by May Robinson


JD willed away his fear and looked across the room to the window. He would have to escape from there. Pushing away from the wall, which by this time was all that was keeping him upright, JD stumbled towards the window, but was forced to detour to rest against the bed. Damn. The drug. It's messin' me up. The boy's vision was becoming fuzzy again and his head was beginning to pound. But he had to concentrate…his life and the lives of his family depended on it.

JD took a deep breath and swallowed the bile he could feel rising in his throat. God, I feel awful. The boy hoisted himself off of the bed and lurched towards the window. Catching hold of the ledge, JD breathed a sigh of relief…the window wasn't latched. He would just have to open it. Clearly his captors weren't worried about him escaping. That should buy me some time. Unfortunately, the drop to the ground was significant. JD considered for a moment coming up with some kind of rope affair to ease himself down, but decided against it. Time was still of the essence. Besides, his body was starting to go limp…he probably wouldn't feel anything when he hit the ground, anyway.

With more effort than it should have required, JD slowly and quietly opened the window with his one good arm. He peered at the ground beneath him and couldn't decide if it was he or the dirt below, swaying mercilessly. Probably me. Smiling to himself, JD remembered Buck's and Nathan's countless jibes over the past six months, about how hardheaded he was. Better be. His next course of action would be to slither out the window…headfirst. JD lined up a mound of dirt beneath him and let himself slide out the window.

"Unnh." JD muffled his own cry as he felt the wound in his shoulder tear. He had intended to tuck his head and roll as he landed, but the ground came up faster than he had expected and wasn't nearly the soft, sandy pillow his blurry eyes had imagined. So much for not feeling anything! He was pretty certain though that his landing had been quiet, and that was the most important issue at the moment. He was free. Thank God.

Still sprawled flat on his face in the dirt, JD's addled brain realized that he had best hide, and do it quickly. The kid leaned against the side of the building and crawled towards the alleyway he could see behind it. He told himself he was staying down to keep himself hidden, but he knew in all reality that he couldn't have stood if he tried.

After what seemed like an agonizing eternity, JD had crawled the length of two more buildings. He could feel the blood seeping from his bullet wound, but the pain had subsided. The only good thing about the drug, the boy admitted. Unfortunately the bad far outweighed the good. JD's head was so foggy, and despite the lack of pain in his shoulder, the throbbing in his skull was more than comparable. It was so hard to think, he was becoming weaker by the minute, and he was feeling decidedly ill. He knew he had to hide, to think, and come up with a plan, but he was afraid to stop moving for fear of passing out.

The boy looked again at his surroundings, discouraged that not a single horse was in sight. Shit, I shoulda stayed out front. JD shook himself from his mounting despair and assessed the area again. He spotted a large porch off of the back of a building ahead of him. He could rest there, and come up with a plan. Although JD wasn't really suffering any pain from his shoulder, he could still feel its debilitating effects. His arm was becoming useless and he now found himself crawling with the use of only one arm. He finally pulled his body up to the porch and rolled underneath it. The effort took his breath away. Willing himself not to pass out, JD took a few deep breaths and attempted to collect his jumbled thoughts.

Looking through the openings under the porch, JD once again strained to see if he could find a horse. Christ, doesn't anybody have a horse around here? Discouraged, JD leaned his aching head against the building wall and closed his eyes, to think and to curb the impending flow of tears. Somebody help me…God, I need help.

I'm sorry, Buck.

Feeling totally helpless, JD opened his eyes again and gazed up at the darkening sky. Then he blinked. Maybe. He blinked again. Churchfield, of course. I've gotta trust someone.

With a renewed strength and faith, JD crept along the alleyway, until finally making his way to the double doors…

Of the white church…it's steeple having guided him to it like a beacon.

JD hoisted himself up into a sitting position and rested against the doors. Slowly, he fumbled until his good arm reached the door handles and he breathed a sigh of relief…just like Josiah's church, the doors were un-locked.

JD sent a silent prayer and thanked God.

In his drugged and battered state, the boy's body weight, combined with the force of gravity, sent him tumbling through the door as he turned the latch. "Unnh." JD was getting tired of landing on his face, but with one arm hanging limp at his side, there wasn't a damn thing he could do to brace himself anymore. Unfortunately, the pain-killing feature of the serum coursing through him was already beginning to wane, and JD was starting to feel the cuts, scrapes and bruises which had been accumulating on his body. His wounded shoulder was beginning to throb. The boy was simply a wreck.

Trying to focus through the fog of his brain and the dim light of the church, JD couldn't see any signs of life. He had no idea what time it was, but assumed it was late evening. He pulled his body into the church and flailed his legs until he kicked the doors shut behind him. He prayed this church would truly be his sanctuary. God, I need someone to help me.

The boy eyed the altar at the back of the church and forced himself to get up. Although he felt so weak, JD found that he could use the back of each pew to support him as he propelled his way towards the altar. Unfortunately, once he reached the front row of pews, JD couldn't stop the momentum he had gained and found himself falling forward.

