A Friend Indeed?

Beth Green

Summary: JD makes a new friend; or does he? Warning: there be owies, of both the emotional and physical kind ahead. This story mainly features JD and Buck, but it’s long enough that darn near everybody shows up sooner or later. Thanks to Chris and CJ for the beta work. Any mistakes remaining are mine.

Part 1
Chris Larabee reclined against a pillar, content for the moment to simply exist. He tried to tell himself that he was doing his duty as peacekeeper by keeping watch over the citizens of Four Corners. However, he acknowledged the fact that he was currently engaged in the same activity as most of the town’s residents who shared the boardwalk with him. After a week of hellishly hot weather, the temperature had finally taken a welcome dive with the addition of some much-needed rain last night. The sun that shone today was a warm, friendly visitor instead of the former torturer. Anyone who could spare the time was out enjoying the pleasant change.

Chris tensed in sudden wariness at a sound to his right. He immediately relaxed again once the source had been identified: Josiah. His fellow peacekeeper occupied a nearby chair. As it had been too hot to sleep with any degree of comfort for the past week, Josiah’s body decided for him that it was time to catch up on some overdue rest. The sound which had startled Chris was Josiah’s snore announcing his surrender to the arms of Morpheus.

Chris smiled, recalling a recent discussion on the subject. Nathan had come to Chris, asking the team leader not to send him on any overnight trips with Josiah ever again. He explained, "That man snores worse than a dust devil roaring through a canyon. Any time I manage to get to sleep, his damn log sawin’ wakes me right up. I doubt if I get more’n an hour of sleep the whole damn trip."

Josiah felt that he’d been unjustly accused. He insisted, "I do not snore." His fellow peacekeepers promptly disabused him of that notion.

Vin said, "Why do y’all think I sleep on the other side of the fire from wherever you happen to settle?"

Ezra contributed, "As you are asleep at the time you are making the godawful noises, I understand your disbelief. Let me assure you, Nathan’s colorful description depicts a most accurate representation of your snoring."

JD stated, "I thought that Buck’s snoring was bad, until I heard Josiah’s."

Buck indignantly joined Josiah in the ranks of the persecuted. "I agree with JD, exceptin’ the part about my snorin’. I do not snore."

JD made a rude gesture in response and the discussion degenerated into a general free for all sharing of each other’s faults. Chris had wisely abstained. If he didn’t offer any comments, he didn’t have to suffer any in return.

His mind back in the present, Chris looked up at the other end of the boardwalk. Buck was entertaining whoever happened to be within earshot with one of his supply of endless stories. Although Chris could not hear what was being said, he could see that Buck was the center of attention. By the dramatic gestures and enthusiastic grin, Chris figured that that Buck was telling one of his whoppers. Chris knew that Buck’s current position on the boardwalk held an ulterior motive. He happened to be standing right within hailing distance of the stagecoach stop.

Buck had unofficially appointed himself town greeter. If he was not otherwise occupied, he always made it a point to be on hand when the stage arrived. As he explained it, "That way I get to make a good first impression with the new ladies."

Chris smiled at the truth of it. His ego notwithstanding, Buck truly did the town a favor with his actions. His open friendliness was not restricted to the ladies only. His bright smile and friendly "how-de-do’s" made for a right decent welcome to any newcomers.

Chris’ musing was interrupted by the arrival of JD. Rather than leave Josiah to his rest, JD thumped a hand against the back of his chair. "Damn, Josiah, you’re snoring loud enough to wake the dead!"

Before he was even completely awake, Josiah had his gun in hand, blearily looking around for trouble; what he saw was JD backing away from him, his hands raised.

"Josiah, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it! You don’t snore!"

Josiah frowned, puzzled, then agreed. "Okay. I don’t snore. Now that we’ve got that settled, what the devil is going on?"

Chris gestured toward the gun that was currently being pointed at JD. Josiah seemed to have forgotten that it was in his hand. "Well, Josiah, I guess you must’ve been having a bit of a nightmare to wake up and draw on JD like that." He continued, "Unless you aim to shoot JD for wakin’ you up, I suggest you quit aiming that gun in his face."

