Chris Larabee snr. looked at the three shell-shocked young men in front of him as his son sped away. He knew nothing he could say would make a difference, they would continue to worry until they saw Buck back to is old wise cracking, loud, energetic self.
"Come on boys," he said quietly, "let's go and make some supper."
No one moved, the three boys just stood on the veranda watching the now empty road.
"Come on now lads, I know you don't feel like it much, but it will keep us busy." He placed a firm hand on his grandson's shoulder and turned him away, back toward the house.
Chris allowed himself to be directed inside, and the others naturally followed him. As they headed for the kitchen Ezra peeled off and headed down toward the bedroom, he passed his own and continued to the room Buck and JD shared. He found JD curled up on Buck's bed. Ezra sat down beside him, but he didn't say anything for a long time, nor did JD; he just lay there. Eventually Ezra spoke.
"I have been trying to imagine how you are feeling, and find I can not. To be able to empathise with you I would have to love someone enough to care if they live or die."
This rather shocking admission that he didnt love anyone finally got a reaction from JD. He rolled over and looked at Ezra through tear filled hazel eyes. Ezra continued.
"I care about Buck, don't get me wrong, and you and Vin, all of us even Mr. Sanchez, but not in the way you care about Mr. Wilmington or the way you love your mother."
JD was sure Ezra had a mother, how could he say he didn't love her?
"Don't you have a mother? I thought you did?"
Ezra sighed, oh yes he had a mother alright, and right now he would not care if she were alive or dead, he might even be prepared to trade her life for Buck's if that was what it took. After all JD needed Buck, no one needed Maude, not even her son.
"Yes I have a mother, and sometimes wish I didn't, actually these days most of the time it is monumentally unfair that I am saddled with a mother no one would want, where as you ." At this point even Ezra ran out of words, but JD knew what he was trying to say.
"It's alright Ezra," he assured.
"JD, I know you are frightened that something will go wrong and Buck will not come back to you, and the one thing that you have been able to count on, the one sure thing you had in your future will be lost, and I wish I could promise you that it won't happen, but there are no guarantees in this world, believe me I know, but .I believe that he will be fine and come back here and be loud, and crude, and annoying, and tactless and humorous and kind and generous and strong, just like before. And you have to believe it too, belief is a strong thing JD."
JD sat up and looked at Ezra trying to gauge if he was sincere or just spinning a line as usual. He couldn't tell, but he didn't believe even Ezra would lie about this.
"Mr. Larabee is cooking supper, what say you and me get cleaned up and go and join them?" Ezra suggested.
Chris had wanted to follow Ezra, but Vin stopped him. "Let Ez do it, he understands how JD's feeling, better than us," he explained.
The quizzical look he got from Chris showed him he had to explain more.
"They're both losing their mothers," he explained.
"Ezra's mom's not dying," Chris said somewhat puzzled.
"I didn't say she was, I said he was losing her."
Chris hadn't thought of it that way, but it was as true. Ezra's mother was slipping from his life with each passing day as surely as JD's was. In a way it was even more painful because she was doing it of her own free will.
Vin looked at Chris, remembering that it was his brother and best friend who had been whisked away in an air ambulance.
"What about you pal, how you doing?"
Chris looked at the quiet and he now discovered surprisingly wise Texan. "Keeping my head above water," he replied.
After they had eaten Mr. Larabee asked if they would be alright for a bit as he had to go and speak to the men who were returning after the weekend. Once he was gone, JD finally spoke, he still found Mr. Larabee scary. He looked at Chris.
"They won't tell us the truth the adults, they always think we can't understand or don't need to know." He was clearly speaking from bitter experience.
There was silence for a long time, until Chris said. "Nathan, we have to tell Nathan, he can go to the hospital for us."
Mrs. Jackson informed Chris that Nathan was not home. He had in fact gone to the Larabee house to check on it and do some work. Chris redialled, and above the massage on the answering machine, he asked Nathan to pick up, who eventually did. Quickly Chris explained what had happened and asked Nathan to go to the hospital and be their eyes and ears.
Maggie read the ageing magazines in the waiting area, without taking in anything she had read. She got herself some coffee from the machine and drank it without tasting it. She had been there about an hour, when the doctor came out, and approached her.
"Mrs. Wilmington?" he asked.
"No Larabee but I am Buck Wilmington's mother," she explained.
She was reassured to find he was smiling.
"Hello I'm Doctor Ericson, I operated on your son. Everything went well. We had to work fast, but we got it out before it burst so there should be no complications." He reached out and patted her reassuringly on the arm, as he watched the relief wash over her. "Come on sit down, I'll fill you in a bit more."
