Disclaimer: The following work of fan fiction isn't intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. I don't claim the characters, setting, concept, but the story is mine. Please don't reproduce, link to, or sue without permission from the author.

Thanks to Shellie for the idea.

by Katie

"Would you explain to me again, Mr. Larabee, what emergency necessitates our presence on the trail at this unholy hour?"

Chris raked Ezra with a cool, slightly amused glance. "You could've stayed behind."

"In that dust speck of a town? It made Four Corners look like a veritable metropolis." Ezra shuddered. "I think not."

Riding just behind them, Buck shook his head. Hitting the trail so early just wouldn't be the same without Ezra's belly-aching. Buck figured that Ezra knew as well as he did that they had started early because it was still cool, and Ezra would have griped just as much about the heat if they'd waited. Ezra and heat didn't mix way better than Ezra and sunrise.

Buck, on the other hand, loved the early morning. Especially mornings like this, when the sky was clear and still showing hints of pink in the east, the air was cool and dry, and the company was good even if half of them were still cranky. In fact, he'd almost consider some of the crankiness a bonus. Grinning slightly, Buck reined up until JD drew near, yawning by big enough to swallow all the flies in the territory.

"Beautiful morning, isn't it?"

JD shut his mouth and gave Buck a half-hearted glare.

"Yep, couldn't be nicer if I'd ordered it up myself," Buck said, surveying his surroundings with satisfaction. "Perfect time for a ride."

"Shut up."

Buck raised an eyebrow. "Now, JD, that wasn't polite."

"Didn't intend to be."

"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were in a bad mood."

JD's glare had gained full strength. "Maybe if I hadn't been up all night listening to someone snore, I'd be in a better mood."

Buck sighed. "Now, son, I know Vin can be loud, but that's no reason to be all ornery."

"Vin was in the other room. There was no way I could hear him over your log-sawing."

"Well, you know what they say about how loud a man snores." Buck wiggled his eyebrows suggestively just in case JD wasn't awake enough to catch his meaning.

"The louder he snores, the sooner he gets shot?"

A deep laugh came from behind them. "There's a certain amount of truth there."

Buck glanced back at Josiah, who was rubbing his hip ruefully, and decided he didn't want to know. Josiah's stories tended to be long and twisty and to bend a man's mind in ways that just ruined the peace of the morning. JD, being younger and more foolish, opened his mouth to ask. Buck cast about desperately for a quick distraction. JD's horse tossed her head restively, giving Buck just the inspiration he needed.

"Hey, kid, looks like your horse is a might frisky this morning," he said loudly, overriding anything JD might have said. "What do you say to a little run?"

"Yeah?" JD gave Buck's gelding an assessing look. "How about a race?"

Apparently JD was starting to perk up a bit. He couldn't have been completely awake yet, though, or he would have remembered how futile it was to try to beat Buck.

Buck shrugged. "I don't know why you're so eager to eat my dust, but if that's the way you want it, I'm game." He looked around, spotting a pair of trees a reasonable distance from them. "First one to those oaks and back wins?"

JD raised his eyebrows. "Wins what?"

Maybe the kid was more awake than he thought.

"Loser takes care of the winner's horse for a week?"

"Sounds good."

Ezra twisted around in his saddle, eyes much more alert than they had been a few minutes before.

"Well, gentlemen," he drawled, "this seems like the perfect opportunity to propose a wager. I'll put two bits on Buck."

Buck pushed his hat back on his head and gave Ezra knowing grin. The man always could spot a good bet.

"I'll put the same on JD," Vin said quietly.

Buck turned to look at him, catching the hint of a smirk on Vin's face, and shook his head in disgust. Vin was just paying him back for talking about him snoring.

"I'll put two bits on JD," Josiah offered.

"You boys don't care much for your money," Buck said, feeling a little put out.

JD shot him a grin. "They know I can beat you in my sleep. Which is a darn good thing, seeing as how you kept me up all last night."

"How 'bout you quit whining about that and get to racing?" Buck settled his hat more tightly on his head. "Nathan, you're not betting. You want to start us off?"

Nathan sighed, but a grin touched the corners of his mouth. "If you two fools are bent on breaking your necks, I don't guess I can stop you. You ready?"

Buck nodded. JD nudged his horse into position. For a moment, only the drone of distant cicadas filled the air.

"On your mark," Nathan said. "Get set. Go!"

Buck kicked back, urging his gelding into a gallop. The horse's muscles surged beneath him as the wind cut past his face. It was one of the best feelings in the world, all the power and speed of a mighty animal in his control. He risked a glance to his side. JD was keeping pace, the grin on his face showing the same fierce joy that burned through Buck.

Too soon, they reached the trees and went around. JD gained the inside track and pulled slightly ahead. Buck held his gelding steady even though the old boy wanted to regain the lead. They'd need that burst of strength as they drew closer to the finish.

Things went wrong so fast that Buck was already reining his horse in and wheeling around to go back before his brain had processed what had happened. JD's horse had stumbled--maybe on a rough patch of ground, maybe on a loose rock. Buck was riding too fast too see. With the reflexes of an experienced horseman, JD threw his weight back to help his mare balance. Buck was too busy pulling his horse around to see what happened next. By the time he was in position to see again, JD was on the ground and his mare was scrambling to her feet.

