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          The Silence Between

          By Shellie Williams

          Disclaimers: The characters and places of Magnificent Seven do not belong to me. No profit other than (evil) pleasure was made from this story.

          Warnings: Spoilers for Manhunt. Violence and mayhem ahead.

          Comments: This is a birthday fic for Penny whose kindness and generosity have given me a home for my fic, an ear to listen, and a friend to have. Thanks, Penny, and happy birthday!

          Thanks to: Mary and Mackie, and special thanks to Adrian.

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          Buck Wilmington hunched his shoulders and pulled his hat down farther over his face. "Shut the damned door!"

          Vin hurried inside the sheriffís office and slammed the door. Rubbing his hands together, he strode to the pot-bellied stove. "Itís gonna get worse before we see a break in this weather."

          Buck returned his attention to the gun he was cleaning. "How can you tell?"

          Vin shrugged. "My bones tell me." He broke into a grin when he saw the skeptical look on Buckís face. "íSides, the windís blowiní from the north, and there was a heavy frost this morniní."

          Buck laughed. "Iíd be more apt to believe the grass and wind over your bones."

          Vin moved closer to the stove. "Wheníre the kid and Josiah due back?"

          Buck looked down at his gun. "Sometime tomorrow afternoon, I reckon. Why?"

          "No reason. Just hope they make it back before it gets really cold out there."

          Buck grinned. "I figured you for the outdoor type, Vin. Whatís all this sniveliní and whininí I hear?"

          Vin straightened by the stove. He tugged his hat brim down and adjusted his gun belt. "I ainít whininí."

          "Thatís what it sounded like to me."

          Refusing to rise to the bait, Vin headed for the door. "I guess I better finish my rounds."

          Buck chuckled to himself as the younger man left. In the warm quiet of the small office, he remembered the reason for Josiahís trip.

          The preacher had felt the urge to visit the Indian Reservation and when heíd asked for volunteers to ride with him, JD had readily agreed. The kid had rattled on about his memories of a sweat lodge and skunk stew from his first visit. When Buck pressed for details, JD had clamed up. He mumbled something about making amends to the elders, but thatís all Buck could get out of him. Josiahís knowing smile had only added to Buckís frustration but he couldnít persuade the preacher to explain what JD was muttering about.

          Theyíd left nearly a week ago when the sun had been warm and shining in a cloudless sky. The wind had changed overnight and blown in cold, driving folks indoors. Smoke drifted from chimneys that usually remained unused until later in the year. The town had shut down tight, leaving the remaining Seven with little to do.

          Buck patiently rechecked his gun, then returned it to his holster. The wind blew against the building, rattling the windows and sending a downdraft through the stovepipe. A quick puff of smoke blew out and a cloud of fine ash drifted to the floor.

          Finished with his weapon, Buck slouched back in his chair. He stared out the window, watching the wind blow patterns of sand and dust along the street. Abruptly, a chill passed over him. His thoughts turned to Josiah and JD, probably on their way back. Be careful, boys.

          The weather seemed even more menacing from inside the warm office. With a determined shake of his head, he pushed himself up and grabbed his jacket. He needed a shot of whiskey to chase the morbid thoughts from his head and warm the cold knot of worry building in his gut. He headed for the saloon.

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          Leaves rustled softly beneath shod hooves as JD and Josiah rode off the well-traveled trail into a small, sheltered glade. Josiah reined in his mount and stepped down from the saddle with a sigh of relief. "Weíll stop here."

          JD glanced over his shoulder, then quickly slipped out of the saddle and untied his bedroll. He remained quiet as he grabbed his canteen and carried everything to the middle of the clearing.

          Josiah noticed the silence. Ever since their first day at the reservation, JD had been unusually quiet. The young manís reflective attitude struck the preacher as humorous, but he carefully kept his grin to himself. "Something on your mind, son?"

          JD shrugged his shoulders. "No."

          Knowing JD would talk when he was ready, Josiah reached for his horse, but a small sound stopped him. He moved around the animal to see JD better and then began to loosen the cinch.

          "He called me an overeager kid."

          Josiah ducked his head and bit his lower lip. The elders of the village had been amused to see JD again. The kid had blundered into the sweat lodge the first time theyíd visited the reservation. His shocked expression had been imprinted in their memories.

          When theyíd arrived on this visit, JD went straight to Kojay to apologize for his disrespect. Josiah had been taken by surprise.

          JD had talked faster and faster, losing his stuttering insecurity but turning into a fount of endless prattle. Finally, the old Indian chief had held up his hand. When JD stumbled to a stop, the elder had looked at him and nodded with a grave expression on his lined face.

          "You are like the chickadee." The men around him nodded as if heíd revealed a piece of great wisdom. Josiah caught the confused look on JDís face even though he covered it well.

          The young man propped his hands on his guns and dipped his head toward the Chief with his lips pressed together in grim attention. The Chief continued, his dark eyes squinting with a smile not revealed in the rest of his features. "We learned to be patient observers like the owl. We learned cleverness from the crow, and courage from the jay, who will attack an owl ten times its size to drive it off its territory. But above all of them ranked the chickadee because of its indomitable spirit."

          The men drifted away in the silence left by the Chiefís words. JD turned to Josiah, shrugging his shoulders in an unspoken plea. His eyes were wide with a look of confusion. Help me, Josiah.

          Josiah moved over to pat him on the arm. "Just something to keep your mind occupied, JD. Think about what he said."

          The young man had taken Josiahís advice to heart. Heíd kept to himself, quietly observing the people around him.

          Obviously, JD had finally deciphered the old Indianís words and was now ready to end the silence.

          Josiah looked up from his task. The serious expression on JDís face slowed his tongue, made him think twice about the glib response heíd been holding ready for this moment.

          "An overeager kid, Josiah, thatís what he called me," JD repeated.

          The preacher sighed and nodded. "That he did."

          JDís mouth opened and shut. Irritation drew the young manís features in tight. "I was just tryiní to apologize. He didnít hafta insult me." He threw his bedroll to the ground and sat down with a huff.

          Josiah finished with the saddle and pulled it from the horseís back. He balanced it against his hip and walked over to JD then swung it to the ground. Hunching down on one knee, he picked up a twig and twirled it between his fingers, studying the peeling bark rather than looking at his companion.

          "What makes you think he insulted you?"

          JD blew his breath out in exasperation. "You heard what he said." His voice dipped lower in a fair imitation of the Chiefís deep tone. "ĎYou are like the chickadee.í Comparing me to an animal that looks like a rat with a fuzzy tail, for goodness sake. If that ainít an insult, I donít know what is." He clasped his hands around his knees and glowered at the trees. "If Iíd realized what he meant I wouldnít a stayed around. He and the others were probably laughiní at me all week."

