The following story is a work of fan fiction, and is not intended to infringe on the copyright of MGM, Mirsch, or any other Powers That Be. I do not claim the characters, setting, or concept, but the story is mine. The only profit I receive is the enjoyment that comes from writing, and since that's almost the only profit I get from my job, there's no point in suing.

Ratings/Notes/Warnings: PG-13ish for language and violence. At the time this story was written, only five or six episodes had aired, so some points of the story might contradict canon. Inaccuracies are probably the result of too much TV; if I got something wrong, please let me know.

by Katie

The small, dusty town was quiet, for once. No noisy, drunken trail herdsmen shooting off their mouths and guns, no cattle barons storming in with designs on any of the businesses, not even an angry wife screaming at her husband to get her out of this uncivilized hellhole before she found someone who would. JD Dunne leaned back in the wooden chair conveniently situated in front of the sheriff's office and enjoyed the peace.

In his brief stint as sheriff, he'd come to appreciate the view from that chair. He could see from one end of the town's main street to the other just by turning his head, and even had a fairly good view of the secondary street that branched off in a V from the main street. Now that he was only one member of the law-keeping body of the town--at least for the next couple of weeks, until Judge Travis returned--he only used the chair when he found it free. That wasn't too often, given that his older friends, Buck in particular, seemed to have the same fondness for the view that he had, although JD occasionally thought that Buck only used the chair because he knew JD liked it.

Now, though, the only one of his friends who was still in town was Ezra, and Ezra had been up too late last night at the saloon to have any wish for a seat involving direct exposure to sunlight. The others all had business elsewhere. Chris and Vin were out checking on a report of an outlaw gang that was supposedly setting up residence in a well-fortified canyon only a few miles from town. Chris said something about "knowing thy enemy" and told Buck not to come after them unless they'd been gone longer than a week. Nathan left the day before for Allardville to get some medical supplies that he was running short of, and Josiah rode along to get some material for the altar at the church. Buck departed early this morning to escort Mrs. Travis to a farm a few miles out, where a friend of the newspaper editor's was giving birth. JD grinned as he thought about that. Buck insisted he was just helping out a lady who had, after all, helped them on occasion, but JD had a feeling that Mrs. Travis's blonde hair and blue-grey eyes hadn't hurt much, either.

That left JD and Ezra as keepers of the peace until the others returned. JD expected Nathan and Josiah back later that day, and Buck could come in at any time, as could Chris and Vin, for that matter. In the mean time, the town had been having a strange period of quiet, leaving Ezra free to practice his card-dealing skills on the locals and JD to fantasize about what he'd do if a crisis came up. Nice as the quiet was, it was also a little boring, and he couldn't help but imagine the look on his friends' faces if he managed to stop a bank robbery single-handedly, or took down a drunken cowboy who was threatening a group of women and small children, or . . . .

With a sigh, JD let the legs of the chair thump to the ground. Not that anything like that was going to happen. He wasn't that lucky. Working with the older men was great, it had gotten him into--and more importantly, out of--some exciting and dangerous situations that he probably would either never have experienced or wouldn't have survived otherwise. It had been great. The only problem was that all of them, particularly Buck, saw him as a kid who was as likely to screw up as to come through for the other guys.

Of course, he thought with a wince, he had screwed up from time to time. The mixture of horror and embarrassment he'd felt when the cylinder of his gun had fallen out and rolled under the foot of Lucas James' man could still make his face hot. JD knew, though, that he was as capable as the others of handling a dangerous situation. He just needed a chance to prove it.

He'd hoped, when Buck had left town this morning, that he might get his chance. What were the odds of this unnatural peace lasting for yet another day? While Buck was here, JD knew he didn't have a chance in hell of proving his crisis-handling abilities. If anything remotely dangerous had come up, Buck would have taken charge and would have been royally pissed at JD if he even attempted to deal with the situation himself. Buck didn't seem to have any confidence in JD's ability. Every time JD got himself involved in anything, Buck started yelling about how stupid and inexperienced he was.

JD fully intended to prove himself to Buck one of these days. He'd show the older man that he was as capable of keeping himself alive as any of the others. Now if something important would just happen soon, before Ezra returned to the land of the living or any of the other guys returned to town . . . .

JD couldn't help but wonder if his wish was about to be answered when, an hour or so later, he spotted a cloud of dust quickly approaching the outskirts of town. Probably nothing, of course. At best it might be some of his friends returning. But he could still daydream that it was the outlaw gang, who, after giving Chris and Vin the slip, had decided to ride in and raze the town.

Naturally JD would have to stop them, and with a few well-chosen, menacing words delivered in the exact copy of Chris's deadliest tone that he'd been practicing for weeks now, Buck's best cocky grin, and a well-aimed revolver with its cylinder firmly attached, he'd have them run out before anyone else had a chance to interfere. Oh, it might take a few shots, which would of course hit their mark on the first try, but the noise would simply serve to make sure the townspeople were present, if well-hidden, to see his triumph. With any luck, Ezra would actually wake up and come out just in time to see the desperadoes turn tail and run.

Hell, as long as he was fantasizing, they'd run right past all five of his absent friends as they returned to town, and they'd be greeted with the sight of "the kid" standing in the middle of the street, notably uninjured, smoking gun hanging from his hand as he smiled modestly at the townspeople's praise. JD snorted. He really had been reading too many of those dimestore novels.

The dust cloud had gotten closer as he daydreamed. Now at the edge of town, it was separating into the individual shapes of several men on horseback. JD squinted at them for a minute before determining that they weren't anyone he knew. They didn't seem to be anyone he wanted to know, either. Dirtier and less shaven than even a hard cross country trip would account for, they all had the hard, cold expressions that JD had come to associate with people he usually wanted to keep his distance from. In fact, they all looked distinctly like Chris in an extremely pissed off mood, but without the faint glimmer of kindness that lurked in the back of Chris's eyes no matter how angry he was.

JD didn't consciously reach for his gun, but the solid feel of its butt in his hand made him feel slightly more secure. He gave it a quick pat and stood up, moving to lean against a post at the edge of the porch as the men drew closer.

