by Phyllis Loafman

Set in the Easterner AU

Buck and Ezra rode slowly in the quiet morning, just finishing their morning patrol. The town of Four Corners was still wrapped in the arms of sleep and the streets were deserted. At least, they thought the streets were deserted. As they approached the livery, the dark form separated itself from the shadows.

"Morning, sirs."

The two men tensed, startled by the sudden appearance, before they recognized the shadowed figure. Buck and Ezra both removed their hands from the gun butts they suddenly found them on and relaxed in their saddles. Buck leaned on the saddle horn as he asked, "JD. What the hell are you doing up at this hour?"

The dark hid the features of the young boy, but the tilt of his head indicated his confusion. "My job. I'm supposed to take care of the horses for you."

"Yes, that is what we agreed upon, but I do not believe that you are to avail yourself to us at all hours of the day and night. You have to rest sometime."

"Oh, but I do. And if I sleep in the livery, I can be ready any time of the day. Plus, you never have to worry about the safety of your horses, cause I'll be right here if anything was to happen."

Buck had dismounted and now stood in front of the slight youth. "Son, we got you a room for a reason. You aren't supposed to sleep in the livery. You're not a servant."

"But, I'm used to sleeping near the horses."

"Yes, you are, but no longer will that be necessary, young sir." Ezra stated as he stepped from Chaucer to stand beside Wilmington. "Your job is to 'assist' us, not be our lackey. So, it's off to bed with you and we shall attend to our animals as usual."

On ground level, it was easy to see the boy's face under the dark bangs. The emotions that played across the young face were not what the two men wanted to see. Disappointment was the strongest and most evident, as his head dropped and the night shadowed his features. His shoulders drooped as he started to walk away.

Ezra turned to look up at the taller Wilmington who shrugged. Standish noted that the sun was beginning to tinge the horizon, hinting at the approaching sunrise. Buck shook his head, frowning. "Ezra, we can't…"

He didn't get a chance to finish as Ezra interrupted. "We shall have to work on the boy's very strong sense of duty and train him when to avail that emotion, but I don't think this is the way to do it."

Buck nodded. "JD!"

The boy turned to face the two, but did not move closer.

"You know? We are pretty tired, so if you don't mind starting work a little early?" The two men had to smile as the boy's face lit up in the dawn light.

He scurried back and took possession of the reins. His smile was brilliant as he tucked his lower lip under his upper teeth and the two lawmen could hear him talking to the animals as he led them toward the livery.

The two men moved off, heading for the saloon, knowing that Inez would be up and preparing breakfast. "Hard to believe anyone would want to hurt a kid like that." Buck stated flatly.

"I would have to concur Mr. Wilmington, but then the things that some people take pleasure in are often times beyond my comprehension."

Buck nodded and they entered the cool interior of the bar the six lawmen frequented. They sat down and Inez appeared with two cups and a pot of coffee. After ordering food, they relaxed the seats and drank the strong black brew. By the time Inez returned with food, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were coming through the door. Chris joined Buck and Ezra while Vin ambled to the bar and grabbed two cups and the pot as he smiled shyly at the dark-haired woman.

Vin joined the others. He sat the cups down and poured some coffee in both. Leaning the chair back, the tracker put his feet up in the empty chair next to him and brought the cup to his face, blowing the steam away and sipping.

"JD met us at the livery stable this morning." Buck commented.

Chris frowned as he drank the coffee. "What's he doing out this early?" He paused as early morning sunlight flooded the interior as the doors opened. The doors swung closed behind Nathan and Josiah. They joined the others at the table.

"I would venture to guess that the young man is accustomed to early mornings. He is only doing what he has been trained to do. We will have to be diligent in our endeavors to reshape the young man's view of his worth and position within our fair community."

"Talking 'bout the boy?" Nathan asked. Chris nodded.

Vin sat with the cup hiding his mouth, but his eyebrows were raised in question. "You thinking of retraining 'im like you would a dog, Ez?"

