Only Wanted to Help

by Phyllis Loafman

Disclaimers: I don’t own them or we’d still be watching them. Just wanted to take ‘em and play with ‘em for a while. I promise to put them back where I got them.

JD stood and stretched as Chris and Vin approached. "Morning, Chris. Vin."

"Morning, JD." Vin greeted. Chris tipped his head as a greeting.

JD smiled. He had pulled early morning duty at the jail. "Well, ain’t nothing here, gentlemen. Ya’ll have fun. I’m going to get some breakfast." He tipped his hat and strode off down the boardwalk.

Chris dropped into the chair the younger man had just vacated. Vin took the second chair as he watched the younger man walk away. "That boy could find something to smile about in sand storm." Chris made a snorting sound as he pulled his hat down over his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

JD headed for the saloon and breakfast. He paused as Mary Travis came out of the newspaper office. "Morning, Miss Travis. Gonna be a pretty day, don’t you think?"

Mary turned and smiled at the young gunslinger. She had a hard time remembering at times that the good-spirited young man was one of seven men that protected the town. She was glad that Chris Larabee had allowed the him to join his band of protectors. She knew that gruff as Chris came across, he had a soft spot for JD and he would help the young man grow into a strong and tempered man. All of the men would help shape the man JD Dunne would become.

"JD. Yes, it’s looking to be a lovely day. And good morning to you. How are you today?"

"Why, I’m just fine, Miss Travis, thank you. And what brings you out so early this fine morning?" he asked with a smile.

Mary laughed and shook her head. "Oh, Lord, JD. You’re beginning to sound like Buck."

JD blushed. "As long as I don’t start to act like him. Towards womenfolk that is."

Mary smiled. Hopefully, he was right. "I have to hope you’re right about that. Care to walk me to the telegram office? I want to send a message to my father-in-law. He asked me to keep him apprised of Billy’s progress in his schoolwork."

They turned toward the telegram office, talking easily together. As they arrived at the telegram office, Mr. Jordan was coming out. "Morning, Mrs. Travis, JD. How’re ya’ll doing today?"

"We’re just fine, Mr. Jordan. I need to send a telegram, if you could , please."

"It’ll have a few minutes, Mrs. Travis. I have to deliver a telegram to Mrs. Potter down at the store first. It won’t take long."

"I can take that, Mr. Jordan." JD volunteered. "I have to go right by there."

The little man looked from the paper in his hand to the young man standing in front of him. "Well, I don’t know.."

"I could have already been there by now." He held out his hand, smiling. Mr. Jordan hesitated for a moment and, then, handed the paper over. JD tipped his hat and headed to the store.

+ + + + + + +

Mrs. Potter looked up as JD entered and called to him. "Morning, Mr. Dunne. Isn’t it a beautiful day?"

"Yes, ma’am. It sure is. I have a telegram for you." He handed the document to her and walked away to check out the white shirts. For some reason, he could not keep enough white shirts. He turned when he heard a soft exclamation from the woman. "Is everything alright, Mrs. Potter?"

"Oh, of course. Just a bit of bad news." She continued to stare at the paper.

"Anything I can do?" He walked over to the woman and placed a hand on her shoulder.

She looked up at him and gave a weak smile. "Oh, no. That is so very sweet, Mr. Dunne. But it is a delivery problem. Seems Mr. Simpson, the freighter over in Eagle Bend, is ill and can’t make my order delivery and stock is getting pretty low. I’ll just have to hope he can get it here before I run out of staples." She patted his hand and walked to the counter.

"Ma’am, could I help? Maybe, go to Eagle Bend and pick up the supplies for ya?" he asked, following her to the counter.

Mrs. Potter stared at JD. Reaching out she patted his hand again. "Oh, that’s so very considerate of you, JD. I couldn’t ask you to do something like that for me, though. I do appreciate the offer, but no, I don’t think so." She turned and started away.

JD quickly went around her. "Mrs. Potter, I don’t mind. I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t want to go. I could ask Buck to go, maybe even Vin, if ya think I can’t handle it. Back in Boston, though, I drove coaches for the owners. So I can drive a wagon. It’s only a day’s ride, so one day to get there and one to load and start back and we can be back on the third day." He raised his eyebrows and waited as she thought about. "Mrs. Potter, we can’t let Chris run out of those little cigars he chews on. He ain’t hardly civil as it is. If he can’t have a morning coffee and a cigar, he’s liable to shoot somebody." He grinned at the older woman.

"Lord of mercy, JD, you’re getting to be as good a talker as Buck Wilmington." She laughed as the frown on his face.

"You know, that’s twice I’ve heard that in the last twenty minutes. I can’t decide if it’s a good thing or not."

Both of them laughed at that. Finally she asked JD if he was sure that she was not taking advantage of him. He put on his most sincere face. "No, ma’am, you ain’t."

She smiled. "I would be most appreciative for the assistance." She went to the back of the counter. "Mr. Simpson knows where and what to get. He probably has it loaded already. He bills me later, so you don’t have to worry about carrying any money. Here’s a list of what I need and you can check the order against that. JD, are you sure Mr. Larabee would mind that you leave? I don’t want to get you in trouble with him."

"If Chris has any problems with it, I’ll just remind him about the cigars." The young man winked at the conspiracy. "We’ll be back in three days."

