by May Robinson


The friendly and familiar banter of Josiah Sanchez, JD Dunne and Buck Wilmington, three of Four Corners' seven peacekeepers, along the boardwalk in front of the town jail, was interrupted by the arrival of Wednesday's noon stage. As hired protectors of the town, it was their business to know who was in town, but the three gunslingers were also quite simply curious, always wondering just who the hell, other than them, would willingly come to their dusty little town.

The easily identifiable form of Circuit Judge Orrin W. Travis exited the stage and all three men noted his more serious than usual expression. The judge spotted the three and immediately strode in their direction. His expression lightened slightly as he was met by his grandson, Billy, and daughter-in-law, Mary Travis. Mary, like the gunslingers, did not expect to see the judge this day. He dropped by monthly, or when duty called him to the town. He was not due in town for another two weeks, so obviously he was here to discuss business with the Seven. The judge greeted his family, spoke briefly, and then pointed in the direction of his hired gunmen. It was apparent that his mission was urgent, as his need to see his men outweighed his desire to visit any further with his family.

All three men tipped their hats to the judge in greeting and received a short nod in response. The judge was all business. "Where are the others?"

Buck Wilmington nodded in the direction of the saloon, and then spoke. "JD, run and get Nathan and then meet us in the saloon with Chris, Vin and Ezra."

Before the kid could react, the judge held him back and revised Buck's instructions. "No, JD. I want to meet here at the jail. Find all the men and bring them here right away. We have an urgent and confidential mission to discuss. JD, I need you to act casually and not draw attention to yourself. Don't run to get the others. Understand, son?"

"Yes, sir, Judge," the youngest of the Seven replied enthusiastically, as he attempted to restrain himself and walk casually towards the saloon. The teenager had more energy than a herd of wild mustangs, so getting JD to do anything slowly was a task, but when he was excited, it was damn near impossible. And JD was excited now. He was young and naïve, but he was also learning from his older and wiser friends how to read people, and what he was reading from the judge was that the Seven had an important job to do. In their line of work, important always meant action, and JD was always ready and willing for action.

"Judge, you want to tell us what's going on?" Josiah asked.

"Not until we're all together, and certainly not out here, in the open," the judge replied tersely. "Do you have any prisoners in these cells?"

Wilmington replied with a smirk. "Oh, just some brawlers from last night, sleeping off too much whiskey, Judge."

"Release them now. Have them out in five minutes. I'll say my good-byes to Mary and Billy in the meantime. I'll be taking the same stage out of here, as soon as the driver has replenished his supplies." The judge had no sense of humor today and Josiah and Buck exchanged uneasy glances, both wondering just what kind of trouble they were heading into this day.

Buck looked down the street and saw three more of the Seven, Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish, heading towards them. He then looked across the street, shook his head and smiled. How can anyone look so uncomfortable trying to casually walk down the street? The big gunslinger was watching JD as he moseyed down the street, whistling to himself, on his way to Nathan Jackson's clinic. Gotta give that kid some acting lessons, he grinned.

Buck continued to watch the boy's progress, and he smiled again as he saw JD bound up the clinic stairs taking two steps at a time. Knew he couldn't last. He must be just ready to burst, wonderin' what kinda job the judge has for us. Buck chuckled to himself.He got such a kick out of the kid. Truth be known, Buck not only got a kick out of JD's enthusiasm for everything in life, he shared in it. The big gunslinger had had many knocks in his lifetime, but so far had gotten through them as one of the least hardened of the older men comprising the Seven. Having JD around, Buck could share with him the wonders and joys of everyday life, and regain some of his youth in the process.

Buck watched the kid close the door behind him as he entered Nathan's makeshift hospital, and the older man continued to focus his thoughts on the boy. Life with JD around was better than he could ever remember, and Buck loved the kid for that. In return, Buck had become JD's protector and teacher; daring anyone or anything to try to break the kid's spirit or hurt him in any way. At some point in the six months the men had been together, JD had replaced Chris Larabee as Buck's best friend, but he was so much more than that to Buck. The boy was young enough to be his son, and although he would outwardly deny it, Buck definitely held strong paternal feelings towards him. But more importantly for the boy, Buck had become JD's big brother, and that was a role they were both totally at ease with. Struggling with adolescence, the kid would continually resist Buck's protectiveness, but when it came down to truly needing comfort or security, JD sought out his big brother. And Buck was always more than happy to be there for him, in any capacity.

The arrival at the jail of the focus of Buck's reverie, along with Nathan Jackson, the last, but certainly not least, of the Seven, shook Wilmington from his thoughts. He wondered briefly what had inspired him at that moment to think in such profound terms about his relationship with the boy, but the resounding "Ahem," from the judge brought the gunslinger back to reality. He turned his attention to Judge Travis.

The judge began. "Gentlemen, I have come here today to discuss with you an assignment I am hoping you will take on, which will commence on Friday. This assignment is being held in the strictest confidence and I must ask all of you to refrain from discussing this with anyone, other than yourselves. It is imperative that the press not be aware of this situation in order to keep this news out of the public's eye."