Josiah looked a little embarrassed as he quickly re-holstered his gun. He swiped a hand across his face, trying to wake up a little bit more. "How long was I asleep?" He turned to Chris, seeking clarification. "What time is it?"

Without consulting his timepiece, Chris promptly replied, "It’s just on two o’clock."

"Okay." More awake now, Josiah questioned, "Wait a minute, how do you know that without even looking at a watch?"

Chris allowed a small smile of satisfaction to show as he replied, "It’s real simple. Look down to the other end of the boardwalk."

Josiah looked, not seeing a timepiece of any sort. Still confused, he replied, "I’m looking."

"Who do you see?"

Josiah started naming off names, stopping at Buck’s, as the light suddenly dawned. "Oh, yes. I see."

JD looked from Josiah to Chris, mightily confused. "All right. You got me. What do you see?"

Josiah answered. "It’s not what I see, but, as Chris so accurately said, who. Buck."

A little slow on the uptake, JD echoed, "Okay. I see Buck. And that tells me what time it is?" JD’s question had slowly transformed itself into more of a statement of fact as he finally realized what they were getting at. "And if he’s standing where he’s standing, it must be because the stage is about due in. And that would mean that it’s almost two o’clock." He brightened at the realization. "The stage is about due. Maybe I’ll head on over and join him." Buck was not the only one who liked to get a first look at any new folks in town.

While JD had been jawing with Chris and Josiah, Buck’s audience had finally tired of his recitation, leaving him to wait alone. JD smiled as his friend’s forlorn expression lifted when he spotted JD.

"Hey, kid, what’cha been up to?"

JD shrugged. "Not a whole lot. Thought maybe I’d join you, see what the stage brings."

Buck offered JD a nod, and prodded him with an elbow. "You mean, ‘who’. We’re definitely in need of a little more color to the scenery around here."

JD shook his head at Buck’s verbal exercise. "And you mean, you’re hopin’ to meet a woman who hasn’t already heard your line of bullshit."

Buck walloped JD with his hat for that slur. "Hey, if you’re gonna be insulting, maybe you ought to keep on walking."

JD’s "Sorry" was somewhat lacking in sincerity, but in the interests of sharing his company, Buck let it pass.

Buck kept quiet for a whole minute before he spoke again. "If there are any girls on the stage, I sure hope they’re pretty ones. The last few arrivals have not been the most pleasin’ to the eye, if you know what I mean."

"What do you mean? I thought you took a fancy to that one lady last week."

Confused, Buck asked, "What lady?"

JD insisted, "You know the one." When Buck continued to look puzzled, JD continued. "The one that took such a shine to you. You know, the one you said looked like Josiah in a dress."

Rather than take offense, Buck replied, "That’s my point exactly. It’d be nice to meet a woman younger than ninety, who don’t crack mirrors when she walks by ‘em."

Their discussion was interrupted by the welcome arrival of the stagecoach. Much to Buck’s disappointment, there was not a single woman on board. Come to find out, there was only one person who disembarked from the coach.

Buck couldn’t help the laugh that escaped when he got a good look at the newcomer. He was just a kid. He looked to be even younger than JD, with no hint of a beard marring his baby face. He looked ridiculously out of place in his pristine buckskins and brand-spanking new Stetson. Buck commented, "Looks like some kid playin’ dress up." Unfortunately Buck’s deep voice carried quite well. By the peeved expression on the kid’s face, Buck knew he’d been overheard.

The newcomer stalked on over. At least he tried to stalk, but it was obvious that the new boots he wore were pinching his feet. His intended stride turned into a simpering skip. Buck made no attempt to hide his amusement. Hell, if the kid was that sensitive, he wouldn’t make it a day without getting himself into some sort of trouble. Best to find out sooner rather than later if he was as dumb as he looked.

JD attempted to be friendly. Tipping his hat in greeting, he said a simple, "Hi there." The kid seemed startled by JD’s unexpected kindness. He looked like he’d been about to say something downright unfriendly to Buck, but JD gave him pause to reconsider. He sidled away from Buck, and closer to JD. He offered a cautious "Hello" in return.

