by Sevenstars

Eagle Bend: Three Days Later
Chris's spurs chimed softly as he climbed the stairs to the hotel room where JD had been taken. It had been an exhausting three days, not physically so much as emotionally. By the time Nathan made his way down from his aerie to check on their wounded youngest, the boy was, if not in a coma, at least the next best thing to being, and Buck had slipped into a sort of dazed reverie where nothing mattered but the kid he held in his arms. Karlberg and his promised posse had arrived shortly thereafter, in time to take Stackhouse's two surviving men into custody and help construct a litter with which to get JD down to the flats. Chris remembered how Buck hadn't let Nathan touch him, even to wrap his obviously painful wrist, as long as JD still seemed to need him. When the litter was ready, Chris had gone to his old friend and spoken to him, gently but firmly, urging him to relinquish the boy to him and Nathan and a couple of Karlberg's deputies. But Buck had been determined that no one would look after JD save himself. With an inexpressible tenderness, as though JD was made of spun glass, he'd gathered the limp form into his arms and lifted, coming to his feet in a long smooth easy motion that wouldn't jar the wounds. Chris had heard the sharp hitching breath he took as those injured ribs protested, but he never complained. He just carried JD to the waiting litter and laid him down on it in just the same way Chris had seen Sarah do with Adam when he was little, and only then did he blink and look around him and sink dizzily to his haunches. In the end, because his bad ribs wouldn't let him mount, he'd been brought back to Eagle Bend on a travois, bumping down the trails without ever any word except to ask, every time they stopped to rest the horses, how JD was doing.

Doc Bell, Eagle Bend's practitioner of medicine, had come to Nathan's aid to care for JD's wounds. The bullet that struck his hip hadn't caused any serious damage: it had missed the leg socket by a good inch, and there was nothing there but muscle. Bell and Nathan agreed that the kid might, or might not, have a little limp, and he'd almost certainly know when it was going to rain, but that wound at least, so long as it stayed free of infection, wasn't likely to kill him.

It was the chest wound that had both healers worried. Nathan had been scared to go in; too close to the heart, he'd said. Bell had told him that, for that exact reason, he was the only one with a hand young enough, steady enough, to do it. The bullet, as it turned out, had been deflected by the breastbone (thereby accounting for the blood on JD's shirt and the difficulty he'd had in getting his breath), ranged up and to the right, and ended up lodged just above the lung and uncomfortably close to the axillary artery. Nathan had extracted it after a tense and delicate search, cleaned the wound and bandaged it while Bell saw to Buck's lesser injuries--a badly sprained wrist, several cracked ribs and a broken one, and the deep cut on his forehead. Buck had utterly refused to be budged from the room where JD was, and he didn't make a sound throughout Bell's ministrations. He'd kept his eyes fixed on Nathan as long as Nathan was working, and then on JD. That was all he seemed to notice or care about: JD.

This much, at least, Chris had expected. What he hadn't been so ready for was what Bell had told Karlberg after he got done with his autopsy of Marcus Bentann's body. He'd found that the man had been hit by two different bullets. One, which hadn't lodged but which by process of elimination (given just how many shots had been fired at the crucial moment) was almost certainly a .38 from JD's Colt, had entered his shoulder from the side, hit the second rib, bounced, shattered the collarbone, bounced again and gone out by the back of the neck. The other was a .32 from Cora Lejeune's M&H. It had gone in from the other side--into the chest--and slipped between two ribs to lodge in the heart.

"You're sayin' it was the girl's bullet that killed him," Earl Karlberg said.

"No, I'm not saying that. Either one could have done it. But the .38 only cut the pharynx--that's the gullet, more or less. From that, he'd have literally starved to death, because he wouldn't have had anything to carry food down to his stomach. I'm saying it was the heart shot that killed him quickly."

The gunfighter and the sheriff had taken a minute or two to digest this. "You was there, Chris," Karlberg observed. "Did you get the notion she really meant to shoot?"