"I’ll arrange for a wagon and team at the livery. Yosemite will have them ready for you. Be careful" she called to his departing form.

+ + + + + + +

"BUCK!" JD called as he spotted the large man exiting the saloon, stretching his long arms above his head.

Buck turned at the call. "Morning, kid."

"Hey, Buck. You want to ride over to Eagle Bend within and pick up some supplies?"

Buck looked at JD with a puzzled expression. "Why are you riding to Eagle Bend when we got a perfectly good store here in town?"

JD gave him a look reserved for addled children. "Because, Mrs. Potter is running low and I offered to go get her stock order since the freighter is sick and can’t make the trip." He watched as Buck thought about the request.

"Well, I don’t have anything planned for a few days, so, sure, kid. Have you cleared it with Chris yet?"

"Nope. I was headed over to the jail after I talked to you."

"Want some company?"

JD nodded and the two friends set off to the jail.

+ + + + + + +

"JD, we were hired to protect the town. We ain’t freighters" Chris glared at the youngest member of the seven. Buck was standing behind the kid. He knew the expression of ire on Chris’ face was put there for JD’s benefit. Chris was waiting to get a rise out of the boy. But he was taken by surprise by JD’s answer.

"Chris, I figure going to get these supplies is protecting the town. Mrs. Potter says she’s almost out of coffee and you know how Buck is when he can’t have that morning cup." JD ducked for the swat he knew was coming his way from behind. He felt the wind from the blow ruffle the hair at the nape of his neck. Chris finally smiled, chewing on a Cheroot. Vin Tanner sat, taking in the antics of JD and Buck and wearing a lopsided smile he didn’t display near enough.

"Well, when you put it that way, I guess I have to send ya, just so we don’t end up putting Bucklin in jail for shooting someone first thing in the morning."

JD smiled and told him thanks. "Let’s go, Buck. Mrs. Potter is arranging for the wagon down at the livery." He turned back to the two men seated in front on the jail.

Buck grabbed JD by the neck, taking possession of the bowler hat the young man wore and pulling the lean form into the crook of his arm. The youth struggled in vain to break the lock around his neck. "Alright, Buck. I give up; let go. We got work to do" The exasperated youth struggled a moment more and then became docile in the embrace of his larger friend. Buck laughed and released JD. Tossing the bowler back over his shoulder, he strode toward the livery, using his long legs to put distance between the two of them. "Come on, kid. We’re burning daylight here."

JD stooped over and retrieved his hat. Slapping it against his leg to remove the dust, he hurried after the older man. He spun around and ran backwards, calling to Chris and Vin, "We’ll see ya’ll in three days." He tossed them his patented ‘JD’ grin and spun back around to catch up with Buck.

Chris shook his head. "Reckon we were ever that young?" he asked his companion.

Vin, his feet propped on the hitching rail and his hat pulled down over his eyes, never looked up. "As which one?"

Chris looked at the tracker from under the brim of his hat. "Good question." To which both men chuckled.

Three Days Later

"I can’t believe it’s so muddy. It’s taking too long to get back to town. Mrs. Potter is expecting us today." He chucked to keep the four horses pulling.

"Yeah, I know, kid. But if we get bogged down, we get bogged down. Ain’t nothing we can do about it." Buck looked over at the frowning youth. JD fought the reins as the horses strained under the load.of supplies and mud laden wagon. "You just work the horses and don’t worry about being late. We’re still ahead of the freighter, since he wouldn’t even have left yet."

JD nodded in agreement. He turned his focus to the task at hand. He glanced at the arroyo that ran beside the road. The early spring rains had combined with melting snow from the mountains to fill the deep wash with surging water.

"Looks like we got company." Buck pointed toward the rise, where two men sat astride horses. JD glanced up the hill, squinting into the sun. Buck shielded his eyes with one hand while the other balanced the shotgun on his knee.

JD looked back to the task of guiding the team. "Can you tell who is? Ain’t no cover around here if they mean to make trouble." He scanned the ground ahead for anything that they could use as a shield.

"Nah, they ain’t going to cause no trouble. I’d recognize that black duster anywhere." Buck relaxed and chuckled.

"You think he’d get hot in that thing."

Buck smiled. "Can’t get hot when you’re cold-blooded. And Chris can be a cold-blooded SOB sometimes."

JD laughed. Buck waved as the two horses started down the hill to intercept the wagon.

He grabbed the edge of the seat as the wagon lurched sideways. "Damn, JD. Watch it." Buck opened his mouth to make another remark, but the expression on JD’s face silenced the comment in his throat. Buck looked at the furrow between the boy’s eyes as he whipped the reins to encourage the horses to pull harder. Gripping the seat with one hand, the gunslinger felt the wagon slip closer to the edge. He didn’t want to interfere with the young driver’s concentration, he just held on and prayed. He glanced up the hill to watch their two friends progress. JD’s voice drew his attention back to their situation.

"The ground’s breaking away under the front wheel. The weight of the wagon is dragging us over." He slapped the reins against the rumps of the animals in front of him and called out to calm and encourage them. The four animals were beginning to panic as wagon pulled them back and sideways.

Buck sat perfectly still to keep from distracting JD, but the situation was getting worse. He glanced over the back to see the churning water just as the back wheel slipped over the edge. He turned back to the boy at the reins. "She’s going over, JD! We got ‘a jump!"

