Chris waited till all of the others had gathered at the jail to explain what was going on.
He looked over the group and wondered how they had all come to this point:
Vin ~ his right hand man. Unofficially, second in command of their little group of peacekeepers. Quiet. Dependable. Always there to back up any one of the other six. A good shot, and more importantly, a good friend.
Josiah ~ a gentle giant. Man of God. Always ready for a fight or to save a soul.
Nathan ~ healer. Kind. Dedicated to helping folks, even if they were on the other side. Said he'd patched up the others so many times he knew them better than their own mothers.
Ezra ~ gambler. Plays every angle. Still, always there for each of the others. He had let Chris down once, but had come through for him many times since. Chris figured every man's entitled to a second chance, and Ezra had used his to his advantage.
Chris had known Buck for 12 years. Been his best friend for most of that time, although for the past year, one JD Dunne had filled that slot. Buck and the boy took to each other almost immediately. Buck said the boy needed someone to make sure he lived to see his next birthday, didn't have the sense God gave a goose, his pint-sized ass couldn't fight it's way out of a paper bag, etc. Truth was, Buck just liked the kid.
Truth was, they all did. They'd all do anything for the kid, including risking their lives this time to get him back.
They all discussed what they could do to get JD back safely.
"What I'd really like to know," Vin drawled, "is what's Tom's big plan. I figure we're entitled to know, since we're practically part of it."
They all turned to the man in the cell.
"Didn't think ya'll would ever ask. Prettiest little plan you've ever heard. Brother Buck there's gonna rob the bank for me."
"The man is delusional." Ezra remarked.
"No he's not." Buck said. "Not if that's what it takes to get JD back."
"You were hired to uphold the law, Mr. Wilmington, not break it." Ezra reminded.
"You gonna stop him, Ezra? You gonna let that boy die?" Nathan asked.
"I am just as concerned about the well being of our young friend as anyone else here. I just have never known us to give in to demands or threats."
"Well, it's never been JD before." Chris snapped. "I think the rest of us have always figured we'd get ourselves killed sometime, if not doing this job, then something else, but I don't think any of us would consider letting it happen to JD. He's only 19, for Christ's sake. All the money in the bank isn't worth that boy's life. Soif Buck needs anyone in his gang, I'm in."
"Me, too. I always wanted me a matching set of those wanted posters." Vin grinned.
Chris smiled at Vin's offer. How many times had Vin put off clearing his own name of a trumped up murder charge in order to help one of the others?
Nathan agreed to help also. "I wanna get that boy back here, safe and sound, whatever it takes."
Josiah chimed in. "That boy's got a good, gentle soul, Chris. Shouldn't even be mixed up with a bunch of hellions like us anyway. Love him like a son. I'm in."
The others looked to Ezra. "Of course I will help. I miss the little pain-in-the-ass, too." he said jokingly, to relieve some of the tension in the room. Then he added seriously, "I will give my life for that boy, if necessary, without question."
"What can I say??? I love that boy and there's nothing I won't do for him. And I mean nothing. So, if I have to rob a bank, or kill someone" he said as he walked over to face his brother in the jail cell, "don't think I won't."
"Why, Buck, I believe you're referring to me." Tom said.
"Yes, Tom, I am. Make no mistake, if that boy's hurt, you're gonna wish I'd been an only child. Got it?"
"I got it. But if I don't get outta here soon, I'm afraid your little friend could suffer some significant damage." Tom replied.
The men began to discuss their options regarding Tom.
"I guess we gotta let 'im out, Chris." Vin said. "I don't think we got much choice. Maybe one of us could go with him and check on the kid."
"I think I should go." Nathan said. "I'm still concerned about the crack on his head from yesterday, much less what might have happened to him since he"
"No." Buck broke in quietly. "I'm going."
"Buck," Chris said, "I'm not so sure that's a good"
"I'm going. Not Nathan. Not you. Not anyone else, me. Its my fault JD's in this mess to begin with. Besides, he needs meyou all know that. Nathan, you can tell me what to check for. But I'm going. Or, Nathan and me can both gobut I'm going and nobody's stopping me."
