Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em but if I could they'd be on season 10 by now!
My eternal thanks to Phyllis, who really put me through the wringer on this one, and I thank her for it, as I have no doubt IMHO it has made this story much better.
He had been privileged to see and handle many beautiful horses in his short time on this earth, but this was a magnificent specimen.
The stallion stood proud amongst the other wild horses; clearly spirited, lean and muscular, it reminded JD of Pony, or Peso. He even had Pony's coloring, sleek and black
The young sheriff knew there was no way he could capture such an animal alone and was now plotting who would be his best ally in this venture.
Buck would help in an instant, but as this could take some time, would likely lose interest in favor of female company, besides, JD had his own reasons for not wanting his best friend involved just yet. Josiah and Nathan were always needed around town and Ezra...well... JD guessed this would be classed as manual labor and figured the southerner would not be keen.
Chris...JD sighed, how he would love to ask Chris, but just couldn't work up the nerve to approach the man he considered a hero, figured he'd probably laugh in his face.
JD grinned, probably the best man for the job anyway, the man had the patience of a saint and skills JD would die for. All he hoped now was that the tracker had the time to spare. Jumping up on to his bay, the young man headed back to town, making a mental note of where the herd was grazing. They seemed to travel between four locations so they shouldn't be too hard to find again.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah's eyes narrowed as he glanced once more between the money on the table and his cards. Sighing heavily he tossed his cards down and took a swig of his beer.
Ezra grinned and scooped up his winnings as the others grunted and rested back against their chairs with their drinks.
Six pairs of eyes turned toward the swinging batwing doors as JD bounded in and approached the bar.
"Hi Inez, can I have some milk please?"
The Mexican beauty smiled fondly, and placing an empty glass on the bar top, poured from a jug. The youth gulped back the liquid so fast he had to blow out a breath to compensate for the gasp he had taken just before drinking, his mouth and throat dry from his ride. Nodding and smiling at the offer of another he turned and leaned back against the bar, suddenly aware of six amused faces watching him.
"Bit thirsty there, kid?" Buck grinned.
JD nodded, sipping at his second drink.
"Yeah, just a bit. So, you winning there, Buck?" he asked, walking over to the table and sitting in the chair Buck's foot had just pushed out for him.
"Not exactly," the ladies' man grunted, looking at the now diminished pile of coins on the table.
"Would you care to join us, Mister Dunne?" Ezra hoped.
Dunne shook his head, "Nah, with it being nearly Christmas, I hardly got any money at all."
He looked across at Vin; he thought it best to go after the horse as soon as possible, time was running out, but to start, he'd need to catch Vin and speak to him before he left town. JD's eyes followed Tanner as he rose from his seat, putting his hat on his head and looking at Larabee nod to him as he did so. The young sheriff was totally oblivious to Buck's hand waving in front of his face, unconsciously dodging around it, to follow the tracker.
As Vin passed JD and exited the saloon to head out on patrol, the youth jumped to his feet and followed him.
"Vin, wait up."
Buck pulled a face as he watched JD leave and looked at the others.
"Was it something we said?" He was holding JD's glass of milk, sniffing it in the hope of finding a clue as to why the young man had left so abruptly.
Chris smirked, "Figure he'll tell us when he's good and ready." He got up and walked to the doors, nodding to the others as he left.
That simply wasn't good enough for Buck, who was now on his feet and heading out also, Wilmington wanted to know what was so all-fired important that he needed to turn to Vin and not him.
Ezra took out his pocket watch and flipped it open.
"Two minutes, I believe you were the closest on this occasion, Mister Jackson." He handed Nathan a dollar, as did Josiah.
"Buck is nothing if not predictable, " the healer grinned as he pocketed the money.
+ + + + + + +
Tanner turned to face the fast approaching youth.
"I wanted to ask a favor of you."
Vin listened intently as JD told the details of his plan, smiling as he concluded.
"No problem, kid...how about tomorrow?"
Dunne nodded enthusiastically, "That'd be great, thanks...but just between us, right?"
The sharpshooter nodded and held out his hand, a rare gesture for the man and JD took it eagerly, beaming.
"You have my word." He went on to the livery to start his patrol.
Buck had been watching the conversation from the jail, frowning to himself at the exchange between the two younger men. As the young sheriff approached, Buck sidled up to him nudging him playfully.
"So, kid...what are you and Vin up to?"
JD frowned, "What makes you think we're up to anything?" he asked.
Buck winked, "Aww, you know...just wonderin'."
JD smiled, "Nothing to wonder about, Buck, just asking Vin about an animal I saw out on the trail is all."
Buck nodded, seemingly satisfied for now, though a strange sensation was slowly penetrating his thoughts which he attempted to shake off as they entered the jail.
Tanner couldn't help but smile; he, too, had seen the stallion and had debated whether to capture it. He admired the enthusiasm of his youngest friend, happy to help him in his desire to tame this magnificent beast, although, Vin had no doubt it would be quite an undertaking.
Vin hoped JD would allow Chris to get involved, as Larabee was one of the best horse-handlers the Texan had ever seen.