"Of course not, Mr. Tanner. I was merely voicing my concern that the young man does not have a very high opinion of his worth and we need to change that opinion."

Chris sat, looking down at the table as he listened. He raised his head and stated, "I thought we made it clear to him what we expected."

Buck shook his head. "It ain't that easy, Chris. The boy's been treated worse than most dogs. He's got the notion in his head that he owes us." Buck stopped talking as the object of their discussion came to the door and peered in.

JD glanced around and caught sight of the men. Wilmington waved the young boy in and the small form pushed through the swinging doors and approached the table. He walked up to table and stood, his hat in hand.

"Young sir, can I be of some assistance to you?" the southerner asked.

"I finished rubbing down your horses. Then I gave both of 'em some feed, fresh hay and water." JD did not miss the look in the gambler's eyes. "Mr. Yosemite told me where to feed the special blend that you give Chaucer."

Ezra relaxed and nodded.

The dark haired youth moved over to stand next to Buck's shoulder. "Excuse me, sir?" JD cleared his throat as the big man turned his blue eyes on him. "While rubbing down your gray, I found a cut on his chest, probably from a bramble bush or something. He flinches when I touch it, so the thorn might still be in there."

Buck was standing up as JD talked and the two of them headed out the door. The other five watched as the two left, the doors swinging back and forth. Chris turned back as Josiah drained his cup and sat it down. "Conscientious young boy, isn't he?"

The men looked at each other, nodding, but no one said anything.

+ + + + + + +

In the livery, JD showed Buck a small cut of about four inches on the fleshy area of Beavis' chest. The big-chested animal twitched as Buck examined the wound. JD stood at the animal's head and cooed softly.

"You're right, boy, there's a thorn in here." Buck confirmed. Beavis flinched, twitching under Wilmington's hand. "Okay. Easy there. Just one minute. Ah, there we go." Buck announced, plucking the thorn from the gray hide.

Beavis snorted and backed away from the pain. JD tried to pull the animal's head down as he backed away, but found himself pulled forward and off balance. Buck grabbed hold of the bridle and kept the animal from jerking the boy off his feet. "Whoa, there, boy. Take it easy, now."

JD released the reins and stumbled to the side of the stall, his eyes wide before dropping his gaze to the stable floor. He stood to the side, his head down as Wilmington quieted the gray horse. The boy continued to stand with his eyes cast down as Buck cleaned the wound. Finding nothing else, he patted the powerful neck.

"There ya go, boy. That's better now, ain't it." Buck said soothingly. He removed the bridle and started out of the stall, but stopped when he noticed the boy still standing near Beavis' head, his head down. "Come on, boy."

JD jumped at the voice and moved quickly out of the stall. Buck closed the stall door and turned to the boy.

"I'm sorry, sir. I was negligent and you could have been injured. I should have been more diligent."

Buck studied the dark haired boy. "Boy, what do you weigh? Seventy-five pounds soaking wet?"

The man reached out to raise the boy's chin, only to have him flinch away. Buck went down on one knee so that they were on eye level with each other. "JD. Look at me, son."

Buck waited a couple of seconds and then reached out and touched the boy's arm. Tremors shook the slender limb and, inwardly, Wilmington cursed the people that had instilled such terror in the ten-year-old. Buck left his hand on the trembling arm.

"JD. I'm not going to hurt ya, son. I'd never raise my hand against ya. Please look at me."

Finally, the hazel eyes rose to meet his gaze and Buck saw the tears in those eyes. Buck's fury must have shown on his face because the boy started away.

"No, don't back away. I'm not mad at you, son. You do good work. Beavis is a big, powerful horse and him pulling ya off your feet? Ain't no shame in that. You did good."

The young boy studied the man in front of him for a minute and then smiled weakly.

Buck grinned. "Well, now, that's better. What say let's go eat what's left of my breakfast? You eat yet?"

