(an "Achilles" epilogue)

Author: May Robinson

Rating: PG-13 for language

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Disclaimer: The following is a work of fan fiction based on the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters and settings. I do not claim ownership of the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from it.

Warnings: Spoilers!!! This story was inspired by the 1999 Mag 7 episode "Achilles" and is in essence an epilogue to it. Therefore, it contains significant mention of events occurring in "Achilles." "Lady Killers" figures prominently, along with minor references to several episodes from both Seasons 1 and 2. Readers can likely follow the story without having seen these episodes, but viewing them first is certainly best. JD is the central character in this fic. Lots of angst, plus h/c and smarm within.

Notes: Special thanks to Marg Baskin for her enthusiasm, encouragement, wonderful beta work, and of course for getting me hooked on this glorious show in the first place! Thanks also to Nancy for her encouragement and assistance. Finally, thanks to all the wonderful writers who have given me so much to read and enjoy, since discovering the world of fan fiction just a few months ago.

Reader comments are very much welcome. This is my first effort at writing fiction of any sort since childhood, so please be constructive :)


Despite the throbbing in his head, and at this point, just plain exhaustion, JD Dunne knew he had to stay awake.

For one thing, Nathan had always warned the men against falling asleep after receiving a head wound. It had something to do with passing out and never waking up again. And even though earlier today, JD had really felt like crawling away and dying somewhere, right now he wanted nothing more than to make sure he got his live butt out of there and back home to Four Corners!

Then of course there was young Laura, cradled in his arms, seriously injured and out cold. God! JD prayed she was all right. She has to be. She just has to be! JD had done everything he could for the girl. He was sure he set Laura's arm properly and then put it in a makeshift sling. He had also cleaned and wrapped Laura's head-wound. Laura had felt so cold when he found her, so JD had stripped off his own overcoat, jacket and vest and covered the girl with these before wrapping her in the blanket JD had brought with him on this rescue mission. JD would have to suffer the cold himself; Laura needed warmth more. He couldn't build a fire. If only he could do more for her, but now all he could do was wait.

Finally, JD had to remind himself that if he didn't stay awake, another disaster would happen… Buck would come charging in like a bull on a rampage and either fall in himself, landing right on top of them, or walk too near the edge, sending the walls of this godforsaken pit down on top of them. I've had enough of that kind of excitement today, he thought to himself. The trickle of blood working its way along his eye and down his cheek was a vivid reminder of just how unstable this place really was. So JD had to stay awake, to wait and warn the others.

JD didn't know what time it was, but he tried to estimate how long it would take for Buck or the rest of the search party to find him. JD figured that he had left Casey about two hours ago. Assuming that some of Laura's search party made it back into town before sun-down, and Casey told them where JD was headed, it would take them at least an hour to reach his horse and then up to another hour to make their way down to this cave. No matter how he looked at it, JD figured he was stuck at least two more hours in this damn hole. But, he took comfort in knowing that, in all certainty, big brother Buck Wilmington would come. To give me hell, if nothing else!

JD settled back against the wall of the cavern, wrapped his arms around Laura and tried not to think anymore about his current predicament. However, to keep himself awake, JD let his mind drift back to the events of the last few months that had somehow led him here. So much had happened. How much JD's life had changed…

In the days that followed Annie's shooting and JD's return to Four Corners, he had never felt so uncertain about his life. Stopping the stagecoach robbery had exhilarated him, and had given JD the first glimmer of hope for his guilty, anguished soul. Some of the townsfolk actually welcomed him back with open arms, especially after Mary had printed the story of his saving the passengers and the gold. In the aftermath of Annie's loss however, JD still didn't feel much like the hero and Mary thankfully didn't embellish the story too much. He earned back some respect, but many still weren't all that happy with the return of the boy who had killed Annie.

Because of this, JD initially chose not to wear his guns. He knew that, despite Buck's glares, there were still people whispering behind his back about "JD being reckless," so he didn't wear the Colts in public, and would only get them out when Chris needed him. Chris didn't argue the point and although Buck would hound JD about it, saying that he was bound to get himself killed in the middle of some brawl or something, JD was adamant that he wasn't going to cause the townsfolk any more concern. He would wear his guns full-time when he had earned their trust again.

And with a town like Four Corners, it wouldn't take very long...

Within days of JD's return, a telegram had come in from Judge Travis saying that the Becker gang was heading their way and that the judge wanted the gang stopped and arrested for murder and numerous bank robberies. The Seven were waiting for them and, in an almost exact re-enactment of the day Federal Marshall Bryce had come to town, the Seven had crushed the gang without any injury to themselves, or the townsfolk and with even less damage to the storefronts.

JD breathed a deep sigh. That was a hairy fight. It had been the first time since Annie's death that JD had put on his guns for battle and although nobody, including Chris, said anything to him, he'd known they were nervous about how JD would react. Hell, even JD hadn't been so sure. But Buck hadn't seemed concerned at all. He'd said he knew JD would come through. JD had even asked him about it before the gunfight, and Buck just smiled deviously and said, "I know you won't let me down, kid."

But JD also knew Chris had been worried. Instead of having JD ride in on horseback to flank the gang like he did last time with Ezra and Josiah, Chris had positioned JD up above on the saloon roof. Buck had taken cover below him along the boardwalk. JD remembered that moment when the bullets began flying. He did hesitate--just for an instant--but as soon as he heard three words from Buck, JD was back. JD smiled at the memory. That Buck. He knew exactly what to do.

"Cover me, kid!" Buck had yelled and then, breaking cover, Buck bolted down towards the livery where two of the Becker boys were trying to make a break for it. Buck's safety was in JD's hands, and in order to ensure it, JD had to lay down cover, and that he did…in style. Once he started shooting, everything felt right again and JD even got cocky.

JD smiled again. He didn't think that jump off of the roof onto one of the horseman had been all that risky, Only about twice the height of Buck's jump! And the fact that he had then mounted the horse and beat Buck to the livery taking out both of the Becker boys…Well he had to admit that really had felt great. Buck and Chris gave him hell, but both of them were smiling too. Well, JD could see a smile in Chris' eyes, and Buck had been grinning from ear to ear and had even bought JD a beer right afterwards. Yah, that felt awfully good!

By the time Maddie and Kate had gotten into town, Four Corners was treating JD with complete respect. He was now wearing his guns full-time and they felt totally comfortable again. Even Casey and he were working things out, and it was feeling close to the way it was before Annie's shooting. 'Course getting that bullet wound sure changed things between the two of them...for the better. JD smiled to himself again…Be willing to take another bullet just to wake up having Casey there next to me again… JD then reminded himself of his painful recovery and how close he had come to dying…Well, almost worth it!

