A Dunne's Darlins 'Challenge' Response
Chris Larabee slipped into Nathan's clinic as quietly as his spur-adorned boots would allow. He'd watched as Inez dragged an unwilling Buck Wilmington into the saloon and, despite Chris' overall despondency, he still couldn't prevent the slight smile that quirked his lips as he realized the irony of the situation. Buck resisting any woman's attention, especially Inez's, was nearly impossible to believe.
For a brief instant he wondered just when those two would stop playing their little game of cat and mouse. When Buck would finally admit that he'd been falling head over heels for the gutsy lady long since they'd first met. And when Inez would admit that ambushing the exhausted man outside the saloon doors -- and fussing at him to sit and not dare get up until he'd not only cleaned off a plate of her finest cooking and downed at least one full glass of beer -- was more than simply a grateful citizen's concern for the well-being of one of the town's peacekeepers.
Still, Buck's reluctance to give in to Inez's wishes was in itself blatant testimony to his fierce concern for JD. Chris breathed a deep sigh. The kid was gonna be all right. Nathan had said so. Thank God.
Despite Buck's newly borne and clearly justified animosity towards his old friend, Chris still felt compelled to check on the boy himself. He needed to apologize for the mistake in judgement that had nearly cost JD his life. He at least owed that to the kid. . . and to Buck.
JD slept peacefully and didn't so much as budge as Chris approached the bed and laid his hand on the kid's shoulder. He didn't want to disturb the boy, but he also knew this might be his only chance to speak to JD before Buck returned. To let him know how truly sorry he really was.
He couldn't face Buck again. Not yet. If only because he knew the man well enough to realize that his banishment from JD's sickroom was non-negotiable. But as much as he respected Buck, he also knew he'd never get the chance to apologize to JD while his big brother was on guard duty. And that was why he was here, after all.
Chris settled into the chair he'd occupied the day before and winced as he took in the extent of JD's injuries once again. The bruising was as vivid as it had been before, with the purplish-black welts now changing into sickly greenish-yellow patches. How grateful he was that nothing was broken. That JD would heal.
Heeding Nathan's orders to let the kid sleep, Chris resisted the urge to wake him. He leaned close though, mesmerized by JD's breathing, and began his wait.
He should've known better.
Buck was back. If Chris took the time to think about it, maybe he'd realize that it was the sound of Buck's boots that he knew so instinctively, and not simply intuition, that told him Buck was about to walk into JD's sickroom.
No matter. Once again he was in the unenviable position of facing Buck Wilmington's wrath. And once again he deserved it.
This time Buck's footsteps didn't falter outside the door. This time he obviously wasn't afraid of what waited for him on the other side. The big man opened the door quietly, without hesitation, but consideration for the sleeping JD clearly shaping his actions.
In the moment that Buck had entered the room, before his dark eyes could register Chris' presence, Chris could see that a wonderful kind of peacefulness had settled on his old friend's face. That much of the tension and worry concerning JD had melted from his being, and had been replaced by the cheerful, confident, life-loving man Chris was proud to call his friend.
Then their eyes met.
Fury. That was the first thought that came to Chris' mind as Buck's gaze met his. Buck's blue eyes had darkened with rage, and yet Chris could still recognize the minute sparks of betrayal, hurt and mistrust that flashed within their depths. Buck wanted to kill him. Of that Chris was sure.
Chris slowly, cautiously raised himself up from the wooden chair and just as tentatively moved toward Buck. He knew Buck's silence was once again fueled by his worry for JD, that JD not wake up and witness this altercation. Chris shared that same concern. The last thing he wanted to do was provoke Buck in front of JD.
They met at the foot of the bed. Despite his better judgment, Chris was compelled to speak, but before his lips could even form a word, he was cut off.
"Don't. Not. . . here." Buck's tone was clipped and his eyes flashed daggers at his oldest friend -- his newest adversary.
"Buck--" Chris tried again.