JD extended a hand in greeting. "I’m JD Dunne, and my rude companion here is Buck Wilmington."

The kid offered his hand to JD, completely ignoring Buck as he introduced himself. "I’m Cephus Abercrombie." His voice cracked as he pronounced his last name.

Buck snorted with laughter. He’d been unable to rein in his instinctive reaction, which earned him glares from both JD and Cephus. His amusement evident, he offered a half-hearted apology. "I’m sorry, but you gotta admit that was pretty damn funny."

Cephus angrily replied. "I ain’t gotta admit no such thing."

JD did not want to see Buck picking on the little guy, even if he did seem to be spoiling for a fight. He stepped between the two men, then turned to address Buck directly. "Haven’t you got someplace else you gotta be?"

Buck was ready to continue to do verbal battle when he suddenly realized that JD was actually upset with him. Not understanding the why of it, he decided maybe he ought to leave JD to his newfound friend. He pretended to think for a minute. "Hm, let me see. Do I have anything better to do than stand here talkin’ to the infamous Cephus Ambercrommie?" He let a note of dismay creep into his voice as he continued, "God, I sure hope so!" With one last glance at the newcomer, he commented, "Nice outfit," before he turned to leave.

Cephus shouted at his retreating back, "It’s Abercrombie!"

JD was really worried about the kid. He was so obviously out of place. JD suspected he’d run away from home, probably after reading some penny dreadful about good old times in the Wild West. The kid didn’t know that it would chew him up and then spit out his mangled remains; that is, if he even survived. Cephus needed to go back to wherever it was he’d come from, the sooner, the better.

Unfortunately, just up and telling him to go home wouldn’t work. JD remembered how he’d responded when Buck and Chris had tried to get him to leave after he’d first arrived in Four Corners. The more they pushed, the more determined it made him to stay. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to Cephus. He had the sinking feeling that if Cephus stayed he’d end up dead.

"So, Cephus, what brings you to Four Corners?"

"I heard that this is where Chris Larabee hangs his hat."

With that comment, the kid had just confirmed JD’s worst fears. "Yeah. Between him and me and our fellow peacekeepers, we manage to keep things pretty well under control around here."

Cephus stared at JD, his eyes widening with awe. "You work with Chris Larabee? That’s great! Hell, I didn’t figure you to be any older than me. How old are you, anyway?"

JD’s age was a sore subject. What with being labeled the "kid" and all, sometimes he had to fight extra hard to be respected as a man rather than a boy. He decided to duck the question. "Old enough to know better. Now you, I don’t figure to be any older than fifteen."

The kid immediately got his dander up again at that comment. JD had purposely guessed low, hoping to lure Cephus into revealing his true age. His gambit worked. "Shows how much you know. I happen to be sixteen years old. Plenty old enough to know what I’m doing."

JD would have liked to argue that fact, but wisely chose not to. He sympathized with the kid. "I know what you mean. Folks are always trying to make me out younger than I really am. Anyway, what brings you to town?" He chuckled, adding a lame joke. "Besides the stage, that is. You got family here?"

Cephus shook his head. "No, no family." He frowned, talking more to himself than to JD. "No family anywhere, not anymore."

JD’s heart fell down to his boots at that comment. Damn. There went his best argument for getting the kid out of town. He didn’t have anywhere else to go. JD’s burden just grew that much heavier.

He spent the rest of the day shepherding Cephus around. When he’d taken him over to the boarding house to get a room, the kid had pulled out a large wad of cash to pay for it. JD had immediately clamped down hard on Cephus’ outstretched hand. "Rule number one: If you want to get yourself killed, go on flashing that roll of cash like you just did. Otherwise, get yourself a money belt, and only keep out enough to get by on."

Cephus had glared at JD, his eyes hot with anger. JD was glad the kid didn’t have a gun, as he probably would have drawn it, he looked that mad. JD was unrepentant. "Out here, a person can end up dead for just lookin’ at a man sideways. You give someone a reason to kill, like that money, and there’s lots who would kill you without blinkin’ twice. You think on that."

