by Linda

DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fanfiction based on the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters and settings. I don’t own the characters (not that I wouldn't like to…) This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from it.

Note: Comments and creative criticism greatly appreciated at: ltcpl@icss.net

Children have more need of models than of critics.
- French Proverb

Chris Larabee had made his final sweep of checking the town for the night. He had seen his friends ride in earlier. They had all been on a three day prisoner transfer and even though he'd probably never admit it - willingly, anyway - he had missed them.

Even Buck - who could get on a man's nerves in record speed.

Hell…he could even top that - he missed JD…and his million and one questions about a million different things.

Chris walked into the saloon and was relieved to immediately find at least five of his men.

"So…how'd things go?" he asked as he strolled over to the table where everyone was gathered. Or, well…almost everyone.

"Real quiet, Chris. They hardly put up a fight at all." Vin Tanner smiled.

"Where's the kid?" Chris asked, a little panicked as he scanned the room.

"He's takin' care of the horses," Vin said.

"All of 'em?" Chris asked, a little perturbed. "Ain't fair the way you guys always make him take care of all the horses."

"C'mon, Chris…what's the use of havin' a dwarf if he ain't gonna do the chores?" Buck Wilmington grinned.

"I'd think you guys would feel bad about takin' advantage of the kid all the time," Chris countered.

"Perhaps if our young Mr. Dunne didn't…how should I say this…'ask for it'…so much, then maybe we would find ourselves unable to live with our treatment of the boy. However, Mr. Dunne was 'not' his usual 'angelic' self this trip, Mr. Larabee," Ezra Standish explained.

"Meaning?" Chris asked.

"Little incident on the trail, Chris," Vin started, "involving Ezra, the kid and a frog in a…a…"

"Delicate location, I assure you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra finished.

"I see," Chris smiled.

Chris couldn't hide his amusement. He liked the fact that the kid got his little acts of revenge in every once in a while against the others. He often felt that the other men took unfair advantage of JD's good nature.

"I think I'll go help the kid. He'll be there all night handlin' six horses," Chris said, as he exited the saloon and headed for the livery.

+ + + + + + +

When Chris opened the door to the livery, he didn't see JD anywhere.

As he strolled through, he finally came across the kid - sleeping in a stall.

Chris knelt next to the boy, instinctively placing a hand on the teen's forehead. "JD?"

No response.


The kid's eyes jerked open. "Oh…Chris…hi."

Chris smiled. "Hi, son. What'cha doin'?"

JD struggled to his feet, making an uncoordinated effort to wake up - and accomplishing nothing - but falling into Chris.

Chris caught the boy.

"Oh…I gotta finish. The guys are gonna be mad. I can't believe I fell asleep," JD yawned.

"Guess you're tired from the trip, son," Chris suggested, still holding onto the kid, not sure if he was fully awake yet or not.

"Yeah…I guess so, but I still got three more horses to take care of," JD lamented.

Chris helped JD to his feet and steadied him. "You take care of Buck's, I'll get Nathan's and Vin's."

"Thanks, Chris. But…I'm supposed to do it," JD said.

"Oh, yeah? Who said? Your 'friends' over at the saloon?" Chris asked.

"Yeah…" JD answered.

"They ain't your bosses, kid. Tell 'em to do their own g*dd*amn chores." Chris snapped.

"I don't mind, Chris…really," JD hung his head.

Chris knew that his last remark probably seemed a little harsh to JD. "Look, kid…I ain't mad at you…it's just…six horses is a little much for 'ya, don't 'ya think?"

"I'm OK," JD said.

"You don't look OK," Chris worried. "You get any sleep on the trail? Did you eat…at all?"

"Geez, Chris…you sound like Buck," JD grinned.

"OK…you want my help you better take that back," Chris smiled as he tousled the boy's hair. "Get crackin', kid."

+ + + + + + +

After they finally finished with all the horses, Chris and JD made their way to the saloon to join the others.

"So…I wanna know…was the sheriff in Rushville happy to get all his prisoners back?" Chris asked.

"Chris, he was quite relieved…quite relieved. Especially since we delivered them right to his doorstep…practically gift wrapped and all," Josiah Sanchez smiled.

"Hey, kid…" Chris grinned, "how about I buy you a dri…"

He stopped when he looked across the table to see JD sound asleep…his head resting on his arms…which were folded on the table.

Buck looked over to the boy. "I think he's past drinkin', Chris. He's out."

"Wonder why?" Chris said, sarcastically.

"Aw, Chris," Buck said.

"Don’t 'Aw, Chris' me, Buck. I don't want you guys makin' JD do all the sh*t jobs anymore. He ain't your private little stable boy."

"Aw, hell, Chris…what's the harm in…" Buck started, before Chris jumped on his case.

"I found him sleepin' in the livery, Buck…THAT'S THE HARM!! And that was after only three horses. He still had three more to do. You guys come in here to relax and have a drink…and the kid's over there breakin' his back…so tired…so tired he can't hardly stand up."

"He was asleep?" Buck asked.

"Yeah…" Chris said, trying to get his temper back under control.

