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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Mag 7 fic: Taking Things for Granted (2/3)

December 11th, 2015 (11:53 am)
cynical

feeling: cynical

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

They ride hard and fast, making it out of town just as everyone else is getting up. JD takes the lead, if only by default, and he navigates the path to Nettie’s farm without a second’s hesitation. As they approach, his hands go sweaty and his heart is pounding by the time he pulls his horse to a stop and slides out of the saddle.

“Nettie definitely had her story right,” JD says, noting the multitude of hoofprints in the ground and the holes on the front porch. He grimaces as he looks at a body, splayed out near the front steps. “Bastards.”

Buck brings his horse to a stop a little farther around. “Signs of gunfire all around the house,” he says. He nods toward the barn. “Looks like Casey put up one hell of a good fight.”

Numbly, JD steps over the body, taking the steps two at a time. The front door is off its hinges, and JD feels sick. Stepping inside the ruined door, JD sees that the trunk is still where he dropped it the day before.

“Got a trail,” Buck calls hoarsely.

JD does his best not to shudder as he steps back out again. He can’t change what happened here, no matter how much he wants to.

But he can make it better.

He has to.

“Another dead body this way, too,” Buck announces. He whistles -- or tries to -- it sounds a bit garbled. “Hell of a girl.”

JD takes his horse by the reins and leads her forward. After several paces, he remounts. “Don’t remind me,” he mutters. He looks out toward the horizon, following the trail. “Looks like a good trail for a bit.”

“Not a lot of movement in these parts,” Buck agrees. “Makes it easier.”

“They’ve got a few hours on us, though,” JD says.

Buck blows his nose, shoving his handkerchief back in his pocket. “A whole group will be a lot slower than two of us.”

“They’ll be watching their backs,” JD says somberly.

“Not as much as they’re watching their path ahead,” Buck reminds him. “Son, if you’re looking for some perfect solution--”

JD shakes his head. “I ain’t looking for a solution,” he says curtly. “I just want to find Casey and bring her back safely. I can’t put her at risk. Not--”

Again.

Not ever.

Not her.

“Not a second to spare, then,” Buck concludes for him.

JD keeps his eyes ahead. “Let’s go, then.”

“Pard,” Buck says. “I’m right behind you.”

-o-

The ride is quiet.

In the morning sun, the trail is easy enough to follow, and it’s plain that there’s nearly a dozen men riding with Malone. They’re riding at a straight shot, picking a clear and obvious path across the desert, like they haven’t a care in the world.

And it figures. It really does. There’s just one girl, and he doesn’t understand her at all. There’s just one girl, and he doesn’t know how to talk to her. There’s just one girl, and he’s still screwing it up. There’s just one girl, and she’s the one taken by a bloodthirsty gang of bandits.

Just one girl.

Hell, as far as JD’s concerned, she may as well be the only girl. And JD knows life isn’t fair -- his mother died and scrimped her whole life to send him to college and it wasn’t enough -- but it’s not supposed to be this cruel. JD doesn’t ask for much, and he doesn’t need to go to college or to wear fancy clothes or to be the smartest or the best. All he’s ever wanted is exactly what he has--

And Casey.

He misses her already. He misses her smile and the stupid clothes she wears. He misses how she walks into the saloon like it’s no big deal at all. He misses the way she laughs and the callouses on her fingers when her fingers brush against his.

He misses the way she makes him crazy.

Funny, though, she’s still making him crazy.

Which is why he’s going to find her. He’s going to find her and tell her and tell her again and again until they both understand everything.

Mostly, JD knows as he follows the trail, he’s going to find her.

-o-

They follow the trail up another hillside and JD swears, pausing his horse long enough to mop his brow. “It’s too damn hot,” he mutters as Buck comes up beside him.

Buck raises his eyebrows and coughs heartily, spitting something wet to the ground. “Funny,” he muses. “Feels a bit cold to me.”

JD gives him a look. “You sure you shouldn’t have listened to Nathan?”

“We need to keep our focus,” Buck reminds him. “Hell of a long ride left.”

Looking back over the land, JD feels crestfallen. “They’re making good time,” he says.

“Not good enough,” Buck tells him. “We’ll be caught up by nightfall.”

“That’s a whole day away,” JD protests. “What if that’s too late?”

“Nothing we can do to change it,” Buck replies. “But it won’t be.”

Frustrated, JD sighs. “I just can’t stop thinking about her. I mean, what are they doing with her? Is she okay?”

Buck wipes his nose, wiping it hastily on his pants. “That girl is a lot of things, but useless ain’t one of them,” he says. “She’s a fighter.”

“I know,” JD says. “Which is what I’m worried about. What if she’s making them as crazy as she makes me?”

Buck chuckles, a low and throaty sound. “She won’t drive them crazy because they’re not you.”

JD wrinkles his nose. “What’s that supposed to me?”

“I mean, the problem’s never been Casey.”

“What, so it’s my fault?” JD returns incredulously.

Buck clears his throat, exasperated. “Of course she drives you crazy, because you’re too dumb to see what you both really feel.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” JD insists.

“I’m talking about the fact that Casey loves you, and you love her,” Buck says. “And neither of you know what to do about it. So she asks you stupid questions and you give her stupid answers, and you’re both so frustrated with how stupid it is that you walk away before you can figure it out.”

JD stares at him. “Wait,” he says finally. “You’re saying that Casey--?”

Buck nods.

