Buck headed for the saloon -- he didn't care if he hadn't had breakfast yet -- he needed a drink.

He felt like he'd been run over by a twenty mule team -- same way he felt every time the kid was sick or hurt.

Little runt…who's gonna take care of his pint-sized ass when I ain't around to do it?

When Buck walked into the saloon, he found Vin and Chris, having a heated 'discussion.'

"Why not, Chris," he heard Vin ask. "Kid's gonna be OK. Ain't no reason I can't go now."

"Well…I can't leave yet…not until the kid's up and around," Chris said.

"I don't remember askin' for any company, Chris," the tracker told the man in black.

"Well…you ain't goin' alone. You still got a bounty on your head…in case 'ya forgot," Chris told Vin, thinking that that would end the matter.

"I don't need no baby sitter, Chris," Vin then added…"I ain't JD!"

That did it.

"Hey, now…I better never hear 'ya say that around the kid," Buck was mad. He never expected something like that to come from Vin.

"I didn't mean nothin' by that, Buck…really," Vin apologized.

"I know, Vin," Buck accepted his apology -- on behalf of the kid.

Buck knew that Vin was sincere. He knew how much the tracker like the kid. And the kid was crazy about Vin. JD always said that Vin never judged him like the others tended to do at times. Vin just always let JD be himself…and when you're a kid…not many people give you that freedom.

"So…" Buck continued. "You goin' after that guy?"

"Sure as hell am," Vin said.

"Sure as hell not…not right now," Chris corrected.

"Why not, Chris?" Buck wondered. "Trail's getting' cold,"

"The hell with the trail…and the hell with findin' that guy anyway. Won't do the kid no good," Chris said.

Buck knew why Chris was being so stubborn. Chris tried to protect Vin almost as much as he did JD…just that he couldn't get away with it most of the time with Vin like he did with JD.

Vin was not much older than JD…in years…but was way ahead of the kid in the life department.

JD was so naive about life and everything in it that he seemed much younger than his nineteen years most of the time. Whereas Vin seemed mature beyond his years.

Vin was just as determined as Chris was on this matter. "Didn't do the kid no good when we had it out with those Nichols boys either, but you sure as hell wanted to finish that after they damn near beat JD to a pulp."

"That was seven-to-one…beatin' on the kid. Yeah…I was mad…mad enough to kill every last one of those Nichols for what they did to that boy. Using that boy as a 'messenger'. And the kid makin' sure we got the message…hurt like he was…"

Chris turned away, his eyes filling as he remembered that fateful day in this very same saloon. Remembering how he'd somehow managed to catch the kid's head before it hit the floor when he collapsed…remembering how the kid used his usual 'I'm fine' line, while trying not to cry…remembering how brave the kid was that day…

Seven older, much larger men beating on their youngest was enough to make all of the others mad…but Chris…Chris was a man possessed that day. Buck had not seen Chris that mad since…since…Sarah and Adam.

Buck hadn't seen Chris care about anyone -- since Sarah's and Adam's deaths -- like he did about JD. JD brought back a lot of Chris' parental instincts…whether JD would accept them all the time or not. JD reminded Chris a lot of himself at that age…except maybe a lot softer. JD had a kind, soft heart…one of the things that Chris admired about the kid. JD tried to be tough sometimes…but really had a hard time pulling it off.

Chris also had strong feelings for Vin. Not so much parental…he saved most of that for JD. Vin would not have accepted parental advice from anyone -- not even Chris -- who he greatly respected. Chris considered Vin to be more of a younger brother. Not a little brother -- like most of the men considered JD -- but a younger brother. There was a big difference in those two words…one being more a term of endearment for their youngest…the other term allowing Vin more respect.

Vin was still arguing. "Well…this ass-hole gets the kid shot…and you say 'the hell with it'."

"You ain't goin' on your own, Vin. It ain't safe," Chris insisted.

"Why don't you go with him, Chris?" Buck suggested.

"No…not…yet," Chris whispered.

"Why?" Buck asked.

"He don't wanna leave JD yet…" Vin offered. "But he won't admit it…will 'ya, Chris? Same as you won't admit a lot of things."

"OK. I admit it. I don't feel right leavin' the boy this soon. Buck and I are the best at dealin' with him when he's sick or hurt…so…just can't be goin' off right now, Vin. Can't you see that?"

"I ain't askin' for your permission, Chris. I'm tellin' you I'm leavin'…right after I see the kid."