When the boy hesitated, Buck shook his head. "I'll take that hesitation as a 'no.' Come on. Let's go eat."

He stood and placed his hand, lightly, on the boy's back. The two of them headed back across to the saloon.

They entered the saloon and moved to join the others at the table. Buck sat down, but JD tentatively hung back, his hat in hand. Buck pulled out the chair next to him and patted the seat. "Take a seat, son."

JD smiled shyly and moved next to Buck and sat down. He turned and hung his hat over the back of the chair as Inez brought out a plate and glass of milk, and sat them down in front of him. Hazel eyes looked up questioningly.

Buck slapped a hand on the narrow shoulder and said, "It's a part of your pay, son. Ya got to keep your strength up."

"I'm fine," the young boy insisted, but he looked up at the beautiful woman and said. "Thank you, miss."

She reached out and pushed black hair out of the hazel eyes. "Go wash your hands, please. There is a basin in the kitchen, soap on the shelf."

The dark haired youth blushed and pushed his chair back to stand. "Yes, miss." Both Inez and JD headed away from the table.

"How's Beavis?" Chris asked.

Buck waved a hand. "Small cut. Thorn was still in there, though. Boy had it right."

JD returned and sat back down. He took the glass of milk and drained it. He set the glass down and found he was being watched by six pairs of eyes. He grinned and forked some eggs into his mouth, oblivious to the milk mustache that adorned his upper lip. JD looked up as Inez set another glass in front of him and smiled. The woman shook her head as she took the empty glass and walked away.

Chris picked up his cup and studied the boy. Finally, he spoke. "JD?"

The boy put his fork down and sat back in the chair. His posture took on a stance of submission, the smile of earlier gone, his head down. "Yes, sir?"

Chris frowned at the change in the boy. "You understand what we expect of you, right?"

The head remained down. "Yes, sir. I am to take care of your horses and assist with anything that you gentlemen that might require my services for."

Buck had sat forward, his arms resting on the table. Josiah and Nathan were leaned back in their seats, watching and Vin sat slouched, his hat pulled low over his eyes. Ezra sat up straight as JD spoke, one eyebrow cocked up. He turned his head to find Larabee peering at him.

"Before you ask, yes, that is a summation of my dialogue with the young man when I presented the option of remaining in Four Corners with this assemblage."

"Is that all you said to the boy, Ezra?" Chris growled.

Standish tilted his head to the side as he corrected Larabee. "When we decided to assist the boy in ending his association with Mr. Dangrey and encourage Mr. Dunne to remain in our community, you requested that I speak with the lad on that matter, detailing a few work duties that he could assist us with. I assumed that we would have a more detailed arrangement worked out in a future meeting that would include the seven people that are currently populating this table."

A vein throbbed in Larabee's temple as Ezra shifted the blame onto him. Pursing his mouth, Chris fought to maintain control. Movement drew his attention away from the gambler. The movement had been Wilmington sliding his chair back to get closer to the boy. The blond had failed to notice the object of their discussion was beginning to tremble.

Buck moved to the boy's side and placed a hand on the trembling arm. JD did not look up or acknowledge the touch. He sat with his hands clenched, white-knuckled, in his lap, his head bowed. Buck's hand moved up and down the boy's slender arm. "Don't worry, son. They get like this all the time. They'll get over it."

JD continued to sit with his head down and Wilmington's head turned to Chris. The gunslinger gripped his cup, studying the scene in front of him. Placing the cup down, he stood and moved around the table to squat next to the boy. JD flinched slightly as the blonde placed a hand on his leg.

"JD?" Larabee looked up at the slight youth. "You're a part of our group now. You work for us, but you're not our servant. Do you understand what that means?"

Chris watched as the boy chewed on his lip before answering.

"It means that I get paid to do things like I was doing for Mr. Dangrey?" he asked quietly.

