by Cassie Smith
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell a person what they mean to us, until it’s too late. Will the Seven make the same mistake when one of their own is at risk? Or will they all learn a lesson in matters of the heart?
The glowing orange sun was just about to kiss the horizon as two very trail-weary men decided to make camp. “I don’t ever remember being this tired,” Buck Wilmington said wearily, slumping to the ground near the small fire his friend had just started. "Well, except maybe for when I got a hold of these two twins up in Shilock.” A wide smile spread across his handsome face. “The Kanley sisters, I believe they were called...”
“Buck,” the slow exhale of the other man cut the reminiscing gunslinger’s monologue short. “I’ve heard that story about as many times as J.D. has.” Chris Larabee gave his friend a slow smile as he dropped his saddle bags and bedding on the other side of the fire.
“Not only have you told it at least 50 times over the countless years I’ve known you, but the kid has retold it, in all his awe-inspiring, hero-worshiping, glory. And besides,” Chris added, leaning back on his bedroll and pulling his black hat further down over his eyes, “I was there, remember?”
“ I can’t say that’s one of things I recall about that night, Pard, “ Buck chuckled and set the coffee pot he had filled with water from his canteen over the dancing flames.
Larabee snorted a short reply, too tired to answer and hoping his friend would decide to keep it quiet himself. No such luck of course. Buck had talked the whole four-day ride, nonstop. I knew I should have brought Vin.
“Wonder if the kid talked Vin’s ear off all the way to Eagle Bend, yesterday?” Buck asked, his blue eyes locking on Larabee, as if he had read his friend’s silent thoughts.
Chris had to smile at the suggestion, though. Why shouldn’t the bounty hunter have to suffer, too? And if anyone could talk as much as Wilmington, it was his young protege, J.D. Dunne.
“Probably,” the man in black finally answered. “That is, unless Vin gagged him.”
“Hell, Vin was probably glad for the company after riding with you all the time. At least the kid is a lively conversationalist.” Buck grabbed the kettle and poured him a cup of coffee. “Unlike someone I know.”
Chris raised his hat a smidgen and cast a glance in Wilmington’s direction, “You know , Buck , if I didn’t know better, I’d think you missed J.D.”
“Miss him?!” The younger man looked appalled at the thought. “Are you kiddin'? I was glad to get away. Damn kid’s practically been my shadow for the last year. It was a good thing plans worked out like they did. Why I might have strangled our fair sherif on this trip, if he’d been well enough to come along.”
Chris fought hard to control the laugh that wanted to burst loose at his oldest friend’s out right lie. Buck Wilmington not only liked the youngest of the Seven, he had appointed himself, whether consciously or not, the kid’s older, somewhat overprotective, brother.
In all the years Larabee had known his friend , he had never seen him take to anyone as quick as Buck had to J.D. Although all the other five looked out for the ever-exuberant youth, and even Larabee, himself, had to admit he cared a hell of a lot more than he wanted to say about the kid, it was Wilmington who went the extra mile to make sure the boy stayed out of trouble. Always giving the kid advice, whether asked for or not, on women, or guns, or horses, or women, whiskey and guns. Chris smiled to himself. At times, though, Chris wondered who needed who more?
“What are you smirking at?” Buck asked sharply, tossing what was left of his coffee in the fire, causing it to hiss and crackle in the otherwise quite night.
“Nothin',” Chris pulled his hat back down. “You know , the sooner you go to sleep, the sooner we can get up and ride on to Four Corners.”
“Yeah? Who says I’m in any hurry?” Wilmington asked, gruffly.
Larabee yawned, “Oh, I just figured you might want to get back and make sure the kid is still in one piece.”
“Hmmph,” Buck finally laid down and settled in for the night. “He better be in one piece after I rode all the way to Langston with you to transfer those prisoners just because he had some case of the sniffles.”
Chris wanted to remind his friend that it had been his idea for the kid to stay in town and rest, letting Chris make the long ride to Langston with him instead. At first, Larabee had protested, mostly because he knew he and Vin were suppose to pick up another prisoner in Eagle Bend later that week. And with the price still on his bounty hunter friend , he didn’t like to let him too far out of his sight.