“And that I--?”

Buck nods again.

JD stares. Then he gapes. Then he laughs. “You’re crazy.”

“Son, women are spectacular creatures,” Buck says tiredly. “Men are naturally drawn to them, just by their very nature. The only time that ever gets fouled up is when we care more than we should.”

Words are failing him; in fact, everything is failing him. JD shakes his head. “But...how can you be sure?”

“Well,” Buck says wincing as he swallows hard. “Let’s just say I have some experience in this area.”

JD looks at Buck. There’s something there, something Buck’s not saying. Buck’s cavalier and likes to joke, but there’s more to him sometimes, when JD bothers to look.

There’s no time, though.

Not today.

JD looks back toward the trail. “We need to keep going.”

Buck sneezes.

There’s no time to look back, though. There’s no time for anything but getting Casey back.

-o-

The sun rises steadily, and the skies are clear. The day is hot, and the horizon flickers with the intensity. JD follows the trail over the hills and through the flatlands, tracing it around the scrub. From time to time, Buck sneezes behind him, his coughs lost in the pounding of the hoofbeats.

At the stream, JD wades his horse in a few steps, looking for some sign of movement on the other side. He curses.

“They must have gone downstream for a little bit,” he says. “No way of knowing which way, though.”

Behind him, Buck dismounts, patting his horse’s flank as he encourages her to get a drink. “Just as well,” he says. “We probably could use the break.”

“But they’re getting away--”

“And they have to stop, same as we do,” Buck reminds him. “The horses need water; we need food. Passing out in the desert isn’t going to get Casey back.”

All of JD’s instincts are to fight, but Buck’s not the enemy. No, Buck’s his friend. In the glaring sunlight, the older man looks tired and worn, but he doesn’t shy away.

Besides, it’s not like JD’s instincts are all that good in the first place.

Sighing, he backs his horse up, sliding out of the saddle. “Ten minutes, I guess,” he concedes.

Buck smiles, muffling a cough. “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything to put this in jeopardy,” he says solemnly. “You know that.”

JD tries to smile. “I know,” he says. “I just…”

“You don’t have to explain it,” Buck assures him. “Not to me.”

It’s meant as a comfort, but JD can’t bring himself to feel assuaged.

Not until he makes this right.

-o-

Buck sits heavily on a rock, folding his handkerchief over a few times after rinsing it out in the stream. JD drinks his canteen and fills it up again, but can’t stop himself from pacing idly up and down the banks. To the north, there’s some sign of movement in the dirt, but nothing enough to signify an entire posse. To the south, though, he only has to go a ways before he sees the indentations on the other side.

Turning back, he jogs back toward Buck. “Found the trail,” he says. “Picks up down that way and continues out.”

Buck clears his throat, running the wet kerchief across his head. “That’s toward Chris,” he observes.

“Yeah, but they’re still a day ahead,” JD says. “We can’t let them get to the ambush point with Casey in tow. That ain’t no place for a lady.”

Buck’s expression is somewhat grim as he puts his hat back on his head. He stifles a groan as he gets to his feet. “Then I guess we better be off.”

JD’s chest tightens. It’s a little bit of hope; it’s a little bit of fear.

Mostly, he just knows they need to move.

He’s on his horse just like that, but he pauses while Buck hacks, spitting wetly into the brush. “You sure you’re okay? Because I can do this alone--”

Buck waves a hand at him, scowling. “I’m fine,” he says. “No place else I’d be.”

JD gives him a doubtful look. “Just be sure to keep up.”

Buck grunts, taking his horse by the reins. “Just be sure to keep your head,” he lectures. “Remember what I told you.”

“I swear,” JD promises as Buck gets settled in the saddle. “I’m never taking any of it for granted again.”

-o-

Their pace is slower in the afternoon, if only by default. The horses are tired, and the sun is doing them no favors.

Buck rides behind him. The hoofbeats of his horse are steady, but JD can hear him cough and sneeze in equal intervals. The other man has seemed healthy enough to ride, but JD has a moment of doubt. It’s pretty clear that Buck would be better served in a warm bed, and it’s not like the other man to ride in silence. He’s keeping up fine, but he’s quiet and pale. Then again, if it was truly a problem, Nathan would have kept him back.

Buck made his choice, and JD has to trust that.

For Casey’s sake, he has to.

JD holds the reins tighter and gives his horse a squeeze.

He has to.

-o-

As the afternoon starts to fade, the trail grows wider. When they get to a rocky area, JD stops and looks critically at the ground. There’s still signs of movement, but they’re harder to trace.

“It’s going to be harder here,” JD observes. “But it looks like they were slowing down.”

“Probably to stop for the night,” Buck says, voice heavy as he breathes.

“Little early for that,” JD points out.

“They don’t want a firefight in the dark,” Buck points out with a wheeze. “If they have a hostage, they’re going to want everyone to see her.”

JD looks up at the rock formations. “If we’re close then we have to move carefully,” he says. “If they hear us--”

Buck dismounts. “Horses will have to stay here,” he agrees, tying his off to a tree before catching a sneeze in his sleeve.

JD frowns, getting off his horse as well. “And you?”

Buck swipes his arm across his face with a loud sniffle. “What about me?”

“Well, if you sneeze--”

Buck rolls his eyes. “You think my cold is going to be the death of you?”

“This is Casey,” JD huffs, tying his horse up next to Buck’s. “I can’t take any risks.”