Chris raised his eyebrows at the mention of the press. The judge's daughter-in-law, Mary, ran the Clarion News and was also a good friend and ally to the Seven. Orrin caught Chris' expression and continued. "I assure you that I have not mentioned this assignment to Mary, nor do I intend to. Frankly, newspaperwoman or not, I would just as soon have her unaware of this information."

JD was getting antsy. He hated riddles. With youthful impatience, he finally blurted, "Judge, could you please tell us about the assignment? What is it?"

"JD!" Buck, Josiah and Chris admonished the kid. Ezra, Nathan and Vin just smiled.

"Sorry, sir." The kid blushed.

"Not at all, son." The Judge had developed a fondness for JD ever since the boy stood up to be Sheriff of Four Corners that fateful day six months ago, when the Seven first met him. Travis wanted to smile at the boy, however the seriousness of this mission, and the potential danger to all the men, including JD, made him grimace instead.

The judge heaved a sigh, and continued. "I will come to the point. Men, a notorious and vicious criminal has been on the loose in this country for over twenty years, alluding the law all the while. However, due to better communications tools today, our government, in conjunction with local law enforcement and the Pinkerton Agency, were able to coordinate their efforts and apprehend him. He was captured near San Francisco and has been travelling with the military en route to extradition to Kansas, where he will be tried, and ultimately hung. Your job would be to meet the regiment 6 a.m. this Friday at the junction of the Yuma and Chaparral trails fifty miles north of here and then escort the prisoner to the train station in West Bend. A private train guarded by Pinkerton agents and soldiers will await you. I need you to rendezvous with them by 6 a.m. Sunday. I've made arrangements for a Federal Marshall to look after the town in your absence. He'll arrive on the Friday morning stage.

Vin was intently calculating their route in his mind, becoming increasingly alarmed at the tight schedule. The mission would require night and day riding and would be hard on the men and the horses. He was about to bring up these thoughts, when the judge spoke up again.

"Gentlemen, I'm aware of just how taxing this mission is going to be on you and suggest you rest up for it. I also must advise you that this assignment is undoubtedly as dangerous as any you have faced in the past. This outlaw has been running with an experienced and cutthroat gang for twenty years. He has allies everywhere, from lawmen, to fellow criminals, to members of the general public who have come to idolize him. No one can be trusted with knowledge of his whereabouts and this is why we must keep this mission under wraps. Government and Pinkerton employees, including myself, are only given information on a need-to-know basis. It is highly likely that members of his gang will try to free him, and it is while he's in your hands that an escape is most likely."

"Why's that, sir?" The kid had to ask.

Chris replied, grimly. "Because JD, up until we get this guy, he'll have been guarded by upwards of forty men. The odds are in his gang's favor to wait and make their move while we've got him." Chris turned with steel blue eyes to the judge. "Judge, you want to tell us why the military can't escort the prisoner all the way to West Bend?"

The judge averted his eyes from Chris' gaze and responded. "That's need-to-know Chris, and I'm afraid I can't tell you because I haven't been told either. Suffice it to say that I have apprised you of the gravity of this situation. You've put your lives on the line for me in the past, and I need to know now, if you're willing to do so again…for our country and in memory of the many lives this man has destroyed" The judge's expression was strained as he looked at the faces of each of these good men. It was with a heavy heart that he was handing them this mission. "I'll step outside for a moment to allow you to discuss this amongst yourselves."

Ezra, who had remained quiet, observing the judge's body and facial language throughout his speech, finally spoke up, using a tone which was decidedly less calm than he intended. "Judge, before we consent to throwing ourselves amidst the proverbial lions, might I be so bold to inquire as to the identity of this perpetrator?"

"Thanks, Ezra." The kid was dying to know too, but after the scolding he got earlier, he wasn't going to embarrass himself again, by pushing the judge for more information.

The judge set his chin, and looked each of the Seven in the eye, before replying. "I'm proud to say that William 'The Fox' O'Brien is no longer at large." He didn't wait for the reaction of the men and stepped outside to allow them a moment to contemplate his words.

Each of the men reacted differently when the prisoner's identity was revealed.

Vin whistled. As a bounty hunter, he had toyed with the idea of tracking the legendary 'Fox.' He had ultimately decided however that no amount of money was worth taking this man on alone. Always figured you'd need an army to catch him. And now I'm getting a dollar a day to take him in. The tracker chuckled to himself.

Nathan frowned. He had heard about 'the Fox,' even as a slave. The man had a reputation as a butcher, willing to kill women and children, without batting an eye. Nathan had seen first-hand man's inhumanity to man, but William O'Brien was beyond even Nathan's comprehension and experience. Killing and maiming for the fun of it. Nathan never liked to see men, even prisoners, tied or shackled…it brought home horrible memories of his past, but this man, O'Brien…Nathan would gladly help take this destroyer of lives and souls in for trial.

Josiah had instinctively grabbed hold of his crucifix as the judge stated O'Brien's name. The preacher also thought of the souls and lives this man had destroyed. He quickly said a prayer for the victims and then looked to his friends. He feared that O'Brien could still somehow harm the souls of his friends, by association, if by no other means. O'Brien wasn't a man, but rather a devil. Yet, Josiah knew he was ready to take on the devil. He breathed a quick prayer for his friends and then smiled. Penance.