The town had really been concerned about his well-being and everyone greeted JD with smiles that first day Buck and Casey had pushed him around in that wheelchair. He could feel pretty good about himself again. But, of course on some of his wheelchair rides, and later his walks, every once in a while he was met with that haunting reminder…

Seeing Annie's husband Hiram, with or without their girls, would just about kill JD. The man looked so hurt when he looked at JD. JD didn't see hate in Hiram's eyes; maybe hate would have been easier -- JD could have understood that. But instead Hiram just looked devastated. And his kids… Amy was maybe too young to really understand what had happened, so she acted pretty much like a typical little girl, but Laura, well that was a different story. JD had always liked the girl. She was a bright, happy tomboy of twelve with lots of spunk and whose eyes sparkled constantly. But now JD could see how subdued and withdrawn she had become. Laura and Hiram both wore looks of total defeat, and JD wished to God there was something he could do to change that. But, there was nothing that he could do, and so he made it a point to avoid them in town, so they weren't forced to see the harsh reminder of the man who took Annie away from them. It still broke JD's heart.

And then today…

Hiram came riding into town some time after noon and burst into the saloon looking for help. Laura had run off and Hiram was sure she had run away from home. He had spent the morning looking for her, checking neighboring homesteads, all to no avail. Hiram knew his daughter was devastated about her mother's loss and had cried on occasion that she couldn't bear the reminders of their home and the town and wanted to move away. Hiram thought they were coping with this, but it was painfully obvious that Laura was seriously distraught and had woken up before dawn, packed some belongings and disappeared on foot without a trace.

Chris immediately organized the group of volunteers together outside of the jail. He was beginning to coordinate the search areas when Buck and JD returned from their rendezvous with a military envoy. That's when things got painful…

Both Buck and JD immediately ascertained what was happening and although JD felt like his heart was about to rip in two, he called out to Chris: "Where do you want us to start searching?"

All eyes turned to JD and then to Hiram whose facial pallor had been reduced to white as he firmly stated, "JD, stay out of this!"

JD immediately felt like his mended bullet wound had reopened and spread all the way to his heart, but he had to check his emotions and grab onto Buck who was about to fly off the handle and out of the saddle. While Buck seethed, Hiram turned to Chris. "I don't want him involved."

Chris remained calm and quietly replied, "Hiram, I truly understand your grief, but we could use as many hands as possible, and JD can ride better than any one of us. He could only help us out there."

Hiram stayed silent for a moment and then spoke in almost a whisper, "I don't want him finding my girl. There's no telling how Laura would react if JD found her."

Chris then looked to JD, who had relinquished his grip on Buck and was now staring sadly at the ground beneath his horse's hooves. Buck had settled down and now rested a strong hand on JD's arm. He spoke softly to the boy. "This ain't right, kid. I’m sorry."

Chris then walked over and repeated a similar sentiment. "I know you wanna help, son, but you best stay here in town. Nathan will be here too in case someone brings Laura in hurt. JD, you keep an eye on the town while the rest of us search."

JD looked up at Chris and saw sympathy in the older man's eyes. It made JD feel a little better that Chris really supported him, but he also knew that Chris would have to defer to Hiram's wishes. JD slid off his horse, tethered her, and walked over to Hiram.

"I sure hope you find your daughter. If there's anything I can do…"

"You've done enough," Hiram interrupted in a barely audible whisper.

JD's eyes filled as he turned away and slowly entered the jail, closing the door behind him. At that moment he wished Maddie's bullet had hit his heart.

Chris quickly concluded his organizing of the search party and most of them departed. Buck was the last to leave. He turned back to the jail and with a heavy heart walked in. JD was sitting at his desk, head in his hands, looking as lost and sorrowful as he had back on that fateful day Miz Annie died. Shit, I hoped we could get past this, Buck thought to himself.

"Hey, kid."

JD raised his head to look at Buck. The boy's eyes were brimming with unshed tears. "Buck, I'm all right."

"Sure you are."

"Buck, would you go. Just go! Please find Laura," the kid pleaded.

Seeing JD this upset just killed the older gunslinger. Buck knew JD was feeling guilty and beating himself up over the girl's disappearance. "JD! This ain't your fault."

"The hell it ain't, Buck. Go, okay. I won't be all right until I know Laura's safe."

Buck walked over to JD and lowered himself down next to him. Wrapping his hand around JD's wrist, he gave it a squeeze. The boy looked up at the older man, and when their eyes met, Buck spoke confidently, "I'll find her, kid. I promise. Everything's going to be all right." And he damn well meant it.

A short time had passed when Casey quietly entered the jailhouse. JD looked up at her with eyes full of despair. While riding into town, Casey had met up with Buck and Ezra during their search and although her first instinct had been to join the searchers, Buck suggested strongly that she visit with JD and help him pass the time. Looking now at JD's wounded eyes, she realized Buck was right. She sat down in the chair across from JD, but didn't say a word. Finally the silence compelled her to speak. "They're going to find her, JD, and everything will be fine again."

JD looked up at Casey, so thankful that she was here with him. "How can you be sure?"

Casey thought for a moment and realized that for some reason she really did believe her own words. She smiled. "I don't know how, but I am sure and I'm also sure that something good will come of this. I just know it will."

JD looked at the determination in Casey's eyes and hoped he could believe her. He remained silent. After about a half hour had gone by, JD's despair had changed to impatience, and he was now pacing the jail, doing a fine imitation of Buck working himself into a tirade. Finally, JD broke the silence.

"Casey, I should be out there searching!" Casey bit her lip and shrugged her shoulders. She knew exactly how helpless JD was feeling. JD plunked down in front of her and took a deep breath. Frustration was written all over his face. He spoke again.

"Casey, where do you think Laura would hide? You grew up out here…Where would kids hide?"

The wheels in Casey's mind started turning. Laura's a pretty self-sufficient kid, she thought. I think she would be smart enough to look for shelter. Before Casey could get her thoughts out into words, JD interrupted…

"So Casey, where would Laura go?"

"Well, if she was like most little girls, I'm not sure…"

JD interrupted again. "She's not like most little girls, Case. She's a tom…um, she's like you must have been at that age. That's why I'm asking you!"

Casey finally got to finish her thought. "Well, she's not afraid of much, at least during the day, so I think she would find shelter and settle in for the night, before moving on tomorrow or deciding to go home."

And so JD and Casey started rhyming off the local places the kids in town, and those from the neighboring farmsteads, would play. Suddenly JD stood up from his chair, sending it crashing backwards.


"JD, I don't think she could get in there. It's boarded up, remember?"

"I know Casey, but some of the boards are broken, and you and I have chased her and her friends off of that rise plenty of times when we've been out there fishing. They're always climbing around up there!"

Casey started allowing herself to think along JD's lines and began to believe he just might be right. All the while JD was packing together supplies. Canteens, a blanket, rope, his rifle, more rope.

JD spoke up again excitedly, "Nobody will think to find her there if that's where she's hiding. You know you can't see the entrance unless you're looking up at it from in the water. I don't know if any of the adults in town would know about it; only the kids!"

Before Casey could comment, JD had gathered together his supplies and was heading for his horse.

"I'm coming too, JD!"

JD was gesturing wildly. "No, Casey, I need you to stay. If you come, there's no-one here who'd know to get me if Laura's found. Plus, if Laura's in trouble I might need lotsa help and then it's gonna be three hours before you go and get someone back here with you, especially in the dark. You have to stay and tell Buck or the others what I'm up to, so they can follow right away."

Despite JD's excited ramblings, Casey understood his reasoning and reluctantly had to agree with him.

