Penance - Part Twenty-one

He could finally wear regular clothes, though they were now decidedly too big for him. He'd gotten a haircut, not because he was really concerned with how he looked, but wanting it out of his eyes.

His skin was still pale and his face was so thin, making his new scar all the more startling. His cheekbones were more pronounced and his eyes seemed hollow somehow. He looked like the ghost of the boy they'd known.

JD kept to himself mostly. He got tired easily. And yet, he tried to contribute to the town that had helped him. He worked with Josiah in the church and he went with Vin to Miss Nettie's to help repair the fence behind the house.

His friends couldn't read any emotions he may have felt - maybe because he felt nothing. He was always polite, and he never seemed to get angry. It was as though nothing interested him anymore. And how he struggled to participate in anything.

He ate dinner with Casey a couple of times, but not really like a date. And he would stop by the saloon every now and then, but only to see if anyone needed anything.

He went through life dutifully. That was the word. Dutiful. Not for the love of life, but because . . . what else could he do?

Chris watched him as the boy took Vin's horse from the tired bounty hunter. Vin had made a run to Eagle Bend and back. He strode over to Chris and followed his gaze back to the kid.

"He's moving better . . ." Vin commented.

Chris didn't say anything - he just kept watching JD.

Vin waited until the kid disappeared into the livery.

"Saloon?" Vin asked.

A moment passed. Chris frowned, lost in thought.

"He's dying inside," he said, finally.

"He's been through a lot."

Chris shook his head. "He's given up. He's not living. He's just going through the motions."

Vin lifted his head, listening.

"I know the look," Chris continued, his eyes drawn back to the livery. "I've been where he is." Chris glanced back at Vin. "And it's a mighty dark place"


Judge Travis sat in the cafe, finishing a bowl of soup. It was too hot for soup, but he'd felt a little weak after the events of the last month. He was trying to eat well and catch up on sleep. He thought back on the hearings. They'd gone well - as well as they could considering Jacob Chiles was still out there. That coward. It was just a stroke of luck that he had been able to find people to hook up with him. What a hairbrained idea? How did Chiles pull it off?

He hadn't.

Not alone.

There was no way.

Travis was convinced that there had to be someone else, someone who could mastermind a plan as intricate as this. Someone who had been smart enough to stay the hell away from the action.

Someone who wouldn't be satisifed until the job was done right . . .


He didn't hear him at first. His erratic hammering consumed him as he tried to secure a nail in the baptistry at an impossible angle. Finally the tack popped out and the railing popped up and Josiah Sanchez popped out with an explitive which would never be appropriate in the house of the Lord. "Sorry," he muttered automatically.

JD turned quickly to leave. This certainly wasn't the time to ask Josiah what he needed to.


Too late. The preacher had seen him.

"'S nothing. I can come back later."

Josiah climbed down and walked over to the boy. "No. No need. It's time for a break." He looked back at the baptistry and smiled. "Besides, I'm damn close to bein' struck by lightning."

JD nodded, a fleeting half smile crossing his face. Then he waited awkwardly. Josiah guided him to a bench and they sat down. "What can I do for you?" The big man's eyes were warm, and JD felt bolder. He had to ask this all at once or he might never work up the nerve again.

"Take me to his grave." JD's voice was throaty. Josiah looked puzzled. He leaned forward.

"Whose grave, son?"

Af first, JD looked incredulous. How could he not know who he was talking about? Wasn't everyone overcome with the injustice that had been done that poor reb? The young, scarred face that had been so void of emotion suddenly looked panicked. "The soldier's. The one who . . . " He didn't even realize he had clutched Josiah's shirt. "I have to go." His voice became thick and he began to tremble. JD struggled to contain this strange rush of emotion that threatened to overwhelm him. "He shouldn't have died. He's . . . alone. I need to go see him."