"NO! The horses! I can’t let them go over, too!"

Buck heard the crack in the kid’s voice. Boy was too soft-hearted to allow any animal to suffer if he could prevent it.

"Dammit, JD! We don’t have time for this." Buck yelled.

JD whipped the reins across the animals hindquarters. "Get off, Buck. Jump!"

"Not without you." Buck threw back at him. "We can’t save it, JD."

The boy hazarded a quick glance at the mentor. Turning back to the frantic animals, he said, "I can’t let ‘em go over."

"Ah, hell, kid." He looked at the arroyo, then at the horses. He braced his feet against the floor of the wagon and bent forward, the shotgun pointed down. He looked at JD, who nodded in agreement. He was vaguely aware of Chris yelling off to his left. He leaned over and, lining the shotgun up, he fired the first barrel into the tongue, splintering the wood. JD snapped the reins and spurred the animals forward. Once more, Buck fired at the tongue. The buckshot shattered the already splintered tongue. The weakened wood was no match for the power of the four powerful workhorses pulling in one direction as the heavy wagon pulled in the other. The boy slapped the reins across the rump of the animal directly in front of him. The horse dug in with his powerful hindquarters and surged forward. The tongue separated and the four animals pulled away from the men and wagon. JD tossed the reins as the horses pulled away. Before either man could react, the wagon tipped backwards and upended itself. Buck and JD were tossed from the wagon into the churning water.

Buck fought his way to the surface. He scanned the water for the dark head, but could not locate the boy. He struggled to maintain his head above the raging waters. He caught sight of Chris and Vin as they wheeled up to the edge and jumped from their mounts, ropes in hand. He saw Vin point to a spot closer to the bank than Buck’s own position. He was relieved to locate the dark-haired youth. The rush of water was carrying them both downstream rapidly. Chris tossed the coil of rope into the water beside JD, who latched onto the lifeline. Vin and Chris braced themselves as the water threatened to rip the rope from their hands or drag them in with the other two men. Buck started to swim toward the bank. He made eye contact with Chris for a moment and then something slammed into him and blackness descended on him.

Chris and Vin continued to pull until the soaked youth was free of the water and several feet away from the edge. As the boy coughed and spit up water, the tracker turned to the older man, the question unvoiced. Chris shook his head. Vin looked down river, but could not see anything. He turned his attention back to the sputtering youth on the ground. He knelt beside him and patted the heaving back, helping to clear water from the boy’s lungs and give him something to focus on.

JD collapsed on the ground and drew a deep breath. He was aware that Vin was on the ground beside him. He opened his eyes and drew his hand across his forehead. He saw the blood on his hand, but could not recall how he had injured himself. He glanced around and saw Chris standing behind him, looking out over the water. JD turned over onto his back and then looked around. He sat up quickly. Vin reached over to move the long dark hair and get a look at where JD was bleeding.

The youngest of their group jerked away from the probing hand of the tracker. Panic flooded the boy’s face. "Where’s Buck?"

Vin sat back on his heels, dropping his eyes to the ground. JD did not miss the slumped shoulders of their leader. His eyes grew bright with tears. "No!" He lurched to his feet. Before the Vin could react, JD charged toward the edge he had been dragged up only moments before.

"Chris!" Vin yelled as he missed a grab at the boy’s legs.

Larabee whirled around and tackled JD before he went over and back into the water. He fought to maintain a grip on the struggling youth. Tanner joined him and the two of them dragged JD away from the edge. He fought them the entire way, screaming for their lost companion. " No! We gotta help Buck. We gotta find him, Chris." His eyes pleaded with the blond. "Please. Chris, please."

Chris and Vin sat on the thrashing young man. "Why did you throw the rope to me? I was closer to the bank. I could ‘a made it." JD continued to thrash under their combined weight. "You owe Buck. You owe it to your oldest friend to at least try. Dammit, Chris, you owe him. He backs your plays, protects your back, everything. And you didn’t even try. You should’ve at least tried." JD finally wore himself out and lay still. Tears ran down his face and disappeared into his hairline as he lay on his back. "Why didn’t you save him? You should have saved Buck, Chris. You didn’t even try."

Vin pushed back the dark hair and revealed the bleeding gash it concealed. Chris sat back on his heels. He watched as Vin checked the gash. "I’ll get some bandages." Chris stood and started to walk to the horses. A quiet voice stopped him short.


He knelt down beside the shivering boy. "What’d you say, JD?"


Chris’ brow knitted in confusion. "Why what?"

"Why didn’t you try to save Buck?" There was no accusation in his voice, only question. "Why did you throw the rope to me?"

Chris patted JD’s shoulder "Because we knew we could reach you. Buck was too far away. We might not have gotten to him and then we’d lost you both."

"Should have gone for Buck. He’s your oldest friend. He’s stuck with you all these years." JD’s voice grew softer and wispy as he spoke. "I ain’t worth Buck. Don’t know nothing. Can’t keep out of trouble. You should have tried to save him."

"Buck would have made the same choice, JD. You rest. We’ll talk later." He stood and went to the horses.

JD closed his eyes, his voice barely above a whisper and neither man heard him. "I killed him. I killed Buck." And the distraught youth slipped into the beckoning darkness.

