JD woke up with a pain.

But a different kind of pain than he'd had for the past few days.

It was a pain -- of hunger.

JD looked over to see Buck sprawled in a chair that he had drug over to the side of the bed.

Buck looked like a contortionist. It's not easy for a man who's 6'4" to get comfortable in a chair, but Buck looked absolutely ridiculous.

JD couldn't stop the giggle that escaped him.

Buck stirred. He immediately glanced over to the figure in the bed -- and to his surprise -- JD was smiling at him.

"Hey…Buck…you comfy there? You look down-right silly," JD teased.

JD laughing and teasing…it was music to the man's ears.

"Well…I guess if I was your size, runt, I could sleep in a thimble, but I ain't," Buck tried to sound insulted, but was too happy to pull that off.

"Oh…yeah…you're a big man, Buck…gonna walk tall," JD was feeling much better, and had missed egging Buck on for several days.

"Well…I may never walk tall anymore, kid. I swear…my back's killin' me…been sleepin' curled up like a cat in a windowsill," Buck groused.

JD began to laugh -- not a little giggle, like before -- but his good-old infectious JD Dunne laugh.

The one that made Buck smile all the time just hearing it.

The one that made all the others know the kid was around and happy.

The one that made JD's chest hurt.

"Owww," the kid moaned.

"You better settle down, kid. Nathan's gonna come in here and tan us both a good one. And I don't know about you, son, but Nathan is one man I do not want mad at me," Buck smiled.

"Me neither. He's liable to sew us back together wrong or somethin'," JD teased. No matter how much it hurt to laugh, JD was feelin' so much better, he just couldn't help it.

Buck was bent over laughing when Nathan walked in.

"Shh…shh…," Buck whispered, which only made JD laugh all the more, seeing Buck's panicked look as the healer caught him.

"What's so funny in here that you're about to bust your stitches, JD?" Nathan said sternly.

"Nothin', Nathan. Honest," the boy said, with his best angelic look.

Gets 'em every time.

"OK…well just 'cause you're feelin' better don't mean you're ready for foolishness," Nathan reminded.

"Sure, Nathan. I'll keep a tight reign on 'im for 'ya, Nathan," Buck promised.

"Oh…like you ain't the one started all this ruckus, Buck," Nathan smiled.

He knew that Buck was the best medicine for the boy. Nathan had missed their carrying on, too, but wanted to remind the two that JD was still recovering from -- from what -- nearly dying?

It seemed so long ago, now that the boy was smiling and laughing.

Thank God.

Nathan was glad to hear JD back to his old self. The boy added a spark of enthusiasm to the seven -- and without that spark the past few days -- things had been pretty dark for the rest.

* * * * * * *

Vin and Chris rode into Wickstown, trying to be careful not to be seen. The town -- not even much of a town, really -- more of a camp, with tents for buildings -- was hard to maneuver in without being seen. There was basically just one street in, so Vin and Chris tried to come in from behind the tents.

The two friends tied up their horses and decided to start looking in the most obvious place -- the saloon.

They pulled their hats as low as they could and walked in, heading for a table in the rear of the tent, and sitting down.

A pretty young woman came to take their order.

"What'll 'ya have, boys?" she asked.

"Bottle…two glasses," Chris said, tipping his hat to the lady.

"Comin' right up, boys? You need anything else, gentlemen?" the woman asked.

"Not right now, ma'am. But we'll let 'ya know," Vin drawled.

"You see that you do now, darlin'," she said, winking at Vin, as she left to get their drinks.

"Usin' some of Buck's animal magnetism there, pard?" Chris teased.

"Funny. See him anywhere, Chris?" Vin asked, as he eyed the place.

"No…he'd be hard to miss…big as he is…" Chris said, remembering the size of the man that had shoved JD around when they met.

"That he is, friend…that he is," Vin agreed.

"I got a thing or two I want to take up with him about pickin' on kids half his size…you remind me of that when we find him," Chris said.

