Chris had been sitting with JD for about an hour when the kid started to stir.
"Buck???" JD said groggily.
"It's Chris, JD. Whatcha need?"
"No, JD. It's Chris. Buck's sleeping. You need something?"
"I need Buck."
"Buck's sound asleep, JD. He's worn out. I can help you with whatever you need."
"Where's Nathan?" JD was beginning to panic.
"Calm down, JD. Nathan's sleeping, too. I can help you, JD. Nowwhat's wrong?"
"I'm gonna be sick, Chris." the boy cried.
"OK. Let's get you up a little more." Chris said, just as the boy threw up.
"Poor kid." Chris thought. "Didn't want his 'hero' seeing him puke his guts up."
Reminded Chris of all the times he had held Adam when he was sick.
"Sorry, Chris." JD said meekly.
"It's OK, JD. Ain't nothin' I ain't never seen before."
The boy vomited several more times before finally settling back down into Chris' arms and drifting off.
Nathan, who was awakened by JD's retching, walked over quietly to check on his patient. "I was hoping he'd keep that broth down."
"Guess not." Chris said, making sure that JD was out. "How bad is he? Really?"
"Well, he's not throwin' up blood, so he'll be OK. It's just gotta pass. Gonna be a hell of a couple of days for him." Nathan said, feeling the boy's face for fever and shaking his head at how hot he was.
"And for Buck." Chris added.
"Most definitely." Nathan smiled. "It's harder on Buck than JD, I think."
"Most definitely." Chris smiled back at Nathan.
"Nathan, I think we got ourselves a little situation here." Chris confided.
"What's that, Chris?" Nathan asked, puzzled.
"Wellthat Rudy fella ain't come back from getting firewood. I'm thinkin' he's made a run for it."
"Ain't had no use for the man anyway, Chris. Any man that'd go beatin' up on a young boy like JD, well, you know what I mean."
"Well, he should be made to pay for what he's done, Nathan. But I can't really see any of us leavin' to go after him. I guess we'll just chalk him up to good riddance."
"JD!!!!!!!!!!!" Buck screamed as he jerked awake.
"He's fine, Buck." Tom assured. "Take it easy."
"Whoa... musta' been a dream... a bad dream." Buck realized.
Buck was surprised to see the sun up. He must have been more tired than the thought.
Buck looked over to see Chris, still holding JD against his chest. Or, at least what he assumed was JD. With all the blankets and coats covering the boy, all he could see was a small amount of blacker-than-black hair sticking out of the top.
He knew he could trust Chris to hold the boy all night to ease his breathing.
Chris, as hard as he seemed sometimes, loved the kid, too.
"How is he?" Buck asked kneeling next to the two.
"'Bout the same." Chris whispered, not wanting to wake JD before it was necessary.
"Damn!!" Buck slapped his knee. "Nathan getting' him something to eat?"
"I doubt it. He didn't keep the broth down last night."
"Oh, jeez, Chris, you shoulda' woke me. Kid needs me when he's sick."
"He wanted 'ya, Buck, but you were asleep."
"I bet it really embarrassed him to throw up in front of 'ya, Chris."
"I'm not an ogre, Buck."
I know, Chris, it's just that you're his..."
"I know. We made it fine. Been through these situations before, remember? Some things you just don't forget how to do."
Buck sometimes did forget that Chris had been a parent. Dealt with a sick kid in the past.
"I'm sure it went fine." Buck smiled to his oldest friend.
Chris filled Buck in on what he assumed had happened to Rudy.
"Lousy coward." Buck yelled. "Beats up on a kid half his size, and then runs from men. Tomdid you know he was gone?"
"Buck, I just woke up a few minutes ago. I ain't got no idea where he's at. But it wouldn't surprise me none if he did run off."
"He should have to pay for what he done to JD, Chris. But I can't be runnin' off right now to look for him."
"JD's our first and only concern here, Buck." Chris said. "The hell with Rudy. We gotta get JD home."
"But if I ever see that bastard again" Buck started.
"Buck... Buck???" JD called.
Buck ran to the kid's side. "Yeah, kid?"
"You ain't goin' no where, are 'ya?"
