Author's notes here.

by Katie

Eleven: Crush the Serpent With His Heel

The meeting with Stuart James and Guy Royal was set for midday at the saloon.  Whether either of them would show up, Buck didn't know.  The part of him that didn't trust them as far as he could throw them hoped they'd stay away.  His more practical side admitted that taking on all forty-plus men in Evans' employ without help was a good way to commit suicide.

So when he looked down the street and saw Guy Royal and three other men riding toward him, he wasn't sure if relief or trepidation was the stronger emotion coursing through him.

"That's one," Ezra commented from beside him.

"Yeah."  Buck straightened as Royal drew closer.  "One's not enough."

Royal led his men past them and into the saloon without a word.  One of the men stopped just outside the door, resting his hand on the butt of his gun.

"Howdy," Buck said, trying to be friendly.  The man just glared at him.

"Here comes Mr. James," Ezra interrupted before Buck could comment on the man's manners.

Stuart James had only brought two men with him, neither of them looking any friendlier than Royal's.  Buck and Ezra followed them into the saloon.  They had decided that Grainger's presence would be difficult to explain, so it was only Chris and Vin who sat with Royal at a table in the back.  Josiah was a hulking shadow up against the wall.  Royal's two men had stopped at the bar, but Buck noticed that they stood where they had a direct line of fire on the table.  James took his seat, gesturing to his men to join Josiah against the wall.  Buck and Ezra both took up position between the table and the rest of the saloon, blocking any curious bystanders.

"Well?" Stuart James said as soon as he set down.  "I don't got all day.  What's this all about?"

"That's what I want to know," Royal snapped.  "If you're trying to accuse me of killing that boy, I already told your men, I had nothing to do with it."

"We know who killed him."  Chris gave them both an assessing look.  "The same man who's trying to ruin the town and steal your land."

"Colter Evans?"  At the surprised looks turned his way, James gave a short laugh.  "I'm not blind.  He's been making a bid to own the territory since he showed up."

Royal nodded.  "He offered me a ridiculous amount for my land several months ago.  He didn't seem too pleased when I turned him down."

"It's not just Evans," Chris said.  "He's working for someone.  We don't know who, but whoever it is has a lot of money to throw around and isn't scared of killing to get what he wants."

James was studying Chris.  "So you want revenge for the kid.  Why should I get involved?"

"Like you said, Evans and his boss are trying to own the territory, and they've brought in the men and weapons to make it happen."

"I was out there a couple of days ago," Vin added.  "Counted upwards of fifty men and more than enough rifles and ammunition to go around."

Buck felt a glimmer of satisfaction at the flummoxed expressions on both ranchers' faces.  It was about time someone else got bad news.

"By ourselves," Chris said, "we don't stand much of a chance against that many men.  I've got five men, plus maybe a few from the town.  Royal, you've got twenty, maybe twenty-five men, right?  And James, you've got about the same.  If we go up against Evans one at a time, we'll all lose.  But if we throw in together, we outnumber him."

James tapped his fingers on the table thoughtfully.  "I didn't survive this long not being able to fight my own battles."

Chris shrugged.  "It's your land.  Evans intends to own it before the railroad comes through.  I don't reckon you've survived this long by letting people walk off with what's yours, either."

James stared at him for a long minute, his eyes hard enough that Buck slipped his hand up to rest on the butt of his gun.  Royal was watching the two avidly, apparently not intending to make up his mind until he saw which way the wind was blowing.

"True," James said finally.  "All right, then.  I'm in.  If you double-cross me, I'll have your guts for a clothes line."

Chris raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment.  Chris always had been better than Buck at knowing when to let things lie.

"What's the plan?" Royal asked.

Chris answered, "We need to hit them all at once.  The longer this draws out, the more likely we'll lose people."

"You're not suggesting we attack Evans' ranch."  Royal shook his head.  "If he has the weaponry you claim he has, that would be suicide."

"An ambush?" James suggested.  "Draw them out, make them come to us, then hit them on all sides."

Chris nodded.  "That's what we were thinking.  There's a point where the road coming from Evans' ranch into town leads through a bottleneck between a couple of hills.  There's enough rocks and brush for our men to take cover.  Once Evans and his crew ride through, we can send one group around to block their retreat, and we should have them without too much danger of getting killed ourselves."