Just before JD rode away, Casey had a flash of a memory and called out to him. "JD, I remember some stories about that cave. Somebody got hurt in a fall inside of it once. I don't know the story, but I think that's why it was boarded up. You've got to be careful!"

JD nodded his head in understanding and then rode out of town, hell bent for leather.

JD knew exactly where he was going, so it didn't take very long for him to get to the cliff. He could see the swimming hole below and had a good idea where he should start his descent. JD grabbed his pack of supplies and put them on his back. He tied his horse to a tree and used the same tree to secure his rope. Carefully, he climbed down the steep rock face until he spotted the brush-covered overhang recognizable from below.

Cautiously, he made his way down to the out-cropping. JD wasn't nearly the tracker Vin was, but he felt certain there were signs of someone making their way along this path earlier today. JD's heart was in his throat. Remembering Casey's words, he slowly worked his way to the entrance of the cave. It was indeed boarded up, but with some holes. Laura certainly could have fit through the largest of the open areas. Minutes later JD had pried off the rest of the boards, allowing himself and daylight into the cave.

He peered inside and took a deep breath. Just as Casey had remembered from the stories, there appeared to be a big fissure in the ground just steps into the cave. If someone had barged in there, they likely would have fallen in. He sent a silent prayer to God that this had not become Laura's fate! JD fastened another rope to one of the large bushes just outside of the entrance and then carefully entered the cavern.

Within seconds JD knew he was not going to like what he found. There was a loose sandy layer of dirt above the floor of the cave and he could clearly see the footprints of what was without a doubt a little girl. The lump in his throat increased in size ten-fold when he looked nearer to the edge of the hole. Resisting the urge to run over to it, he took in the evidence of what had happened. Oh, no! It was apparent that Laura must have walked too near the edge of the fissure and fallen in. JD was going to find Laura at the bottom of this hole, and he had no idea how far she had fallen.

JD tied the rope around his waist and slowly crept towards the fissure's edge. What he saw made him gasp. Laura was lying at the bottom of the hole, about twelve feet below him, unmoving, with her left arm pointed in an obviously unnatural position. He shifted his weight towards the edge to get a closer look, and to call down to her, when suddenly the ground beneath his feet began to crumble. He quickly returned to his former position, but not before large chunks of the earth fell down to the floor of the hole. If any pieces landed on Laura, she didn't let JD know. Laura hadn't made a sound. Oh, God! JD was shaking all over. She can't be dead, too. Oh, God!

JD shook himself out of his nightmarish thoughts and began to assess what he needed. He had already filled the canteens with water and had everything in his pack, plus his guns. All he needed were some sticks to make a splint for Laura's arm and more for firewood. He made his way back to the outcropping and was relieved to find all the wood he needed. A few more seconds with his knife and he had two perfect sticks for a splint. He prayed to God that Laura was alive so he would actually need to use them, and that Laura's arm was the worst of her injuries. JD bundled the wood together and slung it over his shoulder.

With everything together, JD returned to the fissure. Cautiously, he eased himself over the ledge, working his way down the rope. The walls of the crevice were incredibly unstable and the second JD began his descent his world literally began crumbling around him. With quick reflexes he threw the blanket down to cover Laura, hoping to prevent her from receiving any further injury from the falling debris. Preoccupied with his descent and keeping an eye on Laura's still form, JD failed to notice that the rope rubbing along the ledge was causing a large chunk of earth and rock to work its way free. Just as JD was about to release his grip and touch bottom, the chunk broke away and landed full force on his head. The bleeding began immediately. Crumpling to the ground, JD still had the wherewithal to cover Laura's little body with his own, so she was not harmed any further. JD straightened up quickly and immediately felt dizzy. His vision was going black, and he felt decidedly queasy, but he willed himself to not pass out. Laura needed him, and he needed to be there for her.

JD now turned his attention to the girl. He sighed with relief, once his shaking hands could feel Laura's strong pulse and he could see her breathing, but she was definitely unconscious. Laura didn't respond when JD spoke to her, nor react to his touch. She had a bump on her head, but only a minor external wound there. He hoped that it wasn't any more serious than it looked. Laura's arm was definitely broken. He would take advantage of her unconscious state and deal with it first. He knew he had to work fast. The only light he had to work with was that coming into the cave, and he knew it would soon be sundown.

JD was determined not to succumb to his own throbbing head, but he knew his own condition was another reason to act quickly. So, with another prayer, JD methodically imitated Nathan's every move whenever he witnessed "the doc" setting any of the Seven's bones. Hell, JD chuckled to himself, I've been on the receiving end of this more times than I care to remember, so I should be an expert by now. JD proceeded and successfully set and splinted Laura's arm, placing it in a sling made from his shirt. He then cleaned up and wrapped Laura's head-wound as well as the other minor scrapes and abrasions he found on her face and hands. He covered her in the clothes he had shed and then in the blanket he brought, and settled her next to the furthest wall of the crevice.

Laura had woken up for the briefest moment while JD was cleaning her head-wound, but she didn't really seem coherent. She smiled at JD and said his name before falling back to sleep. He thanked heaven that his presence didn't seem to upset her, or worse yet frighten her, which was something he had dreaded. Although he desperately wanted Laura to wake up again and be all right, he was at the same time relieved that he didn't have to face this obviously devastated little girl as the man who was responsible for her suffering.

JD also wanted desperately to climb back out of this pit to look out for Buck or the rescue party, but any attempt to climb back up against the walls of the crevice sent layer upon layer of rock filled earth down upon him, usually targetting his already pounding head. He was unsteady on his feet and didn't honestly know if he could climb back up himself, but at this point, the effort was too risky…The whole place could come down on top of him, and worse, Laura.

To keep himself occupied and warm, JD prepared to make a fire. He knew almost immediately that he wouldn't be able to bear keeping it ablaze, but for the sake of keeping Laura warm, JD tried to suffer through it. His eyes were burning though and he couldn't stand breathing in the fumes. All this added to his own deteriorating condition, so JD reluctantly extinguished the flames.

So here was JD, with Laura cradled in his lap biding his time until Buck or Chris or somebody showed up. Where in the hell are they anyway!? He really hoped that Hiram wouldn't show up here on his own. Although JD was feeling pretty good about finding Laura by himself and taking care of her, ultimately he knew this whole damn mess was his fault, and he couldn't imagine facing Hiram…guilty again.

Maybe I should have left Four Corners, JD thought sadly. If he was honest with himself, though, he knew now that he didn't want to leave at all. Things were great with Casey and the town now, and he really loved being part of the Seven. Things were even better than ever with Buck. He loved Buck, but his overprotective "big brother act" used to drive JD crazy. It made JD feel like a useless baby and that he had to constantly prove to Buck that he was a man and he didn't need a mother hen. But, somewhere between Buck's farewell to JD the day he decided to leave Four Corners, and Buck's mothering of JD after Maddie shot him, JD realized that it would never matter how self-sufficient he was. Buck was always gonna worry about him, because that was Buck, and Buck needed JD around to worry about. Hell, Buck told JD outright that he needed him, which still amazed the boy. From this experience though, JD finally learned that it was really okay to need someone, and still be a man too. So, although Buck could still irritate the hell out of him, JD could now relax about it. Buck was Buck, and JD was damn lucky to have found a big brother to look out for him, even if he sure wasn't looking for one when he came out west. JD had family and friends to stay for now, and as much as it killed JD to look at the hurt on Hiram's or Laura's faces, he really didn't want to be anywhere other than Four Corners.