Josiah was alarmed at the expression in the boy's eyes. It was something akin to madness. And in one awful moment, he realized what this young man had been carrying all this time. He reached out to hold him, but JD withdrew.

"NO!" JD cried, jumping up. "Don't . . . comfort me. Don't . . ." Josiah was by his side in an instant, but JD shook him off, tears rolling down his face, eyes wild. "No . . . I don't . . . deserve . . ."

"What, son?" Josiah grabbed the boy's arms, and held him as he struggled weakly. "JD . . ." he spoke so gently. Finally JD quit fighting him and hung his head, defeated. "It doesn't matter. Just . . . take me, OK?" He looked up. "Please Josiah."

"I'll take you, but what did you mean . . . you don't deserve - "

JD pulled away, suddenly. "Just forget . . ." He waved his hand around, wildly. "That doesn't matter."

"It does," Josiah said, taking a tentative step toward JD. "Why didn't you tell anyone you felt like this?"

"Like what, Josiah?" The boy was bewildered. "You all know how he died. Why . . . he died. That should NEVER have happened." JD backed toward the door, avoiding the preacher's eyes. "This was a bad idea." JD was talking to himself now. "Bad idea."

Josiah grabbed his arm, harder than he intended to, and was horrified by the sudden terror in the kid's face. He let go immediately, sputtering apologies,

And JD ran off.


The message came a little after five - and Buck Wilmington was there waiting. "Hot damn!!!!!" he whooped and ran all the way to the saloon. He burst through the doors, and one of the doors narrowly missed Ezra Standish.

"Damn you, Mr. Wilmington, if you think . . . "

Buck patted his cheek. "Cuss me out later, Ezra. I've got the Holy Grail in my hand." He turned and walked over to the table where Chris and Vin were sitting with Nathan. "Gentlemen," he said, grandly. "Fear not. I've got just the right medicine for the kid. Read this!" He handed the yellow note to Chris and watched, satisfied, as his friend grinned in response.

"All right," Chris said, nodding, and he handed the paper to Vin.

Ezra strolled over. "Well, since nobody seems concerned with the fact that Mr. Wilmington almost . . ."

"Oh, pipe down, Ezra," Buck said, and the gambler couldn't keep from smiling as he read over Vin's shoulder.

"My apologies, sir," he said. "You have indeed 'saved the day' it would seem."

"Not until next week," Nathan said, smiling as he read the note Vin handed him. "But this may really do it."

"May I stand you to a drink?" Ezra asked Buck.

"Why yes, Mr. Standish. That would be most delightful," Buck answered, trying to approximate the gambler's expert use of language.

Chris laughed. "Give it up, Buck. Just thank him and drink."

If it weren't for the scream, Buck would have made a witty reply.

A shrill, blood-curdling scream. The men jumped up and drew their weapons.

Mary was running down the street toward the boarding house. "Casey!!" she called. Chris caught up with her. "That's Casey," she told him.

"Go to the Clarion and lock the doors. Wait for us. We'll take care of Casey."

His tone left no room for debate. She nodded and ran into the office. God, what if Chiles had come back? It can't be happening again.


Josiah sat cross-legged on the ground across from the new marker. The grave was getting a fresh growth of grass and it saddened the preacher. It seemed wrong somehow that a boy could be killed and every trace of his existence disappear in a couple of months. Every trace except for a make-shift headstone without even a name to identify him.

But his face would live forever in the heart of a troubled boy. God, where had JD gone? Josiah had followed him to the boarding house, only to find that he'd locked himself in his room. He just wanted to take a nap, he'd said. He was sorry to have made a fuss. Maybe the heat was getting to him. He'd get Josiah to take him to the grave later. Go home, Josiah, he'd said. He was fine, he'd said.

The preacher stayed outside his door. He couldn't leave him. Something was so wrong. And the fact that JD calmed down so quickly . . . well it wasn't natural.

So why the hell had he fallen asleep?

