"Why are you sayin' it ain't over?" Buck asked, not hiding his concern.

JD opened his eyes again looking at the man that said he wanted to sign a piece of paper to get custody of him. He had been thinking about that word 'custody'. A possession, something you owned. He'd been 'owned' before, not like Nathan but it felt like it, he worked for a place to stay, never getting paid for it.

"Why is all this necessary?" JD finally asked, ignoring Bucks question.

"So you can stay here? Don't you want that?" Buck said kindly.

"Yeah, but I want it to be my choice."

"So we head to Boston so I can get custody of ya."

"You can't own me, Buck." JD said so evenly, Buck thought it was a joke, but the look on the kid's face told him he was serious.

"Who said anything about 'owning' ya? This about keeping ya here," Buck tried to reason.

"You want custody of me, that means I'm 'yours''ll be like you own me."

Buck was so confused, JD had been all set to go to Boston and get this done. He knew he was worried about going back, he was afraid he might see Chamberlain, and he didn't know who wanted him. The nightmare Buck and Vin tried to wake him from was the worst he'd ever have and wondered what it was about.

"You want to tell me what that dream was all about?" Buck asked.

JD looked at him then around at the other two men in the room, his eyes went to the covers that his hands played with then took a deep breath.

"I don't remember."

The men in the room knew it was a lie, JD knew, he just wasn't gonna tell him. They all knew how stubborn JD could be, and this was something he either didn't want to share or just wasn't ready to share.

"You better get some sleep, we're heading out in the morning," Buck stated, not leaving room for the argument they could see the kid wanted to give. He nodded instead and curled back into bed. They left the room, never noticing that the kid had taken off the cast.

"Somethin' happen?" Josiah asked, he had come to relieve Vin, and came up the back stairs and met them in the hall.

"Not here," Chris said quietly, and they went down the front steps and stepped outside. "Kid had a nightmare."

"I wouldn't call that a nightmare, Chris," Vin said, witnessing the event.

"What would you call it then?" Josiah asked, tipping his head.

"He was remembering something, or just reliving it," Vin pointed out.

"He do that?" Chris nodded at Vin, questioning the bruise forming.

"Yeah, but not until I touched him," Vin told him, hoping it would show the kid was defending himself.

"That's the worst I ever seen him, Chris," Buck offered.

"He's had nightmares before the one today?" Josiah asked, referring to the one earlier.

"Not too often, Buck's had to deal with a few, Vin and me have seen them more than once, he usually wakes up pretty good, like this afternoon," Chris pointed out.

"He didn't wake up from this one easy, couldn't even get him calmed down," Buck said in a disappointed way.

"The boy has demons he's not yet ready to deal with," Josiah assumed.

"Just one," Chris said out loud, not meaning to.

"Care to enlighten me?" Josiah asked, giving the chance for the others to unload a burden they obviously carried.

"Not our place to say, but I will tell you his life wasn't as easy as we all thought it was," Chris offered. Josiah nodded his head, understanding that what was said to them was said in trust.

"I'll go keep watch out back," Josiah said, letting the men talk privately. The others nodded a thank you.

"He doesn't wanna go back," Vin said knowingly

"He don't have much of a choice, now does he?" Buck stated in a sarcastic way.

"Maybe that's the problem, it ain't his choice, we walked in there and told him he was going," Chris let his thought out.

"What else are we supposed to do? We can't sit around here and wait for them to come and get him, then we don't have a chance in hell of gettin' custody," Buck reflected.

"Buck, I don't think we have much of a chance as it is, you heard what the Judge said," Chris tried to reason.

"Well ain't you just a ray of sunshine! Then why are we doing this, going back to Boston? Just to hand him over?" Buck was getting angry.

"Buck, I think what Chris is trying to say is not to get your hopes up," Vin reasoned.

"We need to be realistic about this, Buck. He's seventeen years old and he carries a gun around for a living."

"His choice, Chris!"

"Buck, he didn't have any other options, if he'd had the money he'd never have come out know that!" Vin shot back. How many times did he say he felt he had let his mother down because he didn't go to college.

"You know damn well that man would have killed him if he'd stayed there," Chris added, "I don't know who wants him, but what if they can offer him what we can't?" the leader reasoned.

"He doesn't want anything else! How can you let him go like this? Either of you?" Buck couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"That ain't what I'm saying, Buck! I don't want him to leave here, but HE doesn't have a choice. What are we suppose to do when they come looking for him? Hide him? Hope the town's people will go along with it? How long is he supposed to hide?" Chris said, not hiding the fact he hated to see the kid go, too.