"No, kid, I'm stayin' with you. Don't you fret now."
"Good, stay close, OK???"
"Close as I can get, kid, close as I can get."
JD's head was pounding and his fever was still raging, but the men had no choice but to start heading for home.
JD needed to be in his own bed with big, soft pillows and a warm fire, not out on the trail.
Buck picked JD up and carried him to the wagon and got him settled in as comfortably as he could.
Chris took charge. "Tom, you drive the wagon. Buck, you ride with JD and yell for Nathan if you need him. Nathan, you bring up the rear, so you can keep an eye on JD and I'll take the lead."
"Ready, JD?" Chris asked the boy before he rode up to the front.
"Sure." JD lied.
Buck and Chris exchanged knowing glances. They both knew it was going to be a long, slow trip home.
Each bump or rut on the way was agony for JD. Buck tried to hold his head as steady as possible, but the kid was still in tears. He squeezed Buck's had like a vice grip when the pain was unbearable.
Chris motioned everyone to stop and rode back to check on JD.
When he looked into the wagon, the sight made him feel like he'd been kicked in the stomach.
JD looked even worse than when he had seen him the first time yesterday. The kid's face was white as a sheet and his hair was plastered to his face with sweat. He was trembling and his teeth were chattering, in spite of being under a pile of blankets and coats probably a foot deep.
But what really made Chris sick were the boy's eyes.
JD's usually huge, bright hazel eyes were fever glazed and showed the full extent of his pain.
"Nathan?" Chris asked quietly. "Do we need to take a break?"
"Couldn't hurt, Chris. We about half way?"
"Near as I can figure."
"Buck, come on, take a break. I'll sit with him." Chris said.
"I'm OK, Chris."
"No, Chris, dammit. I'm not leavin' him right now."
Chris noticed JD's tight grip on Buck's large, callused hand and didn't press the matter any further.
When the wagon was stopped, JD felt a little better. Or, at least his head felt better, anyway.
"Poor kid." Buck thought. "Just let us get you home, you'll feel so much better, but first we gotta get 'ya there."
"Buck" JD croaked. "I'm gonna be sick."
Buck got JD's head over the side of the wagon just in time.
Chris rode up on his horse and placed his hand on JD's head and closed his eyes, as if saying a silent prayer for the boy.
Chris asked Nathan if they should get going again.
"Well, Chris, I'd like to wait till the nausea passes, but that could be all day, so I'm at a loss."
"Buck?" Chris asked his opinion.
"I don't know. He's so sick right now. I say maybe give him an hour. He rests so much better when the wagon's still."
"OK." Chris agreed.
Once the nausea had passed and with the wagon sitting still, JD was able to get a little sleep.
Chris walked up to the wagon and said, "Buckcome out and stretch a little bit. Your legs gotta be crampin' on 'ya. You ride my horse for a while and I'll take over here."
"I'm OK, Chris, really."
"Chris, I'm where I need to be right now."
"Buck, I can handle JD."
"No offense, Chris, but JD don't need to just be 'handled' right now. I know you mean well, but right now JD needs me, OK? AndI need to be here."
"OK, Buck, but the offer still stands. Whenever you're ready."
Chris walked off. He really didn't expect Buck to leave the boy, but wanted to offer the break anyway.
"Nathan." Chris called. "Think it's OK to move on now?"
"We got no choice, Chris. Gotta get him home. Lord, I sure do hate to move him now, though, he's restin' so good."
"We could wait a while yet, but I want him home before dark." Chris explained.
"Rider comin'" Tom alerted the others.
"Not sure, but looks like Ezra." Nathan said.
"Jesus Christ" Chris exclaimed. "Pretty soon we'll all be here."
"Mr. Larabee. I see you have not been overtaken. Mr. Tanner, Mr. Sanchez and myself had thought perhaps you had succumbed to some outlandish trap set by Mr. Wilmington's untrustworthy sibling." Ezra said.
"I'm fine, Ezra." Chris assured.
"I assume you have checked on our young friend and are now making preparations for the 'bank withdrawal.'"
"JD's in the wagon." Chris said somberly.
