The next four days felt like torture to J.D., and not much better to the rest of the seven. By the end of the first day, the soreness in J.D.'s muscles had begun to ease. By the morning of the second, the last vestiges of his headache had started to fade away. Although his ankle continued to throb, it wasn't nearly bad enough to keep him content with remaining in bed.
J.D. hadn't been left alone since the time on the second day when Buck had returned from a quick trip to the outhouse, only to find J.D. sitting on the edge of the bed, testing out weight on his bandaged foot. Although J.D. had swung back around as quickly as he could when he heard the door open, plastering an innocent look on his face, it wasn't quick enough to prevent Buck from catching him.
Since then, he'd had a 'guard' posted at all times, much to his disgust.
Although the men had taken turns, all of their tempers had begun to fray. J.D. sick at the best of times was hard enough; J.D. bedridden and full of energy, in a bad mood to boot, was enough to try even the considerable patience of Josiah.
The men had each tried to speak individually with J.D. about whatever it was that was clearly bothering him, but each had been rebuffed, some more politely than others. They were all getting tired of waiting for J.D. to work it out, and had decided the time had come to try something new.
J.D. sat propped up in bed, half-heartedly flipping through the pages of a dime novel, Josiah tipped back in the chair and looking out the window, when the clinic door opened. J.D. turned, and watched the rest of the guys file in. They each carried a plate, Chris and Vin carrying extras. Josiah nodded his thanks as Vin handed him one.
J.D. looked at them questioningly. "Thought we'd have lunch together," Chris said, leaning against the table.
J.D. grimaced. "Ain't barely room for two people in here, Chris, let alone seven at once."
Chris eyed him. "We'll manage," he said shortly, handing J.D. a plate. J.D. looked at him, then sighed and put down his novel, reaching out and accepting the food.
"Thanks," he mumbled, picking up the fork and pushing the food around on his plate. The six traded looks, then each began to eat their own food, glancing up at J.D. every now and then. J.D. kept his eyes on his plate.
"So, kidhow's that new book of yours?" Vin asked, nodding toward the novel he had brought J.D. the day before.
J.D. looked up briefly. "Okay, I guess." He continued to push his food around, wishing everyone would leave already.
Ezra spoke next. "J.D., I don't believe that I have told you yet about the scalliwags who attemptedunsuccessfully, I might addto deceive me at my gaming pursuits the evening before last."
J.D. looked up, momentarily interested. "Yeah? What happened?"
"Well," Ezra began, lowering his voice confidentially, "You are aware, of course, that my reputation as a master of the table has spread to the far reaches of this territory "
J.D. broke in. "C'mon, Ez, I don't need to hear all that for the hundredth time, okay? Just tell me what happened."
Ezra paused, looking steadily at J.D., his face hardening slightly. When he spoke, his voice had picked up an edge. "I suppose, after all, that my little story is not really all that interesting."
J.D. reddened and looked away. "Sorry, Ez," he muttered.
Chris stood up, putting down his own plate and looking over at Buck, who nodded. He approached the bed, lowering himself carefully onto the edge, avoiding J.D.'s bandaged foot.
"All right, kid, I think it's time we all had a talk."
J.D.'s face turned a brighter shade of red. "Look, Chris, I said I was sorry, okay? ListenI'm kind of tired. Maybe you all could leave me alone for a bit."
Chris shifted his gaze slightly, catching Buck's eyes.
Buck rolled his eyes slightly, and approached the other side of the bed. "I don't think so, kid," he said, perching himself against the night table.
J.D.'s eyes flitted between the two men, feeling slightly trapped.
Buck had just started to say, "Look, J.D.", when to J.D.'s enormous relief he heard a knock on the door.
"Come in," he called hopefully, pulling his gaze away from the men on either side of him. He heard them both let out a sharp breath, but they stopped and turned to the door as well.
The door pushed open slowly, and J.D. felt some of his relief fade as Sam peered around the edge, his eyes growing a little wide as he took in the six men leaning around the room.
"Ummhey, J.D.," he tried.