Besides, at the time, Larabee had thought his friend was overreacting to JD’s little old cold. But, after the draining effect the trip had taken on the two, healthy, more experienced gunmen, Chris had to admit Buck had done the right thing. After all, what kind of trouble could the two youngest members of the Seven get into in such a short time?
As all the unlikely scenarios played through his head , and worry began plaguing his thoughts, Larabee groaned and rolled over away from the fire, pulling his blanket tighter around him. God, I’m starting to get as bad as Buck.
******* back in Four Corners *******
“I must proclaim, Mr. Dunne, that you are looking rather peevish this fine morning,” Ezra Standish drawled, casting a quick glance in his young friend’s direction, across the card table from him.
“Huh?” J.D. mumbled, taking off his hat and wiping at his damp forehead.
“He means you look sick, son.” Josiah explained, not taking his own eyes from the hand of cards he was holding. The big man was bound and determined to beat the gambler at this damn game if it was the last thing he did.
“I’m okay,“ the kid answered . “ Just tired out from the trip I guess.”
“Vin over getting the prisoner settled in?” Mr. Sanchez asked, glaring at Ezra as the gambler tapped his fingers on the table, looking like the fox that was just handed the key to the chicken coop.
“Yep,” came the short reply.
“ So I take it that the outing was as successful and fortuitous as Mr. Larabee had surmised?”
“I guess,” JD answered, not even caring what Ezra had just asked. His head was hurting too bad to even bother. “Speaking of Chris, shouldn’t he and Buck be getting back soon?” Something in the kid’s miserable, yet hopeful, tone made Josiah look up.
“They should be back tomorrow or day after. Are you sure you're feelin' all right, son?”
JD tried to take a deep breath but ended up having a slight coughing fit instead. “I’m fine,” he choked. “Just that stupid cold coming back.”
Ezra put his hand down and cast an uncharacteristic worried glance at Josiah. He wasn’t one to play the mother hen like he sometimes observed Mr. Wilmington doing, but the kid had seemed to procure a rather secure soft spot in his usually armored heart. “ I say, maybe we should procure the services of our resident general practitioner, Brother Sanchez?”
“If you just asked Josiah to get Nathan, you can just forget it!” JD made to stand up from the table, but unfortunately , the earth seemed to decide to tilt unmercifully at that very moment. The young sheriff swayed and would have fallen if the large preacher hadn’t caught him before he hit the ground.
“Ok, so maybe Nathan wouldn’t be such a bad idea,” the boy murmured, before giving in to the welcoming darkness pulling at him so fiercely.
******* Nathan’s clinic *******
“How is he?” Vin asked, pacing the floor of the small, makeshift waiting room.
Nathan sighed and pulled the door closed behind him. “You say there was some kind of influenza epidemic in Eagle Bend?”
The bounty hunter nodded, “Yeah, the sheriff mentioned something about it. Said he had even been sick for a while, but we were there only long enough to get that prisoner,Yeates. Then me and the kid were out of there.”
“You don’t think young J.D. has Influenza do you, Brother Nate?” Josiah asked, a little more than worried now.
“ I’m not sure but it’s beginning to look that way,” the kind-hearted doctor appeared almost as if he blamed himself. “If his body was already weak from fightin' off that cold he had last week, he could have been more susceptible to the virus.”
“Damn it, “ Vin cursed. “ I knew I should have made him stay here.”
Josiah stepped closer and placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder before speaking, “But the boy is going to be all right, isn’t he? I mean he’s young and strong.”
Nathan exhaled heavily. “His fever is high, and getting hotter. I can’t get him to keep any water or food down.” The dark man shook his head, “ I just don’t know.”
All three men turned as a pleading cry came from the room where JD was resting. Vin was through the door in seconds, with Josiah and Nathan right on his heels.
The bounty hunter was shocked at how pale and fragile his young friend looked. It didn’t seem possible that only the day before the two had been laughing as J.D. recounted some crazy tale Buck had convinced him was true.
“J.D.?” Vin approached the bed and placed a restraining hand on the kid, who was tossing and turning in a fitful sleep.
“Buck?” The younger man’s voice sounded strained and somehow, smaller. “Is that you , Buck?”
Vin looked up at his other friends for some kind of a wisdom they might offer. Nathan simply moved to the water basin and retrieved a damp cloth to lay on the kid’s head, while Josiah made his way around Vin. “J.D.?” The giant, holy man sat on the edge of the bed. “ It’s Josiah.” He smiled when two glassy hazel eyes looked up at him.