He tipped his hat, and took his leave. "Have a good day, now." JD headed off to join his friends at the saloon. He swore he could still feel Cephus’ eyes on him, boring into his back.

Buck teased JD as he joined his friends at their usual table. "I’m tellin’ ya, you should’a seen it. There was this kid, ‘See-fuss,’ looking like he weren’t even old enough to leave his momma’s breast. And there was JD, takin’ him under his wing like a worried papa." Buck paused, wiping away an imaginary tear. "It makes a fella proud. I learned him good, I did."

JD scoffed in disbelief. "Buck, the only think I learned from you is how to sling the horseshit." An appreciate chorus of voices laughingly agreed with his remark.

Buck grew serious as he asked, "So, about this kid. He just passin’ through town?"

JD shook his head. "No, I’m afraid that’s not his plan."

Buck frowned. "Well, maybe he oughtta reconsider his plan some."

"Don’t I know it." JD sighed. His fingers tapped out a frustrated beat on the tabletop. "One thing I can tell you for sure: if you order him to leave, you’ll never be rid of him until he ends up in a pine box." Buck looked ready to argue the point, so JD continued. "I know, because it wasn’t all that long ago that you tried to get me to leave by doin’ the same thing." He took a sip of his drink, giving his words a minute to sink in. He added, "Didn’t work so good, did it?"

Vin clarified, "So you’re sayin’ it takes a kid to know a kid?"

Ezra didn’t give him a chance to respond. When someone gave him an opening like that, he had to go where he’d been pointed. "If that were true, then Buck would be the ideal person to give young Cephus a talking to. After all, Mr. Wilmington has not taken leave of his own childhood."

Chris nodded his head in agreement. "He’s got a point, there."

Buck’s grumbled, "I’ll show you his point, all right," earned him another insult from Ezra.

"And Mr. Wilmington thus nicely illustrates the truth of my words. I expect his next response to consist of rude hand gestures, followed by more childishly simple verbal responses."

All Buck could think of to counter Ezra’s insults was a frustrated, "Shut up, Ezra." He was not happy when his fellow peacekeepers took his words to mean that Ezra’s insults were the gospel truth.

JD deflected attention from his beleaguered friend by returning to the subject of Cephus Abercrombie. "C’mon fellas, help me out here. There’s gotta be something we can do to get Cephus to leave town."

Ezra smirked, offering, "I’ve heard tell that tar and feathers can provide a most suitable incentive for inducing a man to leave town."

Buck questioned, "You speakin’ from personal experience, Ezra?"

Ezra waved off the idea. "Naturally not. However, I was witness to a man being subjected to that very form of torture. The smell of the tar itself was nauseating enough. However, once it came into contact with the poor man’s skin. . ." Ezra shuddered in remembrance. "I can still hear the man’s screams as clear as day."

JD frowned. "Sorry, Ezra, tar and feathers is definitely not an option."

Buck smilingly offered up a suggestion of his own. "I suppose havin’ the little runt bein’ run out of town on a rail is also not an option?"

JD shook his head in disgust. "No, it’s not. I tell you, I don’t want to just sit back and watch Cephus get himself killed."

Chris spoke up. "No one’s askin’ you to do that, JD. That bein’ said, if Cephus wants to be treated like a man, like a man he’s gonna have to stand up to the consequences of his actions. What he does or doesn’t do is, in the end, entirely up to him."

Buck added, "And if he acts like an ass the minute he hits town, he’s gotta expect people are gonna treat him like an ass."

JD thought that Buck had a lot of nerve, commenting on Cephus’ asinine behavior while ignoring his own. JD wisely kept silent. For the time being, he’d do the only thing he knew how to do: keep a close watch on the kid, and try to see to it that he didn’t get himself killed.

Part 2

The task JD had set for himself proved to be far more difficult that he had hoped. Over the next few days, it seemed that Cephus was bound and determined to get himself killed. The first incident was his decision to get himself a horse. He ignored the fact that he’d never ridden one in his life. He wanted to be a cowboy, and cowboys rode horses. That the kid was no judge of horseflesh went without saying. That in itself proved to be a saving grace. Cephus ended up paying way too much for a worn out old swayback. Fortunately, the horse was too old to put up much of a fight in dealing with an inexperienced rider.