With that thought completed, and a renewed resolve to not fall into another guilt-ridden reverie over Annie's loss, JD strained his ears searching for the sounds of the rescue party.

Where the hell are you, Buck?


Back in Four Corners; a little earlier:

"HE DID WHAT?! WHERE?! HELL, I WAS OUT THERE TWO HOURS AGO AND I DIDN'T SEE NO CAVE?! WHAT IN BLUE BLAZES ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT LITTLE GIRL?!" This outburst was pretty typical of one of Buck's reactions to any number of JD's solo adventures, so Casey didn't take any of it personally. She just waited it out.

"But, Buck," Casey reasoned, "you can't see the cave from the land. We only see it when we're swimming, and the kids have been getting into trouble out there for years. JD and I have both seen Laura and her friends play up there. I didn't think they ever managed to get in the cave, but it's got to be where Laura went. I just hope she didn't fall into a hole, like in the story I heard about."

Buck was finally listening. "Aw, Hell!"

Nathan, Ezra and Josiah had been witnessing Buck's tirade, but it was Josiah who chose to speak. "Buck, it can't do any harm to listen to the girl. Almost all of us have made it back without success. Perhaps we should listen. This may be God's way of sending JD on his path to redemption."

"JD don't need no redemption, Josiah. It weren't his fault in the first place." Annie's death was a very sensitive subject for the ever-protective gunslinger.

"I understand that Buck, but do you think JD's convinced himself of this yet? Let's go help him."

Buck spoke more calmly this time. "Nate, you better stay here until the others get back, just in case you're needed. But don't wait more'n an hour behind us with this sun going down. Better come in a wagon 'cause I got a bad feeling about this."

It was Ezra's turn to speak. "Now, now, Mr. Wilmington. I'm confident that our Mr. Dunne is in a secure position. Your charge is more than adept in handling himself under difficult circumstances. He has demonstrated this time and again. It is my only hope that we can say the equivalent for little Laura. I am optimistic however, that we will recover them in favorable condition."

"I sure hope you're right, Ezra."

With that said, Josiah, Ezra and Buck were off. Nathan and Casey reluctantly stayed behind again.

Not five miles outside of town, the three men met up with a very discouraged looking Chris, Vin, and a horribly distraught Hiram. Chris had wanted Hiram to search with them knowing that Vin would be their best hope in tracking the girl. Unfortunately, they had come up empty and were now returning to town for lanterns and fresh horses.

Josiah briefed the men on their plans and all six carried on toward the swimming hole. Buck didn't say much. He was too worried about what they would find. He also had what he knew to be a totally irrational dislike of Hiram. He knew Hiram to be a good man, but Buck couldn't forget or forgive Hiram for practically running JD out of town after Annie's death. He understood Hiram's grief, but JD was grieving too and Buck couldn't help wishing that Hiram would just go away, so Buck could get his ole JD back. Buck had almost lost the kid twice -- once when he climbed onto that ill-fated stagecoach, and then after… to Maddie's bullet. Buck shuddered. He was still reeling from both. He couldn't explain it to anyone, not even himself, but JD had become his kin; his little brother, and he'd be damned if he was gonna lose JD to anyone or anything, especially guilt or grief. He had been through that route already with Chris, and he hated it. And since Hiram caused JD grief, Buck just couldn't like him. So Buck rode ahead of the five other men, in a hurry to find the kid and hopefully bring a happy ending to this tragedy.

They easily found the boy's horse and used JD's rope to guide themselves down the hillside. The cave wasn't visible from the ground, but then it was dusk and getting hard to see anything at this point. The progress was slow and treacherous, and in the dark it took them twice as long to reach the outcropping as it had taken JD. It took no time at all for Buck to begin cursing at the shrubs, roots and rocks that were impeding his progress. The closer he got to the outcropping, the louder his cussing was becoming. "God damn kid can't wait just a coupla…seen him do some stupid things in my…if he's gone and got himself hurt ag…OW! Damn root! JD, WHERE IN HELL ARE YOU?!"

Inside the fissure, JD was startled from his daydreaming by what he thought to be the sound of big brother Buck's worried ranting. He stood up in order to listen better. There it was again.

"JD! Come on, kid, answer me!"

Unmistakable. Relief, plus another wave of dizziness, washed over JD. Ignoring the pounding in his head, JD called out, "BUCK!"


"Buck, slow down!" JD knew Buck would be picking up the pace.

Chris' voice came from a further distance, strong and firm, "Buck, slow down. Remember what Casey said about a hole in there!"

Buck reigned in his emotions and reduced his speed. With lantern in hand, he arrived at the cavern's opening, spotted JD's second rope, and slowly approached the edge of the crevice. He now had that all-too-familiar lump-in-his-throat, knot-in-his-gut feeling that overcame him whenever he thought the kid was hurt.

"JD?" Buck called out to the boy, trying to keep the fear he was feeling out of his voice.

"Buck, we're down here, but don't…don't come close to the edge. Stay at least a foot away or else…it'll cave in on us." JD's voice was weakening as the adrenaline rush from hearing his friends' voices was used up. Now he was simply feeling awful again.

Buck desperately wanted to look down to see if the kid was all right. To the always protective gunslinger, JD sounded terrible, but he also sounded serious, so Buck got on his hands and knees and crawled JD's suggested distance from the edge.

"Kid, you hurt?"

Before JD could answer him, the others arrived. Chris was holding Hiram back, as his desire to rush the edge was as strong as Buck's had been. His eyes were pleading. "Please, I've got to know, is Laura down there? Is she all right?"

JD felt like dying again, hearing the agony in Hiram's voice. He only hoped his answer would alleviate some of the man's fears.

"Laura's here, but she's hurt. Is Nathan…here? Her arm's busted, and…and she's unconscious. She woke up once…a little while ago though,…so I think…I think she's gonna be okay."

JD's words did offer Hiram some relief, however none of the Seven present took comfort in the sound of JD's weak, almost struggling response.

Again, trying to keep his voice calm, Buck repeated his question to the boy, "JD, are you hurt?"

"Buck, I'm…fine."

Buck shook his head and turned an ashen face to Chris. "Damn."

Hiram looked around at the long faces on all of the gunslingers. "But the boy just said he's okay. Why do you all look so upset?"

Ezra replied. "Those of us closest to young Mr. Dunne have a greater understanding of the boy's stoic nature and his vocabulary. I'm afraid, at best JD's 'fine' translates into a sleepless night for both Misters Wilmington and Jackson. At worst…" Ezra shivered. "Well, I choose not to consider that option."

Buck called down again, "Hang on, buddy, we'll get you both out of there!"

Hiram and Buck both turned to Chris with fear written on their faces. Chris tried to ignore them though and approached what appeared to be the safety zone. He needed to talk to the kid.

"JD, Nathan's not here yet, but he will be soon. We've got to send someone down to take care of Laura's arm. Just how unstable are these walls?"