Ezra blanched at the name of the perpetrator. Good Lord. I should not have inquired. He would have to be insane to consider taking on this assignment. No amount of remuneration could possibly be worth taking on 'The Fox' and his gang of ruthless reprobates. Certainly not his meager earnings as a peacekeeper. Why, he even had a lucrative game of chance planned for the weekend. No, he certainly wasn't going to get himself involved in this potentially suicidal mission. Ezra quickly glanced at the other men, his friends, whether he cared to admit it or not. His practiced eye could read their thoughts and he knew then that he was doomed. He would watch their backs as always, just as they would his. Good Lord.

JD couldn't stifle his excitement or his giggle any longer. God, he was excited. I can't believe it! JD had read about the exploits of William O'Brien since he could read. Oh, he knew the stories were probably embellished, but there were so many, some of them had to be true. And he knew 'The Fox' was a bad guy, a really bad guy, but he was also the most famous person JD would get a chance to see, at least so far in his young life. The idea that he and his friends were going to go down in history as part of the group who ended 'The Fox's' criminal career was making JD positively giddy. Miss out on this. Not a chance!

And Chris. Well, Chris was watching Buck…closely. While the judge had been talking, Chris couldn't help but notice that his old friend had moved against the wall of the jail and his expression had changed drastically over the last few minutes. He at first looked curious; then serious. As the judge began talking about the criminal, Chris noticed that Buck's expression had changed to that of dread, and Chris wondered if Buck was thinking what he was thinking. Finally when the judge stated O'Brien's name, Chris watched Buck's face turn white, as he practically slumped against the jail wall. Chris had irrationally hoped O'Brien was not the criminal in question, but he knew he would be…as did Buck. And so Chris continued to watch Buck. He knew they were going to ride together on Friday, and he would have to keep an eye on his friend's emotional state. As reliable a friend and fighter as Buck could be, when things got personal, Buck could be a loose cannon.

And Lord did things just get personal.

Buck had been anxiously awaiting the disclosure of the prisoner's name, although he knew deep down in his gut who the man in question would be. Yet, as Buck heard Bill O'Brien's name, his stomach still lurched. He was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss. His mind raced with remembered emotions ~ fear, anger, pain, grief, loathing. As he glanced at his oldest friend, Chris Larabee, Buck remembered guilt.

With anxious eyes, Buck turned his attention to JD and saw what he feared and yet expected to see…the kid was positively brimming with boyish enthusiasm and wonder. Buck had to control the urge to deck him. Not this one, goddammit! Never!

As Buck caught JD's eye, the kid practically skipped over to his big brother, grinning from ear to ear. Before JD could say anything, Judge Travis re-entered the jail.

"Gentlemen, I apologize for pressing this matter, but the stage is leaving soon. I do need your answer."

Chris, as leader of the group, looked to his men. Words hadn't yet been exchanged, however he knew all had agreed. He stepped forward. "Judge, we'll ride."

The judge felt pride as well as fear for his men. He looked to each of them and nodded in utmost admiration. As his eyes met those of the boy's, JD exclaimed, "Try and keep me away!"

"What makes you think you're coming?!" Buck growled at the teen. Buck's eyes flashed, and Chris remained alert, ready to step in if the boy got into trouble. Chris knew this battle was coming, but had hoped to avoid a scene until after the judge had left.

The kid chuckled nervously, uncertain how to react to Buck's outburst. JD was used to Buck yelling at him. It was usually Buck's own way of showing how he worried about the boy…but this time was different. Buck's eyes and tone were savage. Why's he doin' this to me? Especially, in front of the judge. JD was truly unnerved, but embarrassed too, and determined to stand his ground in front of the judge, who he admired greatly.

"Oh, come on, Buck! You don't actually think I'm gonna miss out on this, do you?"

Buck charged the boy and towered over him. Buck never used his size to intimidate the kid, until now, and JD reflexively took a step back. Buck's eyes were blazing and he jabbed his index finger into the kid's chest. "THIS AIN'T OPEN FOR DISCUSSION, JD! YOU'RE KEEPIN' THE MARSHALL COMPANY AND THAT'S FINAL!!" Buck's tone was even more menacing than before. JD was hurt, confused and even a little frightened.

Vin and Josiah, who both were very nearly as protective of JD as Buck, had each made moves to step in, but were warned off by Chris' icy glares. Clearly something serious was going on with Buck, but Chris seemed to understand what it was, and so they stood down. Vin and Josiah both trusted Chris to fill them in when he could, and to look after the kid in the mean time.

Buck's behavior was breaking the kid's heart, but he was stubborn enough to refuse to give in.

"But, Buck…" JD pleaded.

Wilmington interrupted the kid's protest, as he pushed JD against the wall. "No buts, JD. The decision's been made, goddammit!" Buck looked at the bewildered group with wild eyes. He closed them and took a deep breath, before reopening them and facing the judge. With a tight voice, he choked, "The six of us ride Friday, Judge. You don't get JD!" Buck shifted his gaze to Chris. "I'll be in the saloon," he snapped, and stormed out of the jail, nearly knocking Ezra down in the process.