Once they were both seated he continued. "I did have to work fast so I'm afraid it's not my neatest work, he'll have a bigger scar than I usually like to leave but thats all. As soon as he's settled in recovery a nurse will come and get you. He'll be a bit groggy for a while then he'll most likely sleep for hours. Now is there anything you want to ask me?"
Maggie was still dealing with the knowledge he was going to be alright, she only had one question, and it was really Buck's question.
"How long will he have to stay here, it's the first thing he'll want to know?" she smiled at the doctor.
"Well he's a big lad, looked to me he was in good shape."
"He's a quarterback," Maggie supplied.
"I can believe that, if he's a good boy, does as he's told, and doesn't get a post operative infection, I'd say he should be able to go home on Wednesday."
Maggie Larabee looked down at Buck, who was still slumbering under the effects of the anaesthetic. She had called the ranch and told them everything was fine. She had spoken to both Chris and JD in person to assure them he was going to be alright. Chris accepted what she said at face value, his mom would not lie, but although he heard her words, and was to a degree reassured, until he saw and spoke to Buck himself, JD would not rest easy. Now she was back with Buck as he began to stir.
"Ma?" he mumbled.
"I'm here, love, mom's here," she held his forearm a little tighter.
"Nooo," he slurred pulling his arm away, "Ma, I want my Ma."
That threw her, a knot formed in her stomach, it was so easy to forget it was only three years ago that Buck's mother had been so cruelly killed. So well had he seemed to deal with it, that she hadn't been prepared for him want her now. There was nothing she could do but sit and wait until he was more fully conscious and aware. Finally after he had called for his lost mother three more time he opened his eyes. She was overjoyed to see instant recognition in those kind midnight blue eyes.
"Mom," he said with even a small smile on his lips.
"Hello son, welcome back." She stood and rested a cool hand on his brow, and taking the hand he had previously snatched away in hers again, squeezed it, happy to feel his large hand squeeze back.
Clearly still very disoriented, Buck looked around the room. "Where?" he asked.
"You're in the hospital, we came in the helicopter, remember?"
"They gonna take it out now?"
She smiled and shook her head. "It's gone son you've had the operation, it's all over love," she explained.
"Oh good," he said distractedly.
She thought he was going to go to sleep just as the doctor had said he would, but suddenly he became agitated.
"Where's dad? I have to see him!" he sounded desperate.
"He's coming Buck, he's coming, you'll see him," she reassured, stroking his brow as he fought to stay awake. It was a fight he couldn't win.
"I have to see him I have to apologise, for what I... said .have too .unfor " Finally he was asleep.
Nathan had hopped off the city bus outside the hospital and trying to look older than was, he strode into the hospital reception area and enquired after Buck. Now he was standing outside room 415 about to knock. Come on, he told himself, Mrs. Larabee's not that scary! Maggie came to the door in response to the gentle knock and was surprised to find Nathan standing nervously outside.
"Nathan, come in," she encouraged in hushed tones. Once in and having listened to her report on Buck's condition, she asked what had brought him there.
"Well ma'am, I er "
"I take it my other son called you?" she speculated.
"And I'm betting that you're supposed, as well as offering Buck support and get well messages, to give the troops back on the ranch a report, in case us adults arent being straight with them?"
Okay, she is that scary and psychic, he thought to himself. He fingered the card and tiny Broncos teddy mascot he had picked up at the mini mart on the way over. Finally he shrugged and admitted she was right. Handing over the gifts into her care.
"Nathan you are welcome to stay, but he's going to sleep through the night, probably until midmorning," she said gently.
"No ma'am I wasn't planning on staying, I gotta er make a phone call," he admitted.
She watched him go with some amusement. So the boys don't trust us to tell them the truth, she thought.
Nathan called the ranch from the pay phone in reception, and confirmed everything Maggie had told them, now able to add that he was in his own room and sound asleep. JD wanted details, which Nathan provided, telling him everything he could remember right down to the colour of the walls.
Ryan Larabee drove well over the speed limit. As he entered the city, he was tempted to call his
colleagues and get a police escort. When he finally made it to the hospital, he barely stopped at the reception to get the room number before setting off at a run for the fourth floor. He opened the door on the darkened room, just able to make out his wife sitting by the bed, and stepped silently into the room. Maggie just watched from her chair as he approached the bed to reassure himself Buck really was there and was alright.
"Is he alright?" he whispered to his wife.
She nodded and gestured to the door, once out in the corridor they could talk freely.
"He's gonna be fine," she assured.
"Oh thank God," he breathed as he embraced her.
