Nathan was on patrol when Buck finally decided to brave the cold and head down for some breakfast, hoping it would be hot enough to stave off the winter chill. He hated few things other than cold weather; it just seemed unnatural for a man to have to weather through it all day long. Cold nights with or without a campfire he was plenty used to, but this sudden cold rattling the town only seemed too dang early coming and relentless to boot. His late afternoon patrol would be one thing, but he hoped he wouldn’t have to ride. If the latter were the case, he’d have half a mind to tell Chris to forget it and get on back to his bed.
Four Corners was unnaturally quiet too as its residents shut their doors and prepared for temporary hibernation, and Buck foolishly hoped that meant trouble would stay away at least until the temperature picked up a few degrees again.
Should have thrown on my other coat, Buck cursed under his breath, but there was no way he was trudging back upstairs. He’d never make it back down again.
“Mornin,’ Nathan,” he tipped his hat and received a nod in response. Buck watched him for a moment when all he really wanted to do was head on over to the saloon already. Nathan seemed tense this morning, eyes scanning the town nervously despite the two of them being the only ones in the streets. “You got a bad feelin’ or somethin’?” Buck stomped his boots and rubbed his hands together vigorously, angry when he didn’t feel any warmer. This infernal cold could make a man get more than a little cranky.
“Fever’s sweepin’ the town,” Nathan disclosed, pulling his coat tighter around him as if he could feel the fever’s heat soaked tendrils brush right past him. Buck felt a mite uneasy at that, though he wasn’t superstitious enough to pull his own coat tighter or take a step back. He had seen enough of fever in the past to know it wasn’t good, and figured that’s why everyone was staying indoors. He felt even more uncomfortable when he realized that if Nathan had brought it up that meant he was concerned, and rather than dread having to pick up an extra shift if Nathan were needed for keeping their little town alive, he dreaded more the idea of one of them falling prey to it. Fever wasn’t anything to mess around with.
Buck’s thoughts strayed to JD then. The poor kid had been plagued with chills, headaches and stiffness for the better part of a week now. He had tried telling him to take it easy, even got so far as following him around and keeping an extra close eye on him when his symptoms only seemed to get worse, but after JD screamed at him yesterday to ‘quit babying me, buck!,’ he had to back off and hope that the kid would eventually grow exhausted enough to rest.
JD could be too damn stubborn for his own good sometimes, hell, most of the time, but for all their sakes he really hoped the boy had listened to him just this once. Except… this gut feeling that Buck had right now, it couldn’t mean anything good. He should at least try to track the kid down, just to make sure he was feeling better, couldn’t do any harm…
He was staring directly at the saloon, about to ask Nathan if he wanted him to bring back some breakfast, when Ezra came rushing out, wildly searching the street until he found the two of them. Buck didn’t think he’d ever seen the guy frazzled before, and worse, he wasn’t even making his way toward them.
Buck’s heart dropped down into the pit of his stomach.
“Nathan!” Ezra shouted, and Nathan must have noticed the same things Buck had noticed, for he dashed toward the saloon without hesitation. Buck followed, a roaring assaulting his ears, one which he swallowed hard several times to get rid of.
He tried to play the situation down, and maybe that was for his own sanity. “What happened to you? You lose a game or somethin,’ Ezra? You should know better than to scare us like that.”
Buck tried to ignore how pale the gambler looked, how he was wringing his hands, and especially tried to ignore the mess covering Ezra’s shirt.
“Our own Mr. Dunne just released his breakfast onto me.” Buck could have laughed at JD’s clumsiness, except for what followed. “After eating it.” He went ice cold at that, heart skipping a beat. Damn kid didn’t listen, just kept pushing himself. I never should have let him ride those two days back. Figures he wouldn’t shake this thing by now. He barely listened to the rest of Ezra’s words as he pushed past him and followed Nathan into the saloon. The gambler kept talking close-behind, a fine tremor in his voice, “Then he began coughing and wouldn’t cease. I attempted to make him more comfortable before coming to find you.”
Buck could see that now: JD was curled up on the floor as far away from the door as possible, Ezra’s jacket pillowed under his head, dark hair covering his face and even so, Buck could see how white he was, could hear the quick, harsh breaths of air he drew in, as if each one pained him and left him more deprived of air. He knelt down beside him, not knowing how long his legs would hold him to witness such a horrifying sight, and brushed the boy’s hair back off his burning forehead. JD’s eyes were fever bright and restless and Buck couldn’t be sure if he was even seeing anything.