Buck looked to Chris to see if he wanted to argue the matter.
Chris realized Buck was close to breaking down.
"Nathan, what do you think? Can Buck check the kid out on his own?
"Chris, I gotta say I'd feel a whole lot better if we both went. Like I said, I'm still worried about him from yesterday. He got hit pretty hard. A lump on the head ain't no small thing."
"OK." Chris concluded. "Nathan and Buck both go with Tom, check on JD and come back."
"Maybe I should stay with him, Chris." Nathan suggested. "Might make the kid feel better."
"No, one hostage is enough." Chris said. "JD's got to understand that."
"Ya'll wanna ask me if it's OK if any of you go at all?" Tom asked.
"Shut up!!!" the six said in unison.
Chris started towards the cell.
"Look, Tom, if you want your little plan to work, you'll go along with us on this. No way Buck robs a bank without seeing the kid first."
"Alright." Tom conceded.
Chris unlocked the cell door and Tom stepped out. The six men had to control their anger to avoid ripping the man apart.
As he walked past Ezra, the gambler said contemptibly, "I must say, Mr. Wilmington, that I find this little plan of yours to be perhaps the most vile attempt at monetary gain I have ever been witness to. Anyone that would use an innocent young boy in the manner you are plotting is despicable."
Chris turned to Nathan and Buck. "You guys watch your backs."
He hated letting them go, but it had to be done.
"Come on Tom, let's get going." Buck said.
"Anxious to see your little friend, are 'ya?"
"Yeah, Tom, I am. And I better see that he's OK." Buck threatened.
JD sat in the dark trying to figure out what he'd done wrong to wind up in this situation. "Oh, well," he thought, "I'm sure Buck'll tell me how I screwed up to land myself here."
"I wish Buck was here now." the kid said out loud. "Where are you, Buck?"
The youth's head was throbbing and he was beginning to feel queasy. Feeling worse by the minute, JD finally gave in and laid down on the hard floor, curled up and tried to ignore the pain and to go to sleep.
Later, the man that had brought food earlier returned. He was surprised to find the boy on the far side of the room, lying on the floor, facing the wall.
"Hey, kid, you didn't eat anything. Food shouldn't be wasted."
"You OK, kid?"
"Kid, you alright?" he asked, as he walked over to the boy, watching for a trick assuming he was playing possum. He knelt down next to him.
The kid wasn't playingand he wasn't moving.
"Hey, son, are you OK?" he asked as he reached to touch the teen and pulled his hand back quickly, shocked by the heat he felt.
"Oh, crap, you're sick, boy. This ain't good. Come on, son, I don't need this."
The man went and got a wet cloth and placed it on the boy's forehead, which startled him awake.
"Kid, you want some water or something?"
"No, thanks." came the faint reply.
"Whatcha need, kid?"
"I need... Ineed... Buck." he got out before he went under again.
Buck, Nathan and Tom left to check on JD.
"Is this place far?" Buck asked.
"Not too far, but far enough." Tom smiled.
"I'm glad you think this is all so funny, mister, 'cause I sure don't" Nathan snapped. "Grabbing a poor scared kid and draggin' him off somewhere, no tellin' how he isprobably treated bad. He better be OK. That boy means a lot to us, but I guess you wouldn't understand that."
"Hey, I've got a brother 'ya know."
"There's news." Buck jumped in. "When was the last time you contacted me, Tom? The only time I hear anything about you, it's from someone else, and then it's always something bad."
"Don't start, Tom. I just ain't in the mood. I want to get to JD, that's all."
The three made the rest of the ride in relative silence.
They had been riding for about four hours when Tom said they were getting close.
They soon came upon a small two-room shack.
"This is it." Tom said.
"Hey, Rudy." he called and waved to the man at the shack.
"Tom," the man called from the porch, "we get a problem. That kid's burning up with fever."
Buck and Nathan were off their horses in a flash, making their way into the shack.
Rudy grabbed Buck's arm as he passed.
"Mister, are you Buck?"
"Yeah." Buck replied.
"Kid's been askin' for 'ya."
Buck's eyes began to fill as he stormed into the shack.