Hiram was shocked by the boy's reply. "I already set her arm…and patched her up. All you have to do is get us outta here. But Chris,…we can't use the walls at all…to climb out or down. They're about…as stable as Colonel Anderson and just as dangerous!" Chris couldn't help but grin and then frown at the kid's analogy. He'd made his point. Getting them out was not going to be easy.

"Okay kid, you hang in there. Buck's going to come over and talk to you while we think of something."

"Keep him talking, Pard," Chris whispered to his oldest friend, placing a reassuring hand on Buck's shoulder. "It's my bet that parts of these walls have hit that head of his pretty hard. I don't like the way he's sounding." Chris squeezed Buck's shoulder and then walked away to speak with the other men.

Hiram was still reeling over the fact that JD had set his daughter's arm. "How would a boy know how to do that?"

"The boy's an expert," was Josiah's reply as he avoided the sly grin on Vin's face, and secretly hoped that JD hadn't set her arm backwards or something to that effect. The boy is full of surprises.

While the rest of the men tried to figure out how they were going to come up with a way to get Laura and JD out of the fissure without touching its walls, Buck had sprawled himself on the ground above the opening and begun a mostly one-sided conversation with the boy whose face he frantically wanted to see. Although JD's answers were short, they meant he was still with them, and if that's all Buck could get for now, that's what he would take.

Just a few minutes into Buck's ramblings, JD knew he was in trouble. The relief that his friends had arrived, together with the warmth of the blankets Buck had thrown down to him, were now sending him in the direction of exhausted oblivion. He knew he had to stay awake in order to help the men get him and Laura out, but the prospect of sleep was becoming overwhelmingly tempting. He could feel himself slipping and had to physically shake himself from his thoughts.

"BUCK! What's goin' on up there?

Buck did not like the urgency he heard in JD's voice, but decided to answer him honestly…At least the kid was talking more. "Well, kid, I figure we're gonna have to rig up some kind of pulley system to get you two outta there without touching the walls. 'Cept it's kind of hard to do without a pulley."

"You need a pulley?" the kid asked.

"Yah, kid. Why? You got one down there? Buck snickered.

JD's response got everyone's attention. "Nope, but I know where there's a couple at around here."

"JD, what are you talking about?"

"Buck, there's rope and pulleys attached to the big oak next to the swimming pond just down below us. The tree has a huge branch kids dive off of into the deep end. The kids use them to get up to the branch. You can't miss it, even in the dark!"

"I'm on it," Vin said quickly, and just as swiftly, he and Ezra left the cave.

Buck couldn't help but laugh. Sometimes the kid amazed him. "So, JD, where did these pulleys come from?"

"Nett…Um, how the hell should I know?!" The remaining men, with the exception of Hiram, were all chuckling, too.

Thought so. Buck called back to the kid. "So, JD, you mean now I got to worry about you coming down here and breaking your fool neck trying to impress Casey with some fancy dive?"

JD realized he'd been found out. He couldn't resist laughing, too. "Aw, Buck, you wouldn't know what to do with yourself if you didn't have me to worry about!"

"He's got you there, Pard." Chris was smirking. The others were sharing a quiet laugh too.

Hiram all of a sudden became unglued. He charged over to Chris. "I can't believe you men. My daughter's down there, seriously hurt and you're all laughing! What's wrong with you?"

Chris couldn't reply quickly enough. He was distracted by Buck's rush towards Hiram. Chris intercepted Buck and got hold of him. "Easy, Pard," he soothed.

Josiah took over and pulled Hiram aside to have some words with him, out of JD's earshot.

"Hiram, I'm a patient man, but I'm afraid you were just about to cross a line you really don't want to. To begin with, there's not a thing in heaven we can do about this situation until Vin comes back. And if you think we don't recognize the severity of this situation, you are sorely mistaken. If you haven't noticed, one of our own is in trouble as well, and God willing, we're going to get both of them out safely! Now, why don't you settle down and think about what's happening here. We've got a boy down there who has single-handedly found your daughter, treated her injuries, and in spite of the fact that he's undoubtedly cold, scared and hurt more than he's letting on, he is going to take care of her until we can get help to them both. So, if sharing a laugh with that boy gives him some comfort, we're going to do it!" Josiah led Hiram further towards the cave's entranceway. "Now, why don't you see if you can give Ezra and Vin some assistance and when you return, I'll expect you to address us, and especially JD, with greater respect."

Hiram didn't respond, but Josiah's words were sinking in and adding to his own state of confusion. He did however carry on outside to see if he could help Ezra and Vin. Rather than head back up to the horses and then ride down to the pond, Vin chose to climb down the rest of the hillside. Experienced at climbing, he made excellent time and was already on his way back to the base of the hill when Hiram joined Ezra at the edge of the outcropping.

Nathan had also just arrived and was talking with JD, trying to diagnose, from a distance, his future patients' injuries.

Satisfied with JD's account of their injuries, Nathan called down to the boy. "You did a mighty fine job JD, by the sounds of it. I'm looking forward to seeing your handiwork," he said with a big grin. "You take it easy down there and stay warm. If Laura wakes up, you keep her calm and talking, and you keep talking to us, too. Vin's on his way up, so it shouldn't be much longer before we get you out."

JD was glad that Nathan seemed genuinely pleased with his treatment of Laura. "Thanks, doc," he said with an ever-weakening voice.

Nathan walked over to Chris, Josiah and a very anxious-looking Buck. Nathan really didn't want to wind Buck up any further, but he knew Chris wanted his honest assessment, so he spoke directly.

"Well, I think JD is amazing. It sounds like he's done everything possible for that girl, so we just have to hope that getting her back to my place and warmed up will bring her around. I'll have to check her ribs for any damage, but it sounds like JD's taken real good care of her. He doesn't think she has a fever and she's woken up once already, and that all sounds promising. I'll know more when we get her out of there."

Chris then asked what Buck was afraid to. "What about the kid, Nathan? I don't like the sound of his voice at all. It's not just weak; he's talking too slow."

"I know, Chris. If I got that kid pegged like I think I do, he likely gave Laura most of his clothes, so you know he got too cold, plus he's got a crack on his head -- probably a concussion. Keeping him talking has been the best thing for him, and we're going to have to keep it up all the way home and probably through the night." Nathan turned to Buck. "Buck, you know JD. He's going to be all right once we get him home and rested for a few days. When we get him out of that hole, Buck, you ride in the wagon with him." Buck's face was still full of anxiety. Nathan continued, "Buck, you better rein in your worry. I want that kid awake, not worked up, so if you get him uptight, you're out of there, you understand me?"

The big gunslinger was relieved to hear that Nathan wasn't in a panic over JD's condition, so he did his best to check his emotions. It was so damn hard when JD was hurt, though. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and when he opened his eyes, he looked at Nathan and Chris. "I'll keep him calm, Nate, no need to worry. I better get back to the kid. He likely thinks I've abandoned him!"

"I think he knows better, Buck," Josiah muttered. Chris and Nathan shared knowing looks.

Buck returned to JD in time to hear him announce that he thought Laura might be waking up. She had just begun to stir in his lap. Josiah went to retrieve Hiram. Laura's eyes fluttered open, and although she still appeared somewhat dazed to JD, she again spoke his name and tried to form a little smile.