Vin knew that Chris had a real soft spot for JD and didn't take kindly to people who were bigger than the kid pushing him around. Chris could be mean in a fight, but was always fair.

Being small, JD very rarely got a fair fight.

The lady brought their whiskey and set it on the table.

"Maybe you can help us find someone we're lookin' for, ma'am," Chris began. "Big guy…probably 6'5…maybe 250 pounds…seen anyone like that around here in the past couple of days?"

"Sounds like Ernie…" the woman started to tell more, but then thought better of it. "Why do you want to find him?"

"Need to discuss somethin' with 'im, that's all," Vin stated simply.

"Well…Ernie's the only guy around here that big…but I ain't so sure I want him talkin' to the likes of you two," she said. "He ain't done nothin'."

"The hell he ain't," Chris snapped. "He got a friend of ours hurt…real bad."

"Well…just 'cause Ernie beat your friend in a fight…ain't no call to come after him," the woman said, defending the man.

"Who said it was a fight?" Chris asked.

"Well…that's how Ernie makes his money…from people bettin' on his fights," she explained.

"You mean this ox is a fighter?" Chris was becoming unglued. "You mean to tell me that this giant of a man was trying to get JD to fight him?"

"So?" she asked.

"Ma'am…our friend is about your size…maybe…" Vin told her.

"What??" she seemed confused.

"Our friend, is a kid. Maybe nineteen, if that, and like my friend here said, he's just about your size," Chris said, getting angrier by the minute. "Would that seem like a fair fight to you, ma'am?"

"Well…Ernie musta had good reason…" she started.

"There is no good reason for what he did. Kid was just mindin' his own business…bumped into the guy, apologized, and the guy still threatened to take him apart. We stopped it, but he came back for the kid later…in the process…the kid got shot," Chris seethed. "Where's this Ernie at?"

"He's sleepin'," she said.

"Well, he's gonna be getting' up real soon, ma'am. Where is he?" Vin asked.

"This kid…he's a good friend of yours?" the lady eyed the two men.

"Real good," Chris assured her.

"Kid's lucky to have friends. Look…Ernie's never done nothin' to me…but…I got a little brother…and he used to get picked on…and I hated it. So…if'n Ernie did what you say he did to that kid…well…he's in the second tent down…on the right."

"Thank you, ma'am," Vin said.

"Your friend…he gonna be OK?" the lady was afraid to ask.

"He's gettin' better. Got a long road ahead, though," Chris said as the two men walked out and headed for Ernie's tent.

* * * * * * *

Chris approached the tent from the front, while Vin made his way around to the back.

As Chris pulled the flap open he was able to see that Ernie was, indeed, asleep.

Chris felt rage building up in him as he looked at the sheer size of the man…lying on the cot…looking like the equivalent of maybe four JD's…

The man woke up and saw Chris staring at him.

"What the hell? Who are you?" the man bellowed.

"You don't remember me? I'm hurt," Chris remarked, sarcastically.

"Why should I remember you? I never seen you before," Ernie said.

"Think again. Couple of days ago? A kid bumped into you? We told you to drop it…but you had another idea," Chris yelled as he charged at the man and sent him and the cot flying in different directions.

Chris punched Ernie several times as Vin, who had come in from the back, stood by.

"Get him off me…he's crazy," Ernie screamed.

"Oh…yeah…he's crazy, all right. And when he's done…if you're still alive…you're mine," Vin chuckled. "I've lived with Indians, mister…I know how to kill people real slow…"

"What do you guys want? I got some money…is that it?" Ernie was definitely frightened by the two men.

Chris drug the man up off the ground and whispered in his face. "That kid…he nearly died…and you wanna offer us money?"

Chris threw the man to the ground and Vin placed his foot on the man's chest -- and his rifle to his head.

"Look, mister, I'd just as soon kill you here as anywhere…so don't go givin' me any reasons," Vin said. He was disgusted by the fact that this huge man was so scared of them -- he was more afraid than JD was in a fight.