Vin stalked off.

"God-damn, hard-headed…" Chris trailed off.

"Oh, boy…pot callin' the kettle…" Buck started.

"Shut up, Buck," Chris snapped, as he, too, stalked off.

Buck never did get the drink he so dearly wanted -- and needed -- to clear his head.

* * * * * * *

Vin walked in to check on JD.

He found the boy sleeping and sat down next to the bed -- and waited.

Kid looks a lot younger when he's asleep. Vin knew he wasn't much older than JD -- but was grateful that he didn't look younger than his actual age, like JD. Poor kid…he's nineteen…looks fifteen…and gets treated like he's twelve.

JD began to stir.

"Hey, kid," Vin smiled. "How 'ya feelin'?"

"I'm fine," the kid grimaced with pain.

"Is that a fact?" Vin shot the boy a knowing glance. They all knew what 'fine' meant in JD's book. Fine was JD's way of saying 'It hurts but I don't want to talk about it.'

"No…not really," JD confessed. "I feel…lousy…just don't…don't tell…anyone, OK?"

"JD, 'ya gotta tell Nathan when you're hurtin.'" Vin told the boy.

"He's so…busy…Vin…" JD seemed to be drifting off…

"Don't be lyin' to him, kid. He needs to know how 'ya feel," Vin said.

"It's all…all…my fault…anyway," the kid's eyes were getting heavy.

"What's your fault, kid?" Vin was confused.

"Everything…" JD said, never opening his eyes.

"JD?? JD??" Vin was beginning to worry about the boy.

"I shoulda…that…guy…I shoulda…at the…saloon…I'm just…a stupid kid," and the teen was asleep.

Vin was sitting next to the kid on the bed -- confused.

What did the kid have to feel guilty about?

Was JD feeling guilty because he didn't hit the guy at the saloon? No one expected him to…the man was twice the kid's size.

Maybe he felt guilty for letting the man get the drop on him at the livery. No one gave it another thought that the man would stick around. They all thought he was just another drunk on the trail.

The kid probably felt bad that it was Buck's bullet that shot him. Kid knows that Buck loves him more than life itself and it's got to be tearing Buck apart.

Vin just looked at the boy, lying so peaceful for the moment -- that's a lot of stuff for a kid to be carrying around.

JD began to toss…


Vin frowned.

Kid shouldn't be feelin' like that.

Vin reached over and placed his hand on JD's face -- fever seemed to be getting worse again.

Poor kid. He's so hot.

"Kid…you OK?" Vin asked.

"My…fault…Buck?? Buck…NO!!" The kid was having another fitful dream.


Vin turned to notice Buck standing in the doorway.

"Hey, Buck."

"He's livin' it all again…My God…when I shot him," Buck whispered as he approached the bed.

"Calm down, Buck," Vin said. "It's just the fever talkin', that's all."

Buck put his hand to the boy's cheek.

"He's burnin' up again. I'm gonna go find Nathan/"

"No…you stay with the kid, Buck," Vin offered. "I'll get Nathan. Kid says he's been hurtin' real bad, too, but not tellin' Nathan 'cause he thinks Nathan's worn out."

"Shit," Buck said.

Why was this stuff always happening to the kid?

Kid needed to be somewhere safe -- not lying in a bed -- all shot up -- with a raging fever -- and now feeling guilty to boot.

Maybe I should just ship him back east.

Nah…kid already left once and looking at him get on that stage hurt just as much as looking at him lying in this bed.

* * * * * * *

Vin soon returned with Nathan, who looked none too happy.

Buck figured that Vin must have told the healer about the kid hiding how he was feeling.

"JD…JD, son, wake up," Nathan shook the boy gently.

"NO!! Oh, God…NO!!" JD shot up in the bed, which he paid for dearly with the resulting stabbing pain in his chest.

"Calm down, JD…you're safe, kid," Buck soothed.

"Buck?? Oh…it was a…a dream…I guess," JD mumbled.

"Sounded more like a nightmare, kid," Buck teased as he tousled the teen's hair.

"Stop it…Buck…my head…hurts."

"Sorry, kid," Buck apologized.

Nathan began to examine his patient. "JD…how 'ya feelin' son? And don't give me that 'I'm fine' neither. I ought to take a switch to you, boy…not tellin' me when you're hurtin'. How am I supposed to help you when you don't tell me when you're in pain?"

"I'm sorry…" the kid started.

