by Sue M

Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em but if I could they'd be on season 10 by now!

The sun was warm, the breeze refreshing. JD was napping under a large oak, his head resting on his jacket, his hand idly dangling in a small stream. It couldn't get any better than this. JD loved riding out on his own occasionally, he craved company most of the time but would ride out alone to clear his head and reflect.

He'd found this little haven by chance and he was going to make the most of it. He had considered sharing this place with his friends one day, but for now it would be his little secret.

Something roused him, and he paused a moment, taking his hand from the water. JD tilted his head to listen. Silence. He shrugged his shoulders, perhaps he should head on back to town now anyway. A large cracking like a twig snap came from behind him.

JD spun round and stared in shock, his eyes huge. He gulped, "Oh my God!" The biggest mountain lion he'd ever seen was staring him in the face. He didn't know whether to stand still or run like hell, God he wished Vin were with him, he'd know what to do. For a few seconds, which seemed so much longer, the two stared each other out.

A tiny movement from the lion gave JD the clue he desperately needed. He reached for his gun but the lion was on him before he could barely draw. He felt the huge weight crushing his chest, then the searing agony of claws in his shoulder. He could hear himself scream but was unable to move, feeling the animal's hot breath on his neck. JD was sure he would die as he felt sharp teeth sinking into his upper arm. He was slowly drifting into darkness when he heard a shot. A loud roar followed and the weight on his chest disappeared, but before he could consider it, he was out

+ + + + + + +

It was a hot afternoon in Four Corners, hardly a soul was around. The six remaining regulators of the town were enjoying the cooler atmosphere of the saloon, some beers and poker. Buck threw his cards down onto the table in disgust and got up to get a fresh beer. Ezra smiled.

"Mr. Wilmington folds! Another game, gentlemen?" he cast a glance around the table as they each shook their heads in turn.

"I think I'll quit while I'm nowhere near ahead," stated Josiah. Ezra knew his afternoon's entertainment had come to a halt and proceeded to deal himself a hand of solitaire.

Buck looked to Chris as he joined him at the bar.

"JD say where he was headed?" Chris asked. Buck shook his head.

"Nope, just up and left." He looked out at the position of the sun, "been gone some time now, I was just thinking 'bout riding out to take a look around y'know, check out some of his favorite spots. "

Chris gave a small smile, "give him a bit longer, y'know how he loses all track of time."

Buck nodded, taking a good draw of his beer. He'd wait, didn't mean he wouldn't worry though.

+ + + + + + +

The man stood over the bleeding boy and the dead lion, shotgun in hand. He knelt down next to JD and checked for a pulse. Satisfied with what he'd found, he pulled him back under the shade of the oak as JD uttered a soft moan but did not wake. Using the stream and his bandana, Daniel Johnson proceeded to clean the wounds as best he could. It didn't take him long to realize he needed to get the boy some help, so he packed up all he could see and rolled JD up in his horse blanket. He man-handled him up onto his own horse and climbed up behind, pulling JD back toward him. Picking up the reins of JD's bay they headed out. He whispered into the boy's ear.

"Your in luck son, there's a town not too far from here, you hang on in there and we'll be there in no time." He could feel the heat radiating through to him from the body propped against his chest, the boy's hair soaked with sweat. He kicked and the two men and their horses headed off toward town.

Nathan was picking up some supplies before Mrs. Potter closed down for the afternoon. He handed over his list to the woman, this would take some time.

Buck sat with the others but was becoming restless. Amused at his slight discomfort, Chris looked across at him.

"What the hell is it now, Buck?"

"I don't know," he replied, "just got a...a feeling, is all."

Chris couldn't believe he was about to say this, "would it help some if we rode out to take a look?"

Buck looked up at his old friend, nodding. "Some, yeah."

"Ok, let's finish our beers and we'll go."

Nathan was finished at the store and was just about to cross the street, when he was attracted to the noise of a fast-approaching rider.

"Hey!" Daniel called out, "need some help here."

Nathan walked toward the rider and his "bundle". "Any idea if this kid belongs ta anyone here?" he asked.

Nathan looked at the boy in front of the man and gasped, turning his head to the saloon. "BUCK! BUCK, GET OUT HERE NOW!!"

