by May Robinson


"How's the patient, doc?" Ken Chambers smirked while he lit a cheroot in Patrick O'Brien's outer office.

"He's still unconscious, but showing signs of waking up. He's mumbled a few words, and is getting a little more active. He'll be coming around soon, no doubt," Doc O'Brien smiled.

Chambers looked alarmed. "Damn well better, doc! He's been out twenty-four hours as it is. You sure you didn't give him too much in that needle of yours? He's just a runt, you know?!" Chambers was pacing the floor. "We're gonna have to get answers from him real soon, iffen you wanna see your brother alive again!"

Patrick O'Brien didn't like being second-guessed. It made him angry. "Well, if you hadn't used such a large caliber bullet to shoot down the runt, he would likely be awake by now! He could have bled to death by the time you got him here," he growled. "And I am perfectly aware of how critical the timing is, dammit. Our informant tells me that the boy's friends should be well on the move by tomorrow morning."

The doctor relaxed his tone, somewhat. "Look, we follow the plan. Dunne will be awake soon. Then you can have your talk with him and give him the good news." O'Brien's grin was sinister. "We'll give the boy an hour or two to recover, and then we'll get our answers."

"Then we kill him?" Chambers didn't like loose ends.

O'Brien paused in thought. "I'll let you know. I believe the boy might prove useful to us later on. Once we speak with him, I'll have a better idea as to his immediate future with us."

"What'ya mean? That weren't part of the plan!"

O'Brien was indignant. "Keep it down, Mr. Chambers," he snapped. "Dunne could be waking any moment. Look, I shouldn't have to explain myself to you, but…the boy has called out for Wilmington a few times while he's been out. If he and Wilmington are close, it may be worth our while keeping him alive and taking him along with us. If things go bad, we'll be able to bargain with him, and if things go well…" He laughed. "Well, then Bill would be thrilled to use the boy to get at Buck again."

Tired of Chambers' questions, O'Brien changed the subject to another issue at hand.

"Any news from Four Corners? Has Vale returned?"

Chambers laughed. "Yup, he just rode in, which is why I'm here to see you in the first place. Whole town's shook up." Chambers smiled. "Looks like everybody's bought it. Old Charlie sure knows what he's doin.' Between the tracks he made with the kid's horse, plus the dead snake, blood, and leavin' some of the kid's things behind, nobody seems to be lookin' for a body." He looked triumphant. "Charlie heard the news straight from Travis' daughter-in-law. She runs the paper in town. Seems our little guest was killed after a fall from his horse." Chambers was positively beaming. "Yup, it worked like a charm."

O'Brien was relieved. "Well, that is good news. Did Vale say anything about the gunfighters, though? Are they taking the boy's death hard?"

"Charlie says they're walkin' around like lost souls…every one of 'em. Ain't talkin' to nobody 'cept themselves. He says they look rough, maybe like they haven't slept. Should make 'em easy pickin's when it comes time to fight 'em, iffen they ain't as sharp as usual."

Chambers' grin faded as he thought of another item to report. "Only thing is, Vale ain't seen Wilmington. No sign of him. Don't suppose he ain't comin'?"

O'Brien thought for a moment, before answering. "Mr. Chambers, Buck Wilmington's presence is irrelevant to our mission. Our goal is to free my brother. Buck would simply be an unexpected, but delightful welcome home gift for Bill."

The doctor flashed an evil grin. "Having said this, however, I have no doubt that Wilmington will be there. His current absence only confirms my suspicion about his relationship with Mr. Dunne. If Buck Wilmington isn't out in the middle of everything, rallying the troops to go after my brother, then he must be taking the young man's loss hard."

O'Brien set his jaw in steadfast determination. "I'm very pleased. Our plan is working perfectly." The doctor walked towards the door to an adjoining room. "Now, on to our patient."

As JD was slowly floating back into consciousness, he was becoming increasingly aware of just how awful the state of consciousness was going to be. His throat was burning, as was his shoulder, and his head was swimming so badly, he felt as if he was going to heave his guts out the minute he found the strength to do so.

God, he felt weak. JD's eyes were leaden and his mind was so foggy. He was sure he was in a soft bed, but had no idea how he got there or what had happened to him to make him feel so horrible.

Buck would know. JD knew his best friend would be able to help him, but the boy just didn't have the strength to open his eyes to see if Buck was there, in his usual spot at his bed-side, hovering. JD smiled. He could sense someone was in the room with him and thought he had better open his eyes and let them know he was awake, before he threw up all over himself or missed out on the chance to get a drink of water.

If only he could remember how to form words. It really was a struggle.


"Welcome back, young man."

JD's eyes flew open at the unfamiliar voice and he immediately regretted his instinctive reach for his side arm. His shoulder was on fire. JD couldn't control the gasp of pain that tore from his throat, or the panic in his voice. "Whe…where am I? Where's Buck?!" The kid was terrified.

O'Brien smiled with delight. Wilmington…I was right. "Sshh, son. Now settle down before you tear open your wounds. My name is Doctor Scanlon and you are in my clinic in Churchfield. Would you like some water? I'm sure you must be thirsty."

'Scanlon's' voice was soothing, but JD couldn't be soothed. He was frantic. Churchfield? Why am I in Churchfield, and where is everybody?!

JD was dying of thirst, but pushed away the drink offered him. He needed answers first.

"Please! How did I get here? Where are my friends," the boy rasped.

"Slow down, son. I'll answer all of your questions in due time, but I need to ask you some as well, to make sure you're all right. Please let me begin, and I'll explain everything to you."