          Josiahís mind went blank, caught off guard by JDís misunderstanding. When clarity rushed in, reconnecting everything he couldnít contain the rumbling chuckle tickling his chest. Settling closer he flicked the stick away but kept his hands busy with the saddle. JD was embarrassed enough right now; he didnít need someone reading each expression shifting across his face.

          "He compared you with a chickadee." Josiah ignored JDís disgruntled humph. He finished with his saddle and rested his arms across the leather. "A chickadee ainít a squirrel like youíre thinkiní -- itís a bird."

          Enlightenment dawned on JDís face. That expression turned to confusion again and finally twisted back into irritation. "So? A squirrelís bad enough, but a bird? Thatís even smaller!"

          "Size donít matter, son. You judge a man by his spirit, not his muscle. Seems to me it was more a compliment than an insult."

          JD twisted around. "Compliment?" His voice rose with the word, squeaking off at the end.

          "He said the chickadee has an indomitable spirit. You know what that means?"

          JD shrugged. "Sounds like something Ezra would say. I think it means the chickadee wonít give up, or something like that."

          Josiah smiled. "Yep, thatís exactly what it means. Now tell me how you get an insult outta that?"

          "Well, he -- I --"

          Josiahís smile widened to a grin.

          JDís shoulders lifted in a heavy sigh and he returned the smile. "I guess youíre right, preacher."

          "íCourse I am!" Josiah reached out and shoved the young man gently. "Now how Ďbout getting some wood for the fire while I tend to the horses?"

          Nodding agreeably, JD stood up. He dusted off his britches then moved away, his eyes on the ground as he searched for wood.

          "Indomitable spirit, huh? Pretty smart Chief."

          Josiah shook his head, making a mental note to teach the next lesson just as soon as JD got back: humility.

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          A chickadee ainít a squirrel like youíre thinkiní -- itís a bird. Remembering Josiahís patient words in the face of his ignorance, JD smiled. He walked slowly through the woods, picking up fallen branches. Dusk shaded the horizon; high branches caught the last lingering sunlight. The wind blew cold through his jacket and JD shivered. His knuckles grew numb and his fingers stiffened with strain from clutching the wood.

          A sound distracted him from his thoughts. The bushes just off to his right rustled with movement and he tensed in anticipation. He lowered the branches in his arms to the ground. Moving slowly, placing each step with deliberate control the way Buck had taught him, he crept toward the sound.

          The bush parted and a wolf pup emerged. Its black nose twitched, and when he sniffed too close to the ground he shook his head and sneezed. JD laughed, feeling the tension melt from his body. The loud noise frightened the animal and the pup drew back inside the bush.

          "Oh hey, donít be scared little feller. Come on out here where I can see ya." Crouching down on his hands and knees, JD crawled forward. When he neared the bush he reached out and parted the branches. Two pups stared out at him, fearless and beautiful. A tiny tongue darted out to taste the air, testing to see whether this new apparition was harmful or not.

          One of the pups yipped, a high pitched bark that would grow to a deep throated growl one day. Its little mouth formed a small ĎOí. JD laughed, delighted with the idea of bringing home a pet.

          He offered one hand to the little creatures, palm side up. "Wish I had something to give

          ya but Josiahís got all our supplies back at camp. How Ďbout I take you back there and give you a bite to eat?"

          Inching forward, drawing back when the pups flinched from his touch, JD finally managed to scratch one ear. The small wolf growled -- a tiny rumbling sound that sounded more like a purr to JD, and nipped at the young manís hand. "Whoa there, big feller, donít want to take my finger off."

          His voice startled the pup and he fell back on his haunches. Coordination hadnít quite been grasped yet. The small animal lost his balance and rolled to his back, butting against his brother. The other pup barely managed to keep his footing. He twisted his head around to lock his jaw on his siblingís hind leg. A happy game of tag ensued with JD watching, enraptured by the play.

          A much different growl pealed like thunder behind JD, introducing a presence that felt heavy with menace against his back. He felt the hair on his neck stand at attention. Terror rushed over him, shrinking his skin tight across his face.

          His mouth suddenly dry with fear, JD held his position but slowly turned his head to look over his shoulder. A female wolf, presumably the mother, stood a few feet away, her head lowered in challenge. Black lips quivered and curled, drawing back from sharp, lethal teeth. Her tongue flicked out and saliva dripped from her mouth. Amber eyes narrowed as she took a step forward.

          What am I supposed to do here? Think, dammit!

          JD stared, his eyes pulled like a magnet to her glare. She bristled, the hair on her shoulders fanned up. He swept his gaze away. His thoughts ran rampant as he struggled to grasp the situation. Sweat beaded cold and clammy on his face. He felt fear radiate from him and knew the wolf could smell the stench. Panic seized his brain. When she moved again his head whipped back to her. He saw the moment her muscles bunched, knew she was about to attack.

          Making a decision based on instinct rather than judgement he twisted back around, lunging away. Silence grabbed hold, froze him in time. He hung suspended, stretched out with both arms reaching for escape.

          Abruptly, her weight drove him to the ground, slamming the breath from his body. Teeth tore into his jacket. The horrible feel of incisors scraping against his flesh threatened to shred his sanity. He heaved up from the ground, desperate to escape. She toppled from him. A glimpse revealed a blur of teeth and fur as she dove for him again.

          Teeth as sharp as sabers pierced his flank. Strong forelegs wrapped around his shoulders, pinning him to the ground. Her claws raked across his back, her hind legs slashed wicked furrows along his left leg. JDís desperate gasps left no air to scream. His lungs pumped like bellows as he twisted on the ground, wrestling with the enraged wolf. He clutched at her with one hand, grabbed fistfuls of tough hide to push -- push her away, but she was immovable.

          He searched blindly for his gun with the other hand. Her teeth dug into his side and she chewed. The pinch of her jaws closing over flesh shook sanity from his grasp for one nightmarish moment. Fangs pierced his leg, clamping with jarring force against bone. He threw back his head with a shriek, his scream echoing hollow from his chest. His clutching fingers closed on metal. He yanked his gun from the holster. Through the pain and confusion swirling in his head, he remembered that this was a mother protecting her children. Gripping his gun with fear-frozen fingers, he swung down hard.

          Metal rebounded against clenched muscle, but the wolf hardly more than grunted. She shook her head. Her jaws, locked firmly in JDís thigh seemed to ricochet agony throughout his body.