Chris thought it over, bringing up before his mind's eye the picture of Cora's stance, her face, the tone of her voice. "No," he admitted slowly, "I don't. I think she was just hopin' to take him by surprise and force him to drop his gun so the rest of us could move in and take him. She maybe didn't stop to think he stayed alive for close to ten years by reactin' on instinct. It must've been a lot like what you or I would've done in the same situation. He wasn't seein' his niece just then, he was seein' a traitor, a threat. He tried to knock the gun aside, not stoppin' to think it might go off on its own or she might panic. Which exactly it was even I ain't sure." Pause, then: "What do you figure to do, Earl?"

Karlberg shook his head. "I guess technically it was murder, since he wasn't offering her any harm at the time. But to hear you tell it, if she hadn't brought that gun up when she did, he wouldn't have turned loose of Butterwick, and just maybe JD wouldn't have got a clear shot either. And Bentann would have ridden out on that horse and we might never have found him. You said she wanted to go with you on Butterwick's account. In other words, she loves the man. No jury in this Territory would ever find a woman guilty of murder because she shot to save her man, even if it was kin she shot. And, by God, I don't mean to waste the taxpayers' money over it. As far as I'm concerned, and as far as anybody not in this office right this minute is ever gonna know--" with a warning glare at Bell-- "it was JD Dunne, duly appointed sheriff of Four Corners, who killed Marcus Bentann in a legitimate effort to stop him from escapin' justice."

And Chris nodded. "It'll be better that way. If it's good with you, Earl, I think I'll tell her. I've watched Ezra enough that I think I can lie a little better, of the two of us."

By the time he went to her, she'd had a hot bath and fifteen hours of sleep and gotten past the shock. He told his lie, with Jeremy Butterwick there too, listening, and he thought they both accepted it, perhaps because they believed, perhaps simply because they wanted to believe. He hadn't told Karlberg the real reason he wanted to be the bearer of good tidings. He had just wanted to see her again and to think how Sarah would have done what she had done.

Late that evening, though, Jeremy had intercepted him on the stairs and asked for a private moment of his time. "I feel a little at fault in what's happened, Mr. Larabee," he admitted. "It was my being in Bentann's household as Frank's agent that set him and Mr. Blakemore on Buck's trail. Of course Bentann would almost certainly have found him anyway, but Frank and Mr. Blakemore wouldn't have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Cora...well, Cora wouldn't have had any reason to do what she did. I wanted you to know that I thank you for sparing her."

Chris didn't need to ask "from what." On reflection he understood that to have succeeded in his double role for as long as he had, the young man would have needed a rare level of perceptiveness, to say nothing of the ability to hold his tongue. "I know you have to be thinking about what's going to become of Buck now," Jeremy went on, "and I thought I should tell you that I doubt he, or you, has any reason to worry. If the Kansas authorities had known the names of the men who rode in the Regulators, it wouldn't have been anywhere near as difficult as it was for Frank to get a line on people who might be able to shed light on Bentann's doings. And he and Mr. Blakemore wouldn't have broadcast their discoveries, in part because they had to protect me, in part because they would have been seeing any possible witness against the man as a client of theirs even before they spoke to him. Attorney-client privilege is sacred and recognized by law. No lawyer can be forced to reveal incriminating information about a client."

Chris remembered how Blakemore had repeatedly cited just that phrase when the gunfighter had tried to get him to reveal what his interest was in Buck. "You mean Buck ain't wanted?"

"That's exactly what I mean. There are no posters or rewards out on him, and now that Bentann's dead there'll be no need for him to testify. He's safe, Mr. Larabee. There's no reason he can't go back to Four Corners with the rest of you and pick up his life where he left it." He shrugged. "Not that I wouldn't have done everything I could for him, if it had come to that. But it won't."