"Not now. . . damnit." Despite the hostility in that hiss, Buck's words were almost a whispered plea and, as Chris watched Buck's eyes continuously dart in JD's direction, he realized just how desperate his kind-hearted friend was to keep this conflict from the boy.
Clearly it was an unfair advantage, and Chris realized that to exploit it would likely only prove to unravel the thread their friendship was precariously held together with already, but still, in essence he had a captive audience and he needed Buck to hear him out.
Chris stood firm. "I come to say I'm sorry, Buck."
Larabee watched as Buck's clenched jaw quivered and flexed. Clearly the man wasn't looking for an apology. The leader of the Seven wondered briefly if Buck might just flatten him right then and there and just dump his body over the railing. If he survived the fall, Buck could always shoot him later. Lord knew Buck could knock him cold with one punch. Hell, it's not like it'd be the first time.
Buck's jaw unclenched long enough for him to speak. "I don't care what you come for. You ain't welcome here no more."
Startled by JD's question and the fact he was awake, both Buck and Chris whirled to face the bed-ridden kid. Shit. Even Buck was willing to concede that Chris wouldn't want all this aired out in front of the boy any more than he did. JD'd been through enough misery already.
"What's goin' on?" JD demanded, before either Buck or Chris could speak.
Buck was glad the kid was sounding stronger every time he awoke, but he couldn't help but wish this time JD had slept a little longer. He really did not want to deal with both Chris and JD right now. "Ain't none of your concern, kid."
The angry look of incredulity JD tossed at him told Buck he really should have worded that a bit differently. Okay, so maybe the kid did have a point, but contrary to what JD was undoubtedly thinking, what was really going on here had a hell of a lot less to do with him and more to do with Chris and Buck's friendship than the boy could ever understand.
"Buck..." Despite his obvious weakness, the warning in that near-growl rang loud and clear. JD knew, by the guilty expressions worn by both Chris and Buck, that something was going on and that that something had to do with him. And like his mentor, he was far from stupid. He had a fairly good idea what it was.
"Naw, I mean it, kid. Ain't nothin' to fret about." Buck plastered on a weak imitation of his usual grin and turned his attention to Chris. "'Sides, Chris here is leavin', ain't ya, ole pard?" Wilmington roughly slapped a palm on Chris' shoulder and tried his damnedest not to choke on his words or actions.
Before Chris had a chance to decide how he was going to answer, JD spoke up. "But I want him to stay."
It was true. The kid really did want Chris to stay. JD hadn't seen their leader since he'd been hurt and he'd bet a month's wages that Buck Wilmington had a whole hell of a lot to do with that. And although JD knew in his heart that big brother's reasoning was undoubtedly driven by some warped desire to protect him, he still couldn't help but be a bit mad at the big oaf.
"JD..." Buck sighed, as he dragged an uneasy hand down his face.
Chris had stayed frozen, keeping out of the minor confrontation taking place, initially uncertain of what to say or do, until finally deciding he'd let Buck call the shots. He did owe him that much, at least. "Buck's right, kid. I was just on my way out."
"Then why'd you come?" The stubborn kid was obviously not gonna let this go.
Chris wouldn't lie. Nor would he come up with any lame excuses, either. He respected JD too much to do that. He lifted guilty eyes and gazed directly at JD. "I come to apologize, son. To say how sorry I am you got hurt."
"But it wasn't your fault."
Chris was amazed. How could JD simply absolve him like that?
Buck was furious. "JD! Now that's enough, boy. There is no way in hell you're gonna let him off the hook for this. Lettin' you ride into that camp like that was crazy. You damn well could 'a died, boy! Can't you see that?"
JD flinched, that realization not something he was ready to deal with quite yet. Still, Buck had no call speaking up for him like this. JD'd done what he had to do and neither Chris nor Buck could've stopped him if they'd tried. "Leave it be, Buck. This ain't your call."
