by May Robinson


Even though exhaustion and grief clouded Buck's mind, he could still sense each time one of his friends stopped to watch him from across the pond. Especially Chris. Damn. He couldn't look up…couldn't face them…knowing how much they were worried about him. Hell, if it were any one of the others guys in this shape, Buck would be worried sick, too. But then, the gunslinger had always been a worrier, anyway. He'd been called a mother hen, a mother grizzly, and worse. He drove Chris crazy worrying about him…and, in doing so, he had driven Chris away.

Buck was always desperately afraid that his overprotectiveness of JD would eventually drive the boy away, too, but he just couldn't help himself…the kid needed lookin' after. And Buck needed to look after JD.

Buck felt his heart clench. Then, how could I have failed him? How it hurt knowing that he failed to keep the boy safe. When Buck had decided to take JD under his wing, he had made that first true commitment of his life. It was a commitment to JD and to himself. Buck's life's work would be to guide and protect the kid and help him grow into the honorable, great man Buck knew JD was capable of becoming. A better man than Buck, by far. It would be the best thing he could ever do in his lifetime and the only thing he could really take pride in.

And yet, he failed.

And now he was going to fail his remaining friends. They were slowly and helplessly watching him die and Buck ached for them, but he couldn't help them this time. He had to think of JD. Like always, JD came first, and there was someplace else Buck had to be.

The gunslinger shifted against the boulder supporting him as he pulled out his pocket watch. Only a few more hours and O'Brien would be his. And then, after, Buck could follow the kid. Buck smiled at the thought and his eyes filled for the hundredth time. Follow the kid. Everyone had said JD was his shadow, but Buck knew it had always been the other way around. It didn't really matter though. Fact was they were inseparable.

Despite his friends' worry for him, Buck knew what he had to do. Even if it hurt them, what he had to do simply wasn't wrong. It couldn't be, because soon, things would be as they should be.

From the moment they met, it had been Buck and the kid…and it always would be.

The four horsemen would be reaching the watering hole in minutes and JD couldn't have been more nervous. Physically he was feeling okay…mastering the bay's gait was easy, even though JD's shoulder did ache and the teen was now sporting a sling. JD was still tired and weak from blood-loss, combined with too much exertion, but none of these troubles were affecting him like the anxiety of having to face Chris and Buck. He wasn't worried about Josiah or Nathan. JD knew Josiah would be really happy to see him, and Nathan would simply fuss over his injuries, like usual.

But Chris...would Chris be mad at him? JD had insisted that Sam accompany them to the watering hole. The boy was worried about his new friend being out on his own while O'Brien's men were on the loose, so JD was adamant that Sam join them. Vin and Ezra didn't object, but then both of them were still acting kind of goofy around JD. The kid couldn't figure it out. They were damn near giddy…like schoolgirls or somethin.' Strange.

JD also wanted Sam with him so the rest of the men, especially Buck, could meet his rescuer. But would that make Chris angry with him? The mission was supposed to be a secret after all, and not only had JD told Sam everything, but the bad guys knew everything now, too. Sam had made JD feel a lot better about being tricked by O'Brien and Chambers, but would his hero be nearly as understanding? The kid was really worried. Disappointing Chris Larabee was nearly the last thing JD would ever want to do.

The last thing that JD would ever want to do would be to see Buck suffer. The boy's chest felt tight and a lump was forming in his throat. Buck would be in bad shape, and even though the kid knew his return would overjoy big brother Buck, JD couldn't help but worry that the damage already done to Buck's heart would be permanent. Even though what happened to JD wasn't Buck's fault, the kid knew Buck would blame himself, just like he blamed himself for what O'Brien had done to those girls and Chris, and just like Buck blamed himself for the loss of Chris' family. JD was going to have to tell his big brother that the man he hated most had hurt him again, and worse…he had done so by hurting his little brother.

The kid shuddered and his mind reeled. Buck's gonna go wild when he finds out O'Brien's behind this. He'll lose control…and do something stupid…like get himself killed. Dammit, Buck!

The kid closed his eyes for a moment to try to settle his fears, but it didn't help. No matter what, this ain't gonna be easy. Damn those O'Briens!

"Hey, kid. You ready? They're just up ahead." Vin Tanner's words startled the kid, but the bright grin on the tracker's face succeeded in combating the boy's nerves. This was going to be a happy moment, after all…very happy. The kid beamed back at Vin, slipped his arm out of its sling, so's not to worry Buck, and nudged the bay into a gallop.

I'm comin,' Buck.

The sound of an approaching rider, moving in fast, prompted Josiah and Nathan to dive behind some nearby trees and take cover. Chris was still by the water, watching Buck, who was apparently unaware of the rider's approach. Larabee ducked down behind some brush, and pulled his gun, waiting on the intruder.

But what Chris saw took his breath away. His eyes darted over to his oldest friend, still lost in grief and in his memories of the boy, and Chris' eyes filled, as he unconsciously muttered a prayer. "JD...Thank God!"