For the first time in what seemed far too long, Chris felt that he could draw breath without seeing a noose around Buck's neck, and that allowed him to focus on other things. "What'll become of the girl?" he asked.

"Well, I'm twenty-four, and I probably know more about Bentann's affairs than anyone still living, including his lawyers. I've got some connections through Frank and Mr. Blakemore, and I think with all that I can get myself appointed as guardian to her, and to her cousins, Bentann's two young sons. Then, after she's out of mourning in a year or so, I'll ask her to marry me. That's something I have you and your friends to thank for, quite apart from saving my life. I'd been so certain I'd be exposed as one of the people bringing her uncle, and through him herself, to ruin and disgrace, and now, since there'll never be a grand jury investigation or a trial, that won't happen. We've known for a long time that for each other. Now there'll be nothing to stand in the way of our feelings, to make either one feel that we have some other loyalty to think about."

Chris nodded. "Take care of her, then. But watch yourself. There's a lot more to her than you might think."

"I already knew that," Jeremy said.

Josiah had telegraphed Mary in Four Corners to tell her that Buck was found and safe but JD was badly wounded. The next day Mary, Ezra, and Vin arrived in a rented two-seater buckboard. Nathan had looked as if he wanted to scold, but then he decided not to, even though Vin was hobbling painfully around with a crutch and Ezra had his right arm in a sling. He understood that they had to be there.

Ever since then they'd been taking turns sitting with JD in the room in the hotel. All of them but Buck. He wouldn't take turns with anyone. He just stayed.

Just past the head of the stairs Chris encountered Josiah, coming up the back way from the kitchen with a dinner tray. "Nathan?" the gunslinger inquired.

Josiah looked unhappy. "There doesn't seem to be much point bringing one for Buck. He doesn't even notice it's there."

"Maybe I can get him to eat," Chris offered.

"If it was Vin, maybe you could," the big man allowed, "but I doubt you can get through to Buck the way you can to Vin. I think the only one who can get through to him now is JD, and he's not trying to."

Nathan opened the door quietly at Chris's gentle knock. "Any change?" his leader asked evenly, as Josiah moved past to put the tray on the dresser.

The healer made a helpless gesture. "Look for yourself."

Buck was sitting where he'd been sitting for the last three days, in a chair pulled up beside the bed where JD lay. JD's face was waxen white, almost translucent; he looked frail, as if a breath would blow him away, as if he hung balanced on the dividing line between life and death. And Buck--Buck looked rougher than Chris could ever remember seeing him: pale, red-eyed, haggard and unshaven, his gaze fixed on the sleeping kid and his hand wrapped around JD's slack fingers.

"How are they?" Josiah asked quietly.

Nathan shook his head. "I just don't know, and that's God's honest truth. I been lookin' through every book I got--" Mary had brought them with her from the clinic-- "and I can't figure why JD ain't respondin'. I got the bullets out, the wounds wasn't all that deep, there wasn't nothin' important touched. He lost a fair bit of blood, but he's been asleep long enough for his body to start makin' new. There's no fever, he ain't infected. Best I can think is--well, I seen this in the War sometimes, mostly men that'd lost limbs or their sight: it's like he don't want to get better."

"You tell Buck?"

"Hell no, you think I'm crazy? Look at him. He ain't got out of that chair in three days 'cept to go to the outhouse. He ain't slept more'n one hour out of any six, and that was catnaps. He ain't had a bite of food. It's all I can do to get him to drink." The healer shook his head again, sadly, and looked from Josiah to Chris, including both in his assessment. "I got an idea that on some level he knows."

"If JD dies," the ex-preacher observed, "Buck won't last. You know that. He'll follow the boy in a month, most. Starve himself to death, or have an 'accident' cleaning his gun, or if he's lucky find a good righteous fight so he can go out in a blaze of glory."

Nathan sighed. "Don't I know." And he looked again toward the two quiet figures at the bed.

