Mudslide by Sue M

Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!

Main Characters: Buck, JD, Chris

Summary: A heavy rainstorm brings about dire consequences for Buck and an impossible situation for JD

"Put that fool hat back on your head, boy. It might be a stupid hat, but it's about all you got to stop that brain of yours from frying."

As the two rode side by side on the seat of the heavily laden wagon, JD Dunne glanced sideways at the man that, since meeting him a few months ago, seemed determined to stride him through every aspect of life out west.

"It's hot and I'm wiping my brow. Just focus on driving the team Buck, and I'll worry about frying my brain."

Reins in hand and resting it lazily on the leg propped up on the raised front of the footboard; Buck Wilmington's grin was as wide as his face. "Just sayin' is all." He inhaled. "Boy howdy, that rainstorm sure cleared the air."

Taking off his jacket and placing his hat on top of it, JD nodded. "Good thing it happened before we left town. Would `a been hell trying to get back in that deluge."

Buck chuckled. "Deluge? You been hanging around Ezra again?"

"Shoot, we all hang around with Ezra. `Sides, I do know some fancy words y'know."

Buck's chuckle deepened. "I'm sure you do, boy."

The wagon hit a deep rut, and the large covered item in the back lurched to one side. JD turned to check it was undamaged, while Buck focused on steadying the two-horse team. Neither man was aware of the crack to the front axle when the wagon pitched. Buck shook his head. "Why does Missus Travis need a new press anyway? What's wrong with the old one?"

Removing his gaze from their cargo, JD shrugged. "Dunno. I think she said the other one's wearing out. Not sure what part, but she sure was lucky the paper in Little River is closing down. This looks to be real expensive."

"Lucky she got fools like us to go get it for her, too."

"Now don't go getting all bitter. When you thought there was a saloon in town you were grinning like a weasel in a henhouse."

Buck huffed. "What kinda town don't have a proper saloon?"

JD giggled and the pair glanced at each other and spoke together. "Little River!"

A little further along the trail, Buck halted the horses. "Whoa!" He stared in front of him at what was once the road, and to the slope to one side. "Mudslide. I guess the rain did some damage after all."

Frowning, JD stared at the mound of soggy slime and rubble that filled the area. "Looks to be shallower to the far left."

Buck pursed his lips and pondered his next move. "Well, if we turn back, it'll take us a coupla days longer to go round." He nodded at his decision. "I reckon this team is up to it. These big ole wagon wheels shouldn't have too much of a problem going through."

JD agreed, and clung to the edges of the seat as Buck slapped the reins and urged the horses on. "Ya, ya! C'mon ladies…ya!"

The horses snorted and whinnied as their legs sank into the muddy ooze. The mud was a little deeper than expected, and the wheels quickly became caked, and stopped turning. Eventually, the horses halted when the wagon stuck fast. The ladies' man handed the reins to JD, before climbing down into the mud. Positioning himself, he took hold of a wheel with one hand, and the side of the wagon with the other, and called up to JD. "When I holler, you get `em going and I'll push." He waited for JD to nod. "GO!"

"YA! YA!" With practiced ease, the youth snapped the reins and the horses neighed and pulled against the suction holding them.

Buck heaved against the wagon and felt it start to move. "Again, Kid…again!"

"Ya! Come on, ya!"

Just as they were making headway, there was a resounding crack. The terrified horses found the broken tongue had separated them from the front axle and they pulled away. With no weight holding them back, they clambered out of the mud, and raced off, dragging the hickory tongue behind them.

Still holding the reins, the action dragged JD over the footboard. He smacked the side of his head on the bouncing tongue, losing the reins before he landed with a splat in the mud and blacked out. The laden wagon creaked and listed. Buck grunted as it rolled over him up to his chest, pinning his legs and back against the softly yielding mud. He groaned with the pain, hands frantically trying to shift the weight off him. With the load holding him down it was difficult to take deep breaths. Buck turned his head just in time to see the horses disappearing, and JD lying still a few yards away.