Nathan and Josiah watched in utter amazement as the unknown horse, but miraculously familiar rider, cleared the bank and effortlessly landed in the clearing beside them. The boy looked worn-out, battered and bruised, but beautiful just the same. The preacher and the healer stumbled out from behind the trees and approached the horse and rider, while Chris Larabee held back, taking in the moment.

The boy's eyes sparkled and he hopelessly tried to contain his grin, as he addressed his friends with one very memorable, often abused, and forever more cherished greeting.

"I hear you fellas are headin' for a fight…My name is JD Dunne and I can ride…"

Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish followed behind the kid. "And he can shoot," the tracker laughed.

Standish continued in the fun. "And he can fly."

Josiah couldn't hold back his elation any longer. The preacher turned his eyes heavenward and whispered, "and he can walk on water," before rushing to the still-mounted boy, grabbing him around the waist and easily swinging JD down into his arms wrapping the kid in a smothering embrace. JD laughed with Josiah's effort, but the big man's voice was rough with emotion. "Dear God, we thought we lost you, son."

The preacher continued to hold onto the boy, who could feel the depth of emotion coming from his friend. "I know, Josiah. I know. I'm sorry." The boy's words were muffled against Josiah's chest, and succeeded only in having Josiah hold on even tighter, if that was possible. JD could feel tears starting to well, but he wasn't embarrassed…Josiah was crying too.

With Nathan hovering and patting the boy on the back, Josiah finally relinquished his hold of JD. Still needing to maintain the contact, he shifted his big hand to the boy's shoulder. JD couldn't prevent the gasp as his wound protested Josiah's weight. Alarmed, Josiah immediately released his grip.

"JD, you hurt, boy?" Nathan's bright smile had changed to a worried frown.

"'S okay…took a bullet, but I'm all right now. Sam fixed…" The boy stopped mid-sentence and frantically looked around him. He turned to Vin and Ezra. "Sam! Where's Sam?"

"Take it easy, JD," Vin drawled. "Sam stayed back a ways, figuring on us wantin' some privacy for a bit. Reckon he was right, don't you?" The boy smiled and nodded his head, grateful for Sam's thoughtfulness. "I'll go fetch him in a minute," the tracker continued.

Momentarily distracted by the mention of this 'Sam,' Nathan quickly redirected his focus on JD and began poking and prodding the kid, despite JD's assurances that his friend Sam had taken good care of him. However, since caring for JD's injuries was second nature to Nathan, he insisted on examining the kid.

Ezra immediately noted the look of distress on the boy's face as he watched JD's eyes dart about him…undoubtedly searching for his brother and his hero. The gambler placed a firm hand on the healer's arm, pulling him back from JD. Nathan shot him a withering glance, but Ezra's words eased his wrath.

"My dear Mr. Jackson, young Mr. Dunne has yet again demonstrated his extraordinary propensity for survival. Although I am quite certain our youngest associate requires your ministrations, might I suggest that you refrain from prolonging his examination until such time that he has seen to the more pressing matters requiring his attention." The gambler turned to the boy and smiled warmly. "Let JD attend to his brother, Nathan."

"Buck. Where is he?" The boy's whispered words were a plea.

"I'll take you to him." Chris Larabee's voice was barely audible, but the emotion laced in his words shook the ground.

The boy faced his hero, who had remained distant from the group. JD's entourage backed away, allowing JD access to their leader. As JD approached Chris, he was mystified by the expression on the older man's face. Although obviously tired, Chris' features looked softer suddenly, even his normally piercing blue eyes held a welcoming warmth. As JD stared into his hero's eyes, he realized they were glistening. The boy stopped and stared in disbelief as he watched a single tear trail down the legendary gunfighter's cheek. JD was truly amazed.

Chris Larabee held out his hand to the boy…just as he had done so often with his own son. And though his heart ached for the boy he had lost, it soared for the boy before him. JD had come home.

JD's eyes were fixated on Chris' hand…a hand not extended in friendship, but rather a parent's hand…reaching out for him, just as his mother had done so often. JD continued his approach until the two were just a step away from each other. Hesitantly, the boy placed his hand in Chris' grasp and looked up searchingly into his hero's eyes…eyes which glowed with a warmth JD had never seen before. Chris squeezed JD's hand and then drew the boy into him, resting his cheek atop JD's head, and holding him tight.

JD had never felt safer.

"C'mon, kid." Chris finally relinquished his hold on JD and drew the boy to his side. His eyes still glistened, as did JD's, but Chris' jaw was set. "Let's go find Buck, son."

"Where is he, Chris?" The boy's words were a whisper, but Chris could hear the fear and pain in JD's voice. He couldn't help smiling, just a little, knowing that the kid worried about Buck damn near as much as his oldest friend worried about JD. Quite the kid. He shook his head. No, quite the pair.