"Goddammit!" he cried as he crashed, face-first yet again, into the pulpit. Of course, the pulpit wasn't secured to the floor, so the plunge continued, until finally JD and the pulpit came to an abrupt and body-jarring rest against the base of the altar.

If the situation weren't so very serious, JD would have laughed out loud. Instead his eyes filled with tears…tears of frustration, tears of pain, and tears of fright. He couldn't fail them. He couldn't fail Buck. Please, I can't let them down.

The boy was spent, and he felt exhaustion claiming him, and darkness taking hold. He couldn't pass out…not now.

But JD was so very tired...

"Who in tarnation is making all that racket and breakin' a commandment to boot!?"

JD had just about slipped into oblivion, but the booming voice he heard coming from an adjoining room abruptly revived him. Thank God. I've got to hang on.

Unfortunately the boy found himself so helpless at this point, he just laid there, amongst the ruins, until he could see the form of an older man approach and then stare, dumbfounded, at him. The man, who was older than Josiah, and not nearly as big, stood still, surveying the damage and shaking his head.

"Have you been drinking, boy?" The older man asked, still staring in disbelief at the destruction before him.

JD shook his head no, and attempted to sit up. "No sir…I haven't," he gasped, his voice coming out in an inaudible whisper. The kid tried again. "Please, I need your help." This time his voice reached the stranger, but it was still extremely weak.

"My friends are in trouble…I have to help them!" The boy sounded desperate, and the tears that began streaming down his face as he again tried and failed to get up, prompted the man to reach for the struggling youth and help pull him up. The stranger's eyes were kind. "All right, son. Let me give you a hand."

JD cried out and stumbled forward as the man pulled him up by his injured arm. Alarmed, the stranger caught hold of the boy and settled him down on the nearest pew. He took a close look at JD and was shocked to see just how bad off the boy really was. "Oh, my word!" The light in the church was dim, but it still didn't hide the fact that the boy before him was white as a sheet, fevered, sweating profusely, and, most alarmingly, had blood covering his chest and shirtsleeve.

"Mercy," he exclaimed. "Child, have you been shot?!"

JD grimaced and nodded his head. His pain was so intense now and he wondered to himself if the effects of the drug had worn off already. He was right. The adrenaline and immense physical exertion used to drag his own injured body over to the church, plus his profuse sweating, all combined to help rid his body of the small dose of serum he had consumed. Unfortunately, this meant that right now JD could feel every ounce of every injury sustained along the way, plus the agony of his torn bullet-wound. The pain was excruciating and JD just wanted to curl up and die. "Help me…please," the teen gasped as he reflexively reached out and grabbed the older man's sleeve.

The man was deeply moved, and gravely concerned for the boy. He helped the youth lay down on the pew and rested his hand on the boy's fevered brow. "Son, I'm Sam Harris, preacher here in town. Now you rest easy, boy. I'm gonna find you a blanket and then I'm gonna go get you some help." As he turned to walk away from JD, he muttered, "Lucky thing, boy…town didn't have a doctor 'til 'bout a month ago."

"NO, PLEASE GOD, NO!" The kid screamed.

The preacher froze in his tracks. He hadn't heard such a gut-wrenching cry since the war. He quickly grabbed a blanket and towels from his bedroom and returned to the boy, who was struggling to get up.

"Now settle down, son. I'm not goin' anywhere," he soothed. "Do you wanna tell me why I shouldn't be gettin' you a doctor? You in some kinda trouble, boy?" He gently lifted JD's blood and sweat-soaked shirt and placed a towel against the boy's wound, applying a steady pressure. Like Nathan, Sam Harris had worked with medics during the war. Although his skills these days were focused on mending souls, Harris could remember a thing or two about healin' people.

JD choked back the bile threatening to erupt from his gut. He couldn't believe the intensity of the pain shooting through his shoulder but JD was stubborn and unwilling to let himself pass out from it. The boy swallowed again and attempted to speak.

"Please…please listen…to me. No…no doctor. He…he did…this…to…me." The boy's voice was rough, but the preacher could understand the words gasped around each flare of pain pulsing through his shoulder. Harris just didn't know if he wanted to believe them.

The man proceeded to replace the blood-soaked towel with a clean one, maintaining pressure all the while, as he covered the boy with a blanket. "Son, you're talkin' crazy, here. You mean to tell me Doc Scanlon did this to you?"

It was clear that the boy was in tremendous pain, but Sam Harris could read honesty in the boy's eyes…and fear. He hadn't liked Patrick Scanlon since the day he came to town, so found himself willing to listen to what the boy had to say.

JD was struggling. "It's…gonna…sound…crazy, but…it's the truth…Mr. Harris."

"It's all right, son. Go ahead. I'm listenin,' but call me Sam, all right?"

"Thanks, Sam. I'm JD." JD smiled a shadow of his usual smile, and the preacher felt rewarded somehow by the boy's effort. The boy continued to speak.

"Sam, can you…tell me…what date…it is?"