"I think I'll go down to the Mexican church and light some candles," Josiah decided. "It won't do no good if it's God's will we're to lose 'em, but it'll at least make me feel a little better."

When he'd gone out, Chris asked, "Think it'd do any good if I tried talkin' to him?"

"Well, you've known him longer'n any of us," Nathan admitted, "and it couldn't hurt, anyhow."

Taking that for a yes, Chris quietly crossed the room and sank down into a heel-squat beside the chair, his hand falling gently on his old friend's shoulder. "Don't you reckon you ought to get some food and sleep a little, pard?" he asked. "You keep on like you're goin', you'll make yourself sick, and that won't be no help to JD. And he wouldn't want you to, you know that."

Buck blinked and slowly turned his head so he could split his attention between Chris and the boy. "Ain't nothin' I can do gonna be a help to JD, Chris," he returned evenly, his voice rusty from disuse. "But I told him I wasn't goin' nowhere, and I don't aim to break my word to him. I ain't lettin' him die alone."

Nathan was right. He does know, Chris told himself. "He won't, Buck. We're all here."

"No," Buck insisted. "No, he needs to have me with him when he goes." He was silent for a moment, and then his dark eyes went distant and he said softly, "I'm gonna kill him, Chris."

"What?" Chris echoed in confusion. "Who are you gonna kill, Buck?"

The dark-haired man went on as if he hadn't spoken. "I ain't give this no serious thought in a dozen years or better. But if--when--JD dies, I'm goin' back to Delaware and find my pa and kill him."

"Why?" Chris asked, frowning in puzzlement. "What's your pa got to do with JD?"

"If he hadn't give my ma that sickness," Buck explained calmly, "she'd've never died like she done, and likely I'd've never fell in with Bentann. And JD wouldn't had to try to save me, and he wouldn't got shot. I can't kill Bentann or Freely or Stackhouse, but I can kill the man it all traces back to. I'm gonna kill him, Chris," he repeated.

At least it'll be a reason for him to hold on, afterward, Chris thought, but the notion was dispelled when Nathan came up on Buck's other side and said, "You can't do that, Buck."

The gunslinger swung his head around, eyes alight with anger. "Don't tell me what I can't do to settle scores for the boy, damn you, Nate!"

"Got nothin' to do with settlin' scores, Buck." The healer's reply was even, unruffled. "You can't do it on account it's already too late. Your pa's dead."

Buck looked bewildered. "Why do you say that, Nate?" Chris inquired. "How do you know?"

"You remember when you was tellin' us about Bentann, Buck, and you talked about the symptoms your ma had them last couple weeks afore she died?" Nathan continued addressing the grieving gunslinger, but Chris knew the words were directed to him as well. "I ain't seen it at that stage, but I've read about that sickness. It's called syphilis. It's a sidewindy kind of ailment, sort of like pneumonia. It's got two early stages, what the books call primary and secondary, and then a long 'latent' spell 'fore it gets to tertiary. The primary stage is a painless little sore that shows up ten days to three months after infection, and the secondary is a rash and maybe slight fever and headache, which come along about a week to six months after the sore disappears. The disease can spread durin' either one of them stages, but they don't last more'n about six weeks each, and lots of folks never realize they've got 'em. That's why it spreads so easy, 'cause the people carryin' it don't know they're sick. Then it kind of goes into hibernation a spell, don't show, can't be caught, just works away inside till anywhere from ten to thirty years after infection comes the final stage, the one you saw in your ma. How old are you now, Buck?"

"Thirty-eight last April," Buck admitted.

"Well, there it is, then. That means no less than eight years back, maybe as much as twenty-eight, your pa went into the tertiary period too. If you catch it early, the sickness can be treated; I seen it done in the War, injections of sulfate of zinc, nitrate of silver, and sugar of lead, plus light diet and cauterization. One of the Massachusetts surgeons said that all cases he treated by that method 'recovered without secondary disease.' But by the time it gets to tertiary, there ain't no medicine known that can ease it. He's dead, Buck. And he didn't die easy, no more'n your ma done."