He'd called out for JD, only to be rewarded with a sick silence. Dear God, what had the kid done? He pounded on the door and finally, kicked it in.

A tentative relief came over him when he saw that the bed had been slept in, but the boy was gone.

Where had he gone?

A quick perusal of the room indicated that he'd climbed out of the window.

Josiah could have tracked him,

But he knew where JD would go.

So he'd go there and wait.


Casey nearly tripped over her skirt as she ran sobbing into the street. She landed in Chris Larabee's arms.

"You've gotta find him," she pleaded, grasping his arms.


"JD!" she looked at the anxious faces around her. "You've gotta stop him."

Buck put his hands on her shoulders. "Stop him from what?"

Her voice caught on the words. "He's gonna kill himself."


Buck took the letter she handed him. "Oh, sweet Jesus. . ." he breathed, handing it to Chris. He pulled away from them and ran up to JD's room, Vin on his heels. Why had the door been kicked in? Why had he had to escape out the window?

Maybe he wasn't gonna kill himself. Maybe Chiles had caught up with him and he was trying to divert them with the letter. Maybe he was out there running for his life.

Help him, Lord.


"We split up," Chris commanded. "But watch your backs. Buck's right. This could be a set up." He looked at Ezra. "You stay here with the judge and cover the town. If there's trouble, fire two shots and we'll know. Vin, you and I'll take the south side and work our way around the western perimeter. Nathan, you and Buck start on the north side and work your way down the eastern side." He glanced around. "Where the hell is Josiah?"

"Haven't seen him since lunch," Nathan said.

"I don't like this a bit," Buck said. "Chiles could have both of 'em."

Vin looked up and nodded at Casey who stood in the doorway of the Clarion, Mary Travis holding the young girl close. He and Chris mounted up and headed south.

And Buck and Nathan made their way north.

And the people of Four Corners prayed.


It had been too long. Surely JD would have asked someone where the soldier was buried. It wasn't a secret or anything. But he hadn't come. And it had been hours.

Josiah stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants. He should have gotten help when the kid first bolted out of the church. He could have gone anywhere. And he was in no condition to be traveling alone. But Josiah felt like JD had confided in him and he didn't want to breach this fragile trust.

The preacher headed back toward town. He'd start over again.

With help this time.


His foot was asleep where he had been sitting on it for the last three hours. The thick undergrowth had provided good cover, even though something was itching him. He could see the grave from here. And Josiah.

Thank God he was leaving. JD felt guilty for hiding from him, but he HAD tried to explain everything to him. And of all of his friends, Josiah was the one that he thought would really understand. Hadn't he talked about paying penance?

But this went way beyond penance.

JD couldn't ever make this right.

He was shivering . . .

But he wasn't cold.

And he wasn't scared.

He was . . .



Ezra kept watch from the Clarion office, staying with Mary and Casey. The judge was waiting at the jail, guarding a cowboy who had been picked up for public drunkenness. The rest of the town was strangely quiet, word about potential danger having spread like wildfire. Everyone was hunkering down, doors locked, shutters drawn. No one was taking a chance of falling prey to the evil that had befallen their guardians.

Casey had cried until she had no more tears. Her fear was turning to blistering anger

At JD.

At herself.

She folded her arms in front of her tightly and bit her lip. She leaned against the windowsill opposite Ezra - but not looking at him. She stared out at the empty street.


Mary stepped over to the cafe, to bring supper over to their little group and to ask the cook to stay open a little longer in case the searchers came back hungry. The intensity of emotion at the Clarion had made her even more nervous . . . and so tired . . .

She paused to sit for a few minutes. And in a moment, she was staring at the tablecloth, lost in troubled thought.

"Mrs. Travis?"

Mary glanced up at the wide-eyed girl who had tentatively approached.


The girl took a cup of hot tea off of her serving tray and set in front of her. "I thought you might like some," she said softly.

Mary smiled, and turned glistening eyes to her. "Thank you . . .that's very thoughtful."