Unfortunately, Buck was riding in as JD and Cephus were heading out. Buck quickly turned his mount to follow. "Mind if I join you?" Cephus’ scowl and abrupt "Yes!" were drowned out by JD’s enthusiastic, "No, come on along."

JD silently cheered that Buck had missed the sight of Cephus trying to saddle and mount his horse. The task had finally been accomplished but not without a great deal of coaching and assistance from JD. JD himself had to stifle his urge to grin the second time Cephus had fallen off. Buck would have been laughing his ass off.

JD tried to offer advice as they rode. "Cephus, you need to relax some, feel the horse’s rhythm as you go."

Cephus snapped back, "I know what I’m doing."

Although JD didn’t believe him for a minute, he dropped back to ride with Buck, saying merely, "Okay."

They watched Cephus bouncing along in front of them. Buck commented, "Hope that boy’s got a nice soft pillow waitin’ at the end of this ride. His ass is gonna need it."

JD hissed at Buck to be quiet. Buck being Buck, the silence didn’t last very long. Buck quipped, "Hell, as fast as he rides, if he was in a race with a slug, the slug would win."

JD knew Cephus had heard Buck’s comment by the fact that the boy sat even more stiffly in the saddle now than he had a moment ago. Cephus then proceeded to do something incredibly stupid. He raked his spurs down his horse’s flanks. Now, that old horse had stood for a great deal from his novice rider. But feeling the pain from the spurs, the worn out swayback flashed back to his youth and took off like a young stud . Cephus clung to the reins in terror. His ineffective, panicked shouts of "Whoa!" faded into the distance. JD and Buck looked at each other, then sped off together after the errant horse and rider.

They rapidly caught up, one on either side of the quickly tiring horse. Somehow, Cephus managed not to fall off as Buck and JD convinced the horse to stop alongside them. Rather than the show of gratitude Buck expected, Cephus turned a hate-filled glare his way. "What are you trying to do? Get me killed?" Cephus pulled away from him so abruptly that he nearly fell off his mount. Buck was, for once, speechless.

JD had no problem finding words to say. "The only one trying to get you killed is you! You abuse your horse like that, don’t be surprised when he takes off on you."

Cephus was not listening. Still gazing at Buck in anger, he said, "This is all your fault!"

Buck shook his head is disbelief. "All my fault. Yeah, I can see how you’d think that. I guess I forced a greenhorn rider to get himself a horse he don’t have the first clue about how to treat right enough so as not to get himself killed."

Buck smoothly turned his mount, heading back to the livery. He spoke to JD as he rode past, "See you later. Good luck." Buck’s addition of "You’re gonna need it" floated back to JD and Cephus.

JD turned to Cephus. "That was damn stupid."

Cephus’ expression brightened. "I’m glad to hear you admit it. I thought you’d be standing up for him."

JD’s eyes widened, his jaw hanging open in disbelief. He quickly clarified, "I was talking about you!"

The dark cloud of anger descended once again. Brows lowered, Cephus snarled, "I didn’t ask you to come along."

JD agreed. "No, you didn’t. But for some reason that I’m finding more difficult to understand by the minute, I feel responsible for you."

Still glowering, Cephus declared, "You’re not."

JD sat back with a sigh. "Okay, I’m not. Is it okay if I care about what happens to you?"

JD wasn’t sure whether or not to feel relieved when Cephus grudgingly decided, "Yeah, I guess."

+ + + + + + +

Cephus managed to go the rest of the week without getting himself into any further trouble. To JD’s relief, he seemed to have temporarily given up on the idea of riding his horse. His current plan seemed to involve attaching himself to JD like a leech. The only effective means JD discovered of losing his newfound friend was to spend time with his old friend, Buck. Cephus alternately seemed to both fear and hate Buck, and made it a point to stay out of his way.

Although Buck made no further verbal attacks on the kid, neither did he go out of his way to befriend him. As this was not typical Buck behavior, JD asked him about it. "Hey, Buck, why are you treatin’ Cephus like he’s done something to get your dander up?"

