by May Robinson


In a formation reminiscent of their very first fight together, Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson and Ezra Standish took their positions high above the box canyon adjoining the Spencer passageway.

Just minutes earlier, Vin had spotted the approaching riders through his spyglass, and had signaled that the O'Brien gang was heading into The Pass. They would be in sight in a matter of seconds.

As the twenty-five or thirty horsemen cautiously entered the corridor leading into the canyon, Chris and the others instinctively checked their weapons just one last time. Despite the fact that they were clearly outnumbered, the peacekeepers were confident they had the advantage. With superior cover and elevation on their side, firing down on the outlaw gang would be easy.

Charlie Vale led the band of outlaws into the canyon, but with over twenty years of experience behind him, it only took Vale a heartbeat to realize that he had just ridden the men straight into a trap. In an instant, with his guns blazing, Vale leapt off of his horse, diving for cover and shouting for his men to do the same. Those finding refuge first, began laying down cover-fire for the others, but shelter was in short supply, and the desperados quickly found themselves in serious trouble.

The canyon reverberated with the crack of rifles and pistols firing from every direction, and the walls echoed with the screams and shouts of the wounded and the enraged. As the suffocating haze created by dirt, dust, and gunsmoke filled the gully, visibility became non-existent. Still the bullets kept flying and the men kept fighting, but for those less loyal to O'Brien and still lucky enough to be alive, who scrambled to their mounts and escaped in desperation through The Pass.

In mere minutes, as the remaining outlaws were left dead or dying in the dirt, the haze began to settle and the roar began to subside, until finally a deathly silence hung above the canyon floor like a shroud.

Like shooting fish in a barrel. Vin Tanner was the first to leave his post, casually lifting his Winchester to his shoulder and then lazily descending the winding footpath which led to the canyon floor.

One by one, six dirty, dusty, exhausted, yet triumphant gunslingers met along that path, each overcome with relief and joy that no harm had come to their brothers. It had been a righteous fight and they had survived it unscathed.

It was over.

As the peacekeepers rounded up the wounded prisoners, and Nathan checked their injuries, Buck set about searching the faces of the enemy. The weary gunslinger began to feel the familiar ache of dread forming in his gut, and his hackles were beginning to stand up, as his frantic search came up empty time and time again.

None of the dead, nor the living, wore the familiar faces of either Patrick O'Brien or Ken Chambers.

Oh God…JD!

It wasn't over.

It had happened so fast. Too fast.

Amidst the chaos all around them, JD had held a white knuckled grip on his rifle. He had been afraid for his friends and for his brother, but mostly he had been afraid of failure. Of failing them. The pounding ride to The Pass had taken its toll on the boy. He hadn't wanted to admit it, but now simply couldn't deny it. The kid's shoulder throbbed so badly even his head hurt, so much so that at times, he couldn't hear the gunfight thundering outside of the cavern walls. JD had wanted so desperately to help his friends, but Sam wouldn't let him leave, and in reality, his body wouldn't have allowed it anyway.

Yet despite his weakness, JD was able to react quickly to the intruders. Unfortunately, not quickly enough.

Sam hadn't stood a chance. Ken Chambers cut the preacher down with one shot; the impact throwing Sam back against the cavern wall where he crumpled to the ground in a heap. JD screamed in anguish and in anger and fired, only grazing the sheriff's arm and sending him diving for cover, but the sound of Patrick O'Brien's ominous voice froze JD so that he couldn't continue his fight.

"May I have your attention, Mr. Dunne," O'Brien sneered. JD turned quickly and gasped at the appalling sight before him. O'Brien had hold of Sam's collar and the preacher hung loosely in the crazy doctor's grip. JD had no idea if his friend was dead or alive, but the intent of the pistol pressed firmly against the preacher's head made JD's options crystal clear. There weren't any.

"Let'im go. You've got m…" The boy collapsed.

JD's battered body had finally given out and the boy lay unconscious on the cold cavern floor, next to Sam, who had been dropped when O'Brien left to search for his brother. The sheriff and the doctor successfully freed the prisoner and returned to JD. The boy's brief reprieve from his waking nightmare was shattered when the crazed former prisoner roughly grabbed him by the hair and punched him in the face. The kid woke up dazed, scared and in pain. He fought against 'The Fox's' iron grip, but only succeeded in tiring himself and prompting the deranged man to laugh at him. "Boy, we're gonna have some fun with you and ole Buck, now, aren't we?"