The preacher wondered at JD's confusion. Maybe the lad isn't quite right in his head? Harris then gazed into the boy's frightened eyes, and he changed his mind. What he found was infinite honesty…and something the preacher barely recognized these days…innocence. No…this boy's tellin' me the truth. "Well, son, it's the twelfth. Thursday, the twelfth."

Relief washed over JD and he felt tears spill over onto his cheeks, and this time, they were tears of joy. They really are still alive! I know it!

Although JD was in severe pain and exhausted, the knowledge that Buck and his other friends were definitely still alive revitalized him. And Sam's willingness to help and listen to him gave the boy much needed comfort. He had found sanctuary. JD was regaining some welcomed strength. His voice grew stronger and so he proceeded to describe the events of earlier that day and of the day before.

The tale JD spun was unbelievable, and yet Sam Harris found himself believing the boy's every word.

The preacher sat staring, dumbfounded at the boy for the second time that night. "My God!" Sam promptly apologized to his god, and then it slipped out again, "My God."

The kid couldn't help but smile. "You do believe me, Sam? Don't you?"

The preacher nodded his head in stunned acknowledgement. The impact of the boy's story was almost too much to fathom. Harris then explained to JD that the town's sheriff had disappeared without a trace about three weeks ago, and was replaced just as suddenly by Ken Chambers. 'Scanlon,' that is O'Brien, had arrived the week prior. Sam shook his head in amazement. "That means that our old sheriff, Bob Jenkins, is probably…"

"Dead. I'm sorry." JD was truly sorry.

Harris looked at the boy, and smiled. This is a good boy. His thoughts turned to the town's dead sheriff, and then again to the boy in front of him. Sheriff.

"My God!" The preacher blurted again, before he could halt the words. "You're the boy sheriff!"

JD was amazed. "Well, I was. You hearda me?" Despite everything happening, JD's heart instantly swelled with pride.

Sam's heart, on the other hand, was racing. "Somethin' else is goin' on here, son. Yeah, I hearda you. You're s'posed to be dead!"

"What?!" JD mustn't have heard Sam right.

"I'm serious, son. You're s'posed to be dead! I heard it today at the telegraph office. It came over the wire this morning, while I was waitin' to send a message." The preacher sat down on the pew next to JD. He looked as confused as the kid did.

JD was incredulous. "I don't understand, Sam?"

Sam removed and replaced another towel on the boy's bullet-wound and proceeded to explain what happened at the telegraph office that morning.

"Well JD, I was waiting to send my sister a telegram about her boy comin' here next week and a message came over the wire that got ole Gus Johnson, the operator, all in a fuss." Sam chuckled to himself. "You see son, Gus is like an old woman…loves to gossip…and anyway, this message came for our newspaper saying that one of Four Corners' peacekeepers was killed in a fall…"

"No!" JD almost fell off of the pew…"Did it say who?" The boy couldn't take any more heartbreak.

The preacher grabbed hold of JD and gently settled him back onto the pew. "Now, settle down, son. I already told you…it's you, JD. I didn't catch the name, but I did hear it was the boy sheriff that died. Gus said something about a fall and drowning." Sam looked at the youth whose face was a mixture of confusion and other emotions. "Son, the message came straight from Four Corners…the newspaper there. Boy, your folks must think you've died."

JD's mind and heart were racing, countless thoughts assaulting him all at once. My God. The canyon…they think I fell into the river. Oh God, Buck!

JD felt a deep sorrow. His friends would be mourning his loss, just as he had mourned theirs just hours ago. They were grown men and all, so maybe they wouldn't hurt as badly as he had, but JD thought at least a few of his friends would be really upset.

And none more than Buck. JD knew how important he was to his friend. Hell, he knew Buck adored him…maybe even as much as JD loved Buck. Little brother. JD remembered Buck's words from the day before…was it only yesterday? It seemed like an eternity had passed.

The boy shuddered as he remembered how afraid Buck was for him. And JD understood all too well that thinking his little brother was dead would just about kill the man.

I couldn't live with myself if something happened to ya.

The boy quaked as he remembered Buck's words. Jesus, Buck…don't go doin' somethin' foolish. God, don't get yourself killed!

Sam had watched the myriad of emotions play across the boy's face…confusion, realization, sorrow, fear, and then determination. The preacher was a little concerned about that last one. He was beginning to get a true sense of the remarkable young man in his care…this JD Dunne, and Sam's intuitions were absolutely right.

JD stared intently at his new friend and then suddenly and painfully pulled himself to his feet. "I've got to go…I've got to warn my friends."

Buck was waiting, right on schedule, for Chris and the others at Baker Pass. Even in the darkness of three o'clock in the morning, his friends could see how rough Buck looked. His eyes were red and swollen, no doubt evidence of another breakdown. His face was strained with emotion, yet his body sagged with fatigue and defeat. Buck always wore his emotions on his sleeve, and grief was no exception. It pained all of his friends to see the typically cheerful man looking so despondent, but what could any of them say or do for him? Nothing. Buck was devastated. There was nothing they could do for him, except stay close and try to avert the disaster they all knew Buck would court, once they had their hands on O'Brien.