He let Nathan examine JD in the dim light and he let Ezra ramble on too, listened to some of it but his focus was entirely on JD now. “Hey, kid, you hearin’ me? Everything’s gonna be just fine, son. You just listen to ol’ Buck now and let ‘im take care of you. Been telling you to rest all week now, haven’t I? But it don’t matter now, Nathan and I’ll get you all better. You’ll be just fine, JD. Just hold on and try to breathe for Buck now, alright?” He kept up a soothing litany of words as Nathan worked, maybe more to reassure himself than anything, but JD occasionally blinking and moaning softly seemed just the amount of encouragement Buck needed.
“…wasn’t feeling well this morning,” Buck picked up in the background. “I had hoped that you would arrive sooner.” I wish I had too, Ezra. I should have been here. Buck ran his fingers through JD’s sweat-damp hair, his other hand holding the boy’s and squeezing occasionally, offering any ounce of strength he had.
Nathan’s frantic words were like a slap to Buck’s face, steeling him. “Buck, help me get him up to his room. It’ll be safer there, give him a better chance to recover.” He heard all too well what Nathan wasn’t saying; his throat clenched whenever he thought of the word: fever. JD had to be isolated: it would be his best chance and everyone else’s too, but that sure as hell didn’t mean Buck was gonna leave him for a second. “Ezra,” Nathan finished as he and Buck lifted JD carefully, “you should get outta here and hope ya don’t catch what he’s got. I’m sure I’ll be havin’ my hands full soon enough.”
Damn, it was even worse hearing him say it.
“No,” Ezra bit out. He took a step back to allow them to pass and disappeared for a second to recover his jacket, but then he was ahead of them and holding open the door. “I feel responsible for the boy, and I will do what I must to assist in his recovery.”
If he wasn’t currently supporting half of JD’s weight, Buck could have hugged Ezra. Instead, he shot him a grateful look which the gambler inclined his head at.
As they walked, JD’s unresponsiveness was starting to unnerve Buck. He started talking again, trying to pull JD back from wherever he had disappeared to. “Just hold on, kid. We’re almost there. Gonna get you back in that nice bed of yours and you’ll just take it nice and easy for the next few days, huh?” He tried to shift JD into a more comfortable position in his hold, but the kid only moaned and looked like he was about to lose his breakfast again. “Just try to stay awake for me, okay, JD? You do know it’s Buck talkin’ to ya, right?” Damn, can’t even convince myself I’m not losin’ it.
“Slow, deep breaths, JD,” Nathan’s deep voice resonated as he and Buck carried him upstairs, Ezra already five steps ahead and opening JD’s door for them. “Don’t need ta worry ‘bout nothing else other than that. I know it hurts but it’ll make breathin’ easier.”
Buck felt JD’s sharp, frantic breathing get a bit easier at that, deeper on his next inhale and almost relaxed on the exhale. He prayed it would stay that way for the kid’s sake, so he wouldn’t have to fight so hard to breathe on top of everything else. Buck already felt tremors wracking his small frame, and it could have just been his imagination, but his fever seemed to be burning hotter.
And then JD started coughing.
It was just a small cough here and there at first, until Buck and Nathan got him settled on the bed. Before they could prop him up against the pillows, JD abruptly curled in on himself and coughed so violently and for so long Buck was sure there had to be some permanent damage. He and Nathan each took a side of the bed and tried to get the kid to sit up straight, Buck running small, cathartic - at least for him - circles over his heaving back while Nathan again coaxed him how to get his breathing back under control.
After a few minutes Buck was sweating nearly as much as JD was, panic twisting itself into a tight ball in his chest and expanding until it practically engulfed him. It was overwhelming knowing how JD couldn’t even pull in a decent breath, and Buck not being able to do a damn thing about it but sit there and hope to hell Nathan’s words were coming through. His breathing wasn’t getting any easier and he was about to lose consciousness. To make things a whole helluva lot worse, Buck noticed with a sharp pang in his gut that the boy’s skin was starting to look a tinge blue.
That was probably the point where he lost it.
“Nathan, you gotta do something. This ain’t normal.” His hand strayed to the back of JD’s neck, desperately trying to soothe the straining muscles beneath the sweat-soaked skin there. He couldn’t think what else to do! “He’s not pullin’ in any air, Nathan!”