"And how do you propose we get Evans to bring all of his men through that particular spot while we're waiting for them?" Royal asked.

Buck bit down on a grin.  He'd asked the same question when they'd discussed the plan the day before.  He still didn't entirely like the answer, even if he did admit it made sense.

"We're going to send a small group out to attack the ranch house."  Chris raised a hand to stall their objections.  "Just a hit-and-run attack, but we're going to make sure Evans knows who hit him.  We want to make him mad enough to bring his men and come after us, right into our ambush."

"What if he doesn't take the bait?" Royal asked.

Chris gave him a dry look.  "Then I'll send Buck and Ezra out there with a stick of dynamite and blow the place up."

Royal's wince made Buck's entire day.

Opening his eyes, JD looked around sleepily and realized that he was alone for the first time in . . .  a long time.  There was a heart-pounding moment of I knew it wasn't real before he heard the voices coming from outside the door.  Chris and Nathan, he thought tiredly, knowing the voices even though he couldn't hear the words.  He closed his eyes again and waited for his heart to slow down.

It was stupid.  He was a grown man; he didn't need someone to watch over him constantly.  He'd survived for--for a long time in the wild without anyone around.  He could certainly handle lying in a bed all by himself.  It would just be easier if he didn't have that crazy voice in the back of his mind asking how he knew he was in a bed and not huddled up under a bush somewhere?  How did he know the guys were really there?  He'd seen them enough when he was hiding, fever and exhaustion making him imagine all sorts of things that weren't real.

But he wasn't sick anymore.  He knew the difference between what was real and what wasn't, and letting himself think anything else was stupid.  He could just imagine the look on Buck's face if he said he didn't think Buck really existed.  Not that he would ever admit to it.  He'd messed up enough in front of the guys to last him a lifetime.

Sighing, he shifted position, trying to find a way to lie that didn't make his arm or his knee or some other random point on his body ache.  He was tired of lying around all the time, tired of hurting, tired of being tired.  He wanted to get up and do something, but when he'd suggested it earlier that morning, Nathan had offered to tie him to the bed until he grew some sense.  Of course, he thought morosely, it was probably better that he stay in bed anyway, since he couldn't seem to stay awake for more than fifteen minutes at a time.  Nathan had promised him that would pass, but it wasn't going quickly enough to suit JD.

Footsteps moving toward the bed jerked him awake before he even knew he'd drifted again.  Heart pounding, he was ready to run, to fight . . .

"Hey," Chris said, sitting in the chair near the bed.  "Didn't mean to wake you up."

JD swallowed, trying to get his voice under control.  "That's okay."

"You hungry?"

JD shook his head.  He'd just eaten breakfast earlier, when Nathan was there.  Oatmeal, eggs, and toast, all things he'd wished for when he was out in the wild, but which had left him feeling a little queasy when he actually ate them.

Cautiously, he pushed himself up into sitting position, ignoring how the movement set everything to throbbing.

"I've got something for you," Chris said suddenly, as if he was just remembering.  Pulling something out of his pocket, he tossed it at JD.

With one arm bound and the other helping to hold him upright, JD could only watch the thing fall onto the bedspread that covered his lap.  The silver metal of the star stood in stark contrast against the simple brown blanket.  As recognition hit, he was almost overcome with the familiar, desperate urge to run.

"It's not mine," he said, hating how breathless his voice sounded but not able to control it.

Chris frowned.

"It was in the alley where you ran into Sykes.  Mary Travis was holding onto it for you."

"No."  He closed his eyes.  Maybe, if he was really lucky, this would turn out to be a fever dream.  He'd open his eyes and both Chris and the badge would be gone.


He felt Chris pick up the badge, but Chris's tone said clearly that this wasn't over.  Resignedly, he opened his eyes.

Chris was still there, his frown even deeper.

"Why don't you want the badge, son?" he asked quietly.

JD looked away, rough fingers ripping the badge off his coat and tossing it down on the ohgodsimonhe'sdead body at his feet while a sneering voice said you don't . . .  

"I don't deserve it."

"Why not?"