The kid was beginning to settle, weakness winning out over panic. He accepted the water and nodded his head, allowing the doctor to begin.

"Young man, you've been badly hurt in the shoulder, plus you have suffered a head injury. I know you must be feeling terrible and confused, but I need to ask you a few questions to help me determine the extent of your head injury. Do you know your name?"

JD's brow creased. Whoa, I must be pretty banged up, if he's starting like this. Must be why my vision's so fuzzy. The kid answered. "Uh, huh. JD Dunne."

The doctor smiled, but JD didn't feel all that comfortable with his smile. Must be my eyes.

"That's right, JD. Now, can you tell me how old you are?"

"Seventee…" JD stopped himself. That was weird. He'd never told anyone, other than Buck, his actual age. Hard enough as it was to be taken seriously. "Um, nineteen," he corrected.

'Scanlon' sat back for a moment. That was interesting. He would have to continue. "And where do you live, JD?"

"Four Corners, about a half day's ride from here, I think. And that's where I should be headin,' too. Somethin's wrong if my friends aren't here and I got to get back to them!" In one motion, JD sat himself upright and planted his feet on the floor. He tried to stand up, but promptly landed in a heap on the floor, making his head, shoulder and stomach rebel in agony. "Wh…what's wrong with me," he cried.

The doctor's eyes flashed at JD for a moment, making the already frightened kid cringe. Before the teen returned his panicked gaze to 'Scanlon,' the doctor's eyes had softened considerably. He came over to the shaking boy and gently chided him for trying to rip out his stitches, and ruin his plan. He helped a reluctant JD back into bed.

"I need you to stop being so foolish, son, and settle down. There's much we have to talk about and you are definitely too weak to be moving around like this. JD, you've been seriously hurt and have been unconscious for three days. You've suffered serious blood loss, so you mustn't expect to be riding off anywhere in the immediate future."

The doctor softened his voice further. "JD, do you remember what happened to you?"

JD was stunned. He shook his head, no.

Three days. What the hell happened to me? JD was beginning to worry. He didn't like it here. He could barely move and he was hurting, and he wasn't sure why, but he didn't like this doctor. God, he wished he could think straight. Three days. Buck and the rest of the guys would be right in the thick of things with O'Brien. At least that explained why they weren't here with him, but he wasn't happy about it at all. God, he felt lonely all of a sudden.

JD's morose thoughts were interrupted by a light knock at the door. A jovial man wearing a sheriff's badge walked into the room. He tipped his hat, acknowledging JD and then turned to the doctor. "How's he doin,' doc?"

JD was so confused. Why was this lawman asking about him? Typical of the kid, he answered himself. "I'm fine." The sheriff chuckled, and tilting his head towards the doctor, said, "if it's all right with you, kiddo, I think I'll ask the doc here."

JD smiled. The sheriff reminded him of an older, smaller Buck. Buck. God, I hope he's okay.

'Scanlon' replied. "He's weak as a newborn, Sheriff, and doesn't remember what happened to him. You might have to wait until tomorrow to question him." Unnoticed by JD, O'Brien winked at Chambers, a signal letting the man know to proceed with their plan.

JD was upset. "Question me about what," he demanded. "Look, I need to know what's goin' on!"

The friendly sheriff looked to the doctor, and sighed. "Doc, I think the boy's right. He's got a right to know everything."

JD nodded his head in agreement, but really did not like the apprehension he heard in the lawman's voice. Something was wrong, and he was about to find out what it could be.

Chambers spoke softly. "Son, I'm Ken Chambers, sheriff 'round here. JD, can you tell me the last thing you remember?"

JD's brow creased. Everything was still so fuzzy. He had to try hard to think. He remembered Buck's blow up though, and then Buck's apology. He remembered Buck's incredible story and how frightened Buck was, as he told it. Frightened for me….

JD was really worried about Buck and his other friends. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong. So caught up in his thoughts, JD had forgotten the sheriff was still there, until he spoke to JD again.

"Son, what do you remember?"

"I went for a ride." It was the truth, and much less complicated than anything else he could say.

"That's good, son. Can you remember what day it was?"


JD watched the sheriff step back for a moment, almost in surprise. He then whispered something to Doctor 'Scanlon.'

"Looks, like he really doesn't remember getting shot, doc," Chambers whispered. "Should I go ahead?" O'Brien nodded his head in encouragement.

Chambers returned to the boy. "Uh, JD. It looks like that bump you took to the head has gone and messed up your memory some. You didn't get hurt on Wednesday, boy. It was after that, on Friday."

JD was bewildered. That was impossible. If he didn't get hurt until Friday and has been out of it for three days, then that would mean he had lost almost a week! And the mission would be over. Then where are the guys? Where's Buck? He'd be here, if he could be…

Before JD could ask, Sheriff Chambers interrupted him.

"Son, do you recall anything about you and your friends escorting a prisoner for the government?"

Before JD could stop himself, he said, "Yes." Damn, I know better than to talk about this! And how does Chambers know about it anyway? This was too confusing.

Chambers could sense the boy's thoughts, and knew he had to regain his trust. "It's all right, son. It's okay to talk about this now. Remember, it's over. But before we do talk about it, there's somethin' I gotta tell ya. It's bad, JD, but you need to hear it."

Chambers' eyes were kind, but JD was certain he was not gonna like what the man had to say. Somethin's wrong…somethin's very wrong. Where's Buck?

As a feeling of dread overcame him, JD's hands involuntarily gripped onto the blanket covering him. He tried to stay calm, but didn't feel that way in the slightest.