Truth be told, all of the peacekeepers looked rough. Few had slept at all, and the sleep any of them might have had, could hardly have been called restful. Like Buck, they were all carrying their own grief, but right now, for the gunslingers traveling with Buck Wilmington, there was a cause they could once again be united in. One in which they could channel their grief and burgeoning anger over JD's loss…bringing William O'Brien to justice and keeping Buck alive in the process.

Few words were spoken as the five men traveled together. Chris was in the lead, with Vin out scouting, riding the perimeter. Nathan rode next to Buck, watching him constantly, trying to monitor his friend's mental and physical condition. Ezra and Josiah were again side-by-side, riding in anxious silence. The tension was building.

In just a few hours they would be meeting the regiment and picking up O'Brien. And at some point thereafter, they would fight O'Brien's men. There would be no mercy for those men. The remaining six of the Seven were in the mood for a fight. The kind of fight the kid would have been proud to be part of.

A righteous fight.

"Lemme go!" JD screamed at Sam Harris, as he struggled to break free from the older man's grip around his chest.

"Son, there is no way I'm gonna let you walk outta here like this. We have got to take care of your shoulder and you need to rest!" The preacher could read in JD's face that he was about to bolt, but was still amazed at how much ground the boy had managed to cover when only minutes earlier he had been too weak to get up off of the same floor. My word, he's stubborn!

JD relented. He knew Sam was right, but he was desperate to get out of Churchfield to warn his friends. His struggles against the preacher were wearing him out. He was so damn weak. JD dropped back down onto the pew…defeated. "Dammit, Sam…I gotta get to 'em. I can't give up now. They need me," the boy pleaded.

The preacher smiled. Talk about grit. He shook his head in amazement, and exasperation. Sam sat next to JD on the pew and gently placed his hand on the boy's good shoulder. "JD, there is no way you can make it with your shoulder bein' the way it is. You'll pass out or die first." The boy was looking up at Harris, so beseechingly, that the preacher felt a pain in his heart. Sam had no choice but to do everything in his power to help JD and his friends.

Sam shifted his hand from JD's shoulder to his neck and gave the boy a determined look. "All right son, we're gonna do this, but you're goin' to hafta trust me. I'm a little outta practice, boy, but I treated bullet holes during the war…and if I don't patch you up, you're gonna bleed to death before we can do your friends any good." JD's eyes registered fear, but also trust, so Sam continued. "JD, we're gonna fix you up. Now, I'm pretty sure I can pack the wound and wrap it up tight, so we can keep it from bleedin' until we get you to your doctor friend, but I am gonna hafta clean it up first and that's gonna hurt like…well…holy hell!"

The preacher wouldn't have believed it, but the boy's face grew whiter. JD gulped down the bile he felt rising again in his throat, nodded his head in understanding and murmured, "Sam, I can't pass out. I gotta be able to ride."

The boy's courage and determination continued to amaze the preacher. He hoped he was doing the right thing and not helping to lead the boy to his death. "I know, JD. I've got some laudanum here, so we'll give you some of that, and if you do sleep, don't you worry none. I'll make sure to wake you when I have to, once we get where we're goin.'"

JD looked up, amazed by the compassionate man before him. "We?"

"Of course, son. I'm not gonna let you ride out there on your own. We'll take my wagon, so's you can rest some, and then we'll ride once we get closer. We've got plenty of time, JD. Now, let me give you a hand and we'll put you to bed…it's a site more comfortable than this ole pew."

JD gave the kind preacher a ghost of his usual smile. He would be eternally grateful. "Thank-you, Sam."

"Not at all, son," the preacher replied, as he guided the boy to his room and gently settled him on to his bed.

The boy's weakness, combined with the soft comfort of the preacher's feather bed, finally took its toll. JD fell asleep in a heartbeat. Harris shook his head in wonder, covered the boy with an extra blanket, and smiled.

Not at all, child.

"What'cha mean, he's gone!" Ken Chambers' voice registered surprise, anger, and a hint of panic.

"I mean he's escaped, goddammit!" Pat O'Brien's retort was frustrated. "Little shit climbed out the window." Just like Wilmington, dammit…I should have known better. The doctor kept his self-recriminating thoughts private.

"Shit, what are we gonna do about him? Do you want me to go look for 'im?" Chambers was none-too-pleased with the boy's escape.

Chambers was nervously pacing the room, annoying the doctor immensely. O'Brien finally grabbed the lawman by his wrist and jerked him to a stop. "Mr. Chambers, as much as the boy's escape displeases me, I don't see how it really interferes with our plans."

Chambers was about to object, but the doctor silenced him with a glare. "We have the information we needed to obtain from Dunne, so we will proceed as planned. Listen my good man, it's getting too dark and too late to look for him, anyway. The boy is badly wounded. I found blood outside the window and on the ground. Likely he's reopened the wound. He's in no shape to get very far, and even if he tried to get help in town…well, no one is going to take on the town sheriff. We'll be fine. Forget about Dunne. If he did get away to try to warn his friends, we'll likely find his body along the way. He won't make it."