"And ain't he just the picture of 'youthful energy' right now," Chris said, motioning to the sleeping teen.

"Maybe Nathan needs to take a look at 'im. Maybe he's sick." Vin offered.

"He's dead tired…is what he is," Chris surmised.

They all looked to the boy in question. He was completely oblivious to the fact that he was the subject of a heated conversation.

Buck reached over and lightly stroked the boy's back. "JD…son?"

"Huh?" JD said sleepily, never raising his head.

"C'mon, kid. Let's get you to bed," Buck suggested.

"What?" the boy lifted his head, rubbing his eyes.

"Bed, kid. C'mon," Buck smiled.

"Aw, Buck."

"Don't 'Aw, Buck' me, kid. You can't hardly hold your head up."

JD turned his sleepy, hazel eyes to his best friend.

Buck felt a twinge of guilt when he saw just how tired his young friend looked.

"You feelin' OK, kid?" Buck worried.

"Yeah…just tired," JD yawned.

"Well…c'mon then…we can take care of that," Buck said.

JD weakly pushed himself up from the table. Buck grabbed the boy's arm to steady him.

"Whoa, there, kid. You sure you're OK?"

"Yeah…I'm…fine…Bu…" as the youth's limp form collapsed into Buck's waiting arms.

"Christ, Almighty! Nathan!!!" Buck screamed.

Nathan was already at Buck's side when he yelled…he knew that Buck was just too scared to notice.

"Let's get him over to my place. He's probably just plain tuckered out is all, Buck. " Nathan said, trying to comfort the man - who was holding the boy so tightly in his arms that the healer was afraid he might break him.

The men all made their way towards Nathan's, with Buck in the lead. He was whispering an endless litany of comforting words to JD, even though the kid had not come around yet.

"You're gonna be OK, kid. Nathan says your just bone weary is all. You never could sleep on the trail, could 'ya? And Lord knows you don't eat enough to keep a bird alive, much less a growin' boy like you. You just let old Buck take care of 'ya…I'll get you to fill out some one of these days, kid. You might not get any taller, kid…but maybe we can get some meat on your bones…someday…" Buck trailed off as they arrived at Nathan's clinic.

"Put him down easy, Buck," Nathan said to the big man. "Sorry, Buck. I know I don't need to be preachin' to you about bein' gentle with the boy. Just nervous, I guess."

Buck was frightened by Nathan's statement. He had never known Nathan to be nervous about treating JD. He had seen the boy through many injuries and illnesses…why was he nervous now?

"What is it Nathan?" Buck asked the question all the men wanted to know.

Nathan felt five pair of eyes locked on him…all wanting an answer.

"I'm sure it's just exhaustion…plain and simple. He ain't got no fever…and I know that's hard to believe since it's JD we're talkin' about here. He just obviously hasn't slept well these last few days. And I know that since we were all houndin' him about eatin' that he probably ate 'practically' nothin'…instead of nothin' at all."

"I guess he'll get some sleep, 'cause his body's just given in," Chris said. "But how do we go about gettin' him to eat more…when he just never seems to give a shit about food, Nate?"

"We're just gonna have to try…real hard, Chris. I ain't ever seen a boy with such an aversion to food before. It's like he's just got too much other stuff on his mind to waste time with eatin'."

"I'm gonna sit on his scrawny little ass…and shove the food down his gullet…if I have to," Buck said. "That is…after he's slept for a good twenty-four hours."

"He just might do that, Buck. I don't want you to get alarmed…but he just might be out for that long," Nathan cautioned.

"Well…then I guess I'll be bunkin' with you for a while, Nathan," Buck smiled.

"Oh, Lordy…not again," Nathan threw his hands up in the air. "Buck…you pace much more in this room and my floor is gonna downright wear through."

"I don't mean to cast doubts upon your diagnosis, Mr. Jackson…but it has been a hasty one. Are you quite sure that our young friend here is just…shall we say…drained?" Ezra questioned.

Nathan knew that Ezra was greatly concerned for the boy. He, like the all the others, had grown to consider JD to be a surrogate little brother. Nathan had always felt that Ezra looked out for no one but himself…but the Southerner's growing protectiveness of JD had proved him wrong.

"I'm sure, Ezra. The poor kid is just exhausted. Too much excitement these past three days…combined with too little sleep and too little food. His body's just past its limits."

"I guess we should all be gettin' out of here, then." Vin stated. "Let the kid get some rest, huh?"

"I don't think JD's gonna be wakin' up any time soon, if that's what you mean, Vin. Y'all might as well be gettin' some sleep yourselves…I ain't gonna have no time to be doctorin' the rest of 'ya…bed's the safest place for all of y'all," Nathan said.

Ezra, Vin and Josiah all checked on JD one final time before leaving Nathan's to get some rest as he had suggested.

Nathan knew that Buck and Chris would not be leaving.

"I shoulda made him stay here with me," Chris said, breaking the heavy silence in the room. "Three day trip takes a lot out of a man, much less a little runt of a kid."

"Ain't your fault, Chris. You know how excited he was about the trip. You couldn't have kept him here if you'd have hog tied him," Buck said, trying to comfort his oldest friend.