Buck pushed ahead of Nathan and burst through the door into the dark little room.
JD was still lying on the floor, facing the wall, but Rudy had covered the boy with a blanket.
"Oh, JD." Buck whispered. "Kid, I'm here, now. Everything's gonna be OK, kid. Buck's here now. Come on, look at me."
JD rolled over enough to look at his best friend. Buck could see the pain on the boy's face. He pushed the hair from his eyes and noticed they seemed fever-glazed and distant. He put his hand to the youth's forehead, which was white-hot.
"Buck??" the kid barely whispered. "Buck, I've been prayin' you'd come."
"Yeah, well your prayer's been answered 'cause I'm here now, kid and you're gonna be OK. JDguess who else came to see 'ya, Nathan. So let's let him take a look at you, OK?"
"Hey, JD, it's me, Nathan. Let's see what's wrong with 'ya, OK?"
"Nathan, I'm gonna be sick, Nathan." and the boy proceeded to throw up.
"Get him up, Buck, he'll choke."
Buck got his arm under JD and raised him up.
"I'm sorry, Buck."
"OK, kid. No big deal. You just relax and let Nathan take care of 'ya." Buck said, holding the kid up.
"Oh, God, Buck." and the kid threw up again.
"Calm down, JD, it's OK." Buck comforted.
"What's wrong with him, Nathan?"
"Got a real bad fever, makin' him nauseous."
"Yeah, Nathan, but where's the fever comin' from." Buck snapped. "He didn't have it before."
"Who knows, Buck." then Nathan lowered his voice. "Look, we don't know what this guy did to him when he grabbed him. Probably beat him up some. He's maybe got some broken ribs. Seems to be havin' a hard time breathin'."
"JD... JD, listen to me," Nathan said.
JD was being disagreeable and was trying to pull away from the healer, so Buck tightened his grip on the boy.
"No, Buck leave me alone, it hurts."
"That's why you need to let Nathan look at you, JD." Buck explained.
"NO!! I said no, Buck." the teen was getting agitated.
"STOP IT NOW, JD!!" Buck yelled. JD froze. "Now behave yourself, or I'll tie you down."
JD began to sob. Buck suddenly thought about what he had just said to boy, then realized that JD's hands were still bound. "No wonder the kid's so scared," he thought.
"Nathan, use one of your knives to cut the kid loose. I'll bet he'll calm down then."
"Oh, we were so busy," Nathan said, "we forgot about the ropes. Poor kid."
Nathan cut JD's hands free and the boy began to settle down a little.
Buck stroked the boy's hair and talked to him quietly to calm him as Nathan checked him over.
Buck turned concerned eyes to Nathan after he finished examining the youth.
"Near as I can tell, he's got a couple of busted ribs and a second knot on his head. I guess he put up a pretty good fight when he grabbed him."
"Beatin' up on a kid" Buck seethed. "What about the fever, Nathan? He's as hot as a fire poker."
"That's the main problem. Let's step outside, Buck." Nathan nodded towards the door, noticing that the boy had finally relaxed and was lying with his eyes closed.
Buck tried to get up to walk out, but JD would not hear of it.
JD had latched on to Buck's jacket with a death-grip.
"No, Buck, don't go."
"Just going to get a drink of water, JD. Now let go."
"NO!!" JD screamed, his fever raging. "No, they'll get you. Stay here, please. Buck, don't leave me alone here. It's so dark and empty... please don't go..." JD was completely panicked, gasping for air.
"This ain't helpin' him at all, Buck." Nathan exclaimed. "You gotta get him calmed down. Now!!"
Buck pulled JD up, resting him against his chest and held him tight, all the time stroking his long, dark hair, which seemed to help calm him more than anything else. Buck talked softly to him about all the good times they had all had together over the past year. He grabbed JD's smaller hand in his and held on tight when the boy cried because the pain in his head was unbearable.
Tom Wilmington stood in the doorway, watching his younger brother, Buck, try to calm his "little brother", JD.
Nathan noticed Tom watching the two together.
"Is he always that good with the kid?" Tom asked.