After a while she pulled back and fixed him with her gaze.
"What has been going on with you two?" she asked, with a degree of accusation.
"Oh honey, I screwed up big time," he confessed.
He went on to relate the pertinent events of the last few days, concluding with the phone call Chris had picked up earlier that evening. She added the snippet she had gleaned from Buck's version of events, that the lady had used some spirit to clean the grease from his hands.
"Which is why he stank of alcohol, of course." Ryan realised with a sinking feeling.
"Ryan," Maggie's voice pulled him back to the present, "he was up in that loft alone, thinking he was going to die, and all he kept thinking about was apologising to you for something he said! What did he say to upset him that much?"
"I'm the one that needs to apologise, not him."
"Ryan what did he say? 'Cause whatever it was it's tearing him up!"
"He told me not to call him son, because he didn't have a father."
"Oh honey, he didn't mean it, I know he didn't," she assured him.
"I know. Margaret," he almost never called her Margaret, "why don't kids come with instructions? Why do the oldest have to be the test cases?"
She shrugged. "Don't know but it doesnt seem fair. Do you reckon by the time we get to JD we'll have worked out how to handle this trust and freedom thing?"
"No, probably not."
Chris Larabee snr. stood in the door way of the living room watching his grandson. He was sitting on the floor in front of the TV next to young JD. They were watching 'The Fifth Element', one of JD's favourite movies, they had already devoured a whole bowl of popcorn, and a tub of ice cream each, and were now starting on a huge bag of chips each. If they didn't throw up they would be fine. He turned back to the hall, he could hear the sound of pool balls striking each other. He looked into the den to see Ezra practising his strokes. Then he stepped out into the night and headed down to the ranch buildings, in order to check on the latest arrival, a colt foal born a week ago. He and his mother were still spending the nights in the mare and foal barn. As he approached, he found the lights on. Vin was sitting cross-legged on the top of the chest high wall dividing their box from the next one.
"Evening," Chris said softly as he came in.
"Hi," Vin replied
"They okay?" he asked looking in to see the foal asleep, curled up on the straw under his mother's legs.
"Oh yes," Vin replied almost wistfully.
He found the sight of the young horse safely tucked under his mother, protected; comforting. It awakened in him, vague memories. He couldn't bring the memories into focus, but they made him feel good. He had some feeling that while in the sweat lodge the memories had come briefly into sharp focus, but now they were gone again. But words, words that he had always had in his head, had fallen into order in the lodge and that order had remained.
"Chris tells me you had the chance to experience a sweat lodge before you came away, that so?"
"I did that a few times myself when I came back from Korea, had some things I had to work out, found it helped."
"Me too." Vin said abstractly.
Buck began to wake up at about eleven, the next morning.
"Mom?" he inquired tentatively.
"Sorry, she went home to get some sleep, you're stuck with the old man, I'm afraid," Ryan explained, putting down the magazine he was reading.
"Morning," Buck said sleepily.
"Morning," Ryan replied with a smile, but the smile vanished when he saw the distress on his son's face, before he could stop him Buck launched into the apology he had been bottling up ever since he went up into the loft.
"Dad, I'm sorry for what I said, I didn't mean it! I didn't! I do have a father..."
"Buck stop, I know you didn't mean it. I'm the one who should be apologising. Everything you said was true. I just hope you can forgive me, and if I ever start making assumptions like that again you just tell your mother, she's the one with the level head."
Buck frowned at his father, he was still a little groggy. "No dad, not everything you weren't really treating me an' Chris different. I know you wouldn't do that. You gave me a job, a lot of responsibility, you thought I let you down."
Ryan reached out and placed his hand on the back of his son's neck. "You could never do that son," he used the term deliberately. "You've done an amazing job with JD already and when it comes to the crunch, I know you'll handle it, and get him through. And I'll tell you something else. There is nothing wrong with the way your mother raised you, don't ever think I doubt that."
He was rewarded with a full Buck grin.
"Now son, I'm gonna press this button and lots of nurses and doctors are gonna come and poke and prod you, and ask dumb questions like 'How do you feel?' " Buck's smile disappeared.
"Do you're have too?" he pleaded, it sounded painful.
"Yes I do. But if you do as they say and don't complain, the doctor might let you out on Wednesday." He offered a crumb of comfort. "And besides some of them nurses are very pretty, I gotta tell you."