From inside the saloon the command came through loud and clear. They all rose, chairs scraping across the floor in their haste and rushed out through the batwing doors, to be greeted by the sight of a stranger handing down a body to Nathan from his horse. With JD in his arms Nathan turned to a fast-approaching Buck. He lowered the unconscious boy to the ground and unwrapped the blanket.

"Aw hell kid!" Buck groaned, lifting JD's shirt to check the damage.

"C'mon Buck, I gotta get him to the clinic." They lifted the boy between them and headed off, the rest of the men casting concerned eyes at the stranger.

"What happened?" Chris asked.

"Mountain lion, mighty big one too. Lucky fer him I was out that way."

Chris extended his hand. "Larabee, Chris Larabee."

Daniel returned the gesture, "Daniel Johnson," he touched his hat to the others.

"I'd buy ya a drink, but I'd kinda like ta see how the boy's doin'."

"Take yer time, I aint goin' anywhere jus' yet." Daniel headed for the livery with the two horses while the five men headed for the clinic.

+ + + + + + +

Buck's face paled as Nathan exposed the wounds and examined them. He looked back at Buck "coulda been worse," he stated. Buck sighed slightly, that sounded better than he'd expected. He turned as he heard movement at the door.

"Nathan?" Chris demanded more than asked. Nathan continued working but offered a narrative.

"Cuts are pretty deep and bleeding bad, but there's not too many of 'em. He's burnin' up but that's not surprising, I just hope he stays out 'til I clean him up."

As if on cue, JD moaned slightly. Buck leaned in.

"Take it easy, boy, let Nathan work."

JD screwed his face up, moaning again. Something was hurting him like hell and he wanted it gone. His eyes squinted open then squeezed shut with another wave of pain.

"Aaaaaaagh!" he cried.

Nathan looked to Buck. Buck sighed, he knew what was coming.

"JD, this is gonna hurt some, but ya gotta let Nathan do this."

JD opened his eyes and looked at Buck. "Wh...what did I do?" he asked, unable to focus clearly.

Buck couldn't help but chuckle. "Oh ya outdone y'self this time son. Ya got ta stop wrestlin' with mountain lions, they don't play fair."

JD's eyes opened wide as he tried to sit up. "Oh, God, it...it was..."

Buck pushed gently down on his chest, Chris had joined him.

"Now didn't I tell ya ta settle down and let Nathan help ya?" Buck growled. Chris was holding JD's legs now as the boy thrashed in pain and fear. Nathan continued cleaning the wounds, agonizing over the pain he was causing but knowing he had no choice. As suddenly as he'd started, with an arch of his back and a scream of pain JD went still.

Everyone waited as Nathan checked his pulse, then visibly relaxed when he gave them a small smile and nod and resumed his work.

"I can take it from here," he told Chris and Buck. Both men stood. Chris pulled Buck towards the rest of the men.

"C'mon Buck, we'll call back later."

Buck was about to protest when several pairs of strong hands pulled him carefully through the clinic door.

+ + + + + + +

Daniel was already at the saloon and finishing his first drink when the six regulators arrived. He turned toward the protesting voice.

"Hell Chris, I wouldn't've been in the way!"

"Shut up, Buck and take a drink."

Inez poured a whiskey for each of the men and they took their usual seats, all except Chris. He turned to Daniel, "Ya ready for that drink now?" he asked.

Daniel nodded and offered out his empty glass, "much obliged" he answered.

The light dawned with Buck and he got up to join the two men, extending his hand.

"Buck Wilmington," he said "can't thank ya' enough for bringing him back safe."

Daniel nodded, "least I could do, just in the right place at the right time is all. He your boy?"

Buck ducked his head slightly, snorting softly and a huge smile on his face.

"Naw, more like a li'l brother, I guess. Kinda fond of the kid though. 'Course, I'll deny that if ya ever tell him!"

The men laughed and drank up, each taking another shot from the bottle. They all sat down together.

"Passin' through?" Vin asked.

"Yup, on my way to Mexico. In no particular hurry though. Thought I might stay a few days, see how the kid is doin'."

