easy for a couple of days.
Right JD Dunne didn't know how to take anything easy. Buck knew that for sure. But, Buck also knew that he would ride herd on the boy and make sure that he didn't over-do.
'Course, today should be no different that any other day. Buck was always riding herd on JD. Practically his full-time job since he'd met the kid. Boy just always seemed to need some looking after.
At least, that was Buck's excuse for his mother hen routine. Truth was he just cared a hell of a lot for the boy.
All of the six men cared a great deal for JD. He was an exuberant youth, just naturally likable. They all had a tendency to slightly spoil the boy and perhaps overprotect him, but none more than Buck.
When Buck entered the room, JD was finishing up getting dressed, bending down to put on his boots.
"Hey, kid, need some help there?"
"Jeez, Buck, I think I can put my shoes on by myself," The teen snapped.
Uh oh, Buck thought. Not a good start.
"I just thought with your head hurting and all "
"Thanks," JD said apologetically. "I'm sorry. I can do it, though. You don't have to baby me, Buck. I'm fine."
"Yeah I've seen your fine." Buck smiled, remembering how many times he had heard that line from the youth before. "Ok, never you mind, just finish what you're doin' there."
As JD leaned over to finish getting his boots on, the throbbing in his head became worse and he started to sway a little and pulled himself back up.
"Buck I guess I could use some help after all if you don't mind," JD sulked.
"Sure, kid. That's what I'm here for." Buck knelt down and finished with the kid's boots. "Nathan asked me to keep an eye on ya for a couple of days."
"Couple of days?" JD exclaimed. "Try every day. You watch me like a hawk and treat me like a baby every day, Buck."
Buck sat down on the bed next to the boy. It was unusual for JD to be in a foul mood. Even when he was feeling bad, the kid was not usually this irritable. The teen was obviously upset about something but what?
"Sorry, Buck. It's just that my head feels like it's splittin' open." he said as he leaned it over to rest against the larger man's shoulder.
Buck put his arm around the boy and let him rest. He thought it was more than just his head hurting, but he didn't push the matter.
Finally, JD lifted his head and broke the silence.
"Buck I don't see how you can just quit loving your brother. How can you just quit caring."
The kid really seemed to be troubled by this. Buck could see tears welling up in the boy's eyes.
"JD, Tom has done some terrible things in the past. I've heard about some of the stuff he's done and no telling how much he's done that hasn't got back to me yet. He's hurt some good people in the past good friends of mine, and I let it happen. But I'm not going to let him do it again. Not here. That's why I'm making sure he's on that stage this morning.
"Are you going to send me away, too?" JD asked, his voice beginning to crack.
Where in the hell did that come from?????
"What???" Buck bellowed. "Is that why you're so upset? What the hell makes you think I'm sending you away? Where'd you get such a fool notion?"
"Well you're sending your brother away. Everybody says we're like brothers and I know I make you mad a lot." The kid broke down in heavy sobs and continued, "I know I bug you and Chris Chris would probably pay my fare just to get rid of me."
Buck hooked his arm around the boy's neck and pulled him into a tight brotherly embrace.
"You poor scared kid," Buck said, fighting back tears. "I could never send you away, kid. Never. I need you here with me."
The two sat on the edge of the bed for a while, JD's weary head again resting on Buck. No more words were needed between them.
Buck and JD made their way towards the saloon to get some breakfast.
As the two walked through the doors, JD froze in his tracks, Buck nearly knocking his smaller friend down when they collided.
"Damn kid give a man some warning before you stop like that. Come on, let's get some food in ya before you waste away. Ain't got enough meat on ya now to feed a skinny buzzard," Buck teased.
When Buck noticed the scared look on JD's face, he followed his line of sight and saw Tom Wilmington sitting at a table in the middle of the room, eating breakfast by himself.
"Come on, Buck I'm really not hungry." JD tugged on Buck's coat. "Let's go see how Josiah's doing on the church roof, OK?"
Buck stood firm. JD grabbed Buck's arm and tried, unsuccessfully, to pull him out of the saloon, but could not begin to move the stubborn, much-larger man.
The boy tried to block his path, as Buck made his way towards his brother, but Buck would not hear of it.
"Outta the way, kid. Don't concern you." Buck grabbed JD by both arms and moved him aside. "You hear me, JD? You stay outta this no matter what happens. I don't want you in the middle of this again. Got it?"
"But, Buck, we could leave, OK? Please? Let's just get outta here. OK? Please?" Pleading hazel eyes looking to Buck.
Buck roughly pulled out a chair and plopped JD in it.
"Stay here Goddammit.!!! You move and I'll tie you down. And don't think I won't."
Buck made his way over to the table where Tom Wilmington was sitting.
"Mind if I sit down?"
"Free country. Do what you want," Tom replied.