Ezra's face went white. "He's"
"No. Sorry." Chris apologized. "Bad choice of words, I guess. JD's sick and in the wagon."
Ezra rode up to the wagon and peered in. His eyes began to fill when he saw the boy. He rode over to where Tom Wilmington was standing and dove off his horse onto the man, knocking him to the ground.
"Am I to assume you are responsible for the condition of that poor boy?" Ezra screamed as the pulled Tom up from the ground.
Nathan got between the two men to separate them.
"Ezra calm down."
"Nathan, I cannot believe you would defend this man."
"I'm not defending him, Ezra," Nathan assured him, "but this ain't helpin' JD none. You want to help JD, you go sit with him for a while in that wagon and you let him know you're here."
Ezra glared at Tom, then at Nathan.
Ezra picked up his hat, walked up to Tom, and stated "This is not finished, Mr. Wilmington. I assure you of that. You will pay dearly for what you have done to my young friend over there."
That said, Ezra stalked off to see JD.
Buck looked up to see Ezra climbing into the wagon.
"Mr. Wilmington, I apologize for my behavior in regards to your brother."
"It's OK Ezra." Buck confessed. "No more than what I've already done to him since he's come to town. He did release JD, though. And gave us the wagon."
"Very noble of him, indeed." Ezra said sarcastically. "Since our young Mr. Dunne would not have been in need of 'the wagon' or to be 'released' if it were not for him in the first place."
"I know." Buck said quietly.
JD stirred a little.
"Yeah, kid. Hey, Ezra's here. See Ezra?"
"Mr. Dunne. I must say that I am very glad to see you." Ezra placed his hand on the teen's face, careful not to touch the bruises there.
"Hi, Ezra." JD tried to smile, but grimaced with pain instead.
"You just relax, son." Ezra said, as he grasped JD's hand in his and held it tightly.
JD was asleep again shortly.
"He's so sick, Ezra" Buck broke down.
Ezra placed a firm hand on Buck's shoulder and squeezed.
"This fever's gotta break soon," Buck continued, "or he's not gonna make it, Ezra. What'll I do if he don't make it? I won't make it either, Ezra. It breaks my heart to see him so sick."
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra began, "our young friend is a strong, determined young man. And as stubborn as a mule, I might add. He will soon be pestering the six of us againI am sure of that."
"Buck?? Buck??" JD stirred.
"Yeah, kid. Whatcha' need?"
"I'm gonna be sick, Buck."
"OK, kid. Ezra, you might want to get them fancy duds of yours out of the way." Buck suggested.
"OK, kid. Let's just get you over a little"
There was not a lot of room to maneuver in the wagon between Buck moving JD, and Ezra trying to get out of the way. It was too late.
Ezra's silk vest suffered greatly.
"Ezra" JD whined. "I'm so sorry," and vomited again, this time over the side of the wagon, thanks to Buck and Ezra's assistance. JD could not hold his head up, so Ezra held his head steady while Buck supported JD's slight frame under his arms.
"Nathan. Nathan!!" Buck called.
Nathan crawled into the wagon and checked on JD.
"He's so weak, Nathan." Buck told the healer.
"This fever just won't let go of him. It's gotta break soon."
Chris came back to the wagon.
"Are we gonna be moving on soon, Nathan? We don't want another night out here in the cold."
"That's for sure." Nathan agreed. "Poor boy shivered all night."
Ezra held JD's hand, while Nathan continued to examine him, hoping it made the youth feel less alone and afraid.
"Buck, I'm cold." JD said, through chattering teeth.
"OK, kid. We'll get more cover."
"It's so cold, " the boy said, shaking.
"I'll get the blanket from my horse." Ezra offered. "What it lacks in aromatic appeal, it more than makes up for with its substance."
When Ezra returned, he and Buck covered the boy with all the coats and blankets they could find.
JD was still shivering. "Buck it's so cold."
"I know, JD." Buck lamented. "Come on, I'll warm you up."
Buck pulled the boy up, resting him against his chest and wrapped his arms around him, rubbing his arms to warm him up.
"Ezra," Buck said. "Tuck him in good now."
Ezra piled everything they had on top of the boy, making sure he was covered completely.
