By Shellie Williams
Thanks, Penny, Mackie, and Mary.
Sunlight reflected painfully into Josiah's eyes. He squinted, studying the dark horizon hidden beneath distant trees. They'd ridden hard and had been thankful to find this shack. It was positioned perfectly. It sat on a grassy knoll with yards of clear ground surrounding it before giving way to a broad expanse of trees. No one could approach without the occupants in the small cabin seeing them.
After checking one more time and seeing nothing suspicious, he walked into the cabin.
A boy sat in the only chair surrounded by the other men. Chris faced him, an expectant expression lifting his eyebrows. They'd caught Steve Frankston in the last town they'd ridden through. They kid joined Skallen's gang expecting wealth and fame but quickly learned what would happen to him if he stayed. The risk of brutal death finally outweighed the threat of Skallen's vengeance if he ran.
The young man sat with his arms crossed and his chin tucked in close to his chest, his terrified gaze locked on Chris. Fear bristled off him in waves. His eyes were open wide, red veins branching through the white giving testimony to long nights without sleep, and many days without hope.
"Where are they now?"
Chris' question whispered through the quiet cabin. The kid shifted on the chair then grew still again. He hung his head, finally breaking eye contact with Larabee. "Next town's Chert, 'bout 20 miles north. Skallen's moved in, everyone's too scared to come out. He'll be in the saloon."
Chris reached out carefully and placed his hand on the young man's shoulder. Steve flinched then froze. He tilted his head slightly to the side, eyes squeezed shut tight. The posture spoke of an expected blow. Chris tightened his fingers, waiting for the kid to open his eyes. When he did, tears had gathered, swelling the color but not flowing past the thick eyelashes.
"You'll be safe here, son. No one will hurt you." Chris paused, burdened by the look of disbelief in Steve's eyes. He bent closer and was relieved when the kid didn't pull away. "I won't let Skallen near you again, you hear me?" He'd lowered his voice, the reassurance meant for the kid only. Steve nodded.
Chris removed his touch and glanced up at Nathan. "Nathan and Josiah will stay here with you." His hands danced over his guns, slipping the leather loops off the hammers in an unconscious desire to palm the deadly weapons and use them. "They'll take care of you. We're far enough away from Chert, he'd never find you here anyway."
Steve's soft snort drew his attention and Chris looked back at the young man.
"Mister, I seen Skallen track his boys to places you'd never think even a sneaky coyote like him would find." He pulled his hands from where he'd tucked them and rubbed his arms as if he were suddenly cold. "I'll believe he ain't comin' after me when I see him dead."
Chris nodded, accepting the kid's suspicion as a challenge. "Time we tracked him down and did some findin' of our own." He traded glances with the men around him. "Let's ride, boys."
Nathan's voice mumbled low and reassuring from the cabin as they walked out the door. Josiah followed the rest of them out, his rifle in his hands. He waited until the others had mounted up, then spoke, raising his weapon a little for emphasis. "I can see anyone comin' for miles, Chris. We'll be safe here 'til you boys finish with your business and get back."
"Be careful, Josiah."
The big man grinned, teeth glittering in the sunlight. "I will."
The ride to Chert gave Chris time to think. They'd been tracking Skallen and his gang for over two weeks, following the trail of broken and abused kids left in his wake. Billy Skallen, age 47, had managed to gather together a handful of grown men who shared his demented desire for wealth. The group had no scruples, didn't care who they hurt or who they used to get what they wanted.
Skallen used orphaned boys, kids on the verge of manhood, stealing their futures the minute they were in his hands. He preyed on their vulnerability, their desperation for hope and their need to belong. He fed them and clothed them, providing the necessities for existence, but that's where his interest ended. They were treated as less than human -- beaten, kicked, humiliated and abused -- until their usefulness was gone. Then they were dead.
Chris' fingers tightened on the reins as images flashed through his mind. His horse tossed its head in agitation and Chris slackened his hold.