The girl nodded, a bit shyly, and started back to the kitchen. But she paused and turned back, not sure whether it was all right to say something. Mary sensed her awkward hesitance and took the initiative.

"Would you like to join me?"

"Oh, no ma'am. I mean . . . I'd love to, but . . . I'm not allowed to sit down with the customers when I'm working . . . I mean, I just wanted to say . . ."

She faltered, embarrassed.

"It's all right . . . go on . . ."

The girl stepped close and lowered her voice. "It's just that . . . well, my mother says that God has sent these good men to our town to protect us, sort of like our guardian angels . . . and she says that He's got an angel watching over each one of them. That's why they all came back to us. That's why they all lived." The girl smiled. "He wouldn't bring 'em back and then stop caring for them. They'll come back."

"NANCY!" the voice from the kitchen boomed.

"I've got to get back to work." She whispered, then turned. "Caming!" she answered.

Mary thought about the girl's words, and a comfort came over her. How right that wise young one was. It was nothing short of a miracle that these men all came back alive. And surely God was with them now.


Ezra felt that familiar anger again.

But when he looked at the angry young woman standing at the window with him, he felt


Poor girl had lost her mama and daddy. She'd had to see her treasured heirlooms and remembrances taken from her and she'd had to fight to get them back. She'd had to fight to help her aunt keep their home.

And at a time when her heart was most tender, she'd fallen in love for the first time in her life, only to have the boy taken from her.

Even when he was returned to her, it wasn't the same. He was broken and hurt.

And when she tried to help, the wall had already been put in place. She couldn't save him from the ones who'd hurt him.

And she couldn't save him from himself.

"Miss Welles," Ezra began softly. "When we were out there, fighting for our lives, nobody fought harder or more nobly than Mr. D . . .uh, JD. But none of us knows everything he suffered, everything he saw. He's carrying a burden . . . one that we cannot see . . ."

Ezra stepped closer. "We all tried to help him carry it. But he never let us . . ." He looked into her eyes with an uncanny intensity. "And if he could have, if there had been any way, I'm sure he would have communicated to you how very much . . . he cares for you. Perhaps, it is his concern for you that kept him from wanting to burden you with his sufferings."

"But I could have handled it." Casey wished she could sound more fierce.

A charm twinkled in the gambler's eye. "Miss Welles - ever since I saw you stand up to that distasteful 'collector,' I have never doubted your ability to handle anything you confront." He looked out the window as if trying to place his next thought. "But this isn't something you can confront for another person. These are JD's own demons. Even if he had been able to tell you about it - or any of us for that matter - he would still have to find a way to . . . live with it. He has to go through it and, God willing, come out the other side."

"But . . . I could . . . " Casey's lip trembled and she followed Ezra's gaze out the window. " I could hold his hand."

The gambler looked back at the young girl. She wanted to be strong. And she was. But she needed someone to be strong for her now. Ezra reached out and took her hand. Startled she looked at him

And saw the tears in his eyes.

"You could hold mine." Ezra's voice was thick.

Casey hadn't realized that the often abrasive gambler had feelings for anyone but himself. But now, it seemed like he genuinely hurt for her. For JD. He was grieving . . . She couldn't know he was grieving for the years he'd lost - years he could have shared with people. He missed out on so much because instead of treasuring the people around him, he had swindled them. But all that was different for him now. And even this young provincial girl could see that he was suffering.

"It's like 'Lonesome Valley,'" she said.


"That hymn, 'Lonesome Valley.'" She recited softly. "'I must walk this lonesome valley. I have to walk it by myself. Oh, nobody else can walk it for me. I have to walk it by myself.'"

Ezra squeezed her hand gently. "But it helps to know there's somebody waiting on the other side."


Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner made quick work of their leg of the search. There was no sign of the kid or the preacher, but, thank God, there was no sign of any struggle either.

"I should have seen it coming," Chris said as they headed north to meet up with the others.