Ezra put his hand on JD's face and frowned at the fever he felt there. He moved his hand to the boy's head and gave it an affectionate pat.
"You try to stay warm, Mr. Dunne."
JD made a feeble attempt at a smile.
Touched by the effort that had required, Ezra said "Thank you, son." with eyes full of pain, as well as tears.
Ezra got out of the wagon and walked over to Nathan.
"We have him covered as well as we can. Is there nothing more that we can do for him, Mr. Jackson?"
"Believe me, Ezra, it's killing me to see him this way. Most fevers can be sweated out, but, once in a while you get one, like JD's, that just has to run it's course. Probably got another twenty-four to thirty-six hours ahead of him fighting this."
"It doesn't seem that he has that much 'fight' left in him." Ezra noticed.
"JD's a lot tougher than he looks, Ezra. Don't you go givin' up on him." Nathan said.
"He looks so weak, he can't hold his head up, Nathan." Ezra looked away.
Nathan put his hand on Ezra's shoulder and just held on. He could see that the gambler was visibly shaken by the kid's condition.
"Ezra, why don't you ride in the wagon with Buck?" Nathan suggested. "He'd probably be glad for the company. So would JD, I bet. I'll tie your horse to the wagon."
Ezra nodded and slowly walked towards the wagon and climbed in.
"Hey look, JD. Ezra's here. Should make for an entertaining trip, huh, kid?"
JD made no reply.
"JD??" Buck shifted his weight to jostle the boy a little.
"Ezra's here, JD. I said he should make better company than me."
"Yeah" the teen mumbled. "Tell me a story, Ezra."
The gambler smiled. The boy wanted a story, by God, he'd give him a real doozy. Anything to take the youth's mind off of the situation he was in for a while.
Ezra weaved a long detailed story about a gambling boat on the Mississippi.
Ezra could see JD's long lashes fluttering. He was quickly losing his captive audience. The kid was fighting the fatigue that was pulling him so strongly.
Ezra leaned down and whispered in JD's ear. "It's OK, son. You go ahead and sleep. I can finish later."
Suddenly, Ezra felt a smaller hand grab his own from under the covers. Ezra took the hand in both of his and held on tight, tears welling up in his eyes as he looked to Buck.
"He knows how to get to us, don't he Ezra?"
"That he does, Mr. Wilmington, that he does." he said as he squeezed the boy's hand.
Buck put his hand on JD's forehead and shook his head.
"He's still burning up. At least we'll be home in a couple of hours. He needs to be in bednot bouncing around in this rattle-trap wagon."
Chris motioned for everyone to stop. He wanted to check on JD again.
Chris gave Tom the chore of filling all the canteens and watering the horses from a nearby creek.
"We're about an hour and a half away, Nathan. I figure if we ride thirty minutes, rest thirty minutes, we'll still be back way before dark."
"Sounds like a good plan to me, Chris."
Chris could tell by the look in Buck's eyes that there was no improvement in JD's condition. But Chris also noticed a rather stoic look that he couldn't readily identify in Buck.
"What's eatin' at 'ya, Buck?" Chris asked. "Besides the kid, I mean?"
"Just thinkin' how this is all Tom's doin'." Buck started. "How he had that Rudy fella work the kid over. Plus what he did the other day. If JD don't come through this, Chris"
"Kid's stronger than he looks, Buck. You know that." Chris said, trying to reassure Buck. "We'll get him home, get him fixed up good as new." He tousled the dark hair peeking out of the top of the covers. "'Course, I would like to go over a few things with Tom, myself, once JD's safe."
"Please include me in this little discussion, gentlemen. I have a few points to stress with Mr. Wilmington as well." Ezra said.
"JD's the most important thing here." Chris said, knowing he was only confirming what the other men felt already. "We have to remember that. When we get back, Tom may have to go to jail, at least until we can get JD's side of things. I know Rudy's skipped out on us, but that don't mean that Tom don't have some reconciling of his own to do. I hate to think of what Josiah's gonna want to do with Tom when we get back. We may have to lock Josiah up just to keep him from killing Tom."