Chris stood by his horse, his hands laying on the saddle. The tears came and he couldn’t stop them. JD was right. Buck had always been there for him. He felt a hand on his back. Vin squeezed the black clad shoulder.

"Chris, weren’t nothing we could do to help Buck. We’re just lucky we got JD." The tracker walked away and allowed Chris to gather himself.

The man in black straightened and wiped the moisture from his cheeks. He took a deep breath and made a vow to watch over the boy that Buck had held so dear. He turned and walked back to the other two. JD was awake, but not fully aware. He moaned and tried to roll over.

"JD, you okay to ride?" Vin asked.

The boy looked at the older men, hazel eyes huge in a pale face, and nodded. Vin reached down and pulled JD to his feet. Chris reached over and put a steadying hand on his shoulder as he swayed. Chris, not taking his eyes off the groggy young man, told the tracker, "Vin, you get the team and I’ll take JD." The tracker nodded.

Chris kept his hand on JD’s shoulder and led the boy to his horse. "JD, you ride in front of me." The boy put his hands on the saddle horn, but did not try to mount. Chris moved his hand from the shoulder to the neck of the boy and leaned into him. "It’s okay, JD" he whispered. "I know it hurts. Just know that he loved you. It wouldn’t help now, but it will later."

JD slowly turned his tear filled eyes to Chris. He nodded his head slowly, the only sign he gave to acknowledge Chris’ words. He turned back to the horse and, with a small assist from Chris, hoisted himself into the saddle. Chris mounted behind him as Vin joined them, leading the team. Vin nodded and the three men headed to town.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra and Josiah sat in front of the jail, studying the movement of wagons and people traveling through town. The sharply dressed gambler leaned forward and glanced to the edge of town. "What time do you anticipate the return of Misters Larabee and Tanner with our ‘freighters’, Mr. Sanchez?"

"Oh, I would expect anytime now. Though they might have been delayed by the recent rains." The preacher’s deep set eyes narrowed to slits as he looked up the street. "Or maybe not."

The two men rose as they watched the small group of horses approach. Josiah’s brow knitted. He stepped off the sidewalk and started down the street. Ezra joined him.

"That would appear to be our fellow peacekeepers, but there is no wagon accompanying the animals. Is that the team of animals that Mrs. Potter rented for Mr. Dunne?"

As the horses got closer, they saw JD slumped in front of Chris. They watched Vin turned toward the livery with the team of animals. Chris continued on to Nathan’s. Josiah and Ezra reached Chris as he stopped his horse. Josiah took the reins as Chris patted JD on the arm. "Come on, JD. Let’s get ya up to Nathan’s"

The boy sat up and slowly looked around. Chris stepped off his horse, keeping his hand on JD’s leg. Ezra looked at Chris, his eyes asking the question of what happened. A quick shake of Chris’ head kept Ezra from voicing that question.

JD slipped from the saddle into black clad arms. He staggered slightly and ended up leaning against Chris. He gathered his composure and shrugged off the steadying hands. "I’m fine, Chris. I can walk." The boy’s posture belied the bravado of his words. He stood slumped shouldered and his head hung down, the long dark hair obscuring his face.

"I know, JD. I just want to have Nathan check that cut." Chris guided the youth to the stairs that led to the town’s healer.

Nathan was just coming out of the store when he spotted the trio coming into town. He hurried along the sidewalk and arrived as Chris and JD reached the stairs leading to his room and office.

"Chris, what happened?" He took JD’s face in his hands and checked his eyes. The boy offered no resistance. That alone sat alarms off in Nathan’s head. "JD, you dizzy?"

Hazel eyes slowly blinked. Nathan could see the boy trying to focus on him. He placed a gentle hand on the smaller man’s back and led him up the stairs. "Come on. Let’s get that gash cleaned up." He followed behind the swaying youth, a hand at his back just in case. He heard Chris following them up the stairs. He wanted to know what happened, where Buck was, where the wagon and supplies were. But the questions would have to wait. He had an injured man to care for.

They entered the room and Nathan led JD to a bed and gently pushed him down. He gathered the things he needed and tended to the wounds. He cleaned the gash on JD’s forehead. It wasn’t deep, but ragged. It would heal, but JD would have a nasty scar. Luckily, it was along the hairline and wouldn’t show unless the boy cut his hair and that didn’t seem much of a possibility. Neither he or Vin were keen on barbers.

"There ya go, JD. Why don’t you lie back and relax for a while?"

"I’m fine, Nathan. I can rest in my room." He started to stand up. Nathan had seen Chris shaking his head behind the boy.

"JD, I think you should rest here. I don’t think you have a concussion, but just to be safe, I want you to stay here."

He watched as the exhausted young man slumped back on the bed. Nathan bent down and drew off the boy’s boots, while Chris pulled off his jacket. JD looked over his shoulder at the blond man. "Chris?"

"Yeah, JD?"

"I’m sorry. I know you did what you could. Thanks for being there." JD turned back and lay down, curling onto his side. He closed his eyes, forcing a single tear to roll down and across the bridge of his nose. Nathan pulled a blanket up over him and gave Chris a look inviting him outside.

They stepped out the door and were immediately joined by three very worried men. Vin had told Ezra and Josiah what had happened at the river. Chris filled Nathan in on the days events. Nathan watched as Chris ran a shaky hand through his hair.

