Alternate Universe: One Big Happy Family
Author's Note: First, Thanks to Lacey for letting me once again "play" in her wonderful OBHF AU; not to mention all the help, support and encouragement shes given me. Also credit, and thanks, goes to Lara Frank who had the original idea/plot for this story but was kind enough to let me use it and write the story. Thanks also to Tammy for the encouragement.
Reference is made to the mistreatment of a child, but nothing graphic or major.
"I need all four of you to come to my office, now. Make sure to leave the kids home. Ill explain when you get here." Hearing Chris Larabees curt, "Were on our way." Orrin Travis deliberately set the phone down, being careful not to slam it as he wanted to.
Half an hour later The Larabees and Standishs walked into his office. They immediately noticed the two men already present. One was obviously a lawyer and they assumed, correctly, that the other man was his client. He was a fairly large man with dark hair and brown eyes, but the eyes didn't have the usual warmth of that color.
Polite as always Ezra moved to shake Orrins hand. "Mr. Travis."
"Standish. Hello, Inez, Mary. Larabee. Please, all of you have a seat."
Once they are all seated he introduced the other two men. "This is Mr. Lowe, of Lowe, Downedirty and Shaime; and his client Mr. Haight. Mr. Haight was a. . . "good friend" of Rachel. About 10 years ago, give or take a few months."
"You are not taking Buck." Chris informed him as he glared at the man, having instantly realized the implications and understanding what the man was after; or more accurately, who the man was after.
"You are, however, witness to something quite rare. Myself and Mr. Larabee agreeing on something. The boy will be staying with his family. That would be us. Im sure Mr. Travis has shown that it is all completely legal. Rachel, then Eileen and Cody, were very careful about that."
Mary and Inez let the men speak, settling for reflexively grabbing each others hands.
Mr. Lowe spoke up. "Yes, Mr. Travis did show us the paperwork. And it was well done. However, my client was never informed of the birth, or the adoption, or the mothers death. Combined it is more than enough grounds for a case."
"I want to see my boy," demanded Haight.
"You shall see him when the Judge orders it. Not a moment sooner," replied Ezra in a deceptively civil tone.
"Where is he?"
This time Chris answered. "Safe. With his brothers. And thats where hes going to stay."
Haight flashed on an image of what it might be like to come up against Chris in a fight over someone he cared about. The visual was chilling. But feeling safe in the presence of his lawyer and two women he held his ground. "Brothers? I heard Rachel had one other boy."
"Its a long story. Our wives are upset and were leaving. Well call you tomorrow, Orrin."
Orrin Travis smiled and showed his clients out, glad to have avoided any major confrontations. It had been the main reason for having the ladies come. He knew theyd want to hear the news in person, but mostly he knew the men would behave in their wives presence. Particularly Chris, with his temper, would be more likely to keep it with Mary around.
As they settled into the truck to drive home Inez voiced the question on all there minds. "How are we going to tell Buck?"
"How are we going to tell JD? Or the others?" Mary wondered aloud. After all the boys had been through theyd at least all had each other, especially Buck and JD. If this man split them up . . .
They all worried in silence as they rode home.
They were spared having to give the bad news that night by the boys being asleep by the time they got home. Nettie had put them to bed right after dinner.
The next morning the boys knew something was wrong since it was a school day and they had been allowed to sleep in. Then after breakfast Chris, Mary, Ezra and Inez gathered them in the family room.
Ezra began, "You know we went to see Mr. Travis yesterday evening. He had some . . . interesting guests." He paused and looked at Buck. "One of the men says he is your father, Buck. The other man was his lawyer."
"What does that mean?"
Mary was the one to answer. "He wants to. . . get to know you. To. . . spend a lot of time with you."
Buck's sharp mind picked up the real meaning of her words. "He wants me to go live with him."
Mary nodded sadly. "Im afraid so."
"What about me?" came JDs worried question.
"He didn't say, JD."
"But. . . I'm Buck's brother. We all are. He can't take Buck away. . .Can he?"
Chris answered the scared little boy. "We don't think so. Right now we aren't even real sure he's Buck's "father"."
He paused and looked at Buck. "They'll probably need to test your blood, and his. I think we could get Dr. Jackson to be the one to draw your blood, would that be OK?"