"Oh…I coulda kept him here. If I'd have said I 'needed' him. He'd have stayed." Chris said. "He woulda stayed if it had been a 'Chris Larabee' order."

"Shit, Chris. Let's just put the blame where it belongs. Right here…me…" Buck said, jabbing himself in the chest. "This whole thing is my fault. I tried my best to take care of 'im. I didn't let him take a night watch…I thought maybe he'd get a little more sleep that way. And I tried…I really tried to get him to eat more. Christ…you'd think we poison his food the way picks at everything."

"Would y'all just drop it. Ain't gonna do no good to be pointin' no fingers. Let's just get the boy through this, all right?" Nathan preached.

"Sure, Nate. Sorry," Buck apologized.

Buck and Chris settled into usual spots…one on each side of the kid's bed.

"Gonna be a long night, pard," Buck said.

"I ain't tired…how 'bout you?" Chris asked.

"Nah…I'll just watch him sleep…that's all the rest I need," Buck stated.

Nathan had decided that there was really nothing more that he needed to do for JD for the time being. The boy needed rest - and lots of it.

Buck and Chris, of course, insisted on staying with JD all night.

Nathan had said that JD would probably sleep all night - and then some. Both men, however, refused to leave.

Nathan knew from past experiences, it would be useless to argue the point any further. He excused himself to go to bed, instructing Buck and Chris to call him if needed.

The two friends sat in complete silence for quite a while. Both seeming content to watch the boy sleep.

He looked younger than usual - and that was pretty damn young.

The boy had fallen asleep with a smile on his face, which seemed to help Buck's mood greatly. He was still feeling guilty for his part in making JD take care of all the horses when they had returned to town.

I shoulda helped him…poor kid.

"When the kid's up to ridin'…I'm gonna take care of his horse for six months." Buck finally said.

"Kid ain't gonna like anybody takin' care of his horse…but him," Chris insisted.

"Yeah…I guess…" Buck realized.

Noticing Buck's head hanging low, Chris added "But I'd bet he'd be happy just not to have to take care of 'all' the horses."

"We ain't been very fair to the boy…that's for damn sure," Buck grumbled.

"Just natural…I guess…to push stuff off on the kid," Chris observed.

Buck cocked his head and looked towards his oldest friend. "You never do, Chris. Why is that?"

"I don't know…I guess…I guess it's just that I make a real effort 'not' to. I guess it's because we are such…complete…and total…opposites. I mean…how would it look…someone like me…pickin' on someone like JD?" Chris smiled.

"You mean…big, tough, dark, brooding Chris Larabee versus Kid Dunne?" Buck grinned.

"Somethin' like that, Buck," Chris said

+ + + + + + +

Nathan returned early the next morning to find two of his three friends sleeping.

Chris had fallen asleep in one of the chairs next to JD's bed, while Buck, who occupied the other, looked as if he hadn't slept a wink all night.

"Mornin', Buck." he called softly, not wanting to disturb the others.

"Hey there, Nathan," Buck looked up.

"He wake up at all?" Nathan asked.

"Didn't stir all night, Nathan. Is that OK?"

"Now, Buck…I told you he'd sleep a long time. But I think I will try to wake him. He needs to get some water in him…and some food, God willing."

Nathan sat down on the edge of the bed and gently shook the boy's arm. "Hey there, JD."

There was no movement from the teen.

"JD…come on, son. It's mornin' now," Nathan teased as he shook the kid a little harder.

The boy stirred slightly and Chris stretched awake.

"Nathan…everything OK?" Chris panicked, waking to see Nathan at the boy's side.

"Just tryin' to get him up, Chris," Nathan said. "C'mon, JD."

Finally, there came an…ever so soft…"Uummh…huh?" from JD, who still was not really awake.

"Hey, JD!!" Nathan said, snapping his fingers.

"Huh?" JD's eyes fluttered open.

"Look here, Buck," Nathan smiled. "He's awake."

"Hey, kid," Buck grinned. "'Bout time you came around."

"How 'ya feelin', kid," Chris asked.

"Tired." came the faint reply.

"'Ya hungry, JD? Want some breakfast?" Nathan asked, hopefully.


The three men shared a look of concern.

"C'mon, kid. You need to eat something," Buck fretted.

"I said…ain't hungry...Bu…" and JD was asleep again.

"I don't like this," Nathan stated.

"Wait a minute. I thought you said he'd sleep a long time, Nathan," Buck asked.

"Yeah…but I was hopin' he'd be hungry when he woke up," Nathan answered.

"I could go get some food…maybe if he gets a whiff of it…he'll eat," Chris suggested.

"It's worth a try, Chris," Nathan said.

Chris started for the door.

"Hey, Chris?" Buck called.

"Yeah…I'll bring you some, too, Buck," Chris said, knowing what Buck was going to ask.

"Thanks, pard. I'm hungry enough for me and the kid both," Buck realized.

"Nathan? Get you anything?" Chris asked.

"Thanks, Chris. Can 'ya carry all that, or you want me to help 'ya?"

"No…I can manage." and Chris left.