They'd found a boy nearly fifty miles west of here. His throat had been cut and the wide puddle of black blood he'd been lying in told a story of torture and cruelty. A circle of footprints surrounded the body, ghostly remains of the witnesses who had stood by and watched the grisly death but had done nothing to save the kid. Vin had hunched down near the site, whispering in a tight voice what he thought had happened. The signs were clear -- the boy had been tortured and murdered for the pleasure of his captors.
Twenty-five miles behind them they'd left another grave. A young man, sturdy and wide in stature, had been slashed down the front of his body -- throat to belly. His face still held an expression of shock, as if he hadn't seen his death coming.
Chris shuddered to think of the bodies they hadn't found. How many skeletons littered the countryside? Wasted bodies that would never be discovered and buried, never given the respect these young men deserved?
He glanced over his shoulder at JD who rode beside Buck, the two of them nearly even with Chris. Turning away, Chris couldn't help but grind his teeth, trying to ignore the terror that shot through his gut when he imagined an orphaned JD falling into the hands of someone like Skallen. What if JD hadn't arrived in Four Corners when he did? What if he'd kept traveling around, looking for that town that would catch his attention? What if he'd met Skallen before he'd met Buck and Chris and the others?
The indistinct shapes of a town in the far distance pulled him from his morbid thoughts. Chert. Skallen waited for them there and Chris spurred his mount forward, eager to reach their destination. There would be no more bodies -- no more dead eyes staring into a sky they couldnít see -- no more unmarked graves hiding the young bodies of men: years of living stolen from them.
They pulled up when they reached the outer limits of the town. Main Street created a tunnel and the wind blew through it, scattering dust and stray pieces of paper. The town looked dead -- no one walked its streets.
The men led their horses to a nearby post and secured them. They needed to keep the animals ready in case Skallen made a run for it.
The sound of metal sliding smoothly out of leather holsters followed their footsteps as they ducked out of the stable and hurried to a shadowed alley. Pressing their backs against the weathered wood, four faces turned expectantly toward their leader. Chris acknowledged their silent question with a nod.
"Steve said Skallen would be in the saloon. Looks like he's managed to scare the whole town into hiding."
Buck nodded. "I don't see no lookout. He don't know we're comin'."
Chris agreed. "We need to get inside that saloon, figure out how many men he's got with him, how many guns. And I want to make sure there ain't no boys around to get hurt."
"I can do it." All eyes turned to JD. The young man straightened under their scrutiny. "I wouldn't have to fake it, I'm an orphan anyway. I could tell him I heard about him and wanted to join up."
JD turned to Buck, his mouth open to counter the argument. A loud voice burst from the area of the saloon and the men grew quiet, the ominous clicks of cocking guns the only noise in the shadowed alley.
A kid shouted, his voice strangled with wordless pain. Chris slid to the corner and peered around the edge of the building.
"Let me go, damn it!" In front of the saloon a man held a boy who looked to be around 14 by the back of his collar, laughing when his skinny charge struggled in his grasp.
The two figures disappeared into the building and a voice rang out, loud and clear, "Entertainment's arrived!"
Chris slid back to his waiting friends and looked at JD. "You're goin' in, kid." He pointed at Ezra, "Work your way to the other side of the street 'til you're opposite the saloon." The gambler nodded with the instructions and left, his face serious with threat. Chris turned to the other two: "Circle around from the other end of town, block off that exit."
Vin turned to leave but Buck reached for JD. He grasped the kid's arm, locking a hard look on his young friend's face. "Be careful, kid."
JD nodded and reached up to pat Buck's hand. The gunslinger squeezed his arm again, then turned and followed Vin out of the alley.
"JD, you come with me." Drawing his gun from his side, Chris didn't even look at the kid for confirmation. He felt his presence at his back, heard the footsteps that shadowed his own as they made their way through the shadows to the unfamiliar saloon.
They stopped one building down. The high pitched voice of the boy wove sporadically through the deeper voices of the men. Dull thuds and hard smacks could be heard. Chris bristled. Movement caught his eye and he glanced across the street. Ezra touched his hat brim with one finger, a signal that he was ready.