Josiah was preparing for Christmas Eve, hoping to attract the townsfolk to a small service at the church to celebrate the occasion. Through the weeks the seven peacekeepers had worked on the building, bringing it up to a more than acceptable standard and Mary, Casey, Nettie and Inez had been adding little touches, flowers, drapes and generally cleaning the place. The preacher stood and smiled as he glanced around, it looked...perfect.
Nathan walked in and slapped his friend on the back.
"Sure is somethin', Josiah, word around town is folks are real excited about the service on Christmas Eve. It's a good thing you're doin'," he grinned.
Sanchez returned the smile, "I love to see the town come together, brother, and I can't think of a better reason than to celebrate our Savior's birth."
With a collective nod, both men relaxed into a comfortable silence as they continued with the endless list of jobs to be done before the big event.
+ + + + + + +
Early the next morning found JD sitting on the porch outside the jail, daydreaming about the stallion as he waited on Vin. He absent- mindedly tilted his chair onto its back legs as he pictured brushing the shiny black coat and feeding him apples and was oblivious to the approach of Chris, Ezra, and Buck until Buck leapt at him, causing the younger man to start and almost tip backward off his seat.
"Damnit, Buck!" the young man admonished, the front legs of the chair slamming down and his color rising on seeing his friends behind him. He spotted Vin waving to him from the livery and jumped to his feet to join him.
"Where 'a ya goin' kid?"
"Away from you!" JD called back, grateful for Vin's timing.
Buck turned to the others, "What did I do?"
Chris pushed open the door to the jail, "Think on it some, Buck."
Noting the look of confusion, Ezra offered an explanation, "It would seem your actions may have inadvertently embarrassed our young sheriff."
Buck waved it off, "Aw hell, Ezra...kid knows I'm just having a little fun, where'd he go...I'll set him straight..." He glanced around and his attention was drawn to Vin and JD riding out of town.
Ezra followed Chris into the jail, "Yes, Mister Wilmington, of course he knows, but sometimes your timing needs reviewing, he was clearly reflecting on something at that moment and your actions startled him."
The words barely registered as Buck decided to follow the younger men to see what they were up to, wondering what could be so important to distract the young man. He walked into the livery with JD's last words ringing in his ears...'away from you...'
JD and Vin lay down on the outcrop overlooking the valley where the herd were grazing.
"You keep watch and I'll go see how many ways there are for the horses to run when we go down there." Vin patted his friend on the back as he got to his feet to ride down to the valley floor.
The youth was watching the stallion in awe, confident the two of them could catch it, though not so sure such an amazing creature could be tamed, but they'd sure have fun trying.
JD didn't see who was creeping up on him until it was too late. He jumped, startled.
"Shoot, Buck...are ya tryin' to make my heart give out?"
Buck chuckled and lay down on his stomach next to the boy.
"The voice of a guilty man...what're ya doin'?"
JD pointed, "Look...Vin's gonna help me catch him."
Buck acknowledged the proud, wild black stallion. "What makes ya think Vin'll do a better job than me?" he pouted.
Vin silently dropped down next to them, now causing Buck to startle. "Coz he's a smart kid," Tanner grinned, nudging JD, "Should be fun catching him, huh kid?"
JD nodded, eyes flashing, "Yeah...Ya wanna help, Buck?"
Buck smiled and squeezed JD's shoulder, "Naw...I'll leave you boys to it, got a little filly of my own to go track down, I'll see ya'll later."
After they watched Buck ride off, Tanner stared at Dunne.
"I know, I know...but I could hardly not ask, could I? I didn't want to hurt his feelings."
The tracker nodded his approval, "Come on, let's do this." He pointed. "If we push 'em toward there, it's a box-canyon, they'll have nowhere to go."
JD grinned, "Ok...I'm ready."
+ + + + + + +
Chris watched his oldest friend ride into town, frowning at the man's demeanor and wondering if he'd caught up with JD and Vin. Larabee walked to the livery to intercept the ladies' man, observing the man's slumped posture and gloomy expression as Buck tended to his horse.
Wilmington turned as he removed his saddle, "Chris."
Wilmington nodded, "Oh yeah, everything's fine," he sighed, "Left Vin and the kid trying to capture a wild stallion...figured they had it covered so I thought I'd head on back...catch up with Miss Blossom."
Chris wasn't fooled, but he nodded anyway.
Wilmington looked at Larabee, his gaze distant.
"Vin's a good man...I guess he's been a good friend to you, right Chris?"
The blond furrowed his brow, "Yeah...he's a good man, reliable, dependable," Chris folded his arms across his chest and pursed his lips. "Is this going somewhere, Buck?"
Buck shook his head, "Naw...just me...thinking, is all. Pay no mind."
Despite his rising concern, Chris nodded. "Ok...don't forget you got jail duty tonight."
Buck bobbed his head, "Yup, that's why I'm meeting Blossom now."
"Stand you a beer first?" Larabee offered.
Buck grinned, "Sure thing, stud."
+ + + + + + +
It had started as a few subtle maneuvers, but now Milagro and Peso were at full stretch as they pursued the black toward the box-canyon, the other horses scattering left and right to escape. Both men were enthralled with the chase, breathless in their pursuit and switching between grinning widely and deep concentration.