"Hey, Sam." J.D.flicked a glance at him, then looked away.
"You feeling any better?" Sam asked hopefully.
"Yeah, I guess so," J.D. responded.
"Well " Sam's voice trailed, as he glanced nervously again at the other men, then strengthened as Buck nodded at him encouragingly. "Well, I thought maybe you could use some company, J.D. Three weeks is an awful long time to hafta spend in bed."
J.D. flicked a glance at him again. "Guess I got about all the company I need, Sam," he said pointedly, waving his hand toward the others in the room. A few jaws tightened, but the men remained silent, watching.
Sam colored and looked down. "Yeah, I guess I can see that." He paused for a moment, then tried again.
"You want me to come back later, maybe? My Pa said it'd be okay if I spent some time with you, kept you company. Ain't even gonna hassle me about chores." He paused, trying to grin. "Betcha never thought you'd hear me say that, huh?"
J.D. shook his head slightly, then sighed. "Look, Sam, maybe you'd better just stick to your chores."
"Whatta ya mean, J.D.?" Sam asked, confused.
"Ain't nothing much happening here. No use you sticking around."
Sam lifted one shoulder, then lowered it again. "Guess that's why I thought maybe you could use some company, J.D.," he tried.
J.D. shook his head. "Like I said, Sam, got all the company I need."
Sam looked at Buck once more. "Guess I could come back some other time."
J.D. sighed, exasperated. "Look, Sam, I won our bet, right?"
"Our bet?" Sam questioned, confused.
"The bet was, you had to find me. If you didn't, you had to do whatever I said." J.D.'s voice was flat, and the men in the room eyed each other and him warily.
Sam was nodding slowly. "Yeah, J.D., you're right. You won the bet. I didn't " he stopped, took a breath, and then continued. "I didn't find you."
"So you'll do whatever I say, right?"
Buck and Chris both shot J.D. hard looks, neither trusting the sudden edge they heard in his voice. J.D. either didn't see them or was ignoring them, choosing to focus instead on Sam, who was nodding again.
"Sure, J.D., whatever you want."
"Fine." J.D. laid back in his bed, folding his arms. "Then what I want is for you to leave me alone, okay? Just get on outta here and leave me alone."
There was a moment of shocked silence, and then Buck and Chris snapped, "J.D.!" simultaneously. Sam opened his mouth, and then closed it again. J.D. turned his head to the side, dismissing him. Sam drew in a sharp breath, lowered his head, and then turned and walked to the door and left.
Six sets of eyes turned toward the person on the bed, who was staring for all he was worth at the ceiling.
Josiah turned his eyes upward, sighed, and headed out after Sam. The rest looked at J.D., and then over at Buck, whose gaze was murderous.
"You boys leave us alone, now," he said, his voice ominous in its quiet. "J.D. and me need to have ourselves a little talk."
J.D. continued to stare up at the ceiling as he heard the men shifting and moving out of the clinic. He could feel Buck next to him, almost vibrating, and felt his stomach clench just a little, but continued to ignore Buck as hard as he could. If he didn't look at him, Buck couldn't make him talk, right? He winced internally. Yeah, right.
The door closed as the rest of the men left, all except for Chris. When Buck had spoken, Chris had given him a look, then stepped back and folded his arms. The message was clear: Chris would let Buck handle it, but he wasn't going anywhere. Buck nodded back, and then turned to J.D., waiting until the others were all out the door before speaking.
"All right, son, you ready to tell me what's going on?" His voice was still quiet, but it had a steely edge to it. J.D. ignored him, continuing to stare at the ceiling. Buck stepped closer to the bed, towering over J.D. and placing himself in his line of sight.
"Maybe you didn't hear me, kid. I asked if you were ready to tell me what was going on." The edge in his voice had increased just a bit, and J.D. shifted his gaze from the ceiling, sitting up but staring at the far wall instead of Buck.
"Nothing, okay, Buck?"