Chris was talking to himself as much as anything. "He's been planning this. He was getting his affairs in order."

Vin listened closely, trying to pace with him.

"Yea," Chris continued. "He's been giving things to people. And paying off debts."

"Damn!" Vin muttered.

Chris turned and looked at him sharply.

Vin didn't look at him. "Ezra said he was wanting to make a will. He didn't take it seriously. Thought he was just reacting to having had such a close call. Oh, man."

Chris didn't answer but urged his horse on, the bounty hunter on his heels.


Footsteps . . . not far . . .

Nathan raised his hand to quiet Buck. They strained to hear. One man, heavy footsteps. Coming closer.

They drew their weapons, and Buck slid silently off his horse. He crept forward very slowly. But before he could overtake his quarry, he heard Nathan.



Buck holstered his weapon and ran toward the preacher.

"Where's JD?" Buck asked breathlessly.

Josiah looked so distraught. "I been looking for him. He was so upset this afternoon."

Buck listened to Josiah's account of the day's events, growing more fearful the whole time. This fear erupted into blistering anger. "Why the hell didn't you tell somebody? Couldn't you see he was hanging on by a thread?"

"I wanted to give him some space."

"SPACE?" Buck was fairly screaming at him now. "He left to blow his f***ing brains out, Josiah!"

Nathan jumped down. "Stop it, Buck! He didn't know that." Buck turned away, breathing in ragged gasps. Josiah stood there as though someone had hit him. He turned to Nathan, his jaw hanging open. His mouth started to form the words.

"What?" A silent question. As gently as possible, Nathan related the story of JD's letter. The preacher hung his head. "Jesus . . ." he breathed. Nathan put his hand on the big man's shoulder.

Buck deliberately walked to his horse and swung on. He turned red eyes to his friends. "I'm sorry, Josiah." The preacher nodded slowly.

Nathan stopped Buck's horse. "Where're you going?"

"Back to that gravesite. We can't stop looking."


He took a tentative step out from his hiding place and approached the grave as though it were an altar of some kind. The Colt was in his hand. There was something almost surreal about it. He was there - but he was watching himself, too.

The grave was real. The night was real. The stone that marked the place was real.

That simple stone marker.

All that was left of a boy's life.

JD had imagined this moment for a few weeks now. Standing at this grave. Making his peace.

Now that he was here, he was overwhelmed. He fell heavily to his knees.

"God . . ."

Was he praying?

He saw the boy with the blue eyes. The boy who'd said he was sorry.

JD could hear him - talking to him - telling him to live.

He could feel the slight arms that had held onto him. Where had they been? A cave? The arms that tried to help him.

He remembered . . . phrases . . .

//. . . sir, don't you think he needs to rest?//

Help. Someone was helping him. But he couldn't see him.

//He's had enough//

They'd hit that boy. Just for trying to help him.

//I broke his ribs I think// That voice . . . he remembered it so clearly. But he'd been sorry. He'd said so. He'd asked JD to forgive him. He'd asked God to forgive him.

Why couldn't he remember? Surely he told the boy it was ok. Surely he'd let him know that he forgave him.

Oh God, what if he hadn't?

JD didn't realize that he was crying. Trembling - crying - praying,

"God, I'm sorry. . . "

//I'm sorry for what they done.//

"It's ok. It wasn't your fault."

//I didn't know . . . //

"Wasn't your fault. It was my fault."

He remembered gunshots. Rolling. Off the backboard. Asleep. Awake.

Racking sobs. JD curled in on himself, rocking, gripping the gun more tightly.

That man - the one with the whip -

Had a shotgun now. Aimed at his heart.

"GOD . . . " JD squeezed his eyes closed.

But closed eyes couldn't block it out. The gray. The blur. The blast.

The body.

He remembered the eyes. The shocked blue eyes. Terrified at first. But then smiling before becoming glassy. The hint of a smile was on his lips. The soldier had seen him.