The stallion was cornered, but it wasn't about to give up without a fight. Vin twisted the lasso in the air a few times and threw. It dropped deftly over the horse's long neck and Tanner tugged the rope to tighten it, winding it around the saddle horn. He nodded to JD and the youth followed suit.
JD had practiced lassoing with Vin and Buck many times, and had gotten quite good at it, but this time it would actually count for something to succeed and he suddenly felt nervous. Swallowing, he copied Vin's motions move for move and almost yelled as the rope successfully slid over the animal's head and down the stallion's neck. He quickly tied it off and glanced over at Vin, who was grinning right back at him.
"Come on, kid...let's lead him away from the herd. Take it easy but be prepared...he's gonna fight dirty if ya git too close."
JD nodded and the two men urged the horses forward. The two saddle horses moved easily, though they kept an eye on the wild stallion as he fought the confinement, whinnying, stomping and pulling to gain freedom. A half hour later and the stallion showed no sign of tiring; JD was concerned.
"Vin, he's not calming down at all. What if we're hurting him?"
Vin tried to reassure the youth. "Kid, if the rope bites, he's doin' it to himself, trust me, he's a smart one, he'll take it as far as he can but he's not about to hurt himself too much."
JD knew there were a whole lot of 'what ifs' in there but he let it go for now...he trusted Vin and Vin said it was ok. He looked around for the first time.
"Where are we headed, Vin? This leads to Chris' place."
Tanner nodded, "Larabee says we can keep him there 'til he's broke, even offered to help, I hope ya didn't mind me askin' him, but we needed a place to work."
Dunne's eyes went wide, "He offered to help...really? Naw...I don't mind." JD paused for a moment, "He doesn't think I'm crazy?"
"He thinks you're doing a good thing, we both do. You're a good man, JD."
JD beamed and looked ahead as Chris' shack was just visible on the horizon. As the two men and three horses drew closer Larabee came out onto the porch to greet them.
"How'd he know we'd be here now...at this time?"
Vin shrugged, "Who knows, kid, maybe he just came home, he does occasionally y'know."
Chris stepped forward as they reached him. "Boys...good to see you're still in one piece." He opened the gate to the corral, "Figured he'd be safe in here, we'll have to take turns watching him between breaking him."
Tanner nodded and urged his horse into the corral, prompting the stallion and JD to follow. JD started to unwind the rope from the horn, wrapping it around his hand, Vin was about to give instructions when he noticed the movement.
As if clued in, the stallion bucked and pulled, yanking JD clean out of his saddle.
Acutely aware of the danger, JD instinctively curled in on himself as Tanner fought to control the wild horse from a single rope. In an instant, Chris was in the corral and had placed himself between the black and the boy on the ground. He grabbed at the loose lead and, seeing Vin was winning his battle, he took up the slack and waited until Vin tied the animal on a long rein to a post.
Chris turned to JD and helped him up.
"Lesson number one, horses are a mite different in the west...until he's broke, *never* relax around him, he wants out, he can see it, smell it, taste it and if it means going through you to get it, he will."
JD nodded as he brushed himself off. "Thanks, I can't believe I did something so stupid. Hell, I've been around horses all my life, I know better, thanks fellas."
Chris patted his arm and looked to him and Vin, "C'mon, got some coffee and beans on, I'm sure you must be hungry by now."
Gratefully the two men settled their horses and followed Chris into the cabin.
+ + + + + + +
Blossom settled herself on top of Buck and kissed him.
"You alright sugar? You weren't your usual 'fun' self today."
Buck kissed her nose, then gently eased her off in order to leave the bed and dress.
"Sorry darlin', been a strange sorta day today."
"You coming back later, hon?"
Buck smiled and leaned over to kiss her, "Workin' tonight, darlin' but thank you kindly for the offer."
Blossom smiled as she wrapped her body in the bed sheets, snuggled down and drifted off to sleep.
Buck joined the other peacekeepers in the saloon, but was clearly preoccupied. Eventually he looked around the table.
"I guess JD and Vin aren't back yet...where's Chris?"
"Currently enjoying the comforts of his own domicile." Ezra smiled.
Buck shrugged and swigged his beer, wondering when Chris had decided to leave town. His thoughts switched to JD as he found himself missing his young friend. He'd grown accustomed to having JD around, it felt...comfortable. For the first time in years, Buck was happy, meeting up with the other men, re-acquainting himself with Chris and succeeding in putting their demons behind them, building a relationship with a young man that was more akin to a brother than a friend.
The two had inadvertently filled a void in each other's lives and Buck had grown comfortable with that, especially since Chris had clearly grown close to Vin.
Wasn't it enough Vin had taken his place at the side of his oldest friend...did he really need to take his closest friend too? Buck suddenly felt ashamed at the thought that had entered his head
With that thought uppermost in his mind as it twisted every which way, his frustration with himself grew for even going down that route.
Buck rose angrily to his feet, banged his beer down on the table and left, not even glancing at his friends once. The three stared after him. Ezra raised his eyebrows.
"Do you have the feeling we may be missing something here?"
Josiah sat back in his chair, frowning. "Brothers, I fear something deep and troublesome is brewing here and it may well be too late to prevent it."