Chris placed his hands on JD's shoulders and gently turned him around to face the pond. As JD looked across the water and caught sight of Buck, the boy cringed and Chris could have sworn he heard JD whimper. Chris understood. It truly was a painful sight. Buck had barely moved. He was still reclined against the boulder; knees drawn up, now with his head in his hands, totally unaware that the boy he was mourning so deeply was practically within his reach. From this distance, even a blind man could see that Buck was the embodiment of anguish.

Watching Buck, Chris couldn't prevent a lump from forming in his throat, even though he knew that in just minutes, Buck's anguish would turn to absolute joy.

Any thoughts Chris had of escorting JD over to Buck were abandoned as he felt the boy tense and then suddenly bolt from his grip. "Kid, take it easy. He's had a rough…" Chris had no idea if the boy had heard or would heed his warning. JD could run like the wind if he wanted to and there was no doubt he wanted to now. The gunslinger shrugged his shoulders and began to make his way back to his other men, hoping that Vin or Ezra could fill him in on JD's undoubtedly remarkable story.

As Chris returned to the clearing, he kept his back to the scene unfolding across the water, unwilling to intrude on it, but reveling in it just the same.

Buck could hear the sound of someone running towards him through the tall grass and brush. He thought for a moment that he should be paying attention, pull his gun even, but it was becoming all too clear that he really just didn't give a damn anymore. He didn't bother to look up.

The running footsteps halted just a few feet away from Buck and he could hear ragged breaths coming from the runner. Buck's heart faltered for an instant as he wondered how the sound of the breathing could seem oddly familiar. He was finally about to give in to curiosity, when he heard the voice…

"Dammit, Buck. Would you look at me, already?!" JD was gasping for air, out of breath and his heart was about to explode from excitement, apprehension, and now, a little aggravation. But even still, JD had never been so happy to see anyone in his life.

And Buck Wilmington was stunned. He was frozen in place, unable to speak or to move. Hell, he could barely breathe. And so Buck remained, huddled against the boulder, looking up at the boy, staring at the miracle before him…the goddamned miracle standing right there in front of him…and still Buck couldn't even blink, let alone move…for fear that the image before him wasn't truly a miracle, but perhaps only a dream.

Buck tilted his head to the side and looked up again at the boy. My God, this is really happening.



JD began to smile as he witnessed the transformation in Buck's eyes. They were at first frighteningly desolate, then dazed…but now they were coming to life. JD cautiously approached and although still in shock, Buck was watching JD's every move. As reality finally began to win over disbelief, unabashed tears began to stream down Buck's face.

Moved beyond belief, JD knelt down in front of Buck and rested his hand on his brother's arm. The boy looked into Buck's eyes and smiled a sweet smile.

"I hear you lost somethin,'" the kid whispered.

Buck choked out a quiet laugh, still unable to speak, and reached out with one trembling hand to touch the boy's face. As Buck brushed the wayward bangs away from JD's worried gaze, two days of grief, pain, fear and finally joy, caught up with the boy. JD lowered his head into Buck's hand and closed his eyes, tears spilling down his cheeks. And Buck finally found his voice. He shifted his hand to JD's neck and gently held on. "Oh God, I thought so, kid." Buck's voice was rough with emotion. "I thought I lost you."

And then Buck Wilmington smiled. "Come 'ere, son."

JD knew it was coming…hell, he wanted one more than he could ever imagine. And still, when it came, he was so completely overwhelmed. In an instant, the boy was wrapped in Buck's arms and pulled to the ground in a crushing embrace. Buck murmured his thanks to God repeatedly and shuddered as he held the boy close. And JD hung on for life, never once considering letting go, as Buck held him in his arms…exactly where JD wanted to be.

Buck continued to hold the boy, gently rocking him, as much for his own comfort as JD's. But when clarity began to creep its way into his mind, and he realized that the kid wasn't resisting at all like he normally would, Buck began to do what came naturally…worry…about JD.

With one last affectionate squeeze, Buck hoisted himself off of the ground and pulled the boy up with him. Unwilling to let go just yet, Buck held the boy's arms in each of his strong hands. He stepped back from JD, in order to take a good look at the boy. And what he saw made his heart hurt. JD's naturally fair skin was even more pallid than usual, and had an unhealthy feverish sheen. The boy's usually bright eyes had dark circles under them and his hands and face were covered in scratches, scrapes and bruises. Most alarmingly for Buck however, was the presence of a sling hanging loose around the boy's neck combined with the sickeningly familiar appearance of red and brown splotches on the boy's shirt.

"Aw, Jesus, kid. You did get hurt. What in hell happened, son?"

JD's throat constricted, as unwilling as his heart to utter the words he feared would throw Buck into a rage. The boy swallowed hard, and looked up into the anxious gaze of his best friend and big brother.

"Now Buck, you gotta promise me you'll listen to everything I tell ya and not go off half-cocked, okay?" The boy looked pleadingly at his friend. "Buck, I know this is really gonna upset ya, but I'm all right…you can see that…I'm all right. You gotta stay calm, okay?!"