"Son, I'm gonna say this all at once and get it over with. It ain't gonna be easy for you. JD, while you all were escorting William O'Brien, you and your friends were ambushed by his men. It was bad, son. Real bad. You're the only survivor."

JD felt himself sinking into the bed, shrinking from what couldn't possibly be the truth. "Oh, God. Please no," he moaned. He looked up at the two men watching him, two strangers who could never understand the depth of JD's grief…to believe the sheriff's words would simply kill him. "It's not possible. It just can't be," he cried.

Chambers patted JD's arm and spoke in sincere tones. "Son, I'm truly sorry, but it's the god's honest truth. I wish it weren't. JD, I wired Judge Travis as soon as the doc here told me he thought you were comin' around. He'll be here in a coupla days and you can talk to him then. It ain't right for you to be stuck here with us strangers tellin' you this, but I can't help that, son. I wish I could."

JD was devastated. The judge knows. Oh, God, it must be true. The kid was hurting…everywhere, now. He couldn't breathe. No. His head was spinning. No. And his heart hurt. JD could feel his heart shatter, as he lay still, unable to move.

No other survivors…No God, not Buck. Oh, God. Chris. Josiah. Nathan. Ezra. Vin. No. No! The word was pounding in what was left of his heart and soul, trying to make its way out. And yet, when the word finally came, it emerged only as a pathetic, terrified whisper.


JD wished he could run away or pass out, but he couldn't hide from the awful truth. His family was dead.

Chambers shifted his hand to JD's shoulder and rested it there a moment. "Son, I know you've got a lot to take in right now, so I'm gonna leave you be, but if you're up to it, I'm gonna wanna come back and talk to ya in a little while, if that's alright? Those bastards who killed your friends are still out there, on the loose and we're gonna find them, son, I promise. But I am gonna need your help to do it." The boy peered up at the sheriff, with heartbroken, but questioning eyes.

"That's right, JD. I need your help, son. I need to know everything you knew about the mission, so's maybe we can figure out what all happened and find out who O'Brien had on the inside. Someone in the government or maybe with Pinkerton's must have been working for O'Brien, in order to organize the ambush. I'm sorry, boy, but it looks like you and your friends were set up."

JD's eyes were brimming with tears, as he again looked up at the man whose words had just destroyed him. The boy nodded his head in acquiescence. Yes, he'd be willing to talk, just as soon as he could breathe again, let alone speak.

Chambers gave JD's shoulder a squeeze, whispered his thanks, and left the boy alone with the doctor.

O'Brien approached JD, holding a steaming cup in his hands and sat down in the chair next to the kid's bed. He spoke softly. "Young man, I know this is all too much for you to handle right now and what you need now, more than anything is rest. Son, I want you to drink this tonic. It will help with the pain, and help you get to sleep." He handed the drink to JD.

JD was going numb, but something in the recesses of his memory, something Buck had told him, made him reject the doctor's offer. He didn't really know why, but he pushed the drink away.

Take away the pain…impossible. Besides, nothing hurt worse than his heart, and no tonic in the world was going to take that hurt away. JD rolled onto his good side and whimpered, "please, just leave me alone." The boy buried his head into the pillow and pulled the blanket up over him. He was going to fall apart and didn't want to do it in front of this man.

O'Brien wanted to insist. He really did want to give JD his tonic, but he backed off. He knew the drug in Dunne's system would still be effective. Along with the significant amount of blood loss, it was keeping him as weak as a baby. O'Brien smiled a satisfied smile. The kid had no strength and was obviously destroyed by Chambers' fabricated story. As much as O'Brien enjoyed playing with his mixtures, he wouldn't force the drug into the boy, unless he had to. Too much the hassle, he thought reluctantly.

O'Brien was content. Dunne's in such bad shape, Chambers'll probably coax the entire story from him without needing any more serum. With the kid's resistance so low, there would still be plenty of residual drug in him when Chambers returned. We'll find out where the meet is, and then we'll ride and get my brother.

O'Brien sighed. "All right, young man. But I will leave the tonic here for you, should the pain become intolerable. Call for me, if you need anything." The boy ignored him, so O'Brien left the room, returning to his office and the waiting sheriff. Checking his pocket watch, he decided he would give the boy about another hour and then they would have to get the story out of him. One way, or another. Time's running out.

JD curled into himself. Intolerable. The boy would have laughed, if he hadn't hurt so much. It couldn't get any worse. It wasn't his wounded shoulder, or his pounding head that hurt anymore. No…all JD could feel was his heartbreak and his dying soul. He couldn't lose his family again, but he had. Oh, God. Why Buck? JD loved him so much. And how could he lose them all? Ambushed…oh, God.

JD's mind was reeling. He kept envisioning an ambush, even though it was killing him to do so. Nothing made sense. How could they all have died? And why had JD come along? I promised Buck I'd stay behind…

JD gasped. What have I done? Oh, God, it was my fault…they were looking out for me!

"No." It was so hard to think. No, something must've changed. He wouldn't have broken his promise. Not to Buck. Never to Buck. Something had changed. If only he could remember.

The only thing JD was certain of, was that William O'Brien was responsible for this…and JD felt a hatred as deep as any emotion he had ever felt in his young life. O'Brien was going to pay. JD would live to make him pay. JD knew what he had to do. As much as it would hurt to talk to the sheriff, JD would talk to him, and he would tell Chambers everything.

The boy was so exhausted. This was too much to take. Too much. JD closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to turn to his lost friends. His brothers. Six good men who had taken in a greenhorn kid…and had let that kid belong. God had given JD a family again, and O'Brien took them away from him.