Each man shifted uncomfortably, silently agreeing with Josiah's concerns.
JD was right against the corral rails, trying to draw the stallion closer without invading his space, hand outstretched, waiting patiently. The horse was snorting and stamping, occasionally throwing out a back leg, but with each initial movement he had taken a step closer.
JD's muscles ached. He had hardly moved in over half an hour and was feeling the effects of it. Undeterred, he waited, carrot stumps nestling in the palm of his hand. He knew the horse could smell them and that it was only a matter of time before curiosity ... or his sense of caution got the better of him. JD could only hope it would be soon.
Chris and Vin couldn't help smiling as they stood on the cabin porch and looked to the corral. They took a seat and kicked back as they watched with a mixture of concern, uncertainty and admiration, willing success on the young man.
JD whispered, "Come on boy...I know you want this...*you* know you want this, come on...you can trust me...us...we're the good guys."
Another step nearer, JD held his breath and watched in awe as the black stretched his neck and lipped one piece from the youth's hand, stepping back nervously as it took it. Seconds later it moved in for more and Dunne's eyes shone as he watched the beautiful creature clear his palm.
"Knew you could do it," JD grinned, "And there's plenty more where that came from." He hissed a laugh as the horse inspected his still open hand for more, snorting as if in disgust when he found nothing. Taking a chance, JD turned his hand over and reached out, just touching the horse's nose, all the while talking softly to him, thrilled at his success.
Deciding enough was enough, the stallion tossed his head and stepped back and JD graciously did the same.
He spotted the two men on the porch and joined them, his grin wide.
"That was damned impressive, kid," Tanner smiled, "I think you made a friend today."
The youth sat at their feet on the porch, "So what happens now? Is it too soon to ride him?"
Chris nodded, "I think so, yes...we'll try a little trust building first, it won't make the ride any easier, but it'll help us get closer sooner, hopefully break him in one ride."
Tanner stood. "My turn." He walked into the corral carrying a long stick. Dunne's eyes widened as he turned to Larabee.
"Vin wouldn't... you know...hit...?"
Chris shook his head and they resumed watching. After some soft talking, Vin raised the stick slowly and started scratching the horse's neck, just above the withers. JD watched, mesmerized as the black responded, seemingly enjoying the attention. An hour or so later, Tanner had laid hands on several parts of the horse's body, scratching parts the animal was unable to reach and the result was amazing as in one subtle movement Vin had slipped a harness over the stallion's head.
He walked back to Chris and JD and washed his hands in some water Chris had scooped out into a basin from a rain-barrel.
"Vin, that was so... wonderful," JD said admiringly.
Tanner smirked, "Not really, but thanks. Tomorrow we'll try and get a blanket on 'im."
"Where did you learn that?" the youth wanted to know. The three men were now gathered at the corral fence.
"Well, there's a tale to it..."
Buck was almost at Chris', not really sure what he would do when he got there, but it was too late to turn back now. He urged his faithful old horse on, sighing to himself as he came through the stand of trees behind the property.
JD's gentle laughter drifting on the breeze caused him to stop and look down, just catching sight of the threesome at the corral. Tanner appeared to be sharing a story with them and Chris appeared equally amused. Buck suddenly felt as if he was intruding, so turned his horse and dejectedly headed back to town, unaware of three men, hidden to one side of the trees, watching his departure.
"Do we go after him?" Pind asked.
Drake shook his head, "Nah...let's stay focused on that there horse. Sooner or later, one of 'em is gonna leave it on its own or take it out...and we'll be waiting."
+ + + + + + +
Buck's mood that night at the saloon was dark. JD had flitted into town to pick up supplies and a change of clothes and was gone. Vin had returned, ready to take patrol the next morning and was sat opposite the ladies' man, Ezra, Josiah and Nathan between them.
"So," Buck eventually broke the silence, "Chris and JD stayed with the horse?"
"I see," he growled.
"Bucklin, do you have somethin' you wanna say?" Vin asked, sipping his beer.
"Don't reckon there's much I wanna say to you right now." Buck rose to his feet, placed his hat on his head and, turning, left the saloon.
Vin's face betrayed none of the unease he was feeling at that moment. Clearly Buck had a problem with him. He turned to the others.
"This is about JD and that horse, isn't it?"
Josiah nodded, "I fear so, brother. Buck seems to be missing his young charge something fierce."
"The kid asked him to help," Vin offered.
"Ah yes," Standish added, "But I fear it was not enough to belay his concerns. Give him time, my friend, Buck is a good man, he will soon see the error of his ways."
Vin gulped down the last of his beer...considering their words.
+ + + + + + +
Several days on and, Vin and JD had successfully saddled the black and were waiting for Chris, as he put his gloves on. With a nod to both men, the blond pulled himself into the saddle, prepared for the movement from the nervous horse.
Another nod and Vin and JD jumped up onto the top fence as they released the horse, cheering enthusiastically as Chris rode the bucking stallion hard.
Perspiration poured down Chris' face as every muscle screamed pain with his efforts to hang on. Just as Chris thought the horse may have had the measure of him, it slowed, exhausted, eventually standing still as it blew hard, its nostrils flaring and belly heaving as it gulped in air.