Chris smiled and nodded. "Well, that's basically it, yeah. You're free to do what you like. It's like chores. You do the chores that we have for you, then you can do what you want."

JD raised his head, looking at the black clad man with wide eyes. "So, if Mr. Tanner asks me to go fishing, I could? In the middle of the day?"

Larabee's eyes narrowed as he grinned. "Yes, you could, but the fishing is better first thing in the morning, so you'll have to do your chores when you get back."

JD cut his eyes over to the quiet Texan. "Sir, could I change my answer to your question about fishing?"

Tanner tilted his head back. "Sure thing." His eyes twinkled as he watched the boy smile.

Chris stood and moved back around to the chair he had vacated. JD pulled his chair up to the table and resumed eating, while Wilmington sat with his hand draped over the back of JD's chair, grinning.

"So, Mr. Dunne, you want to tell us about yourself?" Josiah inquired.

JD raised his eyes to find everyone looking at him. He swallowed the bacon he had in his mouth, washing it down with milk. Wiping the bacon grease and milk off with his sleeve, he straightened as he thought about the request.

"I lived on the estate owned by Master Dangrey. Master Michael, the gentleman that you met," JD looked around at the snorting sound from his left.

"Gentleman? Hardly the term that I would equate to that Philistine." Ezra spoke softly.

JD eyed him for a moment, his expression revealing nothing of the turmoil within, but continued. "That was in Boston. Mama…Mama worked as a chambermaid in the big house. I stayed with her there until I was five and then I was sent to the stables."

"Five? You were made to go to the stables when you were only five?" Buck asked. His face had darkened at the boy's statement.

JD did not look at the man and missed the anger that played across the big man's face. Looking down at his hands, he missed the reactions of all six of the men around the table. His next words caused the men's moods to darken even more.

"Yeah. I was lucky. Most of the time, they didn't allow children to stay at the manor. Master Dangrey said I could stay as long as I worked." He looked up and finally saw the anger on the faces gathered around him. He quickly tried to dispel that anger. "I liked it. Really."

Chris leaned forward, templing his fingers under his chin. "What did you do in the stables, at five? Muck the stalls? Clean the tack?"

JD's eyes were wide and scanned the room, avoiding contact with the sets of eyes that studied him. He dropped his gaze to his hands before finally meeting Larabee's gaze. He nodded, but quickly followed with, "But I loved being near the horses. It almost made it worth it. I missed Mama, but I did what they told me to do. I learned a lot, got to ride."

Chris watched as Buck's hand reached out for the dark haired youth's head, but stopped only inches away. Images of the man and another little boy sprung into the blonde's mind. The movement was one so familiar, Larabee could see it in his mind, the gentle, absentminded stroking of silky hair as the blue eyed gunslinger carried on a conversation or drank coffee or simply sat and watched the sun go down. Chris had known the jovial man for years and had not been surprised when he had become Adam's favorite playmate. It had been obvious to the black clad man the first day the young easterner stepped off his horse, that Wilmington was starting to form that same connection with this dark-haired boy.

While Chris was glad for Buck, it only reminded him of his loss and he was determined to not get close. His thoughts were interrupted by the young boy's voice.

"I'm good with horses. I worked the animals, fed them and groomed them. I learned to drive the coach and harness the team. I cleaned and repaired the tack as well as cleaned the stalls and the warming rings."

Buck dropped his hand across the back of the boy's chair as he asked, "How many stable hands did they have?"

JD turned wide hazel eyes on the big man. "There were eleven of us to care for sixty horses and ponies."

"And you've been riding since then?''Chris asked.

"Yes,sir. The stable master began to teach me to ride six months after I was moved down. Started on the ponies and moved up to the horses." He stopped and looked around at the men. "I was wondering… about my horse. She doesn't belong to me, yet Master Dangrey left her. I…"

Vin and Chris just smiled, while Ezra seemed to squirm in his seat. Buck raised an eyebrow. He hadn't been with the others when they had 'spoken' to the man about his treatment of the boy. He had asked, but no one would tell him anything other than Dangrey admitted to knowing the boy's mother had died two weeks after the entourage had left Boston. The man agreed to 'allowing' the boy to remain behind when that entourage left Four Corners.