The others came visiting in the afternoon, it took some time for Buck to convince Chris, that he and Ryan had sorted their differences and Chris needn't get involved. Nathan came back to join them; he brought Buck his game boy and numerous magazines, from the house, including a 'Sports Illustrated' swimsuit addition. After an hour or so, he was clearly getting tired and they made to go. JD hung back so he was the last to leave. He had been very quiet and subdued, a fact that even a distracted and heavily medicated Buck had noticed.
"Hey kid," Buck said as brightly as possible, grin firmly in place.
"Hey yourself," JD replied.
JD approached the bed tentatively; he swallowed hard as he got closer.
"JD," Buck said softly as JD was still standing beside the bed but a little way off. "I'm gonna be okay, I'll be back at the ranch on Wednesday," he reassured.
"I was scared," JD admitted.
"Me too," Buck replied.
"Really?" JD got a little closer.
"Yes very, but it's over, so we can go on with life."
Buck was deliberately talking quietly and remaining very still, which since he was dog-tired and very sore wasn't difficult. JD put his hand on top of Buck's, finally convincing himself he really was alright. Buck slowly closed his hand over JD's and pulled him in closer, he wasn't able to offer him a hug, but right there in that hospital room a mutual gripped arm offered a frightened boy all the reassurance he needed.
Buck was a model patient, anxious to be let out and go home as soon as possible. Wednesday came and he and Maggie waited for the verdict. Doctor Lopez had taken over from Doctor Ericson. She made Buck lie flat, then she poked and prodded around the wound. It hurt, it made him flinch and hiss as he tried to be stoical. Maggie looked on, curbing her instinct to tell the woman to leave her son alone. Once she was through, Doctor Lopez ordered several tests, she said the results would be back by the afternoon and if everything was okay, he would be released after that.
"But don't worry, everything looks fine to me, you're doing very well young man. Just don't try and do too much too soon," she instructed.
"Don't you worry doc, he'll rest if I have to tie him to the couch myself," Maggie informed the doctor with a determined look at Buck.
He in turn rolled his eyes and pushed his head back against the pillows. "Oh mom." He was clearly embarrassed by her words, implying he couldn't look after himself.
It was five o'clock before they got the all clear, and gone six before all the paperwork was done and medication collected from the pharmacy. Then since they would not be home before nine they had to get some supper.
"We could go home tonight, get a meal and drive to the ranch tomorrow," Maggie suggested, fearing the long drive so late would be too much for him.
But Buck was adamant, he had promised JD he would come home on Wednesday and that was what he was going to do. He wouldn't even let her take him back to the house for a meal.
"It'll take to long, we can get burgers at the drive through on the way out of town," his suggestion was more like a command.
Maggie conceded; it was no use fighting him. If she forced him to go the house, he would fret and that wouldn't help. As she thought, he was very tired and had fallen asleep in the seat beside her not twenty minutes after they had eaten. He slept solidly for the whole trip. He didn't wake when, worried she was herself getting tired, she put the radio on and sung along to various sixties and seventies hits. Nor when she stopped for gas, or even when an RV cut her up and she cursed and swore at it. Eventually she turned into the drive and pulled over so she could call the house on her cell phone to inform them they were five minutes away. Then she placed a hand on his shoulder and shook it gently.
"Hey son of mine, time to wake up," she called.
It took a few goes but eventually he was awake and they set out for the house. As they approached, the house stood out in the darkness. Every light was on, every door and window illuminated. The Christmas lights had been strung from the porch roof, and below them a huge home made banner, proclaiming; "WELCOME HOME BUCK". Everyone was gathered on the veranda as the truck drew up.
Maggie looked over at Buck as she killed the engine. He was looking down making no move to release the seat belt.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
He looked briefly at the gathering on the veranda, then back down. "I didn't think they'd make so much fuss, it's not like I've been away for long or anything."
She reached over and placed her small hand under his chin and turned his face to her. "They care about you, your family loves you, you were very ill, you could have died," It was the first time she or anyone had admitted this out loud. He swallowed, meeting her gaze. "Of course they want to celebrate your return safe and sound; well sound ish," she added with a smile.
Buck eased himself out of the truck. Looking up, he saw JD running to meet him. For a moment he thought the boy would run right into him, but JD pulled up short in front of him.
"Youre here," he stated rather redundantly.
"Said I'd be here Wednesday, didn't I?" Buck said softly.
He was standing somewhat lopsided, his left arm wrapped protectively over his right side. JD moved around to stand on his right.
"Yeah you did."
"Well, I'm a man of my word." Buck began to walk, albeit slowly, toward the house.
JD lifted Buck's right arm onto his own shoulder. "Lean on me," he offered.
Buck didn't actually lean on JD, until he reached the steps, when he found he really did need to. JD might be small and slight for his age but he was surprisingly strong, and was able to provide enough support to help the much bigger Buck up the steps.