Suddenly angry, JD gestured with his broken arm.  Which hurt, yes, but when did he not hurt anymore?

"Because I don't."

"Because you got beat up?  That doesn't mean you can't do the job, it just means you ran into somebody bigger than you."

Chris almost sounded amused.  JD glared at him.

"That's easy for you to say.  You're not the one that screwed up so bad everyone thought he was dead."

Abruptly, the amusement was gone.  For a second, JD almost felt afraid, and then Chris sighed.

"JD, do you think Judge Travis is a smart man?"

JD frowned.  What did that have to do with anything?

"Yeah," he said cautiously.

"And when he wanted someone to be the law here, how many people did he hire?"

JD sighed.  It wasn't like he didn't get Chris's point, but none of them had almost wound up dead because they weren't strong enough to do the job.

"He knew one man couldn't do the job.  Not me, not Buck, not Josiah, none of us.  You were trying to do a job no one could handle on his own."

But Chris didn't know how terrified he'd been.  Every time he faced down a troublemaker, every time he had to take a gun away from a drunk, every time he confronted one of Evans' bullyboys.  The judge wouldn't have hired him at all if he'd known JD was a coward.  Chris wouldn't be offering him that badge back, either.

"I was scared."  He said it out loud, determined to get it out in the open so Chris would leave him alone.

"Good.  Means you got some sense."  Chris leaned forward, his eyes suddenly intense.  "Son, the way I see it, you got two choices here.  One, you can hang up your guns and go back East and figure yourself for a failure.  Or two, you can pick up that badge and get back to work.  Learn from the mistakes you made and be proud you survived them."  He tossed the badge on the bed, where it lay gleaming dully in the sunlight.  "But before you make that decision, I want you to think on something.  There's nothing wrong with being scared.  No shame in needing your friends to give you a hand from time to time.  But when you got a job to do and you walk away from it, when your friends need you and you're not there to help them out, then you got something to be ashamed of."

He didn't say anything else.  JD didn't either, but he did pick up the badge and look at it, thinking, until sleep pulled him under again.

By the time Nathan got to the jail, the other men were already there.  Chris leaned against the desk with Vin at his shoulder, while Ezra and Grainger both stood near the door.  Three men Nathan thought were Royal's stood together by the cells, while four other men, whom he assumed were James', had found spots by the gun rack.  Hoisting the saddlebag he'd filled with bandages onto one shoulder, Nathan slipped in beside Ezra.

"We're stirring up a hornet's nest," Chris was saying.  His eyes scanned the room, catching each man's gaze in turn.  "We're not there to take Evans out, we just want to make him mad.  So it'll be a quick, in-and-out raid.  Cause the most damage you can in the shortest time, and try not to get shot in the process."

"Good advice for any situation," Ezra murmured, and Nathan didn't quite keep himself from grinning.

"What do we do if we see Evans?" one of James' men asked.  "Kill him?"

Chris's stare fixed on him.  "Leave him.  We want him in jail, not dead."

After tending to the damage that Evans' men had inflicted on JD, Nathan wasn't sure he agreed with that.  Judging from the sour expressions on several of the men's faces, neither did they.

"You're the boss," James' man said, not sounding at all like he meant it.  "When do we ride?"

"As soon as we're done here.  I don't want to hit Evans' place until after everyone's asleep; that'll make them slower to react and give us time to get back and set up the ambush.  That means when we get there, we'll split up in two groups.  Four of you'll go with me and Tanner, the other four with Jackson and Standish.  Vin and Nathan here have seen the place before.  They know the layout, so we'll follow their lead until we get in close enough to see what we're doing.  When I give the signal, we'll ride in, stir up trouble, and get back out.  If you get separated from the group when we pull out, head back to town.  We'll meet up in the saloon when it's over.  Any questions?"

A few of the men shook their heads.

"All right, then.  Benton, Sinclair, Carter, and Grainger, you go with Jackson and Standish.  Luttrell, Morgan, Black, and Pickens, you're with us.  Let's ride."

The night was clear and a little cool, with an almost full moon to light the way.  Nathan rode at the head of his group and couldn't help but wish he felt more confidence in the men at his back.  Just yesterday, they'd been--if not enemies, then certainly not friends.  There was a good chance he'd held a gun on or even shot at some of them.  This would be a bad time to find out someone was holding a grudge.

