DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fan fiction based on the television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, TNN, Hallmark, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters and settings. We do not claim ownership of the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from it. RATINGS: PG AUTHOR'S NOTES, THANKS, ETC.: This is our second completed Mag7 collaboration and our first foray into the Little Britches Universe. We've used K. Poffenberger and S. Berry's original, "The Train West", as our foundation for this story and thank them for opening up this universe to others. Thanks to all the readers who hung in there with us, sending feedback and encouragement or just waiting patiently. We hope the wait was worth it! Special thanks to Jennie for the fabulous beta. And Merry Christmas to our friends in this fandom! Please send feedback to:
DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fan fiction based on the television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, TNN, Hallmark, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters and settings. We do not claim ownership of the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from it.
AUTHOR'S NOTES, THANKS, ETC.: This is our second completed Mag7 collaboration and our first foray into the Little Britches Universe. We've used K. Poffenberger and S. Berry's original, "The Train West", as our foundation for this story and thank them for opening up this universe to others. Thanks to all the readers who hung in there with us, sending feedback and encouragement or just waiting patiently. We hope the wait was worth it! Special thanks to Jennie for the fabulous beta. And Merry Christmas to our friends in this fandom!
Please send feedback to:Penn or May
Buck Wilmington closed his eyes and let out a long breath. Peace and quiet weren't a regular commodity around here these days and he took these respites whenever he could find them. The thudding of footsteps announced the boys' arrival back inside the cabin. Damn. Just the motion of shifting in his chair caused Buck's back to convulse and he bit off an anguished yelp.
Just his luck that he'd hurt himself the day before they were supposed to ride into Eagle Bend. He and Chris had promised J.D. and Vin a chance to see the sights and pick up enough candy and trinkets to keep two small boys happy for the rest of the year. Now he wasn't sure he could make it to the front door.
The trip was the only thing those kids could concentrate on all week, each making mental lists of what they could fit in their Christmas stockings. Vin told J.D. it'd be an adventure and Buck always chuckled at the way J.D.'s five-year-old mind mangled the word. He'd been looking forward to seeing J.D.'s big eyes light up at the fancy decorations lining the streets, the store windows full of treasures for a young boy to drool over. Buck had already told them about the giant tree they put up every year in the town square. The strings of popcorn wrapped all the way to the top and limbs so heavy with peppermint sticks that they hid the colorful packages underneath.
"Come on, Buck." A wide smile creased J.D.'s face as he reached for Buck's hand to help him up. Wilmington wanted to go, really he did. He'd even gotten washed up and dressed and told himself to hell with pain and uncooperative muscles. If J.D. wanted him to go, then by damn, he'd go.
But after another spasm assaulted him, he finally had to admit to himself that he could barely walk, much less sit a horse for five hours. There was no way he could accompany Chris and the boys on this 'addenture,' as J.D. so adorably put it.
"Sorry, Little Bit, I think I'm gonna have to stay home this trip." Buck's heart shattered as J.D.'s merry eyes clouded and threatened to spill.
J.D. wiped his nose with his sleeve and turned away before he began to cry. "Ok. We can go next Christmas."
"That's right, you and me'll have twice as much fun next time." Buck reached out carefully to tousle J.D.'s soft hair. That simple movement, and the accompanying catch of breath it invoked, confirmed yet again that there was simply no way he could handle the trip this day. "You be a good boy for Chris now, all right?" Buck said, trying to hide his own disappointment behind a smile.
J.D. shook his head. "I'm gonna stay too."
"Aw, c'mon J.D., I thought you wanted to see the big Christmas tree!" Vin pulled at J.D.'s arm, his own eagerness bubbling to the surface, but the younger boy shrugged him off.
Chris pushed open the door to the cabin, his attention falling to his best friend. "You holding us up, Buck? We got a lotta ground to. . . ?" Chris's words faltered as he took in the twin looks of disappointment on Buck's and J.D.'s faces. "Ever'thing all right?"
J.D. lowered his chin to his chest, avoiding eye contact at all cost. Buck grimaced, and Chris wasn't sure if Buck's pain was more from the fall he took the day before or from the expression they both knew the five-year-old was hiding beneath his long bangs.