JD was in serious trouble, and he knew it. Both O'Briens were well aware of how important he was to Buck, and the crazy brothers were going to hurt him to hurt Buck…exactly what Buck had feared from the beginning. The kid felt like he was a mouse being toyed with by two cats, but the scenario was even worse…big brother Buck was going to be a witness to this game. This was going to get ugly.

"Here, Bill. Let me take the kid. You'll need both yer hands to have yer fun with Wilmington," Ken Chambers reasoned with his leader. William O'Brien paused for thought, not entirely willing to relinquish his hostage and shield, but ultimately deciding that his partner was right…he'd have more fun with Buck and the kid if Chambers was holding onto the boy. JD stumbled as he was released and shoved by his captor into the sheriff's grip. Chambers gruffly grabbed JD, tying the boy's hands and using the bonds to steer the kid in front of him and help keep the unsteady teen upright in his grasp. As JD shot the sheriff a hateful glare, Chambers pushed the kid forward, laughing under his breath, "kiddo, you are one tough little shit. I'll give you that."

The outlaws readied their guns and themselves and walked towards the cavern's entrance. Ken Chambers led the way, and with a pistol pressed firmly against JD's side, headed into the next battle.

"Let him go, you son-of-a-bitch!" Buck Wilmington, with the others in hot pursuit, arrived at the cave just as the outlaws were making their escape. Buck forced himself not to look at the boy, for fear that he would lose what little control he had on his emotions, and betray his fear to JD. He was truly terrified. "I SAID…LET HIM GO!" The gunslinger's tone was murderous, as was his intent. His rifle was aimed not at the man who held JD, but directly at William O'Brien, who had his gun aimed at JD. Buck stared unwavering into the eyes of his enemy, knowing in all certainty that if he made the wrong move, he would lose the kid. He silently prayed that those lunatic eyes would somehow reveal when it was time to make his move, and stood firm, waiting for that sign.

JD had never before heard such viciousness in Buck's voice. It was truly frightening. The boy's eyes darted to his friends, whose expressions all mirrored Chris' ice-cold stare, but JD avoided Buck's eyes. He knew all-too-well how hard this would be for Buck, and he didn't want Buck to see the fear threatening to consume him. JD always had faith in his friends, faith that they would prevail, but this time JD knew the odds were bad. The O'Briens were insane and JD was certain Chambers or either of the brothers not only wouldn't have second thoughts about killing him, but were waiting for their chance to do so in as horrible a way as possible. And all the kid could do was wait.

William O'Brien stayed quiet, allowing the tension to build and anticipating just when Buck would crack. He was actually enjoying himself. Concentrating on the guns in front of him, he was unaware of the mare's leg aimed at the back of his head, in the steady hands of the Seven's sharpshooter. While his other friends had followed Buck to the scene, Vin had circled behind and silently crept to within easy firing distance of 'The Fox.' But with JD's life at risk, all Vin could do was wait as well.

Anxious for some action, Bill O'Brien decided to push Buck. "Now, Buck. Why don't we just talk about this?" O'Brien was actually smiling. "For old time's sake? You and your friends put your guns down, and we'll let the little boy go."

"There ain't nothin' to talk about, O'Brien." Chris Larabee slowly approached from behind his oldest friend, and spoke before Buck could get any words past his clenched teeth. The leader motioned to Chambers, but never let his ice-cold gaze leave Bill O'Brien. "Now. You are going to let that boy go nice and gentle-like and then you are going to drop your weapons. Period." Chris was deadly serious. His wait began.

Both O'Briens laughed maliciously, but Ken Chambers was not nearly as amused. Knowing the O'Brien brothers as well as he did, the sheriff also knew that the boy he held hostage was not going to survive this standoff. Chambers swallowed and shook his head in an effort to dislodge the unusual and totally unexpected sense of remorse he felt overcoming him. Chambers also couldn't prevent the realization that, if events played out as he expected, he wasn't going to survive either. He had little hope, and he knew it, and could only wait to make his move.

Time seemed to stand still as each man waited for the spark that would ignite the flame.

It appeared in the maniacal laugh of one William O'Brien. In an instant, 'The Fox' had understood and resigned himself to his inevitable fate, but in doing so, he resolved to destroy Buck Wilmington before joining him in Hell.

At the sound of O'Brien's crazed laughter, the wait was over. It was time.