Buck didn't at all like where this was heading, but he attempted to control his building dread. JD had obviously been through an ordeal and he didn't need to add to it by having the kid worry about his temper. He swallowed heavily and gave the boy's arms a reassuring squeeze, "I'll be good, kid. Just tell me what happened, son."

JD closed his eyes a moment trying to think of the easiest way to tell Buck his story. Finding nothing in the truth that would lessen the impact, JD began. "Buck, when I went for that ride, I ended up out by the canyon. Someone shot me out there, Buck…still don't know who did it, but I know who they were working for." JD couldn't help but wince as he prepared to utter his next words. "It was O'Brien, Buck. I woke up in Churchfield, at Patrick O'Brien's place."

Buck's eyes grew wide and he felt his knees buckle. O'Brien. Oh, Christ, no! Buck felt as though he'd stepped into his worst nightmare. The knowledge that one of the O'Brien brothers had had his hands on JD horrified him. He began to quake. Buck cupped his hands around the boy's face and hunched down to look into JD's eyes. His voice was tight with hatred and fear. "Kid…did that f***ing maniac do anything to you? Did he hurt you!?"

JD could feel Buck's fury, and the kid knew he had to calm his friend down. He pulled away from Buck's grip and pushed Buck's hands away as they reached for him again. "Buck…you said you'd stay calm. I…I told you, already…I'm all right. You gotta believe me…please!"

JD did it again. His pleading hazel eyes succeeded in settling Buck down, at least some. The big-hearted gunslinger took a deep breath…he couldn't handle being responsible for the worry written all over the kid's face. "Okay, kid…I believe you. Now, you wanna tell me everything? Talk to me, kid. I'll behave this time," he sighed.

The kid smiled. He did believe Buck. JD let out a sigh of relief and began recounting the harrowing events of his ordeal in Churchfield. To Buck's credit, he remained quiet and relatively calm, but JD could see the distress in Buck's face as he listened to the boy's words. And JD could see the pain in Buck's eyes as he shared in the anguish of the boy being told that he had lost his friends and his big brother. As always, Buck and JD shared each other's pain, but now they shared something else…their hatred for the O'Briens.

Buck's heart and soul ached for the boy and for what he had been through. He drew JD into a gentle hug, eternally grateful that JD had gotten away and had found a friend in Sam…someone who had taken care of the boy, where Buck had failed to protect him. "I'm so sorry, son," he whispered, as he held the boy close. "God, I'm so sorry, kid."

Buck's whispered apology hit the kid hard. JD was so incredibly happy to be back with his family…back with his big brother, and he'd be damned if he let the O'Briens ruin his reunion by letting Buck wallow in misplaced guilt. He immediately jerked away from Buck. "Dammit, Buck. Don't you dare apologize for this. It ain't your fault. It just ain't!"

The kid's eyes blazed and he shoved Buck with both of his hands…harder probably than he should have, but he wanted to make sure he had the mule-stubborn man's attention. "Buck, you listen to me…the only ones to blame here are the O'Brien gang, okay?! Look, grabbin' me had nothin' to do with you 'n me. They just grabbed the first of the Seven they could get their hands on. And…and I think we're lucky it was me, 'cause one of the others might not've known O'Brien from your story like I did. Right?!"

Buck didn't like it, but begrudgingly he had to admit that the kid was talking sense. He had no idea if in Chris' version of the story, the leader had gone into great detail about his own encounter with Patrick O'Brien and his subsequent escape from the doctor. Damned if the kid might not be right.

JD relaxed as he watched the big man do the same. The boy slipped his bad arm back into its sling and his other arm around Buck's waist. He looked up into his brother's shining eyes, smiled and whispered, "Tellin' me that story saved me, Buck…you saved my life."

Buck's eyes filled for about the millionth time that day. God, how he loved this kid. Swallowing the lump that had taken up permanent residence in his throat, Buck ruffled the kid's hair before slinging his arm around JD's neck, drawing him close and ushering the boy back to the clearing.

"No, kid…I think you got that backwards, son."

When Buck and JD returned to the clearing, they were met with broad smiles from everyone. Much to JD's amazement, Chris was still smiling, even after finding out from Vin and Ezra that JD had disclosed the details of the mission to O'Brien and Chambers.

JD tried to apologize to his hero for revealing these secrets, but Chris would have nothing of it, and only apologized to the kid in return for being duped as well.

Larabee did feel true remorse. He shuddered as his mind strayed into what if territory…what if JD hadn't escaped; what if Doc O'Brien had had more time with JD; and what if William O'Brien had gotten hold of the boy? The Seven were damn lucky JD was as bright, resourceful and just plain stubborn as he was. Chris smiled at the object of his reverie, as he watched the kid enthusiastically leading Buck over to introduce him to Sam Harris. Damn lucky.