"How come someone who makes his livin' fightin' is so scared, Chris?" Vin asked his friend, pulling the hammer back on his rifle.

"'Cause he ain't pickin' on someone littler than him, that's why. You're a big man…ain't 'ya…when the odds are in your favor…when you're pickin' on a kid…" Chris' fists were shaking at his sides, he was so furious. "Well…let me tell 'ya…you piece of shit…you picked on the wrong kid this time…you picked on our kid."

* * * * * * *

Vin and Chris had managed to half-walk, half-drag Ernie to his horse. Not any easy task, considering the man's size…but once there, Ernie was able to get on his horse under his own power…something Vin and Chris were grateful for.

"I guess I shouldn't have beat the crap out of him before we got him back to town, huh, pard?" Chris smiled to Vin.

"He's a pretty big load to tote around, that's for sure," Vin laughed. "What say we hold off on any more till we get him home."

"I figure Buck's entitled to a little satisfaction out of the guy, don't 'ya think?" Chris asked.

"Oh…yeah…I'd say Buck's got a big piece of satisfaction comin' outta this man's hide," Vin said.

"You talkin' bout that runt? He ain't gonna lay a hand on me," Ernie gloated.

"No…we ain't talkin' 'bout that runt'," Chris said as he tightened the ropes around the man's wrists. "The runt ain't your problem…it's his 'big brother', Buck, you better be worryin' about."

"You got no right to take me back there," the man argued.

"Oh…we got a right…you're responsible for what happened to that boy…same as if you'd pulled the trigger yourself," Chris said.

"I didn't…" the man started.

"Gag 'im, Vin. I ain't gonna listen to him runnin' his mouth all the way home," Chris instructed.

"Happy to," Vin said, as he did as Chris suggested.

* * * * * * *

JD was progressing nicely.

Nathan had him sitting up in bed and on a diet of broth and herbal tea.

Yes, JD was progressing -- feeling well enough to complain about the food.

"Jeez…Nathan…what is this crap?" the boy asked.

"Crap? That 'crap' is what's gonna make you strong enough to get out of this bed…which is all you've been bitchin' about all day," Nathan snapped.

"Ohhhh…Nathan…let 'im have it," Buck teased.

"And you…always under foot here. Ain't you got nothin' else to do but aggravate me and this boy?" Nathan accused.

"Well…I guess I can tell when I'm not wanted," Buck said, trying to sound hurt.

"I want 'ya, Buck. I don't want him to leave, Nathan. Please don't make him leave," JD pleaded -- puppy-dog-eyes and all. "I'll eat this cra…I mean…I'll eat this stuff…I promise…just don't make Buck leave, OK?"

Nathan relented. He was glad the boy was feeling good enough to complain, but the JD/Buck combination in one room for too long was more than Nathan could handle.

"All right. If you eat all that broth…and drink all the tea. If'n you don't do what I say…he's outta here," Nathan said as he walked out.

"Here, Buck…you eat this broth. I'll drink the tea," JD suggested, shoving the bowl in his friend's direction.

"Oh, no…you eat that. You're weaker than a two-day-old puppy now…eat it," Buck said.

"Eat it…eat it…eat it…" the boy groused. "That's all you ever say."

"Well…if you'd eat better, I wouldn't have to say it all the time, would I?" Buck asked.

JD was not happy about it -- but he did eat the broth and drank all the tea.

The tea was beginning to do its work -- "Tired, kid?" Buck noticed the boy's long lashes beginning to flutter.

"Huh? Oh…yeah…I guess…," JD said as he curled up under the covers and quickly fell asleep.

"You rest, kid…you just rest," Buck said as he pulled the covers up tighter under the boy's chin and walked over and sat down in the chair by the bed.

* * * * * * *

Nathan returned about an hour later -- to find both JD and Buck sound asleep.

JD, comfortably asleep -- only the top of his head showing above the covers.