"JD! KID! Hey…hey…damnit!" Already losing feeling from the waist down, Buck closed his eyes. "Shit!"


He hadn't heard the ocean more than once in his young life, therefore found it odd it was so close now. JD tried opening his eyes, but it just wasn't happening, so he settled down into the warm, soft bed he'd managed to fall into. Unsure how much longer he had slept, and the rushing ocean sound in his ears now replaced with an annoyingly repetitive noise, he succeeded in cracking open one eye. What greeted him caused him to jerk upright, a movement he regretted instantly, as the blacksmith's hammer ringing inside his head echoed through his body. Settling in his stomach, the vibration triggered a bout of vomiting, leaving him weak and trembling. The persistent, familiar sound that had woken him penetrated his mind again. 'Alright…give me a minute here!'


For what seemed like an eternity, Buck had been trying to wriggle from under the wagon pinning him down, but the more he tried, the heavier it got, and the deeper he sank. All the while, he kept his eye on JD's prone form, urgently hollering at the boy to bring him around. The result of his efforts was that he was not only sinking deeper, but now also suffering a sore throat and pounding headache to boot. When JD finally started to rouse, Buck looked to the Heavens to give thanks, and resumed his yelling.

'Damn…the Kid's sick…' Buck knew it happened with head injuries, he just hoped it wasn't too serious…for both their sakes'. He mumbled an apology to the kid for what he was about to do, and yelled out. "JD! John Daniel Dunne…quit lying around, and get your backside over here…NOW!"


"Uuuhhh…" Blinking, JD stared at the ground. "What the…?" Before he could process the mud he was in, Buck's voice battered his delicate senses. "I'm up!" he yelled back, still unsure as to why he was sleeping outside, in the middle of the afternoon, and in mud.


With a sharp intake of breath, JD looked back to see the overturned wagon, but no horses, and no Buck. "BUCK!" Clambering drunkenly to his feet, the boy stared at the image.


'Where is he?' Another gasp left him as he scanned the ground and saw movement from the half-buried side of the wagon. His own pain instantly forgotten, JD staggered through the squelchy, sodden ground toward his friend. 'Oh God…no!'

As he approached, Buck attempted a smile. "Y'alright?"

JD dropped to his knees next to Buck's head. "Me? What about you?" JD hoped he had disguised the panic in his voice, but instantly dismissed it. This was Buck…a man who seemed to know him as well as JD's own mother had. "Oh God…Buck…does it hurt bad?"

The brunet grimaced as he tried to force air through his pinned chest. "It's more kinda…numb, now. Can you get…the horses? They can pull it off me…maybe." He watched JD struggle to his feet, rest his shoulder against the wagon and use his whole body to heave against the solid object. It didn't budge, and with every sinew straining, JD cried out in exasperation.

"Gaaahhh! Come on…MOVE!" Distraught at his failure, the boy sank down again and hung his head. "Damnit, I'm sorry…"

Buck reached out and squeezed JD's arm. "Not even Josiah could move this, Kid. It's stuck fast and weighs more than the seven of us put together."

JD's gaze shifted from Buck to the printing press. "I need to get that off there, it'll make it lighter to move…" He went to stand, but Buck held firm. "Son, it took four of us to get it on there in the first place." He smiled. "I appreciate the effort, but I think we're gonna need the horses."

JD nodded his acceptance. Spotting his jacket a little way ahead, he stood, retrieved it, folded it, and placed it under Buck's head. "I'll go check on the horses, then." One last glance around located a canteen. JD offered some water to Buck, took a swig himself, and then left the half-full bladder next to Buck's hand. He gave the cold appendage a squeeze. "I'll be right back."

Buck stared at the boy, trying not to react to the blood-matted hair and trails of the sticky ooze down the kid's face. What JD didn't know, wouldn't hurt him. "Be careful!"

"I will."


Buck realized he must have dozed off at some point, because now the sun was lower. A noise caused him to turn his head. JD was closing in, without the horses, but dragging a branch that was almost as big as himself. Buck tried not to look disappointed. "No luck…huh?"