"We couldn’t reach Buck. We barely got JD snagged. Buck.. . he saw… just before one of the crates hit him. He knew the kid was.." Chris walked over to the railing and leaned over, his head in his hands.

Vin joined the blond leader and placed a foot on the railing. "How’s JD?"

When Chris didn’t respond, Nathan told them he was okay. "No concussion. The gash is nasty, but it’ll heal. He’s sleeping now, but I don’t think I’ll have to keep him up here past tonight."

Chris straightened and looked at the healer. "We can’t leave him alone. He thinks this was his fault."

Vin glanced around at Chris. "He was mumbling when we were coming in. He kept saying something about killing Buck." Chris told the group.

"Oh, good Lord. Why would that child think he could responsible for this tragedy?" Ezra walked over to the door and placed his hand on it as if to get closer to the boy that slept on the other side.

Chris frowned, his mouth drawing tight. "Same as any of us, Ez. We all feel responsible for the others. We just have to convince JD that this wasn’t his fault." Chris looked around the men gathered on the small porch. "We’ll take shifts for a few days. Don’t talk about Buck, unless JD brings him up. We’ve lost one, I don’t want to lose another."

They all nodded their agreement. Ezra volunteered to take first watch. He suggested that Vin and Chris eat and then rest. They were tired physically as well as emotionally. He stood a moment to watch the heartsick foursome trudge down the stairs. As they crossed the street, he gathered his courage and entered the room that held the boy they all worried about.

JD lay on the bed, curled away from the door, his feet and legs tucked up close to his body. The gambler pulled a chair closer to the bed. He knew the boy was awake. No one slept that tightly curled. There was no relaxation in the posture of the youth. Ezra wanted to say something. anything to help this innocent deal with his loss, but there were no words to ease the pain. That would only come with time. Time that the five men would make sure he had. Seeing the shuddering shoulders, the southerner reached out and placed a hand on the dark hair. He felt a flinch and then the tremors that racked the slight frame.

"It is most acceptable to weep, Mr. Dunne. We have all lost a loved and honored brother. Just be aware that you do not weep alone, son." Ezra’s voice was barely a whisper. He could not muster the strength to raise his voice above that raspy, grief filled whisper. He sat quietly, stroking the dark head and soon saw the tension leave the body and relax into a deep sleep. Dusk came and went and the room turned dark. That was how Josiah and Nathan found them a few hours later.

Ezra heard the light footfalls as they entered. He waited as Nathan found and lighted a lamp. The harsh light caused Ezra to turn his head. Nathan turned the lamp down and carried it over the bed. He reached down to check, nodding that the boy was asleep and resting. Ezra stood and stretched.

"He wake up any?" Nathan asked.

"No, Mr. Dunne has slept the entire time of my attendance. I believe he must be exceedingly tired, as he did not stir once." He tipped his hand in a mock salute. "As I am being relieved of my duties, I will bid you gentlemen good evening. I will see you tomorrow." He took one more look at the boy and left the room. Nathan took the chair Ezra vacated and sat down to watch over his young charge.

+ + + + + + +

Chris rose the next morning and decided to visit Nathan’s and check on JD. He could hear raised voices as he approached the bottom of the stairs. He quickened his pace. He opened the door to find Nathan trying to keep JD on the bed.

"I’m fine, Nathan. I ain’t staying in bed all day if there ain’t nothing wrong with me." JD pushed the black healer away and pushed up to stand as Chris entered the room. Both men turned to look at the newcomer.

"Chris. Maybe you can talk some sense into this hard headed…" Nathan threw up his hands in disgust and left his statement hanging in the tense air. He walked away from the boy to sit across the room. JD stood and grabbed his jacket off the chair where it had been hung to dry.

"JD." Chris spoke softly. The boy stopped in first of their acknowledged leader. "Don’t you think you should rest one more day? You were pretty weary yesterday. One more day resting couldn’t hurt."

JD’s head was shaking before Chris finished his statement. "No. I’m fine. It’s only a little cut and I slept all night. I’m rested."

The boy could see the doubt in the blond man’s eyes. "Really, Chris. I got a lot to do today. I got to talk to Mrs. Potter about paying her back for the supplies I…" JD’s eyes dropped for a moment and then rose to meet Chris’ again. "And Yosemite-I need to replace the wagon. And Buck promised to help Miss Nettie with a fence."

Chris held his hand in front of the boy’s face. "Whoa. Hold up a minute, boy. The day is only so long. I don’t think you got time to do all that today."

"Oh, I know that Chris. I don’t plan on doing it all today, but I need to get started. I just can’t sit up here all day. There’s nothing wrong with me."

Chris looked over JD’s head at Nathan. Nathan shrugged his shoulders. Chris nodded and placed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. "Sounds like you put a lot of thought into this, so I suppose you better get started. Do you want some company?"

"Thanks, Chris, but I need to do this myself. But I appreciate the offer." JD tipped his hat to Nathan and headed out the door.

Chris saw Nathan’s raised eyebrows and threw up his hands. "I’ll keep an eye on him." Chris followed JD out the door and down the stairs. "JD! Wait up a minute." The boy stopped and waited for the gunslinger. "How about we get some breakfast before you head out?"

JD flashed a tiny smile at his idol as he shook his head. "Thanks, Chris, but Nathan brought some food up earlier. I’m just going to go talk to Yosemite about the wagon and Buck’s horse. I’ll catch up with you later."