The apparent leader was a big man, well over six feet and nearly twice as wide as Josiah, and seemingly all muscle. He wore dusty jeans, a shirt that probably hadn't seen the inside of a washtub since before JD was born, and a ripped leather vest that would never meet around his broad chest. There was nothing shabby about his gun, however: a mean-looking, well-cared for Colt .44 with ivory grips. JD found himself wondering where the man had stolen such a beautiful weapon. The man had a cruel face, big lips pulled into an apparently permanent sneer and brown eyes so cold that JD had to suppress a shiver. A long scar ran from his temple across his left eye and nose to stop in the middle of his right cheek. It added to the overall menace the man was exuding as he pulled his horse to a stop in front of the sheriff's office.

"I'm lookin' for the local law, boy. Any idea where I might find him?" The man's tone left no doubt that he didn't even consider JD a candidate for the job.

JD bristled. It was annoying enough that his friends treated him as a kid. He certainly didn't need a perfect stranger to do it as well.

"Well, I guess that'd be me," he drawled without any attempt at politeness, drawing himself up as straight as he could and wishing vaguely that he was about a foot taller. "What can I do for you gentlemen?" He infused as much sarcasm in the last word as he could manage, but the big man just gave him a nasty grin.

"Gentlemen. I like that, don't you, Cole?"

The man sitting next to him, smaller and leaner but just as mean-looking, spat meditatively and looked JD up and down as if he was looking at a horse he was pretty sure he wouldn't be buying.

"What can you do for me, boy?" The big man grinned, showing a mouthful of brown, tobacco-stained teeth. "What can you do for me. Well, I guess you can get down off that nice little porch of your'n and face me like a man. If you ain't too scared, that is."

JD blinked. "What?"

"I said, get down off that porch and face me, you whining little puke. I'm callin' you out. God, what are these children comin' to these days? Don't know nothin' about tradition. You noticed that, Cole? They don't know nothin' about tradition."

Cole spat again.

JD shook his head, feeling like he'd walked into a room in the middle of a conversation. "You want to fight me? Now? Why?"

"'Cause you ask too many questions, boy. Now, you gonna face me, or you gonna run cryin' home to mama?"

The man's tone reminded JD of nothing so much as the school yard bully he'd spent most of his second-level year avoiding. JD had a strong urge to laugh in his face. Who the hell did this clown think he was, anyway, riding into a strange town and challenging the first person he talked to? He was just lucky he hadn't run into Buck, or he'd listening to one of Buck's long, boring lectures on the reality of western "traditions" right about now.

This was his chance, though, the one he'd been waiting for to show the guys he could handle a crisis as well as any of them. All he had to do was get these morons to leave town peacefully--or, hell, not peacefully, if that's what they were going to insist on. JD had a sudden vision of himself standing heroically in the middle of the street, the only thing between the town he'd sworn to protect and these desperadoes who obviously intended no good.

The image of the lone gunman, fighting in a duel to the death to protect his honor or family and property, had always appealed to JD. It was really what he'd pictured for himself when he'd decided to come out west in the first place. The one brave, lonely man, physically placing himself between what he cherished and the danger that threatened, standing alone on the streets of a town as the enemy drew on him. Then, once the enemy's gun had cleared leather and there was no question of the justness of the fight, the hero would whip out his weapon and either shoot a hole through the enemy's heart or shoot the gun out of his hand, depending of course on the evilness of the enemy . . .

JD shook himself out of the vision and glanced around at the men surrounding him. The one thing his vision had never included was the enemy outnumbering the hero ten to one. It kind of put a crimp in things. He suddenly wished that Ezra would get his butt out of bed and decide to go for a little walk past the sheriff's office, and while they were at it, Buck, Nathan, Josiah, Chris, and Vin could come back to town any second now without making him all that unhappy. Not that he couldn't handle the situation, but even Chris didn't turn up his nose at having a little backup.

No help seemed to be forthcoming, however, so JD took a deep breath, hoped the men surrounding him hadn't noticed his distraction, and set about handling the situation. His solution was going to have to be good, too. He could see the tops of people's heads sticking up over window ledges and around doors. Folks around here were used to violence and had no intention of missing a good show, as long as they were out of the line of fire. If JD didn't want to lose their respect completely, he was going to have to get rid of these men quickly and decisively. Where the hell was Ezra, anyway?

"Look, why don't you just ride on. I've got no cause to fight with you, and people around here don't need any more trouble, which is exactly what you'll get if you try to start anything. Best thing for us all is if you just leave now." He didn't really expect them to listen to reason, and he wasn't disappointed.

The leader simply snorted and drawled, "On top of being a whinin', pukin' baby, I guess you're a coward, too, ain't ya? I ain't afraid of any trouble you could give me, boy. Now step down here and face me, or I'll shoot you where you stand."

With a feeling of doom, JD stepped down into the circle of men. They just weren't going to let him out of this without a fight. At least the leader wanted a duel, one-on-one instead of ten-on-one. That gave him something of a chance. The men silently shifted to let him through, none of them showing any emotion or even signs of life beyond that movement. JD could hear the creak of leather as the leader dismounted and followed him out into the center of the street.

As they faced each other, JD felt this almost surreal sensation of calmness, and time seemed somehow to slow down. This was different from the other gun battles he had been in, where things happened so quickly and he was so busy trying to be sure he only hit enemies, not friends, that he really didn't have time to examine his feelings until it was over. Now, he was minutely aware of everything around him: the silence in the streets as the whole town seemingly held its collective breath, the harsh rasping of air in his throat, the hard, gloating smile on the big man's face.

Sweat slicked JD's palms. He rubbed them sharply on the legs of his jeans. Swallowing didn't help the dryness in his throat at all. The butt of his gun felt less reassuring than it had before; now it seemed slippery and too small to get a good grip on. He flexed his hands, looked into the big man's cold eyes, asked, "On three?"

The big man's feral grin grew a fraction wider. "Sure, boy, on three. I'll count."

JD nodded, glanced around again. Still no Ezra.


JD blinked the sweat out of his eyes. In the instant of time it took him to refocus, the big man's gun was out and exploding too rapidly for him to even distinguish individual shots.

The strange thing was, it wasn't so much painful as it was surprising at first. The last thing he remembered before agony hit and turned blessedly to black was the shocked thought, "He didn't say three."