Chambers was skeptical, but pragmatic. Nothin' we can really do now I guess, anyway…'cept ride. He shrugged his shoulders. "All right, Pat. I just hope you're right 'bout that kid. He's tougher than he looks." The lawman sighed. "Better get ourselves ready to go then…the boys'll be meetin' up at the Barber Ranch in two hours. We've gotta ride."

Preacher Sam Harris sat next to his bed, gazing down at the wounded boy, sleeping so peacefully. He was reluctant to wake JD, but knew the kid's sheer stubbornness would ultimately rouse him, if Sam tried to clean the wound while he was still sleeping. He would much rather give the boy some laudanum to lessen the pain of the procedure, still he hated to wake the boy, who looked all of twelve years old laying there.

The preacher smiled. He knew JD was a good bit older than twelve, but watching the boy sleep, with his too long unruly bangs covering his equally-long black lashed eyes…and the fact that he simply wasn't very big…well, even though he knew better, at this moment all Sam could see before him was a helpless child. He laid his palm on the boy's head and smiled again. I'll give him a few more minutes.

After JD had fallen asleep, Sam had taken the time to clean up his altar and remove the evidence of JD's trail of destruction as he had toppled into the altar. The preacher was relieved that neither Ken Chambers nor Patrick O'Brien had come looking for JD, but felt it necessary to clean up the mess, in case someone did come hunting.

Sam had also cut and boiled some cotton sheets to wrap the boy's shoulder in once he finished cleaning it, and he gathered together whatever makeshift medical supplies he could find. There was still plenty of time before he and JD would have to leave, but it was time to look after the boy's bullet-wound. He couldn't put it off any longer.

"JD." Sam gently patted the boy's chest, trying to rouse the obviously exhausted youth. JD slowly began to stir and then suddenly his eyes flew open and he flailed his good arm at the preacher trying to make his fist connect with anything. So much for helpless child, Sam chuckled, as he narrowly missed the right cross aiming for his chin. "JD! It's all right, son. It's Sam…you're safe. Settle down before you hurt yourself," he soothed.

"Huh! " The kid was confused. This latest burst of energy left him panting, but he forced his mind to concentrate and clear the fog. JD looked up at the older man gazing at him, and saw both concern and compassion in his eyes. It had taken a second, but JD recognized his new friend. Sam. Relief washed over him as he settled back against the pillow. His cheeks showed their first hint of color, if only from embarrassment. "Gee Sam, I'm sorry…I guess I thought you were one of the bad guys." JD smiled, but then his eyes clouded. "Shoot Sam, how long did I sleep? We gotta go!"

This time Harris was prepared for JD's attempt to get out of bed, so he was able to restrain the boy quickly. "Son, we're still doin' just fine for time. I only let you sleep about twenty minutes. Now, it's almost time for me to work on that shoulder of yours. I've got some laudanum right here for you boy. Let's have you take some and then in ten or fifteen minutes, I'll hafta get started, okay?"

JD nodded his head. "Okay, Sam, but we gotta talk about where we're gonna head off my friends…in case…in case I pass out." The kid was serious now, all business.

The preacher relented. He knew the teen wasn't going to let him work on his shoulder until they had a plan laid out. Sam had learned quickly that there was no point in arguing with one JD Dunne.

In a matter of minutes JD and Sam had devised their plan. JD wanted to meet his friends, before they picked up O'Brien. JD was certain Chris would stop at a large watering hole on his way to the meet about an hour west of the Yuma/Chaparral junction. Even though it was less than two hours from the likely site of the ambush, which had a better water supply, Chris would still stop there. The leader preferred frequent short stops for watering the horses, rather than tanking them up less often. It was better for the horses. He was positive that Chris would stop at both.

JD and Sam, who were east of the ambush site, would have to detour around it on their way to the farther watering hole, in case O'Brien's men were setting up well in advance of the ambush. Riding in a wagon would slow them down, but JD couldn't convince Sam that he would be perfectly capable of riding any horse, including the jittery one Sam said he was training for his nephew, no matter how bad he was feeling. Sam wouldn't hear of it, and JD knew deep down that Sam was right. He'd likely be unconscious when it came time to leave, but JD just hated the idea of getting anywhere slower than he had to. It simply went against his grain.

"All right, JD. Now that we're done plannin,' let's give you some of this medicine, and while we're waitin' for it to work, I'll go get the horses and wagon ready for our little adventure." The preacher gave JD some laudanum and helped the boy lay back down in the bed. He smoothed his hand over the boy's brow and whispered, "I'll be right back, son."

As the boy watched Sam's form retreat from the doorway, JD called out to him. "Sam, be careful. Watch your back."

"I will, son. Don't you worry none. We'll have you back with your friends in no time. I bet home sounds mighty good, doesn't it?"