Chris urged it on and halted him in front of JD.
"Still a bit of trust to earn, but I think we have him now."
JD's eyes glistened as he looked back and forth at the two men.
"Thank you so much, Chris, Vin...I doubt I could have done this by myself."
Vin jumped down from the fence and crossed to stand next to them
"Good teamwork...nice job cowboy." Vin smiled as he patted the horse's neck.
"JD...would you like to sit on him now?" Chris asked.
The youth nodded, "Oh yeah...please..."
In a slow and careful exchange, the two men swapped places. Dunne leaned over and offered the horse some apple, which the black happily took, also accepting the stroke to his ears.
"Ya got a name fer him yet, kid?" Vin wondered.
JD grinned, "I thought maybe...Seven?"
Larabee and Tanner nodded their approval. Chris patted the horse, "Take him around the corral, JD."
The youth obliged as his two friends stood admiringly watching the weary horse attempt to buck occasionally, he was a beauty.
Eventually stopping at the place he started from, JD offered one more piece of apple and spoke into the black's ear.
"Buck's gonna love you."
From their hidden position, the three men looked pleased.
"Nice of 'em to do all the hard work fer us...I reckon by tomorrow...that there fine animal will be ours."
+ + + + + + +
Buck's night had gone badly, his dreams filled with betrayal and loneliness, startled awake as he'd realized he'd been calling for JD. Unable to settle back to sleep, Buck rolled out of bed and got dressed. He left his room and as he reached JD's room, he tapped on the door and tried the doorknob, and finding it unlocked, pushed it open when no answer came.
The bed was empty; the room appeared like it hadn't been used in days. With a sigh, Buck closed the door and went to see if Blossom wanted company, he sure as hell did.
Later that morning, Wilmington spotted Larabee's horse tethered outside the jailhouse. With a sudden flash of anger, he strode over and bounded inside. Nathan, Ezra and Josiah were already there, Chris barely looked up from the wanted posters in his hands.
"About time you showed up, Buck."
"Where are Vin and JD?" Buck's eyes were blazing.
"Back at my place."
"Still with that Goddamned horse, or is that just an excuse?"
All four men were staring now, confusion obvious.
Chris narrowed his eyes, "An excuse for what?"
Suddenly Buck felt awkward...he tried backtracking.
"Nothin', never mind...I'm goin' out there."
"They're putting the stallion through its paces, they'll be in town later," the blond offered.
"Oh, how nice of them to drop by...we do all the work while they get to fuss about with some damned horse."
Chris stood,"Buck, this is important to JD, Vin just wanted..."
"Vin...VIN! That's all I hear. I'm his friend...it should be ME! Wasn't it enough that Vin got close to you...he has to take the kid, too?"
Almost choking on his own words, Buck stormed out. Chris stood open- mouthed. Josiah spoke.
"'...For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Matthew 12:34' "
"If I may..." Ezra interjected, "...what Mister Sanchez is referring to, is our Mister Wilmington has been incorrectly speculating on why his self-professed 'little brother' seems no longer interested in him as a friend, choosing Mister Tanner instead."
Chris closed his eyes, "Damn..."
"Indeed," Standish continued, "I fear Mister Wilmington is going to feel more than a little foolish when Christmas arrives."
Again, Chris looked shocked.
"Aw come on, Chris...I reckon Buck's the only one that hasn't figured it out yet, but then he has been a mite preoccupied, " Nathan concluded.
+ + + + + + +
Peso and Seven trotted side by side as the two youngest peacekeepers moved away from Chris' cabin to give the stallion a run.
"He handles beautifully, " JD beamed. Vin nodded.
"That he does...why don't you take him for a run? I'll be right behind."
JD nodded and, chucking, heeled the black's flanks. In seconds, the two were flying, horse and boy as one.
Vin grinned and slapped his leg, "Go kid...go!"
JD was thrilled, this magnificent animal was everything he'd hoped for and more. He couldn't wait to hand him to Buck. He wondered if he could stand to wait another week, Christmas seemed to be taking forever this year.
Three armed men ahead caused him to pull up. Patting the black's neck, he eyed them warily, his right hand resting close to his gun.
"We want to thank you for doing all the hard work for us, kid. Now get off the horse and hand him over real nice like, but before ya do... let's see those guns tossed on the ground."
JD glared, stiffening in his saddle. He knew Vin was close behind and he attempted to stall.
"Mister, you ain't having this horse; you'll have to kill me first." Drake's gun fired and JD flew sideways out of his saddle, hitting the ground hard. The stallion side-stepped nervously and then raced off, Quince set off after him.
"Well, that made it easier."
The two remaining men laughed and acknowledged Quince and the stallion returning. Without looking back the three men rode off, leading Seven behind them. JD lay unmoving as the soft breeze ruffled his black hair.
Vin was happily bringing up the rear, figuring JD would be galloping toward him any minute now.
His body went on full alert as the gunshot sounded in the distance.
The tracker urged Peso on and rode as fast as he could toward the sound.
Several minutes later, Vin's heart clenched as he saw, in the distance, a familiar form laying crumpled on the ground. As he arrived, Tanner scanned the area, every nerve on fire, and, finally satisfied it was clear, jumped from his horse and raced to his friend's side, gently turning him over as he called to him.