Chris sent a silent prayer of thanks to heaven and then wandered over to Vin who was leading the others in devising a revised plan of action. The peacekeepers would have to rendezvous with the regiment as scheduled, but they would obviously have to alter their route to avoid the ambush. That was just fine. The gunslingers had a newfound purpose regarding the mission, anyway. They were no longer leaving the assumed gunfight and ensuing military involvement to chance…They would take control and lead the gang into a trap. The O'Brien gang would pay for hurting their youngest.

The Seven had a score to settle.

Vin had backtracked to find Sam Harris shortly after JD had raced over to greet Buck. The tracker had brought Sam back with him to the clearing whereupon Churchfield's preacher had been welcomed with glowing praise and deepest appreciation. When Sam had looked into the faces of these men…notorious and dangerous men…and listened to their warm accolades, he had felt a deep sense of warmth and relief, accepting that JD was in the care of good men who were as attached to the boy, as he was to them.

And none more than Buck Wilmington. As JD hurriedly pulled the big man along with him to meet Sam, the preacher couldn't help but marvel at the boy's exuberance, especially after all he'd been through. With one look at Wilmington's face, the preacher could see the strain and just how much the man had suffered and now rejoiced for the boy, and yet, here he was being dragged along like a weary father, unwilling to deny the kid anything.

As JD and his best friend approached the preacher, Buck stepped ahead of the kid to address Sam Harris.

"Mr. Harris, JD's told me everything you did for him. I can't tell you how thankful I…we all are to you for lookin' after him like ya did." Sam was struck by the degree of emotion expressed in the big man's quiet voice, but the gunslinger's eyes revealed so much more…eternal debt.

Buck's eyes welled once again and he lowered his head, trying to regain his composure. After a moment, Buck raised his head and his eyes still glistened. The gunslinger spoke softly. "Sir, I am…indebted to you…always, for helping this kid…" Buck reached out for JD and drew the boy just in front of him so that they both were facing the preacher. And as Buck spoke, he hung on to the boy, who had shifted his gaze up to his friend, as entranced by the heartfelt sincerity of Buck's words as Sam was. "Sam…I mean this…you need anything… just holler…any time…it don't matter the reason…JD 'n me'll be there."

Sam graciously accepted Buck's offer and gratitude. He looked at the boy who was wearing a broad grin, and nodding his head in complete accord with his friend's pledge. The preacher then looked to Buck, who had not relinquished his hold of the boy, and whose absolute devotion to JD was so very obvious.

Sam Harris was a happy man. The preacher knew in all certainty that JD, who so quickly and innocently worked his way into his own heart, was back home, in the best of hands.

Buck, Sam and JD returned to the others who were reviewing their new strategy. The new plan was to ride hard and fast to meet the regiment, since they were now running behind schedule, and then to by-pass the site of the ambush, and instead head for Spencer Pass, an area Vin was very familiar with. Spencer Pass provided difficult terrain for a larger group to maneuver quickly, plenty of cover, plus a handy box canyon…ideal for the Seven to create their own surprise for the O'Brien gang, who were sure to follow.

Sam watched in fascination as the peacekeepers plotted their strategy, and he couldn't help but be surprised that JD was now sitting very quietly, head down, not participating at all in the discussions. The boy simply looked sad.

Harris was absolutely right. But he wasn't the only one to notice.

As the men began readying their horses, Buck couldn't prevent his eyes from drifting to JD. The kid who had suffered so much, and who lived only for adventure and to ride with the Seven. Damn. This ain't just my fight, anymore. With a heavy heart, the tall gunslinger walked over to the leader of the group.

"Chris, what are we gonna do with that boy?" Buck spoke in a whisper, but Larabee could still catch the anxiety in his oldest friend's voice.

The leader chanced a glance at the boy, who was now watching both of them…wearing a look of utter dejection. "Pard, I don't like the idea of him bein' out here on his own. No tellin' if O'Brien's got men still in town or out on patrol. They'd grab him again, for sure." He placed a strong hand on his friend's shoulder. "Buck, I think it's best if he rides with us, don't you?"

Damn. Buck chuckled slightly. "I was afraid you were gonna say that. Yeah, you're right. But Jesus, Chris…I still don't want him anywhere near those crazy sons of bitches."

Chris squeezed his friend's shoulder. "I know, pard…I know. But we've got a good plan goin' here. It'll work." Larabee locked eyes with his friend. "And we will keep him safe." The leader's words were his vow.

Buck closed his eyes for a moment, trying to chase away thoughts of JD in danger, again. He reopened his eyes and straightened his shoulders. "Yeah, he'll be safe with us. All right, pard. Let's do this."

As the discussion broke up and Chris and Buck headed for their horses, JD raised up and followed his best friend. He honestly didn't want to upset Buck again or start a fight, but he also wanted to be heard. JD had to make Buck understand that he needed to ride with his friends this time. As Buck swung onto his gray, JD grabbed his reins. "Hold up, Buck. We need to talk."