Dropping dejectedly down on his knees next to Buck, JD shook his head. "They're long gone. I found this here branch, though." He stared at the wagon. "Was thinking…if I could use it to lift the wagon a little, you could shimmy outta there."

Buck had no idea if he had the strength to do so, but was willing to try anything. Pride shining in his pain-filled eyes, he looked at JD and nodded. "Let's do it." He watched the young easterner step out the area until he came upon a rock to use as a fulcrum. JD took a long time positioning the branch under the wagon. Finally taking the strain he nodded to Buck.


"You bet."

Howling with the effort, JD pushed down on the branch with all his mite. The wagon creaked. JD's eyes were screwed up tight with the exertion. The pounding in his ears from the rush of blood was penetrated by Buck's sudden cry.

"It's shifting…keep going!"

As JD was pushing, Buck rested his hands against the wagon and heaved. The tiniest movement allowed Buck to take his first deep breath in a long while and he called out to JD to keep going. Suddenly, a resounding *crack* brought the cart back down with a thump.

"Aaahhhh!" The pain overwhelmed Buck and he blacked out.

Encouraged by Buck's call, JD managed to pull on a reserve of energy to push down harder. A crack heralded the branch was unable to take the weight. The piece of limb he was pushing on, and the carriage, all crashed down into the mud. Buck's scream chilled the boy's blood and he scuttled over the soggy ground to get to his friend's side.

"BUCK!" JD instantly checked Buck was still with him, but now he was terrified he had made things worse. Unable to hold back his emotion and pain any longer, JD rested his aching head against the heel of his hand and clung to Buck with his other hand. "I'm so sorry. Please Buck…please don't die." He felt a tiny movement and sat up, relieved beyond words to see Buck squinting back at him.

"Ain't got no plans to visit Boot Hill any time soon…Kid." Buck closed his eyes and took a short breath. "It's gonna be dark soon. Build a fire and set up camp. If the horses don't wander back here by first light, you're gonna have to find help."

JD made to stand. "Not now?"

"No!" Buck wearily snatched at JD's arm. "No…not at night…sunup, okay?"

JD leaned in. "Buck…you're hurt, and…you're sinking…you need help and…" JD swiped at his eyes. "I can't do anything."

Still holding JD's arm, Buck smiled. "Gonna take more than one man to get me outta this, Kid. And you're doing a whole lot. When you were gone earlier, I was real lonesome. You being here with me right now…is just what I need."

JD swallowed, then attempted a grin as he stood. "Still spouting crap, Buck."

The ladies' man produced as near to a chuckle as he could muster. "Hell yeah." The words were out there, but the look between the two spoke of the opposite.

JD nodded. "I'll get started."


"Want some company?"

Looking up from his seat outside the jail, Chris pushed the chair next to him toward Vin. Adjusting his mare's leg, the Texan sat down and stretched out. He took off his hat and ruffled his hair. "You concerned?"

Chris shrugged. "I've told myself not to be…Buck's been around some, he's a good man to ride with." He glanced at his companion. "But knowing there's not much in the way of entertainment in Little River, I figured they'd 'a been home by now."

Vin nodded. "Maybe the storm washed out the trail and they had to travel a different route."

"I figured that, too, so I wired Little River to find out if they'd left yet."


"Waiting on a reply."

Vin nodded and the two sat in contemplative silence for a while. "If it's bad, it'll soon be too dark to do anythin' about it."

Chris sighed the sigh of a man torn in two. "I know."


JD's stomach rumbled. Neither man had eaten since breakfast, expecting to be home well in time for dinner. The beef jerkey and trail mix they had packed was sustaining them. Buck had told JD to imagine the jerkey as a fat, juicy steak. At least it had made them both smile. JD helped Buck as much as was needed to stop the trapped man from choking on his meager meal. The hot coffee had been welcome, too, as the heat of the day made way for the cool desert night. Buck was grateful for the warmth of the fire; the mud was starting to chill him. He stared at the youth sitting cross-legged, next to him.