"JD, kid...are ya with me?" Tanner winced as the bleeding chest wound became evident.
He cupped his friend's face as he noticed coal-black eyelashes fluttering.
"JD?" he breathed.
"Easy kid, you're hurt bad, we gotta git ya to Nathan."
Dunne raised his hand and fisted the tracker's shirt, "T...took S... Seven, Vin...three...t...took Buck's h...horse."
JD's eyes closed as his head lolled alarmingly backward. Vin could barely stop shaking long enough to check for a pulse in his neck.
"Oh thank God, hang on kid, we can do this."
With some difficulty, he manhandled JD onto Peso, the feisty mount for once behaving, almost as if he knew. Climbing up behind and resting JD against his chest, Tanner brought his arms around the unconscious boy to take the reins in his now bloody hands.
"Here we go kid, hang on for me now." With a dig of Vin's heels, Peso took off and they headed for town at breakneck speed.
Vin clung to the limp body as if his life depended on it, he sure as hell knew JD's did. He urged his horse even faster.
+ + + + + + +
The four peacekeepers found Buck in the saloon. As soon as he saw them the brunette went to stand, but coming up from behind, Josiah's firm grip kept him seated.
Wilmington couldn't acknowledge them.
Chris looked at him, "You can be such a fool sometimes, Buck."
The brunette sighed deeply, "I know."
"Well, so long as you know, we'll say no more." Chris sat next to his old friend and the others joined him. No one spoke, but it wasn't an uncomfortable silence.
Into their third round of drinks, the hair on the back of Chris' neck stood up. A minute later, the thunder of hooves could be heard, followed by Vin's anguished shout.
"Chris...Nathan... ANYONE...HELP ME..."
In seconds, the five lawmen were through the saloon doors, spotting Vin below Nathan's clinic. Vin's hat hung by it's strings, resting against the tracker's back, forced there by the frenetic ride. As Peso twisted and paced with nervous energy, Vin strained to look over his shoulder for signs of help. Chris shuddered at the fear in his friend's eyes, then instantly could see why as Peso turned slightly and JD flopped awkwardly in Vin's arms. Buck went white.
"JD? Oh dear God, no."
Josiah was at Peso's side in an instant, his arms outstretched to receive the injured boy from Vin. Buck stared at Vin's blood-stained clothes, his eyes drifting to JD's own soaked shirt, then shook himself and moved forward to grab JD's legs, Nathan was already bounding up the clinic steps to prepare.
Townsfolk milled around and one woman gasped on seeing JD's bloody chest.
As he watched Buck and Josiah take JD, Chris turned to Vin, knowing he didn't need to voice a question.
"He...he raced on ahead... " Vin stammered, "...let the black stretch out. Next thing, there was a shot and I found him..." Vin's voice trailed off as he tried to ignore the image in his head. Eventually he spoke again, "Kid said there were three, then he passed out."
"D'ya think you could track 'em?"
"Good." Chris turned and proceeded up the steps.
JD was white as he lay on the bed, all color drained from his face. Nathan and Buck stripped him as Josiah brought over a bowl of water and some cloths.
Buck glanced at Nathan, alarmed when the healer hissed as he exposed the wound.
Nathan looked at Buck, "Bad enough."
"Oh dear Lord."
They all looked up as Standish said the words that emulated their thoughts.
Now all the seven were there as Nathan prepared to remove the bullet.
Breathing rapidly, JD's eyes flew open as he scanned the room, fever- bright eyes unseeing in his terror.
"Easy kid," Buck breathed as he leaned in.
Hearing his friend's voice he reached out, finally clasping Buck's shirt and tightening his hold as much as his waning strength would allow.
"I'm right here, son...take it easy now boy, Nathan's..."
"Buck...p...please... just listen. The horse, they...they took Seven."
"I know kid, just rest now, we'll find him."
In one last desperate effort, and as he tried to sit up, JD growled.
"No...listen, I...I need...you to...know...before I...die...he...he's yours Buck, from...me...for...Christmas... "
Buck was angry and scared as he grabbed and held JD's hands.
"You ain't gonna die, kid, ya hear me JD...? YA AIN'T DYING!"
JD's eyes cleared and focused, and he stared deeply into Buck's, calming slightly, then, screwing up his own eyes, he cried out in pain, his features going slack as his head dropped back.
Nathan raised a bloody hand to check the youth's neck, looking up at five alarmed faces.
"He's still with us, but he's real weak. We need to do this *now*."
Suppressing a hitch in his throat, Wilmington nodded. Chris placed a hand on Buck's shoulder.
"I know you want to stay, but I want to catch these bastards and get that horse back and give this kid something to cling to, ya coming?"
For a moment, Buck's filling eyes couldn't focus and seemed to prevent his mind from doing so, also. Finally, clarity hit and he looked at the frail form on the bed and, swallowing, nodded.
"Let's go." Buck's voice was rough with emotion.
Tanner and Larabee returned the nod. Wilmington looked to Josiah and Ezra. Josiah's eyes told the brunette what he needed to know as Ezra squeezed Buck's shoulder.