Buck replied, "Cuz he has. That boy is a danger to himself and everyone around him. Besides that, I just don’t like him."

"So don’t you think maybe you should try to keep him outta trouble?"

Buck frowned. "You seem to be doin’ a pretty good job of that yourself. I gotta tell ya, I really wish you wouldn’t."

JD was not happy with that answer. "And why is that?"

"Cuz you’re just encouraging him to hang around. That kid is bad news. Don’t ask me how I know it; I just do."

"Well, that’s your opinion. Don’t ask me to share it."

Buck opened his mouth to reply, but then swallowed back whatever it was he’d been planning to say. Instead, he pointed down toward the end of the boardwalk. "Your friend’s waitin’ for you. See you later."

JD was not satisfied with how their conversation ended. However, he couldn’t think just what to do about it. He watched Cephus head toward him as Buck disappeared around the corner.

+ + + + + + +

Over the next few days, JD found himself spending more time than he really wanted to with Cephus. Cephus seemed to be hovering around, waiting for him outside the boarding house each morning and following him around throughout the day. It was really starting to get on his nerves.

After a few days had passed without mishap, inevitably, the inexperienced young man did something else which could prove hazardous to his health: he bought a gun. The first JD knew of it was when Cephus approached him, asking, "Hey, JD, do you think you could show me how to use a gun?" With that comment, Cephus produced a Colt revolver very similar to JD’s own. JD’s immediate reaction was to tell Cephus to get rid of the damn thing. However, he knew that would’ve been a waste of breath. If Cephus was going to stay, and it looked more and more each day as if that was the boy’s intention, no matter what JD wished, then he probably ought to learn how to use a gun.

JD allowed himself a slight spark of hope as he asked, "You ever use one of these before?"

That hope died as Cephus stammered his reply. "Ah, yeah, sort of, once."

JD had Cephus trail him away from the center of town. There, he set up some empty tins along the top of a split rail fence. After an hour or so, JD decided that Cephus’ eyesight must be as cockeyed as his thinking. The boy could not even come close to his intended target. The more frustrated Cephus got, the worse his aim. Finally, JD called a halt. "Cephus, I think you need to take a break. If you come back tomorrow, get a fresh start, I’m sure you’ll do better."

Cephus shook his head. "No, I can do this. I know it."

JD stated, "Well, I’m not going to try to tell you anything else about shootin’ for the time being. I think you need to take some time to think on what I’ve already told you. I’m gonna head on over to the saloon. See ya."

When JD walked through the doors of the saloon, he saw that his fellow peacekeepers were already comfortably seated in their favorite location. He frowned when he saw that Chris sat at a corner table by himself. The brim of his hat hid his face. The bottle of Red Eye in front of him was already more than halfway empty.

JD’s frown deepened when he saw that Buck, too, had a bottle of whiskey in front of himself. Unlike Chris, Buck chose to do his drinking in the company of his friends. JD’s frown was due to the fact that it was totally unlike Buck to try to get himself drunk, especially so early in the afternoon. He cautiously approached. Buck gazed up at him, saluting him with his glass. "Hey, JD." Buck did not even so much as crack a smile. Now JD was really getting worried.

"Hey, yourself. What you been up to?"

Buck replied, "Oh, you know, a little of this, a little more of that."

"Anything going on that I ought to know about?"

Buck took a look over at Chris, then turned back to his bottle. He slumped lower in his seat as he answered with a simple "Nope."

Ezra decided to fill in the silence left by Buck’s atypical reluctance to talk. "Actually, you seem to be the one engaged in an excess of activity, at least in regard to your protégé."

JD clarified, "You mean Cephus?"

Ezra acknowledged, "None other."

Vin offered, "He’s talkin’ about your new best friend."

JD quickly denied, "He ain’t my best friend." After a pause, he continued. "I ain’t even sure he’s my friend at all. More like, I feel responsible for the kid." JD tried to give voice to his concern. "He’s just so. . ."

Ezra helpfully supplied, "Incompetent?"