The older man looked down at the troubled youth, whose face he could read so well. Buck swallowed his smile. "No time for jawin' kid. I gotta ride!" Buck watched the look of stubborn defiance cross the kid's face. God, how he'd missed that! Wilmington's grin was beginning to show itself, which only succeeded in aggravating JD, further.

"Well, I gotta talk to ya. I'm serious, Buck!"

"Well, I'm bein' serious, too, kid. And I ain't got the time." Buck paused…for effect. "Now are ya ridin' with us, or what?"

"Huh?!" Until JD uttered this familiar word, he hadn't realized he and Buck had an audience. The snickers were his first clue. He looked suspiciously at his friends, who were now all smiling knowingly at him.

"You comin,' kid," Buck repeated.

JD knew he should be angry. He had obviously missed the joke, because…as usual…he was the center of it. But, JD simply couldn't get angry when he was feeling just the opposite. The boy wasn't yet in Four Corners, but it sure felt like he was home, just the same. The boy squared his shoulders and shot his friends a blinding grin. "Try and keep…"

"Oh, Jesus, kid! Don't say it." Vin interrupted the boy before he could complete another of his patented phrases. The boy looked at the tracker, confused. "C'mon JD, look at the trouble you got into the last time you said that!" Vin smiled slowly and winked at the kid. And JD beamed back.

Yup, he was home.

And it felt damn good.

The Seven, plus Sam Harris, had arrived at the military rendezvous point without a hitch, and with just a few minutes to spare. Chris Larabee had had mixed feelings about Sam riding with them. These were some of the same concerns he and Buck had shared about JD’s involvement in the mission. On the one hand, Chris was worried about Sam getting caught in the cross-fire during the impending gunfight with the O’Brien gang, but on the other hand, sending Sam off on his own, when God knew how many O’Brien men were out there scouting for the Seven, was an equally disturbing option. Chris always preferred safety in numbers and so had elected to keep Sam with them, much to the delight of one JD Dunne.

The fact that Sam had been stubbornly insistent on seeing his own personal mission through…that is, getting JD back to Four Corners in one piece…had had a significant impact on Chris’ ultimate decision too, whether he chose to admit it or not. Larabee marveled at the boy’s ability to find guardians around every corner. It was amazing. But Chris took some comfort in the knowledge that maybe he wasn’t becoming nearly as gullible as he had thought, and that perhaps JD was just simply irresistible.

During the rendezvous, Colonel Mason Reeves had transferred the prisoner, William ‘The Fox’ O’Brien, over to Chris Larabee without ceremony and without incident. Reeves had advised the men that O’Brien had been a model prisoner, and that ‘The Fox’ had made no escape attempts, had caused no delay in their scheduling, and in fact, had kept quiet, unless spoken to, the entire time he had been in the company of the regiment. Reeves had anticipated smooth sailing for Larabee and his men.

He was wrong.

Not ten minutes beyond the transfer, William O’Brien began to speak, with absolutely no intention whatsoever of shutting up. "Well, hello, Buck." ~ "It’s been a long time, Buck." ~ "How long has it been, Buck?" ~ "Not since El Paso, wasn’t it? No…that’s right, Yuma. Wasn’t it, Buck?"

And then William O’Brien would laugh.

To his credit, Buck kept his cool, even though his soul was erupting like a volcano. Wilmington remembered the pain and guilt of watching a bank guard cut down in cold blood. And he remembered two beautiful girls dying for naught. All three murdered at the hands of this monster. And Buck remembered the pain of watching his best friend fall…shot in the back, by this same monster.

As Buck remembered Chris’ painful recovery and his own agony in having to explain to Adam why his pa couldn’t play with him or take him for a ride, Buck remembered hate.

But Buck shut his thoughts away from JD's ordeal in the hands of the monster's equally mad brother. To think about it could far too easily drive him to kill O'Brien.

So Buck kept his cool. He knew there would be justice.

But O’Brien kept on talking, until finally, he said the wrong thing. "Hey Buck. Who’s the kid?"

And Buck Wilmington lost his cool. For a split second, there had been silence, and seven men had held their collective breaths…until Buck exploded.

The roar that emerged from Buck was savage, and he attacked O’Brien with merciless force. The enraged gunslinger literally dove off of his mount and hurled O’Brien to the ground in one swift motion.

With one implied threat to Buck’s kid brother, two days of gut-wrenching agony, coupled with twenty years of suppressed hate, converged in Buck’s soul, and found release in Buck's fists. And Buck Wilmington began to beat the hell out of Bill O’Brien.

O’Brien was handcuffed and essentially defenseless, but despite the inequity of the fight, Larabee and the others let Buck vent his rage…for a minute or two. Unfortunately it would have been easier for Larabee to explain shooting O’Brien to Judge Travis than it would be to explain how, while in their care, O’Brien suffered a beating. Chris simply couldn’t let it go on. As Larabee considered breaking up the fray, allowing Buck time to throw just one more right, a very frightened JD Dunne dove on Buck, trying desperately to pull his best friend off of the prisoner.