He wavered in his decision to send JD in. As if sensing his unease, JD touched his arm, pulling his attention back. "Chris, you know this is the only way to figure out their plan."
"I don't know, JD --"
"I can do this, " JD interrupted, "I'm the only one who can...and you know it."
Damn! The kid is too smart for his own good. But he's right. Chris looked away briefly, gathering his swirling thoughts. After a long moment's pause, he returned his gaze to JD, staring intently into the kid's hazel eyes and imparting his patented look -- the one that told JD he was deadly serious and that the kid had better pay close attention to what he was about to say.
"You won't have anyone close to watch your back."
"All right." Sighing, Chris looked at the young man before him, so full of life and brimming with confidence. Chris knew that this was going to be tough on all of them, especially Buck. And JD? Despite the kid's emphatic claims that he understood the risks, Chris also knew this would be hardest on him -- and what made it even worse, was that he'd be on his own.
"Give me your guns."
A fleeting look of panic flickered across JD's face before he could school his expression. Resolutely, he handed his guns over, his throat working as he swallowed convulsively.
"We'll be right out here, JD. Don't take any chances. Take a good look around, see how many of them are in there then find a way to get you and the kid to safety. We'll come in soon as I know Buck and Vin are in place."
"Got it." He started forward but Chris' hand on his arm stopped him.
"We don't need a hero today, kid."
JD looked up and caught a reassuring smile before it disappeared. "I know. I'll be careful." He pulled from Chris' grasp and walked into the saloon.
For a brief moment the pressure of evil was overwhelming. Several men sat in chairs that formed a rough circle, surrounding a young man that stood in the center. Anger formed harsh lines on his face, defying the tears that streaked his cheeks. His arms quivered at his sides, his fists clenched and shaking.
JD cleared his throat. "Which one of you is Skallen?"
The air froze. Every head turned to him, gazes hard and staring. Nothing moved except the tortured young man. His body vibrated with strain, oxygen pumping loud through his chest -- his nostrils flared and his lips parted, sucked in and out as he breathed.
"Who wants to know?" The question seemed to materialize out of thin air. JD turned to find the speaker but couldn't figure out who it was.
"JD Dunne. I heard he was looking for some men."
One of the men, a dark haired, broad shouldered behemoth, stood up. His mouth opened wide and his barrel chest rumbled with laughter. "Men? All I see is a wet-behind-the-ears boy." He walked forward, reaching out. JD didn't move when the man grabbed his chin and roughly turned his face. "Open your mouth, boy, let's see your teeth."
The humiliation of being treated like an animal burned his face. He swiped at the offensive hand and his wrist was caught in a tight grip. He found himself turned around quickly; his arm pulled up high and twisted behind his back. Despite the discomfort, he forced words out through clenched teeth: "I'm not a boy."
Laughter bubbled against his back and the man released him then shoved him away. "Prove it."
JD rubbed at his sore wrist and turned to face his adversary. He swept his gaze across the assembly, counting quickly. There were seven, plus the kid and the bartender who was hunkered down low, only his eyes peeking over the edge of the wooden countertop. His gaze swept back to the group. Which one was Skallen?
JD's wavering attention centered quickly on the knife that appeared in his enemy's hand. With a flick of his wrist the knife arrowed across the room to stab into the floor between the other kid's feet. The handle still quivered with the impact when the man spoke again.
"Here's your chance, Garrett. Kill this kid and you win your freedom." He turned back and directed his next edict to JD: "Kill him and take his place." The man's eyes shifted, caught hold of another man's stare across the room, and accepted the brief nod cast his way. JD tracked his gaze to a man in the corner. He sat alone, muted lamplight glowing off his balding crown. Blue smoke rose from a cigar held clenched between his lips. A thick vaporous halo hung over his head, hiding his eyes in shadow. Empty black sockets stared out at the room and JD shivered. Skallen.