JD agreed. "Yeah, that’s it exactly. I’m really scared something’s gonna happen to him. Take today, for example. Did you know he went and bought himself a gun?"

Ezra shuddered at the thought of the possible horrifying consequences of a weapon in the hands of that bumbling fool.

Vin asked, "So, did ya take it away from him?"

JD sighed. "I wished I could ‘a. I took the darn fool out to show him how to use it. I’m lucky he didn’t end up shooting himself in the foot, he was that bad."

Vin consoled, "Well, at least he’s got you lookin’ out for him."

Buck spoke gloomily, "Better you than me."

Ezra asked, "So, where is he now? Why has your shadow neglected to join you in this fine establishment?"

JD wasn’t sure if he should say, the mood Buck was in. Although Buck seemed none too fond of Cephus, maybe he’d be cheered by JD’s news. "Actually, he’s scared to death of Buck."

Ezra snorted in disbelief. "Buck? Are you speaking of our own Mr. Wilmington?"

JD confirmed, "None other."

Vin asked, "Buck, what did you do to the kid?"

Buck answered almost angrily, "I didn’t do nothin’."

JD could’ve mentioned the times that Buck had mocked young Cephus; however, he suspected that there was something more behind the boy’s intense dislike. JD just hadn’t found out what, yet. Cephus spoke very little of himself. Beyond revealing that he had come out west from New York, JD knew next to nothing about him.

Ezra stated, "Personally, I think that we ought to be grateful for whatever reason it is that keeps young Cephus out of our saloon, and thus removed from our presence."

Buck agreed. "I’ll drink to that."

As the evening progressed Buck remained morose, proceeding to drink himself into a stupor. Josiah and Nathan indicated that they’d see that he made it to his room come closing time. Vin was the first of their group to exit, needing to patrol the town for the evening. JD followed him out.

"Vin, can I talk to you a minute?"

"Sure, JD, what’s up?"

"Actually, that’s what I was wondering. Is there anything going on with Buck and Chris that I need to know about?"

Vin sighed. "Truth to tell, I been wonderin’ that, myself. Chris has been more ornery than usual these past few days. Earlier today, he damn near took Buck’s head off just for sayin’ ‘hello’."

JD shrugged. "I guess they must’ve had some sort of fight."

Vin sounded unconvinced as he replied, "I guess."

JD said, "If I can just get Cephus to quit followin’ me, maybe I can spend some extra time with Buck tomorrow, try to figure out what’s goin’ on."

Vin gave a half smile, saying, "I think you’re gonna have a hard time shakin’ loose of that boy. He’s like a stray dog. All you gotta do is feed ‘im once, and he’ll keep comin’ back. Don’t matter how much you try to run ‘im off. You’d have to really hurt him, I think, and I just don’t see you doin’ that."

JD agreed. "More likely he’s gonna end up hurtin’ me, if he don’t quit tryin’ to use that damn gun."

Vin frowned. "If he’s all that bad, maybe you ought to see if you can get it away from him. Leastways, see if you can take out the bullets."

"I wish I could. He’d just go and buy himself more." Although JD didn’t believe his own words, he added, "Maybe he’ll get better with practice."

Vin added, "And maybe you better keep yourself outta his range."

Vin’s warning proved almost prophetic. The next day, Cephus came running up to JD all fired up. The Colt was in the hand he was waving around in his excitement. "JD! JD, I did it!" Whatever it was that he had done never got said. Just as he skidded to a halt in front of JD, the carelessly held gun went off.

Buck came running at the sound of the shot. He had the awful feeling he knew what it meant: JD was in trouble. Vin was running in from the opposite direction as they followed the sound to its source. Buck felt the cold grip of fear in his heart as his worst fears were confirmed. JD lay on the ground, unmoving. Cephus stood over him, a shocked expression on his face, the Colt held loosely in his right hand. Buck’s gun was in his own hand before he even knew it. His voice low and dangerous, he ordered, "Drop the damn gun, before I blow your sorry head clean off your shoulders." Cephus hastily complied, stammering, "I’m sorry. It was an accident."