They were gone. JD was all alone in the world…again.

"Oh, Buck," the boy whimpered.

Little brother. JD smiled.

And then…finally…JD gave in to his grief.

Devastating grief.

"Geez, would you listen to that." Chambers was standing, listening on the other side of JD's door. "Kid's fallin' apart in there." He motioned for O'Brien to come listen for himself.

O'Brien chuckled as he leaned in towards the door. "Now don't tell me you've developed a soft spot for children, Mr. Chambers." His tone was sarcastic.

"Don't you worry none about me, doc. When the time comes, I'll do what needs to be done. But I ain't your brother. I don't get no kick outta killing women and kids…just for the helluvit." Chambers' tone was equally acerbic.

The doctor motioned Chambers away from JD's door and they seated themselves in his study. "I assure you, Mr. Chambers. My brother ALWAYS has a good reason for his actions." His glare was deadly.

Chambers flinched under the doctor's glare, but composed himself. "Are you really sure the kid's gonna cooperate without givin' him some more serum?"

O'Brien was really tiring of Chambers questioning his methods. His irritation was reflected in his terse voice. "Look here, man. I'm convinced Dunne will be so full of remorse and revenge when you next see him, that he'll do anything to help you in your quest for justice." The doctor smirked. "Just stick to the plan. If the boy does get suspicious or doesn't cooperate, we'll simply inject him again."

The doctor continued. "I assure you, I would truly enjoy watching my mixture take action, however now is not the time for experimentation." He paused, and both men could still hear the faint sound of JD's hitching sobs. The doctor grinned maliciously. "Just listen to him in there…he's a wreck, and you…you're his new friend. I have no doubt that he'll tell you where the meet is and everything else we need to know. And when he does…"

"We ride, free Bill, and take out old Buck and the other peacekeepers while we're at it!" Chambers grinned, as he completed the doctor's statement. "They won't know what hit'em."

Chris Larabee returned to Four Corners late Thursday evening. Although Buck had turned away from him at the canyon, Chris hadn't had the heart to leave him. Larabee knew he wouldn't be able to change Buck's mind and have him ride home with him, but he just couldn't leave his friend all alone there, either. Buck had never abandoned him, even when Chris had desperately wanted him to. God, how did things come full circle like this?

Chris had stayed all day at the canyon, but, respectful of Buck's desire to be left alone, he had found his own shade tree to settle under…and think. The silence however, and his own demons engulfing it, ultimately drove Chris away. He had never been as patient as Buck.

As expected, four anxious men were awaiting his return. The disappointment expressed in their faces in not seeing Buck with him was palpable, and Chris motioned for his friends to join him in the saloon. He was so tired.

Josiah was the first to speak. "Chris, I'm sure you did the best you could."

Chris looked at the preacher with defeated eyes. He couldn't respond. Did my best. I barely tried.

Misunderstanding Chris' remorse, Josiah continued his attempt to console him. "The Lord's our shepherd, Chris. Not you." The big man placed a large hand on Chris' shoulder. "We'll ride together, Chris. And God willing, Buck will come out of this, alive."

Chris' eyes were registering a pain that neither Josiah nor Nathan had seen since they had recently returned with Chris to his family's gravesite. Nathan was becoming worried. He feared that Chris was shutting down again; becoming the cold, hardened gunman, with nothing to live for, they had met six months ago.

Nathan was right.

Chris' own grief and an irrational guilt over JD's loss were starting to overtake his ability to reason. Witnessing Buck's grief had felt like looking in a mirror. How could he convince Buck to stay alive, when he didn't really know if living was the best choice for Buck, or for himself? He knew exactly how Buck was feeling. After three years, Chris was just beginning to live again, and JD's loss only rekindled old emotions and memories…the gunslinger wondered again if it all was worth it?

Were his knew friendships worth the loss of his family? Was rebuilding Four Corners worth the loss of his family?

The answer was no.

How could he ask his oldest friend to live through the years of agony, just for the chance of regaining a fraction of the happiness he had enjoyed with JD? No, Chris didn't want his oldest friend to die, but then again, he wouldn't wish living for Buck, either. Not if it meant living with JD's loss. Chris didn't know which would be the worse fate for his oldest friend.

Despite their attempts to speak with him, Chris grabbed his bottle of whiskey and left his friends at their table, choosing the solitude of another table in the back corner of the saloon.

"I'm afraid we're losing our illustrious leader, gentlemen. I fear that this morrow's ride may be our final together." Ezra's words rang true to all of the men. Vin shrugged his weary shoulders and sighed. He was never inclined to disturb Chris when his friend was in this state. He had been so thankful that Chris' black moods were becoming less frequent, but JD's death was shaking up all of them, and Chris' demons were returning. Despite Vin's better judgement, he followed Chris to his table and sat down.

"Mind if I join you, cowboy?" Vin's smile was weak, but Chris responded with a faint one of his own. Vin was Chris' closest friend and Chris couldn't help but always take comfort in the younger man's easy presence. Larabee slid a shot glass in Vin's direction and poured him a drink. He focused his tired eyes on the tracker and began to speak quietly. "Vin, whatever happens, I don't want you tryin' to be a hero, all right? I don't want to see you getting yourself killed over Buck or me. The two of us have less to lose now, and I don't want you boys gettin' killed over what might be comin.' Will you do that for me?"

Vin was angry. It was hard enough dealing with the fact that JD wasn't just off riding with Buck somewhere, or about to burst into the saloon with a big grin on his face, but now his best friend was asking him to let go and watch him and Buck die too. No. Goddammit, no! Well Vin was not gonna let that happen.