Buck let out an exasperated sigh. "No, dammit, J.D., it ain't okay. You've been wallowin' around here bogged down neck deep in self-pity, and we're all getting' pretty sick of it." His voice grew dangerous. "Now, you're gonna tell me what's going on, or I swear I'm gonna knock it out of you."
Even knowing the threat was meaningless, J.D.'s face tensed. "Look, Buck, I ain't got nothing to talk about, okay?" He folded his arms. "So why don't you just leave me alone?"
Buck's face was turning an interesting shade of red, and J.D. scooted back slightly in his bed, just in case. To his dismay, he ran into Chris's hand. J.D. thought sourly as he swiveled to stare up at him that Chris was startin' to sneak around near as bad as Vin did.
Chris kept his hand on J.D.'s good shoulder, and his voice was quiet when he spoke. "I don't think you understand, kid. We're not asking, anymore." J.D. shivered slightly at the ice he heard in Chris's voice, as he continued, "You may as well start talking, J.D., because we ain't going nowhere until you do."
J.D. tried to pull forward, but Chris's fingers tightened around his shoulder. He looked in the other direction, where Buck sat in the chair, his arms folded. He looked back at Chris, who raised his eyebrows and waited. J.D. closed his eyes briefly, then opened them. They were both still there.
Chris let go of his shoulder and lowered himself onto the edge of the bed again, watching J.D. He and Buck exchanged looks once more, as J.D. continued to sit silently.
Buck let out a breath. "LookI know you're mad at Sam, okay, J.D.? But it ain't right to fault him for what happened out there."
"I know it ain't his fault, Buck," J.D. shot out. "I told you that, I told him that, what else you want me to do, take out an ad in Miss Travis's newspaper?"
Buck let out a hissing breath. "Yeah, I heard what you said, kid, but I thought you and Sam were friends. You keep treating him like you just did, you ain't gonna stay friends for long."
J.D. stared down at his sheets, picking at a thread. "Yeah, well maybe it's better that way."
Buck looked at him, his glance hard. "What do you mean, J.D.?" When J.D. didn't answer, he reached out and grabbed J.D.'s chin, forcing him to turn his face upward. "I said, what do you mean, J.D.?" J.D. tried to jerk away; when he couldn't, he shifted his eyes, avoiding Buck's gaze. Buck let out an exasperated breath and let go of him. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter, almost pleading.
"C'mon, kid. Why is it better if Sam don't stay friends with you?"
J.D. hated when Buck got that pleading note in his voice. He could deal with Buck cocky, or teasing, or even downright pissed off, but pleading made him clench up every time. He mumbled something under his breath.
"What was that, J.D.?" Buck asked, his voice still quiet.
J.D. looked up, then down again. "Maybe it's just better."
"I heard you say that already, kid. But why?"
J.D. started, then stopped. "Look, Buck," he tried. "When we first met, you showed me all sorts of things, right?"
Buck nodded slowly, confused by what seemed like a change in topic, but he decided to wait it out for now.
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Still do, really," J.D. continued.
Buck nodded, but tried to get back on subject. "Look, J.D., what's this got to do with you'n Sam?"
J.D.'s jaw clenched slightly. "Look, Buckjust listen, okay?"
Buck eyed him, and then nodded, waiting. J.D. continued, trying to put it into words. "All you guys show me stuffright, Chris?" He turned to include Chris in the conversation.
Chris's jaw twitched, and he nodded. "Yeah, kid, guess we do."
"And the stuff you all show meit's helped me know how to get by out here, right?" He turned back to Buck. "I meanokay" he held up his fingers and ticked off the names, one by one. "Vin showed me how to track, and Nathan showed me how to fix up wounds, and Ez showed me how to get out of a jam, and Josiah showed me how to act with folks, and you'n Chriswell," J.D. paused, his mouth pulling up briefly into a small grin as he met their eyes, before looking back down"Guess you guys showed me how not to get myself killed."