"Son, Michael Dangrey felt that the animal should remain as 'compensation' for your admirable work." Josiah informed him.

JD's eyes widened. "So, she belongs to me now?"

Buck could resist no longer and placed his hand on the thick black hair at the back of the boy's head. JD turned toward him and Buck smiled, "Yeah, she's all yours, kid."

Buck had to bite his tongue to maintain his emotions as tears welled in the boy's eyes. He ruffled the dark hair.

JD turned to the others. "Thanks. Thanks to you all, for the horse and my life."

"JD, how 'bout we go fishin'?" Tanner asked.


Vin stood and adjusted his hat. "Now."

The boy grinned and grabbed the last piece of bacon, shoving it into his mouth. He stood and headed for the bat wing doors. The doors slapped, once, twice, and then stopped. A moment later, the doors slapped open again and the young boy ran in.

"Mr. Wilmington, ya want to go? Mr. Larabee? Anyone?"

Buck looked at his old friend, his eyebrows raised in question. Chris shook his head. "You go ahead, Buck."

The big man jumped to his feet, a grin plastered across his face. Larabee shook his head as Buck headed out the door, his hand resting on JD's shoulder.

+ + + + + + +

The three men rode up to the small lake and dismounted. The boy had talked all the way out, asking about everything he saw, about the town and the peacekeepers, the west and the Indians, about fishing.

Vin chuckled as Buck struggled to answer each question before the next one came out. After they had found the boy in the livery that day, sick from an infection, they had watched for a week as he fought the illness. Fever had burned in his emaciated body, as anger burned in the souls of the six lawmen. When it became apparent that the boy would live, four of the men confronted the arrogant Bostonian and his group. The men left in their fancy coach and on their fancy horses, but the boy stayed.

Listening to Wilmington explain about the way the six of them had gotten together, Vin wondered if any of them had suspected the inquisitive nature of the youth they had taken into their fold. Since he had recovered from illness and found he would be staying in Four Corners, the youth had been the same quiet boy that they had first encountered. This was the first time he had accompanied any of the six anywhere. And Vin thought they might be learning the true personality of the youth.

"So y'all only been together for two months?" Buck nodded as he opened his mouth to say something, only to be cutoff as the boy continued. "I wish I could have been there when you fought those men off. I could've helped. Do you think Chris would show me how to fast draw? I could…"

"Boy, don't you even think about asking Chris to teach you about gun fighting. You ain't old enough to be thinking about shooting, much less gun slinging."

"We used to go squirrel hunting all the time back home. I know how to shoot a rifle."

"Shooting a rifle ain't the same as shooting a pistol. And a squirrel ain't a man. And a fast draw is a good way to get killed."

JD looked at the big man and then looked down at his hands on the reins. "I just thought I could help if I had to."

Buck's face softened at the statement and he reached across the space between the horses to touch the slender arm. "JD, I know you want to help and I know you want to grow up, but, far as I can see, you ain't had a childhood yet. Don't be in such a hurry to grow up."

"I'm not a baby, sir. I'll be fourteen soon. I know some girls that are married by then and boys taking wives by fifteen." He noticed that Vin and Buck had both pulled their mounts to a stop and he followed suite.

"Fourteen?" Vin asked.

"Yes, sir. Next month."

"Boy, you joshing us?"

JD frowned and shook his head. "No, sir. I wouldn't do that."

"Damn, son. I didn't figure you was more than ten, eleven years old."

JD laughed. "Yeah, I'm small like my Mama is…was." His grin faded and he looked away.

Vin glanced over at Buck and raised an eyebrow as he tipped his head, his posture telling Buck to do something. Wilmington sighed.