The room was electric, still reverberating from Buck's tirade. JD attempted to follow Buck, but Chris gently held him back. "Leave him be, kid," he soothed.

The kid looked lost. "What's goin' on, Chris?"

"Yes, Mr. Larabee, would you care to enlighten us as to the cause of the exceptionally erratic behavior we have just witnessed from our resident ladies' man," Ezra drawled. Not only did Ezra want to know what in hell was going on, but he also felt sorry for JD and hoped that Larabee could offer some explanation, to hopefully appease the boy.

Judge Travis also needed answers. "Chris, this mission is critical. I need to know what's going on and if you can complete it, because if you can't, I've got to move fast to come up with an alternate arrangement."

Larabee was torn. He had no right discussing Buck's past, especially in light of just how badly he had reacted when Buck had divulged his history to Mary six months earlier. Still, he owed some sort of explanation to his men and to the judge. He decided to keep it simple…

"Buck used to ride with O'Brien a long time ago. Their paths have kept crossing over the years and there's bad blood between 'em."

All of the men were shocked by Chris' revelation. JD was particularly surprised, and hurt again. He didn't think there were any secrets between himself and Buck, anymore. Guess I was wrong.

Vin spoke up. "Chris, just how bad is this bad blood between Buck and O'Brien?"

Chris looked grim. "Real bad. Deadly." He then turned to JD. Chris knew exactly why Buck wanted the kid as far away as possible from O'Brien. Hell, he could vividly remember why! If anything went wrong, the kid would be a target, for sure. We can't risk that happening. "Son, I'm sorry, but I'm thinking Buck's right this time. I'm afraid you're gonna have to sit this one out."

JD felt like he'd been punched. Different emotions were hitting him all at once. At first he was hurt, then embarrassed again, and then anger hit…major anger! He glared at Chris.

"Dammit Chris! What am I doing here then if you don't think I can pull my weight?! I thought I was one of you, but you don't think I can cut it! DAMN YOU…AND DAMN BUCK!!" The kid charged out of the jailhouse, bracing himself for another confrontation with Buck. This ain't over!

"JD!" Chris called after the boy, wanting to explain his decision, but knowing he still had questions to answer right where he was standing.

"All right, Chris," the judge spoke in serious tones. "I need to know if you can handle this job and just how Buck will affect it? Is he going to jeopardize this mission?"

Chris looked to his men and then directly at Travis. "Orrin, Buck needs to be there. He'll be fine. We'll get the job done."

Judge Travis knew Chris was as good as his word, and so were his men. Although the last few minutes had unsettled him, he knew these men were the best. "All right, then. Gentlemen, my stage awaits." He shook hands with the five remaining men, wished them good luck, left the jail and boarded the stage. He looked back and uttered a prayer, hoping that he would see all seven again, alive and well, when this mission was over.

The men exited the jail and watched the judge's departure. All were uneasy over this whole situation with Buck and the kid. As a healer, Nathan's concern for the well being of his partners was second nature to him, and he was particularly worried about Buck and JD now. "Chris, is there anything else we should know," he asked.

The group's leader replied. "That's up to Buck. I'm gonna catch up with JD and talk to him. I'll meet you all later in the saloon."

The four remaining gunslingers were left to contemplate their mission and the bizarre behavior of Buck, their usually fun-loving friend. It was clear that Buck's history with O'Brien must have been very serious, and despite the venom in the tone Buck had used with JD, all four knew that Buck Wilmington loved the boy more than life itself. The men realized that Buck's venom came from fear. They just hoped that the boy could look beyond Buck's cruelty and recognize it for what it truly was, and that the one who loved JD most had not inflicted permanent damage to his heart.

By the time JD had reached the swinging doors of the saloon, Buck had already guzzled down a bottle of Red Eye. He was seated with his back to the door, but JD could tell by the lay of Buck's shoulders that he was still tightly wound up.

JD had never before been afraid of Buck, but Buck had scared him in the jail, and seeing the big man now, shoulders tense and fist clenching the whiskey bottle, well, he considered backing down. But no, he was a man, dammit, and he would have to face Buck now.

The teen approached Buck's table, pulled up a chair and sat down across from his best friend. For a moment, Buck didn't react at all to his presence, but when he finally looked at the boy; JD couldn't help but flinch. He barely recognized his friend. For an instant Buck's eyes looked dazed, but as Buck's brow creased, his eyes began to blaze again with a frightening intensity. "Get outta here, kid. I'm not changin' my mind. Just leave me alone," he rumbled.

JD's heart ached. "What's goin' on, Buck? Why are you doin' this to me," the boy pleaded.

For a moment Buck's conscience felt JD's pain, but flashes of memory immediately closed that door, and he abruptly got up and walked away from the kid, seating himself at another table. The kid could talk him into damn near anything and so he couldn't risk getting into another argument. Taking the boy with him just wasn't an option. O'Brien'll find a way to hurt him, somehow. I can't let that happen!