In a heartbeat, and all at once, the Seven released their triggers and the doomed O'Brien brothers, with no regard for their partner, fired at JD.

And Buck Wilmington dove into the line of fire to protect the boy.

The boy he would not fail this time.

In a rare display of compassion, Ken Chambers' final breath had been taken in the act of pushing JD out of harm's way, and into the arms of Vin Tanner. Vin immediately held on to the boy, shielding him from the last of the gunfire, and untying the kid's hands. JD was frantic. Amidst the hail of bullets, and his surprising push to safety, JD had witnessed Buck's selfless dive into the line of fire. And JD had helplessly watched in horror as his protector had been gunned down.

"No, please God, NO!" JD screamed and writhed in Vin's grasp. "LEMME GO!" The kid was wild and Vin couldn't hold on to him any longer for fear that the boy's own wound would re-open with his struggles, and so the tracker released his grip and watched in sorrow as the desperate kid scrambled over to his fallen brother.

Nathan had already been in action, tearing Buck's clothes to examine the bullet-wounds and to try to stop the flow of blood. He called for his medical kit and Chris sent Vin to retrieve it and a very reluctant Ezra to check up on and round up the prisoners.

As Nathan's hands hurriedly worked over Buck's body, Chris latched on to Buck's hand and spoke reassuringly to him, trying to hang on to the life of his oldest friend. Josiah was there too, holding Buck down, and all the while praying, as the semi-conscious man wildly fought Nathan's touch.

Buck's eyes were open, but unseeing, and he fought with all his might, against his friends who in his confused state, were preventing him from his only mission…protecting JD. Buck gasped and cried out in agony, but each time he edged closer to unconsciousness, his thoughts returned to the boy, and he would fight oblivion and call out for JD.

As JD heard the gut-wrenching call of his name, he snapped. Despite his own weakness, the boy practically flew to Buck's side and shoved Chris and Josiah aside as though they were weightless. Mustering every ounce of his waning strength, JD gathered Buck up into his arms and held him against his chest. Nathan pleaded with JD to let go, but the kid couldn't hear him…his only world was his protector.

Intuitively JD understood that he should apply pressure to the bleeding chest wound and he did so, while still holding on to Buck and pleading with him not to die. Against his better judgement, Nathan prevented Josiah and Chris from removing the kid. In JD's arms, Buck's breathing had become less labored and his struggles had subsided. Whether it was the boy's presence or simply exhaustion taking hold of the gunslinger, Nathan couldn't say, but he also couldn't argue the fact that Buck had been heading into shock, and yet in the kid's arms, Buck had settled. Satisfied that JD was managing Buck's chest wound, Nathan continued to work around the boy, concentrating on Buck's leg and side.

JD was hanging on to Buck for dear life. He had never seen so much blood and that terrified him. The boy's pleas were reduced to whispers as his own injuries exhausted him, but still he held on. "Please, Buck. I need you to stay here with me," he whispered. As the boy held on to Wilmington, he began to sob, but as he remembered cherished words of comfort, his flow of tears lessened. And so JD held Buck tight and began to recite the steady litany of these familiar words…words he prayed would help keep Buck with him. "Hang on, Buck. Everything's gonna be all right. I'm here and we're together and our mamas are watchin' over us, so everything's gotta be all right. It's just gotta be, Buck."

And as JD repeated those soothing words, Buck looked up at the boy and attempted a weak smile. "Hey, kid…always wondered…if you…remembered…"

The boy was still so very afraid, but his heart leapt at the recognition shining in Buck's eyes and the warmth in his voice. JD smiled a sweet smile and he held Buck even closer. "I could never forget," he whispered. "Never."

Buck felt so weak, and he felt darkness calling him, but he was damn sure about one thing…he had no intention of leaving the kid, and he had to let him know that. He looked up at the boy, with eyes he prayed held the conviction he felt in his heart. "Kid, I'm real tired here…and not…too keen…on…staying up…for Nate's doct'rin'…" Buck swallowed hard and moaned as he fumbled to place the kid's hand in his own. "I ain't…gonna…break my…word…all right. Just gonna…rest, now…son. Just got you…back…ain't…lettin' go…promise, okay?"

"Okay," the boy whispered. As JD watched Buck's lashes flutter closed, he couldn't prevent the sob that escaped his throat. But JD wasn't grieving. Buck had given him his word. And Buck's word was good.