Beau Davies was a bad man, not just a criminal but a bully as well, and he was not only aware of the fact, he was proud of it. There were two things he insisted on where ever he went: first, that everyone in the vicinity be subject to his whims, and second, that they all be terrified enough to stay subject no matter what his whims might be. He'd found that such an arrangement made being a criminal much easier. He didn't much like having to escape from outraged posses after completing a successful stage or bank robbery, and having the posse in mortal fear of him usually took care of any inclination they had to actually catch him.

He was a simple man, though a cunning one, he mused as he and his men rode away from town toward their newest hideout. He had the basic intelligence not to stay in one place for too long. Even the most terrorized worm will eventually turn, after all, and he didn't want to be on the other end of the hook when it did. So he only stayed in an area for six months to a year, giving himself enough time to conquer the locals and pick them just dry enough that they didn't feel that they had no choice but to retaliate, then left for greener pastures. He enjoyed the thrill of conquest as much as the thrill of power, anyway, so moving on was rarely a problem.

Being a simple man, Davies had developed a simple plan. When he rode into a new town, he hunted down the local sheriff, if possible, or any convenient bystander if there wasn't a sheriff, and shot him. Then he disappeared for a few days, just long enough to let the outrage die down and the fear begin to build as people wondered what his purpose was, then he rode back in and did the same thing again. By the third or fourth time, the town was usually so cowed that they were more than happy to do whatever he required. Occasionally, someone would be brave and try to stand against him, but that was why Davies never rode alone. Anything he couldn't handle, and that wasn't much, his men could.

Take this kid today, for example. Brave enough, he supposed, to stand his ground when he was so severely outnumbered, but also incredibly stupid not to have run for it the second he saw Davies and his men approaching. Kid like that wouldn't have survived much longer anyway, and his death conveniently paved the way for Davies to set up camp in this town for a while. It'd been so easy, shoot him and ride away before anyone got up the gumption to shoot back. Should the kid have friends or relatives who were foolish enough to seek revenge, they'd find that they'd made a rather fatal mistake. Davies grinned to himself and urged his horse to move a little faster. The rush that came from starting a new conquest, from proving once again that he was the best--god, it made him feel so alive!

Buck Wilmington shifted uncomfortably in the wagon seat. God, give him a saddle any day. At least then you could shift your weight around some, take the pressure off. Of course, it was more difficult to share a saddle practically with a pretty lady, but there were ways around that inconvenience. It just took a little ingenuity. When it came to pretty ladies, Buck was strong on ingenuity.

He glanced at the lady sitting next to him. Pretty she certainly was, what with the hair the color of sun-bleached wheat and those intense grey-blue eyes that pierced straight through a man and made him feel like, if she wanted to know him, then he must be worth knowing. However, she could be better in the company department today. The long day at her friend's bedside had exhausted Mary Travis, and if she hadn't been so determined to get back in time to lay out tomorrow's headlines, Buck would have suggested that they stay the night at the Johnston's. Mary was a strong-willed lady, though, and when she made up her mind . . . well, they ended up making the trek back to town in the evening twilight in spite of Mary's drooping shoulders.

Buck was actually rather relieved to be heading back. A house involved in childbirth had no place for a strange man. Buck had spent most of the day out in the barn, part of it listening to the ramblings of the anxious first-time father. Give him a good gunfight over that. The whole experience made the fight in the Indian village look fun by comparison.

Anyway, he was feeling a little uneasy about being gone when so many of the others were gone as well. Ezra was a good man in a fight, but he tended to look out for himself first, and as good a kid as JD was, he had some pretty damnfool notions about what constituted a good idea sometimes. Buck had been hesitant about leaving, what with Chris, Vin, Josiah, and Nathan already gone. Mary'd been determined, though, and Buck couldn't see letting a lady ride out into the countryside on her own when there were supposed to be outlaws in the area.

They'd been gone less than a day, anyway, since the baby'd been nearly born by the time they arrived, and Nathan and Josiah had planned on being back by the afternoon. Everything'd be fine. He was just worried over nothing. Came from hanging around a cocky, wet-behind-the-ears kid with a positive talent for getting into trouble. A man never knew what he'd do next, and it seemed like every time Buck let him out of his sight for any amount of time, he damn near got himself killed. God, Buck had just left the saloon long enough to help Nathan get the injured Josiah home to bed a few weeks ago, and the kid had gone and gotten himself a job as sheriff when a whole crew of mean cowhands were out looking to break their boss out of jail. Surely, though, as quiet as things had been lately, the kid couldn't have found that much trouble in the time he'd been gone?

"A penny for your thoughts, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck shook himself out of his daze and turned his best smile on his passenger. She was rather beautiful, after all. "They're hardly worth that much, ma'am. I'm just ready to get home."

"Oh, me too. Me too." Mary sighed and brushed a stray lock of hair out of her face. "I do appreciate your taking time to escort me, Mr. Wilmington. I know you had other duties in town."

"No problem, ma'am. It was nice to get out into the country again." Buck felt a slight tug on the reins. The horses, sensing home nearby, had stepped up their pace. "We're nearly there, it should only be a few more minutes."

As soon as they entered the outskirts of town, Buck's niggling unease began to grow. All up and down the street, little clumps of people gathered, obviously discussing something that had them excited. In this town, excitement rarely meant anything good. Buck started looking closer at the groups of townspeople, hunting for his friends, but still hadn't seen any of them by the time he reached the stable where they had rented the wagon that morning. Mary had apparently noticed something odd as well, because she took his arm with a concerned frown and walked quickly back toward the center of town.

Buck had intended to stop by the saloon--the most likely place to find any of his friends--but as he passed Nathan's room after leaving Mary with a group of friends in front of the store, he saw Ezra sitting on the step, leaning against a post with a whiskey bottle held loosely in one hand and a strange, unsettling look on his face. It took a lot to throw Ezra, but something had happened that was bad enough to flap even the extremely unflappable gambler.

"Ezra? What's going on?"

It took Ezra a second to focus. When he did, and saw Buck standing in front of him, he took a long pull off the bottle and said flatly, "The kid's been shot."

Something in Buck when cold. He wasn't really aware of sitting down or grabbing the bottle from the gambler, but the next thing he knew, he was on the steps and had the sour taste of whiskey on his tongue. Damn kid managed to find trouble again.

"What happened? How bad is he?"

Ezra shrugged. "Nathan's working on him now. Has been for an interminable time. He was hit at least five times, it's rather miraculous that he managed to survive this long."