Standing in his path, Buck looks at him seriously. His skin is clammy and his eyes are rimmed dark, but his gaze is undeterred. “That’s why I’m here,” he says. “Because you tend to take risks like they’re candy.”

“Buck, I’m a grown man--”

“Who just now figured out he likes a girl,” Buck reminds him. “When she gets kidnapped, I might add.”

JD flushes red. “She’s confusing!”

“Only to you,” Buck says with a small smile.

It’s all in good humor and said with due familiarity, but JD can’t laugh. Not today. Not now. “Buck--”

Buck sobers quickly, nodding. “I’m here to make sure you don’t get yourself killed,” he says resolutely. “On that, you can count on absolutely.”


JD hesitates, looking at Buck. The slightly sallow hue of his skin; the sheen of sweat on his face; the steadfast determination in his eyes.

Looking away again, JD can’t get over how he feels like he’s missing something.

Or everything.

Nodding, he reaches to extract a few supplies. “Sounds good to me,” he says, starting off.

He doesn’t have to look back to know Buck is following him.

-o-

Somehow, they both know when they’re close. JD’s pace becomes slow as he steps carefully over the rocks. Buck’s sniffles die down, and even the faint wheeze in his breathing suddenly disappears. JD feels the hairs son his neck prickle, and he ducks down low behind an outcropping even before he sees the lookout post at the top of the crest.

He nods up toward the man, but Buck already sees him. They share a look, and then retreat far enough so they can talk.

“We can loop around,” JD whispers. “There’s got to be a back way in.”

“Unless they’ve got that covered, too,” Buck says back.

“Well, we came this far,” JD points out. “We can’t do nothing.”

“Yeah, but we also can’t do something stupid,” Buck says.

JD lets out a pent up breath. “This whole thing is stupid.”

Buck lifts his eyebrows. “Then how about we do it right?”

-o-

JD’s been frustrated and impatient the entire ride, but he has to admit, he’s glad Buck’s along. JD instincts are screaming at him to charge right in, but Buck’s plan does make a lot of sense.

“You sure you can get enough of them to follow you?” JD asks.

“Kid, you don’t need to worry about me,” Buck replies solemnly.

“I need this to go right, though,” JD says. “Going in there, I need to keep Casey--”

Buck sighs. “I know,” he says. “Casey is my only priority, too. Trust me, I’ll get enough of them away that all you need to go is go and clean up the rest.”

Buck says it with such certainty -- as if there’s not any doubts. As if there’s no reason to be scared. As if nothing could possibly go wrong.

This is JD, though. Everything JD does goes wrong one way or another. He’d be stupid to trust himself.

But he does trust Buck.

Buck, who came with him, without a hesitation.

He nods, willing himself to believe it. “Okay,” he says. It’s a hell of a time to second guess things, but damn it, he can’t help himself.

“Hey,” Buck says. “You’ll be going back with Casey. This is going to work. I promise you that.”

That’s exactly what JD needs to hear.

Resolutely, he nods. “Five minutes, then,” he says. “Give me five minutes.”

“You got it,” Buck replies.

JD watches for a second while Buck ducks back toward the trail, smothering a sneeze while he climbs his way delicately through the rocks.

You got it.

JD turns to his own path ahead, and hopes like hell Buck’s right.

-o-

It’s not an easy walk, and JD has to climb more than he thought he would. His fingers are scrapped and bloody and his muscles burn; there’s sweat dripping down his back and he’s breathing hard by the time he finds his position.

But damn, it is a good position. Well obscured, out of the line of sight, but when he cranes his neck just so, he has a clear view of the small plateau where the Malone gang has set up camp for the night. There’s not quite a dozen men there, and they’ve got more horses than people, so JD can only suspect their numbers are down from their latest confrontations.

He can thank Casey for that.

As soon as he rescues her, that is.

Gun in handle, he works to steady his breathing. He can do this; he has to do this. For all that Casey drives him crazy, losing her…

Well, that doesn’t even bear thinking about.

Across the area, he hears a cough. Then, a sneeze.

Up high, he sees the lookout shift position. There’s a whistle and a reply followed by a whole round of coughing. The lookout nods to an invisible symbols and dismounts from his perch, winding his way down among the outcroppings.

For a moment, everything is silent.

Then, there’s a retort of gunfire.

JD tenses, and reminds himself this is all part of the plan. Breathing heavy, he mutters under his breath, “Please work, please work, please work.”

There’s another volley of gunfire and then silence.

It’s the cough that follows that makes JD grin.

Buck, doing his part -- and coming out on top. Funny how some things always turn out.

Another terse silence follows before more gunfire starts, coming from the top of the ridge. A man in the valley falls, and the company scatters. There’s yelling when another man falls. Seven of the men fan out into the rocks.

Which just leaves a handful left.

JD’s just a kid, but he knows what he’s doing for once.

He’s getting Casey back.

And God help anyone who stands in his way.

-o-

He eases his way down, fast as he dares without slipping and giving himself away entire. There’s more gunfire and a whooping cough before one more man from camp scatters toward the trail.

JD takes approximately one second to tell himself that’s a good thing.

Before a bullet splits the rock above him.

Cursing, JD slips, skidding down the embankment. His fast progress sends him hurtling into a man at the bottom, and they both go rolling. It’s sheer luck that has JD on top, gun still in hand. The man beneath him looks up with a snarl, and JD’s too shocked to shoot.