"Yeah." Nathan replied. "If it weren't for Buck, we wouldn't be able to do anything with JD half of the time. Buck can always get through to him. 'Course it's the same thing with Buck, too. Kid can get him to do anything. Those two have something really special."
"I guess they, love each other?" Tom queried.
"There ain't a thing wrong with that either." Nathan voiced. "Let me tell you something, when that boy came out here, he had no one. He latched on to Buck, and never let go. And you know Buck, didn't have the heart to kick the pup away. Now he won't let the kid out of his sight for more than ten minutes."
Tom turned and walked away.
Nathan made his way back to JD and Buck.
JD had finally calmed down and fallen into a fitful sleep. Buck was completely drained from the whole episode.
"He's out, huh?" Nathan asked.
"Yeah. Nathan?" Buck looked to the healer. "What are we gonna do? JD needs us both right now, but we need to get back to the guys that we're OK. I'm sure they're wonderin'. We should have been back by now."
"I know, Buck. I don't feel I can leave the boy now, and you sure as hell can't. I guess the boys'll just have to worry for a while. I don't know what else we can do."
"I do." Tom said, as he walked up behind them.
Buck turned and said, "Tom, I'm not going anywhere until this fever breaks. So your little bank job will just have to wait a while."
"There's a wagon out back." Tom offered. "We could use it to carry the boy back to town."
"Look, Buck," Tom said, "I wasn't planning on the kid getting sick. I don't want him to die. The money's not worth it."
Buck's chin dropped.
"Tom, do you mean you'll help us get JD to town?"
"Yeah, Buck." Tom continued. "I didn't mean for this to happen. I mean, we were just gonna grab the kid and keep him for insurance. I never meant for anything to happen to him. I know the boy means a lot to youto all of you."
"That he does, Tom. And it means a lot to me that you're going to let him go."
"Yeah, well, I saw you trying to get him calmed down and I realized that I couldn't let you lose someone that means that much to you."
"Thank you, Tom." Buck breathed a sigh of relief.
Rudy hitched up the wagon and the men quickly made preparations to leave. They put what blankets they could find and their coats in the wagon to make a bed for JD.
Buck knelt down to pick up JD and he awoke in a panic.
"Noleave me alone!!"
"JDwe don't have time for this. We need to get you home."
"No, leave me, I'm gonna... gonna be sick, Buck... Buck..."
"OK. OK. Calm down." Buck got his arm around the boy to help him sit up just before he threw up again and again and again.
"Buck, I'm sorry, Buck."
"It's OK, kid. We'll get you home soon. You'll feel a lot better then."
"Uh-oh." and the boy threw up again.
"The wagon's ready, Buck." Tom said, as he walked over to the two.
"Well, we may have to wait a while, now. He's pretty nauseous again." Buck said, motioning down to the teen resting in his arms. "It'll pass then we'll go."
"Tom," Buck started, "I want you to know that I really do appreciate what you're doing here."
"Sure. Just 'too little, too late'. Like always." Tom lamented.
"No, Tom. It's never too late."
Tom looked at the boy, who was leaning against Buck's chest, pale and shaken.
"It may be, Buck."
"He'll be fine, Tom. You wouldn't believe some of the things this youngster's been through in the past year, and always comes through like a trooper, don't 'ya boy?" Buck asked, giving JD a little squeeze.
"Yeah." came the weak reply.
"Feelin' better?" Buck hoped.
"Yeah. I'm fine." Buck smiled at the reply.
"Ready to go? Wanna get back and see the guys?"
"Yeah." The kid was beginning to go under.
"They'll be glad to see you, I'm sure. Let's get going." Buck said, as he began to scoop the boy up in his arms.
"Need some help?" Tom offered.
"No, he's light as a feather."
Buck carried JD to the wagon and Tom helped them get settled.
Nathan drove the wagon as carefully as he could, not wanting to upset the 'precious cargo' in the back.
Tom sat next to him and turned around often to check on Buck and JD, while Rudy led the way on horseback.
Buck was sitting on the floor of the wagon, JD's head resting in his lap. Buck was continuously stroking the boy's hair as much to comfort himself as the kid.
They had to stop several times along the way so Buck could get the kid's head over the side of the wagon to throw up.