JD was truly unnerved. He had never seen Buck so out of control. But, although the boy understood the root of his friend’s rage, he felt he had to get Buck off of O’Brien. And so JD kept on pulling.

In the heat of his fury, Buck turned on JD and very nearly punched the boy. Buck didn’t, of course, but how close he came to doing so appalled him. One look at JD’s bewildered hazel eyes, and trembling lower lip, and Buck was finished. He pulled back from O’Brien, who scrambled away like a cowering pup, and Buck turned his attention back to the boy. JD’s eyes still showed fear and concern, and Buck wanted desperately to erase the boy’s worries, but he needed to catch his breath, first.

Buck was on his knees, gasping from physical exertion, and moreso from his emotional release, when he sensed that JD had moved to his side, kneeling with him…obviously uncertain what to do next.

JD finally placed a hand on Buck’s heaving shoulder, and a relieved Buck reached up and squeezed it with his own. He knew he had scared the hell out of the kid, which was the last thing he would ever want to do. "I’m sorry, kid. You know I’d never hit ya, son," the older man breathed.

JD nodded his head. "I know," he whispered.

"Are you okay?" The question was asked in unison, as were the smiles that followed.

They were okay.

JD began to help a still shaky Buck up off of the ground, and Buck accepted the boy’s support, hanging onto the kid, for leverage, and for his own comfort. JD didn’t mind. He was doing the same.

Chris called out to Nathan to assess O’Brien’s injuries and upon doing so, the healer deemed O'Brien able to travel. And so the procession continued, with one major adjustment.

William O’Brien was wearing a gag.

The Seven, and company, had successfully detoured around the watering hole where O'Brien's gang would be, in theory, waiting to ambush them. The plan had been to bypass the site, but to leave clear tracks alerting the gang to their route. The Seven were maintaining a steady pace, hoping to keep themselves at least an hour ahead of their would-be pursuers. An hour would give them ample opportunity to set up their own trap for the gang, plus find safe cover for Sam, the prisoner, and JD, once they reached Spencer Pass.

Chris swallowed the lump sitting in his throat. JD wasn't going to be happy about that decision. Both Chris and Buck had changed their minds about JD's involvement in the fight. Despite the fact that the kid now had as much reason as Buck to fight, they wanted the kid hidden away in one of the many caves found in The Pass, as far away from the gunfight as possible. For one thing, the kid was really hurting, whether he'd care to admit it or not. For another, JD was still the perfect target for either of the O'Briens to use to turn the tide in their favor. If the kid got hurt or grabbed, the Seven would clearly be vulnerable, and both O'Briens had a nasty liking for vulnerable.

Larabee looked over at JD, who currently had the undivided attention of Buck, Nathan and Sam Harris. Unfortunately it wasn't the kind of attention JD so often craved. The three older men were hovering over the boy, who was actually holding up remarkably well to their scrutiny, and to his injuries. Still, Nathan was checking his shoulder and admonishing the kid to keep his arm in its sling, at least until it was time to start shooting.

Shooting. Chris wasn't very happy at the moment. He had no idea yet what the odds were going to be, but he could only assume the worst. This was why he and the rest of his men were stopped now, waiting on Vin. The leader had sent his best friend out alone to backtrack and check if the gang was indeed following them, and also to try to determine just how many men were on their trail. The Seven would have the advantage of cover and position at The Pass, but there was no question that the O'Brien gang would have power in sheer numbers. Chris stared into the horizon, willing Vin to hurry the hell up. Vin was more than capable of taking care of himself, but Chris still wasn't happy at all about the tracker being the vulnerable one at the moment.

Chris straightened up in his saddle as his eyes caught a glimpse of a rider in the distance. His relief was obvious as he instinctively recognized Vin, however the relief was short-lived when he realized just how hard Vin was pushing his horse.

The other men had caught sight of Vin almost as soon as Chris had, and were now gathering around their leader, awaiting Vin's arrival.

The tracker arrived in a cloud of dust and veered his horse to a stop in front of his uneasy partners. Vin was breathless. "Fellas, we gotta ride!" Vin turned his attention to Larabee. "Damn they're good, Chris. There's upwards of thirty of 'em and they're no more than twenty/thirty minutes behind us."

Not good. Larabee's jaw reflexively clenched, but he remained all business. "Guns, Vin?"

"Lots of 'em. They've got a wagon with'em too, but it won't get there as fast as the riders, and dependin' on if any slides happened lately at The Pass, their wagon may not make it through." The tracker's slow grin began to form. "I reckon they got plenty more'n we do, though."

Chris turned to his men, unwavering determination etched on his face. "All right. We'll do this like we planned, but we're gonna hafta do it faster, so let's ride!"

With Chris in the lead, the men nudged their horses into a gallop, bound for Spencer Pass, and justice.