"Hi, Laura," he said with a gentle voice.

"Did you come to save me, JD?" Laura whispered.

The kid returned the smile and gently brushed away the bangs covering her eyes. "Well, let's just say I came to find you and keep you company until your Pa arrived. He's up top and I bet he would love to hear your voice."

Hiram could hear their exchange and called down to his daughter. "Laura honey, we're coming to get you any second. You keep talking with JD okay and we'll be right there." Hiram was overcome with relief and close to tears.

JD was so relieved that Laura wasn't distressed over him being with her. In fact, she almost seemed to be enjoying his company. He kept Laura's attention with talk about the adventures of "The Magnificent Seven," and after about twenty minutes, JD heard the news he was waiting for. The men had rigged up the pulley system and were ready to get them the hell out of there!

JD took a few minutes to relay to Laura what Buck had told him they were going to do. The plan was to send her up in a makeshift harness and have JD guide Laura upwards from the ground, keeping her away from the walls, while the men pulled her up from above. She was a brave kid anyway, but after what she had just been through, JD was amazed at her resilience. Vin sent the rope down and JD got Laura ready for her ascent.

Vin then threw another rope down to JD and hollered down to him. "I want you to tie yourself onto this rope now, kid. It's gonna be tricky once we get Laura up top, and I want you anchored to us, okay?" All the men were a little worried about this part of their plan. They were certain they could get Laura up safely, but once she reached the top and they swung her over to reach them, the stability of the edge was still a concern, and JD would still be down below with no-where to run.

Little Laura held on like a trooper as she was pulled up to the cave's surface. JD helped steady her from below and kept her away from the wall until he could no longer reach her. Chris had Hiram stay out of the action. He was too emotionally involved, and if something did go wrong, he could potentially end up panicking and making matters worse. Fortunately, everything was going smoothly, including swinging Laura over to the men across the ledge. Unfortunately, Chris didn't think to have one of the men physically restrain Hiram. In the elation of seeing Laura emerge from the crevice, Hiram rushed over to retrieve his daughter. That's when all hell, and the rocky ledge, broke loose.

JD had held himself together until he released Laura, but now he was rapidly deteriorating. Being upright at all was agony and continually looking up while he guided Laura's ascent wreaked havoc on his spinning head. If JD was going to be any help to the men in getting himself out of the fissure too, he was going to have to take a break. He rested his hands on his knees. Suddenly he heard commotion from up above. Before he could even react, he heard cursing from many voices and Laura's scream. Just before he felt the impact, he heard Buck frantically shouting his name. He couldn't answer. Everything had gone black.

"YOU SON OF A…" Buck growled.

"Back off, Buck," Chris interrupted Buck's assault on Hiram and immediately began issuing orders, while Josiah grabbed a firm hold on a quaking Buck. "Nathan, get Hiram and Laura out of here! Ezra, you go with them." Laura was now crying and Hiram was sputtering apologies, as Nathan and Ezra tried to get them out of the way. On his way out of the cavern, Nathan warned Chris against moving an injured and unconscious JD. The men all looked crushed and Buck was ready to fall apart. He was terrified.

Buck finally spoke in a voice fraught with desperation. "Get me down there, Chris. I have to get JD."

Chris shook his head. He had no intention whatsoever of sending anyone down after the boy. He looked at his men whose faces all mirrored the unease his wore. "Buck, nobody's going down there. We're going to pull JD up." He held his hand up to curb Buck's brewing outburst. "Before you go getting wild on me, just listen. We can't risk getting anyone else stuck down there, Pard, or worse yet having more of this godforsaken place break apart and hurt JD. He's a tough kid, Buck. He's okay. Let's just pull him out of there and get him home." Chris looked to Josiah, silently asking him to say a prayer. He didn't have to ask.

Buck looked so bewildered, but he didn't argue. "Let's do this."

Fortunately Vin had the foresight to have JD secure himself to the other rope. Chris fed the rope through the pulleys and the men began to carefully haul up JD. The kid thankfully didn't weigh much, so the four men were able to get JD out with relative ease and this time without incident. The men released him into Buck's waiting arms and he gently carried the boy over to Nathan. JD remained oblivious to everything. He was out cold.

Nathan had examined Laura and cheerfully reported to Hiram that she was a very lucky girl. Her injuries appeared to be limited to the wounds JD had already treated, and Nathan was so pleased with JD's work, he didn't plan to meddle with anything JD had done, at least until they were back at the clinic. Laura was exhausted, but warm and safe with her father. Her biggest concern at the moment, much to her father's amazement, was JD's plight. Hiram settled Laura into the wagon, with the promise that JD would soon follow. Now that he knew his daughter was out of harm's way, Hiram went to help the men. Ezra insisted however that remaining out of Buck's sight until Nathan could assess JD's current condition would be Hiram's greatest benefit to them, so Hiram dejectedly returned to join his daughter in the wagon.

With Buck and the other men hovering, Nathan began his examination of the unconscious JD. It was apparent that the first injury he received was to his head, and from the way JD had been acting earlier, Nathan was sure the kid had a concussion. He was cut and a substantial swelling and bruise had formed. Dried blood was in his hair and streaking his face, but the wound had stopped bleeding on its own. Nathan didn't intend to clean it until he got JD home, for fear that it would open up again and begin to flow. Much to Nathan's relief, he could not find evidence of another injury to JD's skull. He was sporting a nasty wound on his shoulder-blade and Nathan suspected JD had received this injury last. He had no breaks and it didn't appear that the shoulder was dislocated, but Nathan felt certain it was this blow that ultimately knocked JD out. The poor kid had been weakened by the head injury, cold and fatigue, and the impact to his back became the last straw that sent JD under.

Nathan turned to the anxious men and summarized his findings. He felt very confident that JD would wake up soon. But Nathan was adamant that they keep an eye on JD and keep him awake for another twelve hours or so to monitor the concussion. Nathan felt certain the kid was going to be all right.

The relief on the men's faces was palpable. Buck could finally feel the knot in his stomach releasing, although until the kid opened his eyes, he couldn't truly relax. Josiah picked up the boy and held him while the men began readying for their departure. Once Buck settled onto the floor of the wagon, Josiah placed JD next to him and covered the boy with blankets and jackets from the men.


Once they started their journey home, Hiram tried to apologize to Buck for his blunder in the cave. Buck cut him short. "Hiram, how 'bout you and I talk about this in the morning? You probably figured by now that I got myself a bit of a temper and when it comes to this boy being hurt, well I ain't got much control. So, until this boy wakes up and lets me know he's really okay, I just don't have much patience for what you've got to say. I'm sorry for that, but that's the way it is. Let's just get our kids home and looked after and we can settle things between us some other time."

That said, Buck turned his attention back to JD. Deciding the kid still looked cold, he pulled JD up into his lap and held him. I'll keep you warm, kid.

Hiram reluctantly accepted the fact that the conversation was over and settled back against the wagon wall to contemplate Buck's words and the events of the day. He was emotionally drained by the day's events and didn't have a clue what to feel. His feelings towards JD were in turmoil. Nathan was adamant that JD had saved Laura's life and in fact, as Ezra and Josiah had pointed out, it was highly likely that Laura would still be missing if it hadn't been for the boy. The boy. Hiram recalled his words said to Chris after his wife had died: My God, he's a boy.