"God, he's so sick." Buck thought. "Poor kid can't take much more."
Nathan felt the same. He finally turned the driving over to Tom so he could keep a closer eye on JD.
"The boy's gonna be OK, ain't he, Nathan?" Tom asked.
"I sure hope so. I'm really worried about this fever and vomiting. He's getting' awful weak from the vomiting."
"Nathan" Buck summoned.
"Stop the wagon, Tom." Nathan instructed.
JD's body was being racked with small tremors and Buck was panicking.
"Calm down, Buck. You gotta stay calm or JD's gonna pick up on that and panic. We sure as hell don't need that."
"Buck... Buck???" JD whispered.
"Right here, kid. Whatcha need?"
"I'm gonna be sick, again." the boy sobbed.
"OK, JD, it's OK." Buck sighed.
The boy was so weak, Buck had to support his head this time as he leaned it over the wagon.
Then, the kid suddenly went limp.
"NATHAN!!!" Buck bellowed.
Nathan jumped into the wagon.
JD was burning up with fever and trembling.
"He's goin' into shock, Buck. Calm down. Tom, we're gonna need some help back here!"
Tom jumped off the driver's seat and was at the rear of the wagon in an instant.
"We gotta get him out of the wagon." Nathan took charge.
"Out???" Buck exclaimed. "We need to get him home."
"Buck, we need to get him out of here so I can see what's goin' on with him and I ain't gonna do that in a moving wagon." Nathan insisted.
Tom leaned over the side of the wagon and reached to pick up the boy.
Buck jerked and pulled JD closer to him.
"Come on, Buck. Let me help 'ya. I'll just pick him up. You slide out and come get him back, promise."
Tom reached over the side again and lifted the boy. "Buck's right." he thought. "Kid's awful light."
Buck shakily made his way out of the wagon, grabbing a blanket on the way.
"Tom, bring him over here." Nathan called.
Buck ran ahead to spread the blanket on the ground, and let Tom carry JD over to Nathan.
Tom laid the boy down as gently as possible on the blanket, but the kid still whimpered in pain.
"I'm sorry, kid." Tom admitted.
JD was trembling and drenched with sweat.
"Nathan... Nathan..." Buck was panicking again.
"Tom" Nathan pleaded, "will you please take Buck for a walka long walk. I need to help JD and Buck is going to do nothin' but upset the boy."
"Nathan" Buck seemed hurt by Nathan's observation.
"Buck, get away for a while." Nathan insisted.
Tom began to physically pull Buck awaywhen a small, weak voice said
"Buck, Buck don't go...Buck..."
Buck froze and turned, looking to Nathan for instruction.
JD was sobbing and out of his head with fever, but still managed to get the name 'Buck' out several more times.
Nathan gently pushed the hair from JD's eyes looked to Buck and relented, nodding for Buck to return.
Buck was at JD's side in a flash.
"Hey, kid, I'm here. You just calm down now. Old Buck's not gonna let anything happen to 'ya."
"Buck, help me, please. I can't ,breathe." the kid gasped.
"Nathan, I'll calm down, I swear, just let me stay, OK? And tell me how to help him."
Nathan couldn't refuse Buck's plea. Besides, JD was certainly not going to release Buck's arm any time soon.
"Prop him up, Buck, it'll make his breathing easier."
Buck lifted JD up and rested him against his chest.
JD was breathing easier, the vomiting had stoppedfor nowand the trembling had lessened to an occasional tremor. The teen was finally able to rest a bit. His eyes were closed and the pain creases on his face had relaxed a little.
Buck was stroking his hair and looked to Nathan. "Are you thinking we should camp here tonight?"
"Don't know, Buck. The rest could do him a world of good, but the night air will really be hard on him. We can barely keep him warm now. SoI'm not sure yet. I want to let him rest for at least an hour, then we'll decide. You OK with him for a little bit? I need to make him some broth and get some fluids in him. He's really dehydrated from all the vomiting."
"We're fine here, Nathan. Thanks for lettin' me sit with him."
"I didn't have much say in the matter, Buck." Nathan confessed. "JD made that decision."