As they were passing through the bottleneck, Ezra rode up beside him.

"I believe I have located the perfect rock," the gambler announced.

Nathan shot him a look, trying to see his expression in the dim moonlight.  "What?"

"The perfect rock.  For when we lure Evans and his cohorts into our ambush."  Ezra's voice was dry.  "The one behind which I am least likely to get shot."

Nathan grinned.  "Sounds like a good rock to me."

"One does what one can."

They rode in silence for a while, then Ezra said quietly, "We need to keep an eye on Grainger.  His partner's death has left him a little hot-headed."

"I was just thinking we needed to keep an eye on these other fellows, too.  Just in case any of them want to shoot us in the back."  Nathan sighed.  "I think I'd like this whole plan more if it wasn't depending on trusting people we were shooting at not too long ago."

"The thought had occurred to me, as well."

When they neared Evans' compound, Nathan led his group through the trees toward the area where the bunkhouses were, while Vin took his group in the opposite direction.  Once they were in position, Nathan drew his gun and waited.

A sharp whistle pierced the air.  The men who were carrying torches struck their matches to light the wood, and the sizzling crackle of the flames broke the silence.  With a shout, Nathan kicked his horse forward, shooting off his pistol into the air.

The compound sprang to life as they rode in.  Men poured out of the bunkhouse, shouting and waving their guns.  Nathan saw a torch land on the roof of one of the bunkhouses and hoped briefly that everyone got out.  Still shooting his gun into the air, he rode through a tangle of Evans' men, scattering them like chickens.

From time to time, he caught sight of Grainger.  There was a wildness to his eyes that Nathan didn't like, but he seemed to be following the plan.

One of the barns was burning.  At the main house, someone was shouting orders.  Chris rode into the light from the fire and stopped, deliberately in view of the men on the porch of the main house.  He didn't move until one of them raised a rifle and took a shot at him.

Shaking his head, Nathan fired off a shot at the porch, aiming high so he wouldn't be likely to hit anyone.  The point was to make sure Evans knew who to blame for the raid, but that didn't mean Chris needed to get himself pumped full of lead.  He fired off another one, and this time, he got a clear look at the two men standing there.  One was Colter Evans, looking extremely pissed off.

The other one made Nathan jerk his horse to a halt so he could get another look.  It couldn't be, but--

"Nathan, get down!"

Instinctively, he ducked.  A bullet plowed into the barn behind him.  Looking around, he saw Ezra riding past one of Evans' men, kicking out with one foot to knock the man over.

"All right, boys, let's ride!"

That shout came from Chris.  Nathan looked back at the porch one more time, but both men were gone.  Wheeling his horse, he galloped back to the trees.

It wasn't until they were on the road back to town that he finally caught up to Chris, Vin, and Ezra.

"I want you to hang back," Chris was saying to Vin.  "Keep an eye on them, make sure they're taking the bait.  When you know they're coming the way we expect them to, ride into town.  We'll be at the saloon.  I don't want to find out they're heading for James' or Royal's place or coming a different route into town when we're already out at the ambush point."

Vin nodded.  "I'll make sure you have enough lead time to get in position."

"Watch your back."

Vin wheeled around and rode back into the darkness.  Nathan drew his horse up level with Chris's.

"We need to talk," he said.  "I know who Evans' boss is."

An insistent throbbing pulled JD from sleep.  Automatically stifling a groan, he tried to move away from the pain, but his body felt too heavy.  Realizing he was trapped, he lunged forward with all his strength, determined to get away.  A shot of fire seared up his arm.  Bright light surrounded him.  He needed to hide, they were close, they'd hear him if he moved but he couldn't stay still . . .


Warm hands grasped his shoulders, but let go as he tried to jerk free.  He blinked, tried to focus, and realized Buck was sitting on the bed by his legs.  Taking a shaky breath, he closed his eyes.  He didn't want to see the pity on Buck's face.

"How you doing, son?" Buck asked as if nothing had happened.

"I'm okay."  Or he would be as soon as his heart quit beating so fast.  He opened his eyes and glanced around.  Nothing had changed except the darkness that showed through the window.  "What time is it?"