"Dammit, Chris. No, I won't do that for you! Jesus, Chris. Don't think for a minute that any of us are just gonna stand back and watch the two of you get yourselves killed." Vin's eyes flashed. "Chris, you've survived four years without your family, and you made it 'cause you were s'posed to make it. Hell, I ain't Josiah, and I don't know much 'bout fate or crows or any of that, but I do know that we musta met for a reason and JD bein' gone don't change that reason." The tracker grabbed his friend by the wrist and held on tight, forcing Chris to look at him. "You know what we've done over the last six months would make Sarah and Adam proud. And if you think I'm gonna just stand back and watch Buck die, so's everything JD ever dreamed of falls apart, well…it just ain't gonna happen. Dammit Chris, they deserve better than that!"

Chris' voice was weak. He had never seen his unflappable friend so furious. "Vin…"

"No, Chris. You've got a decision to make. We're in this together, like always, and we're either gonna ride tomorrow and live, or we're gonna ride tomorrow and die…It's up to you."

Chris blinked. He had been fighting this overwhelming responsibility since the day the Seven were formed…being responsible for the lives of six good men, and ultimately making decisions which could determine their fate. And now one of those men, his best friend, was shoving this decision at him again.

We live or die.

Dammit…We live.

Vin was watching the emotions play over his friend's face. He knew Chris too well and he knew he could strike a cord. Chris' jaw was set in determination and his eyes were regaining some strength and clarity. Vin stayed quiet, not wanting to break the spell. Chris sighed heavily, but rose from his chair. "Come on, pard."

Vin followed Chris over to the table where Josiah, Nathan and Ezra were still seated. Chris gave each of them the same determined look he had given Vin. His throat was tight, and he had to clear it in order to allow his voice to emerge. "Boys, I suggest you get some sleep…we meet in four hours at the livery. We've got a long ride ahead of us." Chris tipped his hat to his men, and walked out of the saloon.

"How 'bout that?" Nathan grinned, as he turned to Vin, who had let out an audible sigh of relief. Relief was evident in all the men.

"Well, Mr. Tanner, it has always been evident to me that although you seldom communicate excessively with your partners, when you do indeed have something to articulate, it is always of considerable value. Salutations, dear sir." Ezra raised his glass to Vin, who dipped his head as his familiar slow grin formed.

"So, Josiah, what are the crows saying about our mission tonight? Seen any?" The tracker drawled. All eyes turned to Josiah.

"Brothers, the birds of darkness have not come to me this evening…as of yet. I think, however, I'll make my way over to God's house now to light a few candles." His eyes sparkled. "Divine intervention couldn't hurt us." The preacher patted Vin's shoulder as he headed for the saloon doors.

"Josiah?" Vin called out to the preacher.

"Yes, my friend?"

"Would you light seven? I think JD could use some help watching over Buck."

"I'll do that, Vin. I'll do that."

Buck Wilmington hadn't acknowledged when his oldest friend had finally left his vigil at the canyon. When Chris had asked him to return to Four Corners, Wilmington shut his friend out. He couldn't discuss going back there. Every sight and sound…from the jailhouse, to the boarding house, to the livery to the saloon…would remind Buck of who was lost.

The kid.

His kid.

Not that Buck's heart and soul weren't being bombarded with reminders anyway. JD was all he could think about. When he closed his eyes, Buck could see the boy smiling ~ no ~ beaming, and he could hear the boy laughing. Buck had never known anyone with so much spirit. God, how he loved that spirit. And how he would miss it.

Sitting under the shade tree, Buck couldn't stop reminiscing. Even though it hurt his heart, there was no way to stop remembering…and he didn't really want to stop, anyway. JD had become the most important part of his life, in his life. How could he not remember?

There was no mystery in why Buck had taken to JD. Hell, anybody would. A body simply couldn't dislike the boy. Lord knows Chris tried not to like him...and failed. Buck smiled as he remembered Chris sending the kid away that fateful day at the Seminole Village when the Seven were first united. Although they had seen a glimpse of JD's tenacity earlier in the day at the livery, it was in the village that Buck and the others had really gotten their first taste of JD's spirit.

Buck's eyes glistened, as he remembered. That little runt standing up to Chris 'n me. Cocky little shit! Scared as he really was, no way he'd let it show. Goddamn, he was somethin' else!

Buck smiled a sweet, sad smile. He had me right then…just didn't know it, yet.

Buck got up and stretched his weary body. Nightfall was approaching and he would have to pay attention to the time. He ached all over, but no where more than in his heart. As he looked south towards Four Corners, his thoughts turned briefly to Chris, and Buck felt a twinge of guilt. For three years he had tried to draw his friend away from his grief, but only now did Buck truly understand the depth of Chris' despair, because now he was experiencing it himself.

Losing his own ma, when he was just a bit older than JD, had just about destroyed Buck, and was without a doubt the event that sent him along his dangerous path as a gunslinger. And Buck had lost other friends since, including Sarah and Adam. That loss had hurt Buck immensely, too. They had become his family, but a greater concern for Chris' well-being had kept Buck going.

Yet, none of these losses could compare to losing JD.

Why? How could six months with the kid have made such an impact on his being? Six months…Buck let a quiet chuckle escape his throat…hell, in six minutes I was done for! Chris had told him it had been love at first sight when he had first met Sarah. Maybe the same could be said for brotherly love. Or fatherly love. Had to be. No other way to explain how he got to me like that. As Buck looked up to the sky above him, he felt his eyes pool again. His throat was tight and his voice was husky, but he finally found strength to talk to the kid.