JD's head was bowed in sleep, dark curtains of hair concealing most of his face. Despite his own predicament, Buck was worried about him. JD had tried hard to conceal it, but Buck could see he was struggling with his head injury. It occurred to the brunet, that maybe he should wake the boy. Nathan always said sleeping too long after a knock to the head was never good. He decided to give it a little longer.

Buck winced as he tried to shift, but it was more from discomfort now, any pain was hidden in the numbness that had taken up residence in all but his shoulders, arms, and chest. JD mumbled something in his sleep and Buck smiled. Even if he was destined to die right here, like this, he wouldn't change a thing. The last few months had been some of the best in his life. Meeting up with Chris again had healed a painful rift. He cherished their friendship, and even though it had changed some, it had survived the most horrendous odds, and remained strong, true, and full of affection.

Getting to ride with Vin, Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra was another plus. Before that first day, Buck would have laughed at the idea of becoming close to a bunch of misfits, but now he knew without a doubt, he would die for not just Chris, but for either one of them.

And for the boy sitting with him now.

Something inside pulled him to this kid that first day. He may never know how, but he sure as hell knew why. He had never been as completely wet behind the ears as JD, but the boy's innocence, honesty, determination, guts, and vulnerability reminded Buck of a much younger him. Buck smiled. For all the kid's bluster, he always listened. He might make a face, or add a smart comment…maybe even protest, but he did everything that was asked of him…and more.

A tear rolled from Buck's eye. And now he feared who he cherished most, would be forever scarred knowing he could do nothing to help him. That thought helped Buck make up his mind. No one would find them in time, JD couldn't help him on his own, but there was no way Buck would let a boy who had become as a brother to him watch him die, either. At sunup, no matter what arguments JD put out, and he fully expected them once JD saw how fast Buck was sinking, he would be going for help.

Buck nodded to himself and closed his eyes. If Buck could give JD one more thing before he died, it would be the chance to go on and become the man Buck could see in the boy. Even if it was without him.


Chris stared at the wire in his hand. "Damn."

"First light?" Josiah asked, pre-empting the next move.

Vin stared up at the sky. "If we set out now…take it steady, we'll have made good headway before sunup."

"Sounds like a plan," Ezra nodded.

Nathan started for the clinic. "We should take a wagon, blankets, food, water…I'll get my bag."

"What do we do if we reach a point where the trail splits?" Ezra asked.

Chris pursed his lips. "I guess we'll worry about that when we get to one." He stared at the men around him. Good men…good friends…he thanked the Lord for having met them. "Let's ride."


JD yawned and stretched, wincing at the pull to his neck from the position he had slept in; but it was short lived when he saw Buck's eyes closed and that he had sunk deeper in the mud. His friend…his big brother looked…dead.

"Buck…BUCK!" He cursed as he moved next to the prone man. "Damnit…DAMNIT! I can't believe I fell asleep. BUCK!" He was frantically shaking the brunet's shoulder.

"Geeze, boy…I know I don't need my beauty sleep as much as you, but your hollering an' shaking is enough to wake the dead."

Despite Buck's words being slurred and labored, JD released a soft sob, his relief painfully evident. "Oh God…I thought…" He squeezed the man's shoulder. "You scared me for a minute there."

Buck rolled his head to look at JD. "Kid…it's gonna take more than a broken wagon to finish me off…" He hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt. He had barely felt JD's squeeze to his shoulder, and breathing was becoming pure agony.


"Water," Buck replied, nodding gratefully when he was offered a drink. He watched as JD piled more wood on the glowing fire. It would soon be dawn. The big man's heart ached as he spoke his next words. "As soon as the sun pokes up over that ridge yonder, you should head out. Get as far as you can while it's cool."

Still pottering around, JD shook his head. "No, I've been thinking on that, Buck, it's not right. I ain't going…I'm not leaving you."

Buck closed his eyes. "Kid…this whole rig's sinking. Finding help's the only chance I got."