Chris could see the hopelessness take hold of Buck then, and he knew he was seeing the birth of a death wish. It was something he was all too familiar with. And what right did he have to tell Buck not to give in to it, when he was still barely willing to admit that life might be worth living for himself?

Then Nathan spoke again. "But what you said before, about not bein' able to help's just possible you was wrong, Buck."

Both men's heads came up sharply. "You ain't foolin' me, Nate?" Buck asked, his tone half desperate, half alive with hope.

"Thinkin' about what I've read of this syphilis," Nathan explained slowly, "puts me in mind of somethin' else I've been seein' in the journals. It seems there's doctors that believe folks can hear what's goin' on around 'em even when they're unconscious. There's evidence that suggests when a patient's loved ones talk to him and encourage him, he hears it somehow, and sometimes, if he ain't sunk too deep or if the bond's strong enough, it brings him back. Nobody knows how it works, but it's been observed too many times to be dismissed out of hand." He squatted down on the other side of the chair, mirroring Chris's position. "I've been thinkin' about this ever since we fetched JD in, Buck, and I got a notion it ain't just the wounds that's at fault here. I got a notion he's too ashamed to wake up and face you. He can't forget the way he turned away from you after you told us about Bentann, the way he didn't even come to the stage to tell you goodbye. He thinks, on some level, that you hate him now." When Buck took breath: "I know you don't, and you know you don't, but JD don't know it, and that's the point here. He's got it set in his mind that you won't want to be around him no more, and to JD, not havin' you in his life means life ain't worth the livin'. He needs to know that you forgive him, Buck."

The gunslinger slowly turned his head back to look at JD, his eyes wide and full of tears. "Is that what's doin' this? Is that all it is, this crazy kid thinkin' I don't care for him no more?" He swung around to Nathan again. "You ain't pullin' my leg, Nate?"

"I'm tellin' you what's in the journals, Buck. I can't exactly vouch for it first hand myself. But this I'll say. I seen some things in the War that Josiah'd likely call miracles. To me what they looked like was men makin' up their minds they was gonna live, or get better, or learn to walk again, or whatever, and that's what they done. There's such an awful lot doctors don't know yet, Buck, about how healin' the body ties in to the patient's thoughts and feelings. All I can tell you is, there ain't no way it could make JD any worse. If he don't come out of this real soon, he'll just fade away from starvation. You need to make the try."

Buck returned his attention to JD, gradually shutting out all other awareness. It can't be that simple, he thought.

How can he think I hate him? I told him at the mine that I understood. I held him like I always do when he needs me.

But I didn't tell him I forgave him.

Is that it? Is that what he needs, just to hear them words?

Hell, boy, if it would save you, I'd say anything, don't you know that?

And I'd mean it. Like I mean this.

He shifted slightly in the chair, settling himself more comfortably, and leaned forward, both hands clasping JD's nearer one. He licked his lips and hesitated, putting his thoughts in order. "JD," he began quietly, "now you listen close, son. Nate says you can hear me, and he says there's somethin' you want to hear me say. I figured you knew me well enough that you already knew it, but it looks like you didn't."

His grip tightened slightly. "I forgive you, JD. Do you hear me? I forgive you. I forgive you thinkin' bad of me, and runnin' out of Nate's clinic like the Devil was after you, and not comin' to see me off. I know how you was feelin', son, on account I've felt it too. It don't make you bad, and it don't make me hate you. Hell, boy, don't you know there ain't nothin' you can do that would ever make ol' Buck hate you?"

His voice hitched on the dryness in his throat and Nathan's dark hand thrust a glass of water in front of him. He let go JD's hand long enough to take it and drink, then went on: "Nate says you've got it set in your mind that you won't be havin' me around no more, and that makes you feel like you wanta die. But you do got me around, and I ain't leavin'. You hear that? There ain't no way you're gettin' rid of me. And you just think about this a minute. If not havin' me scares you as bad as all that, what do you think not havin' you would do to me?