Despite the weakness in his voice, the boy's tone had grown cold, eerily reminiscent of Chris at his deadliest. Yet Buck picked up a hint of something else within JD's voice, something he couldn't put his finger on. He sure as hell didn't like it though, because it stabbed him straight in the gut, nearly knocking the wind out of him. Along with most of his bluster.
Chris didn't catch it. Didn't know the boy well enough to see what Buck could. So, as unrelenting guilt drove him, he continued the fight. "Buck's right, kid. This was my fault. I should never have let you ride into that camp on your own. Never let you go in there at all."
"You didn't have any choice in the matter," JD almost spat.
JD's quaking anger and defiance startled Chris. Unnerved him. The kid hadn't spoken this harshly to him, with this much venom, since they'd first joined up back at the Seminole Village. Chris didn't understand what he'd done to provoke it. "No, son, it wa..."
"Chris, stop. . ." Buck insisted. The argument was futile and Wilmington suddenly knew that fact without a doubt. He still wasn't exactly sure what was going on with JD, but he knew the boy well enough to see that this argument had to end. JD simply wasn't up for it. The kid was trembling now, his bottom lip quivering, despite the fact his eyes still blazed at both older men. Buck could see this wasn't simply a matter of JD's stubborn pride. Something was cutting the boy deeper and it pained him to see such hurt in those hazel eyes; hear it in that young voice. JD was hurting, but Buck knew the kid wouldn't give in until his body finally gave out.
And at that moment, or any other for that matter, JD's welfare was more important than proving Chris' guilt. The big man deflated. Chris no longer mattered. Buck had JD to tend to now. ". . . that's enough."
The urgency of Buck's demand stopped Chris mid-sentence. This was not going well, not at all what he'd wanted to accomplish. Larabee hesitantly turned toward Buck and was surprised to see the absence of rage in Buck's eyes. Buck was still upset, sure. Even very angry, but something had suddenly changed in Buck and Chris no longer felt as though tearing his head off was Buck's number one priority.
On closer observation, Chris realized that Buck was very worried. About the boy, of course. Feeling somewhat bewildered, he wondered what he had missed. "Buck?"
Buck swallowed, shook his head and then slapped what could almost be described as a companionable hand on Chris' back as he ushered him to the door. Chris still didn't understand exactly what was going on, but certain that concern for JD was at the crux of Buck's actions, he put up no resistance and followed Buck's lead.
"Buck, wait." JD wasn't certain exactly what was happening either, but he knew he still didn't like the fact that Buck was forcing Chris out of his room.
At JD's call, both men stopped and turned back toward him. Anxiety was written all over the kid's face, replacing his anger. As usual, Buck's first instinct was to relieve it. He smiled, albeit a little sadly. "'S all right, son. Chris 's got places to be and you 'n me need to have ourselves a bit of a talk. Is that okay with you?"
JD nodded tiredly. He'd been expecting a talk. Hell, maybe he even needed one. "Yeah, Buck. 'S okay."
Pulling open the door, Buck paused and spoke softly to Chris. "Go on, now. Get." He pierced his old friend with fiery eyes, yet Chris was utterly relieved that he could no longer see hatred or betrayal within their depths, nor hear it in the words Buck continued to say. "We are gonna have a talk, you 'n me, but I got somethin' else to take care of here, first. This ain't over, though, Chris. Not by a long shot."
"That's what I'm countin' on, Buck," Chris almost smiled at the look of confusion that crossed his friend's face.
"That's what I'm countin' on."
Buck closed the door behind Chris, his animosity tapering off as it was replaced by his concern for JD. He hated to see the kid upset and something in his gut was telling him JD's defiant display was borne from something much deeper that his usual stubborn pride. The kid was really hurting. Damn. He only wished he knew what was causing it.
With heavy footsteps and a heavier heart, he walked back to the chair next to the boy's bed and resumed his place beside JD.
And immediately felt guilty.