At Buck's nod Chris looked back to the other boys and continued, "Mr. Travis is checking into it. Even if Mr. Haight does take him for a little while we'll get Buck back."
Ezra spoke up. "When parents split up sometimes the children will live with one parent most of the time and visit the other. I think that may be what will happen. Buck would live here with us but spend time visiting his, uh, "father". Mostly on weekends and holidays."
"Or the Judge may send the man packing. We don't know yet what will happen," Inez said to try and reassure the boys. She held out her arms and Buck went immediately into them for a hug as JD went to Mary for a hug. The other boys watched with sad, worried looks on their faces.
Two Weeks Later
This time only Chris and Ezra came to Orrin Travis' office. Inez and Mary had wanted to stay home with the boys. The two men quickly took seats.
Travis didn't waste time with small talk. "I'm afraid it's bad news. The blood tests match. Mr. Haight is Buck's biological father. Mr. Lowe already took it to a judge and got a temporary order for Buck to be given into his custody. I'm not sure how he did that. You can certainly appeal and I'm going to see if I can find out how he got the judge to do this. It isn't normal. I think there may be something else going on."
"But you're saying that for now we have to give him Buck." Ezra made it a statement instead of a question.
"What happens if we don't?" asked Chris.
"Then you get arrested and they take Buck by force and give him to Mr. Haight. That would be much harder on the boy and I don't recommend it. Besides, when you got out of jail you'd still have to deal with Mary." Orrin added that last part as a trump card, knowing Chris would not want to get Mary mad at him nor would he want to upset her more than she already was.
"When will he be picking Buck up?"
Glad Ezra was being practical Orrin answered him. "This Saturday afternoon. I gave him your number, hes going to call and set up a time. Im still looking into how the man did this. Im now sure something went on with him and the Judge, something like a bribe or they actually know each other, but I dont have proof yet. Ill hurry."
"Thank you," replied Chris.
"Wed better get home and tell our wives and the boys. Thank you Mr. Travis." Ezra reached out to shake hands before turning to leave, as did Chris. Orrin watched the men leave wondering what would happen to the family, and determined to help.
The "explosion" the adults had been expecting occurred when the news was announced. Buck had not made a fuss earlier having hoped that the blood test would say that the man wasn't his father; or if Haight was that he'd only be spending some weekends and holidays with him. The idea of a chance to get to know his father, and maybe hear more about his mother, had calmed him somewhat as well. As long as he could do it without leaving his brothers or family.
"I WON'T do it! I'm NOT going to leave JD and my brothers! I'm NOT leaving my family! He's NOT my father! Cody was my dad. If Ma wanted this guy to be my dad she WOULDN'T have left him."
Buck turned and ran up to his room, shutting and locking the door behind him.
A short time later Vin was almost smiling at the thought that for once he was being asked to pick a lock instead of getting told not to. He made quick work of the lock then left as Chris went in to talk to the hurt and angry young boy.
He found Buck curled up on his bed facing the wall and sat on the edge of the bed. "Hey, Pard. Its going to be OK."
Buck rolled over to face his Uncle. "No it isn't." He replied with a childs certainty.
"Have I ever broken a promise to you?"
"And I wont break the one Im about to make you. We will find a way for you to come home. It may take a little while, but we will find a way. How about trying it for a month? Thats not real long, and if there are problems we can go to the Judge. And during that month well try and figure out how to get you home."
"One month. No temper tantrums, youre getting to big for them. And you try and do what he tells you to. Just like you did for Cody. Give him a chance. You might like him. Your mom did."
"Yeah, and then she left him so she must not have liked him much."
"None of us know why she left him. She never told us. But will you try it for a month?"
Buck was quiet for a few minutes thinking about what Chris had said, and reminding himself that his Uncle always kept his promises. "OK. But you promise to find a way for me to come home?"
"I promise. We arent going to let you go. Were your family. And so is Mr. Haight. You seemed almost happy before at the idea of getting to know him. What happened?"
"I wanted to visit him, like Uncle Ezra said, spend some weekends and holidays with him, but stay with JD and all of you."
Chris tried again to reassure him. "Maybe that can still happen. We still have to talk to Mr. Travis. And you know the phone number here so you can call any time you want."
The thought cheered Buck a little and he moved into his Uncles arms for a hug. He trusted completely in Chris to keep his promise and have him home in a month.