"Past midnight, I reckon."

It had been daylight when he was awake last.  He rubbed his face.  "What day is it?"

"Friday?"  Buck didn't sound sure.  "I don't know, kid.  I haven't been keeping track of the days too good."

JD laughed, the air catching painfully in his throat.  "Me neither."

The look Buck gave him was part humor and part something darker, but it eased the tightness in JD's throat.  With a sigh, he sat back against the head of the bed.  The position eased his throbbing knee, but set his arm to aching bad enough he was almost sick to his stomach.

"Can I have a drink of water?"

Buck patted his good leg.  "Sure, kid.  There's some bread left over from supper, too, if you're hungry."

JD shook his head.  As Buck went to get the water, he leaned his head back against the wall and let his eyes slide shut.  He'd learned that if he was very still and breathed evenly for long enough, sometimes the pain would go away.  Quiet and still.  It was the only way to survive.

He'd learned that lesson, as well.



"How long was I gone?"

Buck's footsteps stopped, just for a moment, before drawing closer to the bed.  JD opened his eyes in time to take the cup Buck was holding out to him, but he didn't take a drink yet.  Buck sat on the edge of the bed, his expression somber.

"I don't know exactly.  It takes about three weeks to get from New Orleans to here, and me and Ezra caught a steamboat the day after we got Josiah's telegraph.  I think he sent it a few days after you went missing, and we were here in town a few days before you showed up.  So about four weeks, I reckon."

"Oh."  JD tried to understand that, but somehow his mind didn't want to wrap around it.  Four weeks.  It had to have been longer.  Days had run together in a long stream of pain and fear and confusion, but surely there had been more of them than would make up four weeks.

"Hell of a long time to make it out there on your own," Buck said gently.  "Especially when you're already hurt."

"Yeah."  JD's throat was tight again.  He took a sip of the water, then drained the cup as he suddenly realized how thirsty he was.  Without a word, Buck took the cup and filled it again, and JD drained it once more before setting it on the stand by the bed.

"You want to tell me about it?"

JD had been trying not to think about it beyond the barest facts.  But when Buck asked, he suddenly realized how much he needed someone to know what had happened to him.  Even so, it was hard to get the words to come.

"I don't remember everything," he said finally.

"How about I tell you what I know already, and you can fill in the blanks?" Buck asked.  At JD's nod, he continued, "I know Colter Evans came into town with a bunch of hired guns not long after I left.  I know he's been trying to buy out all the businesses in town as cheap as he can get them and run the owners out of town.  I know Arnie Sykes was causing trouble around town and that he was there the night you were attacked.  I know that Simon Blake was a Pinkerton and he was investigating Evans, and that he was killed that night."  Buck paused, and his voice softened as he added, "What I don't know is what else happened that night, and how you made it back here."

JD looked down at the blanket across his legs, trying to get his thoughts in order.  It was hard, between the pain and the tiredness seeping back into his mind.  He wanted to sleep again, but he needed to do this first.

"It was a crazy night.  Trail herd in town, and most of Evans' outfit, too."

The memory was so clear, he could hear the gunfire splitting the air from time to time, and the shouts of both anger and laughter that rang out up and down the street.  At least no one seemed to be trying to shoot at anyone.  JD knew better than to try to stop it.  There were too many of them, and he had no one to watch his back.  The best he could do was attempt to keep the carousing confined to the saloons.  He patrolled the street, steering drunks back into the saloon when he could, and over to the other saloon when they insisted on leaving the first one.  He thought of how Chris or any of the other guys would have handled it, cool and calm as they demanded the cowhands' guns before the cowhands went out on the town, and realized for the thousandth time how unfit he was for this job.  There just wasn't anyone else around to do it.

"I was walking around, trying to keep an eye on things, and I saw Arnie Sykes and Slim Chapin push Simon into the alley over by the jail.  So I went over to see what was going on.  Just as I got there, I heard a shotgun go off, and I saw they'd killed Simon."