He thought for a minute and then smiled. "Well, JD, I think if you're half way to being a man, it's time you started calling us by our given names."

The slight teen looked up, swiping at the tears on his cheeks. "I can?"

Vin smiled as he moved forward and clapped the boy on the shoulder. "Seems only right. We call you JD. So you call me Vin from now on."

The grin returned as JD stuck out his hand. "Howdy, Vin."

Vin gripped the hand, smiling. "Let's go get some fish."

He wheeled his horse around and took off. JD followed, calling over his shoulder, "You coming, Buck?"

Wilmington kneed the big gray, following slowly in the dust kicked up by the others.

+ + + + + + +

It was mid afternoon before the three arrived back in town. They hadn't caught any fish, but they had a good time talking, laughing, and even doing a little fishing. After taking care of the horses, under protest from JD that it was his job to do, the two men joined Chris and Ezra at the jail.

Buck took the chair next to Chris while Vin leaned against the hitching post, his ankles crossed in front of him. JD had run up to his room to change after an unexpected 'bath' in the lake. Buck and Vin waited for the 'new' JD to appear. They didn't have to wait long. The boy came running up and skidded to a dusty stop.

"Hey. What're ya doing?" He grinned at the four lawmen as he bounced on the balls of his feet, a grin plastered on his face.

"Well, we…" Ezra's hands moved to indicate the four men. "… are enjoying a leisurely afternoon in this dusty little hamlet and contemplating the evening's respite and amusement alternatives."

The boy's eyes widened as he leaned forward and his mouth opened and closed. He finally pulled back in confusion and scratched his head. "I…ah…" Hazel eyes turned to Wilmington. "What'd he say?"

A smile pulled at one side of Chris' mouth as Buck explained. JD's 'Oh' was his only response. Larabee knew Wilmington and Tanner were up to something, waiting for something, but he just wasn't sure what it was. Playing it safe, he decided to wait them out.

All five men turned at the sound of hoof beats and saw Josiah and Nathan riding up. The two men pulled to a stop in front of the jail and Josiah leaned across his saddlehorn as Nathan swung his leg over and dismounted.

"How fares the cantankerous Mr. Roland?"

"Ah, he's fine. Man's too mean to be real sick. He wrestled that old cow of his outta mud hole, put his back out. He'll be right as rain with some rest."

Ezra nodded and went back to shuffling the deck in his hands.

Josiah leaned down and took the reins from Nathan. "I'll take him for you, Nathan."

"Thanks, Josiah." The preacher moved off, leading the healer's horse as Nathan stretched. The tall black man looked at the gathered men. "So, what's been going on today?"

Chris remained silent as Ezra replied. "The township has been quiet as the populace went about their usual daily routines."

Vin offered his two cents worth. "We went fishin'. Ask JD."

Chris glanced over at the tracker. He didn't miss the twinkle in the blue eyes. 'Now I'll find out what they're up to,' he thought to himself.

"Ya have fun, JD?"

The boy's grin was bright and wide. He nodded as he started talking. "Yeah, I had a lot of fun. Well, that is until Buck decided that it would be fun to throw me into the lake. We weren't catching any fish, anyway. You know, as warm as it is, you'd think that the water would be warm, but Nathan, that water was 'cold'. I about lost my breath."

Nathan stood, quietly listening. Ezra's hands came to a standstill. And Chris smiled. 'Yeah, that's what Tanner was waiting for.' His glance to the tracker confirmed his suspicions as both Buck and Vin doubled over, laughing.

JD rattled on for five minutes, telling the men everything he had seen and learned that day. The entourage moved from the jail to the saloon with the boy still talking. And when JD talked, he moved, his hands, his feet, his entire body seemed to dance as he spoke.

Josiah joined them at the saloon and found the quiet boy from Boston gone, replaced by a talkative and energetic young man. While the talk was wearing on the nerves, the men were glad to see the boy was recovering, in spirit, as well as body.


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