“Josiah...”the younger man croaked, blinking against the pain that had not only increased in his head, but had now taken up residence throughout his body. “Are Buck and Chris back?”
“ Not yet, son.” This seemed to agitate the younger man. “ But it should be anytime now.”
“No,” J.D. shook his head, vehemently. “ Something’s happened to 'em. We gotta go get 'em!” The kid actually tried to get out of the bed, with only Josiah’s strong grip stopping him.
“Nothing has happened to Chris or Buck, J.D.,” Nathan now joined in to reassure his distraught patient.
“Buck’s in trouble, I know it,” the kid insisted, between coughing bouts. Fever-glazed eyes searched the room until they fell on Vin and he persisted even harder. “Vin! Tell 'em, tell 'em about the bear that attacked Chris, Buck tried to save him. Vin! Help me!”
Vin shook his head and knelt down beside his struggling friend, “Buck’s okay, kid.” His deep, resonant tone seemed to calm the younger man some. “Remember he shot the bear, saved Chris and that pretty girl he told you about. Remember what she gave him for being her hero?”
Whether JD remembered or his body had just tired out, he slowly ceased to fight Josiah and fell back against the pillows before turning sorrowful eyes back to Vin, “Find Buck , Vin, please...” Dark eyelashes fluttered as unconsciousness tugged at the k id. “I really need him right about now...”
“He passed out,” Nathan diagnosed, running his hand over J.D.’s forehead. “That fever is really getting bad.”
Vin pushed himself up from the floor and headed for the door like a man on a mission. “ What are you going to do, Brother Tanner?”
The bounty hunter stopped only long enough to look at J.D. once more, “I’m going to find Buck and Chris if I have to ride all the way to Langston to do it.”
Josiah only nodded his head in agreement. “Stop by the jail and get Ezra to go with you. I’ll stop by and check on the prisoner.”
******* at the saloon *******
“I hate to admit it, Pard, but I’m glad to be home,” Buck sighed, walking into the nearly deserted saloon, rubbing at his aching backside. “I think I’m out of the swing of riding the open range.”
Chris only sidled up next to the bar and took a sweeping glance around. “Where is everybody?”
“Hell, Josiah’s probably got 'em guilted into fixing that hole in the roof of the church,” Mischievous, blue-eyes twinkled. “At least I hope so. I sure don’t want to have to do it.”
Before Chris could reply ,Vin Tanner burst through the doors, with a definite look of bad news on his face... “ I was just fixn' to ride out and get you boys.”
“What’s wrong?” Both men asked in unison, all hopes of any rest forgotten.
Vin really hated to tell Buck this. “It’s J.D. He’s sick.”
“What do you mean he’s ‘sick’?" Chris asked what Buck was afraid to. “Like with that cold he had, back before we left?”
Vin shook his head, “Worse. It’s a long story, but Nathan thinks it might be Influenza.” He looked at Buck. “He’s been asking for you.” The silence in the room was shattering. Buck didn’t say another word as he strode past his friend and stormed across the street.
Damn that kid! Can’t even leave for a couple of days without him getting himself in a situation, Wilmington let the fear, masquerading itself as anger, wash over him. If anything happens to him, I’ll never forgive myself.
Vin turned to go after Buck, but a hand on his arm stopped him, “How about you, are you okay?” Chris Larabee’s face was etched with concern, “You haven’t been feelin' sick or anything?”
The bounty hunter shook his head, “ I’m fine.”
Chris didn’t look convinced and even went so far as to reach out and touch the younger man’s face. “Well you don’t look so good and you feel kind of warm.”
Vin hid his smile. One rarely saw this side of the legendary gunslinger, except maybe with Miss Travis’s little one, Billy. “Thanks for the compliment, but I’ve been up for better'n two days and I ran all the way here when I saw your horses ride in,” the younger man explained. “Besides, Nathan said J.D.’s system was weakened from the cold he had earlier. It made him an easy target.”
Chris shook his head, trying to dislodge memories from the past that had suddenly surrounded him, “Still, you should watch for symptoms and take it easy. Influenza is serious business.”