"Don't want no puppy-dog-eyes apology, either, JD," Nathan snapped. "I want the truth."

"Sorry…Nathan…really…just don't…yell…OK? My head…really…hurts…Nathan," the boy revealed.

"I ain't yellin', son," Nathan said softly, realizing he'd been pretty hard on the kid before.

"Sure…sounds like…yellin'," JD said, his speech becoming slower and slower.

"JD?? You with me, boy??" Nathan was beginning to worry.

"I…I…what?" JD was trying so hard to understand what Nathan was saying -- but he was so hot -- and so tired -- and he felt so bad. He felt like he was being pulled away -- away from all of his friends.

"JD??" Nathan was trying to keep JD grounded to them.

"Nathan…what's wrong?" Buck worried.

"I'm losin' him. He's goin' under again. He's gonna keep goin' in and out till this fever breaks," Nathan explained, then, dreaded continuing. "I hate to tell you this, Buck…but…he's a little worse than he was yesterday."

"Damn!!" Buck cursed.

Chris walked in to see everyone huddled around the bed.

"What's wrong?" Chris panicked.

"Guess you got what you wanted, Chris," Vin stated.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Chris asked the tracker.

"Kid's worse," Vin said. "I can't leave now…so you win, I guess. I won't be goin' no where."

"I didn't what this, Vin. You know that," Chris snapped.

"Yeah. Sure," Vin replied.

Vin knew that -- but he also knew that the man responsible for all of this was getting away. And that -- to Vin -- was unthinkable.

"What's the matter, anyway?" Chris asked.

"JD's fever's worse than yesterday. And he's been hurtin' real bad and not tellin' anybody," Nathan explained.

Chris sat down on the bed. He placed his hand on the kid's face. Oh…yes…his fever's getting worse. "Son…now why ain't you tellin' us when you're hurtin'?" Chris said to himself more than anyone, not expecting an answer.

But then came…

"My…fault…Nathan's…mad," the boy whispered.

"I ain't mad, JD," Nathan said, sitting down on the other side of the bed from Chris.

"I'm…sorry…I'm…so sorry…" JD could hardly talk.

"JD, quit apologizin'. Ain't nothin' your fault, son," Nathan was trying to get through the fever -- trying to make the kid understand -- trying to bring him back to them again.

JD began to cry. "Buck??"

"I'm right here, kid. What's wrong?" Buck asked, taking over Chris' spot on the bed.

"Everybody's…mad…Buck," JD cried.

"Ain't no one mad at you, kid," Buck said, rubbing the boy's arm.


"Listen to me, JD," Buck took the boy's face in his hands. "Ain't nobody mad at you, boy. You hear me son?"

"Buck??" and then JD was out again.

Buck let his hands slip off the boy's face and rested one on the kid's chest -- and used the other to wipe the tears from his own cheeks.

"Buck?" Chris tried to comfort his friend by placing a firm hand on the man's shoulder.

"Kid's so sick…and he thinks everybody's mad at him…and he thinks everything's his fault…and he thinks he has to be sorry for everything…" Buck turned to see that he was not the only one in tears.

"How's he gonna get well with all that pullin' him down?" Buck's said, his voice breaking, as he leaned to wipe the tears from the kid's face.

* * * * * * *

As always, Buck insisted on staying the night with JD.

Where else would Buck be?

Buck was usually never far from JD on a good day -- when he was healthy -- but when the kid was sick or hurt…well…Buck was as close as close could be.

The kid woke coughing.

"You're OK kid…just relax. 'Ya need a drink?" Buck asked, rubbing the kid's arm, letting him know he was there.

"No…I'm fine," JD said, never bothering to open his eyes. He knew Buck was there -- that was all he needed at the moment.

"You're fine…yeah…I've seen your fine," Buck remembered.

"Is it…morning?" the boy asked.

"Almost…why? You got somewhere to be, kid?" Buck teased.

"Just…wonderin'," JD said. "Everybody…is everybody…still…mad?"

"JD…I'm tellin' 'ya, kid. Ain't nobody mad at you. You gotta believe me, son," Buck stressed.

"Nathan was mad…and…yellin'," JD said, recalling what he could from last night.

"JD, you just had a bad headache…that's all. Nobody was yellin'. It just sounded that way to you 'cause your head was hurtin' so bad. That's all, kid…I swear," Buck knew that JD didn't remember how he felt last night. The kid only remembered that he thought everyone was mad at him.