"Stage leaves in an hour," Buck said. "I suggest you order something fast the eggs are good and quick."
"I'm in no hurry, Buck. You need to learn to slow down," Tom drawled.
"You need to be on that stage, Tom. You're not staying in this town," Buck said firmly.
"Like I said before, it's a free country," Tom stated.
"Tom, I've got a life here," Buck explained. "I've got friends in this town. I don't want to be run out on a rail because of some scheme of yours."
Suddenly, Chris Larabee walked through the saloon doors, and slid into a chair next to JD.
"Morning, JD. You look like hell," he said, noting the contrasting bruises on the kid's pale face, all the time keeping a close eye on the happenings at the other table.
"Chris, am I glad you're here," JD breathed a sigh of relief.
Tom noticed Chris as he walked in.
"I see your old friend, Chris is here. Maybe he'll be glad to see me," Tom said as he got up to walk over to the table where Chris and JD were sitting.
"Chris. How've you been?"
"Getting' by, Tom. Guess you'll be wantin' to move on soon, right?" Chris asked, not necessarily as a question, though.
Tom sat in a chair and scooted it closer to JD.
"Why, Chris, you're about as hospitable as my brother. Only person in town who has been at all friendly towards me is the youngster here. What's your name again, boy?" he asked, putting his arm around the kid.
"Get away from him," Buck growled, coming to sit on the other side of the kid.
"Buck I'm not hurting the boy. Am I hurting you, son?"
"No " was JD's wary reply.
"Now pardon my forgetfullness, boy, but what's your name again?" Tom asked.
"JD," the boy answered, feeling a little uneasy, sitting between Buck and his brother. Like a bone between two dogs. Two dogs that could go at each other at any minute.
"See, Buck. Why me and JD might become real good friends just need to get to know each other is all," Tom said, putting his arm around the boy again, to make his point.
This time Chris protested. "Believe me, you won't be here long enough to get to know the kid."
Chris turned to the boy. "JD, I want you to go make sure there's a seat for Tom on the morning stage."
"But Chris " the teen started.
"Now, JD. Get outta here."
The look on the kid's face was enough to make Chris wish he hadn't said it quite so harshly, but he wanted the boy out of there, away from whatever might happen if Buck and Tom got into it.
JD got up shakily from his chair.
"You OK, kid?" Buck asked, grabbing the boy's arm to steady him.
"I'm fine," came the kid's standard reply. Buck smiled. He'd often thought that the kid could be carrying his head in his hands before he would complain and say anything different.
The boy walked slowly out of the saloon, looking like a scolded puppy.
"Seems like a good kid," Tom said, watching the youth leave.
"He'll do," was all Buck would say, but his eyes said so much more.
"Can I interest you boys in a game of cards?" Tom offered.
"This town don't take to kindly to cheaters, Tom. I'd be careful about pulling them cards out if I was you," Chris stated, lighting up a smoke.
After a few more attempts by Tom to enter into polite conversation, Buck couldn't wait any longer.
"Look, let's just cut through all the bullshit. You're leaving so let's just go make sure JD got you that seat and be done with it. We can wait at the stage office. I don't want to take a chance of you missing it."
"Whatever," was Tom's cool response.
As the three men walked towards the stage office, Buck was reminded of a conversation from earlier in the day.
"Ya know, Chris, JD had some crazy notion that I was going to ship him out of town, too. He said you'd probably pay his fare to get rid of him."
"Fool kid," Chris said. "Where does he come up with this stuff?"
The men walked into the stage office and were surprised that the talkative JD was not still there, passing the time of day with the clerk, like he usually did.
"Howdy, Seth." Buck smiled at the clerk. "JD already been here and gone?"
"JD?" Seth had a puzzled look. "Haven't seen JD since yesterday when he was all in a tizzy about your brother coming."
"He didn't come in here a few minutes ago? Checking on a ticket?" Chris asked, starting to get a bad feeling in his stomach.
"Oh, hell, he's just sidetracked, like always, right, Chris?" Buck tried to convince himself.
"Buck have you ever known the boy to dawdle when Chris Larabee told him to do something?"
Chris and Buck both had the same thought at the same time and slammed Tom Wilmington against the wall.
"Where's the kid???" Buck screamed.
JD awoke slowly. He didn't know where he was, or how he got there. The only thing he did know was that his head hurt ten times worse than it did before.
He remembered being in the saloon with Chris, Buck and Buck's brother, Tom. He knew that Chris had sent him to the stage office, but he really couldn't remember ever getting there. After the saloon, everything was fuzzy. He seemed to recall being roughed up in the alley behind the stage office.
The boy suddenly noticed that his hands were bound and he was in a small, dark room with no windows.
He began to panic when he realized he was alone. Where were Buck and Chris? In another room, maybe? JD hated being alone, and wished that Buck was there now, hovering over him like always.