The other kid moved. JD watched as he bent and grasped the knife, pulling it from the floor with a faint grunt. He walked slowly out of the rough circle of men, oblivious to their catcalls. Tears streamed down his face, his mouth quivered. He swiped his arm across his nose and took a deep breath. A hitching sob betrayed his fear. He stopped when he stood face to face with JD, barely an arm's length away.
JD's mind began to race as he worked through possible scenarios, trying to figure out a way to get both of them out of this mess. Even though he had no intention of hurting the kid, he had to defend himself. He lifted his arms, his hands clenched into fists, and bent slightly at the knees. The defensive stance seemed to sober the other kid. Garrett. The man had called him Garrett.
"Well, Garrett -- what's it gonna be?"
The question galvanized the kid into action. He made a wide slash through the air with the knife. JD pulled back, surprised at Garrett's boldness. He doesn't know me, doesn't know I'm here to help. The thought sprang unbidden to his mind, and JD began to realize just how dangerous his situation was. His heart pounded hard in his chest as adrenaline shot through his body. He scrambled back, avoiding the knife Garrett still brandished. His heel caught on one of the bottles littering the floor and he fell hard to his back.
Garrett stared at him, mouth drawn back in a grimace, his young face red with exertion. JD stretched out an arm, his open hand asking for mercy. "Garrett, I'm here to help." The whispered words floated through the air, fragile and thin. Shouting and laughing scattered the entreaty. JD doubted Garrett even heard him. Panic started a staccato beat in his chest. The need to call out for Chris was nearly unbearable. With an effort of will, he clamped down on his emotions.
"What are you waiting for? Finish him off!"
Garrett brought the knife up ready to pounce on JD, but then he hesitated. JD took advantage of the other boy's confusion. He kicked out, catching Garrett in the shin, and rolled away before regaining his feet. A roar of noise exploded and expanded in the room, shutting out Garrett's brief cry of pain.
JD cringed with the shouts. Not yet, Chris.
A dark shape moved out of the corner of his eye and white agony pierced his side. JD grunted in pain and looked down at himself. A blood stained circle blossomed on his shirt, spreading out to eat hungrily at the pale material. He lifted his hand and touched the wound tentatively. Hunching forward, he pressed his palm against his side and looked around himself in confusion. A man stood nearby, a blood tipped knife held in his hand. Thick eyebrows drew together over hooded eyes and thin lips parted to reveal tobacco stained teeth.
"You got an unfair advantage over the boy, Dunne. Now you're even."
Garrett rushed at him. They collided hard and the momentum forced them both to the floor. JD struggled on his back, his movements awkward. He grasped the boy's fists around the knife handle, grunting as Garrett pressed the blade under his chin, dangerously near his throat.
"Wait -- I'm here to help you --"
Garrett's squinted eyes widened. His mouth opened in a question and he eased back his pressure on the knife. "What?"
JD took a gasping breath. Garrett straddled him, pressing against his stomach, making it hard for him to breathe. "I'm with the law, Garrett. We've come for Skallen."
"--No -- how --?"
Feet appeared beside them and Garrett was abruptly yanked from JD. The kid stumbled backward and the knife clattered to the floor. JD struggled to one elbow, rubbing his throat gingerly with his other hand.
"You're takin' too long, boy." A huge fist grasped the front of JD's shirt, twisting the material and cutting off his air. "Mr. Skallen's gettin' impatient." He was pulled roughly from the floor and held up. JD reached for the fist at his throat, scrabbling at hard knuckles. His vision began to tunnel, dancing black spots fringing the edges and converging into one solid mass. An immense force exploded against the side of his face, driving into bone and sending him spinning to the floor.
Mumbling noises beat muffled against his ears, accompanied by a high pitched ringing. Words finally funneled through and he stiffened with the threat. "Guess we can just get rid of both of them at once."
A boot swung lazily into his sight and he squeezed his eyes shut. Pain erupted, stabbing sharply into his stomach. He convulsed on the floor and curled in tight, hugging both arms protectively around himself. Chris' name choked in his throat but the call for help was useless without air to breathe.