Vin nodded, noticing the haunted look now shadowing the older man’s defined features, “I’ll be watchful, but right now I’m more worried about J.D. We better go check on him and Buck.
Chris agreed and the two made their way to Nathan’s room. Hopefully, things wouldn’t be as bad as Larabee feared, but history seemed to have a terrible way of repeating itself.
******* the clinic *******
Buck had mentally kicked himself a thousand times before reaching Nathan’s small makeshift infirmary. He should have known that J.D. Dunne couldn’t do anything the simple way, not even a cold.
Josiah looked surprised to see him when he quietly entered the room where the preacher and Nathan were watching over the feverish J.D. “Thank the heavens, “ Josiah breathed softly. “ It’s about time you made it back.”
Buck kept his eyes locked on his sick friend. “How is he?”
“He’s been a lot better,” Nathan sighed and got up, offering his chair at the kid’s bedside. “Maybe hearing your voice will help."
Buck took the seat offered him and put a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “J.D.? I thought you were suppose to stay out of trouble while I was gone? Huh boy?”
The younger man stirred and slowly turned his head in his friend's direction, “Buck? That you?” J.D. squinted against the light in the room, disoriented, as if he couldn’t quite make out his surroundings.
“Yeah, it’s me , kid.”
“Where’ve you been... thought that bear got ya?”
The older gunslinger shot a confused and worried glance at Nathan. “It’s the fever,” the healer explained. “I can’t get it to come down.”
“Buck, where’s Chris?” A hot hand latched on to Wilmington’s arm. “Did you save him? Are you sure you two are okay?”
“Take it easy,” the older man tried to soothe."Everybody’s fine. I shot that old bear, just like the last time.”
“And the girl?”
Josiah and Nathan had to smile at the kid’s insistence, which seemed to slightly embarrass the womanizing hero in question.
“Safe and sound, kid.”
“That’s good.” J.D started coughing again. “I was worried..”
“Well, I’m a little more worried about you at the moment,” Buck sighed, taking the glass of water Nathan handed him and offering the kid a sip.
The young sheriff obliged only a small amount before weakly pushing it away. “My head and throat hurt really bad,” he admitted in a scratchy voice. “In fact,” he swallowed painfully. “everything hurts.”
“I know, kid.” Buck rested his hand on the boy’s forehead. “Just try to get some rest, okay?” Wilmington started to get up when he realized J.D. still had a firm grasp on his arm.
“Please, don’t go, Buck. It’s dangerous out there.”
“I’m just going to step right out in the hallway and talk to Nathan a minute, all right?”
Glazed hazel eyes searched his face for any sign of trouble, then J.D. reluctantly let go of the older man. “Be careful.”
Buck patted his shoulder. “I won’t be long. Josiah will stay right here.”
Josiah nodded and Wilmington waited until his young friend’s eyes were closed before motioning for Nathan to meet him outside.
Chris and Vin were just entering as the two men stepped from the patient’s room. “How is he?” Chris asked anxiously.
He had never seen his oldest friend sound so tired as when he answered, “He’s bad. Burning up and talkin' out of his head.” Buck now turned to face the doctor. “Isn’t there anything you can do for that fever?!”
“I’ve tried about everything,” Nathan sighed and rubbed at his weary eyes. “Even tried to sweat it out of him, nothing seems to work.”
“What about ice?” Chris saw a light appear behind the healer’s dark eyes.
“That’s right. You know I saw the medics use it on a soldier once. Buried him in the snow up to his neck 'til his body temperature dropped.”
Buck shook his head, “If ya all hadn’t noticed, it’s only mid-October and I don’t 'spect will be gettin the white stuff anytime too soon.”
“But we do have an icehouse,” Chris reminded. “My pa once put my little brother in a freezing bath when he had the fever.”
“That might work,” Nathan sighed. “At this point, I’ll try anything. If we don’t get that fever down, he could die.”
Vin’s brow furrowed, “I didn’t know you had a brother...”
Chris met his friend’s stare, “He didn’t make it.” The gunslinger caught the fleeting look of desperation that came across the other men’s faces. “But J.D. will,” he said assuredly, and then turned to Vin. “Let’s get Ezra to give us a hand.” Turning back to the pale imitation of his friend , he forced a look of confidence he wasn’t quite sure he felt. “Buck, you have Josiah meet us over at the ice house behind the cafe and then give us about an hour before you bring the kid over to the bath house.”