"Need a hand there brother?" Chris asked coming down the steps a little.
"Nah me and the kid got it covered, right kid?"
JD just smiled. Once at the top everyone welcomed Buck back and asked how he was, as they moved inside. Maggie followed with the bags meeting her husband.
"He really ready to be up?" he asked.
"If he rests and takes his antibiotics for a few more days, yes; or so they say."
"Dad, Mom!" Chris called from inside. "Come on we're gonna watch a movie, Vin's gonna make popcorn."
"Oh no, you lot can watch a movie, Buck is going to bed right now." Maggie said immediately.
She was in 'don't mess with mom' mode again. Striding into the hall and walking around Buck, who was shuffling his way determinedly toward the living room, she placed a hand on his chest.
"Meds. Bed. Now." She stated firmly.
He though about arguing, but he was still tired and knew full well he would fall asleep on the couch almost immediately. And since it was an argument he couldn't win anyway, he conceded gracefully.
"Yes mom," he looked around at the others. "Night guys."
Buck slept late. By the time he had washed, taken his medication, dressed and had walked slowly into the kitchen. It was already half ten. Sofia beamed at him.
"I have been waiting for you Senor Buck, you are better now?" she asked.
"Almost." He eased himself down onto a chair at the big table.
"You are better enough to be hungry I hope."
For the first time that day Buck grinned. "Always darlin' you know that."
"Good because I have your favourites. I'm going to make pancakes, the way you like them not the way the rest of this lot want then, thin; strait from the pan with lemon and sugar." She was satisfied with the look of appreciation on his face. Everyone else liked theirs thick with syrup so Buck rarely got this treat.
"You're spoiling me Sofia."
"Well if I can't do it now when can I?" She placed a tall glass of apple juice and a bowl of Frosties in front of him, both his favourites.
As she cooked and he ate, Sofia told him everyone was down at the ranch. After he had had his eighth pancake, he stated his plan to follow them. Sofia fixed him with a hard stare, and informed him that Mrs. Larabee had told her he was not to leave the house. Buck didn't want to draw his mother's wrath down on Sofia, so obediently stayed around the house, watching TV, playing video games and spoiling the dogs.
Everyone returned at lunch and promised to keep him company for the afternoon. Unfortunately, he fell asleep on the couch straight after the meal. When he woke up he found Vin sitting on the floor opposite him, his schoolbooks spread out on the coffee table, head down, working. Beyond, outside, the others were in and around the pool.
"Hi." Buck did not respond to Vin's greeting. "Hi, earth to Buck."
"Sorry, still a bit fuzzy, what ya doing?"
"English, suffixes." He was clearly not thrilled with the subject.
"What ya gotta do?"
"Find words that end in 'shun' and put the right ending on, you know C I A N or S I O N or T I O N."
For the first time Buck noticed the plate of cookies on the table, taking one he asked how far he had got. The answer was nowhere.
"How do I know which one I need?"
"Well C I A N is for people, I know that, think 'the man from the CIA' thats how I was taught it. Like say politician."
"Politician," Vin repeated. "P O L A T "
"It's I not A, " Buck corrected, "P O L I T I C I A N."
"Oh right" Vin wrote, then he looked up. "What about electrician and magician?"
"Both good, " Buck confirmed.
"Some kind of doctor, birthing babies or something like that."
"Can you spell it?"
"Well I'll stick with what I got. Now S I O N, got any ideas?"
They came up with several words for Vin's list, before moving to T I O N.
"How about education," Buck offered.
A small lopsided grin spread across Vin's face. "Satisfaction," he said, snatching the last cookie.
"Persecution," Buck said bitterly.
"Determination." Vin said, finishing off the cookie.
"Adoration and devotion," sighed Buck remembering Taryn.
"Prescription," Vin said eyeing Buck.
"Oh you just had to remind me!" Buck growled.
Both boys were distracted by shouts from outside. Chris, Ryan and Ezra were in the pool as JD chased and was himself chased by Sam a portly black Labrador, around the poolside. Ezra was shouting odds on who would catch who. Chris was encouraging JD to run faster. Ryan was egging Sam on. Maggie and Chris snr. were on the poolside. Maggie was laughing herself silly, and Larabee was reminding them the dogs were not allowed in the pool. JD waved as he sprinted past the open French windows.
"Connection," said Vin.
"Affection," Buck added.
"Protection," Vin breathed.
They said nothing for a while as they watched the rest of the family.
"Good words." Buck stated softly.
"Very good words," Vin agreed.
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