Nathan cleared his throat and said, "You talked to Tom much, Buck? I think he's kinda jealous of you and JD."
"That's his problem."
"I know, just sayin'"
"Don't, Nathan. I can't be thinkin' about nothin' but JD right now."
"OK, Buck." and Nathan left to prepare some broth.
Buck continued to stroke JD's hair, which seemed to be the only thing that kept the boy calm, allowing him to get some much-needed rest.
Problem was, he was still hot with fever.
"JD, 'ya gotta quit bein' such a 'hot head', boy."
"Sorry." JD whispered.
"Hey, kid. Didn't mean to wake 'ya."
"It's OK. Could I have a drink, Buck?" the boy asked.
"Sure, kid. Tom, can 'ya get some water?"
Tom brought a canteen over right away. He put it up to JD's lips and held it patiently as the boy took several tiny sips.
"Not too much, son." Tom said.
Buck said a silent prayer that the water would stay down and JD would not begin vomiting again.
"Lean back and rest now, JD." Buck said.
"'Kay." JD yawned.
The boy was asleep almost immediately.
Buck and Tom sat in silence for quite a while before Tom finally said, "He's a good kid, huh?"
"Yeah. Real good." Buck said softly.
There was another long silence between the two men. A long, uncomfortable silence.
"Buck," Tom finally admitted, "I'm sorry I don't keep in touch better than I do."
"Yeah, Tom, it would be nice to hear from you once in a while to know that you're still alive."
"I know, Buck, got no excuse, I guess. Just figured you were better off without the likes of me. I've never been no good to anybody, Buck."
"Now, Tom, that's just talkin' stupid. You're my brother. We grew up together, remember? We got a lot of history, you and me. You don't just write that off."
"I always figured you'd be better off if 'ya did." Tom revealed.
"Nonsense. Everybody needs family, Tom."
"Seems like you got yourself one here." Tom said, looking at the boy Buck held tightly in his arms.
"This poor kid came to town with nobody, Tom. Lost his mama right before he came. Never knew his pa. Don't have no family. Kid wanted nothing more than to join up with us. Don't know to this day what he saw in any of us, but he had his mind made up. He's gonna grow into a fine, young man, if he lives that long, fool kid." Buck rambled, holding JD tighter with each sentence.
"He's really latched on to you, hasn't he?" Tom asked.
"That he has. Can't get no peace. Little runt always taggin' along" Buck trailed off, his eyes filling.
"He'll be OK, Buck." Tom comforted, putting his hand on Buck's shoulder. "Remember, you said he's tough."
"But he's so sick, Tom, and so hot. I don't want to lose him." Buck broke down.
Nathan returned at that time with a cup of hot broth.
"Buck, see if you can get him to drink some of this."
Buck squirmed a little to wake JD.
"Come on, kid, let's drink some of this good broth Nathan made for 'ya."
"No, don't want none."
"Come on, JD." Nathan said. "You need fluids. You been throwin' up so much you're dehydrated, boy. You know what that means, JD? It means your body is dryin' out. Now you need some fluids in 'ya."
"No, I'll throw up." JD feared.
"Maybe not, JD. You kept that water down." Buck reminded.
Buck held the cup up and the boy took several small sips before weakly pushing the cup away.
"See, that weren't so bad, was it, kid?"
"Shut up, OK? My head's throbbing."
"OK, kid." Buck smiled, resting his chin gently on the top of the kid's head.
Suddenly, the men heard a rustling in the bushes nearby.
Tom, Rudy and Nathan pulled their guns and sprang to their feet.
Buck instinctively leaned over to shield JD from whatever danger there was.
"Hey, guys, thought you dropped off the face of the earth." It was Chris Larabee.
"Chris, glad to see 'ya. Whatcha doin' here?" Nathan asked.
"Got worried. You guys shoulda been back a long time ago. What the hell 'ya been doin'?" Suddenly, Chris' eyes fell on JD.
"What's wrong with the kid?" he asked fearfully.
"He's real sick, Chris. Burning up with fever." Buck whispered.
Chris knelt beside the boy, putting his hand gently on his cheek, and frowned when he felt the heat there.