"I'll stay right with him Buck, you have my word."
With a sad nod as one tear escaped his deep blue eyes, Wilmington moved toward Chris and Vin and the three men left.
Watching his friends leave, Ezra took off his jacket and walking back toward the bed, held JD's shoulders as Josiah took the boy's legs.
Just as the three men reached the bottom of the steps a blood- curdling scream tore through the air followed by a heart- wrenching 'Oh God.'
Buck's shoulders started to shake as he turned slightly toward the sound...he should be there.
"Come on, Bucklin," Vin urged, "Let's do this...fer JD."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan was exhausted; Josiah and Ezra were weary, too. It had been a grueling two hours and JD was finally bandaged and resting, the bullet sitting on the side on the dresser.
The southerner pushed a hand through his no-longer coiffed hair.
"That was...horrendous. "
Josiah nodded, "Indeed."
Nathan washed his hands as he watched Ezra push damp hair from JD's glistening face.
"Now we wait."
+ + + + + + +
Tanner had the horse thieves in his sights and would not stop until the horse was back with them and three men were captured...or dead.
Chris' jaw was set. It occurred to him these men must have been watching them...he was getting sloppy.
Buck was distraught, no longer able to hold back the tears. He already knew he had acted like a fool, but knowing the real reason for all the secrecy downright broke his heart, the pain further fuelled by the heart-wrenching confession of his 'little brother' as the boy feared he was dying. If there was one thing he could do today, it would be to hunt down these cold-blooded, murdering, horse- thieving bastards and either shoot them dead or bring them in, he didn't care which.
"We're almost on 'em," Vin assured.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra absently stroked the young man's hair, soothing himself as much as his restless young charge.
Nathan slept as Josiah read from his bible, trying desperately to find comfort in its words. This was a mindless act. His eyes filled at the thought of a young life possibly snuffed out because a selfless gesture to give someone he loved a wonderful gift drew the unwanted attention of evil men who cared little about the boy's motivations. He wished his avenging brothers God's speed
Ezra sighed, "This was supposed to be a triumph."
"It still will be." Josiah was confident.
+ + + + + + +
The three peacekeepers lay in the grass and watched the men around the campfire, Seven tethered just behind them.
"Let's do it," Larabee ordered.
As if rehearsed, the three men stood and weapons were drawn. Unannounced, the three friends strolled into the camp. Looking up in alarm, Drake drew his gun and Buck shot him dead. Pind and Quince instantly surrendered, much to the lawmen's disappointment.
Buck walked up to the black, his eyes drawn to the blood splashes on JD's saddle. Holding the bridle, he waited for the nervous horse to settle down then kissed his nose.
"I know two people who already love you, boy. You've come to a good place."
Vin and Chris slung Drake's bed-roll wrapped body over his horse, tied the hands of the other two to their saddle horns and the three peacekeepers, their captives and one black stallion headed back to town and hopefully to four friends.
+ + + + + + +
Just back, Buck couldn't climb the stairs fast enough, but when he got to the clinic door he hesitated, eventually opening the door quietly and peering inside.
Three men looked at him, Nathan gave a small smile.
"He's hanging on, Buck."
Standish gently removed himself from his position, relinquishing it to his friend with a nod.
Buck returned the gesture and sat down, taking in the boy's condition as he closed his large hand around the slender wrist.
"Has he woken up?"
"No, not yet," Nathan answered.
Buck leaned in just as Vin and Chris arrived.
"Hey, you hear me, kid? Ok, you listen, I'll talk. This may be the only chance I get...knowing the way you rant on when you're wide awake. I wanted to say...I'm sorry. I thought badly of you over your little adventure, I did you and Vin an injustice. I hope you can forgive an old fool for a stupid mistake.
We got the thieves, boy, the men who shot you and stole your stallion. We got them and we got the horse. He's waiting for ya to feed him more apples and carrots."
Buck laughed softly.
"Ya see what you've done, now? You say he's for me and he's gonna expect me ta ruin him just like you done."
He paused for a moment, emotion catching up with him.
"I can't believe you would do this for me. He's a magnificent animal and I surely don't deserve him...deserve you. Ya have ta wake up now, kid. Please, I want to say thank you properly."
+ + + + + + +
JD had been trapped in a twilight world of half images and distant voices. He knew on the very edges of this place was terrible pain and he didn't want to go there. He saw his mom, and his friends and the stallion and it didn't hurt any to visit with them, but now the pain was creeping nearer as one lone voice called out to him. A voice he knew, and trusted that was in pain too and he needed to know why. What did it say? 'Thank you?' 'He didn't deserve him?' Why? 'What's wrong, Buck? Why are you sad?'
"Yes," Buck leaned in as close as he could, "Come on, boy...stay with me...come on kid, you can do this."
"I know, it hurts."
JD forced open his eyes and weakly lifted a hand in the air, which Buck gratefully grasped.
Wilmington swallowed hard, why was he asking that? Did he sound *that* upset?
"I'm good kid...so's Chris and Vin and Josiah, and Ezra and Nathan... Seven's good too...just waitin' on you."
"Oh...good." JD drifted back to sleep.