Buck heard yelling. He had no time for the other men, though, not when JD wasn't moving. Buck didn't consciously think of dismounting. He was simply off his horse and dropping to his knees beside his friend. JD lay in the grass, his face white under his tan. His hat had come off, and the long strands black hair across his forehead made him look even paler. Aside from his color, he looked as if he were only asleep, one arm thrown over his head and the other stretched out to the side in his normal restless sprawl. It was so familiar that for a moment, Buck couldn't accept any other explanation. His mind insisted that no, JD wasn't hurt. No, the mare hadn't fallen on him, she'd landed beside him. No, JD's life wasn't going to be destroyed because Buck had felt like playing around. This wasn't happening. No.

Forcing his hand to remain steady, Buck placed his palm on JD's chest. His own breath was trapped in his throat, his lungs aching with the strain before he felt JD inhale, allowing him to breathe again as well.

"How is he?" Nathan was there, kneeling on JD's other side and patting his cheek. "JD? You all right?"

Buck was vaguely aware of the other men gathering around them, but he didn't look up. He didn't know if he'd see condemnation in their faces or simply the same horror that clamored at the back of his awareness, but he couldn't have handled either one just then. He focused instead on copying Nathan's movements, running gentle fingers over JD's nearest arm and leg. Nothing felt broken, although the skin on the back of JD's hand was scraped raw.

"JD," Nathan said more insistently. "JD. Time to wake up."

"Come on, kid." Buck squeezed his hand, careful to avoid the broken skin. He thought for a moment that JD's fingers twitched, but there was no other movement.

"Did he hit his head?" Chris asked, crouching beside them.

Nathan shrugged. "There's no blood. No bumps that I can feel, but those could take a bit to swell up."

No, Buck thought. Head injuries were bad. JD was fine. He'd be fine. Just as soon as he opened his eyes.

"JD." He made his voice be steady and quiet. No point in getting the kid riled up. "JD. Come on, now. This isn't the time or place for a nap. Time to wake up, kid, okay?"

In the silence after his words, Josiah muttered something that might have been a curse or might have been a prayer. Ezra cleared his throat, starting, "Maybe we should--"

And JD moved. Winced, brought the hand Buck didn't have a hold on up to his forehead, and said clearly, "Ow."

"JD?" Nathan put a hand on his shoulder, holding him in place. "How you feeling, son?"

"Just--" JD swallowed hard and coughed before he could continue. "--shoot me now. It'd be a mercy killing." He opened his eyes, squinting as he looked at the men gathered around him. "Hi, guys. Um, I was kidding about the shooting, okay?"

For a moment, Buck couldn't breathe again,and then laughter broke the dam in his chest and he could finally let go of JD's hand, settling on ruffling his hair instead. JD gave him a look, at first just curious and then something warmer, and grabbed Buck's arm to help lever himself into a sitting position.

"Easy, now," Nathan said.

After a couple of deep breaths, JD let go of Buck's arm and sat on his own.

"You gonna live?" Chris asked, his voice dry enough that most people would have thought he didn't care about the answer one way or the other.

Buck could see how his shoulders and the lines around his eyes had relaxed, though, and knew what he really meant. Apparently JD did, too, because his voice was just as dry as he answered.

"Might as well."

Chris nodded. "Can you ride?"

JD blinked, his eyes going wide as he looked around. "My horse, is she--"

"Right here." Vin stepped sideways so that JD could see the mare standing placidly behind him. "She's got some scrapes, but I think she's fine. Might want to stay off her till you know she didn't strain anything."

JD pushed himself up, wincing and swaying slightly, but brushing off Josiah's steadying hand so that he could look the mare over for himself. Buck stood, a grin tugging at his mouth as he watched JD fuss over her. Yeah, he thought. That's right.

"Come on, kid," he called, moving to mount his gelding. "You can ride with me. Get that ridiculous hat of yours and let's go."

"By all means," Ezra added, shooting a look at Chris, "let's get back to Four Corners as quickly as possible. Why, as early as it is, we might make it in time for breakfast."

"Perfectly good town about a mile back that way." Chris, unperturbed, gestured back the way they came. "Can't say the food was any good last time I was there, but if you're hungry . . ."

Ezra shuddered. "Somehow, deep fried prairie dog two mornings in a row just doesn't appeal."

"Suit yourself." Chris's expression was bland as he nudged his horse into a walk.

Buck held out his hand to help JD mount behind him. He couldn't miss the wince when JD pulled himself up.

"You okay?" Buck asked quietly as he guided his horse onto the trail behind the others.

"Sore," JD admitted. "But nothing a hot bath and a good night's sleep won't cure."

Relieved, Buck took in a deep breath of the clear morning air,finally certain that he could relax. The weather was good, the sky a bright blue, and all his friends were in one piece. He couldn't ask for more than that--

--not even when the friend behind him asked thoughtfully, "Hey, Buck, once my horse is healed up, what do you think about a rematch?"