"Let's get him home." Chris said quickly.
"Nathan's not sure if we should stay here tonight or not." Buck explained.
"Well, then, Nathan, what's the verdict?" Chris wondered.
"The vomiting seems to have stopped, for now, so I guess we should get goin'." Nathan decided.
Buck relayed what JD had told him about his head really throbbing.
"JD." Nathan shook the boy gently to wake him. "JD. JD??"
JD's long lashes began to flutter. "Yeah???"
"How 'ya feel, son?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, kid. I'm here. How 'ya doin'?"
"I'm fine." the boy lied.
"Yeah??? You don't look fine to me. Now, how 'ya really feel?" Chris asked again.
"My head hurts really bad, Chris." the teen finally admitted, tears rolling down his fevered cheeks.
"It's OK, son. You're gonna be fine. It's just gonna take a little while." Chris comforted. "Maybe we should stay here tonight, Nathan."
"Maybebut it's gonna get really cold out here tonight, even with a fire."
"You think we should go then?" Chris asked.
"Jostling him with his head hurting will probably make him start throwing up again."
"Well, NathanI guess it's your call." Chris said. "We'll do whatever you think's best for the boy."
Nathan thought for a while, then said, "I can't see moving the poor kid feeling like he does. We'll just have to keep him as warm as we can and hope for the best come morning."
Chris made his contribution to the effort by removing his duster and tucking it around JD, nearly swallowing the boy's small frame.
Rudy and Tom were busy gathering enough firewood to make it through the night.
"Tom, what are we doin' hangin' around here. Why ain't we makin' tracks outta here?"
"Well, Rudy, where you thinkin' we oughta be goin'?"
"Anywhere, Tom. I ain't fixin' to let these guys throw me in jail for what I done to that kid. I guess you ain't worried about your hide 'cause you got your brother there gonna stick up for 'ya."
"Rudy, believe me, my brother ain't gonna lift a finger to help me. Not with the kid getting' sick and all. My ass is on the line, just like yours."
"Then why ain't we leavin'? They're busy nursin' that kid we could get away without them noticin'."
"Rudy, if you want to go, then go. I ain't gonna stop 'ya. I'll try to distract them evenif that's what you want to do. But I ain't gonna run this time. I'm tired of runnin', Rudy. I'm thinkin' this time I gotta hang around and take my licks. This time it just don't seem right, runnin' off."
"'Cause of your brother, Tom?"
"Yeah, I guess, and, I don't know that kid. I feel bad about usin' him like I did. I never meant for him to get sick, 'ya know?"
"Yeah, me neither, Tom. I didn't think I beat him up that much, never meant to hurt him bad. But, Tom, me stayin' ain't gonna make the boy no better so I'm thinkin' of makin' a run for it."
"Yeah fine. You go on, and I'll tell 'em you're getting' more wood. You watch your back, Rudy. I can't swear they won't come after 'ya, but I really doubt it, with the kid so sick and allI don't think any of them'll leave him to chase 'ya."
Chris was sitting quietly next to Buck when Tom returned with the wood.
"Rudy's bringing more. Sure hope we can keep the kid warm enough."
"It's gonna be hard." Chris said. "Buck, you need some rest. Why don't you lie down for a while."
"Gotta hold him up, Chris, or he can't breathe good. Got a couple of busted ribs, Nathan said."
"I'll hold him. Why don't you try to get a couple of hours of sleep?"
"I'd rather do it myself, Chris." was Buck's short reply.
"Look, Buck, the ride home tomorrow is gonna be pure hell for JD. He's gonna need you real bad then and you're gonna need to be rested to get him through it."
Buck looked at the boy in his arms, then looked at Chris and though about the next day's ride.
"OK. Slide on over here, Chris. It's easiest on him at this angle."
"I've got him." Chris said. "I'll call 'ya if I need 'ya. Get some sleep."
Buck got up slowly. The tall man looked as if every joint in his long body ached. Chris wondered how long Buck had been sitting in that position without moving.
"I guess as long as you needed him." Chris said out loud, looking down at JD, who was covered with all the blankets and coats available.
Comments and creative criticism greatly appreciated