Home. JD had been so hell bent…first on getting revenge against O'Brien, and then just getting out of Churchfield…he had almost forgotten the reason why. Home. Brothers. JD smiled a bittersweet smile. Buck. I wanna come home, Buck. JD's eyes were getting heavy again, but he could still feel the trickle of the tear that had escaped from one of them. Better be in one piece when I get there, Buck. The boy sleepily realized that Sam had asked him a question…home…but the laudanum was already taking affect, and JD could only nod his head and mutter, "Um hum."

But, it ain't worth it if you're not gonna be there, big brother.

Sam returned to JD's side to find the boy awake, but just barely. The laudanum, combined with JD's own exhaustion, was taking effect. Good…boy needs his rest.

JD smiled as he saw Sam approach, and the preacher felt gratified. Even in the face of certain pain, the boy could smile. "All right, JD. Are you ready for this, son?"

"As I'll ever be, Sam. Go ahead." JD's smile disappeared and Sam could read fear in the boy's eyes, but the fear was quickly replaced with determination.

For JD, the procedure and the agony were short-lived. His weary body couldn't hold out, and mercifully he passed out as soon as the preacher poured alcohol into his reopened bullet-wound. The boy cried out briefly, but the darkness had claimed him just as quickly, and Sam was left to clean out the wound, bandage it, and tightly wrap it, without the pleasure of JD's company. Sam didn't mind. Maybe in sleep, the boy could feel safe for just a little while.

Confident that JD's bandages were secure, Sam gently carried the boy out into the night and laid him down in his wagon. He had prepared a soft bed for JD made up of every quilt, blanket and coat he could find. Add to that, all of the feed and grain bags Sam could muster, and JD was supported on all sides with a wall that would keep him from being jostled excessively in the wagon.

Lanterns, food and water were loaded. Sam had already hitched his reliable gelding to the wagon…the horse was steady as can be, either as a carthorse or for riding. His nephew's spirited bay was tied to the back of the wagon. JD had assured Sam he could handle it, and at this point the preacher had no doubt the teen was telling him the truth. Obviously, the boy could handle just about anything.

The preacher found himself smiling once more as he looked down at the sleeping boy. JD was out cold and hadn't moved a muscle, but Sam wasn't worried. This boy was stubborn and would wake when he had to.

Sam climbed aboard his wagon and headed off into the night. It was time to reunite JD Dunne with his family.

Almost two hours before their rendezvous with the regiment, and well ahead of schedule, six worn-out gunslingers arrived at the last watering hole they would stop at prior to the pick-up. The mood was serious and conversation was at a minimum. The only exceptions had been Vin, and later Josiah, reporting to Chris as they rode perimeter, watching out for potential trouble.

Within seconds of their arrival, Buck had dismounted and led his gray to the far end of the pond. He was clearly shutting his friends out and keeping to himself, but Buck was far from alone. He was carrying his memories of the kid close to his heart, and battling the demons of guilt and anger, overwhelming him.

Chris Larabee stretched his aching body and then gazed across the water, watching as his oldest friend settled against a boulder, and rested his arms and head upon bent knees. The image was a too painful reminder of how Buck looked moments after their arrival at the canyon…after they discovered what had happened to JD. Buck looked so lost, and Chris ached to see his friend suffering so much. Chris looked away. It was too painful to watch his friend grieve, and since Chris could feel the intensity of Buck's pain so strongly, he also felt that in some way he was imposing on Buck's privacy, by just being there.

Chris turned away only to come face to face with Vin Tanner. The older gunslinger jumped, and then smiled slightly. "Shoot, Vin, you've gotta learn not to sneak up on your friends like that."

The tracker's familiar slow grin formed, but the sparkle was missing from his eyes. "Hell Chris, you were so caught up in watchin' Buck, a herd a buffalo coulda snuck up on ya." Vin was readying himself for another scouting ride, but like Chris, was compelled to check on Buck, if only from a distance. Vin looked towards the lone figure across the pond, and Chris could see his friend's eyes mist. The younger man sighed. "He's takin' this awful hard…sure wish there was somethin' we could do for'im."

Chris smiled. He knew how much Vin was missing JD, too. Hell, they all were. The only thing preventing the rest of the men from expressing their own grief was Buck…worrying for him, and knowing that no matter how great their pain, multiplying it ten-fold would barely touch on the depth of Buck's despair. Chris laid his hand on Vin's shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

"Aw, pard…nothin' short of bringin' JD back could fix up Buck…that's what he needs." Chris lowered his gaze as he felt his own eyes fill. "Time will help, Vin…if we can hang on to him."

Vin lightly squeezed his friend's arm. "We will, pard. We will."

As the two friends headed back to the clearing, they met up with Ezra, who tipped his hat respectfully. "Gentlemen, if I might offer Mr. Tanner my services and accompany him on this latest excursion…I fear…" The gambler's voice caught, as he looked beyond Chris and Vin to the sight of Buck sitting by the pond. His usually impassive face was etched with concern and compassion. "I fear…" Ezra's struggle continued…his eyes were full. The gambler shrugged his shoulders in defeat. "My apologies…I can't watch…this…not when I know…there's nothing I can do…to help. Could I ride with you, Vin?"