The regulators chuckled. JD seemed to have a knack for drawing concern from total strangers.

"He'll be mighty pleased to see you, I'm sure." Josiah added.

Buck was twitching again. Chris sighed, waving his hand. "Go!" he ordered. Buck left.

+ + + + + + +

By the next morning JD was fully awake and hungry. He looked across at Buck, fast asleep on the spare cot. He smiled to himself; he could do with a drink too. He looked longingly at the glass at his side, could he reach it? He tried but grunted as pain shot through his body, Buck was instantly awake.

"Are you TRYIN' to do more damage?" he admonished reaching to get him the glass.

"Sorry," JD answered, uncharacteristically quietly, "I was just thirsty."

Buck felt guilty. "I know, just be careful." He smiled at the boy as he helped him sip the water.

JD sat back, meeting Buck's eyes as a 'thank you', Buck looked at him, concerned.

"You ok son?" he asked.

JD nodded, sighing. "It's just, well...I coulda died, y'know?"

Buck slowly nodded and put his hand on JD's arm.

Yeah, I know," he whispered and then brightened, "eat this here broth Nathan left for ya."

JD pulled a face, but accepted it gratefully. It was soon gone and he quickly drifted back to sleep.

A few hours into the afternoon there was a knock on the clinic door. Daniel stepped cautiously inside, taking off his hat. Buck waved him in and introduced him to a curious JD. JD extended his good arm.

"Thank you sir," he said softly, smiling at his saviour.

"You're welcome son, good to see ya doin' well. When will you be gettin' up and about properly?"

He looked to Buck. "Nathan said tomorrow," he waited for an argument.

"Sounds about right," Buck agreed. JD's grin widened, "as long as you behave yerself and take it easy!"

JD nodded vigorously, "I will!"

"Good!" said Daniel, rising to leave, "I'll buy ya breakfast and you can tell me a bit about yourself." He touched his hat as he placed it back on his head and left.

Buck's eyes narrowed as he watched him leave, then he shrugged it off.

+ + + + + + +

JD stared down at his full breakfast plate, concerned that he might struggle to eat it. Daniel smiled.

"Just eat what you can" he reassured. "So, JD, you're not from around here?"

JD nodded. "I'm from Boston, lived in New York for a while before that." He scooped up some eggs.

"Your family here with you?"

JD's face dropped a little, "no sir, I moved out here when my mamma died."

"Sorry son, I didn't know. What about your pa?"

"Never knew him." JD tried changing the subject, "where are you from?"

"All over, really, " Daniel answered, "born in Texas though."

"Wow, same as..." JD caught himself just in time, "a friend of mine."

Daniel could see the boy was struggling, "would you like to take a walk?"

JD smiled, "Sure."

They spent most of the morning together, swapping stories. Daniel excused himself.

"Sorry, it's just that I have some business to attend to. Perhaps I can meet up with you and your friends later?"

JD nodded and watched him leave. He was feeling pretty tired anyway. Buck was out on patrol so he thought it best to go and rest in his room, after all, he had promised and he liked to keep his word.

+ + + + + + +

Later that evening eight men were gathered together talking and drinking. JD sipped at his milk, looking around at the seven men, His mind wandering back to the conversation that morning with Daniel. He'd asked JD if his family were here. JD smiled to himself, the answer would have to be yes. JD was snapped out of his thoughts by Buck's voice and waving hand.

"Hey, are you in there?" he was asking.

JD slowly focused on the features waving at him, then realized six other faces were watching him. He feigned annoyance.

"Stop it, Buck you dang-near caught my nose with yer hands flappin' there!" He was batting him away.

Buck chuckled, "well, I was beginning to wonder if ya' hadn't learned ta sleep with yer eyes open!"

Ignoring the smirks JD pulled a face at him, ducking at Buck's telegraphed attempt to grab his hat. With Buck mentioning sleep he now felt himself thinking about his bed.

"Actually, I think I'll get on to bed, I'm tired and I promised Nathan I'd sleep when I was tired." Nathan nodded approvingly.

"Night!" JD called as he walked to the doors, he was answered by touches to hats and returned "goodnights!" Buck followed him and touched his arm lightly.