Confident that Buck's blood flow was under control, at least enough to risk moving him, Nathan and Josiah gently carried the gunslinger back into the cave and placed him on JD's pallet. The kid shakily followed close and would have collapsed were it not for Chris, who caught the boy and lifted him into his arms, carrying JD the rest of the way and easing him down next to Wilmington. The boy was wearing down and Chris checked his wound, feeling immense relief when he found no sign of fresh blood. The leader settled the boy alongside his oldest friend, bout out of Nathan's way, gently taking JD's hand and resting it on Buck's brow. Despite his own exhaustion, JD instinctively began to stroke Buck's hair and resume his whispered litany.

Upon returning to the cave, Josiah had immediately rushed to the still form of Sam Harris and had breathed an audible sigh of relief when he discovered the man was still breathing. It appeared that a bullet to Sam's temple had only grazed him and so Josiah admonished Nathan to concentrate on Buck, while Josiah looked after his fellow preacher.

As JD's whispers were replaced with the soft breaths of a sleeping youth, Chris took Nathan aside to hear the healer's prognosis. "How bad, Nate?"

Nathan's shoulders felt heavy, but his fierce determination to save Buck came through in his words. "Chris, he's hurt bad, but we got a little lucky. I gotta get two bullets outta'im. His leg and chest. The one in his side went clean through and it don't look like it hit nothin' important. The one in Buck's chest grazed his collarbone and that's gonna hurt like hell for a while, but it done slowed down the bullet and didn't let it get too deep. Not too worried about it, long as we keep everything clean. The leg wound's bad and iffen I gotta go diggin' round in there I'm worried about'im losing more blood. We got a chance though, Chris. Just wish I had more hands than I got."

"You may get your wish, my dear friend." Chris and Nathan started at the sound of Ezra's southern drawl as he entered the cavern with Nathan's kit.

The gambler handed the bag to its owner and was about to continue, when Chris Larabee's biting demand interrupted him. "Tell me what in hell you're talking about, Ezra!"

Understanding Chris' anxiety, Ezra ignored his leader's harsh tone and even smiled slightly. "Gentlemen, it appears that the cavalry has finally arrived, albeit not at all in time to save the day, as had been anticipated. Our Mr. Tanner has ridden out to receive them and escort the regiment to this encampment."

Somewhat relieved in the knowledge that the Seven would be able to relinquish the prisoners to the army, Chris still had no idea why Ezra seemed almost happy. "Ezra…."

"Yes, yes, Mr. Larabee. I shall continue..." Standish waved off Chris' reproach. "Upon observing the regiment through his spyglass, Mr. Tanner informed me that he believed the regiment to be that lead by Colonel Reeves and if so, our astute tracker recollects that they were previously travelling with medical personnel." The gambler turned to Nathan and placed a strong hand on his shoulder. "My friend, I believe you will be supplied with accomplished assistance in merely a matter of moments."

Nathan felt enormous relief with the gambler's news, but hurriedly readied himself to work on Buck, regardless. He didn't for an instant doubt Vin's observational skills, but Nathan's ingrained need to help people drove him to immediate action. He would get started, and graciously defer to a doctor's expertise once the regiment arrived.

Vin's memory was as impeccable as his timing. He returned to the cavern along with a doctor, a half-dozen medics and, further behind them, a wagonload of medical supplies was on its way. Doctor Carl Thomson immediately recognized Nathan's abilities as a healer and so he and Nathan proceeded to take care of Buck's wounds, while his assistants treated Sam. The exhausted JD was left undisturbed. The kid needed sleep and certainly didn't need to be awake to witness Buck's surgery.

Dr. Thomson was a gifted surgeon and he successfully removed the two bullets from Buck with little difficulty and more importantly, little additional blood loss. He was confident that his patient would recover, particularly if the patient had a strong will to live. The doctor wondered at the reaction that particular statement had evoked. Each of the men appeared to visibly relax, including the very serious looking leader of the group, who had shook his head and quietly laughed at his comment. The doctor had worked with strong imposing men his entire career, and yet this Chris Larabee was the most intimidating of all. Still, he couldn't help but raise his eyebrows at the group's reaction and inquire, "Mr. Larabee?"

The man in black looked down fondly at the unconscious man in question, and then shifted his gaze to the sleeping boy he had insisted lay next to the patient. Upon looking at JD, Larabee's gaze had softened even further and he formed a slight crooked smile, "Doc, Buck ain't near done playin' mother hen to this kid'a his…" The gunslinger paused briefly, swallowing his own anxious fears, and looked confidently into the doctor's eyes. "Yeah. He'll make it."