          He screamed again. The sound flayed his chest raw. Desperation pulled at him, drawing him down into a dark place. He lifted the gun, concentrating his strength into one mighty crash. Metal jarred against bone this time. With a high piercing yelp, the animal released him.

          She moved away, her pale eyes locked on JD. Her barrel rib cage heaved. When she curled her lips in a throaty growl, her bared teeth glistened red with blood.

          JD shuddered but held as perfectly still as he could. His left side, hip and leg throbbed distantly and his chest ached. Even his face hurt from the permanent grimace etched on it. His breathing gusted in cloudy puffs from his mouth as he waited. He tightened his finger on the gunís trigger, resigned to the fact that he would kill her if she came after him again.

          Finally, the wolf flicked her tongue over her teeth and turned to her pups. The fur along her spine rose in a prickly thick line. Her ears quivered with nervousness. Herding the two pups in front, she disappeared quickly into the thick undergrowth. A distant howl electrified the air.

          With a loud release of breath JD collapsed, shaking, to his belly. He was surprised to see the forest unchanged, the same pattern of shadows dappling the ground and trees around him. A lifetime had passed in seconds.

          His left leg felt bloated and tight. He imagined a bloody stump there and the horrible image forced him to move despite his pain.

          There wasnít as much blood as heíd expected. His britches hung in ragged strips from his leg. The left side of his shirt was ripped open. The gaps in his pants revealed raw edged wounds and skin shiny with saliva. His thigh had huge bite marks with bruises already forming around the pierced flesh. His stomach twisted with nausea. He looked away, slumping back to the ground where he tried rolling carefully to his side. Gravity defeated him, however, and pulled him onto his back. His heart thumped so hard he felt it pulse against his spine.

          The harsh wind of the past week had dried the leaves on their branches. They rustled loudly overhead, creating a swelling canopy of sound. He knew he should do something, shoot his gun or make some kind of noise to get Josiahís attention, but he felt disconnected from his body. His thoughts spiraled down and drew him into a place that held no pain. He floated just beneath the surface of unconsciousness, hovering in the middle of twilight and sunset, held in the silence between.

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          Josiah finished bedding down the horses. He slid his hand along the curve of his mareís back as he passed by, then gave her a friendly pat and smiled when she nickered quietly.

          The surrounding woods were beginning to come alive with night sounds. As twilight dragged its way toward the clearing, it provided cover for a multitude of insects and animals. Josiah rested on his heels next to the area he had cleared off, arranging a crude circle of stones.

          The cold was moving in, and a fireís warm glow would go far in pushing it back. He pulled flint out of his pocket and cupped it in his hand, allowing the solid weight to settle in his palm. Now all he needed was the wood. He glanced up, his gaze sweeping the nearby trees. "All right, JD, where are you, son?" The wind picked up, brushing past his cheek. He pulled his jacket closed and reached to flip his collar up to keep out the unwelcome cold.

          Help me, Josiah.

          "JD?" Startled, Josiah stood and squinted into the surrounding dark. Absently, he slipped the flint back into his pocket.

          The leaves overhead rustled and Josiahís attention snapped toward the movement. A small gray bird sat on a thin branch, peering down at him. Its dark head tilted and the beak opened, emitting a tiny chirp. Then, with a flutter of wings, it took flight.

          JDís voice echoed in the preacherís head. An unnerving sense of urgency gripped Josiah. He strode with purpose through the trees, pulled toward a place he knew he had to go.

          Darkness shrouded the trees, melting shapes into blurred images of gray. Leaves and twigs crunched beneath his boots. Heíd walked a fair distance from camp and stopped, alerted by the silence around him. Something wasnít right.

          "JD?"

          His pulse thudded loudly in his head, exaggerated by the stillness of the woods. A ragged moan prickled his skin with apprehension. A quiet breath of air and the muffled sound of cloth against dry leaves signaled someoneís presence. Josiah took another step forward, resisting the urge to call out again. The uneasy feeling of walking into a trap made his scalp tingle.

          A dark lump roughly the shape of a body showed incongruous against the lighter forest floor. Josiahís eyes widened. He quietly knelt beside the man, his gaze locked on the shadowy trees around him. When nothing happened, he bent over and squinted through the darkness. JDís pale face shown as a smudge of color in the veiled moonlight filtering through the overhead branches. His eyes fluttered open and he moaned.

          "JD -- What is it son? Where are you hurt?"

          "Josiah?" JDís voice whispered out, tremulous and strained. "Wolf."

          "What?" Startled with JDís revelation, Josiah patted careful hands along the kidís chest and throat. No gaping wounds oozed under his questing fingers, and he released a sigh of relief. When he reached the young manís side, JD flinched. Josiah held still for a moment. The cloth under his palms felt soggy. Cautiously, he felt for JDís wounds, moving down the side of the young manís leg. The tattered edges of JDís britches confused him, fragmenting the picture in his mind of how things should look. Frustrated with the lack of light, he fumbled to pull his shirttail from his pants and began tearing the material into strips.

          "Wolf --" JDís voice strained again out of the darkness. He moved restlessly on the ground, pushing Josiahís hands away. "She had -- pups -- I --"

          "You got between the wolf and her pups?" Josiah gently pushed JDís arms to the ground then blindly began tying strips of material together.

          "Yeah." Spoken with a whisper of sound.

          Josiah shook his head and fumbled to wrap the narrow strips around JDís leg. "You never get between a mother wolf and her pups, JD." A shaky laugh rumbled through the body under his hands and an airy "now he tells me" made him smile. "She was doing what her instincts told her to do, driving you away from her pups. She could have killed you. That she didn't is something to be grateful for."

          "Grateful?"

          Realizing abruptly that he didnít have enough bandages to help, Josiah shrugged out of his coat. "Yeah, grateful. She was just warning you off."

          "S-some warning."

          "She just wanted to protect them."

          "I wasn't going to hurt themÖ I -- thought maybe they wanted -- some food." JDís voice wound down to a mumble, barely discernible. Josiah brushed against his flank and JD cried out.

          "City boys." Josiahís chiding tone sounded harsh to his own ears but he couldnít let JD know how worried he was. "If it werenít for God and good luck, I donít know how youíd survive out here."

          A weak laugh rose from JD.

          Josiah smiled. "Hang on, Iíll get you back to camp where we can get a better look." Pressing his lips together, he wrapped his heavy coat around his injured companion. The core of calm deep in his chest hid a layer of panic.