"JD, you got to me, son. Now, what am I s'posed to do without you, kid?"

As tears spilled over his lashes, Buck took out his pocket-watch and checked the time. Only a few hours until he would have to ride. He would ride with his friends and see the mission through, but with a couple of changes to Chris' plan. O'Brien was going to die. He had no right living even a day to wait for trial, not when a beautiful kid like JD was gone.

And when O'Brien's gang arrived…then…there would be a gunfight.

Buck shifted his gaze to the setting sun. "Wait for me, son." Just got O'Brien to take care of and then I'm comin.' Can't rightly take care of you if I stay here.

Although he wouldn't have believed it possible, JD had cried himself to sleep. The boy's injuries and blood-loss had sapped all of his strength. This, together with the drug he didn't even know was in his system, had led to JD's inability to hold back his grief. JD's despair had overcome him and the kid had sobbed uncontrollably until giving in to both his physical and emotional pain, and ultimately passing out.

JD's heartbreak had taken such a physical toll on him however, that the serum in his bloodstream was spent long before it should have been. It was as though the boy had run for miles.

When JD awoke, although his eyes were bleary and his shoulder throbbed from crying so hard, his head was clearer than it had been the last time he woke up. The kid rubbed his eyes and looked at his surroundings, as if seeing them for the first time. JD's eyes were focusing quickly and his vision was much better. Thankfully, his head was no longer pounding. His thoughts turned back to Buck and to his other friends, and although grief threatened to overwhelm JD again, he was determined not to give in to it this time. Yes, his family was lost to him, but the man responsible for their deaths was out there on the loose and JD had plans for revenge. He needed to talk to the sheriff.

JD was just about to try to get out of bed again when a light tap on the door was followed by the entrance of Dr. 'Scanlon.' JD felt decidedly uneasy about the man as he watched him enter the room. He ain't no Nathan, that's for sure. The boy thought he recognized the doctor from somewhere, but then discounted the idea. Probably just imagining things. 'Scanlon' smiled at JD, and the boy realized that the man's smiles never quite reached his eyes.

"Well, Mr. Dunne, I see you're awake. How are you feeling?" The doctor walked over to the untouched cup of tonic he had given JD and frowned. "Is there anything I can get for you?"

JD was reluctant to answer. If he told the doctor his shoulder was hurting, he might give JD something to put him back to sleep, and JD wanted to stay awake to talk to Sheriff Chambers. But, he had enough experience being a patient under Nathan's care to know that with a bullet wound in his shoulder, the doctor wouldn't believe him saying he was fine. JD settled for truth by omission.

"'M feeling better, thanks," he rasped. Sobbing so very hard had given JD a sore throat. "Maybe a bit thirsty, though."

"Well then JD, let me just heat up some of this tonic for you."

Damn. That's not what JD wanted. "Um, could I just have some water, please?"

'Scanlon's' eyes clouded over and JD couldn't help feeling uncomfortable. This guy has no bedside manner at all.

The doctor glared at JD briefly and then relaxed, as he handed JD a cup of water. "All right then young man, but if you refuse this tonic again I'm going to get our good sheriff to hold you down while I give it to you," he joked.

JD didn't laugh. I don't like this guy. Christ, he sounds serious. Before JD could consider the man's words further, Sheriff Ken Chambers came into the room. He smiled at the boy, and JD couldn't help smiling back, even if it hurt to think about how much he reminded JD of Buck. He could relax now knowing that he wasn't alone with the doctor, and knowing he was going to help the sheriff bring down William O'Brien.

The lawman approached JD's bed, his expression warm and sympathetic. "Son, if you're not up to talkin' with me now, just let me know. I'd surely understand. But iffen you're up to it, then the sooner we talk, the better."

JD sighed and attempted to control the tears threatening to form again. His voice was almost a whimper, but he was determined to help. "No, sir. I wanna do anything I can to help. I'm ready."

JD noticed that the doctor's smile seemed genuine for once. He excused himself from the room and Chambers settled in the chair next to JD's bed.

"All right, son. Whenever you're ready, just tell me everything you know about the mission…anything you can remember from when you first heard about it, until the last thing you recall." Despite the fact that Chambers was chomping at the bit to find out about the meet, he maintained his relaxed demeanor.

JD settled back against his pillow. It was painful to think about the judge's arrival and the emotions flying afterwards. He remembered how he and Buck had been having fun on the boardwalk, joking with Josiah when Travis arrived, and then how everything went straight to hell. Buck yelling at him. Buck was so mad. But, we made up after…Everything was okay. Everything was fine. We were fine. Buck… The boy's eyes began to fill.

Dammit, pull yourself've got to do this. JD chided himself and took a deep breath.

The boy proceeded to explain in detail the judge's unexpected arrival and his gathering of the Seven in the jail to tell them about the mission. JD told Chambers that their mission was a secret and that even the judge's family didn't know about it. JD remembered that the Seven were to meet the military regiment, escorting O'Brien, at the junction of the Yuma and Chaparral Trails, about fifty miles north of Four Corners. They would meet at six in the morning, which would have meant leaving before sunrise, early on the Friday. After the rendezvous, the Seven would then carry on their own to West Bend to deliver O'Brien to a private train waiting for them. That meet was also at six o'clock, so they would have had to ride hard to make it, seeing as West Bend was a long haul from Four Corners.

JD didn't mention Buck's history with O'Brien. The boy didn't think it was all that important and he didn't want Buck to look bad in the eyes of the lawman. Buck was a good man who had just made a mistake when he was a kid, but JD wasn't sure how the lawman would take to Buck having ridden with O'Brien's gang.