Thank God.

Chris was sitting by the firelight, next to his oldest and youngest friends, thinking about how close he had come to losing both of them. They had gotten lucky, again. But for getting his men home, the mission was over. It hadn't been what he would call a success, but it hadn't been a failure either. The leader was content to turn the prisoners over to the army, and grateful that they would have a military escort home tomorrow. Doc Thomson wasn't keen on moving Buck this soon, but was even less inclined to keep him out here in the wilderness. The regiment had the wagon and supplies to make the ride home as comfortable and safe for Buck as possible, with room for Sam and JD, as well.

Thankfully, Sam would recover. As Josiah had suspected, Chambers' bullet had only grazed JD's friend, and it had been his fall to the cavern floor that had knocked him out. Sam had regained consciousness while the medics were treating him, and aside from his immediate concern for JD, he seemed fine. Thomson's concerns that the preacher might have suffered a concussion prompted Josiah, Vin and Ezra to volunteer to alternately spend time keeping Sam awake. It was their pleasure and the least they could do for the man who had saved JD's life.

Chris and Nathan tended to Buck and JD. Buck had a mild fever, but neither Nathan nor Doc Thomson seemed overly concerned by it. JD had awoken briefly and Chris and Nathan were immediately at his side, there to assure him that not only was Buck alive, he even had a genuine doctor looking after him. The boy was surprised and comforted by the fact that Buck was in a doctor's care, but in truth, the word of Nathan or Chris would have been good enough for him.

After being given a strong dose of laudanum, and hearing additional words of comfort from his hero, JD drifted back into a peaceful healing slumber. Nathan fell asleep as well. And the boy's hero settled back against his bedroll, looked into the firelight, and thanked God that the Seven were still whole, and that tomorrow they would head home.

"Chris?" JD's whisper was weak, but so very welcome. Buck and JD had both been sleeping or unconscious, Chris wasn't sure which, for hours now and the Seven's leader had been anxiously waiting for at least one of them to wake. He knew they were going to be all right, but still, it just wasn't natural having either Buck or JD quiet, let alone both of them. How Larabee had prayed for their incessant chatter to penetrate the silence of the night. Grateful for JD's whisper, he hunkered down next to the boy and looked into weary hazel eyes.

"How you doin,' kid? Thirsty?" The leader's tone was kind…hell, even he noticed that he sounded downright parental. JD nodded his head and Chris proceeded to pour some water into a tin cup for the boy. Chris shifted behind the kid and gently raised him up so that JD could rest against him and drink more easily.

JD whispered his thanks and looked over to Buck, lying next to him, before allowing Chris to help settle him back on his pallet. "How's he doin?' Everything still okay?"

JD's voice had regained some of its strength, but Chris could hear the fear in the boy's plea. "He's doin' real good, JD. Both Nate and the doctor say so. We're gonna load both'a you and Sam into a wagon come mornin' and head on home." Chris watched as relief played across the boy's face and he found himself pushing the ever-present bangs away from JD's eyes. "We're not gonna lose him, son. He's gonna be just fine." JD's weary smile brought out a small one from Chris. He shifted his hand to the boy's good shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Get some sleep, kid. You know you're gonna need all the strength you've got, to handle Buck once he wakes up," the gunslinger teased.

His words brought out a small giggle of agreement from the kid, and Chris was gratified. The leader watched as JD shifted and settled back against his pillow. Chris was grateful for the bedding provided by Doctor Thomson. Both JD and Buck could sleep in relative comfort.

Assuming that the boy had fallen back to sleep, Chris was surprised when moments later JD called his name again. The kid looked serious and Chris couldn't help but wonder what could possibly be troubling the boy, aside from his obvious concern for Buck. "Yeah, son?"

"Why'd he do it?" JD's voice sounded very young.

"Who, JD?" Chris was confused. "Why'd who do what?"

JD shifted to his side and propped himself up on his elbow. "Chambers? Why'd he try and save me?" JD truly looked bewildered. "I mean…he's been ridin' with O'Brien forever…and…and he's killed alotta men, but…" The boy looked searchingly into his hero's eyes. "Why'd he save…me?"