"We're partners, JD. And it's gonna take more than just a little misunderstanding to drive a wedge in between us. Now you think a little on that, and then you understand: I want you back here with me, okay? So you just turn around and come back. I'm waitin' for you, JD. Come back and open them eyes and tell me it's all right between us. Come on, now. I know you can do this if you try, son. I know it ain't easy, but you can lick it. Everything's gonna be okay, I promise. I'm right here waitin', and so's Chris, and Nate, and Josiah, and even Vin and Ezra and Mary come up from Four Corners to be with you. You don't want Vin and Ezra to've wasted their trip, hurtin' like they are, do you? There ain't nothin' so bad the seven of us together can't lick it, but it's got to be all seven of us. We need to have you with us, little brother. And like I said before, I forgive you. You got my word I forgive you, and I ain't ever broke my word to you, JD, you know that."

//...he cares...knew it would hurt you, and mar the picture you had of him, and make you sick...knows how that feels...experienced it from the other end...//

//...didn't tell us this to hurt us...//

//...whatever he used to be, it ain't what he is now...//

//...passed all these twenty years tryin' to make up for his past the only ways he could see to do it...//

//...everything you've taught me, everything I owe you...//

//...don't die on me, don't leave me knowin' you got killed tryin' to save me...//

//...don't matter...I understand...don't hold you no grudges...//

//...come on, son, don't do this...//

//...forgive you...//

//...nothin' you can do that would ever make ol' Buck hate you...//

//...what do you think not havin' you would do to me?...//

//...want you back here with me...//

//...turn around and come back...//

//...waitin' for you...//

//...know you can do this if you try...//

//...turn around and come back...//

// to be all seven of us...//

//...turn around and come back...//

//...forgive you...//

//...forgive you...//

//...turn around and come back...//



"JD? JD, you hearin' me?"


"Right here, son. Let me see them eyes open, now."

Blurred images solidifying as eyelids slowly parted, blinked, blinked again. "Buck?"

"Nobody else, boy."


"Yeah, JD. We're here too."

Another blink. "God, Buck, you...look like...hell."

"Been too busy lookin' after you to bother with me, boy. That's what bein' brothers is about."

JD's fingers turned in Buck's grasp, weakly returning the bruising pressure that enclosed them. "Damn,'re...squeezin' all the...blood out of my hand."

Buck loosened his grip with a guilty start. "Hell, I'm sorry, kid. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"Didn't say you...was hurtin' me...Buck." Weak grin. "Kinda...liked it. It gi'me...somethin' to...anchor onto." Sigh. "Don't think...could'a' found...way home...w'thout..."

Nathan leaned over to grasp his other wrist, his body bridged awkwardly across the boy's still unstirring form. "His pulse is stronger, guys."

Buck looked as if he would have let out a full-throated whoop if he'd been anywhere but in a sickroom. Chris could see the transformation come over him, the hopelessness and resignation flowing out like a retreating tide to be replaced by the old ebullient Buck he knew so well. "Aw, thank God," he whispered, his voice choked but his face split in a huge grin and his eyes bright with tears of relief. "Thank God."

"Naw..." JD replied. ", Buck..." Then his eyelids drooped again.

"Nate?" Buck demanded anxiously.

"He's just sleepin', Buck. He'll need to do a lot of that for a while, till he rebuilds his strength. But his pulse ain't anythin' like as faint and random as it was before. It's good and regular and a lot stronger."

"Is there anythin' we can do?" Chris wanted to know.

"Yeah. He needs to have fluids to replace all the blood he lost, and nourishment to get his strength up. I need a kettle of hot water so's I can brew him up some restorin' tea, and some good sturdy beef broth if you can get the cook to make any."