"What the hell happened?"

In the same, flat monotone, Ezra said, "It was around noon. I was still sleeping off the effects of an extremely interesting night when I was awakened by the sound of gunfire." His soft drawl and habit of using formal language made the words seem almost pleasant, but his expression in the dim light was haunted. "Before I had a chance to make myself decent, there came a pounding on the door--one of the Potter children come to tell me that our young friend had become involved in an altercation with some men of dubious character and intention. Naturally, I donned clothing and my sidearms and left immediately to investigate." He stopped, took the bottle from Buck, and drank from it for a long moment. One elegant, long fingered hand brushed across his eyes as if he wanted to remove an unpleasant sight.

When he finally resumed speaking, his voice had lost its usual refined, leisurely way of speaking.

"He was lying in the middle of the street. There was blood everywhere, covering him. The bastard who shot him was gone, and the damned sheep that live in this hellhole were standing around staring and whispering behind their hands. I had to draw my gun to get any of them to help me move him indoors. I bandaged him as best I could, but he was still bleeding when Nathan and Josiah finally arrived. I don't think I've ever seen anyone that bad who lived, Buck. The blood was everywhere . . . ."

"They left him to bleed to death in the goddamn street?" By the time he'd finished the question, Buck's voice had risen almost to a shout, but Ezra didn't seem to notice.

"They're afraid. They wouldn't tell me who shot him, how it'd started, anything. Didn't even want to help me carry him indoors."

The cold inside Buck had grown to monumental, soul-numbing proportions, so intense that he was vaguely surprised Ezra wasn't shivering from the blast chill of it. He stood and went around the building to the stairs that led to Nathan's room, not allowing himself to picture what he'd find there. He ascended the stairs and opened the door quietly, hoping to avoid startling Nathan if he was concentrating.

The room was bright, lit with several oil lamps in an effort to allow Nathan to see what he was doing. Nathan and Josiah were leaning over the bed where JD lay, Josiah with one arm under the kid's shoulders to prop him up, the other hand holding the bowl from which Nathan was taking sterilized bandages. Nathan's face gleamed with sweat as he wrapped JD's chest securely in the linen strips. There were already bandages on one leg and wrapped around his shoulder.

JD's face was ghostly white even in the yellow light of the lamps, and lines of pain had already marked his mouth and forehead. His ribs, what Buck could see of them under the bandages, were a mess of torn flesh and still-seeping blood. Nathan was working as carefully and quickly as he could, but still, in spite of being unconscious, occasional whimpers of pain sounded from the kid's mouth. Buck, who had never considered himself a squeamish man, felt bile rise in his throat, and had to swallow hurriedly to keep from losing his lunch right then.

Josiah looked up as he came in and nodded in acknowledgment.

"We're nearly done here. Did you see Ezra on your way in?"

Buck nodded.

"He told me what happened. How's the kid?"

"He'll survive. Probably. If he hasn't lost too much blood, and if the wounds don't get too infected, and he's lucky." Nathan fastened the last of the bandages and gestured for Josiah to lower JD to the bed. "He's a strong kid. All we can do now is hope for the best."

Buck nodded absently, most of his attention on the still form in the bed. The kid looked strangely young and fragile. It was rare to see him so still, and rarer yet to see him quiet.

The whole thing made Buck nervous. He'd only known JD for a few weeks. Why was it that the sight of him lying there made Buck feel sick to his stomach? Sure, he'd gotten a kick out of the kid almost from the moment they'd met, when JD had ridden into the corral where the other men were preparing to leave for the Indian village and promptly fallen off his horse. His complete ignorance of facts of life in the west had offended Buck's sensibilities so much that the older man had felt compelled to set the kid straight, and had found in the process that JD's enthusiasm and innocence were surprisingly refreshing to have around.

Still, Buck didn't let himself get so attached to people that it caused an actual, physical pain to see them suffering. No way. He'd learned his lesson the hard way; he wasn't going to get that involved ever again.

Nathan and Josiah moved efficiently around the room, straightening away the supplies and bundling up the piles of blood-soaked cloths that had littered the floor. Buck stayed out of the way, not yet willing to leave but sure that if he tried to help, if he actually had to look at those rags, there'd be more of a mess to clean up than there already was.

Trying to distract himself, he wondered idly where Josiah had gotten enough experience to move around a sick room with almost the same ease as Nathan. Not that it mattered, really, but it was a better train of thought than speculating on what he could say at the kid's funeral. What he really wanted was to see the kid wake up before he left. JD was so pale, the sweat leaving an unhealthy sheen on his skin, that Buck couldn't convince himself that the boy would truly be all right until he saw him awake for a moment.

Eventually, with a soft gasp, JD did wake up. His eyes searched the room blearily as confusion warred with pain and exhaustion on his face. Moving quickly, Nathan sat down beside him and raised his head enough to let him have a sip of water.

"Easy, now. You're okay, just a little shot up. Everything's going to be all right, hear?" The healer's soft bass rumbled on comfortingly, and JD relaxed minutely. His eyes still searched the room, though, until they settled on where Buck was standing back in a corner.

As his eyes met Buck's, Buck felt an odd lurch in his stomach, like someone had kicked him very hard, followed by a surge of anger. What right did the kid have putting that kind of responsibility on him? What right did he have to look so instantly relieved when he saw the older man? Buck neither needed nor wanted the responsibility, but his reaction to it was completely lost on JD, who had drifted back to sleep the minute he'd seen that Buck was in the room.

Without a word, Buck turned and stomped out, heading straight past Ezra to the saloon. There he ordered a bottle of whiskey, settled into a back table, and started drinking.

Two days later, when Chris and Vin finally arrived back in town, Buck was still drinking. Not very fast, and he was pausing to eat from time to time, so he wasn't drunk--but he wasn't sober either. He watched without comment as his two friends came in and joined him at the table, and silently offered them his half-full bottle.

As he took it, Chris gave him a sharp look. "Buck, is there something going on that we should know about?"

"How was your trip?" he asked in return, not so much to be perverse as because the whole topic of "what happened" would ruin the buzz he'd worked so hard for.