Chris shifted uncomfortably on the ground. He certainly could understand the boy's confusion. And how could he explain something like this to JD? What makes a long-time criminal, a murderer no less, change his ways like that? Larabee looked into the wide-eyed innocent face of the boy before him, and felt an uncontrollable smile begin to form on his lips. He quickly looked away. Chris had the answer. He knew in his heart the truth, but he'd be damned if he'd let the kid in on it.

"Well, JD. I can't rightly say for sure." Chris carefully thought about what he was going to say next and then looked directly at the boy. "Maybe he knew he was going to die and thought that savin' you would redeem him come time to meet his maker." Larabee straightened his shoulders and nodded his head. He could live with that explanation.

JD blinked at Chris' words and seemed to be playing them over and over again in his mind. He smirked slightly as he spoke. "Geez, Chris. That sounds like somethin' Josiah'd say."

Larabee was delighted to hear the slight teasing in the kid's tone. JD actually looked relaxed. "Yeah, well maybe you should ask Josiah 'bout this tomorrow, then. He is the expert." Chris watched as JD rolled over onto his back again and settled into his pillow. The kid seemed satisfied with Chris' answer and was finally allowing his eyes to close.

"Maybe I will, Chris. Thanks…G'night." JD's eyelids began to flutter closed. Chris was moved to see the boy reach out his uninjured arm so that he could just barely touch Buck. He was glad that he had kept Buck and JD next to each other. Larabee knew that the best medicine for the two would simply be allowing them to see that they were both going to be all right.

Chris watched the gentle rise and fall of the boy's chest as JD drifted off into a healing sleep, and the leader finally settled back against his own bedroll. He was about to surrender to much needed sleep himself when he felt the unmistakable sensation of someone watching him. He sat up quietly and immediately turned to his oldest friend.

"Hey, pard." Buck's eyelids were heavy and his hoarse whisper reminded Chris of JD's waking voice minutes earlier, but just as he had felt with JD, the leader was as thankful as could be to hear it.

"Hey, yourself. How're you feelin?'" Chris began repeating the same steps he had taken with JD, offering Buck water and helping him to drink it. Buck was considerably weaker than the kid had been, but Chris and Buck were old hands at taking care of each other while out on the trail and fell back into the routine like ducks to water.

As Chris carefully helped Buck lie back down on the pallet, he watched Buck shift his attention to JD. The big gunslinger wrapped his hand around the kid's still-outstretched arm and he closed his eyes for a moment. Chris watched as Buck took a few hard swallows, knowing that his oldest friend was trying to control the emotions threatening to overwhelm him as he remembered all that he and the boy had suffered over the last few days. "He's doin' great Buck. No need to worry," Chris assured. "Hell, that boy's biggest worry is seein' you gettin' upright again. You know that."

Buck smiled a shadow of his bright smile, and looked at Chris with a glint in his eye. "That's not all that's buggin' 'im." Chris tilted his head to look at Buck, not sure where Buck was heading. "You really buy that cockamamie story you told'im about Chambers?"

Chris Larabee was embarrassed. He lowered his head and then returned his gaze to his oldest friend. "You heard that, did ya?"

"Uh huh."

"Sounded good, didn't it?"

"Yeah, not too shabby. But you don't really believe it, do you now?" Buck Wilmington was truly weak, but he was having too much fun watching his friend squirm to let this drop.

"Christ, Buck. What am I s'posed to tell him?" Chris was exasperated.

"Yeah…guess yer right, pard. Couldn't let'im know the truth now, could we? Lord knows he's enough of a handful as it is," Buck chuckled, winced and chuckled again.

"That he is, Buck. That he is." Chris patted his old friend's shoulder and then shifted back onto his bedroll. "Get some sleep, Buck."

"Night, pard." Buck settled back into his pillow and turned to the boy sleeping soundly next to him. Shifting his grip, Buck slipped his hand over JD's smaller one and, in his sleep, the boy instinctively latched on. Buck closed his eyes, feeling at peace for the first time in days. S'all right, kid…ole Chris 'n me know why Chambers did it. You just plain got to'im.

Same as you do everybody else.

The journey home to Four Corners had thankfully been uneventful. JD woke up refreshed, but surprisingly didn't give Nathan the usual hard time about taking it easy and resting. The boy had traveled the entire distance home in the wagon, next to Buck. Buck had remained unconscious or asleep during most of the wagon-ride, but each time he came to, his voice would be stronger and his eyes would be clearer and the smile he wore for the kid who never left his side, would be a little brighter. And JD would beam.