"You got 'em," said Chris at once, rising. As he started toward the door he heard Nathan addressing Buck:

"Soon as that hot water gets here, I want you to get cleaned up and shaved. And then I want you to get about twelve hours of sleep, and a good solid meal inside you. Surprises me you didn't fright JD clean into his grave the way you look, first thing he laid his eyes on..."

"Yeah, sure, Nate." Chris wasn't even sure Buck was responding to the words, just to the tone of the healer's voice. He grinned to himself as the door swung quietly shut behind him. He'd go talk to the cook, and then he'd find Mary and Ezra and Vin and Josiah. The kid would want to see all of them the next time he woke up.

Southbound Trail: One Week Later


"Yeah, son."

"You sure I ain't too heavy? You ain't hardly moved since we left Eagle Bend."

Buck chuckled and leaned back a little, against the pillows Nathan had rigged between him and the seat of the buckboard he was driving, with Vin sitting alongside him, crutch leaned up between his knees. The healer had insisted that chest wounds were always serious and JD shouldn't sit up for another full week, but JD was determined not to remain an invalid any longer than he could help. At length a compromise had been reached. JD would lie in the back of the buckboard, but Buck would sit with him and cradle him in a sort of half-sitting position so he could see at least a little of the country they were traversing and the three men riding cordon around the wagon: Chris on the right, Ezra on the left with his arm still in a sling, and Josiah directly behind. Josiah had taken Mary and the rented wagon back to Four Corners five days ago and returned with Ezra's Gambit on lead so he could make the trip in the saddle.

For the first four or five days after JD demonstrated his willingness to recover, Buck had been too focused on helping care for him to think about the possibility of going back. When he finally realized that all six of his friends seemed to take it for granted that he would, he'd had a hard time with the concept. Despite the acceptance and support they had all (except JD) shown in Nathan's clinic, despite JD demonstrating in the most unmistakeable way that he shared their attitude, Buck found his own guilt and embarrassment a difficult wall to get past. He understood that things would never be quite the same, that none of them would ever see him quite the way they had before, and while he was, as a matter of basic personality, much less shy of showing the vulnerable parts of himself than Chris was, it still troubled him that they had seen him at so trying a moment in his life.

Josiah, as always, had been the most perceptive toward his doubts and misgivings. "Knowing each other's weak points and moments of shame is one of the things that knits us together," he'd said, "because each of us understands that the others are no more perfect than he. We're all still learning about one another, learning where the sore spots are. I don't say it will be easy, but I think the process makes us stronger. Consider that even seeing Chris at his worst after his family's death, having him push you away as he did, didn't alienate you from him completely: you were still willing to come along to defend the Seminole village, and later to stay on and protect Four Corners. If you can do that for him, don't you think the rest of us can do it for you?"

"I hadn't thought of it like that," Buck admitted.

"You better think of it like that," Chris told him. "You ain't just one man no more, you know. You ain't even one of a two-man partnership. You're one of seven, and we all count on you, like we count on all the rest of the bunch. And if I have to make you go back, I'll do it. It's my turn to keep you goin' now, like you tried to do me."

JD, propped on a couple of pillows in the bed, had been untypically quiet while his elders talked. "Chris's right, Buck," he put in. "'Member out by Ship Rock after the ambush when I told you to lean on me? You got all six of us to lean on now. You shouldn't have to try to deal with all this on your own. You don't have to deal with it on your own. We all understand, and we all want to help." Then his hand came out to lie across Buck's wrist. "And I don't figure to have to say goodbye now any more than when you got on that stage. If you go, I'm goin' with you."

"You ain't in no shape to go with nobody, boy," Buck told him gruffly.

JD grinned. "You won't leave till I'm on my feet, I know that. You might end up campin' out in the hills or stayin' with Miss Nettie or somethin', but you won't go too far."

"JD, you got a job to do back there," the gunslinger tried to protest. "You got that damn sheriff's badge and the obligations that go along with it. You got Casey."