There’s a yell, and JD looks up in time to see a gun turning his way. He looks a little harder to see that Casey’s not behind it, and he fires.

The man goes down just as the man beneath him kicks him off. JD hefts awkwardly to the side, getting his bearings in time to shoot the man before there’s a bullet between his own eyes. There’s no time to think about victory or failure, though, not with the next man coming out of a tent. JD fires as he gets to his feet. The shot goes wide, though, and something catches him in the arm. There’s a moment of pain, but JD refuses to feel it. Instead, he narrows his gaze and gets off another shot.

A direct hit; the man is down and JD’s losing count of the bodies and the bullets. Heart hammering in his chest, he ducks behind the closest cover and remembers to breathe.

This is crazy, for sure. JD Dunne, taking on the Malone gang. This is crazy.

But damn it all if it ain’t working.

A bullet splinters the barrel he’s hiding behind, and JD knows the hit was perilously close. Without thinking, he rolls low in the other direction, coming up to a squat in time to narrow his eyes on the shooter. They both fire at the same time, but JD was a moving target and the man goes down with a yelp.

For a second, JD stays like that, gun out and ready but there’s no one left. The camp is silent and still.

Then, JD does the math.

He’s out of bullets.

But he’s not out of bad guys. The evening is starting to fall, but JD’s seen Malone’s face on every wanted poster for the last month. JD’s killed some men tonight, but Malone isn’t one of them. It’s possible Malone went after Buck, but that’s not Malone’s style.

No, he protects himself at all costs.

He’ll hide behind his men.

He’ll hide behind innocent girls.

Numbly, JD reloads his gun, willing his trembling fingers to stop. He feels conspicuous, but there’s nothing to be done for it. In the distance, there’s more gunfire and a cry. JD’s stomach roils, but it doesn’t sound like Buck. There’s a reassuring sneeze in the distance, and JD takes that as a good sign.

As good as it gets, anyway. Because Buck’s done his part.

Now JD needs to finish the job.

-o-

It doesn’t take much to figure out the lay of the land. The camp is littered, but there’s only one tent. The horses are tied and restless, and from the supplies strewn about, it’s clear that the gang’s been enjoying their bounty.

Problem is, of course, that the tent’s in the middle. Whoever’s inside has the straight up advantage. Any approach JD makes will be easy to see, and it don’t take nothing to shoot through a piece of fabric.

JD doesn’t want to die, but he thinks he would for Casey. That’s stupid, though, because dying here and now would be a death sentence for Casey, too.

He has to rescue her. He can’t get so far just to be left wanting. Not this time. Not with Casey.

But he can’t go into that tent.

Then, he tilts his head as he surveys the camp again.

Maybe he can make Malone come out.

-o-

In their haste, the men have left the camp pretty much as is. There are half-eaten plates of food and a game of cards is laid out on a rock. Someone’s left an open dime-store novel on the ground, and the horses and neighing anxiously.

And the fire.

Well, it burns.

Cautiously, JD skirts around the camp, eyeing the most roundabout path he can. He keeps his distance from the tent, which looks see opaque enough. From a distance, Malone would still be firing blind.

At least, JD’s counting on that.

He walks carefully, minded the ground to minimize the sound. Ever small shift sounds loud to his ears, and he winces at the sound of a distant sneeze.

When he’s close enough, he snags a piece of firewood, which has been hastily stacked by the still crackling flame. The wood shifts, making a faint sound, but JD presses on, taking his stick and touching it to the flame.

It takes a second to catch, and JD pulls it away, giving it a second to really take. When the flame is healthy, JD looks again at the tent. Far enough away to be safe.

Close enough for one good throw.

It’s a risk, JD knows. He’ll never be able to live with himself if this goes wrong.

Which is why, he decides, it really has to go right.

Taking a breath, he readies his gun with one hand and adjusts his grip on the stick with the other. He inches around toward the front, holding the gun steady as the fire already starts to consume his makeshift torch.

In this light, JD can see all the mistakes that led to this, but he can’t see the end.

He reckons it’s time to find out.

With one last breath, he releases his safety and lines himself up before throwing the flaming stick directly at the tent.

-o-

JD holds his breath. The tent catches and the flame spreads, and for a horrible moment, JD worries he’s made the biggest mistake of his life. He worries that he’s burning Casey alive, and that when he pulls out her ashes, it’ll all be on him.


He wavers, ready to charge the tent in a desperate bid to save her. As his anxiety mounts, the risks start to mean so much less than the reward, because he’s failed Casey too many ways; he can’t fail her now.

Not like this.

But before he can run, there’s a yelp and a cry. Then the flap opens, and smoke billows freely. The tent is half engulfed now, the flames encircling the opening even as Malone stands tall and dark, looming in the entry.

With Casey right in front of him, soot-faced and bound.

A gun pressed to her head.

With a smirk, Malone shoves Casey forward, stepping out of the flames as the tent starts to fold in on itself and collapse.

JD’s arm trembles, and he’s starting to sweat. The sun is fading faster now, and the firelight is even more impressive in the haze of twilight. Still, JD can’t take his eyes of Malone, who drags Casey a step closer while he sneers.

“So this is how you want it, then?” Malone asks venomously. “Out of the frying pan?”

JD swallows, tightening his grip on his finger but no longer sure where to point. Out of the haze, it’s clear that Casey’s crying now, shaking her head as her breathing hitches.