Once home, Chris offered his room to Sam Harris, since it was closest to Nathan's clinic. Buck's bed was moved into Nathan's place, so that JD and Buck could remain together, which would ease Nathan's load and undoubtedly help ensure that both JD and Buck would recover faster.

After three days, Nathan deemed JD healthy enough to return to his own room, but aside from the boy leaving to say a sweet and tearful farewell to Sam, the healer wasn't going to get off that easy. He was now stuck with the kid, at least until Buck had recovered well enough to act more like Buck. Nathan knew he was doomed to incessant chatter and infectious exuberance. But, even though at times he felt like throttling the boy, he understood too deeply JD's need to stay close to Buck. And Buck's need to have the kid there with him. The two had been through the hell of thinking they had lost each other, and in reality had come so very close to it. They weren't ready to be apart. It would take them both time to heal. And so the healer would give them that time.

If Buck and JD had been joined at the hip before, Nathan could only imagine what the two of them would be like once Buck was up and around again. They were gonna drive each other crazy…and the rest of the Seven along with'em.

Nathan couldn't wait.

The saloon was lively with the sounds of good-natured cheer. Four Corners was still far from civilized, but this day it held a downright pleasant atmosphere, as the townsfolk seemed to share in the high spirits of their peacekeepers. It was a glorious sunny afternoon, Ezra was winning his fifth straight hand, and Buck Wilmington was lapping up the attention garnished upon him by all the fine young ladies celebrating his return to the Seven's usual table.

Buck was in heaven. The handsome gunslinger was temporarily wheelchair bound, but well on the road to recovery, despite JD's attempts at keeping him flat on his back and in bed.

With JD confident enough in Buck's recovery to resume his duties and man a shift at the jail, Buck used the boy's absence to appeal to Nathan's good nature and worm his way out of the confines of the clinic and into the wheelchair and saloon. He promised the healer that he would be on his best behavior, but Nathan wisely joined him and seated them with their partners, who had all vowed that they would keep Buck in line and out of trouble.

None too happy with Nathan removing the whiskey bottle he ordered from their table, Buck began to complain…loudly. Much to Chris, Josiah and Vin's amusement, the war of wills between Nathan and Buck was on, but was quickly settled with a compromise of beer. The quantity of said beer was still an issue.

Delighted in the fact that his friend had obtained his much-desired freedom, Ezra concluded his game and brought his cards and drink over to join Buck and the others at their table. Despite his injuries, Buck managed to play and drink and flirt, and between his good friends, the attention of the ladies and his first taste of alcohol in far too long a time, Buck was truly beginning to feel his freedom and having a damn fine time to boot.

That is until JD Dunne showed up.

"What in hell is goin' on?!" JD barged into the saloon and with both hands on his hips, attempted to loom over the table of much bigger men before him. "What's he doin' in here?" Nathan actually flinched at the glare the boy shot his direction.

Buck looked indignant. "JD. I'm fine."

"Uh huh. I've seen your fine, Buck." The boy's eyes flashed in the direction of the snickers coming from the table.

"JD!" Buck helplessly watched as JD snatched his cards and beer from the table, and he out-and-out whimpered when the boy shooed away the ladies. Buck looked pathetic. "Aw…come on, kid. I'm jus'…"

JD waved Buck off with his hands. "Save it. I don't wanna hear it. You're still recovering and you're sure as hell not doin' yerself any good in here." The kid was exasperated and shook his head at the older man. "Christ, Buck. Am I gonna hafta tie ya down just to keep ya outta trouble?!"

That said, the kid grasped the handles of the wheelchair, swung the chair from the table and proceeded towards the saloon doors. "Nathan! Josiah!" The healer and preacher snapped to attention. "You're comin' too," he ordered. "I can't get'im up those stairs myself." The two much bigger men scrambled after JD. "I can't believe he talked you into this," the boy scolded, and Josiah and Nathan were both appropriately ashamed.

"Come on fellas. I could use some help, here…please," Buck pleaded for the last time. But as JD turned the wheelchair around to back out of the doorway, Buck realized his plea had fallen on deaf ears.

It was hopeless.

They were laughing at him. Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish were laughing…hard. Hell, Buck couldn't remember the last time he'd actually heard Chris Larabee laugh out loud like that.

And it was all at his expense.

Well, it wasn't funny

Until Buck really thought about it.

"Aw, hell."