Buck and Chris shared a quick look, before turning back to J.D., waiting. He made sure they were following him, then continued, the words coming faster now. "Okay, so you guys are always showin' me stuff, and it's great and all, and now I know things I didn't know before, right?" He continued before they could answer. "But I can't show none of you anything, cause the only thing I do better'n any of you is ride, and you all know how to do that already." He paused, catching their raised eyebrows at his statement, and shrugged. "Well, I do." They tilted their heads, letting him go on.
"So I thought, here's someone I finally know more than, you know? And he really wanted to know stuff, kept asking me about how to shoot'n how to track'n all. And I tried to show him, I really did."
J.D.'s voice faltered now, and he looked down before continuing in a quieter voice. "So here I am, wise as can be, thinkin' I finally have someone I can teach somethin' to, and first time I show someone something not only don't it work, but I throw myself halfway offa a cliff to boot."
He stared at his sheets again, picking at the same thread. "Some teacher I turned out to be, huh?" he muttered quietly, half under his breath.
He looked back up at them. "Soif I can't even show him how to track a horse across town without ending up in bed for three weeks, what good am I to him, anyway?"
Buck opened his mouth helplessly, then closed it again, trying to decide where to start. He looked at Chris, who shook his head slightly and looked down.
"Look, J.D., first of all, being a friend ain't just about showing people stuff," Buck began.
"I know that, Buck," J.D. broke in, but Buck held his hand up, cutting him off.
"Look, kid, I heard you out, now you listen to me, okay?" He waited until J.D. nodded before continuing. "Like I was saying, that ain't what makes a friend. And learning things don't just go one way. You think you're the only one learning something out here?"
"Oh, c'mon Buck, what've I ever showed you?" J.D. scoffed.
Buck raised his eyebrows. "Well, now, kid, you've showed me how to laugh at myself." He lifted his fingers, now, ticking things off just as J.D. had done. "You've shown me how someone faces their demons and keeps going," and J.D. looked down, knowing he was talking about Annie. "You've reminded me about the delightful mysteries of the fairer sex." Buck's eyes sparkled, as J.D. blushed. He paused a moment, his voice a little huskier. "And you've reminded me what it's like to have family."
J.D. looked down, his eyes burning just a bit.
Buck's voice grew stern again. "Second of all, seems to me you're a better teacher with Sam than you think you are." He held up his finger, as J.D. lifted his eyes and started to protest. "Two months ago, what did Sam know about tracking?" He held J.D.'s eyes, waiting for an answer.
J.D. thought a moment. "Nothing, I guess."
"And a year ago, what did you know about tracking?"
J.D. sighed. "Less than nothing."
Buck nodded. "Okay, so you didn't know nothin', and Sam didn't know nothin', and yet you knew enough to show him how to follow your tracks across dirt, grass, and rocks, and he learned enough to follow you a good mile before losing your trail."
J.D. stopped and thought about it. "Yeah, but " he said slowly.
Buck cut him off. "And he knew enough to know when he'd lost you, and knew enough about you keeping your word to go for help when you didn't come back. Didn't he." It was a statement, more than a question, but Buck paused anyway, giving J.D. a chance to respond.
"I guess," J.D. said, looking down. He was starting to feel a little bit foolish. Buck kept going.
"Third of all," Buck's voice was a little harder now. "Third of all, when you're showin' someone something new, might not be the best idea to test the hardest stuff first." He gave J.D. a pointed look. "How much attention did you pay to where you left your tracks, comin' outta that creek?"
J.D. thought about it, then lowered his eyes. "Not too much, I guess."
"You know how long it took Vin to find your trail, out there?" J.D. shook his head, and Buck sighed, remembering.
"Wella long time, anyway." He shook off the memory, and looked at J.D., continuing. "And that trail you went up into the woods might not've been the best choice either, doncha think?"
J.D. looked down at his ankle, then up at Buck, rolling his eyes a little. "Well, yeah, I guess I figured that one out already, Buck."
Buck cuffed him lightly on the side of the head before continuing. "So you made a bet with Sam, and you were so all-fired bent on proving you could teach him something, you didn't bother stopping to make sure you were givin' him a fair chance to prove it back."
J.D. looked down, rolling Buck's words over in his head. "I guess ", he paused and looked up. "I guess, maybe, if I had headed out someplace different, he might've found me, huh?"