JD paused, his hand gripping the blanket tightly as he tried to keep it from shaking.  He'd liked Simon.  They'd talked a lot about living back East and how the West was different, and Simon had given him advice about handling things around town a few times without acting like JD was too young or incompetent to do the job himself.  At the time that Simon had died, JD hadn't had time to feel more than shock, but later, he'd wondered if he might have been able to stop the shooting if he'd just gotten there faster.

Buck rested his hand on JD's leg, the weight of it warm and real enough to pull JD back from his thoughts.

"What happened then?" Buck asked.

Shock held him still for a few precious seconds.  Light from the watch fires on the street threw strange shadows against the walls of the buildings, illuminating Sykes and Chapin standing over the body that had once been Simon Blake.

Sykes spotted him and yelled.  Before he could draw his guns, Chapin grabbed him, throwing him up against the wall of the jail and hitting him in the stomach so hard he couldn't catch his breath.

"What are we going to do now?" Chapin asked sharply.

"Mr. Evans wanted to get rid of him anyway," Sykes said with a shrug.  "Might as well do it now."  He leaned up close to JD, his sour breath making it even harder for JD to breathe.  "I told you to stay out of my business, kid.  Guess now you're gonna figure out I wasn't joking."

JD took a gasping breath and kicked out, fighting wildly to get loose.  For a second, he was free, his hands scrambling for his guns.  Then Chapin hit him, a hard blow to the temple, and he fell back against the wall again.  His vision blurred.  He shook his head, trying to clear it, and realized he had two pistols pointed at his face.

"Stupid, kid."  Sykes sneered at him.  The little man's eyes trailed down to the badge on JD's chest, and his mouth twisted in a sneer.  "Stupid little pissant like you don't deserve to be sheriff.  Ain't got the brains or the balls for it."

Sykes ripped the badge off and threw it down.  JD's last memory before pain exploded in the side of his head was of the dully gleaming silver star lying on Simon's blood-spattered chest.


JD blinked.  "Oh.  Sykes and Chapin got the jump on me.  Knocked me out.  Next thing I knew, I was lying at the bottom of a cliff, feeling like a whole herd of horses just ran over me."

Buck was rubbing his leg, the motion oddly soothing.  JD tried to focus on that, on Buck's big hand moving steadily back and forth.  He didn't want to remember the next part.

"Sykes said they were trying to make it look like an accident," Buck said.  "Damn lucky, too.  If not for that, they would have just shot you."

JD nodded.  It was lucky, he guessed.  It just hadn't felt like it at the time.  At the time, it had felt like the most intense, breath-stealing pain he'd ever experienced.  He didn't want to think about it, but even so, the images crowded his mind.

He didn't know what happened.  Vaguely, he remembered Sykes, Chapin, and the alley, but now he was lying on the ground and he hurt, dear God he hurt, and he thought maybe he'd been falling.  Somewhere above him, he heard laughter, Sykes' laughter, and the sudden rush of hatred gave him the strength to draw in a breath of air.

"My knee was busted up, so I couldn't walk much at first.  There was a stream there, and I found some plants I was pretty sure were okay to eat.  So I figured I'd just stay put a couple of days until I could walk better, then I'd head back and try to find Nathan."

It was hard to think.  He was cold and dizzy, and every time he put weight on his leg or moved his arm, the pain nearly made him throw up.  He knew there was no way he could walk back to town, let alone climb the walls of the gorge.  But he had food and water, he was young and strong and healthy enough aside from his injuries.  All he had to do was wait until they healed a little.

But then he woke up once--time slipped away from him just like his thoughts did, so he couldn't have said if it was morning or afternoon--to see a pair of cows wandering past the hollow he'd taken to sleeping in.  His only thought for them was to hope vaguely that they went a little downstream to drink so they wouldn't muddy the water he was using.  It wasn't until he heard voices that he forced himself up to look.

Further down the gorge, there were a couple of men trying to drive the cows up a faint trail to the top.  JD stared at them, not sure they were real.  Sometimes he dreamed.  But he thought this was real, and he very nearly called out to them.

Then he heard one of the men curse again, and he recognized the voice.  Slim Chapin.

Heart pounding, he huddled back down into the hollow, trying to be as still and quiet as he could manage.  If they rode this way, they'd see him, and then they'd kill him for sure.  He had no way to fight.  His guns were gone, and with a broken arm and busted up knee, he didn't stand a chance.  His only hope was to hide and hope they didn't come this way, and then get out as soon as they were gone.