"Vin…Vin was…mad," JD pointed out.

"Yeah…Vin was mad. But not at you, kid," Buck assured the boy.

"At…at who…?" JD wanted to know.

"Aw…Vin and Chris got into it is all. Nothin' for you to go worryin' your little head over, kid," Buck said, brushing the hair from the boy's eyes. He noticed that the boy's face was warm -- but nowhere near as hot as it had been during the night.

"They fightin'…about…me?" the boy asked, his huge hazel eyes staring at Buck, waiting for an answer.

Buck didn't exactly know the answer to that one. True, Vin and Chris were arguing about the kid -- in a roundabout way. But Buck didn't see any need in getting the boy all riled up over something that probably would have happened anyway -- and certainly wasn't his fault.

"Kinda full of yourself, ain't 'ya kid? You think everything in this world revolves around you?" Buck thought the kid was feeling some better, and maybe up to a little hassling.

"No…just…never…mind. I'm tired, Buck," JD's lashes were beginning to flutter and Buck could tell the kid was really tired. The few words they'd had was enough to exhaust the kid -- but at least he was able to talk -- and to Buck, it was like the sweetest sound on earth.

"You just rest, kid. I'll be right here," Buck said.

"Good…" and JD went to sleep.

* * * * * * *

Josiah, Ezra, Nathan, Vin and Chris were at the saloon having breakfast.

"I'd best be gettin' back so's Buck can get somethin' to eat," Nathan said.

"You really don't expect our Mr. Wilmington to leave his young charge, do you, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra inquired.

"Well…JD's fever was better this morning…so I'm hopin' he'll take a break," Nathan said.

"You serious, brother?" Josiah asked.

"Let's just say I'm gettin' him out…for a while at least. I know he loves JD, but, I gotta tell 'ya…he's like havin' 20 people in that room when he's frettin' over that boy. That place just ain't big enough for all of us," Nathan laughed.

"Well, good luck, Nathan. You're gonna need it," Chris said.

"So…Nathan…kid's gonna be OK?" Vin asked.

"Yeah…I think so. His fever was down. He's through the worst of it now. He should start showin' some improvement today…tomorrow at the latest. Provided he don't have no more relapses, of course," Nathan observed.

"Well, then…I guess I'll be movin' out today then," Vin said.

"You're just bound and determined to do this, ain't 'ya?" Chris asked, obviously furious with the tracker.

"Yeah, Chris, I am. So just don't bother wastin' your breath on tryin' to talk me out of it," Vin said, as he walked out.

* * * * * * *

Vin went to check on the kid before leaving.

"How's he doin'?" he asked as he stuck his head in the door.

"Hey, Vin. I really think he's gonna be OK," Buck whispered, not wanting to wake the kid -- he was finally resting comfortably -- sure did deserve it.

"I just wanted to check on him before I left. I'm goin' after that guy. Nathan said he was through the worst of it…should be OK. So…I think it's safe for me to leave now," Vin said.

"Yeah, Vin. It's safe for you to leave…as far as JD's condition is concerned. But what about what’s safe for you?" Buck worried.

"Aw, Buck. Don't be pullin' no mother-hen crap on me. I ain't gonna put up with it. I've already got Chris preachin' at me…I don't need to hear it from you to," Vin snapped.

"Maybe you shouldn't go by yourself…that's all I'm sayin', Vin," Buck said. "I'd sure like to go with 'ya…"

"Buck??!!" JD cried.

Oh…no…the kid was better…what now???

"I'm here, kid. What's wrong?" Buck soothed. He was rubbing the kid's shoulder, trying to keep him calm.

"Buck??" the kid looked at Buck -- his eyes scared.

"What's wrong, JD?" Buck panicked.

"You're…leavin'? Please…don't," the kid pleaded.

"JD…I ain't goin' no where. You just relax," Buck didn't want the kid getting all upset.

Poor kid needs rest -- not getting all riled up.

"I heard…I heard you…say…you were goin'…with…Vin," JD gasped. The kid could hardly get his breath -- he was panicking.

"No, JD. I said I'd like to go…like to go…with Vin," Buck was stroking the teen's hair, trying to get him calmed down -- but JD was in a real panic about Buck leaving.

"You're…goin'???" JD grabbed Buck's arm.

"No, JD. Listen to me, boy. I ain't goin' no where…no where," Buck stressed.