Buck, on the other hand, definitely looked uncomfortable, but asleep, none the less.

Nathan sat down and enjoyed the peace and quiet -- he knew it wouldn't last long.

And it didn't…

Buck was beginning to awaken.

"Hey, Nate," Buck called out as he opened his eyes.

"Sshhh…kid looks like he's sleepin' good," Nathan said.

"Oh…yeah…sorry," Buck said, lowering his voice.

Buck walked over and checked on the boy -- making sure he was covered up and putting his hand to his cheek.

"Still no fever, Nate. That's sure a relief," Buck whispered as he walked over and sat in the chair next to Nathan's.

"Yeah. He's gonna be fine, Buck. Just fine," Nathan smiled. He knew that Buck had not had a decent night's sleep in several days -- refusing to leave the boy's side.

And now that the teen was getting better, Buck still refused to leave because the boy didn't want him to go.

"You ever gonna get any rest, Buck?" Nathan asked.

"I can do that any time, Nathan. I can do that when JD's not dependin' on me to be here," Buck said, staring at the kid in the bed.

"He'll be fine, Buck. You should go get some sleep…in a bed…not perched on some chair all night," Nathan told the man.

"Yeah…I know he'll be fine. But…when he wakes up…he always wants me here…so…this is where I need to be…for now, Nathan. And I know that I've been gettin' on your nerves, Nathan, and I do apologize for that. But…soon as the kid's able to get up and around…I'm outta here, OK?" Buck explained.

"Sure…it's up to you, Buck. 'Course you know you'll have no peace then, either, right? 'Cause as soon as he's up and around…he'll be followin' you every where you go…like always," Nathan smiled.

"That's OK. If he wasn't followin' me, Nathan…I'd have no idea where I was goin'."

* * * * * * *

Vin and Chris came into town about dusk.

Josiah and Ezra were standing outside the jail as they approached.

"Well…I do believe I would recognize that grotesque hulking frame of a man anywhere, wouldn't you, Brother Sanchez?" Ezra inquired.

"Yes…Brother Standish…I do believe that is the sinner who brought down our young friend, isn't it?" Josiah said.

"Yes…indeed. Where did you find the culprit, gentlemen?" Ezra asked Chris and Vin as they were getting off their horses.

"Wickstown," Vin answered.

"That would seem appropriate. I am sure that he would have companionship in no other manner," Ezra said as he helped the others get the man off his horse and into the jail.

"How's the kid?" Chris asked as soon as the man was behind the bars.

"Our young Mr. Dunne is recuperating quite nicely. I believe he will perhaps be joining us for dinner this very evening. Mr. Jackson had to bribe him with something to get the boy to eat…so he was promised that he would be allowed out of bed to eat with all of us upon your return," Ezra told Chris and Vin.

The two men looked trail-weary. They were dusty, tired and hungry. They were hoping for just a quick bite to eat before turning in for the night. But…they knew that it would mean a lot to the kid for them to all be together again…

"Sounds good…right, Vin?" Chris urged.

"Surely does," Vin agreed.

"Why don't you two get cleaned up…I'll go tell Nathan and Buck you're back and they can get the kid over for dinner," Josiah offered.

"I will therefore entertain our incarcerated visitor until it is time to partake of our evening meal with 'the family'…so to speak," Ezra said.

* * * * * * *

Josiah entered Nathan's clinic and found the healer stocking some shelves with supplies.

"Brother Jackson, I am the bearer of good news. Chris and Vin have returned. I believe young JD will be glad to see them."

"Hallelujah, Josiah. If I had to tell that boy one more time that they were not back yet, I swear, it would break my heart. He worries so much when one of us is away," Nathan said. "Let's go give him the news."