Although he was anxious about JD, Buck couldn’t lower his weapon and leave off protecting JD from the threat presented by Cephus. He was tremendously relieved when Vin arrived. Buck tensely ordered, "Check on JD."

Vin crouched next to his fallen friend, immensely relieved to see that he was still breathing. He used his bandana to stem the flow of blood which was dripping down the right side of his face. As he mopped at the blood, he reported to Buck, "Looks like the bullet just creased his head a bit."

JD drifted back to consciousness. He immediately regretted doing so, when his attempt at movement sent an intense wave of pain stabbing through his skull. After a moment, JD decided that someone must have tried to nail his head to the ground, it hurt so bad. He raised a shaky hand, trying to get whoever was poking at his sore head to quit it. His voice was slurred as he petulantly croaked, "Cut it out!"

Vin’s voice was low and soothing as he responded. "Now, JD, if I take away this here bandana, you’re just gonna get blood in your eyes." When JD’s hand persisted in trying to remove his makeshift bandage, Vin gently took the hand in his own.

JD’s words came to him with as much effort as swimming through mud. God, his head hurt. He was finally able to organize his words enough so he could ask a question. "I’m bleeding?"

"Yep, I’m afraid so."

Hell. That couldn’t be good. Especially seeing as he didn’t know where he was, or how he got there. He managed a few more words, not quite as intelligibly as before. "Wha’ happen?"

Although Vin sounded pretty calm about it, it still worried JD when he answered, "You got shot."

JD’s first thought was "Damn," followed by, "Who shot me?"

Vin decided to see if JD remembered anything. "Who do you think?"

JD managed to turn his head enough to see who was there besides Vin. He saw Buck and, damn, also the answer to Vin’s question as he replied, "Cephus."

Buck kept his gun aimed rock steady at Cephus, sorely tempted to pull the trigger. Even though he wasn’t there to protect JD from his so-called friend, he sure as hell was going to make sure the man didn’t get the chance to hurt anyone else.

Out of the corner of his eye, Buck saw Josiah arrive. He ordered, "Go get Nathan! Now!"

Josiah had already been in motion to do so the minute he’d seen JD on the ground.

In Buck’s mind, it took forever before Josiah returned, Nathan in tow. In reality, it had only been a matter of minutes.

Vin and Nathan assisted a groggy JD to his feet.

As they prepared to leave Buck to tend to Mr. Abercrombie, Cephus called out, his voice cracking with fear. "Don’t leave me here with him! He’s gonna kill me!"

Buck felt a certain perverse glee in the kid’s terror. His voice deceptively gentle, he suggested, "You all go along, now. I think me and Cephus, here, are fixin’ to have us another little accident."

Josiah and Nathan paused, hoping that Buck wasn’t serious. Josiah spoke up first, concerned by the fact that Buck looked to be about as serious as a man could get. He said, "Now, Buck, as much as that idea has a certain appeal, I’d hate to see you end up in jail." Deciding that it wouldn’t hurt to add in a little guilt, he continued. "Especially seeing as JD could probably use you about now."

Buck grimaced in response. Never taking his eyes off Cephus, he said, "I expect you’re right. I guess I’ll escort Mr. Ammercrommie over to the jail." Buck added hopefully, "Maybe he’ll give me a reason to shoot him on the way over."

To Buck’s evident disappointment, Cephus went along quietly.

Josiah proceeded to let the other members of their peacekeeping force know what had happened. Ezra volunteered to relieve Buck from the duty of guarding their prisoner. As he privately told Josiah, "As moody as Mr. Wilmington has been of late, it is probably for the best to remove him from the source of his temptation to break one of the Ten Commandments." When he arrived at the jail, he simply told Buck that Chris had asked him to take over the guarding of their prisoner so that Buck could attend to JD. Buck didn’t need to know that Ezra had volunteered for the task of his own free will.

Buck paused to ask, "Nathan say he’s gonna be okay?"

Although Nathan hadn’t specifically said so, Ezra reassured his friend. "With Nathan in attendance, there is no doubt that JD will make a complete recovery. He was certainly awake enough to protest Nathan’s tender care when I left."


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