The men road hard and fast and arrived at The Pass in short order. Chris and Vin had felt fairly confident that they had made up ground ahead of the O'Brien gang, and would have a good half hour to ready themselves for the fight. But first Chris and Buck had a smaller battle to contend with…with one JD Dunne. Chris hated like hell to exclude the kid from the fight, but his reasons for keeping the boy out of the line of fire were good ones. He had Vin out scouting the area, trying to re-familiarize himself with the terrain and find the ideal cave to hide away Sam, the prisoner and JD. Chris' thoughts turned back to the boy, and he wondered how the kid's shoulder had stood up to the punishing ride.

It hadn't.


Shit! Larabee and the others ran towards the sound of Buck's panicked yell where they discovered Buck on the ground, with JD trying desperately to squirm out of his big brother's arms.

"I'm fine, Buck!"

"Uh huh, I've seen your fine, kid. Now hold still, dammit, 'til Nate takes a look at ya!" Buck turned anxious eyes to Nathan, who had pushed his way through the circle of men surrounding the downed boy. "Doc, he passed out or somethin'…slid right off his horse when we stopped."

"I just got a little dizzy, Buck…I'm fine!" Despite his overall weakened condition, JD's stubbornness was working at full strength. But JD was clearly no match for the combined team of Buck, Nathan and Sam.

"JD, there's seven of us to hold you down, boy. Now we can do this hard or easy, but either way, I am going to get a look at your shoulder."

Nathan was serious, and JD knew it. "Fine…do what you want," the boy surrendered, as he allowed himself to slump back into Buck's arms.

As Nathan began examining the boy, Vin returned with news that he had found an ideal cave for Sam, O'Brien and the boy. The tracker turned concerned eyes to JD. "How's he doin,' Doc?"

"He's fine." JD's exasperated reply only succeeded in earning him a cuff in the head from Buck.

"Nate?" This time Chris Larabee asked Jackson what everyone wanted to know.

"Well, he ain't fine…but he's gonna be. Iffen he takes it easy for a few days." The healer shot JD a stern glare as the kid rolled his eyes at him in irritation. "I'm serious, son. You've lost more blood, JD. It's a wonder you didn't keel offa that horse a helluva lot sooner."

"Geez, thanks, Nate," the boy whispered bitterly. "Now they'll never let me fight."

"JD…" Chris waved off Buck's reply. He figured the kid would take the bad news more easily from him, than from Buck.

Larabee approached the boy, who, despite his protests to the contrary, seemed quite content to still be lying in his big brother's arms. Chris hunkered down to both of them, and sighed. "Son, I know you want to do this, but you're just not up to it…I'm sorry, JD, but it's the truth. Now you know we ain't got time to fight about it, son, so I need you to do what I say. You and Sam are gonna keep watch on the prisoner and it's gonna be up to you to see that nobody grabs'im, all right?" He reached out to the boy and gently lifted his chin, so that JD was looking directly at him. "All right?"

JD was deeply disappointed, but respected his hero's decision. "All right, Chris," he whispered.

"All right." Buck echoed with a smile and tousled the boy's hair before getting himself and the boy upright again.

While Nathan redressed JD's shoulder, the Seven set about readying their trap for the O'Brien gang. William O'Brien, still bound and gagged, had been sequestered deep into the far reaches of the spacious cave Vin had found. Buck had prepared a pallet for JD to rest on and Sam set about making the cave as comfortable for the boy as possible. Once Buck was satisfied that he had left Sam and JD a sufficient ration of supplies and ammunition, he reluctantly made his way over to say good-bye to the boy.

JD was resting on the pallet, propped up against a saddle, looking downright miserable.

"Hey, kid," Buck was fairly miserable, too. He hated the thought of not being here to watch out for the wounded boy, but they needed as many guns as possible up top. They needed a show of force. The big man plunked himself down next to JD and slung his arm over the kid's shoulder. "I'm sorry 'bout this, son. I know you wanna help."

"Ain't your fault, Buck. I know that." Funny how Buck didn't feel the same way, and hearing JD's normally vibrant voice sounding so very weak, did nothing to lessen his guilt.

Big brother Buck gently pulled JD against his chest and rested his chin on the boy's head. He had something important to say. "Kid, I need you to promise me you're not gonna pull some fool stunt and go lookin' to fight these bastards, okay?" Buck's voice was raw with fear. "I mean it, JD. I…I lost you once already, son…and I can't go through that again."

The anguish JD heard in Buck's voice forced JD to pull away from him. He looked searchingly into Buck's eyes and marveled at their intensity. It killed the boy to see the worry and dread written all over Buck's usually cheerful face. "I promise, Buck. I won't go lookin' for trouble. I swear." The boy smiled sadly. "But you gotta promise too, Buck. I need you to come back, okay?"

Deeply moved, Buck looked down at JD and smiled. "I think I can agree to that. We got a deal, then, little brother?"

JD broke into a wide grin. "Yeah, big brother. We got a deal."