Malone jerks her closer, half lifting her off the ground while his gun presses against her skull and he steps closer to JD, holding JD’s gaze with a cold, dangerous stare. “And into the fire.”

-o-

It’s just like in the books. It’s just like the stories JD grew up hearing about. This is why he came west -- for the action, for the adventure. To be the hero under severe duress. To rescue the girl and win the day.

And here he is.

In a standoff with a criminal, an innocent girl in the way.

Except this isn’t what JD thought it was at all. This isn’t exciting; it’s not a thrill. It’s downright terrifying, and JD would give anything to not be in this position.

Because he’s by himself, and Malone’s got a gun to Casey’s head. If JD backs down, he’ll probably end up with a bullet in his chest and Malone will still have Casey. If he takes a shot, he could hit Casey himself, and even if he doesn’t, it won’t take more than a twitch of the finger for Malone to put a bullet through Casey’s head.

JD’s chest clenches; his palms are slick. He swallows hard and tries to think, what would Buck do?


“You should give it up, Malone,” JD says, trying to keep his voice from wavering. “All your men are gone, and I’ve got backup on the way. You’ve got nothing left.”

Malone tilts his head. “Seems like I’ve got one thing,” he says smoothly, a small nod at Casey.

JD wets his lips. “She’s got nothing to do with this.”

“You don’t get to make the rules, boy,” Malone snaps. “You let me go, or she dies.”

That’s that. It’s not so much an ultimatum as it is the plain and simple truth. Malone’s still got leverage and JD--

Well, what does JD have? Buck might show up, but so could some of Malone’s gang? This is what JD came out here to do, and he’s forced to realize that maybe he underestimated things. He had just been so determined; so desperate. He had to get Casey--

His eyes settle on Casey, and her gaze locks with his. She’s scared, for sure, and she’s a little battered, but she’s still standing and she’s still got that glint in her eyes. No doubt, she’s been through hell but when she looks at JD, there’s a sudden clarity that JD doesn’t expect.

Casey’s a girl, after all. And JD doesn’t understand her half the time.

The rest of the time, though--

There’s no one he understands better.

JD grits his teeth. Casey dips her head just slightly forward. They don’t say anything more than that, and the entire exchange is no more than a second.

But that’s all they need.

JD steadies himself, and widens his stance. Malone’s face is contorted with malice as Casey takes a breath and flings herself forward.

The momentum is sudden, and she follows it up with a strong stomp on Malone’s boot. The man yelps and hisses a curse, his balance faltering just enough so that the muzzle of his gun goes wide.

Casey turns to run, but Malone lashes out, hitting Casey with the butt of his gun. She crumples hard, and JD’s heart stutters, but then he sees his opening.

Malone snarls, bringing his gun up to JD, but he doesn’t get very far before JD pulls the trigger.

Once; twice.

Malone staggers, gun shaking as he tries to bring it up.

JD fires again. Malone falls.

And then, just like that, it’s over.

-o-

Standing, tense and terrified, JD tries to make sense of it all. Malone’s dead; his gang is scattered. The fire is burning to its peak in the background, smoke wafting up into the growing dimness.

That’s when the hard feeling settles in his gut, and he knows it’s not over.

Hell, it’s probably just begun.

Blinking rapidly, he doesn’t acknowledge the burning in his eyes. Instead, he lowers his gun and moves quickly to close the gap. “Casey?” he calls, voice wavering precariously as he goes to his knees. “Casey!”

He ignores Malone, who’s spread out on his back with his eyes dull and open. Instead, he reaches out, hastily taking Casey into his arms and hoisting her up.

“Casey?” he says again, putting his gun down to wipe the hair out of her face. There’s a fresh cut weeping blood on her cheek, and JD’s stomach flutters. “Casey!”

In his arms, she rouses. Her nose wrinkles and her eyelids blink a few times before she finally looks at him. “JD?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m here. Are you--”

Casey groans, pulling away from him and trying to sit up on her own. She reaches a hand up to her cheek with a grimace. “I’m okay,” she finishes for him, looking at the blood. “Malone was saving me for later--”

“And he didn’t hurt you?” JD asks, and he’s aware how anxious he sounds but there’s just no way around it.

“Aside from what will probably be a black eye,” Casey muses. She chuckles. “That’s not so bad, though. I’ve had worse working out with the animals. Once, there was this nasty old cow who kicked me every time I tried to milk her, and usually I saw it coming, but one time she just got me--”

Bewildered, JD just stares. Behind them, then fire starts to sputter.

Casey stops, then bites her lip. “I’m rambling, aren’t I?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” JD admits.

Casey laughs, vainly trying to straighten her hair. “Sometimes I don’t know what I’m talking about either.”

“Then why do you always keep talking?” JD blurts.

“Because,” Casey says with a small shrug. “I’m afraid if I stop, you won’t stay. When I’m around you, nothing comes out right. I keep thinking you’ll give up on me.”

“Hey,” JD says, reaching out to squeeze her arm. “I came all the way out here for you. I’d never give up on you. You know that, right?”

Her eyes brighten and her smile widens. “Well, you did save me from a murderer.”

“Well,” JD says. “You helped.”

“Yeah,” Casey agrees as she reaches out and takes his hand. “But you came.”

“I always do, don’t I?” JD points out.

She gives his fingers a squeeze.

JD smiles.

Seems like there’s nothing to say.

Which is really the best thing JD’s heard all day long.