Hiram then thought of his conversation with Ezra outside of the cave while they were awaiting Vin's return to the outcropping. Ezra told Hiram outright that he felt JD's youth was "exclusively accountable for Laura's recovery." Hiram couldn't help but realize the frightening truth in that statement. None of the adults of the community had recalled the existence of the cave. Only JD had. It wasn't visible from the land, and therefore without JD, Laura may never have been found. Hiram shuddered at the thought. And although Hiram still bore a certain unease about JD using a gun, he realized that his feelings were based on emotion. Prior to and certainly since Annie's death, Hiram knew that JD had proven himself to be an honorable protector of the town.

Hiram considered himself a simple man, but not too simple to recognize the irony in all of this: That JD's youth, which Hiram blamed for the accident causing his wife's death, was also completely responsible for Laura's survival. He had always put his faith in God though, and considered that perhaps this would be one of God's mysteries. He gazed down at his sleeping daughter's face, and thanked God for her safety. He then looked over to the injured and unconscious boy lying in Buck's arms. Accident. Hiram had his answer. He would make his peace tomorrow.

About half way home to Four Corners, Buck was delighted to feel JD stir in his arms. He called over his shoulder to Nathan, who was driving the wagon, "Hey, doc, I think our patient's waking up!" Nathan handed over the reins to Ezra who was riding next to him and pivoted himself around to face the interior of the wagon. He remained in his seat though to watch Buck with the kid. With the wagon moving, there wasn't much he could do for the boy that Buck couldn't handle, so there was no point in climbing into the back. Still, he wanted to observe how the boy was doing.

JD opened his eyes and shifted his gaze to Buck, who was watching him nervously. "Hey, Buck. Are we moving or is my head still spinning?"

The kid's voice was raspy, but its existence so relieved Buck's fears. Buck grinned. "Well, I can't see what's happening inside that thick skull of yours, but I can tell you we are moving. We're almost home, kid." He smiled again. He offered the boy water from a canteen, which JD drank greedily. "How are you feeling, son?"

JD was still trying to get his bearings, and ignored Buck's question for the moment. He was trying to remember what had happened to him, and when he did, suddenly attempted to sit up. It was a move he regretted immediately because the head rush he got made him come close to losing the water he just drank, but he steadied himself and excitedly asked, "Where's Laura? How is she?"

"Whoa, easy there, kid," Buck watched JD sway despite his support. "You settle back against me and take a look over across from us." He pointed to Hiram, who was sitting with Laura asleep in his lap.

"Is she all right?" JD asked nervously.

Hiram replied, "Nathan thinks she's going to be fine, JD, thanks to you." He smiled at the boy and then at Buck, who returned the gesture. Hiram then tended to his daughter who was also showing signs of waking again.

JD's head was too foggy to catch Hiram's praise, and so he chose to ask Buck the next most important question on his mind: "Buck, what the hell happened down there? I don't remember my back or shoulder hurtin' before. I feel like a couple of Maude's suitcases fell on me!"

Much to JD's dismay, Ezra heard the comment directed at the gambler's mother, but it didn't offend him in the slightest. In fact, he laughed heartily. "Son, you are incorrect in your assumption as to what transpired after Laura's salvation. It was not genuine French leather luggage which cascaded upon you, but rather you were assaulted by a considerably uncooperative mountain. I do compliment you however on your astute analogy."

"Huh?" The kid's head was beginning to hurt again.

Buck and Nathan were laughing along with Ezra. Nathan then spoke to his patient. "It's all right, JD. You just settle back now and we'll tell you whatever you want to know. Keep your attention on us. That knock you got is bad enough that I'm gonna want you to stay awake a while longer so we can keep an eye on you, you understand?"

JD frowned. "I know; I know. That's what I've been trying to do since I got into this! But can you and Buck talk to me? I don't think my head can handle Ezra tonight." More laughter.

"Sure thing, kid."

JD didn't want to wake up. He was so tired, and every time he felt himself starting to slip into a really good, deep sleep, someone would wake him up again. He burrowed further under his covers and sank his head deeper into his pillow, ignoring the fact that it was happening again and someone was gently tugging at his blanket.


Damn. He really didn't want to wake up yet. Just another minute or two. JD lay trying to remember how he finally did get to be here resting in his own bed. And then he remembered Casey greeting him and the others when they got back to town and how she sat with him here in his room after Buck and Josiah cleaned him up and Nathan checked him over one more time. Hmmm…Casey. Casey's worth waking up for.

So when JD rolled over and finally opened his eyes, he couldn't help but laugh out loud at the site of big brother Buck, not Casey, hovering over him with that worried look he wore whenever JD had gotten himself hurt.

"Hey, kid. What's so funny?"

The kid smiled mischievously. "Nothin,' Buck. Just thought you were Casey."

"Sorry to disappoint you," Buck grumbled, as he poured JD a drink of water and helped him shift some pillows around so he could better sit up.

JD accepted the drink. The kid looked sheepish. "I didn't mean it like that, Buck. I was just thinking about her being here is all. Casey was here, wasn't she?"

Buck settled back into the chair next to the kid's bed and watched the boy. JD looked wore out, but he was sounding much better. Likely have to hog-tie the kid to his bed come morning, to make him take it easy...Thank God!

Buck shook his head and laughed. "No offense taken, son. Hell, I'd rather wake up to that little lady's pretty face than my mug any day. And no, you weren't dreamin.' Casey was here earlier, but Vin took her over to stay with Mary for the night. It's one thing to have a young lady sit at your bedside in Nate's clinic when you've got a bullet in your belly. But it's another thing altogether for her to stay the night in your own room when all you've got is a lump on your skull to add to your collection," he winked at the kid.

"So, why are you baby-sitting me then?" JD was trying to sound indignant.

"Doc's orders. Besides, it's my job, or have you forgotten?" Buck continued to tease. He then took a deep breath and his expression turned serious. This would be his last chance to talk alone to the kid before life got hectic in the morning. "How are you doing, kid?"

JD settled back against the pillows. "Still got a headache, and I'm some sore, but I think I'm better."

"Well that's great, kid, but I ain't talking about your head. Hell, I know how hardheaded you are. I'm talking about here." Buck tapped at JD's heart, and moved from the chair to the edge of JD's bed.

JD's expression immediately changed to one of utter sadness. He looked away for a few minutes and stared at the low flame of the bedside lantern. When JD turned back to Buck, he was on the brink of tears. "Buck, that girl coulda died out there, and it's all because I killed her mama. I'm trying so hard to make things right, be a good person, but I can't fix this, Buck. I can't fix their pain!"

Thought so, Buck sighed. He knew the events of yesterday would shake the kid up again. JD was still carrying the burden of Annie's death, and because he loved the boy, it hurt Buck to see JD so upset. He wanted so badly to ease JD's burden and hoped talking to him now would help. Buck took JD's hand in his and squeezed it and then held JD's mournful gaze. He had to try.