          The curve of the young manís back fit snug against Josiahís arm as he pushed under JDís body. Scooping under JDís legs, Josiah gathered his strength and rose to one knee. His breath rushed out in one loud grunt when he stood. JD stiffened in his arms. Tight sounds strained through the young manís chest. Moving as quickly as he could, Josiah headed back for camp. He was aware when JD went limp in his arms; his head folded back in the crook of his elbow.

          A gentle whinny from his mare guided Josiah in. The sun had set, plunging the woods into darkness. After lowering him carefully to the ground, Josiah reached out to touch JDís throat, a silent prayer in his heart. The resonance of a thready pulse hummed beneath his fingertips. Assured, the preacher scrambled to find wood and start a fire.

          The spark of flint striking stone looked unnaturally bright against the groundís inky blackness. Flicks of blue-white sparks danced from the flint and finally caught the dry grass and leaves Josiah had piled together. The glow spread, and Josiah added thin twigs across the top. Fire licked hungrily at dry wood. The building flame emitted a soft light, throwing dark shadows in the hollows of JDís face.

          The kidís skin felt clammy when Josiah touched him. He grabbed handfuls of his jacket still wrapped around JD and pulled him closer to the fire.

          He reached for JDís pants and folded the torn fabric aside. Deep slashes had ripped open JDís flesh along his thigh, revealing lips of raw skin that glistened, oozing red blood in the yellow firelight. "God Almighty." Josiahís breath caught at the horrible damage.

          JD trembled under his touch. Josiah slowly peeled away JDís saturated shirt, no longer white. Claw marks, bruises and deeper tracks identical to those on his leg marred his side, wrapping around his flank. His rib cage shuddered, slender bones showing in stark relief under thin skin. JD flinched. His wounded body jerked and a deep moan escaped.

          With a grunt, Josiah pulled himself from the ground and hurried to the saddlebags. Fumbling with buckles, he jerked a whiskey bottle and other supplies from the leather bags and brought them back to the fire. He fell to his knees at JDís side and stared in dismay at the inadequate supplies. He needed help.

          Letting his head fall back, he closed his eyes with his face turned heavenward. He breathed deep and drew strength back into his weakened limbs, pushing the dark, smothering despair aside. Josiah had become a controlled man, knowing that when he lost control he was fearsome to behold. So now, when a tremor of fear tried to snake into his gut, he thrust it aside with a grimace and set about tending to JD.

          The young manís brown jacket was soiled, darkly stained with dirt and blood. Working as quickly and gently as he could, Josiah supported JDís upper body from the ground to pull his arms out of the sleeves. JD suffered silently, his eyes squeezed shut as the muscles in his arms quivered with his bodyís raw pain. The ruined shirt ripped away easily. Josiah gripped JDís pants leg and widened the tears but left the britches on to offer protection from the cold.

          JDís pale skin accentuated the open wounds in his side and hip. The teeth and claw marks stood out starkly, glistening like haphazard splashes of oily black paint on a whitewashed house. Trying not to notice the palsied shaking of his own fingers, Josiah tied strips of material together. He slid one hand beneath the injured leg and lifted JDís knee. The trembling handicapped his coordination and Josiah swore under his breath. His fingers tightened, and God help him, he felt JDís groan rumble through the fragile bones in his palm.

          " -- No --"

          Josiah let go of the bandage and let it pool to the ground. He reached over to lay his hand flat on JDís face. "Rest easy, son." The young manís head lolled restlessly on the blanket. His eyebrows drew together. Sweat gathered in the creases of his forehead, running down the sides of his face into his hair. His breathing sounded high in his chest, shallow and raspy. With a sigh that pulled at his shoulders, Josiah turned back to the bandages. The first layer was already saturated and heavy with blood.

          It took better than half the whiskey bottle and all the extra shirts the saddlebags held to cleanse and bind JDís wounds. Josiah added his own blanket over JD, hoping to keep him warm. He soaked a piece of shirt with half his supply of water and used the rag to cool JDís rising fever.

          The fire snapped and popped, throwing flickering fingers of light across the kidís face. Moonlight danced between the darkness in the trees, spreading white light in the periphery where the fireís light couldnít reach.

          Night swelled into hours. Josiah grew stiff. His back curved as he quietly leaned over and poured more water onto the ragged piece of material bunched in his hand. Setting the nearly empty canteen aside, he wrung out the excess water and held the cloth to JDís fevered forehead.

          Dark eyelashes fluttered against fire yellow cheeks. JDís eyes opened. Shadows hid the color, replacing hazel with black. "Josiah?"

          Josiah leaned forward. "Iím here, JD. What is it, son?"

          JD moaned and shut his eyes. "Josiah -- wolf -- help me."

          "Itís all right, JD." Josiah felt inept and awkward trying to sooth JDís nightmare.

          JD moved on the ground, twisting from side to side, and brought one arm up over his head, as if shielding himself from an attack. A sound slid from his throat, both a groan and a sob. He reached up with his other hand before Josiah could stop him, fumbling for his side. When he touched the bandaged wounds he flinched, his body caving in on itself.

          "Hold still." Josiah pushed JDís arms back to the ground and held them down. His big hands clutched at JD with unaccustomed gentleness. "That wolf is gone, JD."

          JD looked carefully into Josiahís face, then his eyes closed and his body went limp in Josiahís grip. Heat warmed the preacherís face at the absolute trust heíd seen in JDís eyes. His grip tightened unconsciously around JDís wrists. When he lifted his head and studied the sky through the trees, darkness mocked him even though he knew morning couldnít be far away. With sudden clarity a solution presented itself to him. He nearly gasped with the welcome knowledge of it.

          Standing quickly, he moved around the campsite, packing away what he didnít need and saddling the horses. When he finished he made his way back to the fire. He threw another thick branch on; that would keep them warm until morning. He sat next to JD and picked up the damp cloth. Whispering soothing words he knew couldnít be heard, he wiped the material gently across JDís face, soaking up the gathering sweat. For the first time since heíd heard JDís phantom voice call to him, Josiah dared to hope.

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          Early morning found Buck slumped in his regular chair at the saloon. He looked up when the batwing doors swung open and Vin entered. The tracker walked over, pulled out a chair and sat down.

          "Finish your rounds?"

          Vin nodded.

          "Me too."

          The tracker looked up. "With what?"

          "My shift at the jail."

          Vin didnít comment; he just rubbed his thigh with his hand. After a moment of silence, he stood.

          Buckís head snapped up. "Where ya going?"

          The tracker looked back over his shoulder. "Thought I might meet Josiah and JD half way, see if thereís any news from the reservation."