He could hardly hear the healer over the sound of JD’s coughing, which was weakening as he was starting to lose consciousness. Luckily, Ezra had kept his word and hadn’t ditched them yet. He was standing closer to Nathan and relayed his instructions. “He says that you must prop him up further, to clear his airways and relieve pressure from…!”
Buck didn’t fool around. He tuned out the rest and slipped an arm tightly across JD’s upper chest, pressing against the skin with a grimace and thus, forcing him to lay back. JD fought him wildly in panic at first, but Ezra helped him pin the kid’s arms against his sides and he lost the battle quickly, sinking back against Buck, limp but gasping now. One world-shattering inhale, followed by too long of a pause, but Nathan’s heavy sigh of relief on the second rattling, beautiful inhale felt like someone had cut the strings attached to Buck’s limbs.
He settled JD back against the pillows, afraid he was about to collapse in on himself at any moment. “You tryin’ to kill me here or what, kid?” JD didn’t respond, the struggle for each inhale written all over his pinched features. Buck brushed his raven black hair off his face again, the kid looks so young, and succumbed once more to panic at how the fever was rising. “Don’t you worry about that now, you just…,” he paused to draw in a ragged breath.
“Just focus on breathing, JD,” Ezra finished for him. The final string had been cut and Buck lost himself for a moment, pressing his face into JD’s shoulder, willing the kid to just keep breathing.
Nathan dragged him back. “Heartbeat’s still fast. Think you can stay with ‘im while I run and get a few things?”
Buck didn’t bother answering, he was as good as glued to JD, counting his inhales and exhales as if any one of them could be his last. Each one was the most precious thing in the world to Buck right now; he couldn’t imagine his life without JD in it since that boy had swept into town and likewise swept Buck and the other men away with his reckless enthusiasm and at times foolish loyalty. Buck had come close to losing him so many times now, but each time seemed harder than the one before it. It was like JD was running out of all the lives he seemed to have, and in turn winding Buck’s own internal clock down.
Looking after JD felt like a full-time job sometimes, and the only thing that made it easier was knowing that the others kept an eye on him as well, just a more discreet one.
Like hell he ’s gonna be brought down by some fever.
He rested a hand over JD’s forehead and another over his rapidly rising and falling chest, and he settled in for the long haul.
It ended up being the longest week of Buck’s life, measured in small eternities, but he would have waited years if it meant he’d get to see JD open those big, bright eyes again. The fever rose and fell with no pattern or reason behind it, the chills that accompanied it taxing his young body further, and the coughing fits seemed to last a lifetime until they were few and far between. JD dozed fitfully most of the time, complaining deliriously when he was awake but calming when Buck talked him down.
There were moments when Buck wasn’t sure how much longer he could beg the kid to hold on and breathe through the worst of it, but JD never gave up on him. No matter what he said it always seemed to register with the kid, and Buck was happy he could at least do something.
He jumped at the voice, swiping the hat covering his face away and sitting up quickly, almost banging his knee on the nightstand. JD’s eyes weren’t open yet, and his breathing was heavier and louder than before Buck had fallen asleep. His hand clasped JD’s wandering one and squeezed, keeping his voice low. “Hey, kid. You should be sleepin.’
“Someone’s sittin’ on m’ chest,” JD wheezed. He shifted uncomfortably and coughed at the motion, leading Buck to place a somewhat restrictive hand on his shoulder. JD squirmed again under Buck’s hand but managed to open his eyes, red and wet and leaking every ounce of pain and misery Buck knew he was still battling.
Damn kid never can sit still. “It’s just chest pain from the fever, JD. You gotta try to take deeper breaths, son. It’s gonna help.”
Buck sighed and pressed closer, leaning forward until his cheek was pressed against JD’s hand. “I know, kid, but you gotta trust me. You’re gonna make it out of this real soon.”
JD didn’t wake up again for two days, still and pale as death, and Buck was at his wit’s end.
He pressed as close as he could to the boy until he was almost lying on the bed himself, talking to him about anything and everything and holding him all the while. He refused to break physical contact even when he dozed off, growing more and more dismayed each time he woke and found JD in the same state as before.