The healer checked the youth's vitals, offering Wilmington a small smile. "It's a good sign Buck, but we need to get some fluids into him now, then hopefully he should improve steadily each day, though I think he's gonna be a mite weak for a while. I could be wrong, but I think we may be over the worst of it."
A hand squeezed Buck's shoulder and he reached up to clasp it, expecting it to be Larabee, but finding it was Vin.
Buck shuddered and dropped his head. "Vin...I'm so..."
Tanner smiled and squeezed his friend's shoulder, "Done with now, Buck...let's move on, huh?"
Buck raised his head to look up at him and returned the smile. "Yeah... I can do that, thanks."
+ + + + + + +
The morning of Christmas eve and Buck breezed into the clinic, hot soup and biscuits in hand. JD had been improving, but his appetite was poor and Buck was hoping to tempt him to eat. The brunette smiled as hazel eyes locked with his own blue ones.
"'Mornin' kid, Inez sent ya over some soup," he inhaled the steam rising from the container, "Mmm... mmm...smells real good."
JD gave a weak smile, "Thanks," he croaked, "But I'm not real hungry right now."
Wilmington settled next to his friend, placing the food on the dresser.
"What's bothering you, boy?"
JD sighed, "Nothing, I swear...I just can't...eat...right now."
Buck looked sad, "Then ya done ruined my Christmas wish."
"I promised myself I wouldn't ride Seven until you could hand him over to me...all official like, then me and you and Seven and Milagro would take a little ride out together." Buck sighed, "But I guess that's gonna have to wait some."
Taking a moment to digest the words, JD started to painfully push himself up, quickly assisted by his friend.
"Maybe I can try a little, huh?"
Buck nodded, holding back a grin, "Yeah, kid...maybe just a little, seems a shame to waste this here fine soup."
"Yeah, and I wouldn't want to upset Inez." JD had a cup of the soup in his hands and was sipping it.
After consuming half a cup and a biscuit, JD slumped back into the bed, full and tired. He looked to the man next to him, fully understanding what had just gone on and grateful Buck had cared enough to persevere.
"I want to go to church tonight."
Wilmington shook his head, looking up as Chris and Vin entered the clinic.
"Nah...don't think so kid...you're not quite up to going out yet, let alone in the cool night air."
JD looked to the other two men for support, "Please...I want to be there...for Josiah, and...and Mama."
Damn. JD had said just the thing to weaken the ladies' man's resolve. Chris took control.
"Ok JD, you can go, on the understanding that you will be taken, wrapped in however many blankets I see fit, and return straight to bed when it's over."
Considering an argument for a moment, JD looked into determined green eyes.
"Deal," he acquiesced.
The church service took the small congregation through from Christmas Eve to Christmas day. Each person, which appeared to be most of the townsfolk and many of the outlying farmers and ranchers, had enjoyed the event,congratulating Josiah as they left the church.
Six of the seven peacekeepers were together, one desperately fighting sleep as he sat tucked and wrapped in an old bath chair Nettie had found.
Casey and Nettie gave the young sheriff a kiss on the cheek as they left for home, Vin, Ezra and Chris touching their hats to the others as they left, lanterns in hand, to escort them and the others out of town. The little group of homesteaders making their way home that Christmas morning, lanterns lighting their way, was a sight to behold.
Nathan had agreed for JD to go back to his own room that night so getting him into his bed wasn't too difficult a task for Buck, Josiah and Nathan, having fewer stairs to negotiate.
Settling down, JD smiled wearily at his three friends.
"Thanks guys. Josiah, you did a real nice service, thank you."
The preacher walked to the side of the bed and squeezed the young man's arm.
"Made all the better by having all our friends there tonight. Goodnight, John Dunne, rest easy now."
Within half an hour, JD was sound asleep as Buck watched over him, intending to leave as soon as the young man had dozed off, but choosing instead to sit awhile and give silent thanks that seven peacekeepers still kept watch over a small town called Four Corners.
+ + + + + + +
Three weeks later found two good friends preparing for a short trip out of town. Buck scowled as Seven once again made a nose-dive for his jacket pocket, as JD sat astride Milagro, chuckling and giving a knowing wink to the other five lawmen who were watching in amusement.
"Get outta there ya dang mule...what are you lookin' for?" Buck fished into his pocket, producing several pieces of carrot which the stallion sniffed eagerly, eventually taking them from Buck's outstretched palm as the brunette scowled knowingly at his young friend.
"Dang it, kid...you've done ruined this horse."
"Aww come on, Buck...it's only an occasional treat."
Mounting the large black, Buck huffed, "God-danged spoiled him rotten..."
JD leaned over and patted Seven's neck and as the two men slowly walked the horses out of town, the stallion eagerly nudged the young man who he knew would most certainly be carrying more of the same.
The remaining five peacekeepers laughed as they watched their friends leave to the strains of Buck complaining as he tried to keep his horse from seeking out treats from JD. The actions caused the black to occasionally nudge JD's bay, who in turn whinnied and pranced in protest. The soft chuckle of one highly amused JD Dunne was the last sound they heard from the two departing men.
Chris and Vin glanced at each other, nodding their approval. Chris looked at the others and gave a lopsided grin.
Four voices answered instantly in agreement.