          "Mind if I tag along?" Without waiting for an answer, Buck stood. He glanced out the saloon entryway, pointing his chin toward the weather as he slipped his holster around his hips and buckled it into place. "Windís begininí to pick up. Might even be colder today than it was yesterday. Iím sure those two could use some company to keep Ďem warm on the way back." With a light hand on Vinís shoulder, he urged the tracker out the door.

          Realizing Buck was coming if he wanted him to or not, Vin let a grin spread across his face. They left the saloon and headed for their horses. "I never figured you for the worriní type, Buck. Whatís all this sniveliní and whininí I hear?"

          "I ainít worried."

          "Thatís what it sounds like to me."

          Recognizing his own trap, Buck frowned. "I hate it when folks throw my words back at me."

          Vin laughed as he pulled himself into the saddle. "Then donít make it so easy, pard." He reined his horse away, ignoring the muttering at his back.

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          Josiah lifted JDís limp weight easily. A feeling of fierce tenderness tightened his grip on the figure cradled gently in his arms. Climbing a half-rotten stump, he somehow managed to get them both into the saddle. He grasped the reins looped around the horn, then nudged the horse forward with his heels.

          As they rode toward the reservation, his mind filled with images of the first time heíd seen JD -- how the lad had come west with a suitcase, a saddle, and a pair of pearl-handled revolvers. How his good nature and optimism helped him carve a place among men whose lives were callused by violence. How it would be a shame to lose that vitality in something so senseless as a wolf attack.

          The young man slumped loose-limbed now in Josiahís arms. His head bumped gently against the older manís shoulder with the rhythm of the horseís gait. Josiah reached up to press his hand against JDís forehead. Oily sweat beaded JDís skin, sprinkled across his cheeks despite the early morning chill.

          The rising sun poured color back into the leaves. Josiah noticed familiar landmarks ahead and pressed his heels more firmly into his mountís sides. Expecting a sleeping village, his eyebrows lifted in surprise when several men, including the Chief, met him near the first dwelling.

          One of them took the reins. The group moved quietly through the teepees, as solemn as a funeral procession. Struggling to hide his confusion, Josiah glanced down at the gray head near his knee. "You folks act like you knew we were coming."

          Kojay looked up at him. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he looked over JDís bandaged leg. He lifted his hand to touch the young man. Josiah thought he saw him frown but Kojay faced forward again before he could be sure.

          "I had a vision. I saw an injured bird -- a chickadee -- in the forest and I knew you would return."

          Josiahís chest tightened around his breathing. A surreal feeling of unbelief passed over him and he felt heavy as lead in the saddle. He glanced at the dark head resting against his shoulder, then cupped the face of the unconscious young man and spoke softly to him. "Itís OK now, JD, ya hear? Kojay knows what to do." He felt the heat of JDís fever against his palm and sighed. I wish Nathan was here.

          They stopped at a large teepee. Kojay stepped aside and several men reached to lift the injured man down from the saddle. Josiah squeezed his hand around JDís arm, then let him go, sliding him carefully into the arms of the waiting men. Someone pulled back the teepeeís flap. JD was carried inside. Looking up, Josiah noticed smoke spiraling out of the open top.

          He dismounted and turned to Kojay. "Is this the sweat lodge?"

          "No. This home belongs to a woman who helps care for the sick."

          Josiah moved aside to allow those who had carried JD into the lodge to exit. Two women who had been waiting patiently ducked inside.

          "I appreciate you helping us, Kojay." He gestured toward the lodge. "íS all right if I go in there?"

          "Yes. He will be taken to the sweat lodge later, if I think he is able."

          Nodding in agreement even though he didnít completely understand, Josiah ducked inside the dwelling and was swallowed up in hot darkness.

          <>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>

          Vin pulled his horse to an abrupt stop. The two men had followed a line of tracks off the rutted road into the trees. Buck pulled up beside him and followed the other manís gaze to the ground. "What is it?"

          Vin swung down from the saddle. "Someoneís camp. Thought I might take a look." The tracker moved to the darkened circle of burnt wood and crouched beside it. Picking up a sooty stick, his eyes roamed the surrounding area then he nodded off to the right. "The tracks lead away. Whoever stayed here was coming from the north."

          "You sayiní they was headiní for Four Corners?"

          "Maybe."

          "Then how come we didnít pass Ďem?"

          Vin shrugged. "Could be they took another trail." Without another word he stood up and moved outward, stepping cautiously around the signs he could see in the dirt. Buck followed at a respectable distance, looking but not seeing whatever had drawn Vinís attention.

          The younger man stooped suddenly to pick something off the ground. He turned to Buck and held it out.

          Buck examined the piece of cloth. It was stiff and stained brown. "Is that blood?"

          Vin nodded. "Reckon so. Looks like someone did some doctoriní here."

          Buck looked up. "Which way you think they went?"

          Vin twisted and pointed into the trees. "Back toward the reservation would be my guess."

          "Letís go." Dropping the rag to the ground, Buck moved to his horse.

          "You donít know if itís Josiah and the kid, Buck." Unconvinced, Vin stayed where he was, his thumbs hooked in his gunbelt.

          "No, I donít." The older man toed his boot into the stirrup and swung into the saddle. "But somebody could be hurt. And I aim to find out who."

          Determination drew his lips into a thin line. Realizing Buck would leave without him, Vin hurried to his horse and pulled up into the saddle. He lead the way back to the trail, heading for the reservation.

          <>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>

          Swirling, smoking black -- JD couldnít tell if his eyes were open or if he was dreaming. Heavy darkness pressed against him, holding him to the ground. Hurting claws of agony swept across his left thigh and side; pain ripped him open. His neck arched back and he held his breath, waiting for the wave to pass. Holding still became difficult as the agony built in his body. He gasped and the pain exploded when air filled his lungs.

          Words wove around and above him, melting with the darkness and drawing him back from the pain. The sounds were like velvet ribbons, threading in and out of each other, lacing the heavy air.

          Confusing images tumbled in his mind, bumping against each other so fast he couldnít grasp hold of one thought. A wolf rushed at him out of the darkness, her hair coarse and thick against his skin. He fought, his arms useless as twigs against jaws strong enough to crush bone. Despair swelled inside him, seeping into his heart and strangling his mind. Strength ebbed from him, oozing from wide-open slashes in his side and leg. He dissolved in fear, the wolfís snarls fading to soft echoes in the background of his nightmare.

          A hand touched him, drew death and pain from his memory. His bones turned to lead, weighing him down, pinning him to the earth. Black stillness expanded, extending beyond the space he could see. Where were the edges of reality?