Chris knew Buck hurt a hell of a lot worse than he'd been letting on. It was why Chris had first suggested putting off the trip to Eagle Bend last night, much to the disappointment of the boys. Something Buck was loathe to do. He'd insisted a good night's sleep was all he needed to recover. Chris frowned and shook his head as he took in the sight before him. Or to stiffen up completely.
They'd been working on the new cabin all week, determined to at least finish the roof before today's trip. The ranchers had always intended to build a second cabin on their property for Buck, but had never gotten around to it. Chris knew Buck hadn't exactly planned on settling down for quite a while, much less within spitting distance of him. . . but that was before J.D. Funny how two small boys could turn grown men's lives around completely.
Within a month of living under the same roof reality sunk in of just how much space two young boys, with plenty of growing still to do, could fill. In their hearts and in the little cabin. And so work on the second cabin became a priority. Since he and Buck had agreed J.D. and Vin needed to stick together, the only solution was to build Buck a place of his own on the opposite side of the lane. Thanks to a handful of townsfolk, Josiah, Nathan, and on rare occasions, Ezra, the modest home would probably be finished by springtime.
And of course the boys were eager to help. Too eager.
Vin had been warned against climbing the ladder, but from day one, the headstrong boy had been determined to earn his keep. It wasn't that they were worried so much for Vin's safety. The boy's long legs and overall athleticism would enable him to handle the ladder quite easily. However, wherever Vin went, J.D. was sure to follow and there was no way the tiny waif could tackle the ladder, let alone scramble up onto the still precarious roof.
Though clearly disappointed, Vin had seemingly understood the reasoning behind his banishment from the roof. But, as soon as he'd heard Chris mutter a curse for forgetting his hammer on his last trip down the ladder, the deep-seated urge to please his new father had apparently taken hold of the seven-year-old, overriding anything else. Vin had retrieved the hammer and clambered up the ladder in an instant.
Chris had looked up when Josiah's booming voice yelled Vin's name – just in time to see the boy toss the hammer onto the roof and reach for a board to heave himself up. A board that had yet to be nailed securely.
He had scrambled toward the child, but he was too far away to have reached him in time. Instead he had watched as Buck grasped Vin's thin arms and literally tossed him onto the safety of the roof, then lost his own battle with gravity and fell. Hard. The sickening thud and muffled groan that had followed as Buck landed in a heap on the ground beneath him still made Chris wince.
Chris couldn't help the slight smirk that formed on his lips as he observed his friend now. Stubborn sonuvabitch. He'd hoped Buck would come to his senses and realize he wasn't up to the trip. His expression softened to a mixture of concern and sympathy though when he realized just how much the big-hearted man must be hurting, for him to back out on J.D. just minutes before their journey. "You finally come to your senses?" He asked, although he already knew the answer.
Buck actually looked embarrassed. "Aw, hell, Chris. You were right. I just can't do it. But you go on. Take these two and make sure you don't let 'em get sick on them peppermints." Buck cut his eyes toward J.D. and Chris followed his gaze to the dejected tyke.
"We'll still have fun, don't pout." Vin teased and pulled J.D.'s sleeve again.
"I ain't poutin'." J.D. straightened his tiny shoulders in defiance. "I gotta stay and take care of Buck."
Warmth spread through Buck's chest and he fought back the proud tears he felt stinging his eyes. The kid was dead serious and more than willing to forgo his own happiness to baby-sit him. Aching muscles protested strongly as he reached out to embrace J.D., but he ignored the pain and turned the child to face him. "J.D., you've looked forward to this for over a week. I don't want to ruin your adventure, I'll be just fine."
J.D. shook his head. "You wouldn't leave me."
Well, the boy certainly had him there. Still, there was no way in hell Buck was going to be responsible for J.D. missing out on this trip. Gingerly drawing him closer, Buck spoke softly. "Aww, J.D. You're right about that, but this time is different. Vin and Chris need you to go with them." It was the only tactic Buck could come up with. He knew the boy would have a much better time with Chris and Vin than he would stuck at home with a near invalid. All he had to do was get the little guy on his way and everything would be fine.
Sniffling and rubbing at tear-stained eyes, J.D. turned to Chris and Vin. "C'mon, J.D. This is gonna be fun! You'll see!"