Poor kid looked at him with such unease that Buck quickly realized the boy was anticipating another one of his frequent lectures about survival in the west and how his greenhorn notions had nearly got him killed again.
God. Buck shivered involuntarily at that horrifying thought and swallowed the familiar bitter bile that suddenly manifested itself in his throat. How close he'd actually come to losing the boy. For about the millionth time that day, he thanked God that that hadn't happened.
No, he wasn't going to lecture JD. Not that the kid didn't need a wagonload of advice, green as he still was. Compared to the others, anyway. He couldn't deny that the kid was learning though. . . and was pretty damn quick about it, too. Kid soaked up information like the desert did a summer rain. Buck'd tell him one thing and the kid would argue the point 'til they both were blue in the face, but. . . thing was, JD'd never forget what he'd been told. He'd store it under that stupid hat of his until he needed it. Usually he'd wind up throwin' it right back at Buck whenever Buck messed up. Smart ass. But JD damn sure never forgot.
Buck shifted forward in the chair and rested his elbows on his thighs. Clasping his hands together he looked up into the wary eyes that were watching his every move, waiting for him to start. . . to do. . . or say. . . something. Buck shook his head and chuckled to himself. He'd never had anyone care so much about what he had to say, not like this. It was damn unnerving. Hell, it scared him at times.
"What's so funny?"
Now that was much better. Kid's attitude was comin' back. The petulance Buck heard in that youthful voice made him smile wider.
"What?!" The kid practically demanded. Although his eyes still couldn't quite hide the pain he was trying to keep at bay.
Buck's expression grew more serious. He was glad the boy's cockiness was making a reappearance, but frankly he was just too damn tired and too damn relieved that JD was alive, to get into one of their typical sparring matches. "It ain't nothin', JD. Just thinkin' 'bout how awful glad I am that you're feelin' good enough to take on the likes 'a Chris."
JD blushed and a small smile formed on his lips. Buck's words had set him aback just a little. Even though he knew Buck cared for him -- hell, Buck had even told JD he did -- it still warmed him right from his insides out to know that someone loved him, really loved him, near about as much as his mama had. But, JD was used to hearing it from Buck when he was badly hurt, or. . . hurting bad. Not too often when he was on the recovering side of things.
It sure made it hard to stay mad at his friend when Buck'd go and say something that would not only make JD want to smile, but also make him sense that deep affection all over again. The big oaf. "Thanks, Buck," he whispered.
Buck allowed a slight smile to part his lips too, but immediately grew solemn again. Lightly slapping JD's leg, he leaned closer, capturing the boy's hazel gaze with his own. His hand remained on JD's leg and he took a deep breath, finally asking the question he hoped would provide him with the explanation for the emotional hurt he could see weighing so heavily on the boy, but just couldn't identify.
"You think you could tell me why you were so all-fired determined to go into that camp?"
JD was so startled by Buck's question, he couldn't prevent the gasp that escaped his throat. Immediately he felt the gentle reassurance of Buck squeezing his leg and realized that this wasn't going to be one of Buck's lectures. Buck was just worried about him. As usual.
He wasn't sure what to say. He didn't want to cause any more worry. This was something nobody could really help him with, not even Buck. "Well, you know. . ."
Buck sighed. "JD--. Now I don't know, kid, 'cause if I did, I wouldn't be askin.'" He glanced at the boy and immediately saw his eyes roll in slight exasperation. He knew that JD was going to try to shrug this off and that just wouldn't do. "And don't give me none of that 'it was the right thing to do' hooey, all right? 'Cause I know it's more 'n that."
JD's eyes had lowered to his blanket and the overly long bangs were effectively hiding the kid's expression. Buck knew he was on to something and he'd be damned if he'd let JD shut him out.