          A brown smudge with moving lips floated out of the darkness. A face he knew but whose name he could not remember ghosted over him. Soft rhythms with a throaty sound threaded from the open mouth, sending out a trail of words that settled over him in gossamer nets of warmth and comfort. His wounds were touched. His pain spiked then receded quickly into the distance.

          JD closed his eyes and fell into peace.

          <>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>

           

           

          The sun rose and warmed the day despite the wind that swirled leaves around the horsesí legs. Buck slowed his gray to a lope as he and Vin rode into the village. People moved around them, women carrying baskets, men with tools slung over their shoulders, talking quietly to each other. He slowed his horse even more, guiding the animal around the people, nodding to them in greeting.

          They wound their way into what seemed to be the middle of all the activity. Buck stopped and slipped down from the saddle. He smiled when a young Indian woman looked his way. Pulling his hat from his head, he nodded and his smile widened. White teeth gleamed, accentuated by his dirt-encrusted face. The Indian woman giggled and hid her mouth behind her hand. Buck tilted his head. "íScuse me, miss, but I --"

          "Buck." Vin had dismounted and moved up behind him. He touched his friendís shoulder. When Buck turned to him, his eyebrows raised in question, Vin pointed ahead.

          Buck twisted back around. The young lady was gone; an old Indian man stood in her place. Beyond him, Josiahís and JDís horses were ground tied nearby. He pulled his attention to the man in front of him. "Weíre lookiní for the men that probably rode in on those two horses--"

          The old Indian turned without a word. Glancing behind, making sure Vin was with him, Buck followed. They stopped at a sweat lodge but the Indian made it obvious to them they were not to go inside.

          Before Buck could protest, Josiah stepped out of the lodge with Kojay behind him. He grabbed for the preacher, a question on his lips but Josiah shook his head. Behind him the lodge opened again. Two men emerged carrying a drooping body between them. A dark haired head sagged back, limp and loose between white shoulders. Black hair fell like slashes across JDís cheeks, plastered to his face with sweat.

          Buckís eyes narrowed as the rest of JDís body was revealed. He was flush with fever -- his pale skin blushed pink. Thick red wounds crossed his bare flank and left leg. Anger flowed swift through Buckís heart, surging through his bones. He followed silently behind the procession, unaware when Vin and Josiah moved in to shadow him.

          They arrived at another dwelling, this one bigger than the sweat lodge. Kojay ducked inside. The men carrying JD followed. Buck, Vin and Josiah were close behind.

          They placed JD carefully on a folded mat on the ground, then turned silently and left. Kojay walked quietly around JD in a circle, then knelt beside him. A woman knelt on the opposite side so they were facing each other.

          A small fire bounced light inside the teepee. Buck blinked, adjusting to the change of light. Someone moved against him. Cloth rustled against cloth and he reached for Josiah, pulling the other man around to face him. Vinís hand tightened around his arm, a silent warning, but Buck ignored it.

          "What the hell happened?" Buckís voice rasped out harsh and low. He felt Vin press closer.

          "Wolf."

          Buckís eyes widened and his mouth opened in shock. He tore his eyes from Josiahís brooding face and looked at JDís injuries. Claw marks stood out on his leg and side, wrapping around his flank, disappearing under the swath of buckskin laid across his hips. His pale skin reddened around the wounds but there was no blood. Buck shuddered, imagining JDís fear when facing down the wolf. Another worry caught hold and he turned back to Josiah.

          "Was it sick?"

          Understanding immediately what Buck was asking, Josiah shook his head and reached for Buckís shoulder. "He got between a momma and her pups."

          "That boy aintí been listení to my lessons." Vinís quiet admonition held tones of strain but Buck didnít turn to him. He let go of Josiahís shirt, absently patting the crumpled material flat. His throat clenched tight and his breathing slowed next to nothing as he moved around the inside of the lodge, bumping his head on the low hanging skins. Vinís fingers were light on his arm, keeping him within reach.

          The low light flickered erratically, throwing things into view and then hiding them again. JDís pale skin was marbled with sweat, throwing off reflected firelight that moved like liquid on his flesh.

          The Indian woman placed a bowl of water on the ground, then dipped into it and pulled out a cloth. After wringing it out, she used it to gently pat JDís face, soaking up the beads of sweat. She dipped the material into the water again, then dabbed it across JDís chest and belly, deftly avoiding the open wounds in his side. Her movements were calm and patient, holding a rhythm, steady and continuous. Another woman quietly took the bowl away, replacing it with another. The surface of the water rolled inside the wooden bowl, catching the light in swirling patterns.

          When JD was cooled down, she took the bowl and moved off to the side.

          Kojay bent over JD. He inserted a long narrow tube into a horrible gash in JDís thigh and sucked the free end. A moment later, he leaned to the side and spit.

          Revulsion pulled Buckís face into a frown. What the hell? He leaned forward to stop the old Indian but Vinís hold tightened around his arm, pulling him back.

          "Donít, Buck. He knows what heís doiní. Leave Ďim be."

          Buck grunted when Kojay next inserted the tube into a wound in JDís side. The manís cheeks hollowed inward as he began sucking on the wound. Buck drew his shoulders in tight, fighting against Vinís grip. His teeth ground together as bile rose to sting the back of his throat.

          Several long minutes passed, or maybe hours as Kojay cleaned JDís wounds. Buck shifted, settling from one hip to the other. His bones ached, letting him know how much time had passed and that he needed to find a place to sit, but he ignored the discomfort.

          Kojay removed the tube and set it aside. A low rumbling song rose like a thick fog as Kojay picked up a small pouch almost the same brown as his skin and poured its contents into his cupped palm. He scattered the herbs onto JD's injuries. The heat from the fire caught the herbsí scents. The rich blend of odors mixed with woodsmoke and sweat rose in a throat-clogging miasma inside the closed space of the lodge.

          Kojay reached for a shallow stone pot the woman had placed beside him. Dipping into the steaming water, he pulled out a dark leaf and laid it carefully atop JDís wounds. He repeated the motions until all the injuries were covered.

          "What the hell is that?"

          Vin glanced at Buck. "Itís a poultice."

          "Looks like damn weeds to me."

          "Probably are."

          They watched as Kojay slid his hand along JDís flank, pressing gently against the packing. JD moaned quietly. His head moved on the ground but he didnít wake up or otherwise protest the touch.

          Buck leaned closer to Josiah and tilted his head up to whisper in the other manís ear. "JD should be wakiní up. I donít see how he canít feel that."

          Josiah shook his head. "They gave him some tea earlier that calmed him down, helped him rest. He was pretty agitated when they first carried him in here." He grinned, his mouth stretching wide. "He gave Ďem a run for their money."