"Could have been better. We found something, a camp, but there wasn't anyone there. Could have been the base camp for an outlaw gang, or it could have been a rancher's outpost, or a squatter town." Vin downed his drink quickly. "Day we left, some men rode in--one of 'em real big, with a scar splitting his face. Figured we'd ask around. Face like that ain't one you'd forget. If they're local, someone'll know why they're there."

Chris poured Vin and himself each another drink. "So what happened around here while we were gone? Anything interesting?"

JD had lost track of how many times he'd made the transition from uneasy, pain-filled sleep to agonizing awareness. This time, he felt slightly more alive than he had since the first time he'd regained consciousness. The pain had abated to a more-or-less bearable level, and for the first time in a while, he was able to focus on something outside of his own body.

He was still exhausted, which seemed rather strange, since he'd done little but sleep for the past few days. The pain wasn't gone by any means, but it had receded enough that the other voices in the room caught his attention instead of just providing background noise as it had before. He recognized Chris's steady, even voice--when had he returned?--intermingling with Vin's softer drawl and Ezra's dripping-molasses tones. Then Josiah's deep voice joined in, and a second later Nathan's. Funny, he'd thought for sure that Buck was here, was almost positive he'd seen him at one point. Maybe it'd been a fever-dream.

JD was pretty sure that, with a little more effort, he could actually understand what his friends were saying, but when he tried to turn his head to look at them, a mixture of pain and dizziness hit him and he groaned out loud before he could stop himself. Silence descended immediately. J D felt a cool hand on his forehead and opened his eyes slowly to see five tense faces gathered around his bed.

Nathan gently moved his hand from JD's forehead around to his neck, lifting his head enough that he could sip at the water being offered to him. Even that slight exertion left him gasping. Nathan lowered him back to the bed and put his hand back on JD's forehead, giving him something to focus on as he rode out the pain.

"JD?" Chris's commanding voice broke through the last, diminishing wave, compelling him to open his eyes again. "Can you tell us what happened, son?"

Strange how difficult it was to remember how to make his mouth work. "Buncha men . . . rode in . . . challenged me. Said he'd kill me if . .. if I didn't." JD had to pause as he struggled for breath. There was a heavy weight on his chest in addition to the pain. It made breathing far more difficult than he could ever remember it being. "Said . . . count. . . three, but . . . shot . . . on one." He let his eyes drift shut, realizing with what would have been embarrassment, if he'd had more energy, just how naïve that made him sound. "Dumb, huh?"

He felt another hand on him, patting his arm.

"A man without honor deserves no respect." Josiah's voice hardened. "Nor mercy, either. You did fine, JD."

"Who was it that shot you? Someone you know?" Chris asked.

JD. forced his eyes open again. If he left them shut, he'd be asleep again in a few minutes. "Didn't know . . . big man, bigger'n Josiah. . . scar on's face . . . ."

His voice and consciousness began to fade at about the same time, and the last thing he remembered was a gentle voice saying, "Get some sleep, kid. We'll take care of everything."

When he awoke an indeterminable amount of time later, the room was considerably darker and emptier. A lamp had been lit, creating a soft golden glow that revealed Nathan sitting at a table across the room, methodically cutting linen into strips. In the chair next to the bed, Ezra sat shuffling his ever-present deck of cards. His expression, as usual, was virtually unreadable--if Ezra didn't want you to know what he was thinking, you didn't know--but when he glanced over at JD, his eyes looked . . . haunted?

"Hey, look who's decided to rejoin the land of the living."

Nathan looked over, then walked over to the bed and tested JD's forehead again before pulling down the sheets to check his bandages. "How you feeling, kid?"

"Like . . . shit." It was still hard to get his breath, but he was pleased to hear his voice coming out stronger than the last time he'd spoken.

Nathan grinned. "Good. With that many holes in you, I'm surprised you feel that good." He glanced over at Ezra. "I'm heading down to the café to get some of that soup they've been keeping warm, kid needs to get something in his stomach. You'll stay till I get back?"

Ezra nodded.

"Don't need . . . a nanny." JD called after Nathan's departing back, then winced as the exertion reminded him why he was in bed in the first place.

"Are you certain about that?" Ezra asked wryly. He shifted in his chair, hands moving faster as they made the cards do intricate tricks. "Not that I'd make a very competent one, obviously."

It took JD a moment to figure that one out. "Not your . . . fault."

Ezra's eyes remained focused on the cards. "I'm . . . not accustomed to working with others. My profession hardly encourages partnerships. Loyalty, watching someone's back, standing up for another--all foreign concepts." He stopped, obviously searching for words.

JD realized that that was about as much of an apology as the gambler was capable of at the moment, and certainly it was more than he needed.

"Not your fault," he repeated, stronger this time, but had to stop when Nathan came back into the room with a bowl of soup.

"All right, kid, let's see if we can get you sitting up so you don't get this all over my clean sheets."

It took Ezra and Nathan both to get JD upright, and by the time they were done, he could only manage a few bites of the soup before his hands started shaking too much to guide the spoon to him mouth. Nathan took over with gentle efficiency, and when the bowl was empty, JD felt much stronger. Exhausted, but stronger; at least, enough so that he dared a question that had been niggling at him since his first awakening.

"Is Buck back yet?"

Nathan and Ezra exchanged a quick look before Nathan answered, "Yeah, he's back."

JD fiddled with the covers for a second to hide the sudden flash of hurt that had nothing to do with his wounds. "I'm surprised he isn't over here yelling at me for getting shot." The end of the sentence was a little mangled as he tried to swallow a yawn, opening his eyes wide to keep them from closing all together.

"He's, ah, been busy trying to find out who shot you." Nathan stood and reached to help JD lay down again. "You need some rest, kid. No point in undoing all the healing you've done."

Pride made JD want to argue, but practicality--and the fact that he couldn't keep his eyes open even a second longer--won out, and he drifted peacefully to sleep.

Same table, different bottle. Buck hadn't moved any further from the saloon than to go to the outhouse since he'd walked in the night after JD had been shot. The other men had kept him up to date on JD's condition, and he supposed he should be happy that the boy was doing better. All he could really feel, though, was anger.

Damn kid, doesn't have the god-given sense to stay out of trouble for one day. Does he think someone's always going to be around to take care of him? And what the hell was that with standing there and letting the bastard shoot him? He can't be that stupid, thinking the bastard would actually wait until he counted to three. Where does he get this crap? Every time he thought about it, he got more angry. If the kid hadn't already been hurting more than any man deserved, he'd take him out somewhere and beat some sense into him. Well, if he thinks I'm going to keep wasting my time on someone who pulls such stupid stunts, he's gonna have to think again.