Imploring blue eyes met his and J.D. realized how much he might disappoint his cousin. . . his best friend, if he didn't go. He watched as Chris rested one hand on Vin's shoulder, then crouched down and held out his other hand toward him. J.D. knew Chris had been planning this trip for some time. Had even rearranged his and Buck's schedules with Uncle Ezra, Uncle Nathan and Uncle Josiah, just so they could go. It seemed everyone wanted him to go now. Everyone but him.
Chin quivering, J.D. reluctantly slid out of Buck's embrace and took Chris's hand.
Larabee wrapped his arm tight around the little boy and drew a delighted Vin into their hug. J.D.'s reluctance to leave Buck behind was like a revelation to him. Not long ago he would've considered the two boys in his arms totally inseparable.
But remarkably Chris's best friend had been able to worm his way into that bond and create one equally as strong with J.D., if not stronger, for the boy to be so reluctant to leave. Either that or J.D. was simply secure in the knowledge that he had both Buck and Vin now and he simply didn't want to be separated from the one staying behind. Maybe it was a bit of both? Either way, it warmed Chris's soul to see Buck's own open-heartedness returned tenfold in the embodiment of a 30-pound ragamuffin. Buck deserved that kind of love more than anyone Chris had ever known.
Despite Vin's giggles, J.D. was still uncharacteristically subdued and Chris drew him away for a moment to look him over. J.D.'s eyes were bright, the green and gold flecks within them contrasting brightly against the redness caused by his tears. His cheeks were flushed and the child looked so damn miserable Chris wondered for an instant if maybe they shouldn't all just stay home.
But then he turned to Vin. The older boy's eyes shone with enthusiasm held in check only by the fear that once again his hopes might be shattered. And Chris wondered how many times this boy and his little cousin had suffered disappointment at the hands of adults? Well, not again if Chris Larabee could help it. He figured once J.D. got caught up in the excitement then his mood would change and he'd return to the happy little boy they all loved.
"C'mon, boys. Let's go." Decision made, he rose, easily scooping J.D. up onto his hip and lightly grasping Vin's shoulder as he led the startled boy back out their door.
His reward was a whoop and beaming smile thrown his way from Vin, just before the boy ran ahead to the horses hitched up in front of the little cabin, patiently awaiting their departure. Sadly, the tiny five-year-old bundle pressing against his coat wasn't yet willing to share in his older cousin's excitement. Chris's heart ached for the boy quietly weeping in his hold, but like Buck, he knew once J.D. began his adventure, once he saw Eagle Bend's main street and storefronts decked out in all their Christmas splendor, J.D. would be in his glory.
Buck had wanted to give J.D. and Vin a good-bye hug before they left, but as he watched Chris's resolve begin to crumble at the site of J.D.'s tear-streaked face he'd felt his own do the same. He knew if Chris didn't walk out the door right then, Buck wasn't going to let him leave with those boys at all.
Apparently Chris felt the same way, so Buck didn't say a word as Chris suddenly and resolutely stood up, planted J.D. on his hip and strode out the door with a very relieved and excited Vin racing out along with them. Wilmington had to smile at Vin's exuberance, although he'd much prefer two enthusiastic, sparkling boys rather than the seeming role reversal taking place today. J.D.'s reluctance to leave, not to mention his tears, simply tore at Buck's heart. Damn near shattered it, truth be told, and it took everything the man had not to follow them out the door and retrieve him. But like all little tykes that age, Buck was certain that J.D.'s attention would switch from leaving him behind to the adventure in front of him, as soon as their modest little horse ranch was out of the boy's sight.
With a grunt and way much too much effort for his liking, Buck dragged himself out of his chair and shuffled carefully over to the door to watch his family's departure. He was surprised to see that Chris and the boys hadn't left yet. Hadn't it taken him a full fifteen minutes just to make it across the room? Sure felt that way.
Buck had opened the door just in time to see Chris mount up behind J.D. He watched with a mixture of pride and warmth and even an embarrassing hint of jealousy as his friend tenderly settled J.D. in close to him, just as a father would. Just as Chris had done with Adam, years before.
And just as Buck wanted to do with the boy, now. Lord, how he hated being laid up like this.
Leaning against the doorway, Buck's eyes remained focused on the tiny form huddled against Chris. The child was so small, sitting front-ways in the saddle wasn't a necessity, so J.D. was sideways across it, held securely in place by the rancher's free arm.