          Kojay opened his mouth, and his soft song grew in strength, the words more distinct, though no more understandable to Buck or Josiah. The sounds rose and fell, weaving around themselves, somehow haunting but joyful at the same time. The hair on the back of Buckís neck and on his forearms prickled. He looked at Vin, his eyebrows raised in question. "You gonna tell me thatís part of the ceremony?"

          Vin whispered, "Itís a prayer."

          "Donít sound like no prayer I ever heard before." Buck turned to Josiah for confirmation.

          The preacher echoed Vin. "Heís right, Buck." He stared his friend in the eye and made sure the other man was looking back. "I trust these people with JDís life." His gaze flickered to Kojay, then back to Buck. "But if itíll make you feel any better Iíll recite the Lordís prayer." He smiled at Buckís look of bemused irritation.

          The smell of something burning other than the fire yanked Buckís attention back to the ceremony. Kojay held a flat round stone in his palm, passing it over JD. A brittle pile of smoking herbs glowed in the center of the stone. His lilting song and the smell of the bitter sweat herbs swirled together, creating a pattern they could almost see.

          Buck watched, transfixed -- studying JDís face for some sign of awareness or distress. He had a sudden vision of grabbing his helpless friend and running from the lodge, knocking aside anyone who got in his way as he charged for his horse. And what? Hope Nathan meets you half way? Reality grabbed him by the throat and shook him like a dog with an old sack. JD was where he needed to be.

          Kojay stopped. He sat back on his heels and passed his hand gently over JDís forehead, pushing back the dark hair. He stood up, then walked a circle around JD and left.

          "Why'd he do that?" Buck asked. Vin glanced at him, but when no answer was forthcoming, he was moved to clarify. "Whyíd he walk around him like that?"

          Vin pushed his hat back. He opened his mouth as patterns and explanations formed in his head. He knew Kojay was defining and claiming the space within which Spirit was present, calling Spirit into the space itself to heal. Knowing Buck either wouldnít grasp the significance, or wouldnít care, he finally shrugged and simply said, "Itís their way." Nodding at his friends, he pushed the flap aside and left.

          Buck moved to kneel beside JD. He reached out and touched the young manís face then held his open hand above the wounds in JDís side. There was no evidence of infection; the skin around the wounds was pale and free of swelling. A flash of gratitude rushed through Buck. That the wolf hadnít killed JD was beyond a miracle, especially given the circumstances of the pups. His worry pushed his thoughts out. He asked Josiah, "Why do ya think the wolf didnít kill him?"

          "Donít know." Josiahís usual rumble sounded subdued in the dark warmth of the lodge. "But for whatever reason we should be thankful."

          Buck nodded. "I am." He pressed the back of his knuckles against JDís face. "Heís hot."

          "Probably still has fever." The big man lowered himself to his haunches beside his friends. "Kojay gave him something earlier, made him throw up."

          "What?" Buck craned his neck to look at Josiah. "Why?"

          Josiah shrugged. "I think thatís their way of getting rid of whateverís ailing a person, getting rid of the poison thatís inside where they canít reach." He shrugged again, wiping his hand roughly across his face. "The man wouldnít talk to me and I finally got the idea that this thing is supposed to be done in private. They let me stay mostly Ďcause I wouldnít leave and Ďcause I finally shut up."

          "I ainít leaviní neither." Buck settled comfortably to the ground. He took off his hat and set it beside himself then shoved his fingers through his hair, pushing it back from his forehead. "Whew, itís hot in here."

          The woman who had sponged JD down earlier moved forward. She set the bowl beside her, then dipped a rag into the cool water and dabbed it gently across JDís brow.

          Josiah clasped Buckís shoulder. "I think Iíll step out for some fresh air. Itís been a long day." Touching two fingers to his forehead he rose and left.

          Buck sat looking at JD. His thoughts floated without alighting on any certain memory. Ghosts of conversations spoke to him. JDís voice rang clear and strong in his head. My name is JD Dunne. And I can ride -- and I can shoot.

          A smile sprang to his face, remembering the first impression JD had given the others with his boastful attitude. My, how youíve changed, kid. Affection moved him to touch JD. He slid his fingertips along the young manís arm then gently grasped his shoulder.

          Glancing up at the woman, he pointed to the rag in her hand. "Mind if I take over?" He held out his hand for the cloth but she frowned at him and pulled it out of his reach. He smiled, tilting his head, and extended his reach. "Donít worry, I ainít gonna hurt him."

          Grasping one corner of the rag, he tugged gently. Her face showed displeasure but she relented, allowing him to pull the wet cloth from her hands. She retreated from the fire and picked up her sewing from where sheíd placed it before, but her eyes never left Buck.

          Feeling like heíd overstepped his bounds, Buck carefully dipped the rag back into the water and wrung it out. Folding it into a compact pad in his hand, he nodded at her before beginning to press it gently against JDís pale throat and chest. "See?" The thin set of her lips relaxed and her eyes dropped to her task. Stillness settled down around them, pushing conversation out of reach.

          A moment later the flap opened and Vin returned. "Buck." The trackerís soft voice scattered the quiet. Dipping his head toward the woman in greeting, he moved to kneel beside the older man. "He woke up yet?" Vin watched the tendons in the side of Buckís neck stretch tight.

          Buck blinked, his eyes wide and round in the darkness. "Nope." He heard Vin sigh.

          "Heíll be all right."

          Time held still, captured in the lodgeís tiny space. Buck pressed the damp cloth over JDís chest, leaving fine sprinkles of water. The thin layer of moisture evaporated quickly in the dry, hot air.

          His thoughts chased around inside his head, yapping at each other like dogs. The cycle of worry, relief and fear swirled together with images of JD fighting off a wolf. He strung bits of advice together, preparing a speech for when the young man woke up.

          He heard Vin leave. He fell back into the rhythm of gently dragging the rag carefully across JD. Face, jaw, throat and chest. The measured movements soothed him, lulling his mind into a trance. The woman came over once and gave JD some water to drink. She slipped her hand under his neck, barely lifting his head from the mat. Buck watched her movements, noticing her long brown fingers threaded through JDís black hair.

          She held the cup against JDís bottom lip. His mouth opened with the slight pressure and she tipped a tiny amount of water into his mouth. His throat worked when he swallowed. His thick eyebrows drew together and lifted. Buck expected the kidís eyes to open, expected him to smile up at him and tease him for the look of intense worry he knew closed his face, drew his features into a rigid mask. But the lax head settled back to the blanket and JD continued to sleep.