Except he wasn't strong enough to make the climb.  He'd tried, fallen, and things had grown even more confusing after that.  Later, he figured he must have hit his head, but at the time, all he'd known was that he was hurt and he needed to hide.

And he was afraid.

He could feel the same fear now, burning in his chest and making it hard to talk.  He hated the feeling, hated being such a coward.  Hated the men who made him feel like that.

"You made it back," Buck said, almost as if he could hear JD's thoughts.  "All that way, and then you shot Sykes at the end of it.  Which just saved me the trouble of doing it myself."

JD closed his eyes for a second.  He'd thought that part was another dream.  Like seeing Vin and Nathan near the stream and hearing his mother call to him.  He could remember seeing the saloon and thinking maybe Nathan would be there, maybe Nathan could do something to make his thoughts stand still again, and then he'd heard Sykes' voice.  Laughing.  There was a gun right by his hand, and he was so angry, so scared, he couldn't breathe . . .

"Good."  The voice didn't sound like his own.  JD swallowed hard.  He was safe here, he knew that.  He was still tired and hurting, but he was in a lot better shape than he'd been in a long time.  And even if he couldn't defend himself, Buck and the other guys wouldn't let anyone near him.  He knew that.  Still, somewhere in the back of his mind, he couldn't stop being afraid.  It made him angry, but that was good.  Anger chased away the fear.  "Good.  I'm glad he's dead."

"Yeah."  Buck was frowning slightly.  "And we'll get the rest of them, too.  Chapin, Evans, all of them.  Make sure they stand trial and get put away."

JD stared at him.  "Trial?  No.  I'm going to shoot them, Buck.  Chapin and Evans both, just like Sykes.  They killed Simon and they tried to kill me.  I'm not letting them get away with it."  He squeezed his shaking hand into a fist, trying to stay still.

"Hey, take it easy.  No one said they were going to get away with anything."  Buck sighed.  "I know how you're feeling, son.  You want them to pay for what they did.  So do I.  But if you let anger take you over, all you do is turn into the same kind of man who did this to you."

"So, what, just stick them in prison?  Like that's enough?"  The shaking wouldn't stop.  It hurt, and hurt even worse when he tried to steel himself against it.  He had to make it stop before it gave him away.

"Maybe," Buck said gently.  "Or maybe the judge will decide they've got to hang.  Either way, it's got to be the law's decision, not yours."

"They killed a man, Buck.  I watched them kill him."  And couldn't do anything to stop it.  He'd been too weak, too helpless.  He'd just stood there, Simon's body at his feet, and then Sykes and Chapin had turned on him.

The memory stole his breath.  He had to gasp in air, couldn't help it even though it was loud, too loud.  Buck was frowning at him, the hand that had been rubbing his leg tightening into a hard grip.

"JD, calm down, now."

Buck didn't understand.  He hadn't been there to see Simon die, hadn't experienced the sharp agony of broken bones or the terror of being alone and hurt and hunted.

"They have to pay, Buck."  His voice was all wrong, high and broken and dangerously loud.  It didn't sound like him at all, and he wondered for a moment if it really was.  Maybe he wasn't really here; maybe he was still in the gorge, and the voice he thought was Buck's was really the man coming to kill him.  "They left me out there to die.  They have to pay for that.  I want them to pay for that."

Then Buck's arms held him tight.  JD flinched back, lost between danger and it's just Buck.  He took a chance and grabbed on, digging his fingers into Buck's shirt.  Buck didn't let go, which was a good thing because he was afraid he was going to fly apart.  Buck's voice was low and intent as he said, "We would have come looking, son.  We thought you were dead.  If we'd known, we would have come."

His eyes burned, and he was glad his face was pressed against Buck's shirt where Buck couldn't see.  He hadn't known he needed to hear that until Buck said it.  Some of the rage slid away, leaving him with only pain and so much exhaustion he felt like it was dragging him downward.

Buck seemed to understand, because he didn't let go.  He kept his arms around JD, still and quiet, for a long time.