And JD absorbed the boy's eyes.

Eyes that became glassy.

Then became lifeless.

Still looking at him.

Looking at him now.

Why had the boy gotten in front of him? Why had his own men killed him? Why did he die? It wasn't right.

JD was shuddering now, panic rising. He was holding the boy. Holding him. Trying to will life back into him. He heard Buck scream. They'd shot Buck too.

Buck screaming.

Sweet Jesus, what was happening?


Over and over he told the boy.

He was still holding the boy. But the boy wouldn't wake up.

Wake up, damn it!

Buck screaming. He needed to get to Buck. Buck was dying.

The boy was dead. In his arms. And it was his fault. If he had died, the boy would be alive.

God, change this. Take me. Bring him back.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" He screamed at God. Holding the boy.

Buck. Buck wasn't screaming anymore. Buck wasn't screaming. Buck.

Buck was dead.

Chris was dead.

Vin was dead.

Ezra was dead.

Josiah was dead.

Nathan was dead.

They'd all ridden away. With that kid. And he was left. Alone.

His fault. His fault. He couldn't stop Buck and Josiah from taking the boy hostage. The boy was a hostage because of him.

If they'd just left JD tied up back there, nobody else would have had to be hurt.

"God.God.God.God.God.God. . . ." JD mumbled. He looked at the colt in his hand. When had he chipped the handle? It was a good thing he left Buck the other one.

Buck was dead, though.

JD's breaths came too fast. He was so mixed up. He'd talked to Buck that morning.

No, do this.

Do this.

Make it right.

If you don't, you'll be alone. They've gone ahead.


I'm going crazy. Lord, I'm going crazy.

He closed his eyes and the blue eyes were back. The blue eyes. Buck screaming. Ezra riding away.

It had to stop.

He didn't open his eyes. He didn't have to. He put the barrel of the colt in his mouth. Aware of the foreignness of the metal and dirt against his tongue. He closed his lips tightly, pressing his teeth against the rough barrel. His hand trembled, and he adjusted the position of the tip so that he could feel it against the roof of his mouth.

No mistakes now.

He opened his eyes for a split second and glanced at the grave. Then he closed them again.

Still the eyes.

And the screams.

His finger twitched on the trigger.

the eyes.

the trigger.

the scream.

God forgive me.

I'm coming, Buck.


He never thought anything could be worse than watching JD being hurt like he had. He would carry that image in his heart as long as he lived.

But nothing could compare to riding over the ridge and seeing that huddled body silhouetted against the night sky - quaking . . .

For a split-second Buck couldn't tell what was in the kid's mouth. Too short to be a beer bottle. Too wide to be a smoke.

Then he knew - in harsh relief against the moon, the barrel of a colt.

"GOD JD, NO!!" he cried, galloping toward him.

JD didn't respond.

But he didn't pull the trigger either.

He rocked, heaving dry sobs now.

Buck reached him in a minute, careful not to touch him. Not to scare him.

"JD, don't." Buck dropped to his knees in front of the boy. "Don't do this, kid." JD squeezed his eyes more tightly, and his hand shook more.

"JD, look at me." Buck kept the panic out of his voice, but not the urgency. "JD - open your eyes, son." The gunslinger slid closer. "Look at me." His voice was almost a whisper. "It's Buck." The boy tilted his head away slightly. Avoiding the voice.

"JD, open your eyes, g**damnit!"

The kid's eyes shot open, terrified. And Buck's voice grew gentle again. "Come on, kid. Put it down." He slid even closer - close enough to hold him. But he didn't touch him. "Whatever it is, we'll handle it. We will. I swear. But this ain't the way." JD was listening, tears rolling down his scarred face. But he kept the colt in his mouth.

"Please, son." Was Buck crying? Don't cry, Buck. "I've seen you die once. Please - I can't watch that again."