Buck and Nathan sat quietly for a while. Nathan could tell that Buck was not real happy with the way JD was looking or acting this morning, but he figured he'd wait for Buck to approach the subject in his own way and time.

"So…Nathan," Buck finally spoke. "what'cha think?"

"Let's sit down over here for a bit, Buck," Nathan said, motioning to the far side of the room.


"What is it, Nathan. Is the kid real sick," Buck panicked.

"Calm down, Buck. It's like I said. He's exhausted. I'm just not sure you know what that really means."

"Well, now, Nathan…I may be slow…but I ain't stupid," Buck said, puffing himself up.

"That ain't how I meant that, Buck, and you know it," Nathan snapped.

"OK…OK…I know…it means he's tired."

"No," Nathan corrected. "It means his body is completely run down…way past his limits. We're not talkin' tired here, Buck. His body's gotta get strength back just to work it's way up to bein' tired. It's not gonna happen overnight, Buck."

"I know, Nathan. We'll just have to help him a lot. I know that. But…he will be OK…right?" Buck worried.

"Yeah…eventually," Nathan said. "He's gonna be really weak for quite a while. Him not eatin' good don't help matters none, either."

"Oh…he's gonna eat, Nathan. I'm gonna see to that," Buck promised. "I'm gonna be with him at breakfast, lunch and dinner…everyday…and, believe me…he WILL eat."

Chris walked in, accompanied by Josiah, each carrying a tray of food.

"Ooohee! That smells good, Chris," Buck observed.

"Well…Sally sure loaded us down," Chris said. "She heard about JD…so I think she sent twice what we need."

"Good," Buck said. "Kid needs to start with these two trays…then we can get more."

"Not very realistic, Brother Buck," Josiah stated, all to aware of the boy's eating habits.

"Just wishful thinkin', I know, Josiah," Buck turned hopeful eyes to the preacher.

"Nothin' wrong in being optimistic, Buck," Josiah said, giving Buck a hardy pat on the back.

Chris walked over and woke up the boy.

"C'mon, JD. Time to eat."

"What?? Chris??" JD stirred.

"Yeah, kid. Time to eat."

"No…leave me alone." the youth whispered, as he rolled over.

"JD…you need to eat," Chris stressed.

No answer.

"Don't ignore Chris, JD. Just 'cause you're tired ain't no excuse for bein' rude," Nathan chastised the boy.

"Sorry," JD sighed, rolling back over to face Chris.

"It's OK, kid. Now…how about eatin' somethin' for me?" Chris pleaded.

"No…thanks," JD replied.

Buck was at the end of his rope. And instead of tying a knot…and trying to hang on a little longer…he let it go…

"You want me to make you eat this, JD?"

"What?" JD looked to his best friend.

"You're gonna eat, kid. Now…we can do it the easy way…or the hard way…you pick."

JD's eyes were huge, filling with tears. "What'cha mean?"

"I mean…I don't think 'ya want to do it the hard way."

"Just let me sleep, Buck," JD said, turning away.

"No, JD!!" Buck said, grabbing the boy's arm.

"No, Buck!! Leave…me…"

"NO!! I won't leave you alone," Buck snapped.

"You two settle down," Nathan barked. Pulling Buck aside, he added, "He ain't got the strength for arguing, Buck."

"Why can't everybody just leave me alone?" JD cried…tears of frustration trailing down his cheeks.

Buck sat down on the bed and grabbed the kid up in his arms in a huge bear hug…"'Cause we love 'ya, kid. That's why."

+ + + + + + +

After twenty-four hours of complete and total bed rest, JD began complaining he wanted to get out of bed.

"No way," Nathan insisted. "You'll fall flat on your face."

"No I won't," JD argued. "I'm fi…"

"DON'T SAY IT!!!" Nathan and Buck shouted in unison.

"What?" JD asked, innocently.

"Don't give us that…'I'm fine' line, kid," Buck said.

"Fine," JD pouted, fidgeting with the covers. "I'll just lay here…and do nothin'…all day…again!!"

"Good. You do just that," Nathan said. He felt sorry for the boy…knew he wanted to get up for just a bit…but it was too soon.

"C'mon, Nathan," JD pleaded…flashing his best puppy-dog-eyes-look he could manage.

"No," Nathan stood firm, turning away from the boy, before he would give in. "Maybe…just maybe…if you're up to it…maybe you can get up for a little bit…tomorrow."

JD pounded his fist on the bed. "I EVER get out of this bed…I'm leavin'…and I ain't never comin' back here."

"JD!!" Buck disciplined.

"I mean it. Leave me alone," JD cried, as he rolled over and pulled the covers over his head.

Buck was about to explode.

JD was acting like a spoiled child. JD had a knack for getting away with just about anything…but the kid was pushing his luck. Even with Buck…who could hardly deny the boy anything.

Nathan grabbed Buck's arm and pulled him from the room.

"Why'd you do that, Nathan?" Buck groused.

"'Cause. I was afraid you were gonna tear into him," Nathan stated.

"Damn right! You hear what he said in there? Who does that little shit think he is…talkin' to you like that?"

"Buck…think about it," Nathan said calmly. "JD wouldn't usually talk to me like that…would he?"