Only instead of watching the usually animated tumbleweed of a kid bouncing about in place and chattering up into Chris's patient face, Buck could see the boy's head was buried deep in the security of Chris's serape, almost as if he were sleeping. But J.D. wasn't sleeping. His shoulders were shaking. He was still crying, damn it.
That behavior was so unlike J.D.; his tears never lasted this long. Then again, who was it that always seemed to quell those tears these days? As good as Chris was with the boys, there was no question who J.D. turned to if given a choice. It was just that the poor little guy didn't have a choice this time. Buck finally broke free of his gaze, and lowered his head in disgust. And self-loathing.
The sound of horses moving, and then just as quickly stopping, brought his head up and as he took one last departing look at what was transpiring, his heart leapt into his throat. His eyes had met J.D.'s. And Buck sure didn't like what he was reading in them.
Oh. . .hell. Chris, be careful. "No, J.D., don't!"
After mounting up behind J.D., it only took a few minutes for Chris to feel the sobbing against his chest begin to ease and the little shoulders beneath his grasp no longer shake. Finally, they could head out.
Chris turned to Vin, who was showing more patience than most kids his age could manage. Chris could tell though that boy was itching to go. And J.D. was likely spent. Maybe he'd fall asleep and with any luck, they'd be riding into Eagle Bend and all its wonder by the time the child awoke. "Let's ride, Cowboy," he said to the youngster beside him.
"Let's ride." Vin mimicked and turned his pony in line behind Chris.
Chris sighed, his shoulders slumping in mild defeat. Whether it was Vin's excited voice or simply the movement of his own horse, as soon as Chris began to turn away from the hitching rail, J.D. began to squirm. Chris stopped his black and tightened his hold on J.D. "Settle down, J.D."
He might as well have been talking to their town jail's brick wall. An abundance of wavy, black hair popped out from the woollen folds of Chris's serape, followed by a tear-swollen face.
"Aw, J.D. We're gonna have a good time. I promise." Chris cradled the back of the child's head in his gloved hand and pulled him once again into his chest. J.D. resisted every inch of the way.
"What was that?" Chris was so shocked by the muffled reply he wasn't sure how he should react. He looked briefly at Vin, who looked as surprised at J.D.'s behavior as Chris and simply shrugged his shoulders in response to Chris's raised eyebrow. Just great.
The little stand-off almost made Chris want to laugh. J.D. was such a happy and agreeable boy normally, and this conduct was just so unlike him. But the look he was greeted with when those big hazel eyes met his – lower lip and quivering chin jutting out in marked defiance – took all the humor out of the situation.
Pulling back slightly, so that he could face the boy, Chris asked his question once again. "What did you say, J.D.?"
The boy didn't answer. Hell, J.D. wasn't even looking at him. He was looking past Chris, back to the cabin.
Just as Chris heard his partner call out, and despite the sharply honed reflexes of the gunfighter he still was when called upon, Chris Larabee wasn't fast enough to stop this particular five-year-old imp from wriggling out of his hold and sliding down off his horse.
Neither Chris's calls nor those echoed by Vin did anything to stop the whirlwind, and by the time Chris had regained control of his startled gelding and dismounted, J.D. had reached his destination and was clinging fiercely to the leg of Buck Wilmington.
Buck had seen it coming, held his breath and used the door frame to brace himself against the impending impact, but much to his surprise, J.D. actually reined himself in just before wrapping both arms tightly around Buck's right leg.
He tried, really tried to bend down to comfort the boy, but all he could manage was a slight hunch of his shoulders and the calming stroke of his big hand running through J.D.'s silky hair as the child clung for life. "J.D., son. What's wrong? What'd make you go and do something so scary as jumpin' off that horse?"
Knowing that his current pain had more to do with his heart than his back, Buck tried to keep the fear out of his voice. And the sliver of anger off of his tongue that had followed suit once he realized the boy hadn't been hurt by what could have easily been a bad fall. Something was going on here and he was going to have to get to the bottom of it. "J.D.? Come on, now, talk to me. Why you so set on stayin'?"
"You need me," the boy whispered, but any further response was interrupted by the sound of Chris's spurs coming onto the porch and Vin's boots skidding to a halt in front of the open doorway.
Vin immediately reached out for his cousin and took his hand. "Come on, J.D. Quit actin' like a baby, we gotta get goin'!"