"JD, there is nothing you or any of us can do to bring Miz Annie back, and I'm so sorry about that, kid. But you've got to realize that what you did yesterday was remarkable. You saved that little girl's life, JD. If it weren't for you, she wouldn't have been found, and Nathan says she would have died if you hadn't treated her when you did. He's damn proud of you son. We all are."

A tear was slowly working its way down JD's cheek. Buck tightened his hold on the boy and continued.

"Now, son, I know what you did yesterday, you would have done for any one, because that's just the kind of man you are, but the fact that it was Laura you saved…Well, kid, that's got to buy you some forgiveness. It has to. And if it don't…" JD was looking up at Buck with pleading eyes, and Buck held on as if JD's life depended on his grip…"Now, you listen to me JD. If it don't…Then Hiram…his forgiveness just ain't worth it, 'cause you'd be a better man than he is, okay?! I mean that!"

JD's tears were flowing freely now. Embarrassed, he shook off Buck's grip and looked away. He desperately wanted to believe Buck's words. Emotionally he was in turmoil, and with little sleep, he was exhausted. Too exhausted to even notice until it was too late that Buck had climbed up on the bed next to him, albeit on top of the covers, and threw an arm around him.

Startled, JD attempted to regain his composure and strained against Buck's strong arm. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Now, son," Buck chuckled and then carried on talking freely as if nothing was out of the ordinary. "Don't you worry none. I'm just offering a friend a shoulder to lean on, and since I'm not worried about my reputation, and you ain't got one to worry about, why don't you just lean on big ole brother Buck and try to get back to sleep for a bit. There's still a few hours till sunup and you look plumb whipped."

JD was flabbergasted. He would never be able to figure the man out, how this didn't seem to embarrass Buck in the slightest. But, since JD really was so very tired, and whether he wanted to admit it or not, Buck's brotherly arm actually did offer him comfort, JD surrendered and lay his head back against Buck's chest, but not before making a feeble attempt to salvage his pride…

"Buck, you won't live till morning if ya try and kiss me!"

Buck chuckled again, "No need to fuss, JD. You're safe with me."

"I know, Buck. I know," the boy murmured as he drifted to sleep.

JD next awoke to the sound of Buck talking with people at his door. JD was feeling even better and as long as he didn't make any sudden movements, especially with his head, he figured he would be able to get out of bed. Nathan, of course had other plans. Nathan and Casey shared breakfast with JD in his room and then, with a kiss to JD's bruised forehead, Casey headed off home to Nettie's to take care of her chores. After examining JD, Nathan admonished the boy to stay in bed and rest some more at least until noon, at which time he could venture out doors, but only with Buck along to baby-sit. Nathan was pleased with JD's progress, but knew the kid would over-do if he thought he could get away with it. He also kept re-assuring the boy that Laura was also recovering well and would likely be able to go home the next day. Certain the kid was suffering more emotionally from the previous day's events than he was physically, Nathan persisted in letting JD know what he felt to be the truth: that he saved little Laura's life by finding her when he did and taking care of her so well. Nathan was truly proud of the boy and he made sure to tell him that.

Although JD did remain in bed until noon, he didn't actually get much rest. Chris, Josiah, Vin, Ezra and even Mary came by to visit him. They all had words of praise for him, especially Chris, which really unnerved JD. They were doing everything to try to get him out of his self-imposed state of guilt, but JD "knew" he was at fault, so he ignored their accolades. When a beaming Buck arrived at noon to take JD out for lunch, the boy knew he wouldn't be able to maintain his gloom. Buck simply wouldn't allow it.

Aside from some dizziness while negotiating the stairs, JD was moving around and managing quite well. Buck stayed close of course, to make sure JD didn't take a tumble. Or make sure my head doesn't fall off or something, the boy thought to himself. As he and Buck walked along the boardwalk to meet the rest of the Seven for lunch, JD was actually feeling very good. That changed however, as soon as he spotted someone heading with purpose in his direction. It was Hiram. JD suddenly wanted to go back to bed.

The three men met on the boardwalk and Hiram greeted them with a smile. "I was just coming over to talk with you, JD."

Much to Buck's dismay, JD immediately began apologizing. "Hiram, I am so sorry about what happened to Laura yesterday. Is she doing all right?" The kid had lost all of his color, and was looking heartsick again. Buck wanted to get JD out of there, but hoped that what Hiram had to say would help JD heal. So Buck waited.

Hiram then spoke. "JD, you don't have anything to apologize for. Laura's fine, son. I'm going to take her home tomorrow. Nathan says you saved her life and I know that it's true. I also know we never would have found her if it wasn't for you, JD." Hiram looked at JD with eyes full of gratitude. "I am so grateful to you, JD."

JD had gone numb. He really didn't know what to say. He never expected this; didn't deserve it.

Hiram continued. "Can I ask one more thing of you son? For Laura."

JD managed to stammer, "Um, sure, anything, Hiram."

"Well Laura is sleeping right now, but I know she would really like to see you. She was very worried about you getting hurt too, JD. Do you think you could find time to visit with her for a spell this afternoon? I would sure appreciate it. She thinks you're her hero!" Hiram smiled, as did Buck. JD gasped.

"I ain't no hero, Hiram." JD was trembling.

"Well, my daughter thinks you are, JD." The man smiled at JD as he continued. "You see JD, when Laura first fell into that hole, she didn't pass out right away. She was awake, alone and scared. Laura told me that she prayed to God that he would send her a hero to rescue her. And, according to Laura, that was you. Would you be willing to see her before I take her home?"

Buck couldn't contain his grin, and placed a steadying hand on JD's shoulder. He could see the kid's eyes welling again and the boy seemed unable to speak. Time to help.

"Uh, JD? Do you think you're up to a visit with Hiram and Laura after lunch? I could take you to Nathan's then. Whadda you say?"

JD was totally bewildered. He felt like bawling…or laughing. He didn't know which. This was too much. He tried to pull himself together, but his voice was still shaky. "Um, sure. Thanks, Buck." He turned to Hiram, regaining some of his strength, "I would love to visit with Laura, Hiram. Will you tell her that? I'll come by this afternoon."

"Thank you, JD. I'm mighty grateful." Hiram truly was thankful. He shook JD's hand vigorously and then carried on down the street.

Buck stepped back to take in the moment, and to keep an eye on the kid. Could this nightmare really be over? He watched as JD's hazel eyes followed Hiram's departure. And Buck was certain he could see that awful, heavy burden of guilt falling away from the kid's shoulders as JD straightened them and looked up to the sky. Is he thanking God? Buck already had. JD then turned to face Buck, and Buck could see the kid's eyes sparkling with wonder and relief, and a familiar smile was growing, one Buck had sorely missed these past gray months. And Buck grinned too. Everything's going to be all right.

"And out came the sun," Buck said to himself, or so he thought.

"What was that, Buck?"

"Oh, um…ready to join the boys for lunch, son?"

"You bet, Buck!" JD beamed, as Buck threw his arm over the kid's good shoulder. And as Buck ushered JD down the street, the kid's face lit up even brighter. They both could see five men waiting for them at the end of the boardwalk who had obviously witnessed the exchange between JD and Hiram. All were wearing broad smiles of relief, pride and joy. Redemption. It really was over.

And out came the sun.