-o-

Still, nothing is ever quite that easy. After an awkward silence, JD helps Casey to her feet. She wavers a bit but finds her footing fast enough. JD directs her around Malone’s body, and he considers taking one of the horses to move them a little faster. It’s not like they have much cause for stealth now.

JD looks anxious out at the rocks, and realizes just how quiet it is.

Lingering close to him, Casey frowns. “You didn’t come out here alone, did you?”

“Of course not,” JD supplies readily. “Buck…”

The name dies on his lips, though, as the silence rises eerily.

“You going to meet up with him?” Casey asks, almost hopefully.

“Yeah,” JD says, trying to make sense of the growing shadows in the valley. “Something like that.”

The certainty he’d felt only moments before is waning now, because it’s far too quiet and it’s far too still. There’s no raucous welcome; there’s no resounding cry of victory.

There’s not even a sneeze.

And that could all be well and good; it might be nothing at all.

But after all that JD’s been through the last few days, he’s starting to know better.

“Come on,” he says, gently cajoling Casey. “We should get started.”

“JD,” Casey says, sounding worried now. “Is everything all right?”

“Sure,” he says, and hopes it’s true.

Casey steps a little closer to him anyway, and JD holds her tighter.

Neither of them have to talk about why.

-o-

JD leads carefully, mindful of Casey with every step. She’s fairly steady on her feet, but the blossoming bruise on her cheek makes his stomach churn, and he’s better off looking at the ground.

As they approach the rocks, JD holds his gun handy. There’s no indication of any danger, but the silence isn’t reassuring either. He likes to think that if some of Malone’s men are still alive, they’d have doubled back at the sound of gunfire at the camp. Because if not…

Well, then he’d be walking Casey straight into a trap.

Given all he’s gone through to save her, he’d rather not have that be the case.

And given that Buck’s supposed to be handling this end of things…

Well, that’s really all there is to it.

Buck said he would.

So JD trusts that he will.

Even so, JD points his gun at the first body, slumped on the trail. Casey makes a small yelp as he leads her around a pool of blood.

The next body isn’t far, and there’s another after that. They’re lined up, one after another, as if they’d been picked off.

“JD,” Casey says, voice thin and wavering. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”

JD steps around another body, taking them through a narrowing in the pass with a suppressed grimace. “Of course it is,” he says. “Buck wouldn’t let me down.”

“I know that,” Casey says. “But--”

JD stops her with his hand, tilting his head as he listens. There’s a faint sound on the wind, wisping and strained.

Casey looks at him, eyes wide.

JD doesn’t have the strength to look back. Cautiously, he steps in front of her, leading with his gun as he takes a tentative step up the trail. Mentally, he goes through the number of bodies, and tries to reckon if there’s anyone unaccounted for.

Someone sitting around the bend, waiting to blow his head off, perhaps.

That would bad luck. The worst kind of luck.

He primes his gun and takes another step. The sound rises like a hitching breath. Gun in front, JD turns the curve, aiming at the dark space behind the rocks before he can even see what’s there.

When he steps into view, his heart stutters and his blood runs cold. Because he’s looking down the barrel of a gun.

In the dimness, Buck curses. “Damn, kid,” he says, words fast and slurred. “That’s a good way to get yourself shot.”

Relief spreads over him. “Buck,” he says. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Waiting for you,” Buck replies, matter of fact as he puts his gun away. His face is pale in the rising moon and he breathes heavily. “You get Casey?”

“Yeah,” JD says. “She’s fine. Everything’s fine. We did it.”

Buck grins, nodding heartily. “That’s good,” he says. “That’s good.”

Then, before JD can say anything, Buck’s eyes roll back in his head and he crumples to the ground.

-o-

Startled as he is, JD’s not fast enough to stop Buck’s fall. In fact, he’s still fumbling to put away his gun when the other man goes still on the ground, and he mutters a string of curses as he goes hastily to his knees.


“Buck,” he hisses, grabbing the other man by the shoulder and rolling him on his back. “Buck!”

From behind, Casey makes a small noise. “JD? Is everything--”

“Fine,” JD says, wishing he could keep the tremor out of his voice as he looked down Buck’s front to see if anything is amiss. “Everything’s fine--”

He doesn’t so much as expect Casey to believe him as he hopes that she’ll give him some space while he figures this out. Because a quick look at Buck tells JD that the older man hasn’t been shot, which really is a good thing. But he’s pale and breathing heavily -- the thick sound even louder than before -- and when JD’s fingers brush against his face, the fever is burning.

Whatever illness Buck had, it’s clearly getting worse.

A lot worse.

“JD,” Casey says. “What’s going on--”

“Nothing!” JD insists, feeling a little hysterical. He’s a day out from town, and he’s dismantled Malone’s gang and there are dead bodies everywhere. Not to mention their loot, which probably belongs to people all across five states. And Buck’s sick and Casey almost died and there’s been so much happening that JD hasn’t realized how close to disaster all of this is.

There’s a touch on his shoulder, and JD whips around. He’s not sure if he’s scared or desperate or what, but before he can lash out, he sees Casey staring at him with wide eyes.

“JD,” she says again, eyes flicking from JD to Buck, who’s still passed out on the ground. “Is he--”

JD swallows so hard that it hurts. He shakes his head. “He was sick,” he manages, but the words seem tenuous. “He said he was fine…”

“People don’t always say what they mean,” Casey says, looking back at JD sympathetically. “Especially with the people that matter most.”