Buck raised his eyebrows and looked at him. J.D. sighed and looked down. "Yeah, I guess maybe you're right."
Buck nodded, satisfied. "And fourth.."
"There's more?" J.D. protested, looking up somewhat beseechingly.
Buck grinned, continuing. "Fourth, kid, Sam findin' you or not ain't necessarily the proof of whether you got somethin' to offer. Why, if I gave up on my natural god-given talents every time you went and threw yourself off of a cliff, why, I would've drifted into despair ages ago." He gave J.D. a wolfish grin. "Shoot, kid, just cause the student messes up, don't mean the teacher ain't got nothing to offer." He paused, raising his eyebrows. "Or that the student ain't got nothing to show."
J.D. felt his face burn, thinking of how many times he had let Buck or one of the other guys down. "Guess I ain't always been the best listener myself, huh, Buck?" he mumbled, staring back down at the bed.
J.D. felt a hand on his shoulder and turned. He had almost forgotten Chris was there. "I don't think that's what Buck is sayin', kid." He held J.D.'s gaze for a moment, before continuing. "I think, what he's saying, is that maybe the best teaching and the best learning take place when nobody's got nothing to prove." He paused again, before adding, "And maybe you're not always playin' the part you think you are."
J.D. nodded, holding Chris's gaze. Chris tilted his head, studying him, before nodding back.
J.D. sighed. "Guess I better talk to Sam, huh?"
Chris inclined his head. "Guess that might be a good idea."
J.D. cringed a little bit. "Wouldn't blame him if he didn't want to talk to me no more."
Buck spoke up. "Guess you won't know, if you don't try."
J.D. looked away, then back and forth between Chris and Buck. He took a breath, then opened his mouth, closing it again and then opening it before speaking, resolved. "I ever tell you guys, thanks, for all the stuff you show me?"
Buck scratched his head, looking over at Chris. "Well, now, pard, I can't rightly say when the last time this squirt showed us gratitude was, can you?"
Chris shook his head, mouth twitching slightly. "Can't say as I know myself, pard."
They both looked at J.D., who sighed, exasperated. "All right, all right, I get the point. So anyways--" he looked down, then back up, first at Buck and then at Chris. "Thanks."
Buck reached out and rested his hand on J.D.'s neck, squeezing lightly. "It goes both ways, kid."
He caught Chris's eyes, and they both nodded, satisfied.
Buck cleared his throat, dropping his hand. "So, kidyou never did tell us how you managed to fall down that cliff."
J.D. winced, leaning back. "You sure you want to know?"
Buck raised his eyebrow, examining him. "I don't know, kidDo I want to know?"
J.D. gave him a sudden grin. "Wellit's pretty simple, really. I was sitting there waitin' for Sam, and when I stood up, my foot had fallen asleep."
Buck waited for J.D. to continue. When he didn't, he repeated, "Your foot fell asleep?"
J.D. nodded. "Yup. And then my hat fell off," he added helpfully.
"Your hat fell off?!" Buck's voice was starting to rise in pitch.
J.D. nodded again. "Yup. And thenwell, I guess you pretty much know the rest."
Buck started to speak, and then closed his mouth again. He looked over at Chris, who shrugged, his mouth pulled into a slight smile.
"Your foot fell asleep."
"Your hat fell off."
"And you fell twenty feet down the side of a cliff."
Buck leaned back, exasperated. "You know, kid, about what I said about not taking it personal when your student messes up " He stopped, and J.D. smiled at him.
Buck shook his head, finally smiling. "Nothing. Justremind me to have a little talk with you about how to stand on the top of a cliff, okay?"
J.D. smiled back. "Sure thing, Buck."
A week later:
J.D. was relieved to find that Sam was the forgiving type. At J.D.'s request, Buck had ridden out to the Williams farm and asked Sam to come by the clinic. The meeting had been awkward at first, but Sam had been understanding, relieved more than anything else that J.D. wasn't really mad at him.