"No…we're late. Chris will figure it out, Vin'll track the horses…they'll find us."

Buck reached out and clutched JD's hand. "What if they don't?"

"They will!" JD cursed inwardly as his emotions rose again. He had never been so scared. What Buck was asking of him terrified him. They were at least a half a day out from town…by horse. In the time JD walked home, Buck could be…

"No. I know what you're doing and I won't go. If I'm here, I can stop your head from going under." Shimmering eyes stared back at Buck. "Please, Buck, don't make me," JD whispered.

Still holding onto JD's hand, Buck stared back; his own eyes brimming with unshed tears and deep affection for this boy. "You trust me, right?"

Unable to speak, JD nodded.

"Then do this for me…please."

JD's head dropped and Buck watched him wrestling with his conscience. Finally, JD looked up. "Okay." The word was barely audible, but it made Buck smile.

"That's my boy. Now…go get set up." As JD walked away, Buck closed his eyes. Whether JD stayed or went, it wouldn't be long, now…and he wasn't afraid.


With a heavy mist still lingering in the grass and a gray light bathing the desert, Chris halted the group and leaned heavily on his saddle horn. "Vin?"

Tanner glanced across, pointing at the ground. "Ain't seen nothin' to suggest they passed this way."

From the wagon, Josiah nodded. "That at least means we haven't missed them."

"It also begs the question, what could have prevented them from getting this far?" Ezra commented.

Vin gestured forward. "A few miles on there's a pass. If it got blocked from the recent rain, they woulda had to go 'round."

"So, we head for the pass?" Chris checked.

Vin nodded. "At least, iffen it's blocked, we'll know our next move."

Nathan shifted impatiently in his saddle, relieved when Chris signaled they move on. His mind was already processing the possibilities of injuries, and it wasn't sitting well in his gut.


JD had shored up the ground under his jacket as much as he could without creating an angle that could choke Buck. He handed him the rifle they had been carrying, and one of his Colts. "Canteen's next to you…so's the jerkey." He arranged Buck's hat to protect the man's face and head. "Buck…"

Wilmington forced a smile. "Go get 'em, Kid. You can do this." He watched JD's turmoil. "JD…" He grabbed the boy's wrist. "I couldn't be more proud of you if you were kin. We've laughed, we've cried, we've fought and we've gotten roostered, together. I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

"Not even for one of your fine ladies?" JD sniffed, while trying hard to smile back.

Buck laughed, and then coughed, hard. He waved off JD's concern. "Nope, I do believe not even for one of them." He tugged JD's hand. "Tell Chris…"

"NO!" JD's brimming eyes flashed fury and he pulled his hand away from Buck's grasp. "Don't be giving me no goodbye speech. Whatever you need to tell Chris, you can do it yourself."

"Chris is a good man, Kid…he and Vin'll watch out for you…they all will…"

"Please…" JD was distraught. "I ain't leaving if you talk like this."

Buck reached out and again squeezed JD's arm, or he thought he did, there really was little feeling now. "I ain't giving up, Kid…I just needed you to know how I feel about you…"

"I know!" JD interrupted, bending over to touch his forehead to Buck's. "I've always known." He straightened. "Just like you know, that if I could have asked God to make me a brother…you'd 'a been just what I would've asked for." JD released himself from Buck's hand, stood, and took a shuddering breath. "I'll be back. Don't die!"

Buck grinned. "Yessir!"

Grabbing a canteen and his hat, JD trudged across the mud, looking back at Buck until he could no longer see him. While it was still cool, JD set as fast a pace as his aching head would allow. Maybe he'd get lucky and find the horses along the way. With that thought, he stepped up the pace.


Buck watched JD go until he disappeared over the horizon. His head sank back and he looked to the Heavens. "Watch over him, God. He's a good kid and it ain't fair to take both of us…so give me this one last request…and just take me, okay?" Realizing his body was completely numb; Buck closed his eyes and relaxed. JD was gone…now…he could rest.