Chris watched as JD hurried down the street. He failed to notice as Vin appeared at his elbow. "Ya going to follow him?" Vin asked quietly. Chris flinched.

"I wish you won’t do that, cowboy."

Vin couldn’t contain the lopsided smile that crept onto his face. "Just staying in practice."

Chris glared at him under the brim of his hat. He turned away from the retreating figure and headed for the saloon. Vin followed. "No, I don’t think we have to follow, just keep track of him through the day. He seems okay, but he could be putting on a show for us."

"He was pretty upset yesterday."

"Yeah." Chris looked thoughtful. He turned his gaze to Vin. "What do you think, Vin? You don’t think.he’d..."

"No. I can’t see JD hurting himself. I don’t think." Vin looked at the black clad gunslinger. The thought hung in the air between them. Josiah walked up to the table and stood, glancing from one to the other.

"I miss something?" he asked.

"We were just talking about JD." Chris leaned back in his chair. He studied the preacher for a moment. "You think JD could hurt himself over this?"

Josiah pulled out a chair and sat. "Anyone could, given the right situation. Has JD reached that point? I couldn’t say." Josiah pushed his hat off his head and let it hang down his back. His small eyes bore into Chris’. "I pray that he has not reached such a desperate frame of mind. It might be a good idea to keep an eye on him for a while, like you said yesterday"

"Damn" Chris said. "I don’t want to lose another friend." He pushed away from the table. "Come on, Vin. Let’s go see what the boy is up to. Josiah, you and Ezra watch the town if we have to leave."

Josiah nodded as the other two strode out the doorway.

+ + + + + + +

On the boardwalk, Vin pointed with his chin as JD entered the Mrs. Potter’s store. "Want to go in?"

"No. Let’s not crowd him." The two friends strode over to the jail and sat down to watch the boardwalk in front of the store. Several minutes later, JD came out, minus his jacket and hat, wearing an apron. He set about sweeping the boardwalk and straightening merchandise out front.

Chris sat back in his chair, his fingers templed across him abdomen. Vin just watched. Turning to his companion, he asked, "Is this a good sign?"

Chris tapped his forefingers. "Well, I reckon they came to an understanding on how JD would pay Mrs. Potter back for the lost supplies."

Vin turned to the blond and stated, "Didn’t we already arrange to pay for that stuff?"

"Yeah, took some fancy talking by Ezra. She didn’t want to take it ‘cause of what happened. Seems everyone wants to take the blame for it."

"Does the kid know?"

"No. He wouldn’t ‘a wanted that. Mrs. Potter and Yosemite are letting him work off his ‘debt’. I told them if he asked to let him do it. I had hoped he’d do this. Kid feels responsible to everybody." Chris leaned back and sighed. "Maybe he’ll wear himself out each day ‘til he’s had time to get over this."

Vin looked over at Chris.

"Don’t look at me that way. You know what I mean. He’ll never ‘get over’ this, but he will learn to move on."

"Yeah, cowboy. I understand."

+ + + + + + +

They all kept an eye on JD through out the day. Josiah convinced JD to help with the church roof and Nathan asked him to go check on of the outlaying ranches with him. By evening, the young man was too tired to sit up straight. He had joined the other five in the saloon, only staying for a few minutes. He excused himself and headed to his room. The others watched as he trudged away. Chris moved away from the others to the doorway. He stepped out onto the boardwalk and watched the boy cross to the boardinghouse and disappear inside. He stood for a moment and then headed over to the newspaper office. He could see the light was on inside. He needed to talk. He needed to talk about Buck, but not to the others. Glancing in the window, he saw Mary sitting at her desk, her head in her hands.

He knocked on the window. She raised her head and saw Chris. Wiping at her eyes, she gestured for him to come in.

He entered the door and quickly came around the desk to squat at her side. "Mary?"

"I’m sorry, Chris. I didn’t want you to see me like this." She wiped her face again. "I was just trying to write about Buck I wanted to say. . I don’t know what I wanted to say. You’ve all done so much for the town. And Buck was special. All of you are special."

Mary’s words were like a balm to Chris’ raw emotions. He wanted to talk about his friend, as if to justify his existence, but knowing that someone outside of their group would mourn the passing of the big man helped. His loss would leave a huge hole not only in the town peacekeepers, but the town itself. He took Mary’s hands in his. He rubbed her knuckles with his calloused thumbs. They sat that way for several minutes, just looking into the other’s eyes, not talking. Finally, Chris rose and gently kissed her soft lips. It was a soft brushing of the lips, but enough to bring the color into both of their cheeks. Chris straightened and stepped back.

Mary stayed sitting, her hand fluttered at her lips. She wanted to take this man into her arms and kiss him deeply. His eyes bore through her skin to her very soul. But the moment passed her by and she watched as he pulled that impenetrable veil down and, once again, closed off the world. She smiled softly and thought ‘one day, Chris.’ She knew that one day she would break down that wall for good, but not today. Today he needed a soft shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen. Today he needed a friend.

She spoke first to prompt him. "How’s JD?"

"If you asked him, he’d tell ya he was fine. That’s he’s doing what he has to, but he’s not dealing with the hurt. He’s running around town trying to do right by everybody. Everybody but himself." Chris took off his hat and ran his hands through the blond hair.