JD didn't know what to do. He just stood there in the middle of the saloon, staring at Buck's back. Buck had never turned his back on him. Ever. He was always there for JD. The older man's friendship and guidance had been a constant in his life since he came west. Buck was his best friend and protector; someone he could let his guard down with and not have to try so hard to prove himself to anymore. He had actually thought Buck cared for him as much as his mother had. His own feelings for Buck were that strong. Buck was his big brother, but now something was so very wrong.

JD didn't understand what was happening between them. All he knew was that Buck was mad at him and wasn't even talking to him, and he wouldn't even tell JD why. And that hurt. He could feel tears of frustration and sorrow welling in his eyes. He'd be damned before he'd let anyone see him cry. I gotta get out of here.

The boy would go for a ride. Riding always made him feel better; sometimes even invincible, but he would settle for better right now. Hesitantly, he approached Buck's table. He didn't even look up to see if Buck acknowledged his presence. "You win. Chris won't let me ride with you, either." The boy quickly left the saloon, heading directly to the safe haven of the dark livery stable. He didn't notice or didn't acknowledge Chris calling to him as he entered the building.

Chris considered following JD, but felt it would be best for Buck to explain everything to the kid. If I can get him to settle down and think straight. Chris entered the saloon and approached his oldest friend. "Pard, you could've handled that better. JD deserves an explanation." Larabee wasn't known for beating around the bush.

Buck shrugged his laden shoulders, but didn't look up from his drink. "Thanks for backing me up, Chris, and not lettin' him ride with us." His voice was rough.

Chris sighed and spoke again. "Buck, you've got to talk to JD. I know how stubborn he is, but he'll understand all this if you're honest with him. I won't let him ride with us, but dammit Buck, he deserves to know why."

With haunted eyes, Buck finally looked up at his oldest friend, and Chris could also recognize something he rarely saw in them…fear. "Chris, when I think of O'Brien getting near that boy, it just makes me sick. I can't lose him, Chris. I won't, dammit!"

Chris gave his friend's arm a squeeze and proceeded to get up from the table. "Buck, you don't straighten this out with JD now, you're gonna lose him anyway. He was already on his way to the livery when I came in."

"Aw, hell," the younger gunslinger groaned as he slowly got up from the table. "What am I gonna say to him, Chris, after I went after him like that in front of the judge? He must just hate me!"

Larabee placed a firm hand on his friend's shoulder and guided him to the saloon doors. "JD doesn't hate you, Buck. He's hurt, mad and confused, and you damn well owe him an apology, but you know he could never hate you. Just tell him the truth, Buck. Tell him everything. I'm not gonna tell you he's gonna like staying behind, but I think he'll understand." Chris ushered his friend through the doorway, and his lips formed a crooked smile. "Now, do you need a hand getting over there, or do you think you can make it yourself?"

Buck was beginning to settle down. "Naw, pard. I'm fine. I'll go talk to him." A small grin formed on Buck's face too. "Well, if JD decides to whup me, I just might need a hand. He's mighty scrappy, you know."

Chris could relax now too. He squeezed Buck's shoulder and smirked. "Yeah, I know…he gets it from his big brother." There was a sparkle in Chris' eyes, one that Buck rarely saw anymore. "Holler if you need me, Buck. Me and the boys will be here."

JD was silently cursing the tears that rolled down his cheeks as he readied his mare for their ride. He was still mad at Buck, but worried, too. Had he done something to make Buck that angry, and what did it have to do with this O'Brien character? He felt separated from his friends all of a sudden, and he hated the loneliness he felt. He was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't notice Buck's arrival, or Buck asking Yosemite, the stable-man, to give them some privacy.

"Hey, kid."

"Buck." The kid clipped, feeling his anger rising again, as he carried on saddling his horse.

"Come on, kid. We need to talk." Buck's voice was gentle.

"Nothin' to talk about. It ain't open for discussion…decision's been made! You told me so, yourself," the kid snapped. JD wasn't above throwing a few low blows.

The older man felt the blows, deeply. They actually felt more like knife-wounds, but Buck knew he deserved them. He hung his head. He's not going to make this easy on me. Rightly so, I guess. Buck wandered over to a stack of hay bales near the wall and sat down. "Come on and set a spell, JD. I know I deserved that and you deserve an apology. I got a lot to tell you, if you'll let me…Come on, kid, please?"

JD wiped the remaining tears from his eyes and made his way over to Buck, sitting next to his friend. No matter how much Buck had embarrassed and angered him, one look at the torment shown in Buck's face and he couldn't stay mad. JD had hoped that there was a logical explanation for Buck's behavior and here he was now, practically begging JD to let him apologize. The boy leaned his shoulder against Buck, giving his friend an affectionate nudge. "'S all right, Buck. Just tell me what's wrong."

Buck smiled. The big brother in him wanted to give JD a bear hug right then, but he knew how much that would embarrass the kid, so he resisted. With a lump in his throat, he whispered his thanks to the kid. "Kid, I'm so sorry for the way I blew up at you before, but this O'Brien fella brings out the worst in me. I've got somethin' to tell ya that I should've told you ages ago, but…to be honest, son, I didn't 'cause I ain't proud of it and I didn't want you thinking any less of me."