"JD?" The boy's head remained lowered, so Buck slowly reached out and carefully tilted the kid's chin slightly towards him so that they could look at each other again, eye-to-eye. "C'mon, son. Tell me why this was so damn important. Why you had to push Chris so hard. . ." That line definitely got JD's attention. The kid was staring back at Buck in earnest now.
". . .and why'd you hafta go against my wishes like that?" Buck immediately regretted the low blow. He hadn't realized he was delivering a sucker-punch until he saw the hurt ripple across the boy's face. He'd just wanted to stress how important knowing the truth was to him -- how much he needed to understand JD so that he could help him -- but instead, the boy was now wearing hurt and guilt like a damn shroud. Way to go Wilmington.
"I'm sorry, Bu--"
"Aw, son. No need to apologize," Buck interrupted and instantly gripped the boy's neck reassuringly. "I didn't mean it that way." He spoke softly, all the while stroking a gentle hand along his long hair. "I'm just trying hard to understand why you did this, JD. So maybe I can help."
Tears were pooling in JD's eyes and he fought hard to keep them in check. The fatherly love he felt in Buck's touch was almost too much to bear. He wanted to give in to it so badly and just curl up in Buck's arms like he had when he'd first woke up and felt so sick and was hurting so bad. Buck had helped make the pain go away by just being there, telling JD it was okay to cry and that it was okay to give in to the comfort he was offering. And JD had. And he hadn't felt ashamed.
But that was before. JD was getting better now. They both knew he was gonna live. Sure he still hurt a lot, but he was mending, so he didn't need that kind of comfort anymore. Even though his heart still hurt worse than his head ever could. Buck's mere presence eased the pain some, of that there was no doubt, but only time would mend the hurt still eating up JD's soul.
"JD, I need to help you, boy."
Buck's hushed plea broke JD from his reverie. And when he looked into his best friend's sincere gaze and saw all the concern, pride and faith Buck Wilmington held for him reflected in those deep blue eyes, the damn began to crumble.
"You been helpin', Buck. More 'n you know." The boy's voice hitched, barely containing the sob trying to work its way from his heart. "But you can't fix this. Nobody can."
Aw, hell. There it was. The revelation hit Buck like a cannonball and suddenly he understood. Buck knew JD just too damn well and as soon as he saw that all-too-familiar devastating grief, guilt and pain pour from JD's eyes, he understood what was causing JD's heartbreak.
A year ago he might've guessed the boy was hurting over his mama, but time, plus the friendships he had gained since coming west, were successfully healing that wound for JD. No, the only thing that could bring this much despair to JD's eyes was something Buck couldn't yet defeat. Even though he'd been trying with all his might and would continue to do so until either he or time would win the battle. Or he took his last breath, whichever came first. Damn.
"JD -- son?" Buck's throat was tight, but he had to persevere. He kept his voice soft, gentle and warm as a summer breeze. "What's Annie got to do with all this, boy?"
JD's eyes immediately flashed with surprise, then renewed grief and finally resignation. No use in denying anything. Hell, Buck really could read him like a book. He sighed heavily and then spoke, his voice a whisper. "They. . . the gang. They beat up Hiram, Buck. Real bad. Scared the girls. . ."
JD looked searchingly at his friend, longing for the understanding and forgiveness he hoped he'd find. His voice grew with the sorrow in his heart. "I couldn't let 'em get away with that, Buck. How could I?"
So, now he knew. For a fleeting instant Buck thought to remember to ask Josiah why he'd neglected to mention the Nieuhaus' involvement in this mess when he'd told Buck what had been happening in town prior to JD getting hurt. Hell, maybe ole Josiah'd been trying to protect him, from that pain he knew Buck shared with the boy? No matter. Buck should've been told. If he had known, he would've understood JD's motivation right away. And he would've understood JD's grief.