Buck nodded, but didn’t look too sure about the whole plan. “It’ll work, Buck.” Chris clasped his friend’s shoulder and squeezed it. “And if not, we’ll find something that does.”
Wilmington couldn’t remember a time since the fire that Chris had been so outspoken, even offering personal information that Buck hadn’t even known about. It made him wonder if the gunslinger didn’t think as much of the kid as he, himself, did. And it made him hopeful. If their little make-shift family of Seven could help heal Chris Larabee’s wounds, then surely they could save J.D.
They had to.
J.D slipped in and out of a fitful sleep for a better part of the hour. Buck was constantly at his side when he did awake, offering him water and encouraging him to at least try and drink something.
“It’s time to go,” Nathan’s soft voice, interrupted Buck’s mental replay of the last year he had spent hear in Four Corners with his friends. He wasn't ready to give that up. Hell, he probably wouldn't ever be ready to give that up.
The gunman ran a shaky hand over his face, “Sorry, Nathan. I didn’t mean to drift off on you like that.”
The healer shook his head, “I’m surprised you didn’t fall asleep as worn out as you look.. Do you think we can get the kid over there, or should I go get one of the others?”
Buck shook his head, “I can carry him.” Before Nathan could object, Wilmington had tucked the blanket closer around J.D. and scooped him up as if he were as light as a feather. “Just get the door.”
J.D. stirred slightly when the cool night air brushed against them upon entering the deserted street. Buck held him a little closer and softly mumbled a reassurance as he quickly made their way across town. .
******* the bath house *******
“Maybe you should sit down for a while,” Chris eyed the bounty hunter. “You’re looking a little ragged.”
Vin dropped the last piece of ice he had been carrying onto the ground, letting in break into smaller sections, which he tossed into the glacier-filled tub. “I’m fine,” Vin said for at least the tenth time since he and the others had been hauling the cold material. Even Ezra had started watching him, with his piercing , unreadable stare. “Don’t say it, I know I don’t look fine, but trust me, I am. Besides, you look worse than I do.”
Chris had to laugh at that. Maybe he was getting to be worse than Buck. Being the leader of the Seven over the last year had changed something in him, made him more protective of the friends he had come to think of as family. Family. That was a word he thought he’d never use in reference to himself again.
“So, Mr. Larabee, do you really anticipate this frosty soak to have the desired effect on our young sheriff?” Ezra drawled, breaking the gunslinger from his reverie. There was a slight pitch in his voice , Chris had never heard before. Could it be fear?
“ I will say a prayer that it does just that, “ Josiah interjected, dumping his last load into the freezing water. “Brother Dunne is much too young to leave our congregation at this time.”
As if on cue, the door to the bathhouse swung open and Buck entered carrying the young man they all worried for. Nathan soon joined them and closed the door. Vin and Chris quickly stepped up to help Buck with his precious cargo, the three of them easing J.D. to the floor.
“Take off the blankets and his shirt,” Chris instructed.
“He ain’t going to like this,” Buck breathed, noticing the creases of pain on his young friend’s brow as he was divested of all warmth. .
“It’s not going to be pleasant, Buck. But it’s got to be done.” Chris left no room for protest , knowing it was going to be hard for his friend to watch if J.D. had the same reaction as his young brother had.
“Vin, get his legs,” Larabee instructed, noticing the stressed look on the bounty hunter’s face. Giving a man something to do usually took his mind from worrying. “Buck and I will lift on this end.”
With that the three hoisted the boy and brought him to the large tub of mostly ice and frigid water, where they eased their young friend in up to his neck. J.D. jerked fiercely and nearly slipped from Buck’s grasp as his body registered the icy assault. “Hold him,” Chris said through gritted teeth as his grip nearly failed also, nearly letting the Sheriff’s head go under.
“Buck?!” The young man’s eyes fluttered open and he thrashed about some before his eyes fell on the man he was searching for.
“You’re okay, kid. Just take it easy.”
“Wh,..what’s goin on?” J.D. croaked , trying to focus in on the others.
“We’ve got to bring your fever down, son,” Nathan spoke calmly, coming to kneel beside the tub. “This may seem bad now, but you’ll feel better soon.”