"You sure you're ok?" he asked with concern.

JD flashed him a dazzling grin, "couldn't be better!" with that he left.

Buck returned to his seat, smiling and taking a drink of his beer. Daniel was first to speak.

"I can see you're all hardened men, used to taking care of yourselves. Has this young man," he gestured after JD, "been allowed to stay with you through pity?"

Buck's eyes flashed and he banged down his beer onto the table. "Just what's that's supposed to mean?" Chris held up his hand to halt Buck's anger and the murmurings from the other men.

"Mister, I hope that comment ain't what I think it is!" he got close to Daniel's face.

Daniel baulked, "oh, no, no, that's not how I meant it at all, I can clearly see the affection you all hold for him and on his part..." he took a nervous swig of his beer.

"All he talks about is you men, hardly ever got him to open up about his past. He clearly considers you as family, nothing but awe and hero worship came out of his mouth. I just can't help wondering how he came to stay, I mean, this life is very different to what he must have been used to."

Josiah leaned forward, "spoken, like a man who knows more than he's lettin' on!"

With that, Daniel sat back. He looked at the six men, landing on Chris and Buck.

"I'm sorry, but I had to know that you look out for him, not just tolerate him."

The men leaned in, more than just curious now.

"A rather dubious statement, Mr. Johnson, care to elaborate." Ezra stated.

"What I'm about to tell you, I need your word, all of you, that you will not tell JD any of it."

Buck looked uncomfortable.

"I promise you, you'll understand why when I'm done!"

The six men nodded.

Daniel took a deep breath. "I've been searching for John for five years, when I first heard I had a son." He watched their faces drop, but continued on.

"Got lucky and tracked him to here. It was more than luck that I was there for him the other day; I've been watching him for a few weeks now, trying to get to know him. Trouble is, as much as it's breaking my heart, I can't let him know who I am. Y'see, I'm dyin'."

Again, the looks but no words, so he continued.

"I don't even know if he'd even want to know me, but just in case, I don't feel it'd be fair to start something I can't finish."

The six regulators were visibly shaken. Josiah spoke.

"Don't you think JD has a right to know? Surely this isn't just about you?"

Daniel nodded, "I know, but in the few weeks I've gotten to see him, I can see how happy he is, he looks up to you all, cares for you all. I don't want that to change. Just to be close to him for a while and be his friend has been, wonderful."

No-one seemed to want to speak.

"I went to the bank earlier; everything I have is left in trust for him. I want him to have it when he turns twenty-five, or gets married, whichever comes first. That's why you are all so important in this, with six guardians, I can pass on happily, knowing my flesh and blood will have someone to be there for him when the time is right. The letter with the trust fund will explain everything to him." He sat back and sighed, as if a huge burden had been lifted, finally it was done.

+ + + + + + +

Buck couldn't sleep, the revelations from Daniel weighed heavy on his mind. Eventually he gave up and went for a walk. He wasn't surprised to find the saloon open and five men sitting there. He joined them, looking around the table, waiting for someone to speak. Eventually, he couldn't bear it.

"So, we all gonna say nothin' or what?"

Chris looked at him. "What's to say? The guy's left us up to our necks in it! I'm not even sure we're doin' the right thing by keepin' quiet."

Buck nodded, Josiah spoke.

"Brothers, do we ignore a dying man's wish. He's entrusted us with something precious and I for one feel obliged to help."

"But what if we ain't around when JD gits married or turns twenty-five. We ain't exactly in safe jobs here." Vin pointed out

"Well, I for one intend to try!" Buck stated.

"Way I see it," added Nathan, "six of us got a good chance, but if ya'll remember, the bank's holding the trust, they'd have to let him know when it was time."

Ezra nodded. "They would indeed be duty bound to divulge that information to Mr. Dunne personally at the given time, even if he'd moved on."

Buck sighed, "well, like I said, I'm gonna try an' be here."

Chris stood and started to leave. As he reached the doors he turned slightly. "So am I"

+ + + + + + +

JD was feeling pretty good. His aches and pains were easing and his energy was returning. He was up early and looking for company but was surprised none of his friends seemed to be awake, but then, maybe Vin was on patrol. He knew Buck was in bed because he'd heard him snoring. Had something happened last night, had he missed an attack on the town? He decided to see if Daniel was awake and was pleased to find him eating breakfast. Daniel beckoned him over.