"Then why go through all this? Goin' to Boston if you don't think we have a snowballs chance in hell of him comin' back?"

"I talked to the Judge earlier, said he was going to write up a statement, Ezra said it was a character reference or something, to let the judge in Boston know what it's like out here and what JD's like. Let the Boston judge know that he ain't a normal seventeen year old kid."

"Does he think it will help?" Vin wondered.

"Couldn't hurt."

The men nodded at what Chris was saying, they all understood what he was saying, they could only hope the judge would listen to what JD wanted, where he wanted to be, what he was like, what was best for JD. Certainly being here, doing what he was doing wasn't the safest thing, but it's what made the boy happy..didn't that count most of all?

JD had made his way down the stairs shortly after Josiah had checked on him, he had heard what the others had said. He would leave tomorrow morning for Boston, ride with them and enjoy their company and feel like he was apart of something, probably for what was the last time.

He always tried to act older than he was, trying to prove himself to the others. They wouldn't run from this. Vin's situation was different, he'd been set up. JD wouldn't run, as much as he hated to go back he would, he owed it to everyone to show them that he'd grown up.

He'd come back, he decided. He'd ride back with these men he considered family, not because he would run, but because the judge would listen to him as he told them he wanted to be here, not in Boston going to school, he'd learned so much already from the best teachers in the world; they taught him things that no amount of college could. He'd come back.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan came out of the clinic before the sun had risen, meeting with the others who had stayed as 'guard' or who hadn't slept all, which was the majority of the case. Even Ezra was awake, begrudgingly so, but he was there. He walked to the group, he knew JD had had a rough night and had opted to let him sleep as long as he could.

"You might wanna get his horse ready, Vin." Nathan was taking the wagon for supplies and to give JD a place to ride with ease.

"Thought he was goin' with you?"

"You didn't notice the cast and bandages on the floor when he had that nightmare?" Nathan seemed to accuse.

"To tell the truth, Nate, we were a little distracted," Vin shot back, not having slept.

"Everyone's tired, and a might upset as why were leaving. Let's just try and keep our heads, as hard as this is going to be, it's hardest on JD," Chris ordered, trying to redirect the tension.

"He still sleeping?" Vin asked in a softer way.

"Yeah, he was, Buck's getting him up," Nathan replied, also in a softer tone.

+ + + + + + +

"Hey, kid, time to get up..come on," Buck tried to smile as JD opened his eyes.

"Buck? Time to go already?" JD said, reminding Buck at exactly how young he was.

"Yeah, we're gonna head out then we'll eat somethin' for breakfast."

"Kay," he said as he began to get out of the bed.

"I gotta tell ya, Nathan ain't very happy with ya."

"Why?" JD asked as his feet touched the floor and he stood, he remembered why. "How mad at me is he? I can't ride with that thing on, Buck."

"He's a little mad. You weren't gonna be riding, you were gonna go with Nate in the wagon."

"Oh no..I ain't gonna be carted around..I'm riding," JD stood firm.

"We'll see about that."

JD got dressed and he and Buck made their way to the porch. JD was momentarily overwhelmed as he came out onto the porch and saw his friends, his brothers, waiting for him. Vin held his horse with a smile, and he couldn't help but smile back and hung his head.

"You sure about this, Chris, all of ya comin', I mean?" JD asked limping his way to his horse where Chris had mounted next to his.

"Try and leave us behind. JD, ain't one of us here riding here cause we don't want to." This could be the last ride and none of us is going to miss this for the world, he thought to himself.

"Good luck to you all," the Judge offered, getting up early for the send off, and possibly a good-bye to a young man he considered to braver than most grown men.

"Thanks, Judge, we'll be seeing ya in about a month," Chris said.

"I'll be waiting, JD I wish you the best."

"I'll be back, Judge," he said so seriously the judge almost believed him. The judge nodded and smiled as he watched the seven protectors leave town on a journey he knew would be full of heart ache, he also knew that the seven would not return as seven but less, by how many he wasn't sure.

The judge knew in his heart, that he wouldn't return, although he had written a letter where he praised JD Dunne for being an outstanding lawman and protector. He was also a good man, compared to other seventeen year olds he had met in the various towns, ones that had been born and raised here in the harsh west, JD was an exception.

The judge, in his letter to the Boston Judge, had referred to JD as a walking contradiction. He was the personification of what youth was and should be, but in an instant that would all change and he would be the hired gunmen that he was. The judge expressed the many times that JD had put his life on the line, not for the glory of it all, but for protecting the rights of people, without question or expecting praise.