Both Chris and Vin were taken aback by Ezra's words. Not so much by what was said, but rather…how. Ezra never dropped his guard by talking…normal. But Ezra himself was too stricken to keep his mask on. Not now. Chris and Vin both understood. It was as though Ezra felt somehow his usual pretense was an affront to Buck, and especially to JD.

It was true. If only Ezra had let his guard down with the kid. The man of chance felt deep regret…he had missed his chance with JD.

The tracker smiled knowingly at the gambler. Kid, you sure got to us all.

"C'mon, Ezra. I could use the company."

An hour beyond the Yuma/Chaparral junction, Sam found an ideal place to stop the wagon. He imagined that he and the boy were only fifteen or twenty minutes away from the watering hole JD thought his friends would be stopping at, even less on horseback. It was time to wake up the boy, get some food in him and then get him to his family.

The clearing Sam found had cover as well, which would keep them reasonably well hidden. The journey had gone without incident and they were ahead of schedule, all the better for getting the boy up and around before reuniting him with his friends.

Sam couldn't help but wonder about these men. Their reputations were well-known to the preacher…seven gunmen hired to protect the town of Four Corners. And JD was one of them. Incredible.

Watching the boy lay sleeping in the back of his wagon, Sam couldn't envision JD being a part of them, but then, knowing how easily he had succumbed to the boy's will just hours earlier, the preacher could well imagine even hardened gunfighters giving in to JD's appeal. Sam chuckled to himself. They likely didn't have much of a choice.

Harris shook himself out of his reverie and gently tried to rouse the boy. JD was well rested this time, and thankfully, he didn't wake up struggling or afraid.

"Oh, hey, Sam. Have I been out long? Where are we?"

The preacher helped the boy sit up, which did take some effort, and guided JD to the back of the wagon, so that he could climb out. "Son, you've slept the whole time. My guess is we're almost there. How're you feeling, boy?"

JD was still trying to get his bearings and clear his head. The pain-killing effects of the laudanum were still taking hold and dimming his mind in the process. JD tried to move his wounded arm, winced and then smiled. "It feels a lot better, Sam. Thanks. You'd give Nathan some competition if ya came to Four Corners!" The kid's smile was bright.

"Now, son…I thought I might be competition for your preacher-friend, not your doctor-friend," Sam teased.

JD relaxed for the first time in what felt like forever. He laughed. "No offense, Sam, but you might wanna take a look at Josiah, before tryin' to get into any competitions with'im." Thinking of Nathan and Josiah turned JD's thoughts to all of his friends, well Buck mostly, and the boy wondered how they were handling his so-called death. He wondered about all of them, but was worried about Buck. Buck would be in rough shape…the boy not only knew it, he could feel it.

Sam saw JD's expression change to that of melancholy. He sensed that the boy was thinking about his friends, and so he placed a reassuring arm over JD's shoulder. "Son, whatever they're goin' through now, it'll be over soon. We'll get you back together with'em and everything will be just fine."

The kid felt his eyes sting. Embarrassed, he ducked his head, and spoke gratefully. "Thanks, Sam. I mean…not just for sayin' that, but…I mean for everything." The boy smiled.

"It's been my pleasure, son. It truly has." The preacher shifted his arm and patted the boy's head. "Your friends are gonna be mighty proud of you, you know?"

JD frowned. "Got nothin' to be proud of Sam. They were gonna get ambushed, because of me. Might still, if we don't catch up to'em."

Sam was bewildered by the boy's self-reproach. He was amazed that JD simply couldn't comprehend what a remarkable feat he had accomplished. He cupped his hands on both sides of JD's face, to ensure the boy was looking right at him. "Now, son…I don't want to hear any more of that talk. You're dealin' with professional criminals here, boy. Don't be mad at yourself for bein' fooled by'em. JD, they've got a whole town convinced that you're dead somehow…your friends included. Now, are you mad at them for being outsmarted?"

JD shook his head, no. "Well then why would you be mad at yourself? If six older and experienced gunfighters could be fooled, why would you expect anything different from yourself? Look, son…they fooled all us townsfolk in Churchfield, too! They obviously know what they're doing when it comes to deceivin' folk, JD…but you still managed to beat 'em. You escaped." Sam could see a smile forming on the teen's face, and even in the dim light provided by the campfire, Sam could see the boy blush.

JD whispered his thanks and his smile became bright. Sam was relieved. Fool boy can't even see what he's done. The preacher ushered JD closer to the campfire he had made upon their arrival, and began serving the boy his meal.

JD was famished, but still ate sparingly, remembering just how awful his stomach felt the day before. He did feel better for having some food in his system though, and despite the ache in his shoulder, JD felt quite rejuvenated. He was more than ready to move on and find his friends.

Ezra and Vin crested a rise and were about to turn back to rejoin their friends when Vin's keen eyes spotted what appeared to be a campfire in the distance. "Hold up, Ezra," he drawled. "Let's head on down a ways. I think I see somethin.'"