"I say we let our large friend do as he wishes with the reprobate." Ezra voted. "I am sorry, BuckI know Tom is your brother, but I have absolutely nothing but hate and despise for the man at this moment. Anyone who would harm a boy like this doesn't deserve to li... never mind."
"To live?" Buck knew what Ezra had meant to say. "Right? Don't hold back on my account, Ezra. I've probably figured out about six different ways to take revenge on Tom myself. But, you know what? Not a one of them helps JD any. So, first I have to take care of this boy here. Then, if I have any strength left, I'll take care of Tom and that Rudy fella, if'n I ever see him again. But, right now, JD gets everything I've got to give, so I can't really think much about the other right now."
The biggest concern in Buck's life right now started to stir.
"Buck , Buck??Buck!!!"
"JD, I'm here, boy. Calm down."
"Buck, are you OK?" the kid latched onto Buck's shirt.
Buck grabbed the boy's hand, shocked at how hot it was. "JD, I'm fine."
"You got hurt, Buck, I saw"
"It was just a dream, son. I'm fine."
"Yeah, kid. I'm sure. You rest, OK?"
"Stay close, OK?"
"I'm right here, kid. Ain't goin' no where. You just hold on to me."
"Buck" then the kid drifted off.
"Let's get going." Chris announced.
After about twenty minutes, JD started getting agitated.
"It's OK, JD. We're not far from home."
"Make it stop, Buck... my head hurts, make it stop!!!"
"Settle down, JD. You're gonna be home soon. You'll be in your own bed sawin' logs."
Chris heard the commotion and came back to the wagon.
"Buck!! I can't breathe, Buck!!!"
"Relax, JD and you'll breathe fine. Take short breaths, JD. Come on." Buck pleaded.
"No!!! Buck!!! Help me, please"
Chris slid off his horse and was at the side of the wagon in an instant.
"Cut it out, JD!!" Chris snapped, grabbing JD's face in his hands.
JD looked at Chris with scared, wide hazel eyes.
"Now, do as Buck says, JD. Don't make me have to stop again for this foolishness."
Chris felt bad about talking to the kid that way, but he needed to calm JD down fast. Chris had no doubt that the kid really couldn't breathe, but it was due as much to panic as the broken ribs.
"I'm sorry." JD whispered.
Chris wasn't expecting an apology, The kid certainly didn't owe one.
Chris stroked the boy's face. "It's OK, JD. Just listen to Buck and do what he says."
"Let's get going again." Chris said. "We'll take another break in about half an hour, then we should be home free, after that."
"I, as I'm sure everyone here will agree, will be greatly relieved to reach the confines of our humble little town again, Mr. Larabee."
"Let's go." Chris motioned. "Ready, JD?"
Buck shifted, hoping the boy would wake on his own.
"Chris???" Buck was beginning to panic.
Chris jumped into the wagon.
"Nathan!!!" Chris yelled.
JD was not breathing at all.
"JD!!" Chris was holding the kid's lifeless face in his hands. "My God" he thought. "The kid told me he couldn't breathe. He told me."
"Oh God, Chris!!" Buck was completely losing it by now.
"Buck, get outta hear!" Chris screamed. "Nathan!!" as the healer was climbing in the wagon.
"Chris" Buck pleaded.
"Ezra, get Buck outta here." Chris barked.
Ezra tried to keep his own voice under control. "Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Jackson needs room to examine our young charge. We need to vacate this wagon."
"Chris, I need Buck outta this wagon!" Nathan yelled.
Chris jumped out of the wagon, grabbed Buck under his arms and pulled him out of the wagon over the side.
"Chris!! Goddammit!!!" Buck screamed. "Get your hands offa' me."
Buck began to climb back into the wagon, but Chris grabbed him and swung him around.
"Don't make me have to knock you out, Buck. Leave Nathan alone to do what's gotta be done."
"What's gotta be done??? Listen to yourself, Chris!! What's gotta be done??? He's dead, Chris... he's dead."
Buck fell to his knees, crying. "He's dead"
Suddenly, they all heard an eerie, choking cough coming from the wagon.
"Buck, there's someone here needs to see 'ya." Nathan smiled.
Buck fearfully opened his eyes and was shocked to see that Nathan had JD propped up in the wagon.