He hated that JD still wore this heavy burden of guilt. And he hated that he couldn't do a damn bit more about it than he could Chris' guilt over the loss of Sarah and Adam. His greatest fear was that JD's guilt would drive him to the same level of recklessness that Chris Larabee's guilt had driven him to in the much-too-recent past. And sure enough, while Buck hadn't been there to keep a watchful eye over JD, that was very nearly what had happened. Well, he'd be damned if he was ever gonna let it happen again. Until he was certain JD was okay, had moved on past the shame and guilt he felt over Annie's loss, Buck wasn't going anywhere without him. To hell with Orrin Travis' orders. . . or Chris Larabee.
Chris. Oh, hell.
Another cannonball to the gut. Buck suddenly knew without a shadow of a doubt that short of locking JD up in the jail, there was no way in hell Chris would've ever stopped JD from riding into that camp to infiltrate the gang. Not after what had happened to Hiram and his daughters. And although Buck believed he still had every reason to be pissed with Chris for breaking his word, Buck was now overwhelmed with a sense of relief and gratitude that JD hadn't gone and snuck on into the outlaw camp without Vin, Josiah, Nathan, Ezra and Chris knowing exactly where he was. Even though JD had nearly been fatally shot, his death would've been a certainty without Chris and the others there to bring him home.
Well, hell. Thank God for Chris.
Despite all the thoughts flashing through Buck's mind like a whirlwind, he never pulled his attention away from JD. The poor kid was still grieving and Buck now knew that only time would heal this wound, no matter what he tried to do to lessen the kid's load. Maybe even more so than the loss of his mama, JD would need more time to recover from Annie.
But that didn't mean Buck wouldn't still do whatever he could to try to help ease the boy's anguish, even if all he did was continue to be there for him. He wore a gentle and reassuring smile as he looked into the pleading eyes before him. Running his hand along the boy's cheek, he patted the bruised face and spoke from the heart. "Aw, kid, it's all right. I know you couldn't let them bastards away with hurtin' Annie's family. Just wish you'd've waited for me to get home so I could 'a helped you though."
JD smiled at that. Leave it to Buck to actually understand him when JD was still so confused about everything himself. He felt so much better though, knowing that Buck wasn't mad at him. Knowing that Buck understood.
But that still left Chris. JD knew Buck was awful mad at his old friend and the kid hated the idea of being the cause of the rift he saw between the two men he admired most. This was something else he'd never forgive himself for if he didn't get them back on speaking terms.
"You're not mad then?" JD's voice was tentative. He still had to feel Buck out.
"At you? Naw, kid. I ain't mad at ya." Buck spoke the truth and JD felt immense relief.
"How 'bout Chris?"
The voice was even more hesitant and Buck realized that he hadn't been able to keep any of his animosity towards Chris away from the kid. Poor kid was worrying about the two of them now, too. No, Buck wasn't mad at Chris anymore either. Well, he was. But he didn't want to shoot him no more, which was a big step towards forgiveness. Something he was pretty sure Larabee would appreciate. "Naw, JD. You don't hafta worry about Chris 'n me."
Relief was written all over the kid's face as he asked his next question. "Then you're not gonna shoot him?"
Buck couldn't contain the laugh that huffed out of him when he realized how much his thoughts mirrored JD's. And he felt even better as he suddenly realized that, although the boy was still carrying a huge amount of grief in his heart, it was becoming easier and easier for him to drift out of his melancholy and return to the cocky, bright kid that Buck knew and loved. JD had a twinkle in his eye now and Buck could've whooped in glee at seeing that spark come to life so quickly.
Instead he decided some familiar teasing was just what the patient needed.
Besides, Buck didn't have any intention of letting Chris off the hook entirely, by any means. It'd been a helluva long time since Chris was on Buck's shit-list -- as opposed to the other way around -- and Buck figured it couldn't hurt to let ole Chris sweat. . . just a little.
"I ain't gonna shoot 'im, kid." He smirked devilishly and then patted JD's leg once again, beaming as he saw comprehension and even a hint of conspiracy in the kid's eyes. "But what say you 'n me keep that between ourselves for a little while, all right?"
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