JD turns his gaze from Casey to Buck, and his stomach turns. Casey’s bleeding; Buck’s sick; and it all seems so clear to JD now.

Right when it might still be too late.

-o-

JD has to think.

Granted, thinking’s never been one of his assets. He’s pretty good with action, but sitting down and thinking through a plan has always been an area where he’s been lacking. His mother chided him often, and it got him into all sorts of trouble when he was still in school. And it’s not like the rest of the seven haven’t called him on it, Buck more than most.

JD acts; he does things that seem right and good and pretty much just hopes for the best.

Most of the time it works.

The rest of the time, though….

Well, sitting out a day from town with a sick man and an injured girl, he’s suddenly forced to reckon with his own limitations.

Mostly, he has no idea what to actually do. He has to get Buck back, that much is certain, and he wants nothing more than to get Casey safely back to town. He can’t even imagine what Nettie is going through, and considering that Malone’s gang is strewn out in the rocks, he probably needs to get someone to come and collect the bodies and the evidence.

In some ways, it should be simple. Take Buck and take Casey and go home.

But Casey’s got a head injury, and Buck may not even be able to walk. How is JD going to get them both back to safety? And how does he know there’s not more of Malone’s gang out there? How is he going to manage the whole ride back much less the short distance back to the horses?

Casey hovers next to him; Buck is still on the ground. JD always wants to be a man, and now here he is, at the crux of his time, and he doesn’t have any idea what to do.

“Okay,” he says, forcing himself to breathe. “We got to…”

“Get Buck out of here?” Casey supplies for him.

JD looks at her, almost grateful. Dumbly, he nods. “Yeah, our horses are back toward the trail. We wanted a quiet approach--”

“That was a good idea,” Casey says.

Nodding vaguely, JD looks back down at Buck. “It’s kind of a long walk, though.”

Casey bites her lip, and they lapse into an uncertain silence. Finally, JD nods to himself and bends over. He feels self conscious grabbing Buck under the armpits, and the other man makes a muffled sound of protest, but he doesn’t wake. Hefting him up, JD drags him back several paces, hoping it doesn’t look as cumbersome as it feels.

It’s Casey who reaches for Buck’s gun, and JD half drops the man as he attempts to beat her to it. “No, I got it,” JD says, trying to balance Buck with one hand while he reaches for it. The action sends him off balance and he falls onto his back side, Buck half sprawled on top of him.

Casey frowns down at him. “Are you trying to be stupid?”

“I’m trying to be a gentleman,” JD protests, grabbing the gun and disarming it before putting it neatly in Buck’s holster.

“Which is kind of the same thing, far as I’m concerned,” Casey says haughtily.

“Well, excuse me,” JD huffs as he goes to pick up Buck again. He grunts, almost knocking off Buck’s hat in the process before scowling and putting it low on his head. “I thought that’s what a lady would want.”

Casey sighs. “It’s not always so simple.”

“No, it’s never simple,” JD says, starting down the trail, Buck’s boots dragging noisily behind him. “With you, everything is complicated!”

“That’s because you never get it!”

“What?” JD demands, straining heavily now as he tries to maneuver Buck down an incline. “What don’t I get? That you want me to treat you like a lady? That you want to be my equal? Which is it because I sure as hell don’t have any idea anymore!”

Casey’s face goes red, and for a second, JD worries that she’s going to cry or worse -- storm off. But her brows knit, and she shakes her head. “That I don’t know what I’m doing either!” she finally bursts. “That I want you to treat me like a lady and your equal and your everything because I love you, JD. I love you, and all I want to know is that you love me, too!”

JD stops, Buck still in his grasp. He stares at Casey.

She stares back.

For a moment, everything just makes sense. JD’s about to tell her that; he’s about to tell her that he loves her, too, that he can’t imagine being with anyone in the world but her -- but before the words come, Buck groans.

Surprised, JD looks down.

Buck’s head lifts, and he mumbles something unintelligible while his eyelids flutter.

“Buck?” JD asks anxiously.

Looking vexed, Buck tilts his head back. “JD?”

JD grins. “Buck!”

With effort, Buck swallows. “Son, there better be a damn good reason you’re carrying me.”

Guiltily, JD eases Buck to the ground. The other man wavers a bit, but blinks tiredly at JD. “You passed out,” JD explains.

Buck rubs his head. “Don’t really remember that.”

“You waited until all of Malone’s gang was taken care of,” JD assures him.

Buck hums an answer. “And Casey?”

“Right here,” Casey chimes in, moving forward and waving.

A smile crosses Buck’s face. “Well, hot damn,” he says. “We got it done.”

At that, Buck looks like he wants to go back to sleep, and JD steadies him, feeling his anxiety hinge. “But hey,” he says. “We’re still a long ride out.”

“We can camp,” Buck offers. “Seems like a nice place to sleep.”

JD shakes his head. “Not when you’re like this,” he says. “We need to get you back to Nathan. If this is influenza…”

Buck chuckles, but the sound is low and garbled. “Then there’s nothing you can do for me anyway.”

Something tightens in JD’s chest, and he refuses to look at Casey. Instead, he steels himself and takes Buck by the arm again. “Come on,” he says.

Buck makes a sound of protest, but can’t actually fight JD while he’s dragged to his feet. “What’s got the bee in your bonnet?” Buck asks, slurring the words now.