JD found that, if he didn't look up, he traveled faster. He knew that wasn't really true, but landmarks seemed forever distant if he looked ahead. This way, when a targeted tree, rock or bush was suddenly close, he felt he was getting somewhere. Despite taking regular sips of water, the ache in his head wouldn't go away. He touched where the tongue had bounced up and hit him, and felt the tackiness there. 'Damn'…he'd been bleeding, and Buck'd had to look at it the whole time.


Just the flash of his surrogate big brother's name through his mind forced JD's feet to move faster. Buck had promised…he had promised he wouldn't die. JD never had a reason to doubt him before, but he knew nothing about crush injuries. It was clear the man was in pain. He might not have said it too often, but JD knew. The fear of the unknown steeled JD's resolve to swallow the panic and get Buck some help as fast as he could.

"Hang on Buck…we're gonna beat this."


They could all see them. Vin and Nathan urged their horses at a fast pace until they came upon a still tacked up, two-horse team. By the time Chris, Josiah, and Ezra joined them, Vin had examined the animals.

"They're okay, but their legs are caked in mud."


Vin shook his head. "Neither JD or Buck woulda let 'em loose like this." He pointed to the tongue. "Looks like they broke free."

Chris looked out across the plains. "Hitch 'em to the wagon. We need to get moving."

No one doubted that, now. The dried mud alone was cause for concern, and it was clear the horses had been separated from the cart with force. Vin and Josiah tossed the wood away, hitched the team to the back of the wagon, and the group moved out.


>> "Coffee, Pard?"

Buck slowly turned his head toward Chris's voice. "You here alone, Stud?"

The man in black squatted down next to Buck's shoulder. "Looks that way. How you doing down there?"

Buck laughed, softly. "I heard mud's good for the skin. How do you *think* I'm doing?"

"Well…" Chris sipped on his coffee. "I can see you still got a smart mouth…I guess that's a good sign."

Buck swallowed. "Chris, I need you to promise me something."

"You ain't gonna die, Buck."


Chris chewed his lip. "What?"

"Watch out for the kid for me, would ya?"

"No need, like I said…"

"Chris…he looks up to you. He ain't like the others, he needs guidance, someone to tell him he's doing good once in a while. I know what it's like growing up without a pa, but I had some lucky breaks…made good friends. This is his lucky break…watch him for me."

Chris huffed. "You saying I'm old enough to be his father?" They both laughed. "This ain't in no way agreeing to you going anywhere, but…okay, you have my word." He saw Buck visibly relax. "Time to start thinking about yourself, Buck. You want that coffee now?"

"Water'd be good, Pard, thanks."

Buck dozed for a while. Chris's voice pulled him from his slumber.

"Remember that little town in Mexico where that fella had the crazy goat?"

Buck laughed. "Yeah…didn't he eat your hat?"

"Who, the fella?" Chris chuckled.

"Funny…the goat."

"Yeah. Tasted good though…that Billy goat. Didn't he?"

"But you didn't shoot it, it got run over by a cart," Buck reminded.

"Should've though, I loved that hat."

"As I recall, you cut quite a figure in that sombrero you bought to get you home."

Chris laughed, hard, and then sobered. "I lost it in the fire."

Buck nodded. "Figured." He yawned, he felt so tired. "Sure hope JD finds ya'll soon."

"Me too Pard…me too." <<

Buck jerked awake. The sun was high, and he was thirsty. After struggling to free his arm from the mud, he raised the canteen to his lips and took a few sips, realizing, if he moved his eyes left and right, he could see the mud line. Buck closed his eyes. Not long, now.


JD stumbled and hit the hard ground knees first. "Oww…" In pain, JD rolled over onto his back. It felt good to rest. "Sonofabitch Buck…I'm beat!"

Buck's grinning face appeared. "Smile when you call me that, boy!" The face sobered. "Get up…if you lie there, it's over, y'hear me, Kid?"

Grunting, JD flipped onto his knees. "I hear you, Buck." He got up, drew his Colt, pointed it upwards and fired several shots before re-holstering it. "Can't hurt," he mumbled. Wiping his brow with the back of his hand, he knocked the hat off his head. JD's gaze hit the floor, and he kept walking.