JD also neglected to mention the fact that he wasn't supposed to ride with the guys, at least as of the Wednesday. The boy still couldn't figure out how he ended up riding with his friends when both Chris and Buck had been so against the idea. There had to be a good reason, though. He was sure he wouldn't have gone against Buck's wishes…not when it was this important, anyway. God, I wish I could remember!

JD was so frustrated that he still couldn't remember anything beyond Wednesday, but he was relieved that it didn't seem to bother Chambers a great deal.

"Now, son…don't you worry none." He patted JD's leg, and smiled reassuringly. "I'm sure it'll all come back to you soon. In the meantime though, why don't you tell me what you think might've happened? You know…based on all the other times you rode with your friends."

"Sure." JD could do that. That's easy. With a voice full of admiration and a quiet enthusiasm, JD began talking about his friends. He explained that Chris would ride in the lead, as always, and that Chris was the fastest gun he had ever seen. JD's adulation of Chris was clear as he described his hero's courage, honor and leadership. JD then spoke of Vin, praising Vin's ability as a sharpshooter, but purposely neglecting to mention the bounty on Vin's head. The boy knew that the ex-bounty hunter would ride the perimeter, using his spyglass and his tracking skills to watch out for anyone who might be following or waiting to ambush them.

Ambush. JD stopped.

Ambush. He still couldn't accept it.

Oh, God!

Feeling his emotions begin to run away on him again, JD couldn't get through discussing Josiah, Ezra and Nathan. He only mentioned them briefly as great fighters. Three great men...Oh, God, this hurts so much.

Chambers wore a sympathetic mask, and actually did find himself feeling a bit sorry for the teen, but was all the while absorbing JD's information to use against the peacekeepers in their upcoming fight. He had a few more questions to ask, but was still curious about the kid's relationship with Wilmington, who he remembered well from the short time Buck had ridden with the O'Brien gang. Dunne hadn't mentioned the man. Maybe the Doc was wrong and Wilmington wasn't going to ride with the gunslingers after all.

"Son, you've mentioned five men. JD, can you tell me anything about the other? Buck Wilmington, is it?"

JD's eyes immediately overflowed and he quickly wiped them with his sleeve. He lowered his gaze to the blanket covering him and slowly shook his head. "Can't…I can't," he choked.

Chambers was shocked at how he was actually being effected by the boy's display of emotion. He was a hard man, but spending time with this kid was getting to him. He'd have to get this question period over with quickly and consider gettin' someone else to kill the boy, when the time came. He shook his head. Must be gettin' soft in my old age. Pat's right, though…Ole Buck and the kid are close. This ain't gonna be pretty when Bill finds out.

"Okay, son. I'm sorry I said anything. I know how hard this must be for ya. Can I ask you a bit more though…we don't hafta talk about your friend."

JD collected himself and looked up at the sheriff. His "thanks" came out as a whisper. God, this was killing him. He swallowed hard and then asked Chambers what else he needed to know.

The lawman smiled and rested his hand on the boy's shoulder. "I appreciate it, son. Can you tell me what route you think you boy's would've taken? Where you'd break…that kinda stuff?"

JD began to concentrate. He could do this. I have to. The boy told Chambers that his friends would have stopped just after the meet at the Yuma/Chaparral junction. JD knew the area quite well. There was a small depression in the land, about a twenty minute ride from the junction, which had a number of large oaks on a ridge overlooking a pond. They would have watered their horses there before carrying on. After that, instead of taking the Chaparral Trail east, they would have ridden parallel to it, likely north, using the cover of the nearby forest for protection.

JD continued describing what he would have expected the route to be. Under different circumstances, the boy would have been proud of himself realizing just how much he had learned from Chris and the others. He was just beginning to think like them. That should have made him proud. But now, it didn't really matter anymore.

Chambers let the boy continue to ramble, however the lawman's interest in what the kid had to say was lost immediately after JD had described the stand of oaks at the pond. Perfect place for an ambush. They'll never see it comin'!

JD looked at Sheriff Chambers and noticed the smile of satisfaction on his face. Although he didn't think his information would offer much help in tracking down O'Brien, JD felt gratified that the sheriff seemed pleased. "Uh, Sheriff. Has anything I said helped?"

Chambers smiled. "Oh! You bet, son. You have no idea!" He almost smirked, but checked it. The lawman walked over to the door, opened it and called out to Doc 'Scanlon.' "Hey, doc! We're done in here."

The doctor came into the room within seconds of Chambers' call. He looked inquisitively at the sheriff, who nodded his head in response. "The boy's really helped me out, doc."

The doctor's smile was genuine again, and a little devious. "Oh, I'm so pleased." He looked to the boy, and JD couldn't help but flinch again under the doctor's gaze. "Now, young man. You look exhausted and you must get your rest. I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist this time…I'm going to bring you some tonic to drink, OR, I'm going to bring in a needle with the same medication. Your choice, but those are your only options, young man."

Christ, I don't like this guy! JD looked pleadingly to his only ally, the sheriff, who just chuckled and said, "Son, I'd vote for the tonic, myself…I'm not big on stickers!" JD swallowed hard, but realized his friend wasn't going to help him out of being forced to take any medication.

"Um…I…I...guess it's the tonic then," JD shuddered.

"Now, that's a good boy," 'Scanlon' sneered, as he left the room to heat up his mixture.

JD looked helplessly to Sheriff Chambers who was standing next to the bed. "Um, Sheriff, how long have you known the doctor…I mean…is he a friend?"