          She moved back to her sewing. Buck pulled the rag out of the water and continued cooling his friend off. Worry nagged him, kept him from relaxing.

          The flap pulled back and Buck jumped, startled by the abrupt movement. He glimpsed a triangle of star-spangled darkness before Josiah ducked inside the lodge. The preacherís broad shoulders shrank the surroundings, made the lodge feel more closed in.

          "íBout time to get some rest, Buck."

          Buck nodded. He dropped the warm cloth into the water. "Didnít realize it was so late."

          "Howís he doiní?"

          Buck followed Josiahís gaze to JD. "He ainít woke up yet. His fever hasnít gotten any worse, though, and thatís good."

          Josiah nodded. "Iíll sit with him awhile. Why donít you go grab some sleep."

          He held still, reluctant to move from the trance heíd fallen into. Finally, he reached up and scrubbed both hands across his face. He stretched his arms over his head then grabbed his hat as he moved toward the exit. "Call me if thereís a change."

          "I will."

          He ducked outside the lodge just as Kojay slipped inside. Buck turned back to see what the man was going to do but someone gripped his sleeve, pulling him back. He turned to find Vinís fingers around his arm.

          "Kojayís just gonna do some doctoriní, Buck. Same thing we saw before."

          Buck nodded. The images of the Indian cleaning JDís wounds were framed vividly in his mind. He shoved his hat onto his head.

          "I got our things set up over here." The tracker pointed his chin to the right. He turned and Buck followed him to the small camp. The nightís damp coolness after sitting so long in the heat chilled his skin. He sat wearily against a tree, stretching his shoulders back to work out the kinks heíd discovered since moving. Pulling his hat forward over his eyes, he crossed his arms, trying to find warmth in the open darkness. He fell toward sleep and dreams caught him before Vin could offer a drop of whiskey.

          <>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>~<>

          Josiah smiled, looking down at Buck. Early morning sunlight drifted warm and lazy over the trees, highlighting Buckís lower face where it wasnít shadowed by his hat. His head had settled to the side and his mouth hung open. Buckís ankles were crossed, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He looked so peaceful and relaxed that Josiah almost hated to wake him up. Squatting down, Josiah tapped the bottom of one boot.

          Buckís neck straightened and his hat, balanced precariously between his head and the tree, tumbled forward. He reached up and caught it, his hands fumbling awkwardly with sleep.

          "Rise and shine." Josiah grinned wider and passed his steaming mug under Buckís nose.

          Buck pushed the cup aside and opened his eyes. "What the hell is that?" His eyes squinted open and he raised his head, looking for all the world like a bear coming out of hibernation.

          "Coffee, my friend." He handed the cup to Buck and the man took it, confusion spilling across his features.

          "Coffee?"

          "Yep." Josiah pushed himself up. "From my own supplies."

          Buck extended his arm, holding the cup away from himself. He tucked his feet in and pushed against the tree behind him, managing to stand without spilling any of the coffee. A blanket someone had thrown over him during the night settled to the ground.

          "Thanks but no thanks, pard." Wiping the sleep from his face one handed, Buck offered the drink back to Josiah. The preacher looked at it, peering at the dark liquid as if heíd find a bug. "I like my morning brew a bit stronger."

          Dusting his britches off, Buck straightened to his full height. Bracing his hands behind his back, he stretched then scratched his chest. "Any change?"

          Josiah looked up. "Nope."

          Buck left Josiah with the coffee and returned to the lodge. He ducked inside to find the woman kneeling beside JD. She held his head, tilting a cup of water carefully against his lips.

          He noticed the poultices had been replaced with wraps of wet rawhide. Reaching out to touch JDís leg, he flinched in surprise when the woman stopped him with a firm hand on his arm. She shook her head and said something to him. While Buck didnít understand the language, he could interpret the look on her face. Donít touch! Willing to wait until Vin arrived to answer his questions, he kept his hands to himself. The wraps didnít look painful. Besides hiding the cruel looking slashes on JDís leg and flank, he hoped they aided in healing.

          JDís eyelashes fluttered. Buck leaned closer, wondering if the low shadows in the dimly lit lodge were fooling him. The young manís head lolled over weakly to face Buck. JDís lips parted and he frowned.

          Buck reached for the cup the woman had used earlier. He held it out and she filled it with water. Working his fingers gently under JDís head, Buck cradled his skull and lifted him carefully from the mat. Pressing the cup against JDís lower lip, he waited until the young man opened his mouth, then tipped the water slowly inside.

          JD swallowed. He lifted his hand, questing blindly for the cup. Fumbling fingers bumped against the container, creating tiny splashes that wet his chin.

          "Whoa there, pard, I gotcha." Buck grasped JDís hand and guided it to the cup. He wrapped his fingers around JDís, holding them gently around the container.

          JD strained to sit up. He sucked hungrily at the water, gasping a little.

          "Slow down, JD." Buckís soft words sounded close, as if he and JD had a thick blanket draped over their heads. He braced his arm against the ground, supporting JDís head more firmly. Vulnerability lined the young manís face in the creases made from grimacing in pain.

          JDís eyes fluttered open. He took several deep breaths, finally letting go of the cup to clutch at Buckís wrist. Buck felt protection broaden his shoulders and he leaned closer. JD squinted, then focused on him and smiled.

          Buck returned the smile. "Thought itíd be awhile yet before you came back to us, kid. Howíre you feeliní?"

          JD swallowed, his chin lifting a little with the effort. "I been better." His voice was scratchy, hard to hear.

          Buck let out a soft laugh. "Truth be told youíve looked better." He cleared his throat, caught off guard when JD squeezed his wrist. "You need to hurry up and get better so we can get you home. This lodge ainít the best place to meet women, yíknow. ĎSides, I think Iíve been insulted."

          Heavy lidded eyes turned his way -- a tiny line formed between thick eyebrows as JD frowned. "What do you mean, insulted?"

          Buck leaned closer, his eyes rolling as he looked around to see who might be listening. "I been compared to a bluejay, JD. Chief come right out and told me I was like the Ďjay. Now if that ainít an insult, I donít know what is."

          JDís eyes closed and it took a moment for Buck to realize the soft, irregular breaths huffing from his open mouth was laughter.

          "You think thatís funny?"

          "íS better than a squirrel, donít you think?"

          Buckís blank look seemed to tickle JD more. Buck accepted the teasing and smiled down at JD, thankful and grateful the young man was alive. Two more days, he figured, before they could head home. And once they were on the trail, away from prying eyes and listening ears, he planned on getting in on the joke.

          The End

          Shellie


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