JD was about to object, but Buck cut him off. "Now, kid. Before you go tellin' me that you wouldn't think that way, let me just get this whole thing offa my chest. Try and keep your mouth shut for once, okay? This ain't easy for me to tell, especially to you, son, so could you just keep that lip of yours shut for a coupla minutes, please? Let me get this all out."

JD wasn't at all used to Buck saying please to him and, between that and Buck's ashen face and strained voice, the boy was really beginning to worry about his friend. Something about Buck's history with this O'Brien man was very wrong…horribly wrong. He felt a lump forming in his throat, but gulped it down. JD nodded his head, letting Buck know that he would keep quiet and let his friend continue.

Buck took a deep breath, exhaled and began.

"JD, when I wasn't much older than you are, I made my way out to Kansas. Just like you, I was looking for adventure. I don't think I was in Kansas City more'n about two weeks when I met up with ole Bill O'Brien. Lord, he was a character. I'd say he was only about thirty then, but he sure acted like he had lived the life. Smooth as Ezra and as cool as Chris. Nobody had really heard of him yet back then, but he'd already been breaking the law. 'Course, I didn't know that when I met him. He was gambling in a saloon and I can't remember what all exactly happened, but it came down to me bein' a smart-ass and instead of Bill killin' me like any number of other men might've back then, he took kinda a liking to me. It didn't take long for Bill to ask if I wanted to ride with his friends, and since I didn't have any friends of my own around, I thought sure."

JD was watching Buck as he related his story. Buck's expression was becoming more introspective, but his eyes still looked haunted.

Buck continued. "I had fun riding with Bill at first, JD. Hell, we drank, gambled, partied and rode. Every once in a while, he and a few of the others would ride off some night, and although I should've known better, at first I bought their stories. He was robbing banks and stages by then, but I was too stupid to admit it. After a few more weeks, the guys were starting to talk about their escapades around me and, well, the way they told the stories made everything sound harmless. They never talked about anybody gettin' hurt and they bragged about stealing money from big shots like the banks and railroad…they were so casual about it, kid, it didn't seem like they were really doing anything wrong."

Buck stopped talking for a moment and closed his eyes; creasing his brow almost as if he was in pain. Concerned, JD was about to ask if he was all right, when the older man leaned his head back against the wall and reopened his eyes. He shifted his gaze down to the boy, and JD could feel Buck's sadness. JD knew that the bad stuff was coming, but if Buck was worried about JD's forgiveness, it wasn't necessary…JD would forgive Buck anything. The boy looked up at his friend and gave him a slight, but encouraging smile.

Buck felt warmed by the kid's sympathetic smile and continued. "Before you know it, JD, I was riding out one night with Bill and his gang, headin' for my first bank robbery. All went well; nobody got hurt, and we got away with it. It was a rush, JD. I actually enjoyed it. Everyone was right pumped up and we all went out and drank and had a good time afterwards." Buck hit his head against the wall, berating himself. "God, I was such an idiot!"

The older man breathed a ragged breath and continued. "That was the last night I had any fun with 'The Fox,' kid. The next time we went to do a bank job, a guard got killed. Bill said he shot him in self-defense, but I saw what really happened…he killed him just for the hell of it, JD. God, I felt sick, kid. I wanted to get the hell out of there, but ole Bill, he could read you like a book. He became my shadow that night, and dragged me to a saloon with the rest of the gang…to celebrate." Buck practically spat out celebrate. His mind was reeling, as if he was reliving that night.

"The night got worse, kid. O'Brien was all fired up, more than I'd ever seen him before. I think killing that guard gave him a real rush. He got drunk and then started messin' with the working girls."

JD was beginning to tense. He sensed that Buck's affection for working girls would have a serious impact on the story. Buck was a defender of all women, but, as the son of a prostitute, he held a special place in his heart for their kind. The kid held his breath and waited for Buck to continue his story.

Buck's eyes regained their fire of earlier in the day, as he began to recount what had happened in the saloon.

"He started roughing up one of the girls, JD. Right in front of everyone in the place. No one would do anything to stop him. Everyone was afraid of him already by then. He kept slapping her around. I told him to stop, but that just made him laugh and he took it out on the girl. He started to beat her up. I had to stop him, JD. I couldn't let him keep it up!"

Buck was looking down at JD with pleading eyes; the kid just had to speak. "Of course you couldn't, Buck. I wouldn't expect you to do anything, but save her," the boy said reassuringly.

"But, I didn't save her, kid," Buck choked. "I still remember that night like it was yesterday. I just snapped, and went after O'Brien. There was shouting and screaming, and then 'bout four of his men grabbed holda me. O'Brien was grinnin' at me and he still had a hold of the girl. He looked right at me and laughed…and told me I couldn't save her."

Buck paused a moment. He seemed to be having difficulty catching his breath, and JD was becoming alarmed. The older man looked down at the boy, his dark eyes blazing. "And then he snapped her neck, kid. Right in front of me, God, and everyone." Buck's voice was barely audible; remembered grief now overriding his anger. "He killed her with his bare hands, kid…just to prove a point."