"No…Nathan…never. He respects you a lot," Buck said.

"So…when people ain't feelin' like themselves, Buck…sometimes you just gotta overlook things," Nathan said.

"I guess you gotta have thick skin to work with sick people, huh, Nathan?" Buck grinned.

"Sometimes it surely does help, Buck…it surely does. Now…you ready to go back in there…or maybe you need a little more time?" Nathan asked.

"I'm fine. Sorry…didn't mean to use 'that' line, Nathan," Buck apologized.

"It's OK, Buck," Nathan smiled. "Now…you go on in. I've got a few things to do out here. I'll be in there in a bit."

Buck turned to go check on JD.

"OK, kid…" Buck said as he stepped through the door…"how about some…"

Buck ran from the room…"NATHAN!!!"

Nathan came running. "What's wrong, Buck?"

"Nathan…he's…he's gone!!" Buck screamed.

"What?" Nathan couldn't believe it.

The two walked into the room. JD and his clothes were - indeed - gone.

"Oh, God…Oh, God…" Buck chanted.

"Settle down, Buck. He can't get far. C'mon," Nathan said, as he made his way for the door.

Nathan and Buck charged out of the clinic…and ran right into Chris, who was on his way in to check on the kid.

"What the hell?" Chris cursed as Buck shoved his way past him.

"JD's gone," Nathan yelled over his shoulder, as he, too, made his way past Chris. "C'mon.!!"

"I'll go around back," Chris called. "Buck…check the livery. He wouldn't leave without that horse."

"I'll get the others," Nathan said. "We gotta find him…and I mean fast, Chris."

Chris found tracks in the back of the building indicating that JD had been there and moved on.

He followed the tracks and saw that the boy was headed for the livery.

God…I hope Buck got there in time. They way the kid rides…we'll never catch him.

Buck got to the livery and breathed a sigh of relief when he found JD saddling his horse.

Buck's heart was still racing. He had to calm down, though. He couldn't risk startling the kid.

"Goin' somewhere, kid?" Buck asked, much calmer than he felt.

"Yeah," JD answered.

"Goin' far?"


"You mad at me, kid?"

"Sure as hell am," JD turned towards his best friend. His eyes were filled with tears he was refusing to shed. The boy wiped his eyes. "You're my best friend, Buck. You're supposed to let me do what I want."

The tears the boy tried so hard to control were now falling from his long lashes.

"I can't always let you do what you want, JD. Not when I know that it ain't what's best for 'ya, boy. What kind of friend would do that?" Buck asked, slowly making his way towards the youth.

"You're supposed to be on MY side, Buck," JD cried.

"JD, son…I am on your side. Don't you see that? I'm always on your side. It's always been me and you…right?"

JD paused for a moment…thinking about what Buck had just said. He was getting confused…he felt like the whole livery was beginning to spin out of control.

Buck continued to try to reach the boy.

"JD…how 'ya gonna take care of your horse, son? You can't even take care of yourself."

"We'll be…just…fine. You'll…see," the kid whispered.

"I'll see you back to Nathan's…is what I'll see, boy," Buck said, gradually getting closer to the kid.

"Stay away from me, Buck," JD warned.

"You ain't leavin' here, kid," Buck insisted.

"I'll do what…what I want…Buck," JD countered.

"C'mon, kid. Let me help 'ya back to Nathan's."

Buck could see the boy was beginning to sway.

"No…no…" JD said quietly, putting his hand to his head.

"JD?? You OK??" Buck panicked.

"I'm…fi…never mind."

"C'mon, kid. Let me help 'ya," Buck begged.

"What??" JD lifted his head to look up to Buck.

How had Buck gotten right next to him? Buck was over there before.

"C'mon…let's go back, kid."

"Yeah…I guess…maybe…"

As the boy's legs finally gave way, Buck knelt down quickly to catch him before he hit the ground.

Oh, JD. You're burnin' up, kid.!!


+ + + + + + +

Chris was the first to arrive at the livery. He ran in to find Buck sitting down, holding the kid in his arms.

"Nathan'll be here right away, Buck." he said as he put a reassuring hand on Buck's shoulder.

Chris' other hand naturally went to the boy - placing it to the boy's cheek, and frowning. "Hang on, kid." he whispered.

Nathan came in with Vin, Ezra and Josiah in tow.

"Where the hell did he think he was gonna go?" Vin asked.

"He didn't care. Just anywhere but here, I guess," Buck replied quietly, rocking the boy back and forth.

"Let me check him, Buck," Nathan said as he approached.

Buck started to lay the boy down gently, when Ezra stepped forward.

"Wait," Ezra called. "Do not place that young man in the dirt."

Ezra removed his jacket and placed it on the ground. "You may now resume what you were doing, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck gave Ezra a look of thanks as he laid JD down.

Nathan was none to pleased with the present condition of his patient. "Well…he's done nothin' but gone and made himself worse. Fool kid."

JD started trembling.

"Chris…get me a blanket," Nathan instructed.

Chris ran and retrieved one of the horse blankets.

Not pleasant to smell…but definitely warm.

Chris wrapped the blanket around JD.