Mary reached out and placed a hand on the black sleeve. "Give him time, Chris. Poor boy has only lost one person before this and he is most assuredly trying to sort his feelings."

"Yeah, I know, but he’s running all over town. He needs to stop and grief. But he’s afraid to slow up because he’ll have to face that grief." He looked out into the night, leaning against the doorframe. "Blames himself for what happened. Hell, he’s no more responsible for what happened then I as. It was an accident. They happen."

She stepped around and joined him in the door, enjoying the cool breeze. She looked at the starry night and then turned back to the gunslinger. She saw the sparkle of the unshed tears. Her heart ached for Chris and his loss. As much as she would miss the tall man with the easy smile and bright eyes, full of mischief, she knew that the loss was a hundred times worse for the man beside her. He and Buck had been friends for years. Buck had shared in parts of Chris’ life that Mary had only heard about. Buck has shared some of those memories with her once in a weak moment of concern for his friend. She heard about Chris’ response after she revealed Buck’s comments to her. You had to be a good friend to stay with someone after they put a razor to your throat. She suspected that was not the first time Chris had physically threatened Buck. But theirs was a friendship built on shared experiences and total honesty. They knew exactly where they stood with each other-side by side-always. And now that foundation had been taken from Chris’ world.

"Are you going to be okay, Chris?"

He gave a light lipped smile as he continued to stare into the night. A single tear ran down his face. She watched as it rolled down pass his nose and hung at the corner of his mouth. Diminished slightly in size, it continued downward pass his chin to disappear into his shirt collar.

Without ever turning to her he said "I don’t know, Mary. I have a hole inside me that aches something ferocious. Then I remember the kid and the short time he had Buck and I thank my lucky stars for all the "Buck" stories I have." He glanced down at her and, with a deep sigh, he turned back to watch the night sky.

Mary reached over and took his arm in her hands. She felt the warmth of his body in her palms. She leaned into him and they stood that way for a while. When she felt the muscle beneath her hands tense, she released his arm and stepped into the office once again.

"Chris, is Josiah going to have a memorial service?"

Chris turned to her with a frown on his face. "I don’t know. He hasn’t said anything." His frown continued as he thought a moment. "Guess it’d be a good idea. Maybe give JD a little peace." He turned to leave, tipping his hat to her. Before he exited, he told her that he or Josiah would get back to her first thing in the morning. Biding her good evening, he left the newspaper office. A chill settled in the small room and she closed and locked the door, feeling suddenly very alone and vulnerable.

+ + + + + + +

The five men talked over breakfast and Josiah left to arrange for a memorial service the following day. Vin and Chris went in search of JD. They found him at the livery, saddling Buck’s horse.

"What are ya doing, JD?"

JD spun around. "Damn, Vin, make some noise will ya?" He turned back to the chore of saddling the horse. "I thought I’d take Buck’s mare out for some exercise. She’s been cooped up here for almost a week. She’s getting pretty restless."

He turned as he finished, moving to lead the animal out. "Want to go?"

Chris put a hand on the younger man’s arm. "Hold up a minute, JD. We need to talk."

Vin reached out and stroked the horse’s muzzle. Chris stood in front of the boy and tried to figure out what to say. He studied the slight man of front of him, noticing the dark circles around his eyes and the sunken hollows of his cheeks.

"JD, you been eating?" he frowned as he reached for the boy’s arm. He was a little taken back when the young man stepped away.

"Yeah, I eat. I ain’t going to last very long if I don’t." He started to lead the big animal around the black-clad man. "I need to get going, Chris. I still need to get back and help Mrs. Potter this afternoon. "

"Okay. I’ll only hold ya up for a minute. Ya got to wait for Vin to saddle up, anyway." Chris gave Vin a nod and the tracker moved to saddle up.

"JD…" Chris hesitated. "We came to tell you Josiah’s going to have a service tomorrow.. for Buck. We wanted let you know." Chris studied the boy’s face. His only response was a tightening around the mouth. "Josiah wanted to know if you wanted to say anything or have him say anything special."

JD stood perfectly still, his hazel eyes blinking rapidly. Chris saw the moisture in those eyes even as JD fought to retain composure. Finally, his head dropped and the straight black hair veiled the sad eyes.

"Nah, I know he’ll know the right words to use. I don’t have anything. I .." his voice choked off. "Josiah knows what to say." He walked around Chris and mounted. "Vin, I’ll see ya at the edge of town." JD rode off.

Chris turned as Vin approached. "Keep an eye on him, Vin. I got a feeling he ain’t eating. He’s probably not sleeping either."

"Don’t worry, cowboy. I’m stick right with him." Tanner took off after the youngster.

20 Miles Away

Buck woke up disorientated again. Someone was with him. He heard movement in the cabin. He sat up, moaning.

"Well, morning. How ya doing today?"

Buck turned toward the voice. As his vision cleared, he looked around the room. It was small and contained the equipment that anyone looking for gold would have. Also, crammed into every open space, were crates of supplies. The same crates that Buck and JD were delivering to Four Corners. He vaguely remembered a mule ride to the cabin, a wagon, and a lot of crates in the wagon.

He looked at the man. To say he was ancient would have been an exaggeration, to the short side. He was stooped and dirty and toothless, but a happy soul as far as Buck could tell. Homer Wisdom had found Buck at the mouth of the arroyo along with half of the supplies, which had washed down with him. The old men had cackled with glee at the discovery. He had never had much luck hunting gold, but he had struck the mother lode that day.