The two men carried on down the slope, stopping midway, finding reasonable cover behind some large shade trees. Ezra could now see the fire, and turned his attention to Vin, who he knew would be viewing the scene through his spyglass.

The gambler couldn't help but notice how intensely the tracker was looking through the glass. He watched Vin shudder in his saddle, lowering his glass and shaking his head and then hurriedly returning the glass to his eye.

Can't be. Vin blinked his eyes and peered through the spyglass for a third time. He felt his chest tighten and a lump rise in his throat. His imagination was running away on him and his heart raced. Despite the darkness of the pre-dawn, the campfire was illuminating the scene before him. Vin felt his heart clench as he watched the silhouette of a smaller longhaired figure get up and slowly walk over to one of only two horses the tracker could see. Although the movements of the longhaired man were somewhat unsteady, Vin would recognize his mannerisms and the way he approached and handled the horse, anywhere. JD. But, it can't be…it can't be.

Vin jerked in his saddle as he felt a hand rest on his shoulder. "Are you all right, Vin?" The gambler was genuinely concerned. Vin was visibly shaken and had paled considerably in the time Ezra was observing him.

Vin blinked and turned to his friend. "We're goin' down there, Ezra. I wanna check somethin' out."

"Do you think some of O'Brien's men are down there, my friend?"

"Not sure what to think, Ezra, but I wanna check it out, anyways." Vin had no intention whatsoever in letting Ezra know that he thought he had seen JD. It was impossible, after all, so there was no point in getting his friend worked up about his own wishful thinking. But still the tracker couldn't let the opportunity go by. He veered to the left and advised Ezra to approach from straight on. Vin would sneak in the back way in case of trouble.

Ezra wasn't sure what to think of the usually unflappable tracker's odd behavior, but he trusted his friend's instincts and so carried on towards the campfire.

Upon completion of their quick meal, Sam wandered over to the nearby stream to clean up the dishes and JD began to get acquainted with the big bay Sam was training for his nephew. The horse was a bit skittish at the teen's first approach, but JD's natural affinity with horses came shining through. The pieces of carrot and apple Sam had brought along with sure didn't hurt, either. In mere minutes, JD was handling the horse's sensitive hooves and tail, getting the bay accustomed to his touch. The horse was quickly becoming at ease with the boy and JD was confident that riding it would be a snap. He was about to test this theory when he heard the approach of a rider. Silently cursing himself for not having a gun nearby, JD ducked behind the horse and watched the rider enter the campsite. As the horse, along with the rider's wardrobe, became visible in the firelight, the boy grinned and bounded out from beneath the bay's neck.


The gambler was struck dumb. He gathered enough wherewithal to halt his horse, but then sat staring, mouth agape at the impossible image before him.

So delighted to see one of his friends, alive, safe and well, JD had momentarily forgotten the fact that his friends were under the mistaken impression that he was dead. JD was simply so excited to see Ezra, that in his excitement, he proceeded to do what JD Dunne did best…he rambled.

"Geez, Ezra, you don't know how good it is to see ya…Boy, you're a sight for sore eyes…I was just gettin' ready to go lookin' for everybody…Wait 'til you guys hear what happened…Hey, what are ya doin' out here…You never patrol alone…not on the trail, anyway…Hey, I bet Vin's with ya…Y'out there, Vin?!"

Ezra was still totally, utterly speechless. He couldn't remember when he had felt such joy. As his eyes filled, he watched Vin Tanner approaching from behind JD, holding his gun on an older man whose hands were in the air.

"Um, Ezra, you all right? You look kinda pale…you're not sick, are ya?" JD was oblivious to the tracker's approach until he heard the snap of a twig behind him. JD whirled around and was shocked to see Vin holding his very intimidating mare's leg on his rescuer. The boy was livid. "Jesus, Vin, are you crazy? What do you think you're doin'…let Sam go!"

The tracker did as he was told and released the older man called Sam, sputtering a shy apology and tipping his hat to him. Vin was relieved that this man appeared to be no threat to JD, but that relief was nothing compared the sheer joy of knowing that the kid was standing there in front of him, in all his cock-sure, defiant, adorable and deeply missed glory…giving him hell. The kid could yell at him for the next year…it wouldn't matter. JD was alive. Vin laughed and began grinning from ear to ear.

JD was baffled by the strange way his two partners were behaving. Ezra had finally summoned enough of his faculties together to dismount from his horse and both men were approaching the kid with misty-eyed completely silly expressions on their faces. The kid was getting worried. "What's wrong," he asked, in all sincerity.

Vin immediately choked up as he threw an arm around the kid, drawing him in close for a hug. "God, kid…We thought you were dead, JD," the tracker whispered in JD's ear before he released his hold of the boy. Ezra was right behind him patting the boy on his back and even ruffling his hair.

We thought you were dead. JD froze…the words still echoing in his heart. God, Buck. "Buck." JD looked to his friends, whose faces now reflected the worry in his own. "How is he? Is he all right?"

Vin wrapped his arm around the kid one more time and held on tight. "He will be, kid…he will be."