"Buck??" the boy stirred.

"I'm here, kid," Buck squeezed the boy's hand.

"Buck…oh…I'm…sorry, Buck," JD cried.

"You hush now, son. Nothin' to be sorry for, kid," Buck soothed.

Buck felt that the kid was getting hotter by the minute.

Suddenly, JD paled - if that was possible.

"JD…you feel sick?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah…" JD whined, as he threw up. "Sorry."

"Quit apologizin', kid," Buck smiled.

"Sor…OK," JD whispered.

"Let's get him over to my place…again," Nathan directed.

"Somebody sit on him when you get him there," Chris barked. He was going to keep the kid in bed…if that involved hog tying…padlocking…or an armed guard…then so be it.

"Buck…" JD said, barely audible as the older man lifted the boy and cradled him in his arms.

"Yeah, kid?"

"Chris's…mad…at me…ain't…he?"

"Well, kid…he ain't none to pleased with 'ya at the moment…that's for damn sure, JD," Buck answered honestly.

"Chris?" JD tried to turn to seek out his idol, but the constant spinning in his head made the effort impossible.

Chris heard JD's summon, and was at the kid's side in a flash.

"Yeah, kid?"

"I'm…sorry, Chris," JD said, weakly.

"I know, kid," Chris said patiently, his anger having left him as soon as he looked at the boy's face. "You just relax, JD and do what Nathan says. OK? No traipsin' off again."

"Promise…I'm…so…stupid," JD cried.

"JD!" Chris snapped. "Don't you ever let me hear you say that again…you hear me?"

"OK," JD smiled…a weak, half-hearted smile…but a smile none the less.

If Chris Larabee didn't think he was stupid…then, by God…maybe he wasn't. Chris had never lied to JD. He had never given JD any reason to doubt him…so why should JD start now?

Buck made his way towards Nathan's, carrying the boy - for the second time in twenty-four hours.

"Kid…we're gonna have to pay Nathan overtime if'n you don't slow down," Buck teased.

"I…I'm…s-s-sorry…N-N-Nathan." The kid was shivering.

Nathan, walking next to Buck, tucked the blanket tighter around the boy. "It's OK, son. Never you mind. You're freezin', ain't 'ya?"

"Y-Y-Yeah," JD said, his teeth chattering.

"Hurry up, Buck," Nathan urged.

Buck picked up his pace, finally reaching the clinic steps - which he took two at a time.

Buck carefully laid JD on the bed.

"D-D-Don't l-l-leave m-m-me…B-B-Buck…p-p-please," JD begged.

"I ain't gonna leave 'ya, kid. Now you just settle down," Buck told the teen, trying to calm him.

The kid was looking worse, and beginning to panic.


"Yeah, JD?" Nathan asked.

"I d-d-don't f-f-feel g-g-good." the kid cried.

"I'm sure 'ya don't, son. We'll get you warmed up and you'll be asleep in no time," Nathan promised.

"S-S-Sorry…N-N-Nathan," JD apologized.

"Sorry for what, JD?" Nathan wondered.

"M-M-Makin' y-y-y-ou w-w-work all the t-t-time."

Nathan smiled, affectionately pushing the hair from the boy's eyes, and leaving his hand on his forehead…giving JD something to focus on - besides the coldness he was feeling. "It's OK, son…you ain't no trouble."

"H-H-Hear th-th-that, B-B-Buck?" JD whispered, turning a fevered glance in his best friend's direction.

"Yeah…well…he don't know you like I do, kid," Buck grinned, holding the kid's smaller hand in between his own, and feeling it relax as the boy drifted off.

+ + + + + + +

Chris walked into Nathan's later, surprised to find Nathan, rather than Buck sitting in the chair next to the kid's bed.

Chris worried as he noted Nathan's appearance…his elbows on his knees…his head in his hands.


"Yeah," Nathan acknowledged, tiredly…not even looking up.

"Buck around?" Chris asked. He knew the answer would be 'yes'…but he didn't see the ladies man anywhere.

"I sent him to bed in the other room. His pacing around here like a caged lion was beginning to get to me, Chris," Nathan said.

"You OK? Is the kid…" Chris trailed off…maybe he didn't want to know.

"Worse," Nathan finished Chris' inquiry, straightening up in the chair.

"The fever?" Chris asked.

"Yeah…but that ain't what's got me worried, Chris," Nathan admitted.

"What then?" Chris worried.

"He's gonna sleep for a while now," Nathan said.

"That's good, ain't it?" Chris reasoned. "Ain't you the one always sayin' rest is good?"

"I'd like to have gotten some food in 'im first," Nathan said. "He ain't eat in probably thirty-six to forty-eight hours, Chris."

"Yeah…I can tell he's a lot weaker than he was," Chris lamented.

"I know. Well…I'm gonna let him sleep for a few hours. Then I gotta get him up and he's gotta eat," Nathan then added…"We may have to use Buck's method after all."

"JD ain't gonna take kindly to that, Nathan," Chris said. "You know the kid gets agitated when you hound him about eatin'."