The family was gathered together in the living room. Waiting. Worrying. Trying to stretch out these last moments together.
Nettie was in the kitchen, having already given Buck a long hug and not wanting to see him being taken away.
JD clung to his big brother and quietly cried. Buck held him just as tightly and fought back tears.
Vin sat in an oversize chair, quiet and withdrawn. Josiah sat next to him, an arm around the small shoulders, giving what comfort he could; and trying to deal with his own feelings of pain and loss. Fighting his desire for the numbness alcohol could bring.
The adults were on the couch. Ezra and Inez on one side Chris and Mary on the other. Each wanted to hold the young boy but knew JD needed him more, and that he needed these last minutes with JD.
No one said anything. There was nothing left to say. The boys had all agreed that they would not say good bye. That they would all be together again and would not say the words.
They all looked towards the window as they heard two vehicles drive up. Without a word being said Buck and JD broke their hug, but still holding hands, raced for the window to watch the visitor walk to the door.
"He doesn't look very nice, Buck," JD announced in an unhappy voice.
Buck tried to comfort his little brother. "Remember what Uncle Ezra taught us. Looks can be deceiving. If Ma liked him he can't be too bad."
The adults recognized the tone as meaning Buck was trying to convince himself, as much as JD, of that fact. Taking a deep breath Mary stood and Inez joined her as they went to answer the door together.
Moments later they returned with their very unwelcome visitor. His eyes immediately went to Buck. "Son. It's good to meet you."
"Thank you, sir," replied Buck, refusing to call this stranger father.
No one could resist looking from one to the other, trying to find a resemblance. The dark hair, face shape and general build were similar and convinced the boys, even more than hearing about the results of the blood test, that this was Buck's father.
Buck turned and gave JD a final hug. The then went to a couch to be scooped up Chris. After a few minutes of whispered conversation he put Buck down. Buck turned to Ezra for a more restrained, but no less heartfelt, hug. Those close heard Ezra's quiet words. "I love you and shall impatiently wait for your return to us. I promise we will make it soon."
Buck nodded and told Ezra he loved him as well.
Vin got out the chair he shared with Josiah as Buck moved toward them. He said nothing as he held his brother close for a moment. Buck understood and whispered, "I'll miss you, too."
A moment later Josiah lifted Buck into the chair with him. Buck lifted tear filled eyes to his oldest brother. "Take care of JD for me, please."
Awed by the trust Buck was placing in him Josiah promised he would. Hearing that, JD went to Josiah as Buck was lifted back to the floor. JD was quickly lifted into strong arms and held close.
Vin sat between Ezra and Chris as Buck walked to Inez and Mary.
Mary wiped tears from her eyes as she knelt to be at Buck's level. He moved into her waiting arms and told her he loved her. She told him that she also loved him and that they would always be his family. Seeing Haight glaring at that statement, she sent him a glare of her own as she stood.
Inez also knelt down to Buck's level to get her hug. She glared at Haight over his head as she promised to cook Buck his favorite enchiladas when he returned. He managed a small smile at the promise. Inez kissed Buck on the forehead as she stood with tears beginning to run silently down her cheeks.
Exchanging a quick glance over Vin's head, Ezra and Chris stood together.
"Buck's things are packed and by the front door. Mr. Larabee and I will assist you in carrying them to the car."
Since the tone was that of stating a fact not making an offer, Haight nodded. Mary and Inez joined Vin on the couch as they watched the three men and Buck leave.
Once Buck's things had been put in the trunk Chris looked at Buck. "Why don't ya get in the car, Pard. Your Uncle Ezra and I need a word with Mr. Haight." Noticing that Chris also refused to call the man his father Buck got in the car, knowing he'd still be able to hear most of what they said.
Looking Haight in the eye Ezra spoke first. "You will take care of our boy."
"He ain't your boy! He's mine." Haight growled back.
"For the moment." Ezra acknowledged and smiled at the man, but the smile had a warning label on it. "And while he is with you I am sure that you will do everything in your power to make him happy. Since you wouldn't want to do anything to give the court, or us, a reason to remove him from your custody. It really is amazing how quickly things can change."
Haight understood Ezra's implication and found his soft voice and polite veneer over the steely determination more menacing than outright violence.
