Author's Note: This story takes place at the same time as the events from Bring Him Back. You should read Mercury Jones, Vin-Unauthorized, and Parables before reading this baby.
"I want that bastard's head on a silver platter."
A pregnant silence followed.
"No; I want to be the one to put it there."
Buck knew that tone of Chris's voice, and knew that the plan to follow would be the one the rest of the seven would carry out, no questions asked. Buck would do it, of course, as much for Chris as for the vengeance that clawed at him. Such feelings weighed strongly on a man more used to love than the war he felt compelled to live with, and he figured they sat just as strangely on J.D., whose youthful face gave no hint of the joy the boy took in life.
Chris outlined his plan, and Buck admitted the plan was good, but he knew that Chris would not take his approval into account. Buck merely agreed and motioned to J.D. to follow him to the livery. The eerie half-light of a high desert morning cast most of Four Corners in shades of black and gray, and the darkness of the livery led to caught fingers, stubbed toes, and whispered curses as the two tacked up as fast as they could. In minutes, they swung up and headed back out on the trail to Eagle Bend.
The shadows of sagebrush made the ground tricky to navigate, but neither of the two would consider either halting or slowing their pace. Buck's horse stepped as carefully between the tiny obstacles as a swift canter would allow, as did J.D.'s somewhat more nimble mount. They rode in quiet, each sunk in their own thoughts and neither willing to share them, for once- but there was mutual respect in this, and the silence between them was not uncomfortable.
At length, they came up to the spot where Vin had fallen victim to that ambush, and Buck slowed to a stop. He dismounted and pulled out his rifle before turning to J.D. with orders.
"You stay here- I'm headin' up the bluff to scout around. I'll give you one whistle for trouble, and you'll get your ass out of here, okay? Two whistles for an all-clear. You do the same for me." Buck's tone brooked no refusal.
J.D. nodded. mutely, white-knuckled hands gripping his reins. His horse shifted in protest against the firm hand, and J.D. forced himself to relent.
"It'll be okay, J.D.," Buck said softly, knowing the kid just about as well as Chris knew Vin, and knowing that J.D. wasn't frightened- he wanted to do something. Something other than keep a look-out. He wanted that bastard, whoever he was, just as badly as Buck or any of them did.
Buck scaled the bluff, keeping low in the high grasses, and emerged at the edge of a rough trail. He swore at the clever bastard who'd thought to use it; the trail was faint and rough, but a good rider and horse could navigate it. Heavy cover lay just past the track, good for a sniper to get lost in if someone pursued him. Buck reflected that he'd need Vin to read the trail, because he sure as hell couldn't.
As Buck prowled through the undergrowth, he came upon the spot where the shooter had laid in wait. He shivered convulsively, eyes sweeping the immediate area just in case the man would appear out of nowhere. When he didn't, Buck bent to study the small patch of ground which was all that remained of Vin's attacker- without it, the man might as well have been a ghost.
Flattened grass marked where the man had sat- two deep indentations indicated where he knelt just in front of a boulder. Buck realized the man would have propped his elbows on the rock, torso supported by the natural angle at which the boulder rested. If anyone had seen him through the tall grass that grew along the flank of the bluff, he could slide down behind the boulder and avoid any retaliatory shot, leaving him enough time to get to his feet and make for his horse and a clean getaway through the woods.
Other than that flattened grass, nothing remained of the man who'd been there. Buck searched fruitlessly for a shell casing, torn piece of cloth, horse shoe, but found nothing. He swore softly before remembering J.D., who waited below him for either one or two whistles. He whistled twice, and got two whistles in response.
J.D. squinted up the bluff, watching as Buck descended it slowly. He'd spent those interminable minutes in an equally vain search for anything to mark the presence of Vin's assailant. Dried blood, rusty brown against the lighter dust, decorated one corner of the trail, where Vin had fallen. Churned-up dirt surrounded the spot, and J.D. could almost see the flashing legs of Buck's horse striking out as the man tried to keep the creature from running over the inert tracker. A few scraps of bandage and Vin's shirt fluttered from a wayward branch that had fallen off an overhanging tree.
He'd been mesmerized by those bandages, thinking about how goddamned much blood there had been... how Vin's face had gone from bronze to porcelain white in the space of a heartbeat- or however many heartbeats it took for his blood to get pumped out of his body. Nathan had flung those bandage scraps in a moment of impotent rage, when it became apparent that the wound had to get stitched and that Vin would most likely die anyhow. J.D. replayed those terrible moments over and over, bending over Vin's body and handing Nathan his tools as requested, doing so in a daze and thinking mostly that Vin had an awful lot of blood.
The two whistles had broken into his ruminations just before he'd gotten lost in them, and it had taken a minute for J.D. to whistle back. He failed at first, breath hissing past dry lips, but he got it on his second try.
"You okay, kid?" Buck stood in front of him now, concern painted over his face.
"I'm fine, Buck," J.D. said gamely. He felt far from fine, and he knew Buck knew. He half-expected Buck to launch into his mother hen act, and was surprised when Wilmington merely nodded and collected his horse, swinging up and giving J.D. an enigmatic look from beneath his hat.
"I'm here if you wanta talk about it, kid," Buck told him softly, turning his horse back toward Four Corners.
J.D. blinked and swallowed, spurring his horse to follow Buck's. The two riders started home, riding silent for a while until at length, J.D. spoke.
"What were you thinkin' when you were in with Vin?"
Buck raised an eyebrow and took his time in replying; for a moment, J.D. thought the man wouldn't answer, and decided to forget the line of questioning. It seemed too private, prying into someone's thoughts as they sat looking at a dying friend.
"Was thinkin' about what I'd have to do for Chris, once Vin checked out... what I'd have t' do to keep him together. Thought about how it weren't fair, havin' a good friend taken from us just 'cause some asshole decided he needed the money." Buck paused and then added, "What were you thinkin'?"
J.D. fiddled with his reins. "About my mother. 'Bout how I didn't want to die like her... wanted to die like a hero- nice n' quick like they do in dime novels."
"Dyin' don't often happen that way, J.D.," Buck said, his tone immeasurably sad instead of lecturing.
"I know," J.D. whispered past a sudden obstruction in his throat, thinking of Vin.
"Best we can do is try to pick the where an' how of it," Buck told him quietly, voice barely audible over the thunder of their horses' hooves. "But you'd best consider yourself lucky if'n you get to pick one of the two. An' I reckon... I reckon if I get to die with you an' the other boys, those two things don't matter much."
J.D. subsided into stunned silence, and Buck showed no inclination to break it. Consideringly, J.D. mulled over the words his best friend had spoken, and decided with some reluctance that Buck- as usual- was right. He was so caught up in Buck's advice, and the events of yesterday, and the memories of the night that it took J.D. a moment to realize Buck had spoken to him not as a friend, or a mentor, or a mother.
He'd spoken to him as an adult.
When that realization came, J.D. felt some small measure of pride and slanted an appreciative- if sad- smile at the man who rode next to him. Buck caught the smile and returned it with one of his own, along with a respectful nod. As sunrise broke over the eastern sky and began to chase away the shadows of night, the two men headed home.
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Continues in Like Flying