Homer walked over and squinted at his houseguest. "Are you awake now? How ya feelin?"

Buck sat with his back against the wall of the cabin. He adjusted his shoulder to ease the pain. "Homer, right?" Buck reached up with his good arm and ran his hand through his hair. "How’s it going?"

The old man giggled and squatted on the floor next to the bed. "Yep. Yep, you’re here. I was beginning to think I was goin ‘ta have to drag you’re dead carcass back down to the wash." He rocked back on his heels and cackled again. "Hee, hee. It was damn hard getting you up here the first time. Weren’t looking forward to doing it again."

Buck had to smile. The old man was crazy as a loon, but harmless. "Well, Homer, I ain’t planning on dying just yet, so you don’t have to worry about ‘dragging my dead carcass’ anywhere." He looked around the small cabin. "You know this stuff ain’t yours." Buck pointed to all the crates of supplies.

"Well, I don’t see anyone’s name on them crates." His eyes twinkled as he spoke. He slapped his knee and laughed. "Nope, nope, ain’t no name. I ain’t givin’ ‘em back. Nope, nope, all mine. Mine, mine." He leaned in and placed his hands on Buck’s knees. The old man stared him right in the eye. "Boy, you got any idea how long it’s been since I had sugar to go in my coffee?" He moved back and the crazy glint was back in his eyes. "Nope, all mine. Ain’t givin’ it back. Sugar, coffee. Yep, that’s the way to go." With agility belying his age, Homer jumped to his feet. "You hungry? I was goin’ ‘ta fix some breakfast." He looked over his shoulder at Buck. "Yeah, you can eat. Ain’t dying. Ain’t sleeping. Yeah, I’ll fix some for two."

Buck watched as Homer fixed breakfast. The man had saved his life and he felt beholden to him. He wasn’t going to force Homer to take the supplies back. Hell, he thought, he couldn’t even if he had wanted to. When he got back to town, he’d find a way to pay Mrs. Potter for the supplies. Homer could keep the supplies, just so he took Buck back. The gunslinger needed to get home, he needed to see JD. God, please let JD be okay. He had seen the rope thrown. He was pretty sure it reached the boy. He needed to get home and make sure JD was well. Please, please be okay.

Buck shook his head to clear his thoughts. His head was sore where the crate had hit him, but his shoulder had taken most of the impact and that had been what saved him. After he was hit, he went under and was swept down stream. He managed to get to the surface and grabbed onto a crate. He didn’t know how long he was in the water. He woke up to find Homer bending over him, grinning toothlessly at him. It wasn’t a pretty face to wake up to, but at least he was awake. The old man had helped him to a mule and small wagon. He loaded the crates on the wagon and Buck onto the mule and slowly made his way back to the small cabin.

Buck had awakened a few hours later. He took stock of himself. He had a headache. Well, that was understandable. He had got hit by that crate. Okay, he’d taken a couple of hard knocks before. He moved his arms and legs. Oh, nope, not a good idea. Left shoulder was not good, but at least it worked. He could fell a bandage over what was probably a deep gash. Legs were okay. Same with the right arm. Okay, not bad at all, considering what he had been through. He looked around the small cabin. He saw the old man squatted at the fireplace. Buck groaned as he turned over. The sound brought the old man’s head around in his direction. He remembered the ancient frame popping up and heading toward him, but nothing after. He passed out before saying a word. That had been late yesterday as far as he could figure.

Buck smiled as the old man pushed a plate of eggs and biscuits under his nose. "Thanks, Homer. I really appreciate this."

"I don’t get much company out here. Hope that’s eatable. I never been much of a cook." He threw back his head and laughed. "Hell, there ain’t much to cook out here"

Buck smiled. Far as he could tell, he was south of Four Corners and in the middle of nowhere. "Homer, you think we could head to Four Corners today?"

Homer stuffed a handful of eggs in his mouth. Swallowing, he said, "Ain’t got nothing else to do today. Take a couple of days, so we’ll have to pack some supplies. Mable ain’t fast, but she’ll get us there."

Buck finished his breakfast. Handing the plate back to his host, he pushed away from the wall and made to stand up. He swayed slightly, but quickly regained his balance. He watched the gold miner dry wash the dishes and start gathering supplies. The old man made quick work of the job. Buck found he was the one holding up their departure.

Buck joined Homer on the wagon. "Don’t ya need to lock up or something?" Buck questioned.

"Hell, ain’t nobody been by here in ‘nigh on two years. Don’t ‘xpect that’ll change in the next week or so."

Buck grinned and asked, "Ya ain’t worried about somebody taking all them supplies?"

Homer cackled and slapped Buck’s knee. "They can take all they can carry if they got a horse. And, if they got a wagon to carry it all in, well, I don’t think I could stop ‘em it they came that prepared. Ain’t nothing in that place worth fighting for."

"I thought you’d fight to keep those supplies the way you told me you wouldn’t give ‘em back."

"Hell, boy, I’d fight you now. Reckon I could whap ya, weak as ya are, but I don’t plan on dying to keep ‘em. I’ve stayed alive this long ‘cause I know when to fight and when to give it up." He chucked the reins and they sat off for Four Corners and home.


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