"Yeah…I know. But I also know that he's gotta eat somethin' soon. I can't let him get no weaker, Chris. If he wants to get mad at me…then he's got that right," Nathan said, his eyes filling as he looked at the boy lying so still in the bed.

JD was as white as the sheet tucked under his chin…and he looked so fragile…as if he'd shatter if you touched him.

Chris placed a reassuring hand on the healer's shoulder. "You ain't gonna have to take him on alone…'ya know that, Nathan."

"I know, Chris. And I do appreciate that fact. But it don't make it no easier thinkin' about it, though. I dread fightin' with this boy…I truly do. I have never seen so much fight come out of such a small kid before. Buck says it comes from bein' picked on as a little kid."

"He oughta know, I'd guess. Don't imagine there's much JD ain't told Buck." Chris stated.

"Reckon not. Buck bein' like his brother and all…a boy oughta tell his brother stuff…stuff he don't tell no one else," Nathan said, looking to Chris for his reaction. "Don't mean he don't think the world of you, though, Chris."

"What?" Chris was taken completely off guard by Nathan's statement.

"Just 'cause JD tells Buck certain things, Chris…that don't mean that the sun don't rise and set in you to that boy."

"I think you're seein' things, Nathan," Chris scoffed.

"Oh no…don't you go shruggin' this off, Chris. JD tells Buck 'everything'. I mean…if'n he's scared…or confused…or just plain…talk-happy. Stuff he wouldn't want to tell anyone else…especially you…for fear they'd think less of him. Christ…you're his idol, Chris. He ain't gonna come up to you and tell 'ya he's afraid of some fight we're headin' into…or worse, yet…scared to death of that little Casey girl," Nathan smiled.

"So…what'cha sayin'? The kid's scared of me?" Chris snapped.

"No, Chris. Ain't 'ya listenin' to me at all? JD ain't scared of you. Hell…he's got you wrapped around his little finger…and don't you deny that, either! The rest of us are the ones that need to be scared of 'ya…" Nathan laughed…"but not JD."

"So…what 'are' 'ya sayin', Nathan?" Chris asked.

"JD ain't scared of 'ya, Chris…he's scared of what you think about him. He's scared he ain't never gonna live up to his idol's expectations of him," Nathan said.

"I don't have no 'expectations' for him to live up to," Chris said, flatly.

"You don't? Think back, Chris…to the Seminole Village…you didn't have any 'expectations' for the kid then?"

"I 'expected' him to be dead soon," Chris noted.

"Right…but look…he's still here. Sure…he's had a lot heartache…a lot of pain…been through a lot. But he's still here…and I for one am mighty proud of that kid. Ain't many grown men as brave as that boy…or as loyal. I think that says a lot about JD. So…Chris…since you figured JD woulda been dead soon…I guess he's exceeded your expectations?"

"Yeah…" Chris whispered.

"Ever told him that, Chris?" Nathan asked.

"No…" Chris replied, even softer than before.

"Maybe you oughta think about doin' that sometime soon, then," Nathan said, stretching out of the chair…and adding as he left the room..."Might just make his load a little lighter, Chris. Ain't easy bein' a kid, 'ya know."

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat alone in the room with JD.

He didn't know why that suddenly seemed like such an uncomfortable situation. Lord knows he'd sat with the kid numerous times when he was sick or hurt…but now…for some odd reason…Chris felt the deep, almost uncontrollable urge to bolt.

Damn that Nathan, anyway. Why did he have to bring up all that talk about the kid?

Sure…Chris knew there were lots of things that he probably needed to say to the people in his life right now…especially the kid…but that didn't mean that he had any intention of actually doing it.

But…what was it that Nathan said? Ease his load?

Christ…he's only nineteen…how much of a load can he be carrying? Kid ain't even lived yet. He can't have so much on his shoulders at such a young age. 'Course, kid ain't had an easy life, either. It's hard for a boy to lose his mama. And…from what little Chris knew about the boy's life before his mama died…that was no picnic either.

Buck was probably right. JD probably got picked on a lot when he was younger. Chris hated to think of a little dark-haired boy, smaller than all the others, being picked on by the bigger boys.

Chris hated it now when JD was picked on. Not by Buck, or the rest of the seven - JD was theirs…they were allowed to pick on the boy. But JD was off-limits to anyone else.

Ease his load?

Why would the kid care what Chris thought of him, anyway? Chris didn't feel that he was anyone worth looking up to. He'd hurt a lot of people in his life. Buck being at the top of the list. Chris had done everything he could to turn Buck against him. But, Buck…being Buck…just let it slide off, and held fast. Buck never gave up on him…and Chris loved Buck for that. But Chris had known Buck for twelve years. And they had always been friends…equals. But JD…that was another story. Chris couldn't figure out why a kid like JD would want to look up to him. Kid was smart…could do anything he set his mind to…so why would he want to be like Chris?

Maybe JD wanted to be like Chris because Chris was his complete opposite. Chris was a rough, stern and authoritative figure. JD…well…JD was JD. Friendly, easy-going, and about as authoritative as an eight week old puppy.

Ease his load?