"What the hell are you doing?"

Buck jerked his head up to see a very angry Nathan Jackson descending upon him. "Getting drunk, last time I checked."

Nathan jerked out a chair and sat down, leaning forward to snap in a coldly furious voice, "I've got a kid up in my room hurt so bad his body don't know yet whether it's gonna live or die. What he needs is all his friends encouraging him to choose to live. He . . . ."

"What the hell does that have to do with me? I'm not his keeper."

"So Cain said, regarding Abel." Josiah claimed a chair next to Nathan. He filled all of their glasses from a fresh bottle he'd brought with him, then continued in calming tones, "JD respects you, Buck. He listens to you more than to any of us. If you tell him he'll be all right, there won't be a doubt in his mind. When you don't even go to see him, though, that's like telling him he's going to die."

Buck shook his head. "He don't never listen to me anyway. There ain't nothing I can do for him."

"So you're just gonna let him die 'cause you're feeling sorry for yourself? What kind of man does that?" Nathan shook his head in disgust.

"I ain't feeling sorry for myself. It just ain't my responsibility to look after that kid. He's already shown he don't care what I say."

Nathan reached out to grab his hand as he reached for his glass. "He was asking for you."

"Damn." Buck ignored the shot glass and took a long pull from the bottle. "Damn it all to hell."

He stood abruptly and stalked out the door into the rainy evening. By the time he'd reached the top of Nathan's stairs, he'd planned exactly what he was going to say. Maybe the kid did need some reassurance that he'd be okay. Well, Buck could do that, and didn't fault the kid at all for the need, hurt as bad as he was. But that wasn't going to let him off the hook for pulling that damnfool stunt in the middle of the street. By the time Buck got done with him, he'd never again even consider hesitating when it came time to pull his gun.

That resolution lasted about as long as it took him to open the door. The sight of the kid--pale, with that dark, unruly hair and eyelashes a stark contrast, looking as if a gentle breeze could shatter him--lying still against the pillows, drove Buck's speech completely from his mind. It was a relief when JD opened his eyes. The spark of life there eased Buck's sudden, irrational fear that the kid might have died without anyone noticing.

"Buck?" His voice was weak and raspy, and the undeniable pleasure in it made Buck's throat tighten with guilt.

"Hey, kid, how you feeling?"

JD rolled his eyes. "Why does . . . everyone ask me . . . that? How do I . . . look like . . . I feel?" His words came in gasps, probably as much from the tight bandages Nathan had used to stop the bleeding and bind his broken ribs as from the actual gunshot wounds.

Buck winced in sympathy. "Well, you won't be tempting any of my ladies away from me any time soon, that's for sure. Unless you find one that feels sorry for you, maybe."

JD grinned. It was a ghost of his usual smile, but it was something, and Buck's heart felt oddly lighter.

"So, you . . . want to go ahead . . . and yell at me? Get it . . . over with?"

Recalling his original purpose, Buck felt the anger come back, fueled by the kid's flippant attitude.

"Yeah, I could do that." He stomped over to the window, trying to give himself a chance to remember exactly what he'd planned on saying. Swallowing against the sudden thickness in his throat, he turned and snapped, "I could definitely do that. What the hell were you thinking? Bad enough you go up against, what was it, ten men by yourself. Bad enough you accept the bastard's challenge like you're some two-bit hero in those damn novels you got all your school-learning out of." He noticed, with a combination of satisfaction and shame, the two bright spots of red appearing on JD's cheeks as the kid listened to him. "But then you just stand there and let him shoot at you? Are you stupid, or just trying to get yourself killed?"

It took JD a couple of tries to get anything out, hampered as he was by weakness and indignation. " 'm not stupid. Couldn't draw. . . until he did. Not . . . honorable."

Buck felt his mouth drop open. He knew he looked like the village idiot, but he was too flabbergasted to care.

"Honorable? That wasn't about honor, junior. That was about who was biggest and meanest and smartest, and let me tell you, you did not win. There may be some damn code in that crap you read that says everyone has to be nice and polite and take turns and wait on each other to draw their goddamn guns, but this is real life. You wait for the other guy to be ready and you're dead, 'cause he sure as hell isn't waiting on you. He's shooting you while you're still trying to remember what comes after "two," and riding off laughing. Honor's for stories, kid. Real life is about survival."

JD's hands gripped the sheets, trying to suppress the anger he didn't have the strength to express. "Wouldn't have been fair." He had to stop for a moment, eyes closed as he rode out a wave of pain. Buck, feeling a touch of panic, was just about to run for Nathan when he opened them again. "Wasn't fair . . . what he did. Don't want . . . to be . . . like him."

With a sigh, Buck turned the chair next to the bed around so that he could straddle it, crossed his arms on the back, and leaned his head against them. "You're gonna be dead if you don't wise up." Buck looked up in time to catch a flash of pain in the kid's eyes that wasn't purely physical, and his voice softened of its own accord. "I told you, I don't want to have to come up with something nice to say at your funeral."

"Don't think . . . you're capable . . . anyway."

"Hey, I'll have you know . . . ." Buck launched into a long, involved, and completely fictional tale about a speech he'd once had to make in front of an audience that included at least two governors and a senator. By the time he drifted back to sleep nearly an hour later, JD was still smiling faintly.

"He's what?" Beau Davies bellowed. "I emptied my goddamn gun into the little puke and you're tellin' me he ain't dead?"

Teddy Barnett, a small, nondescript man who Davies frequently used to scout out potentially hostile situations due to his ability to blend in anywhere, just shrugged. " 'parently, they got theyselves a doc. Here tell the kid's got friends, too. Chris Larabee and some others just as bad as him. Mebbe we oughta let this'n go, boss."

"Chris Larabee, huh?" Davies could feel his blood heating up. He didn't like having his plans go haywire, particularly not when they were messed up by some young punk barely out of swaddle cloths. He did, however, enjoy a challenge. Larabee was said to be good,. The question was, was Davies better? Davies was accustomed to being better. He enjoyed the feeling, and didn't intend to lose it now. "How many others?"

"Five or six, f'rm what I hear. Boss . . . ."