“Nothing,” JD grunts as he forces Buck forward a step. “I just know what I got this time. And I ain’t waiting until it’s gone.”


-o-

Buck sounds worse than he looks, but he’s able to get on his feet. JD comes up alongside him silently, and it’s a testament to how bad Buck feels that he doesn’t protest from the help. Casey hesitates but eventually takes the lead, glancing behind her every couple of paces. It occurs to JD that she doesn’t know where she’s going, but then again, JD’s not sure if he knows where he’s going either.

The good news -- as if there’s such a thing right now -- is that there aren’t a lot of trails through the rocks, so JD can only figure that they’ll come out about where they started.

At least, he can hope. As far as he can reckon, there’s no reason to entertain anything to the contrary.

Still, it’s not an easy journey. He’s tired, and it occurs to him that he’s been on the trail for the entire day without so much as a break. The weariness is heavy in his limbs, but there’s nothing to be done for it. The ground is more uneven than JD remembers, but coming this way he’d been so focused on Casey that he hadn’t thought much about the terrain.

Now, though, every step is a trial, and JD is far too aware of how precarious each one is. If he or Buck miss a step, they’ll both go down.

Which is why JD can’t miss a step.

He got Casey out; he’ll do the same with Buck.

It’ll be okay.

He tightens his grip around Buck’s waist, clasping the other man’s wrist, which is draped across JD’s shoulders. “Not much farther now.”

Buck coughs, but it’s weak. JD has no medical training, but he can tell it’s getting worse. “We really do need to teach you how to be a better liar,” the older man wheezes.

JD swallows hard against the pang of fear in his gut. “It’s not a lie.”

“Then it’s damn foolish optimism,” Buck mumbles.

“That’s the best kind,” JD says with a tired grin. The night is falling now. Casey glances back again, her gaze more wide and scared than before.

Buck makes a low sound, almost lost in the night. “Might be the only kind.”

Forging ahead, JD pretends like he doesn’t hear.

-o-

The final incline is sharp, and Buck’s feet are starting to drag more. When the ground slips beneath them, JD feels his balance shift. He curses, reaching out against the rock as best he can to stop the descent. It’s mostly a lost cause, though, and JD’s cheeks burn as he realizes that maybe he’s made a promise he can’t keep.

If he can’t get Buck out of the rocks, how the hell is he going to get him back to town? How is he going to make any of this right?

Breathing heavily, JD tries to adjust his stance, but Buck is heavier now, his taller frame starting to slide down.

Hissing a curse, JD fumbles, and he’s about to drop to the ground entirely when the weight lessens. Surprised, he looks up. Even in the darkness, he can see Casey on Buck’s other side, helping hoist the man upright.

“Casey,” he says. “You shouldn’t--”

She snorts, working with him to get them all into an upright position. “Really, JD?” she asks. “You want to do this now?”

JD strains, feeling Buck’s warm head press against his hair. “But--”

“But nothing,” she says. “Now help me get him down to the horses.”

JD wants to argue. But he also wants to get Buck and Casey both home safely. In actuality, JD probably doesn’t know what he wants, and he sure as hell doesn’t know how to get it. But he knows he needs Buck and Casey, and if he keeps fighting, then he might have neither.

No, sometimes surrender’s the best option.

He nods. “Okay,” he says, as they move Buck forward another step as Casey keeps pace with him. “Shouldn’t be much farther now.”

-o-

By the time they get clear of the rocks, JD and Casey are all but dragging Buck. It’s a small grace that the horses aren’t far, and JD’s back and shoulders are aching as he and Casey haul Buck the rest of the distance. He’s so relieved that he half drops Buck, and when Casey lets go unexpectedly, they all end up on the ground.

“Sorry!” Casey says.

“No, we’re good,” JD says quickly, blinking back his exhaustion as he looks up at the sky. The stars are starting to show. It’s almost beautiful.

He turns his head to the side and looks at Buck, sprawled on the ground between he and Casey.

“Least, we will be,” JD continues, pushing himself up to a sitting position. He goes to his knees and leans over Buck. “Just got to get back.”

Casey is on her knees on Buck’s other side. Her face is swollen and red now, but her eyes are clear with worry as she looks at JD. “You think he can ride?” she asks.

JD is fretting for an answer when Buck stirs beneath them. His eyes are clouded, but somehow he still manages a grin. “Darlin’, I can always ride,” he slurs.

Inhaling sharply, JD does his best not to let his consternation show. “You’re sick,” he says, more tersely than he intends. “You’ve got a fever--”

Buck shakes his head. “I said I can ride,” he repeats, but the added vigor just makes him sound more winded.

JD hesitates. Buck’s always ordering him around, and most of the time, JD pretends to ignore him. After all, Buck’s a know-it-all, and just because sometimes he actually seems to know it all doesn’t mean anything.

Except that it means everything.

JD feels sick inside, because this is his fault, even more than Casey. He knew Buck was sick, and the other man is only here for JD. JD needed Buck, and Buck came through -- just like always.

And JD’s taken that for granted.

Now, when it’s time to return the favor, he’s not sure he can.

They’re too far out; Buck’s too sick.

JD’s out of options.

Then again, maybe he’s always been out of options and he’s just been too stupid to see it. Now it’s all crystal clear, but there’s nothing to be done for it.

So he’ll just keep doing what he has to do. All he can do.

“Okay,” he says with a ready nod. He straights, reaching down to take Buck’s hand. “Then let’s do this.”