"I know," the boy agreed, "and I wouldn't want to leave either one. But I will if I have to, because bein' with you, helpin' you heal from all this, is more important. It's about choices, Buck. Same as how I might've made the same one you did if I'd ended up with some other bunch of men. You've been beatin' yourself up about Bentann for twenty years. It's time to put it to rest, and I want to do everythin' I can to make it so. I owe you that."

Buck thought of his realization, in Henneman and Blakemore's hotel room and later in Nathan's clinic, that he owed it to JD and the others to make it clear to them that they might be targets for Bentann. He didn't have that to think about any more, but he knew that if he did, he would have gone on as he'd begun, risking the possibility of not getting the immunity, not merely because it was the right thing to do and the best way to lay his ghosts, but because doing it would have meant safety for his friends. "You ain't got nothin' to make up for with me, JD," he said.

"Well, you ain't got nothin' to make up for with us," JD retorted in the same tone. "That's what we're tryin' to make you understand. Please stay, Buck. Come back to Four Corners with us. It's like you told me, there's nothin' so bad the seven of us together can't lick it, but it's got to be all seven of us."

Good God, Buck told himself in amazement, he really was hearin' me, every word. I wonder if he even realizes he's repeatin' somethin' I said when he was unconscious?

"I reckon you're right," he admitted. And with that it was decided.

He grinned, now, and patted JD's shoulder. "Hell no, kid, you ain't heavy. You don't hardly weigh no more'n a fly at the best of times."

"Just didn't want you gettin' a cramp in your leg, or nothin'," JD told him.

"When I get one, I'll let you know," Buck promised, and chuckled again.

The kid was quiet for a mile or so, enjoying the morning sun on his face and chest and the panorama of plains life all around him: a hawk circling high overhead, a distant scurry of antelope, the flash of dun-gray that was a cautious coyote ducking out of sight. "Buck?"

"What is it, JD?"

"Buck, 'd you ever...go back to Kansas City to visit your ma?"

The gunslinger swung his head around to look at Chris. "Yeah, one time. Me'n'Chris passed through after we was mustered out." He grinned softly. "I wanted Ma to meet him."

"You reckon...she'd like to meet me?"

Buck tapped the bowler hat that was angled to keep as much sun out of JD's eyes as possible, tilting it over the kid's face and fetching a muffled indignant sound and a lift of JD's hand to knock it away. "Kid, Ma would love you. Why'd you ask?"

"Well, I's thinkin'...maybe after I'm on my feet again...maybe come winter, when even the outlaws hole up, and things're likely to be quiet in Four Corners...I's thinkin' maybe, me'n'you could take a trip back there? If you didn't mind goin' and havin' company? Then you could introduce us, and I could tell her thank you."

"Thank you?" Buck echoed. "For what? You didn't never know her."

"Don't matter," JD told him, and yawned. "Just wanta thank her...for...havin' a big brother for me..." His head drooped against Buck's chest as sleep overcame him.

Buck smiled contentedly and shifted his position just a little so the kid wouldn't slide. "Anything you want to do, JD. Anything's fine with ol' Buck," he said quietly.

Nathan clucked at the team. "Get up, mules! Want to be home by nightfall."

Vin reached into the pocket of his buckskin jacket, produced a small pebble and hurled it expertly at the flank of the near animal. The mule gave a little jump and picked up its pace, its mate of necessity doing likewise. Vin grinned sleepily at Chris, slouched down a bit and pulled his hat down over his eyes. Ezra darted a look over his shoulder at Josiah and held up his forefinger in a gesture meant to convey: He lasted less than one hour out of Eagle Bend, Mr. Sanchez. I win. Josiah winked, nodded, and held up a silver dollar in a promise-to-pay before returning it to his vest pocket.

The buckboard swept on south down the road, taking the Magnificent Seven home.

The End

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