Davies waved him off. "I'm thinkin' maybe we should go back, see about this kid. Doesn't do to have folks thinkin' they're gonna survive if I set out to kill 'em. Sets a bad prec-i-dent, don't you think, Cole?"

Davies' second-in-command grunted laconically.

Davies took that as an assent. "Early tomorrow, then, before anyone's up and lookin' for us. We'll just see how tough this Larabee is."

With JD on the road to recovery, the six older men agreed to set out early the next morning for the canyon where Chris and Vin had seen the outlaws. They left a little later than they'd originally planned, though, because Nathan had insisted on getting someone to check in on JD while they were gone, and the only two people he said he trusted enough to do an adequate job were Mary Travis and Mrs. Potter, the widow of the store owner whose death had instigated their becoming lawmen in the first place.

Mrs. Potter had developed a soft spot for JD, who'd been the first to take on the job of bringing her husband's killer to justice. Nathan felt sure she would make certain he stayed comfortable and didn't try anything stupid, like getting out of bed before he was ready. Mary Travis had already proven her friendship to them and had said that she was more than happy to get a chance to repay them for their help in protecting her son.

Still, even though Nathan proclaimed himself satisfied with his patient's care, Buck felt a twinge of unease as they finally left town. Kind-hearted as the two women were, they wouldn't be much use if someone actually attacked the kid, and God only knew what kind of trouble he could find lying by himself in that room all day. Buck had absolutely no doubt that he could, indeed, find trouble, even lying flat on his back and barely having the strength to sit up.

Worry about the kid wasn't the only thing plaguing him. He couldn't get the conversation of the previous day out of his head. The problem was, the more he thought about it, the less sure he was the kid was wrong. Sure, it was stupid to let someone shoot at you and not shoot back, and there was nothing wrong with taking whatever advantages fate gave you when you were fighting for your life. But in a larger sense, what the kid had said--well, hadn't said, really, but what Buck had filled in from the painful gasps the kid had managed to force out--about honor and fairness . . . . A man had to have principles, too. Had to stick to his word, follow some sort of moral code, or else he would be just like the bastard that'd shot JD.

When JD had said he didn't want to be like the bastard, it'd started Buck thinking about whether or not he was like him. Would JD say he didn't want to be like Buck, because Buck didn't have any honor either? The idea didn't sit very well. Buck still wasn't willing to concede that "honor" had to make a person be stupid, though.

"You look like a man with a lot on his mind." Josiah pulled up beside Buck and offered him his canteen. "Care for a drink?"

Buck took the canteen with a nod of thanks. "Just thinking about the kid, something he said yesterday. He's got some sort of fool notion in his head about honor--said he didn't want to be unfair to the bastard who was trying to shoot him, that's why he waited to draw his gun. He actually thought the bastard was going to play by his rules." Buck sighed. "Kid's gonna be lucky if he survives a year out here."

Josiah just smiled. After a moment's thought, he said quietly, "A man has to choose the path he wants to follow in life. Some are harder than others, and some are a hell of a lot safer." He took the canteen back and drank a long swallow. "The one JD's setting out on--it's not going to be easy or safe, but when he gets to the end, he won't have to look back and be ashamed."

"Oh, shit."

The curse from up ahead diverted Buck's attention from the conversation, but he filed Josiah's words away for later.

"Vin? What's wrong?" Chris pulled up behind the tracker and peered over his shoulder at the ground that he was staring at disgustedly.

Buck scanned it as well, but saw nothing aside from horseshoe prints to remark on.

"These tracks. Judging from the direction and number, I'd say they were our boys. They're headed for town, and they aren't too old. We had a rain last night, if the tracks were from yesterday, they'd be gone now."

"If they were headed into town, why didn't we pass them?" Ezra asked.

"Probably took the other fork at the crossroads, circled around in case anyone was watching for them and knew which direction they'd come in from. It'd be the smart thing to do."

"Can you tell for sure if it's them, or if they're headed for town?" Chris asked sharply.

Vin looked up at him from where he squatted next to the tracks. "Do you want to take the chance?"

JD shifted restlessly in the bed, listening to the late morning bustle coming in from the window Nathan had opened before he left that morning. By rights, he should have been out with the others, hunting down the man who'd shot him. Logically, he knew how stupid that was, given that--in spite of swearing to Nathan that he wouldn't--he'd stood up for a few minutes this morning and walked to the window. He'd had to lie down for quite a while afterwards before his head stopped swimming. Emotionally, though, he wanted to have a hand in resolving this mess. More than that, he wanted to prove to the older men, and to Buck especially, that he wasn't as stupid as the events of the other day made him appear.

Being bedridden gave a man a lot of time to think, once he got past the point where he was sleeping constantly. JD had gone back over the events of that day several times, from his early morning daydreaming to the actual shooting itself. None of those daydreams had included being shot--well, maybe a scratch, to give the beautiful young lady he was rescuing something to fuss over--nor had he truly considered how much being shot hurt.

In spite of what he'd said to Buck yesterday, he wasn't so sure that some probably fictional code of honor was worth this much pain. It was one thing to fight for something you believed in. It was another thing altogether to stand around getting shot because you expected someone else to follow a code that'd probably make them laugh their butts off if they ever heard it.

He sighed, then winced at the tug on his bandages. Nathan had loosened them this morning when he'd unwrapped them to clean the wounds, so JD was breathing much easier, but nothing except time would heal the holes in his chest--and ribs, and leg, and shoulder. He had resolutely avoided thinking about how close some of those holes had come to things he needed, like his heart. It would be a long time before thoughts like that didn't make him feel like he was going to lose his most recent meal.

Maybe Buck was right. Maybe he should forget about honor and focus on survival. Probably result in less bullet holes in his body, and it would certainly be easier on his wardrobe. He just couldn't help but wonder how long it would take him to go from doing what he needed to do to survive to doing what he wanted, no matter who got hurt in the process. He also wondered how long he could live with himself if he was constantly doing things he believed were wrong. Drawing his gun when that man--weird that he didn't even know the name of the man who'd almost killed him--wasn't ready would have been wrong. That was the whole purpose of a count in the first place. It made a duel a contest of skill, not dishonesty and chance. Could he have accepted winning if he'd known it wasn't a clean victory? A voice that sounded suspiciously like Buck's chimed in: would it matter if he was dead?