There was unspeakable pain in the boy's eyes as he slowly, shakily pulled the pistol out of his mouth. But he still held it, with an unsteady hand - pointed at his own heart. He looked at his friend, then looked beyond him to the grave.

"Give it to me, JD."

JD had travelled back to that nightmare world he had created from flashes of memories, and he spoke as though in a trance.

"My fault," JD said simply.

"JD, nothing is your fault."

"He's dead because of me."

"He's dead because the bad guys shot him, JD. It had nothing to do with you."

"It had everything to do with me!" JD cried, sobbing again and ignoring the danger he held in his hand. He was pleading with Buck to understand. "If I'd died, you wouldn't have taken him hostage."

"What?! He wasn't a hostage, JD."

"I see him, Buck. I see his eyes. Everytime I close mine."

Buck was watching for an opportunity to take the gun away.

"Give me the gun, JD." Buck realized that the boy was burning up. "Come on, you're sick. Let me take you back. Give me the gun."

"They shot you, Buck." Suddenly, the boy looked at him, a pathetic concern in his eyes. He looked at Buck's shirt and with his free hand, he put his hand on the big man's chest. Hadn't he been shot in the heart? JD was confused.

And Buck took his chance.

He took the weapon away from his friend and in the same move, pulled the kid to his chest in a tight embrace. JD had a raging fever, and Buck noticed that the boy was soaking wet, shivering, scared.

Buck was shivering, too, and once he had unloaded the colt, he tightened his hold on the boy, and spoke in his ear.

"Don't ever do that again. Promise me." He shook the boy slightly, "OK? You gotta promise me, JD."

JD didn't answer, but he nodded.

"This wasn't your fault. None of it. I can't believe you been carrying this around all this time." Buck put his hand on the kid's head. "Aw, Jesus, JD, you're burning up . . ." He took off his jacket and wrapped it around the shivering boy. "It's gonna be ok now."

"Shouldna stopped me. . ."

"JD . . ."

"He's dead because of me."

"No. He died standing up for what he believed was right. He admired you. And he was ashamed of what his people did to you."

"Why . . . did you take him hostage?"

Buck held his friend closer. "He was never a hostage, JD. He left the others willingly. He wanted to be free. It was his choice."

JD didn't answer right away, but Buck felt him relax slightly.

"He smiled at me. Right when he died . . . "

"He saved your life." Buck leaned back so he could look at JD. "And that saved his soul." JD's lips trembled again and new tears rolled down his cheeks. He lowered his head and leaned into his friend's chest. He was so tired.

Neither of them had noticed the arrival of their friends. Nathan handed the reins over to Vin and slid off his horse. His eyes met Buck's over the top of the boy's head.

"He is so sick," Buck said softly. With Nathan's help, he eased JD down to the soft ground. The boy's eyes fluttered and closed. Nathan slipped his fingers up to the young man's throat.

"He's passed out is all." Nathan looked up at Buck. "Let's get him home. We gotta get this fever down." But he paused and squinted at the gunslinger. "You all right, Buck?" Buck didn't even try to hide his tears. He couldn't answer, but he nodded. Easily he lifted the unconscious boy, cradling him in his arms. Josiah walked up wordlessly and touched the boy's head. He glanced up at Buck, a world of remorse in his eyes.

"It's all right, Josiah." Buck's voice was husky. "I'm sorry I . . ."

"No need for that." Josiah patted his friend's shoulder.

Josiah took JD from Buck while the gunslinger mounted his horse. He was alarmed at how thin the boy was.

"Vin," Nathan said. "Ride on ahead and get that sickroom ready." He looked at the others. "It's gonna be another long night."


The sun was extraordinary. Beautiful sky. Not too hot, not too humid. Perfect.

"What time is it?"

Ezra peered out from under his hat and slowly pulled his watch out of the pocket of his vest. "Well, Mr. Wilmington, you'll be happy to know that . . ." he peered more closely at the dial, "three minutes have passed since your last inquiry."