To say JD was a typical seventeen year old would be a false hood, the judge had written. In fact, there was nothing typical of any of the men that protected the town. Out of the seven men only two had known each other previously and their meeting was circumstantial. They were brought together, for what reason he didn't know, what held them together and made them dangerous? Simple, the judge remembered writing still watching the horizon, JD Dunne.

"Only wish it was enough to bring him back," the Judge sighed to no one.

+ + + + + + +

The first three hours of riding were silent, except for the wooden tires of the wagon and the pounding of horses feet on the hard dusty road. No one wanted to break the silence, although they were all in their own thoughts, the seven men were afraid that talking might make this all to real. Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan knew that JD wasn't thrilled about going back East, why they didn't know, but figured they would learn later. Buck, Chris, and Vin all felt they were taking the kid straight to the Devil's liar. They would be in Chamberlain's territory, the cause for the nightmares, the place where this had all started long before they had met JD.

He never would have been hurt if I'd been there, I would have been able to keep him safe, and maybe his momma wouldn't have gotten sick, or found a better place to work. How could someone treat JD like that, how could anyone not like him. He demanded it, without ever asking or expecting it. He was the kid, Vin thought as he rode in the gentle gallop Chris had set for a pace. He looked back to JD and a sad smile crossed his face. I mighta taught ya somethings but ya gone and taught me more than you'll ever know, thanks. And he looked forward again.

You sure have given me a lot of practice, boy, Nathan thought affectionately, a smile of reflection on his face. You sure kept me busy, had me guessin a few times, had me scared too, the first time you got shot, when ya got that knife stuck in ya..damn you are stubborn, still not giving up and gettin' yourself up to give us a warnin'. Stubborn, I swear I ain't met a mule stubborner than you, the minute someone tells you not to do something your out doin' it. Don't never loose that spirit, JD, it'd break my heart if'n ya did, Nathan looked towards JD, frowning

Dear boy. How is it what Mother has taken a lifetime to teach me, you have me questioning ideas and morals of one sort or another in mere months. I may have taught you a few 'slight of hand' tricks, which I fear you will never master, but you have aided and abetted in corrupting this gamblers mind, more so than any other. I do so worry about you, you trust to easy, but you have a very wise heart that you listen to often, you know right from wrong..and because of your influence, I am learning. May lady luck shine on you continuously, my friend, Ezra bowed his head, pinching at his eyes.

I thought you were just a boy when you jumped off that stage a year ago. I was only half right, you were also a man, as you have proved over and over, time and time again. You maintain that innocence that is so essential for a man such as yourself. You are a youth only by age, but I fear your body and soul have suffered. I will pray to God that he watches after you, I know he will. Keep your heart pure, JD Dunne, you'll have Heaven's angels wrapped around your finger as you have six dangerous hired guns, Josiah smiled warmly towards JD's back.

You done a whole lot of growing up, son. You don't know how much I wanted to put you on that coach after you got here. Glad I didn't. I've been known to intimidate the hell out of grown men twice your age, but not you. At least you weren't that day. Never seen anything like that, right full of yourself, so set on being a hero, never convincing yourself that you did it. You done it though, kid, you done it. You never thought much with your head, taught me that it wasn't always such a bad thing. I'm proud of you kid, I think I'm better for knowing you. It's been a pleasure, Chris let out a heavy sigh.

The silence was killing Buck. Just say something to me, kid. Tell me you're scared, worried, that you're okay. I wish this could be different, that we wouldn't be going to the place you ran away from, closer to the nightmares. It'll be okay though, we'll file them papers, get the judge to see that your better off here with us, not with a bunch of strangers. Then we'll ride back home. It has to work that way, it has to. The guys think you depend on me, you trust me, they're wrong. I need you more than you need me. If anything had happened to me, the guys would take care of you, make sure you'd be all right. I ain't to sure they could help me. I can't lose ya, kid, not like this, I can't ..I won't, Buck promised himself and JD, No one's taking you away.

Chris looked to JD and then past to Buck. When did this all start to fall apart? He looked ahead, he knew it couldn't last forever, Judge was honest what he thought would happen. JD wouldn't come back. He looked to Buck again. This is going to kill him, JD gotten under all their skins..but Buck. He'd never seen Buck like that. A year ago he couldn't imagine Buck worried about anything except his next 'appointment', but then came the kid, jumping from a stage, falling off his horse, falling into the water trough, falling into their lives. It brought a sad smile to his face, damn this was going to be a long trip.