Chambers looked down at the boy and laughed. "That's a funny question, kid. Hell, I guess I've known the doc for a long time, but I wouldn't say we're friends exactly. Why're you asking?"

JD was relieved; he didn't want to say anything bad about the doctor if Chambers was his friend, but this 'Scanlon' made him so uncomfortable. "Well, it's just because…uh…I don't really li…I mean…there's just something about him that just…"

JD didn't say it. But, he thought it. Gives me the creeps.

Gives me the creeps. JD blanched. Buck's words, exactly.


JD's mind was reeling as flashes of memory suddenly came.

A rifle blast. He remembered being shot…Wednesday. Oh, God!

Chambers noticed JD had gone exceptionally pale. "Uh, son. Are you all right?"

JD couldn't hear him. His mind was racing. What's goin' on? Could he be? Could it be? O'Brien…Ohmygod!

'Scanlon' walked into the room carrying the tonic and the boy took a good long look at the doctor's face.

And JD was petrified.

O'Brien! Ohmygod. JD didn't know what Patrick O'Brien looked like, but he had seen enough wanted posters of his brother, plus dimestore novel covers depicting the outlaw, to know that the man standing in front of him was an older, darker version of the outlaw. It's him…my god…it's him! Why didn't I see it before?

O'Brien immediately noticed JD's ashen face, but JD had managed to blink away the fear. He willed himself to remain calm, as the doctor approached.

With Chambers hovering on one side of JD, the doctor handed JD the steaming tonic. The kid did not want to take it, but he knew he didn't have a choice. JD accepted the drink, and took a tiny sip. "It's too hot." The kid was stalling.

Pleased that JD had accepted the drink, and willing to chalk up JD's pallor to his physical and emotional state, O'Brien didn't pick up on the boy's tactic. He did however want to ensure that his prisoner consumed the drink. The doctor added some cold water to JD's drink and admonished the kid to drink more. Reluctantly JD complied, but made it appear that he was taking large gulps of the drink, when in fact he was still only sipping it. JD held the cup in both hands, hiding the contents from his captors.

Satisfied that the kid would continue drinking his latest concoction, O'Brien asked Chambers to accompany him to his office. Time was running out and Chambers had to give his full report. They left JD alone, confident that he would be helpless within the half-hour.

JD was stunned. He was afraid to think. He set down the tonic and began racking his brain, trying to remember what had brought him here. He was certain now that he was shot on Wednesday. So what day is it...really? His mind kept racing. Could it be? Could it be? He couldn't even think it, let alone say it. He didn't want to be wrong. It would hurt too much again, if he was wrong.

But what if I'm right? They're alive. Buck's alive. He has to be!

And O'Brien's setting a trap…what have I done!?

The kid's heart was racing. He had to clear his head. This is too crazy, but it's the only thing that makes sense. They grabbed me to find out the plan. We weren't ambushed, but…we're gonna be. Oh, god…I've set them up. I gotta warn them!

JD's heart soared with the thought that all his friends might actually be alive. But now he had to keep them that way. He was worried about the tonic. He drank less than half of it, but was already starting to feel a bit dizzy. If this stuff was gonna do to him what O'Brien's potion had done to Buck, he was going to have to get outta there fast, before it crippled him. JD's eyes darted around the room. He had to escape…but first that meant getting out of bed.

JD lifted the covers from his bed and shifted his legs and feet to the floor. The movement made his shoulder burn, but he felt stronger than he had earlier. He was beginning to wonder if he had been drugged before. JD stood, swaying slightly, but steadied himself. He felt weak, but he wasn't too dizzy, so he could attempt to walk. Quietly he weaved over to the dresser, using the bedroom furniture to keep himself steady. He looked at himself in the mirror, trying to find the head-wound he was told he had suffered. Unable to find anything under his bandage, he removed it. It musta been a drug, makin' my head feel that bad. God, I hope it's not in me again! He immediately gulped down two cups of water, in the hopes that it would lessen the effect of whatever was coursing its way through his body.

Remembering what Buck had told JD about his time in the doctor's care, JD made his way over to the bedside table and gathered up the tonic. There was no chamberpot in the room, so JD poured the tonic into the washbasin. He hoped to be out of there before O'Brien had a chance to check, anyway.

JD then eyed his clothing on a bench near the door. He eased over to it and attempted to put on his pants. He was successful in climbing into them, but he paid a price. Bending over did induce dizziness and nausea, and his shoulder screamed at him while he dressed. His pants and boots would have to do…otherwise he'd find himself flat on the floor and no help to anyone.

JD froze as he heard voices coming from the other side of the door. The sound was muffled, but he could get the gist of the conversation. O'Brien and Chambers were devising a plan…

To free Bill O'Brien, and destroy the Seven.

Ken Chambers was casually leaning against Pat O'Brien's desk as he recounted the information he had gotten from JD. Both men were in agreement that the stand of oaks near the pond would provide perfect cover for an ambush. Chambers would leave to ready the other men for the ride. He would return in an hour with a wagonload of supplies and to pick up O'Brien and their prisoner.

"Good, our guest should be as helpless as a baby by then, and in all likelihood unconscious." O'Brien's laugh was sinister. "Once we take care of those gunslingers, we'll present my brother with his welcome home gifts…young Mr. Dunne and Buck Wilmington."

JD cringed as he heard the doctor's words. They were gonna use him to hurt Buck. Exactly what Buck was so afraid of.

God, I'm sorry, Buck. I shouldda never gone for that damn ride!