Chris took his turn, his voice low and lethal as he spoke, "Blood isn't the only thing that makes family. Just because you knew his Ma doesn't make you a father. You want to be a father? Then enjoy it while you can, and you'd better get it right, 'cause you harm one hair on Buck's head and I will have yours. . . on a silver platter."
Haight looked into Chris eyes and took a step back, shivering. The thought that a man with eyes like that did not make empty threats crossed his mind. He quickly told them good bye and went to get in the car.
One Week Later
Buck made his way up the steps inside the Lazy L Ranch house. He was exhausted, hungry and hurting. He also felt unusually hot but was too tired to pay it much attention. Knowing there was no food around he was ready for sleep, thinking that at least if he was asleep he wouldn't feel hungry. He slipped into what had been a guest bedroom and dropped his backpack. He pulled a blanket from the closet and curled up on the bed. Within seconds he was asleep.
The next morning he was woken by the combination of the sun on his face and hearing a truck pull up to the house. He knew without looking that it was Chris and one or two of his brothers. As much as he wanted to run downstairs and into Chris' strong and protective arms, fear caused him to slip off the bed and into the closet to hide, being careful to take the extra blanket he'd gotten out with him. The sudden movement caused his stiff and sore body to ache.
If he went to Chris and his brothers and went home he'd just be taken away again. His "father" had told him that repeatedly over the last week and he'd come to believe it. He'd also been told that it would get his Uncles in trouble and Buck didn't want that. He couldn't stand the thought of going home only to have to leave again so he hid, and listened.
He heard Chris voice and a moment later Vin's. They were too far away for him to make out the words, especially since neither normally spoke in a loud voice. A short time later he heard Vin's steps on the stairs. He heard Vin pause for a moment at each door way. When Vin stopped at his room he heard him take a few steps in but then Chris voice was heard calling Vin's name and he want back downstairs. It wasn't long before the two left and Buck was again alone. He still felt very hot so he went and got a large glass of cool water, and changed into the short sleeved shirt and shorts he had placed in his bag. He was hurting and thought about taking a few of the aspirin that he knew where kept in the house but having been told many times not to take medicine without an adults permission he decided not to. He was soon curled up on the bed and asleep.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
As the family finished lunch Vin spoke up, "I want to go ride Star. Will you come riding with me Josiah?"
"Sure, Vin. A ride sounds good," agreed the older boy.
Knowing Vin loved to ride the horse Ezra had given him for his birthday a month before no one thought the request unusual.
"I want to go over and check on one of the horses. You two can ride over to the stables with me," volunteered Ezra.
"Thanks. Uncle Ezra," chorused the two boys.
As Josiah lifted Vin's saddle bags out of the truck for him, Josiah noticed they seemed very heavy. Soon they were mounted and riding away from the stables. As soon as they were out of sight of the stables Vin changed direction slightly and set Star to a gallop. Josiah soon realized where they where going. The Lazy L Ranch. He knew Vin had been there with Chris that morning and wondered why Vin would want to return so soon.
Once they dismounted he had a chance to ask. "Why are we here Vin? What's going on?"
"Buck's here and I think he's in trouble."
"What? Buck's here?" asked the stunned older boy in disbelief.
"Yeah. Someone was here this morning and I'm sure it was Buck. The cover on the bed was all wrinkled where he was lying on it last night. He was hiding. That's why I think something's wrong. Why else would he come here instead of to the house?"
Josiah decided not to question that, knowing that if anyone would see the signs of someone being in the house it would be Vin. "OK. I guess that makes sense, but why didn't you tell Uncle Chris?"
"If Buck wanted Uncle Chris to know he was here he would have come down and told us. Let's go ask him," was Vin's simple, and to him obvious, answer. He spun and went into the house; Josiah followed his brother.
Vin headed directly upstairs. "Buck? I know you're here. It's OK. It's just me and Josiah. Buck? Come on out. Please? Buck?"
Hearing Vin's voice and knowing he was caught Buck slowly walked out of the room. He was feeling hotter and much worse; he felt sure he was sick and knew that he needed food.
As they reached the top of the stairs Vin and Josiah were shocked by the sight that greeted them. Buck's face was flushed from the fever but it couldn't hide the bruise on his cheek. His short sleeve shirt showed the bottom of bruises on his arms that Josiah was sure were shaped like a man's hand. There also looked to be a bruise ringing his left wrist.