JD was horrified. To think he had been excited about meeting this madman. He knew O'Brien hurting that girl would have devastated Buck. Buck had too soft a heart to witness something like that and not lose a piece of himself in the process. The boy looked up at his friend and saw the tracks of tears streaking his face, and JD's eyes filled, too. JD slipped his arm behind Buck, resting it on his friend's back to console him. "It wasn't your fault, Buck. You did everything you could."

Buck was moved by the boy's attempt to comfort him. God, he's such a good kid. That's why he can't come along this time. I can't let anything happen to him. The big man smiled at JD, gently ruffling his hair and then wrapping his arm around the boy's neck.

"Story ain't over, kid." He wiped his eyes and took another ragged breath. "A part of me didn't care what was gonna happen next, but another part of me wondered just what the hell he was gonna do to me, seeing as I attacked him 'n all. Well, it didn't take long to find out. While his men still held onto me, ole Bill beat the shit outta me. Busted my ribs; knocked me out. I figured I was done for, but instead I woke up a day or so later in a doctor's sick room…Problem was, I didn't know it at the time, but the doctor wound up bein' Bill's brother."

Buck paused again, trying to will the memory away.

"And, kid…he was another sick bastard."

JD didn't really know why, but he was shocked that a vicious criminal like William O'Brien would have a real doctor for a brother. And what does Buck mean about him being a sick bastard, too? JD trembled. This whole story was unbelievable. Buck had grown silent again, but his eyes were telling the boy that there was more of this story to come, and none of it would be good. JD had never before seen Buck look so vulnerable. It frightened him more than Buck's earlier tirade had. JD wasn't experienced in the ways of offering comfort, but he sensed that sticking close to his friend right now was what Buck needed most. Buck's arm still hung around JD's neck, so the kid settled back against it, telling his best friend to take his time with his story. My turn to look after ya.

Buck was in turmoil and he felt almost disoriented. Remembering this nightmare was killing him, and at the same time, his thoughts kept shifting to JD, and keeping him safe from O'Brien. His gaze settled onto the boy next to him, and Buck shook himself into the present…JD was here, out of danger, and he would do anything to protect him. Buck swallowed his fear and carried on with the story.

"Kid, when I woke up at this doctor's, I thought I was dying. I couldn't think straight…couldn't lift my head or arms. Jesus, I was scared. Thought maybe O'Brien had crippled me. Pat, the 'doc,' acted real sympathetic, but there was somethin' about him that just gave me the creeps. Guess between not really trusting him and trying to figure out why O'Brien would let me live, it just felt like something wasn't right. I was stuck in that bed for another two days before I found out I was right. One night I heard ole Bill talking to Pat in another room. Bill was laughing…I knew that laugh anywhere. Listenin' to them is how I found out that Pat was Bill's brother and that he liked to experiment with potions and medicines. He was messin' me up but good, kid, putting somethin' in the tonic he was giving me. Never did find out what was in it. I started pouring the tonic into the chamberpot and dilutin' it with water so's he wouldn't know. It took me a coupla days to get most of my strength back, and when I did, I took off that night through the window. To this day I don't know what Bill and Pat had planned for me, but I sure as hell wasn't sticking around to find out. I didn't look back for five years."

JD was mortified. The O'Briens had put Buck through hell and JD hated them for it. JD felt a certain pride though too, that Buck could outsmart them and get away.

It then dawned on the boy that Buck had said he didn't look back for five years. He was afraid to ask, but did so anyway…

"Buck, what happened after five years?"

Buck looked so sad. He rested his chin on the boy's head for a moment before continuing.

"It was in Texas, kid. I was riding with a trail herd. When we got close to El Paso, a bunch of us went into town to cut loose. I was havin' a helluva good time sparkin' a showgirl from one of the saloons. She called herself Delilah. Pretty as a picture, she was." Buck's expression grew cold. "She was sittin' on my knee in the saloon, when I heard that godforsaken laugh."

JD shuddered.

"I drew my gun, kid, but it was too late…he shot her. O'Brien hadn't forgotten me and he knew just how to get to me. Delilah died in my arms before the town's doctor even got to the saloon. Me and a couple of the boys went after them, but Bill just disappeared. I tried to find him. Hell, I didn't care if he killed me, but no one would talk, and even the law wouldn't help. He got away on me, JD, and another girl was dead to show for it."

Buck's heart was breaking all over again and JD wished he could do more for him. "I'm so sorry, Buck," he murmured.

As Buck's eyes filled, he whispered his thanks to the boy and tightened his hold on him.

"Over the years I kept looking out for O'Brien, kid. I would hear stories about him, but never saw him. Eventually, Chris and I met up and became friends and then he met and married Sarah. We were like family then and my memories of O'Brien just kinda faded away. I never, ever shoulda let my guard down though," he sighed.

"I guess it would've been about seven years ago, now. Adam was still just a baby and Chris and I had to go to Yuma to buy some stock for Chris' ranch. Neither of us were happy about leavin' the family alone, so once we collected the new horses, we saddled up for home…didn't even stop for a drink.