A sudden increase in the noise level outside the window broke into JD's thoughts. With more effort than he wanted to contemplate, he raised himself up and shuffled over to the window to see what was going on. The sight that greeted him made his blood run cold. It was him, the man with the scar, back with all of his men.

He was down in front of the general store this time, and although JD couldn't tell for sure, he appeared to have most of his men's guns pointed at a small group of women and children who stood in a huddle against the storefront. Standing up in his stirrups, the man raised his voice loud enough for the whole town to hear.

"I'm lookin' for someone. A boy, probly ain't feeling too good 'cause he's shot up kinda bad. I'm givin' you about fifteen minutes to get him out here in front of me, then I'm gonna start shootin' these pretty little child'rn. Then when I'm done with 'em, I'm gonna shoot their mamas. You don't want that t' happen, I'd suggest you get that boy out here now."

Those townspeople who'd been brave enough--or slow enough--to stay out in the open when Scarface rode in began whispering frantically amongst themselves. JD could hear one of the children being held hostage start to cry and be hurriedly hushed by her mother. He had no doubt that the townspeople would eventually give him up. Probably the only thing stopping them so far was the knowledge of what Chris and the others would do to them if they did.

It was a good feeling to know that there were people who cared enough about him to revenge his death, particularly since he was probably walking into it right now. Looks like honor wins out over survival this time, he thought wryly as labored to put on the clean clothes and gunbelt Josiah had left last night for when he was ready to wear them. Only problem is, it's gonna take me that fifteen minutes to get these clothes on and down the stairs, let alone walk half way down the street.

He hoped Buck and the others understood--hell, he hoped they got back before he reached the store, but with a strange feeling of déjà vu, he knew that wouldn't happen--that he just couldn't let those people die. He'd agreed to protect them, and even if he hadn't, he wasn't about to stand by and let women and children be killed if he could prevent it.

By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, he had decided that if was the operative word. Putting on his clothes had made him lightheaded, but the stairs . . . Between favoring his bad leg and trying not to jostle his punctured shoulder or broken ribs, the descent had been nothing short of hell, and he had to pause for a moment until he was sure he wasn't either going to puke or pass out. It was pretty much downhill from there, though, at least in a figurative sense. He stuck to the sidewalk as much as he could, not wanting to present too much of a target. Scarface didn't notice him until he was almost in front of him.

"Well, well, lookin' a mite poorly, there, boy. You should have saved us both trouble and died the first time."

JD grinned mirthlessly. The walk had drained him. he couldn't feel his feet at all, and his head seemed to be floating away from his body. On the positive side, nothing much hurt, or else it had just hurt for so long and so intensely that he wasn't noticing it anymore.

"Maybe you should have aimed better."

Scarface snorted. "Maybe so, maybe so. Don't think I'll have a problem this time, though. I don't like folks that mess up my plans, boy, and you. . . ."

"Can we just get on with this?" JD asked impatiently. It would be dreadfully embarrassing to pass out before he even had a chance to be killed, but if they didn't speed things up, that was exactly what he was going to do. He squinted doubtfully at the blurred outlines of the two Scarfaces. When had he turned into two people?

Scarface's eyes grew colder, then he grinned ferally as he dismounted. "Sure, little boy. You want to count again? Tell you what, I'll even let you do the counting this time, what do you say?"

That would have been fine with JD if all the blood in his body hadn't been determined to rush out through his feet, taking his breath with it. Talking was out of the question; he needed his mouth and what part of his attention that wasn't focused on Scarface's gun hand just to get air into his lungs.

Apparently Scarface didn't understand that, though. The instant JD opened his mouth to breathe, Scarface grabbed for his gun.

Buck had never ridden so fast in his life, and the other five men were right beside him the whole way. They didn't have much chance to get back in time, but they had to try. Buck wouldn't have been able to live with himself if he didn't at least know he'd tried.

They had just passed the first buildings on the edge of town when they heard the gunshots. Without having to plan, they split up. Nathan and Ezra headed toward Nathan's place, Vin and Chris circled around to approach the area--somewhere near the general store, it had sounded like--where the shots had occurred from the back, and Buck and Josiah continued forward at a dead gallop.

The tableau laid out for them would stay with Buck for the rest of his life, and cause its fair share of nightmares before he was able to put it behind him. The area in front of the general store was crowded with men on horseback, milling around in confusion as a stream of women and children rushed past them into the waiting arms of their families. In the center of all the confusion, a huge, crumpled body sprawled, leaking a slow trickle of blood into the ground, a dumbfounded expression in its face.

And in the center of the street, blood covering his shirt, smoking gun hanging loosely from his hand as he stared blankly at the corpse in front of him and ignored the worried inquiries of the newspaper editor and store owner, stood JD. The kid was swaying gently, like a sapling in a strong wind. Buck dismounted and hurried over to him, noting absently that his friends were rounding up the other outlaws and trusting him to handle the crisis in the middle of the street.

A vaguely proud feeling was warring with his concern as he approached the young man. It looked like he'd handled a bad situation pretty damn well. His weakness had apparently worked in his favor. Looking as he did right now, he had no doubt seemed completely unthreatening to the dead outlaw. All it took was one mistake.

"JD? You okay?" Buck asked quietly, not wanting to startle the young man.

"Buck?" The kid turned blank eyes on his friend. It took a moment for true recognition to set in. "I killed him, Buck."

"I know. It's okay. You want to give me the gun?"

JD glanced down curiously at his hand, as if he'd forgotten that he held anything in it. "Oh, sure."

Buck took the gun and shoved it into his belt in the back--a stupid thing to do, he'd probably end up shooting his butt off and God knew he'd've yelled at JD for doing the same thing, but he was going to need his hands free in a second.

"What do you say we go back to Nathan's? Looks like you're bleeding again."

JD looked from Buck to the dead outlaw, then back to Buck. "Buck, I'm sorry. I waited for him to go for his gun before I drew. I'm sorry."

It won't be easy, but when he gets to the end, he won't have to be ashamed.

"You did good, kid."

When it happened, Buck was ready. As JD's knees finally gave out, Buck scooped him up and cradled him gently, ignoring the blood that was staining his shirt the same color as the kid's.

"You did real good."

IceHunter wrote a poem based on "Honor." Dunne Gunning