"D'ya hear that?"

Before Chris's question about the gunfire was out, Vin had kicked Peso's flanks and was racing ahead. A split second later, the others followed. Within minutes, Vin glanced back while pointing forward. "There!"


JD felt the vibration of hooves over the ground just seconds before spying riders in the distance. Half elated, and half apprehensive, he drew his gun, crying out in relief and going to his knees when a familiar Texan leapt off his horse and ran straight for him. In seconds, Ezra was at his side too. The pair could see JD had been hurt. Placing hands either side of his face to ground him, Vin looked into JD's eyes.

"Kid…you okay? Where's Buck?"

"Take a drink, son." Ezra was offering his canteen, but it was Chris's mounted shadow that caught JD's attention and he struggled to his feet. He grabbed onto Vin's arm with one hand, and pointed with the other. "Oh, thank God. There…back there…hurry!"

Vin and Ezra instantly mounted. JD turned and started running back toward Buck. Chris galloped after him. "JD!"

The boy turned to see Chris bending, his hand outstretched. "Faster if we ride."

JD reached out, and with Chris's help, swung up behind him. He would feel foolish for that blunder later, but for now, his only concern was to get back to Buck. JD had walked for hours, but it seemed in no time, the group was at the mudslide. JD shrieked out his dismay at seeing Buck buried up to his chest. Josiah halted the wagon beyond the mudslide, as the others hastily dismounted and slogged through the sludge. JD was already at Buck's side. The man looked...'NO!'

"Buck…BUCK! They're here…we're all here. Buck?" Strong hands scooped JD away. Nathan and Chris dropped to the ground, the former looking for a pulse. Agonizing seconds ticked by. JD leaned back hard against Vin, the Texan maintaining a hold on the boy, who looked done in. Nathan glanced up.

"Still with us," he announced, smiling at the collective sigh. Josiah was already hitching the captured team to the side of the wagon sticking out of the mud. Chris stood and turned to JD. "When I say, I need you to guide those horses forward, okay?"

JD nodded.

Chris patted his shoulder. "Good lad." As JD trudged through the mud toward the hitched team, the five peacekeepers prepared to heave. Once in position, and sure that Buck was in no danger, Chris hollered out. All five rammed their shoulders against the cart and pushed, while JD yanked on the horses' reins and yelled out encouragement to come forward.

For a few moments, despite the gargantuan efforts of both men and horses, nothing moved. The men heaved again, and JD pulled the horses harder. "YA! YA! Walk on…walk on!" The cart groaned, listed and accompanied by a large sucking, squelching sound, and five men's grunts, the wagon turned upright, coming down on all four wheels with a mighty crash. Vin stretched his aching muscles and went to help JD with the restless horses, while the others dug Buck out of his muddy tomb and carried him reverently toward the back of the wagon they had brought with them. Anxiously, everyone watched Nathan work. JD desperately tried to move toward the wagon, but his legs would no longer carry him. Vin grabbed his arm, looped it around his own shoulders, snaked an arm around JD's waist and half dragged, half carried the boy to where he wanted…no, needed to be.

Finally, Nathan looked up. "Got a lot of bruising on his belly, arms, legs and chest.I checked his legs and they twitched some, so it looks good...but I can't be sure. His breathing's raspy, but steady. I reckon the soft mud saved him from being crushed to death."

"Is he okay to travel?" Chris asked.

"I can do more for him back at my clinic."

No more words were needed. Nathan got to work cleaning up Buck's scrapes and grazes, finally wrapping him in two blankets. In minutes, the camp was broken up, JD was placed in the back of the wagon with Buck and Nathan, and they headed out. JD's raspy voice called out.

"Missus Travis's press…"

"…Can wait," Chris insisted. "Let's go home."


Chris stretched, got out of the chair between Buck and JD's beds, and went to pour himself a coffee. Looking back from the stove in the clinic, he stared at his two friends. JD's head was bandaged, and he was sleeping, mostly from exhaustion, and partly due to his head injury and some of Nathan's horses' piss tea. The healer was happy with his progress, though.