Josiah and Nathan entered the room to find JD sound asleep and Buck, naturally, sitting on the side of the bed, stroking the boy's hair. Buck didn't appear to hear the two enter the room…he was having a quiet 'one-sided conversation' with the boy…

"JD, boy…I am so sorry for all this…it's all my fault…I want you to know that. There's no way I can ever make this up to you, son. It's just by the grace of God that you're still here with me. Things could have gone the other way…I just don't know what I'd do without you, kid…"

"Hhmmm. Hhmmm," Nathan cleared his throat to let Buck know that Josiah and he were there.

"Hey…guys…" Buck said.

"Buck…Chris and Vin are back. JD'll be real excited, don't 'ya think?" Josiah asked.

"Yeah…he'll be real excited. He's been askin' about them all day," Buck said, brushing the hair from the boy's eyes.

"Is he feelin' OK, Buck? You seem a little distracted," Nathan worried, approaching the bed and checking on his patient.

He felt that JD was cool to the touch and seemed to be sleeping soundly…the boy didn't seem to be in any pain. But Buck…Nathan could sense a great deal of pain there…

"You alright, Buck?" Nathan asked, eyeing the man on the other side of the bed.

"Yeah…just thinkin'…and yes, Nathan, I know that can get me in a lot of trouble," Buck smiled. "Just thinkin' I'm lucky I still got this boy here with me…I nearly lost him, Nathan…and I sure would hate for that to happen."

Buck broke down and Josiah approached him and put his large hand on the man's shoulder.

"Brother Buck…this boy ain't goin' nowhere. He's got six angels watchin' out for him right here on this earth. And ain't none of us ready to let him go just yet."

"Thank you, Josiah…Nathan," Buck said, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "Well…I guess we'd better be gettin' the kid up and over to dinner. I bet Chris and Vin are about to eat Ezra alive."

* * * * * * *

Chris, Vin and Ezra were sitting at a table in the rear of the saloon when Josiah and Nathan walked in.

"Where's Buck and the kid?" Chris asked.

"They'll be here soon. I think Buck wanted to have a little time alone with JD," Nathan said.

"A little time alone? He's been with Mr. Dunne twenty-four hours a day since this whole ordeal occurred. How much time does Mr. Wilmington need with the lad?" Ezra asked.

The men laughed -- but it was true -- Buck had barely left JD's side since…how many days had it been, anyway?

The laughter was silenced as the doors opened and the subjects of the conversation appeared -- in came JD…walking slowly…but walking nonetheless, supported greatly by 'big brother' Buck…who was grinning from ear-to-ear.

"Hey, kid…good to see 'ya up and about," Chris said, as he walked around and pulled a chair out for his young friend.

"Thanks, Chris," JD said…his voice sounding some stronger than when he and Vin had left.

"Well…I don't know about ya'll…but I'm starvin'. Let's get some food over here!" Vin called to the waitress.

Before they began eating, JD asked Josiah if he'd say grace.

"I just think we need it, don't you, Josiah? I mean…I don't know about the rest of 'ya…but I've got a lot to be thankful for," JD said.

"Why don't you say it, JD?" Josiah offered.

"Oh…I couldn't, Josiah…I wouldn't…I wouldn't know what…to say," JD stammered.

"I bet you would…if you talked from here," Josiah said, touching the boy's chest, above his heart.

"C'mon, son. You can do it," Chris coaxed.

"OK. And, Buck…no kickin' me under the table or nothin'…this is gonna be hard enough without you…you know…behave yourself, OK?" the kid begged.

"OK, kid. Swear to God," Buck smiled.

"Dear Lord…thank you for this food that you have…placed before us…and thank you for the chance to gather together…all of us…to enjoy it. Thank you for the friendship…that we have and the devotion we have for each other. Thank you Lord for my friends…my best friends and 'brothers'…they are my 'family' now. I would never make it without them, God…never. Please keep all of us safe and in your care. Amen."

JD used his napkin to wipe his eyes and looked up to see that he was not alone in his emotions.

Buck used his napkin to blow his nose, then quickly recovered. "Come on, kid. You need to eat more. You ain't never gonna grow if'n you don't eat."