The kid looked bad, real bad, but he was alive.
Buck ran to the wagon and vaulted over the side.
Buck took the boy in his arms and gave him a huge bear hug.
"Oh, kid. You scared me something awful."
"Didn't do me much good either," came the teen's muffled reply.
"I bet not, kid." and Buck hugged the boy again, and didn't let go.
"Buck, Buck can you let go???"
"Sure, kid, in a few years." Buck smiled, and still didn't let go of the kid.
"Nathan, is it safe to move the kid now? Or do we need to wait a while?" Chris asked.
"I don't know, Chris. Can we wait and still make it back before dark?" Nathan tried to figure, looking at the sun.
"A little bit, I guess. Nathan, is he gonna be OK?" Chris asked, fearfully. "Be honest with me, OK? 'Cause he looks worse to me every time I look at him."
"He's getting weaker and weaker, Chris. Every time he throws up. It's got to work through him. He'll make it, just gonna be weak as a baby for a few weeks.
"That's no problem. He's got six people ready to help him with whatever he needs." Chris assured the healer.
Buck just sat in the wagon, holding JD, his eyes closed, at total peace.
"Think he'll ever let go of the kid?" Chris asked.
"Not in this lifetime." Nathan answered.
"Looks like some fool bear holding it's cub." Tom observed.
Chris and Nathan were not aware that Tom had walked up.
"Yeah, well you mess with the 'cub' again and see what 'papa bear' does to 'ya." Nathan said.
"Lord knows I couldn't compare to 'the kid'." Tom whispered.
"Now, don't go tellin' me you're jealous of JD. Christ, Tom, he's a nineteen year old kid." Chris reasoned.
"Who's got six grown men wrapped around his finger, doin' everything for him. You guys ain't nothin' but a bunch of silly babysitters." Tom said.
Nathan stood nose to nose with Tom. "You got somethin' stickin' in your craw, mister? 'Cause you've had it in for that kid ever since you hit town, and I'm gonna tell 'ya right now, I'm tired of it. You got no shame, beatin' up on a boy less than half your size. Boy don't got a mean bone in his body. So, don't you come spoutin' off about us bein' nice to that boy. You hurt JD again and I'll take you apart."
Tom backed away a few inches.
"You might want to remember, Tom" Chris said with a smile, "Nathan's the forgiving one in the group."
"Stupid kid ain't no blood relation to Buck, but he acts like a damn fool around the brat." Tom argued.
"Tom, let's just get one thing straight." Chris said. "You need to settle down. I'm not sure what your problem isbut I seriously doubt that it's the boy. If you got something bothering you, I suggest you get it worked out real quick. And, if you know what's good for you, you won't be talking this way around Buck."
Tom stalked off.
"Chris, I swear, he's more immature than JD." Nathan said.
"I guess Josiah would say 'He's got his own demons.'"
"Well, I meant what I said. He better not touch JD again." Nathan promised.
"I don't think Buck will let us near the kid, much less Tom." Chris said. "How 'bout we get goin'?"
"Sounds good." and Nathan was off to check on his patient before they got started again.
"Buck" Chris called, "we're movin' out."
"Sure thing, Chris. Let's get home and tell Josiah about our miracle." Buck smiled to the kid. "JD, we're gonna be goin' now, OK?"
"'Kay." came the faint reply. JD was so weak he couldn't hold up his heador move it, for that matter, without the feeling that his head would split open.
"Buck, my head hurts real bad."
"I know, kid. Just lie still. We'll be home soon. Then, everything will be OK. You just gotta hold on for a couple more hours."
The group began to move out. Chris was in the lead, Nathan in the rear so he could watch his patient in the wagon.
And Ezra. Ezra had made it his job to watch Tom. Tom was driving the wagon, but Ezra rode near to keep and eye on the man. Ezra had not forgotten what Rudy and Tom had done to JD. Maybe Rudy had gotten awaybut Ezra would be damned it Tom would do the same.
Ezra had taken it upon himself to make sure that Tom would be held accountable for JD's condition.
JD's condition, which was deteriorating by the hour.
Comments and creative criticism greatly appreciated