The door opened and a large man came into the room, carrying a lantern. JD recognized the man as one of the other gentlemen that had gotten off the stage the day Buck's brother arrived. Coincidence? Probably not.
"Hungry, kid? Got some food here for 'ya." the man offered, placing a plate on the table.
"I can't eat with my hands tied." JD replied.
"Boss wouldn't like it if I untied 'ya. You'll have to make do." the man said.
"Could you at least loosen the rope some, then. It really hurts. Look, it's cutting off my circulation," the boy pleaded.
The man examined JD's hands, and they were, indeed, discolored. He began to work with the rope to loosen the binds as the boy had requested.
"You the one who beat me up behind the stage office?" the kid asked. "Why'd you bring me here? What do you want from me?"
The man obviously had no intention of answering any of JD's questions. He just continued to work quietly at loosening the rope.
JD thought about trying to break away, while the man was distracted, but the man was about 6'3" and 220 lbs., so JD thought better of it.
"Someone your size should never start a fight unless you're sure you can win." Buck always told him.
After the man finished loosening the restraints around his wrists, JD thanked him politely.
"Sure. Now eat your food." the stranger said, as he picked up the lantern and turned to exit the room.
"Couldn't you leave the lantern?" JD hoped. "It's so dark in here, it's creepy."
"Sorry, son. Can't do that. All I need is for you to use the flame to burn that rope in two, and then off you'd go."
"Come on. Where would I go?" the kid protested. "There's no windows in here. I can't go anywhere."
"You could jump me when I come in the door." the man reasoned.
"Yeah, right, big chance I'd be successful at that." JD scoffed.
The man looked at JD and was tempted to leave the lantern for the boy, then thought better of it, picked it up and walked out of the room.
JD heard him lock the door.
The boy sat alone, on the floor, in the darkness and all his fears began to crash down around him. He drew his legs up, wrapped his arms around them and sobbed.
Buck, where are you????
Chris had his forearm pressed against Tom Wilmington's throat.
"You hurt that boy and I swear to God, Buck's brother or not, I'll kill you."
"No you won't, Chris." Buck snarled. "I will."
Tom gasped for air as Chris loosened his arm slightly.
"Well, at least I picked the right member of your little group to use as bait."
"Bait!!! Is that what that kid is to you?" Buck asked.
"I needed someone that I could use to keep you all in line while I take care of a little business." Tom explained. "I figured all along that the youngest would be a good bet. And, brother Buck, your little scene when I got off the stage removed all doubt."
Chris applied a little more pressure. "Where's JD? And I don't want to repeat the question again."
"Come on boys. You can't expect me to fold my cards now." Tom said.
"No, but I can kill you right here and don't think I wont." and Buck slammed his fist on the wall.
"I don't think you want to do that, Buck. My partner has been instructed to kill your young friend if I'm not at our meeting point at a certain time." Tom gloated.
Stunned, Buck staggered backwards and sat down hard on some freight crates.
Chris could see that Buck was about to loose it.
"Buckget a hold of yourself. JD's gonna be fine."
"Chris, him and his man, they hold all the cards. And the kid... God, Chris, the kid." Buck was beginning to panic.
"Buck, we'll get JD back." Chris assured his oldest friend. "Calm down."
"Kinda emotional, ain't he?" Tom said snidely.
"Shut up!!" Chris barked.
"He's just a stupid kid. Kind of a pain in the ass, from what I could tell." Tom observed.
Buck exploded. He came at Tom like a raging bull.
"You son-of-a-bitch. Don't you dare claim to know anything about that boy. He's more of a man than you are."
"And more of a brother?" Tom queried.
"You bet." Buck affirmed. "And I swear to God, if he's hurt, you'll pay the price. I'll kill you without blinking an eye."
"Oh, I'm sure he's hurting, but he's not dead, not yet, anyway." Tom said.
Buck lunged at Tom again, but Chris deflected him. Chris knew he had to get Buck back down to earth if he was going to be of any help.
"Buck, I'm taking him to the jail. You round up the others and meet me there."
"Chris, if he don't meet his partner, JD's gonna... he's gonna..."
"Buck, do what I said. I can't just keep standing here holdin' on to him."
Buck reluctantly turned and walked off.
As they walked to the jail, Chris made an appeal.
"Come on, Tom, where's JD? He's just a kid. Probably scared to death right now. Let's just end this before someone gets hurt. How 'bout it?"
"'Fraid not Chris. I've got a chance to make a big pile of money this time. Maybe enough to retire somewhere nice."
"And that's worth a boy's life?" Chris asked.
"Buck's not gonna let anything happen to that boy, and neither are you. Are you, Chris?"
"Come on, let's go." But Chris knew Tom was right.
Comments and creative criticism greatly appreciated