JD was beginning to wear down. He didn't have enough strength to get upset for very long.

"Sure??" the boy asked -- his eyes pleading more than his voice had the strength to.

"Yeah, kid. I'm sure. You can't get rid of me that easy, son," Buck soothed. "You just rest and I'll still be here when you wake up,"

"Promise?" the kid asked, his eyes already closed.

"I promise," Buck knew he couldn't leave now -- no matter how much he wanted that man caught -- he had to be there for JD -- and he had to be there for himself, too.

Where else would he be?

* * * * * * *

Vin was in the livery, getting his horse ready, when he heard the door close behind him. Turning, he saw Chris Larabee, leading his horse in.

"You about ready?" Chris asked.

"Didn't know you were comin'," Vin said.

"Can't be lettin' 'ya go on your own…ain't got much choice," Chris said.

"People always got a choice, Chris. You don't have to come. You need to stay here," Vin told the man in black.

"Things will be fine here. JD's gonna be OK," Chris had a look of relief on his face that Vin had not seen in several days. "Buck can handle the kid,"

"I don't need any help here, Chris. Why don't you stay and take care of the kid…and Buck?" Vin asked.

"Didn't say you needed any help, did I?" Chris snapped. "Ever think that maybe I want this guy just as bad as you do? Ever think that maybe it's killin' me, too, knowing what this guy did to the kid, and he's still walkin' around free somewhere?"

"Sure, Chris. I just thought that you…you wanted to stay here, is all," Vin noted.

"Yeah, Vin, I do…I do want to stay here. I'll worry about the kid the whole time we're gone…but I'd worry about you the whole time you were gone, too…so…somethin' had to give…so I guess it's me," Chris confessed.

"Well, I'm grateful for the company, Chris. Truly, I am. Did you check on the kid?" Vin said as he got on his horse.

"Yeah, right before I came here," Chris answered, getting on his horse. "He seems a little better. Still thinkin' everyone's mad at him. Buck's tryin' to get through to him. His fever's not as bad…thank God," The two rode out of the livery, together, hoping to be returning soon with the man who had hurt their youngest partner.

Ezra and Josiah watched as the two men rode down the street.

"I hope they are successful in this endeavor," Ezra said. "I would have very much liked to be there when they apprehend the man responsible for our young Mr. Dunne's predicament. I will however remain here to assist Mr. Jackson and Mr. Wilmington in any manner that I can, as requested by Mr. Larabee."

"Yes, Ezra. There's work to be done here, also. Perhaps not as exciting, but every much as rewarding," Josiah preached. "That boy's the most important thing here, we gotta remember that."

"I have not forgotten that, Mr. Sanchez. Rest assured…I have not forgotten that."

* * * * * * *

Luckily the weather was working for them.

Even though it had been several days since the man had left, the fact that it had not rained was a big plus. Vin was able to easily pick up the trail that he had marked as the man's shortly after JD had been shot.

"I'm glad you marked his trail right away, Vin. I never thought it'd be this many days before we got to get after him. Smart thinkin' on your part," Chris smiled.

"Just somethin' I always do…while it's fresh. I had figured on leavin' that night, though," Vin said.

"Yeah…I know. I hope you understand about why I couldn't let 'ya go then," Chris looked to Vin.

"Sure….well…maybe not then…I was pretty set on goin'…but after the kid wasn't gettin' no better…yeah, I understood. Kid needed everybody there with him then, and maybe Buck needed us even more than the kid," Vin observed.

Chris' face lost its smile. He seemed to be somewhere else at the moment.

"I'm sure they're both OK, Chris," Vin said, knowing that Chris was worried about their two friends.

"I hope so," Chris began. "I hated leavin' JD…but I think I hated leavin' Buck even more. I know Buck'll take care of the kid…but I worry about Buck…who's gonna take care of him? He has a tendency to not take care of himself when he's frettin' over the kid. He's gonna wear himself down like he always does."

"Buck'll be OK, Chris. You know Buck…he's always OK…as long as JD's OK," Vin smiled. "Besides, from the looks of this trail, we ain't gonna be gone that long."

"Think we're close, Vin?"

"Looks like he's headed for Wickstown. I guess he's lookin' for a good time. Reckon a fella like that ain't got much hope for getting' a lady without payin' for it."

"Let's hope he's still havin' a good time and ain't moved on," Chris said, spurring his horse faster. He wanted to get this man and get back to the others.

* * * * * * *