“Come on, JD. You gotta wake up for me. There’s just too damn much of this big world you ain’t seen yet, son. And even if you never make it out of here… who’s gonna watch my back? Who’s gonna make my hair go gray from worrying about your fool self and who am I gonna tease, huh? You can’t just leave me here, kid, I’m not…,” he stopped, wondering how far he should go, if it really would bring JD back to him. “I’m not cut out for what comes after if you don’t wake up. You’ll be breaking us apart, son, and we’ll be powerless to stop it. Hell, you even got Ezra wrapped around your little finger. If you could’a seen the look on his face… You just gotta hold on, JD. You gotta breathe and you gotta fight, ‘cause I sure as hell ain’t lettin’ you go down easy. What’dya think my job is, kid?” He couldn’t even bother to wipe the tears away anymore. There were just too many of them and his heart was drowning in so much anger and grief and regret, and he had absolutely no way of getting rid of it other than pouring it all out to JD before he exploded. “I ain’t never lettin’ you go without one helluva fight. You should know that by now.”
Buck’s hands were damp and shaking as he covered his face, vigorously scrubbing the tears away. He had to be strong for JD now, make him think everything was just fine for when he woke up.
And then the sweetest voice he ever heard made him scramble for purchase on the bed before he fell over in his chair. “Don’t cry, Buck. Please.”
He smiled, hand cupping JD’s cheek, wiping the boy’s own tears of pain and exhaustion away. “It’s okay, JD. I’m fine. You just worry about yourself.” Another thing the kid hasn’t learned yet. He sobbed, quickly wiping away the tears that had just sprung up without warning. Pull it together, Wilmington. Kid’s gotten you all soft, after all. “God, you know how good of a kid you are? Always lookin’ out for me… you should be resting right now, son, not worryin’ ‘bout little ol’ me.”
JD looked up at Buck like he wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but at least he was coherent. “Buck, I…”
“I ever tell you that you remind me of my ma at times?”
If he told JD how much he meant to him instead of just beating around the bush, then maybe the damn fool kid would sit still and listen for once. “Yeah, she... she was so good to everyone she met. Believed the best in people too. Always believed the best in me, helped me to become the man she wanted me to be, the man I am today. I ain’t never met another woman like her, JD. But I see a little of her in you, more and more each day.”
“I’m flattered, Buck.”
“It’s the best compliment I could give you, kid.” And one not nearly good enough for all you’ve given me. He hadn’t thought about his mother this much in depth in a long time, and as sad as Buck was to dredge up those memories, he was grateful he could finally share more about her with the most important person in his life now. He squeezed JD’s hand to remind himself where he was before he could drift too far. “Damn, but she could be wild too,” he chuckled, about to launch into a story until he saw how tired JD was. “Stayed out of trouble once I came along, but she taught me well enough how to get myself out of it,” he summarized. And then got to the most important part of all. “I always wanted a brother, kid, and you’re the one I never had. I tease you when you’re tryin’ somethin’ new and scold you when you done somethin’ wrong ‘cause I’m lookin’ out for my little brother, you get that through your damn thick skull yet?"
“Yeah,” JD whispered. The kid was staring up at him now like the sun had just come out, and Buck slumped in relief, hand patting the kid’s face gently. JD was gonna be just fine.
He ruffled his hair then, running his fingers through it to try to flatten it down some. It was methodical in a way, and as long as JD wasn’t swatting his hand away he saw no reason to stop. “We gotta get you a haircut, son.”
“I’d let you do it only if I thought you weren’t gonna chase me around with the clippers afterward.”
Buck laughed at that, amused that the kid had him pinned down so well. Ezra poked his head into the room, probably due to how suddenly and loudly that laugh had been ripped from his throat. Buck beamed at JD’s ensuing smile; only he could make him laugh like that. “Glad you're feelin’ better, kid. Get some more rest now. Don’t let ol’ Buck here keep you from it, ‘lest you really do mind me hangin’ out?”
“Nah,” JD yawned, pushing his face into Buck’s hand when he reached to brush away a dark lock of hair stuck to his cheek. “Just don’t wake me up with Nathan’s god awful healing potion, big brother."
“You got yourself a deal, little brother.”
That seemed to satisfy JD just fine, his eyelashes fluttering closed. “Is the boy alright now?” Ezra asked as soon as JD was out, cheek still pressed against Buck’s hand. The gambler’s spurs clanked softly as he moved closer, placing a steadying hand on Buck’s shoulder.
Buck smiled down at JD finally sleeping peacefully. “Kid’ll be just fine. He’s got six big brothers to drag him back from death, after all.”