A voice whispered low and menacing: "Take 'em out back and finish 'em off, Radley."
His jacket was fisted and he was pulled from the floor. JD floundered for a moment, struggling to find his balance with both hands pressed to his belly. Self-preservation instincts took over and before he was even aware of the thought, he jerked from Radley's hold and scooped the forgotten knife from the floor.
Radley froze, one arm still reaching for Garrett. "Well now, maybe we stopped this a little too soon."
"G-get away from the boy!" His voice shook as JD advanced slowly, his eyes glued to Radley's face.
"And if I don't?"
"I may have something to say about that." Chris Larabee spoke from the door, Ezra at his shoulder. Radley dove for JD and tackled him to the floor. Gunfire discharged in loud explosions through the room. Buck and Vin appeared, guns blazing, ducking low as they ran into the saloon.
JD grunted; Radley was a dead weight against his chest. He rolled the man off, glancing quickly at the knife stuck through the man's abdomen and the seeping bullet hole in his chest, then scooted away until his back hit solid wall.
"JD!" Buck's voice shouted at him from across the room. "Find cover!"
Tables were upended, used as shields against deadly gunfire. He spotted Garrett through the chaos, his arms held over his head -- inadequate protection against lead.
"Garrett!" JD rolled to his hands and knees and crawled over to the kid. He shook his shoulder, trying to get his attention. "Follow me!"
They crawled their way to a nearby corner, splinters and glass flying dangerously overhead. The corner was draped in darkness. JD groped about blindly, searching for a weapon. His hand closed over the smooth surface of a bottle. He grasped it firmly and rose to his knees. Garrett was beside him, the kid's hands latched painfully tight to JD's shoulders.
"Keep your head down, kid." JD twisted around and froze at the look of terror on Garrett's face. Bloodless lips quivered and eyes round as saucers stared upward. What the hell?
Confused, JD turned back around and stiffened. The man who'd stabbed him earlier stood before them, oblivious to the gunfire at his back. A brief sparkle of light glinted off the knife he held by his side. His hand clenched around the weapon, tightening until his fist shook. The incongruity of his detached expression was frightening.
JD stood slowly while maintaining a hold on Garrett. The kid's trembling beneath his palm distracted him and JD barely avoided the knife when his attacker lunged for him. He swung, putting all his strength behind it, and smashed the bottle across the man's head. His attacker crashed to the floor, the knife clattering from slack fingers.
JD grabbed the weapon and turned back to Garrett. "Stay here! I'm going after Skallen." He'd seen the man slip out the back door when the shooting started. The noise in the saloon was too loud, no one would hear him if he shouted for help, and he couldn't spare the time to stop and explain what he was doing.
"No! I'm coming with you!" Garrett's voice shook, squeaking with emotion. His hands clawed into JD's jacket. His skinny arms felt banded with steel beneath JD's grip. The kid wasn't letting go and JD didn't stop to argue. A brief understanding of how Buck felt when JD refused to do what the older man advised did nothing to dispel his irritation.
"Then stick close, dammit!" Unable to keep the scowl of frustration off his face, JD tightened his grip on the knife and lead the way out of the room.
Night had crept over the town since JD had entered the saloon. Garrett's presence at his back was strangely reassuring as they ran through the dark alley. He preferred having Chris or Buck armed beside him, but in light of the circumstances, the kid would have to do.
His instincts told him Skallen would head for the stable. They quickly reached the small weather worn building. The wide double doors yawned open, its appearance so like a hungry mouth that JD shivered. Silence weighed heavy in the air as they walked slowly forward. JD held the knife before him, wishing it were his gun. Shapes coalesced in the shadows. His gaze kept flickering back and forth, looking for an expected ambush.
His nerves were pulled as taut as a bowstring, vibrating with energy. A horse nickered from deeper inside the stable. JD froze. He strained to see through the shadows. When nothing moved he started forward again with Garrett pressed behind him.