“No!” J.D.’s teeth were chattering some now, and he struggled again to get out of the water. Vin, who had stepped back after helping get the kid in, turned away. The water had stung his hands, it had been so cold . He could only imagine what it would feel like to his friend.
“Buck,” the kid begged. “Get me out of here , please...”
Wilmington squeezed his eyes shut a moment and Chris could tell his friend had loosened his hold on the struggling boy some. “Come on, J.D., this water isn’t even as cold as that stream you conned old Buck into diving into last spring, remember?”
J.D. turned his head quickly as if registering Larabee’s presence for the first time. “You remember don’t you, Ezra?” Chris continued in his usual , even tone. “We were all riding back from Shilock and it was hotter than Hades.”
“Ah yes,” Ezra quickly picked up on the tactic. “I must say , Mr. Wilmington was none too ecstatic when he disrobed on the spot and vaulted into the bubbling spring that you assured was quite tepid.”
Josiah laughed his hearty chuckle, “If I recall, Buck came out of there faster than he went in, and nearly knocked his fool self out on the rocky bank.”
“I didn’t knock myself out, I told you I stepped on a sharp pebble and I don’t recall it being half as amusing as you all are remembering it to be.” Buck looked down at the kid who was still trembling something fierce but had stopped his struggles to get out of the bath.
Whether he had been comforted by his friend’s banter or just become numb to the chilling effects, Buck wasn’t sure. But the eyes that met his didn’t seem as frightened now.
“Ggguess ...I’mm...getttinn. paiidd.. backk..,huh, Buckk?”
“Ten fold, kid.” Buck reached up and pushed a strand of damp dark hair off the kid’s face. “Ten fold.”
The others had gone now. They had left after an hour of watching and listening to their friend battle the cold, trying their hardest to keep his mind from the situation at hand. Of course they only went once the boy had been freed from his icy prison and moved back to Nathan’s.
Ezra had gone to take the prisoner his supper, with promises to return and regale the patient with tales of his many 'triumphant escapades.' Chris had finally persuaded Vin to leave long enough to feed themselves and Josiah had gone with Nathan find some broth and extra clothes for the kid.
It was Buck who held the boy while his limbs painfully began to get their feeling back and who prayed the fever wouldn’t reappear once the warmth was returned. It was Buck who had listened to J.D’s pain-filled ramblings and tried to comfort him. And it was Buck who now sat watching the soundly sleeping form of his friend, who seemed to be losing the blue tinge he had secured from the ice bath and appeared to be getting some of his natural color back.
“You know, kid, “ Buck spoke softly, “I don’t know much about matters of this sort. Ain’t never been much good at expressing my feelin's and such, but you gave me quite a scare.” The big man sighed, as he watched the peaceful face. In sleep the kid looked even younger than his nineteen years. It made Buck take a deep breath as he realized just how close that young life had come to being cut short and just how close this annoying kid had came to his heart. He loved the boy and that made him a little angry. “Damn’it, J.D.,” he mumbled, resting his hand on the much cooler forehead of his friend, “What have I taught you about finding trouble?”
Hazel eyes blinked open and Buck was favored with a small smile, “Everything I know.”
Wilmington was sure at that moment he had the goofiest grin possible plastered on his face. “How ya feelin', kid?”
“Better than I was in that bath,” J.D replied weakly. “Was that your idea or what?”
Buck laughed, “Nope, Chris’s.”
“Payin' me back for havin to ride all the way to Langston with you, huh?” The kid’s eyes fluttered shut, but a trace of the smile remained.
“If that were the case, I guess I better be keepin' an eye out on ole’Vin, cause he’s probably got it in for me.”
J.D. forced his eyes open again, “Maybe, we should just stick to ridin' together from now on , then?”
“Maybe,” Buck smiled even wider. The kid was beginning to sound like his old self. “And maybe, you should stop talking and get back to resting before we give Nathan cause to turn on us.”
J.D. nodded and squirmed deeper into the covers. “Thanks, Buck , for everything." There was a soft sigh and Wilmington finally felt he might get some rest for the first time in over a week.
“No, thank you, kid.” He pulled the blanked higher around J.D’s arm and smiled. “Thank you.”
And thank you all for reading!