Well…Chris figured if it'd help the kid…he could do this. He could tell the kid that he thought he was doin' real well. Coming along real nice. Pulling his weight. Starting to learn how to listen when people were trying to teach him something to keep him alive. Finally got him to learn the definition of 'duck'.

Yeah…Chris could tell the kid he's doin' good. He'd tell him that he's a real part of the seven. A real big part of the seven. That he's what's holding them all together…most of the time. That he's the heart of the group. That it breaks all of their hearts when he's hurt…or sick…or unhappy. That they all think he's a brave and loyal kid…that's growing into a fine young man. A young man that they're all very proud of…and even prouder to call their friend.

If Nathan thinks that's what the kid needs…sure…Chris could do that.

Suddenly…a faint, young voice…


Damn. The kid had already seen him…he couldn't bolt now.

Ease his load?

Chris sat down on the edge of the bed.

"Hey, son…how 'ya feel?"

"OK…I guess," JD said, yawning. "Could I have a drink, Chris?"

"Sure, kid. Comin' right up."

Chris noticed JD looking around the room…frowning.

"He's sleepin', son," Chris said as he handed the youth the cup of cold water.

"Who?" JD tried to hide behind a poker face. But the boy's face - and especially his eyes - never could hide his feelings.

"The man you're lookin' for…Buck," Chris smiled.

"Oh…I…It's…just…It's…he said he…wouldn't leave me," JD sighed.

"He wouldn't have…if'n Nathan hadn't chased him out, JD. Buck was worried…and you know how Buck can be when he's worried," Chris grinned. "Nathan chased him out…made him go to bed…he's in the next room…I'll get him." and Chris rose to retrieve Buck.

"No…it's OK…I guess…he's tired, huh?" JD asked.

"Yeah…he is, JD," Chris answered.

"Let him sleep…I'm OK," JD said, trying to be brave - but Chris got the feeling something was bothering the kid.

"You feel sick, kid?" Chris worried, placing a hand to the boy's face.

"I'm fi…never mind, Chris. I'm OK…really," JD said, his head down. Refusing to look at Chris.

What's wrong, kid.???

"Well…Nathan'll be back soon, I guess. He's gonna wanna check 'ya over…make sure you're doin' OK…get 'ya some food…" Chris trailed off…checking the boy's face for a reaction to the mention of eating.

"Yeah…I guess so. That's Nathan." the boy said.

"'Ya feel hungry, son?" Chris prayed for an affirmative answer.

"Don’t really feel much like eatin'…but I guess I gotta eat. Wouldn't want Josiah's crows comin' after me," JD said, attempting a smile, but not quite pulling it off.

What's botherin' 'ya kid???

"Nathan'll sure be happy to know he ain't gonna have to fight with 'ya about eatin'…or have to take Buck up on his offer to shove it down your gullet," Chris said.

"I'd sure like to see him try, Chris. I've been sleepin' for ever…I could probably take 'im if he's as tired as you said he was," JD chuckled - half-heartedly, but it was a start.

Sure was good hearing the kid laugh…seeing him smile. Kid's gonna be OK.

Thank God.

"So…uh…JD…It'll be good when…when you're back on your feet…and all…" Chris stammered, rising to his feet, pacing…having no idea of what to say next.

"Yeah…I'll sure be glad when my feet touch the floor, too, Chris," JD said, fumbling with the covers, somehow sensing that Chris had more to say.

"JD…I…I think it's best if…" Chris started.

"I knew it," JD whispered, his eyes filling as he looked up to his hero.

"You knew what?" Chris asked.

"I knew you'd send me back east…sooner or later," JD choked. "I'm surprised you put up with me this long." huge tears dropping from the boy's long lashes…trailing down his pale cheeks.

"JD…you got it all wrong, kid. Get a hold of yourself," Chris sat on the bed and put his hands on the boy's shoulders.

"It's OK, Chris…I been expectin' it for a while now. I knew you guys wouldn't put up with me much longer. I'm more trouble than I'm worth…I know that. I've just been waitin'…but I knew it was comin'" JD sobbed.

So…that's what's been botherin' the kid. Thinkin' he was gonna lose his family…expectin' it!!

"Listen to me, JD," Chris said, shaking the kid's shoulders to get his full attention. "You ain't goin' nowhere. Hear me? Just what makes you think we could get by without you?"

"Huh?" the teen shot his hero a puzzled look.

"That's what I wanted to say, JD. I started to say that I think it would be best if I just came out and said it. I know I had reservations about you joinin' us at the beginning…but you've more than proved yourself to me, JD. There ain't a one of us wouldn't trust our life to 'ya. You're a part of us, now, kid. A big part. A part that keeps the rest of us together…and a part that we can't live without…"

JD looked at Chris in awe.

Was he crying?

"What's wrong, Chris?" JD panicked.

"Nothin', kid. Just…you had us all worried…and scared," Chris started…and then added "we can't lose 'ya, kid."

"I ain't goin' nowhere, Chris," JD broke down, the tears coming freely now…as he opened his arms out to Chris, who took the boy into his arms.

Nathan walked in - and the scene before him brought tears to his eyes - as he whispered to himself…"Yes sir, Chris…I think you've done eased his load quite a bit."


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