A horse stood in one of the back stalls, a saddle across its back. The animal stomped one hoof and lowered her head to sniff hungrily at the ground. An oil lamp hung on a rusty nail in the stall. Pale illumination flooded the immediate area but cloying darkness pressed close, leaving a crescent of light on the stable floor.
JD spun around and found himself facing Skallen. The man stood casually, the gun in his hand held with bold assurance. Flickering light battled with shadow on his face, sculpting his features into sharp angles.
JD swallowed. Garrett's fingers pinched through his shoulder but he knew better than to look away. "Give it up, Skallen, my friends will be here soon." The threat fell flat and Skallen chuckled, his eyes never leaving the two of them.
"I'm sure they will. They'd never leave a -- boy -- like you unprotected now, would they?"
JD locked his jaw, determined not to give into the challenge to defend his pride. "No, they wouldn't. Now throw down the gun."
The man's eyebrows lifted and his mouth pursed in question. "Or what? You'll shoot me with your knife?"
As if becoming aware of the inadequate weapon, JD glanced down at the blade. Blurred movement registered just as Skallen plowed into them, sending JD and Garrett to the floor and into the horse. They scrambled quickly to avoid sharp hooves when the animal shied and attempted to get out of their way.
JD rose quickly but before he could get his feet beneath him a fist smashed across his jaw, sending him flying back into Garrett. He heard the kid's grunt of pain as he slammed into him. Disoriented, JD rolled to his knees and searched frantically for the knife. He spotted it half-buried in hay to his right and dove for the weapon. A boot crushed his knuckles about the same time he grabbed the knife. Pain lanced up his arm and he instinctively jerked away from the agony. He watched as Skallen bent over and retrieved the knife, then tucked it into his waistband.
No one would hear him if he yelled. JD held his position for the count of several heartbeats while images of dead boys and fresh graves scrolled through his head. His breathing grew ragged as desperation climbed up his chest, reaching choking fingers for his throat. Insanity balanced briefly on edge, pushing him to a decision. Garrett's safety rose to the forefront of his mind.
He spread his arms wide and erupted from the floor, charging headlong into Skallen. The move was unexpected and the big man dropped his gun to grab JD around the waist, keeping them both on their feet. JD swung, pummeling crushing fists into Skallen's body. Pain exploded in his knuckles when they impacted with the man's face, jarring against Skallen's skull. Blood burst in a delicate red fan as the murderer's head whipped to the side with the impact.
The man fell against the wall, but caught himself and twisted back around to face JD. Red-rimmed eyes stared out, glowing with hate. He lunged forward and scooped in low, worming in beneath JD's defenses. His balled fist caught JD in the side, dead center of the earlier stab wound. JD curled forward, choking in pain. Bruising knuckles stabbed into him again, sending fire flaring through the injury, eating into his chest and abdomen. He didn't realize he was collapsing until the jar of hitting the floor vibrated through his knees.
Red blackness rimmed his vision and he struggled to open his eyes. His body was locked with his arms around his stomach, his lungs frozen, refusing to draw in air. He watched helplessly as Skallen stepped back and picked the gun from the floor. He lifted the weapon, lining it up with JD's forehead. JD was unable to close his eyes. He was incapable of commanding his body to move as he watched his death unfold.
Skallen fired. A rush of movement crossed his vision at the same time that the gun went off, catching the bullet that raced out of Skallen's weapon. Confused, JD watched Garrett collapse, the boy's shirt saturated with blood.
Skallen's head jerked up and he stared into the darkness. Footsteps thundered near. After a moment's hesitation he hurried forward and grasped the reins, then lead the horse from the stall. Not sparing a glance for JD or Garrett, he mounted the animal and rode quickly from the stable. Seconds later Buck's voice called out.
Despite the fear he heard in his friend's voice, JD didn't answer. Instead, he crawled forward, reaching out for Garrett. The kid lay stiff on the ground, glassy eyes staring upward, his chest rising and falling with fast, huffing breaths. JD crouched beside him, then maneuvered around to rest Garrett's head in his lap. The blood soaked shirt clung to the kid's scrawny chest, accentuating slender ribs. Ignoring the gore, JD fisted the garment and cupped his other hand around the injured boy's face.