We were riding out of town, when I heard the gunshot. Chris was hit bad and fell off his horse. The new horses damn near trampled him, too. O'Brien shot him in the back, JD. I got to Chris right away and pulled him to safety and that's when I heard O'Brien calling after me. 'It's been a long time,' he said and then he laughed that f***ing laugh and…" Buck trailed off and looked away from the boy.

"What is it, Buck?" JD was frightened by his friend's grief stricken appearance.

Buck's eyes were tightly closed, trying to shut out the vivid memory. When he finally spoke, his words were strangling him. "JD, the last thing that maniac ever said to me was, 'I know how to destroy you, Buck…don't get close to anyone.'"

O'Brien's words echoed in JD's mind. Don't get close to anyone. My God! O'Brien has it in for Buck. The realization had struck, and JD now understood…everything. As much as he tried to, he couldn't shake off the small tremors that were working their way along his spine. He didn't want Buck to feel them.

Buck felt like holding on to JD for dear life as the impact of O'Brien's words hit him over and over again. He had honestly thought this nightmare from his past was long gone. As JD's concerned hazel eyes met those of Buck's wounded soul, Buck knew that the kid understood. He pulled the kid a little closer, locked eyes with the boy, and vowed, "he may have found me again, little brother, but I'm not gonna let him hurt you. I promise."

JD swallowed his own fear as his mind raced. He knew Buck wasn't thinking straight, so he would have to snap Buck back into reality and take control. Okay, O'Brien's in military custody. He can't get at me or Buck…unless his gang sets him free. JD was a bright kid. He understood why Buck and Chris didn't want him riding with them. They were sure he would be a target for O'Brien, or his gang, once they found out Buck was involved. There would be too many bad guys gunning for him for the Seven to handle. Damn. He hated being the kid! The guys would end up spending all their time watching out for him, and not themselves, whether JD liked it or not…especially Buck. JD couldn't let that happen. One of them could get hurt, or worse, and it would be because of him. He looked up at Buck, who still seemed in a daze, and suddenly felt guilty. The boy realized he had let his pride and his stupid dime-novel enthusiasm get away on him, and managed to scare the hell out of his best friend in the process. Time to do right.

"Come on, Buck." The kid got up and pulled the bigger man up to his feet. Despite the amount of alcohol Buck had consumed, he was sober. Still, JD felt compelled to keep hold of him ~ keep the contact. He had to snap Buck out of the state he was in. "Buck, O'Brien hasn't found us. You've found him, and you're gonna be the one in control this time. You can finish this, Buck! You're riding with the best and he won't win this time!"

Buck blinked a few times, and JD could see clarity returning to his friend's eyes. The big gunslinger tilted his head to the side, not yet comprehending if the kid was actually giving in. "Kid, does that mean you're not going to push comin' with me?"

JD shrugged his shoulders. "Naw, Buck. I ain't afraid of O'Brien, you know, but…but I think it's best if you, Chris and the others just have O'Brien and each other to worry about. I'm gonna hate stayin' behind, but I'd just slow you down."

Buck felt so relieved. He had been so sure that JD would put up another fight, or maybe follow them, but now he trusted that the kid was being honest with him. With a mixture of pride and sorrow, Buck realized, My God, he's growing up!

He threw his arm around the kid's neck once more and began to usher the boy to the livery door. "Kid, you ain't never gonna slow us down, but I'll tell ya, this trip will be a helluva lot easier on me if I know you're stayin' behind. I couldn't live with myself if something happened to ya."

JD grabbed his horse's reins and walked along with his friend. "It's okay, Buck. I'll stay here. You don't hafta worry."

"Uh, JD. Where're you going?" Buck asked, wondering why JD was leading his mare out of the stable.

The kid looked confused. "I was gonna take her for a ride. Why?"

Buck was embarrassed. "Well, Chris said you were headin' here, and he thought…well…and we both thought that you…well, you were mad and…Aw, hell. Never mind!"

JD couldn't help but laugh. "Geez, Buck. I ain't no little kid who's gonna run away from home just because I'm mad at ya. Hell, I was mad, but I was just gonna go for a ride to cool off." JD smoothed his hand over his mare's mane, and she nuzzled his shoulder. "Look at her. She still wants to go, so I have to take her for at least a little run. It wouldn't be fair if I didn't!"

Buck grinned. Okay, so he's still a kid. Thank-you, God. Buck faced the boy and placed his hands on JD's shoulders. "You're sure you're all right, then?"

The kid's face grew serious. "I ain't gonna be all right until I see the six of you ride back here after the mission, Buck, but I guess I'll do for now, okay? You?"

The kid could always make Buck smile. He finally pulled the kid into a bear hug, and for once JD didn't protest. "Same here, son. Same here." Releasing the kid, Buck held the mare's bridle with one hand and tousled the kid's hair with his other. "Now, get on up there and take this lady for a ride. We'll be in the saloon when you get back. Go on, now. Git!"

As Buck watched the kid mount up and ride down the main street of Four Corners, he felt at ease for the first time since the judge's arrival.

Maybe this day won't turn out so bad after all.