Buck had still to wake up. Nathan was as sure as he could be that there was no internal bleeding, but was concerned about the restrictions to Buck's breathing while trapped. Only him waking would shed any light on the severity of his injuries.

Retaking his seat, Chris turned to JD and squeezed the youth's arm. "You did good, Kid." He then turned to Buck. "Wake up you 'ornery scoundrel. It's too quiet around here without you. You got about nine ladies ready to come over here and mop your brow." He sighed and leaned in. "JD needs you, Pard…I need you." With a soft sigh he sat back and sipped his coffee.


Chris sat forward to be greeted by slits of blue looking up at him. "Huh?"

"JD…he okay?"

Chris grinned. "Nothing a good sleep and a decent meal won't cure…oh…and having his big brother to push him around, some."

Buck smiled, weakly. "Good to know he found you."

Chris nodded. "He did…then he tried to run all the way back to you, despite us having seven horses and a wagon with us."

Buck, still smiling, nodded. "Sounds about right."

"How you feeling?"

"Like I got stampeded by a herd of buffalo." He grinned. "So...pretty good."

Chris smiled. "Your legs..."

Buck frowned and with a grunt moved them under the covers. "Still attached. You had me worried for a minute there, Stud."

Chris briefly closed his eyes with relief. "You and me both."

He watched Buck slip back into sleep, but his breathing seemed steadier, and his normal color was returning from the ghastly shade of gray he had been.

Chris relaxed back into the chair to keep vigil over his oldest and newest friends. Finding Buck again a few months ago had brought it home to Chris just how much he needed him in his life. Buck was part of his past, and present...and Chris would make damned sure his future, too. Good friends were hard to come by...brothers...were irreplaceable.


"I can't be with a lady for how long?" Four days on, and six peacekeepers rolled eyes or covered them with their hands, as the gregarious, woman-loving, Buck Wilmington sat in the saloon for the first time since his recovery.

Buck," Nathan reasoned, "you were trapped and pinned down for almost a whole day and night. Your…" he flapped his hand toward his nether region, "…needs some recovery time."

Buck leaned forward, conspiratorially. "I got me plenty of feeling there…if you know what I mean."

"Buck, I'm sure half the townsfolk know what you mean by now," Ezra deadpanned.

JD giggled. "I figured the first thing you'd want is a big juicy steak."

Buck raised an eyebrow. "That an offer, Kid?"

Chris tossed bills onto the table. "Actually, Mary's buying. She feels bad about what happened."

They all grinned. "Is she upset over her press still bein' stuck out there in the mud?" Vin asked.

Chris pursed his lips. "She will be…when I tell her."

Laughing, they all stood to head for the restaurant. JD, head still bandaged, was instantly at Buck's side to steady him. The brunet was still stiff and sore from his ordeal.

"Thanks Kid." He halted him from following the others. "Listen up…I wanted you to know, I meant every word I said to you out there."

JD smiled. "I know…me too."

They continued walking. "Yeah?" Buck asked.

"Yeah," JD confirmed, a flash of mischief in his eyes. "Especially the bit I said early on about you still talking crap."

Buck laughed. Their gazes locked, speaking volumes. "C'mon, got me a steak with my name on it."

"And then…maybe meet up with a fine lady, later?" JD teased.

Buck smiled as they caught up with the group. "Nah…just planning on spending time with some good friends."

"Anyone we know?" Vin asked with a wry grin.

"Ooh, you're all so funny today," Buck snapped back. As they headed into the restaurant, Buck rubbed at his chest. When he was out there in the desert, pinned fast and sinking in mud; though he didn't want to…Buck had been prepared to die. Watching his friends, his gaze rested on JD. Somehow, they had both beaten the odds. Looking to the skies. Buck's grin was warm, and wide. He touched his hat. "Thanks big guy…I owe you one."

The end

Thanks for riding along.