Even after JD's body had relaxed and gone limp, Buck sat and held onto him for a few minutes, not wanting to disturb him by moving.  He needed the sleep.  And Buck needed to do something, even if it was just for a few minutes, that felt like it might be of some help.

After a bit, though, Buck settled him back against the pillow, mindful of his broken arm.  JD frowned slightly at the movement but didn't wake up.  Needing to stretch his back, Buck stood and walked over to the window to peer out at the dark street.  No sign that Chris and the others were back yet.  He didn't think it would be too much longer.

Unless they ran into trouble.

Buck sighed.  He half-wished he'd gone with them, but when Chris had pulled him aside earlier and told him to stay with JD, something in Chris's expression had made him agree.  Looking down at his shirt, where tears he'd never admit to noticing had dampened the fabric, he was pretty sure he knew why Chris had wanted him to be the one to stay behind.

Not that he would have minded a chance to roust Evans and his entire crew.  He glanced back at the bed as that thought sent a slight chill down his back.  When he'd thought JD was dead, he'd wanted nothing more than to rip apart the men responsible.  Hearing those same thoughts from JD's mouth had left him a little shaken.  He couldn't help but remember Josiah's words a few mornings before.  Hating's a hard habit to break.  It hadn't seemed like such a terrible thing for himself, but JD was a different story.

But he hadn't wanted to hear Josiah, and he doubted JD was ready to hear him yet, either.  Buck would just have to make sure the kid didn't do anything he'd regret once some of that anger had a chance to settle.

Turning away from the window, Buck went back to the chair by the bed.  It wasn't the most comfortable chair he'd sat in, but when he propped his feet on the bed and slouched a little, it wasn't too bad.  He let his eyes close; he wouldn't sleep, but it couldn't hurt to get a bit of rest before whatever trouble the new day would bring.

It had to be more than an hour later when he heard footsteps on the stairs outside.  Sitting up, he eased his gun out of the holster and had it pointed at the door when he heard a soft knock.  Ezra stepped in a moment later, raising his eyebrow at Buck's still-drawn gun but not commenting.

"How is he?" Ezra asked, glancing at the bed.

"Better.  Just needs rest and time to heal."  Buck holstered his gun.  "How did it go?"

"We accomplished our objective, and Nathan discovered some information that sheds new light on the entire situation.  Chris asked that I stay with our young friend while you go to the saloon to be briefed on the latest developments."

Buck stood and reached for his hat, but stopped abruptly when he heard a tired voice from the bed.

"I'm going too."  JD sat up, rubbing at his face.  "Hey, Ezra."

Both of Ezra's eyebrows went up.  "JD.  I must say, it's good to see you alive and coherent, but I'm not sure that leaving the safety of this room is the best plan at this juncture."

"I'm going."

Awkwardly, JD pushed aside the blanket and stood, grabbing onto the nightstand for balance.  He was on the other side of the bed from Buck, too far to grab, but Ezra reached out and caught his good arm before he could fall.

"The wiser course would be to . . .  "

"Ezra."  JD's voice had a determined ring to it that Buck was glad to hear, even under the circumstances.  "Buck.  I've been hiding long enough.  I need to do this."

Ezra looked at Buck, obviously deciding that it was in his hands.  JD looked at Buck, too, and it wasn't so much the look of stubbornness on JD's face as it was the lingering fear behind that look that made up Buck's mind.

"All right, but you're going to have to put some pants on."

JD glanced down at his bare legs under the nightshirt and blushed.

"Good thing Mrs. Spencer saved your clothes.  I brought them over earlier for when you were ready to use them."  Buck looked around, his eyes finally stopping on the shelf where Nathan had put the pants and shirt.  "Here you go.  Ezra, you think maybe you could put your hands on a gun and rig for him?  I'd just as soon he didn't go out without a weapon."

"And boots," JD added.  "Unless you've got mine stashed away somewhere?"

Buck shook his head.  "I think they were a lost cause."

"I'm sure I can procure something.  If you'll excuse me?"  Giving JD's arm a quick pat, Ezra left.

Buck watched JD lower himself carefully back to the edge of the bed.  As JD started to get dressed, every movement slow and painful, Buck could only hope he hadn't made a mistake.

"Okay, kid," he said, moving to help, "looks like it's time for you to return from the dead."