"Well where the hell is it?" Buck paced nervously. Ezra was too amused to be annoyed. He noticed Vin trotting over.

"Any sign of it?" he asked, squinting down the road.

"It's late." Buck was exasperated.

"It's not noon yet, Buck." Chris Larabee was not wearing his trademark black. He sauntered over to his friends and grinned. "You're like an expectant father."

"Well pardon me for having a bit of enthusiasm." He tried to sound irritated, but he couldn't.

"How's JD?" Chris asked.

"Fever's almost gone. He's bouncin' off the walls."

Chris smiled. "That's better."

Ezra sighed. "I am quite certain Miss Welles doesn't mind keeping him occupied." He frowned. "Surely she would not give our little 'secret' away."

"No," Vin piped up. "She likes a good scheme, I think."

"Well . . ." Ezra didn't get his next sentence out, because of the cloud of dust that appeared on the horizon.

Buck whooped as the stage thundered into town.


Nettie Welles pursed her lips in disgust as JD squirmed.

"You are not gonna get well if you don't build up your strength."

"I'm well!" JD caught himself raising his voice and then he softened. "I am grateful for all you've done for me . . ."

"BUT" Nettie and Casey said at once. JD's jaw dropped open. "Oh, come on. I'm not that bad."

Casey looked conspiratorily at her aunt. "You were well when you got sick."

"Huh?" JD scrinched his face up - then laughed. "Casey, that sounded like something I'd say."

"I just meant . . ."

"I know what you meant," JD said.

"Good to hear you laugh again, son." Nettie smiled then set the tray in his lap. "Now, eat!" she commanded.

"Yes ma'am."

Soup. And it really was good. JD finally had an appetite. It had been so long - he'd been so sick. And it felt good to feel


The influenza had damn near killed him. And no one realized he was even sick, because he'd kept to himself. He had been to consumed with this irrational quilt to pay attention. His resistance had been so low. How could anyone have known that the influenza in Eagle Bend could have traveled back with the men?None of them had gotten sick. JD hadn't even been to Eagle Bend. Nathan had a theory about how it had happened. JD'd have to ask him about that.

Buck's head poked around the door. "Hey kid!" He was grinning. JD had to grin back.


"Look what I got ya." Buck sauntered in, holding a hat out as though it were on a dinner tray or sonmething.

The boy's face lit up. "Wow!! You got me a new hat!" JD was especially excited that Buck got him a bowler hat. Buck hates his hat. JD reached out. But Buck withdrew his hand and looked shocked.

"This?" Buck said in mock indignation. "This ain't what I brought you. And this ain't your hat."

Buck stepped aside and let the legend come into the sick room.

"It's his."

Buck handed the hat to the lawman.

And JD Dunne was dumbfounded as he came face to face with Bat Masterson.

"Hello, young man," Mr. Masterson said, pulling up a chair. "I've got to say, you've had more adventures than I had had at your age."

JD was still trying to find words, and Buck got tickled. JD didn't see his friends walk in. He was overwhelmed to see his idol. And his eyes filled.

Buck smiled at his friends, and they all left the two in the sickroom, to talk for the rest of the afternoon.


Buck and Chris sat with Judge Travis in the cafe. "That was a great move Buck." Chris raised his glass to his friend.

"It was almost too late," Buck observed.

Chris shook his head. "That boy has a guardian angel.

"I'd say he has six," the judge commented. He took a long sip of his coffee. Then he peered up at the two.

"And he's gonna need you."

Chris nodded. "This ain't over. As long as Chiles is out there, the kid'll be a target."

"We'll get him," Buck said soberly.

"And then get the guy who was the brains behind him." The judge took his time finishing his coffee. Chris and Buck looked at each other. They hadn't wanted to consider that possibility.

The judge stood up and laid a few coins on the table.

"You're right Mr. Larabee. This is nowhere near over."


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