"Sit, sit!" he smiled. "Would you like some breakfast?" JD shook his head.

"Coffee would sure be nice though, thank you." He watched as Daniel poured him a cup.

Daniel looked at JD, a little sadness in his features. "I'm gonna have to leave today" he informed him.

JD's face saddened, "oh, yeah sure. I understand."

Daniel's heart was aching. "If I can, I'll try an' call back when I'm done in Mexico."

JD smiled, "Yeah, I'd like that," though he had a feeling he would not see this man again.

It was close to mid-day as JD, sitting outside the jail, noticed Vin ride back into town. He felt a presence then Buck flopped down into the chair next to him, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankles. JD smiled at him.

"Late night last night?" he asked

Buck coughed slightly, and then looked sideways at him, "got into a late poker game, y'know how it gets." He hated having to lie.

JD laughed softly, "yeah, did you lose much?"

"Now what makes ya think I lost?" his voice went high in mock disgruntlement.

JD laughed, harder this time, "just know Ezra is all!" His laugh slowed as his eyes tracked Daniel going toward the livery. Buck was watching too.

"Is he leaving?" he asked JD, sitting up slightly.

JD nodded, "yeah, told me this mor..." he was surprised to find himself talking to Buck's back as the man quickly got up and walked toward the saloon. JD shrugged to himself, adjusting his injured shoulder. Sure was a strange day so far.

Buck adjusted his eyes as he stepped inside the saloon, finding his targets and approaching.

"Daniel's leavin'," he announced. Chris looked back at him.

"Does JD know?" he asked. Buck nodded, scanning the rest of the men.

"Nathan, get Josiah and meet us at the livery." He looked back to Buck, "best we help JD see him off then."

+ + + + + + +

JD walked quietly into the livery. Daniel turned sharply, a little startled, his gun drawn.

"Oh God, I'm sorry son, didn't know it was you."

JD was a little surprised but held up his hand. "I'm sorry sir, I shouldn't have crept up on you." He walked up close to him, "are you 'bout done?"

Daniel nodded. "Ready as I'll ever be. Would you walk with me to the street?"

JD nodded and the two walked back out into the sunshine to be met by six concerned men. JD gave them a grin, which they returned.

"Buck tells me yer leavin'," Chris stated, resting his hands on his hips,

Daniel sighed, "sadly, it's time," he replied, mounting his horse and taking the reins from JD.

Chris walked toward him and extended his hand, "safe journey," he said.

Daniel shook his hand then looked to the other men, touching his hat. He looked down at JD, offering his hand to him. JD took it, but Daniel didn't release instantly, he remained focused on the boy.

"Young man, it's been a real privilege getting to know you."

Still shaking hands JD smiled, "well sir, if it weren't for you I guess we wouldn't be here saying goodbye now. Thank you. It's been good getting to know you too."

Daniel sighed; he could feel himself starting to choke. "JD, I'd like to say this, if I had a son, I would be proud if he were half the man you are." He finally released his hand.

JD looked up at the man with pride and surprise. He took a step back to clear Daniel's horse and felt a hand on his shoulder. He didn't need to look to know it was Buck.

With another touch to his hat Daniel was off. As he became a speck in the distance, JD sighed hard looking at his friends.

"Don't reckon we'll ever see him again," he said.

"How so?" asked Josiah. JD shrugged.

"Dunno, just a feelin' is all." Buck squeezed his shoulder and smiled at him.

"Well, ya still got us!"

JD looked to all of them chuckling, "guess I have at that." They all walked back toward the saloon.

Just out of sight, Daniel stopped and looked back, tears streaming down his cheeks. He had hated lying, both to the men and especially JD. He knew he was doing the right thing, he didn't want his son worrying about him or worse still, following him, not with a price on his head. It was because he was wanted he had to move on. He'd already stayed longer than he'd intended. He took one last look then turned and rode away, knowing that a piece of his heart would always remain in a little town called Four Corners.