"I'm not a baby!" J.D. shouted as he tried to yank his hand from the bigger boy's grasp. "Buck needs me! He needs me!"
The ensuing tug of war nearly brought Buck to his knees and Chris quickly came to his partner's rescue. "Boys, that's enough!" He hated to raise his voice, but that was the only way he was going to get their attention.
He succeeded and Vin backed off muttering apologies as J.D. scrambled behind Buck, clearly unwilling to be separated from him again.
Buck held onto the door jamb, his grip white-knuckled and nearly as tight as the one J.D. had had on him moments earlier. Nearly. But despite his pain, he was starting to see things a lot more clearly now. 'He needs me.' Damn.
"You all right?" Chris asked, clearly concerned, but his frustration came shining through as well.
"I'll live," was Buck's strained reply as he began to straighten up once more, forcing himself to act a hell of a lot healthier than he felt at that particular moment.
"You sure about that?" Chris smirked, his own temper settling down a notch or two. J.D. wasn't hurt, Buck would live, so no need get himself all riled up. He still had a long ride with two young boys ahead of him.
Chris hunkered down on his knees and reached around Buck's legs to J.D., who immediately inched further away from him. "It's all right, J.D. I'm not mad, but your cousin's right. No more silliness now, we got to be on our way."
"Chris. . ."
Damn, Chris knew that voice. Buck was giving in.
"Chris, leave it alone."
Correction, Buck just gave in.
"Buck. . ."
"Pard. . ."
They were staring at each other now. Icy green meeting midnight blue, both men too stubborn to break the gaze.
By rights Chris knew that Buck knew better than to let J.D. get his way this time. Buck wasn't fit enough to look after the boy for one thing, not to mention the bad example this would set for both of them. And yet something nagging in the recesses of Chris's mind was telling him that Buck was in the right. That somehow it would be best for J.D. to stay home. What was it that J.D. had kept saying while he and Vin were tussling? 'He needs me? He needs me.' Damn.
Chris swallowed hard, now suddenly remembering J.D.'s reaction to Buck getting hurt yesterday. The child hadn't seen the fall, thank heaven, since Vin had timed his climb up the ladder while J.D. had gone inside their cabin. But the sheer horror on J.D.'s face when he'd returned to find Buck unmoving on the ground as Chris hovered over him and Vin crying inconsolably in Josiah's hold was heart-wrenching.
Chris remembered that J.D. hadn't cried at the time. Not one tear. He just stood there staring at Buck, his little body trembling as he stood frozen in place until Josiah scooped him into his free arm. Even hours later, after Nathan had been fetched and tended to Buck's injuries, J.D. had remained in a daze. The healer had wrapped him in a blanket and given him warm soup, but the child refused to respond to anything until Buck recovered enough to personally assure J.D. he'd be all right.
No wonder the little guy didn't want to be separated from Buck. He'd already lost his mother and probably thought he'd almost lost another parent the day before.
Chris looked away from Buck. A little ashamed, and figuring that Buck had come to the same conclusion. He met his best friend's gaze again. "Yesterday?"
This time Buck looked down. "Yeah, I think so," he sighed.
"You want us all to stay?"
"Naw, pard, I think it's best if I handle this myself. Nathan said he'd check to see if I'd changed my mind and stayed home, so I expect he'll be comin' out here today. You already saw to that. He'll help with J.D. if I need it, we'll be fine."
Despite the physical pain Chris knew Buck was trying to conceal, Chris deferred to his old friend's wishes. He knew all-too-well that look the man was wearing at this moment. The one that said nothing or nobody would change his mind. Chris knew from experience that there was not another living soul more mule-headed than Buck Wilmington once he'd made a decision.
No beat-up ribs and a sprained back would prevent Buck from looking after J.D. Especially now that both he and Chris had it figured out that J.D.'s tears came from something deeper than a childish desire to get his way.
Chris had all the faith in the world that J.D. would be in better hands with Buck. After all, it was that gangly, too-tall, big-hearted scoundrel standing, well leaning, before him who had been the only soul able to set Chris's world right again after the tragic loss he'd suffered. Who else but Buck would be the perfect choice to ease J.D.'s fears and heal a little boy's still grieving heart?
Chris nodded in acquiescence. "All right. We'll see you boys tomorrow before dark."