"H-he can't h-hurt me any m-more."
"No, Garrett, he can't." The words scratched JD's throat and he blinked away sudden tears. Garrett groaned and reached for JD's hand over his shirt. JD grimaced, afraid of the terror he saw in the boy's eyes. "Hold still, kid. You're gonna be okay."
"JD!" Buck slid to a halt, his boots skidding through the loose hay. He dropped to his knees beside them, his mouth open with shock, and placed his gun on the ground.
Unaware of his movements, JD began rocking gently, cradling Garrett's head closer in his lap.
Chris hurried into the stable, his steps growing slow and heavy when he saw the tableau before him. For an instant rage swelled in his gut, hot and burning. JD's head hung low, his black hair curtained his features from view. But Garrett's face stared up at them -- his blue eyes blind with death. The boy's expression washed cold grief over Chris' rage, extinguishing the fire in his heart.
He knelt down to face JD. The kid sat hunched over, his elbows held close to his body. Chris caught a glimpse of JD's expression, saw the eyes squeezed shut in pain, his face pale with shock. Moving slowly, Chris worked his arms underneath Garrett's knees and back.
JD must have felt his movements; he looked up. Eyes opened revealing limpid pain. "Chris?"
"It's okay, JD. I'm just gonna take him now." He pulled gently and JD didn't resist. The skinny fourteen-year-old body slid into his arms and Chris stood up. He caught Buck's eye, then shifted his gaze back to JD, the implication clear: Take care of him.
Buck nodded. He watched for a moment as Chris turned and walked out. Vin and Ezra joined him at the door. Chris' explanation was low and soft and no one entered the stable.
Buck's attention centered on JD. Yellow lamplight splashed golden highlights on black hair. The circle of JD's shadow surrounded him like a pool of darkness. A hitching breath melted the silence. "JD? You all right, son?" He spoke first, hoping not to startle him, and then reached out to touch the kid's shoulder.
JD's head came up slowly. "He saved my life, Buck. That kid saved my life."
"I know." He didn't know really, didn't know what had happened here, but it felt like the right thing to say. The body under his palm felt fragile. The raw expression of despair pulled at his heart and made him want to offer reassurances he wasn't sure he could keep.
"I was supposed to find out how many there were and get back out with Garrett, let you and the boys come in and take care of things." JD paused, his breathing gusting in hard pants. "I told Chris I could handle it, but I couldn't. Instead, I got Garrett killed."
"Skallen killed him, JD, not you."
"He may have pulled the trigger, but I made him the target."
"No, JD." Buck reached for him, gently cupped his face and turned him toward him. "You were trying to save him. Garrett knew what he was doin'. He gave his life to keep Skallen from takin' yours." Buck was guessing but he figured that's what had happened, judging by JD's reaction. He sighed deep inside when JD didn't contradict him.
JD blinked and a tear ran down his face. "He's a hero."
The whispered words made Buck remember JD's earlier announcement: He saved my life. Buck quickly realized just how much he owed Garrett.
He waited for JD to say more. Instead, the kid looked away and scrubbed the tears from his face. The young man took a careful breath and let it out slowly. He unwrapped his arms from around his body. Buck saw the crimson stain still spreading across his shirt.
"Damn, JD, why didn't you say something?" He gently pulled open JDís shirt with one hand while tugging his bandana from around his neck with the other, then fisted the material and pressed his bandana to the wound.
"No. Itís OK. Iím OK, Buck." JD grasped Buckís wrist to stop the painful pressure.
Buck held firm and wrapped his other arm around the kidís back. Feeling like he could sense every bruise and cracked bone in the kid's body, he lifted him carefully to his feet. Thanks, Garrett. I'll take care of him now. With his arm firmly around JD's shoulders, they left the stable to bury a hero.
The End (Until Skallen comes back, of course!)