Since then, Sam had been spending his afternoons in town, keeping J.D. company. Now, the two of them sat truly alone for the first time. Judge Travis had needed all of the men to accompany a shipment of gold on the stage as far as the rail spur in Eagle Bend, and Buck had reluctantly agreed to go, provided Sam stay with J.D. while they were gone. He had made them both promise, on pain of death ("or worse," he had added, glaring at them), that J.D. would remain in bed and off of his foot.
Now the last sound of horses had receded, and J.D. grinned at Sam. Sam eyed him, not trusting the look in his eyes.
"So you remember our bet, right Sam?"
Sam glowered at him a little bit. "You ain't gonna start that again, are ya, J.D.?"
J.D. smiled. "Well, I was just thinking the two weeks ain't up yet, and I ain't barely asked you to do nothing."
"Yeah?" Sam asked, reluctantly.
"Well," J.D. said, looking around. "Ain't no one around to say nothing if I were to end up on that porch." He looked at Sam expectantly.
Sam sighed. "J.D., Buck said "
"But Buck ain't here, is he, Sam?"
Sam tilted his head, considering. "You know, J.D.," he said slowly. "The bet was, I had to find you before you made it back to town."
"Yeah," J.D. said, not liking where this was heading.
"Well I didn't find you, but I did beat you back to town, right?"
"Yeah," J.D. said, more grudgingly this time.
"So, you didn't really win that bet any more'n I did," Sam concluded triumphantly.
J.D. frowned at him, then leaned back against the pillows. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he said disgustedly. He looked up at Sam. "Guess that means you ain't gonna help me out onto that porch, huh?"
Sam smiled. "Didn't say that, now did I?"
J.D. began to smile again. "You mean?"
"Yeah, why not."
J.D. sat up again, and swung his legs out over the bed. He stood carefully, holding his weight over one foot and putting his arm around Sam's shoulder. They moved slowly toward the clinic door, J.D. grunting a little bit as he hopped. Sam looked at him as they reached the door.
"You look a little pale, J.D.," he said, his voice concerned. "You sure you want to do this?"
J.D. threw him a look, and Sam sighed. "All right, then. Better lean up against the wall while I get the door open."
He positioned J.D. carefully, and then turned and swung the door open. He turned to go back for J.D., when his eye caught sight of something on the porch. He groaned as he recognized the seated form of the preacher.
J.D. and Josiah had both looked toward Sam as he groaned.
"Somethin' wrong, Sam?" J.D. asked, just as Josiah turned and said, eyes twinkling, "You goin' somewhere, Sam?"
Sam swiveled nervously between the two, Josiah continuing calmly, "I know that ain't J.D. I hear standing there."
J.D. blanched behind the wall, and Sam blinked quickly at Josiah. "Course not. I meanwhat're you doing here? I thought you all went off somewhere."
Josiah raised one eyebrow. "Well, now, son, these bones of mine ain't what they used to be. Thought I'd be a bit more comfortable sitting here in town. Figured I could keep an eye on things."
Sam wriggled a little under his look, backing into the clinic. "Well, ummjust wanted a breath of fresh air. Guess I'll go back in with J.D., now."
Josiah nodded. "Sounds like a good plan." He waited to smile until after the door closed.
Inside the clinic, Sam leaned back against the shut door and then turned, glowering at J.D., who was still holding onto the wall. "Dang it all, J.D., now look what you've gone and done. What if he tells Buck? I thought you said wouldn't none of'em be around."
J.D. twisted his face in a grimace. "Well, that's what they told me, anyway." He scowled for a moment, thinking about it. "Shame when a fellow can't even be trusted to stay in town by himself."
Sam raised his eyebrows, looking at the bed and then over at J.D., who clearly wasn't in it.
"Shoot," J.D. said, letting out some air. "You gonna help me back over to the bed, or what?"
Sam thought about it for a moment.
"Well, all right, but don't be expecting me to be doin' as you say after this, got it?" Sam arched his eyebrows, then grinned.
J.D. grinned back. "Yeah, Sam, I got it.
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