Josiah felt his temper flare at seeing his brother hurt, but knowing that losing his temper would only upset his younger brothers he said nothing as he went over to pick up and hug Buck. It gave him time to get his temper under control and his voice calm before he spoke. "Buck, you're going to be OK. You're safe now. We'll take care of you. I promise."
When Josiah set him down Buck quickly exchanged a hug with Vin. "How did you know I was here?"
"I saw the dust on the floor had been stepped in. And the bed was messed up a little where you'd slept in it. Why were you hiding, Buck?"
Buck took a deep breath and looked at the floor before answering. "He said that if I went home he'd just come and take me away again. And that the Uncles would get in trouble. That he knew the Judge, had a deal with him and he'd always win. I knew that the house would be the first place he'd look when he found out I was gone and I didn't want him to find me there, so I hid here."
"How did you get away? Do you think he knows you're gone yet?" asked Josiah.
"He went out yesterday afternoon. Said he was going to a friends for a party. He did that the first night I got there and he got drunk, I guess. He didn't come back 'til the next afternoon and was really mean. I hoped it would be the same. He may be getting home now and finding out. I was locked in my room. Last week it was almost supper before he opened the door."
Knowing how alcohol could affect someone Josiah, believed Bucks story and thought the amount of time sounded right.
"How's JD?" Buck asked, looking at Josiah.
"He misses you a lot, but otherwise he's fine. Everyone is OK except that they miss you."
Vin spoke up. "Sorry I didn't bring him. But we all know he can't keep a secret. Especially one this big."
The other two smiled a little and nodded in agreement.
Vin continued. "Are you hungry? I brought some of the food I keep in my room. It's out in Star's saddle bags."
Bucks face lit up. "Yeah. I'm real hungry."
Josiah smiled slightly as they headed outside, now knowing why the saddlebags had seemed heavy. He was proud of his young brother. Not many boys that age would be so practical as to think of food or so cautious as to why their brother might be hiding. He supposed it could be considered the silver lining to Vin's upbringing.
The three were soon sitting around the kitchen table. As Buck ate Vin asked the question on both brothers' minds. "How'd you get those bruises, Buck?"
Buck set down the food he was eating and explained. "The ones on my arm happened when he grabbed me and shook me, real hard. It gave me a headache. The other ones happened when I told him no when he wanted me to go to my room. He slapped me then grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me."
Josiah noticed that Buck always referred to the man as "he" or "him" never calling him father or even using his name. Knowing what a loving, accepting child his brother was that told him a lot about how the man must have treated him.
Josiah and Vin left soon after they finished eating. Buck sadly agreed they should go before someone came looking for them.
"Soak a wash cloth in cold water, wring it out, then put it on your forehead," Josiah instructed him. "It might help a little with the fever."
"I'll try and ride Star out here again in a day or two with more food and some of your clothes," promised Vin.
As they rode home Josiah considered the lie hed told Buck. JD had NOT been fine, not by a long shot. He only ate because he wasnt given a choice. He slept very little, troubled by nightmares. Hed spent the week being home schooled with Vin, because he begged them not to make him go to school without Buck. He hardly ever left the house and stayed near the phone, waiting for his brother to call.
There had been one brief call the day after Buck had left. Josiah had heard the adults talking and saying they thought Mr. Haight must have been standing right there listening and keeping Buck from talking.
He knew JD would be upset when he found out that theyd known where Buck was and hadnt told him, but hed promised Buck theyd keep his secret. He only hoped JD would be so happy to have Buck home that hed forgive them.
Soon after the boys and Ezra returned Mr. Haight showed up with Mr Lowe beside him. Nettie took the boys to watch TV as the other adults joined the two visitors in the living room.
"Where is my son?" demanded Haight.
Chris reaction was instant, and barely controlled. "What are you talking about? Where is Buck? If you've hurt him. . . ."
"Don't play stupid. Buck ran away, and I know he came back here. Where else would he go?"
"Why would he run away?" asked Ezra in a hard tone that demanded an answer.
"I don't know. I. . uh, tucked Buck in last night. When I went to get him this, umm, morning he wasn't there."
Ezra and Chris shared a look. Haight had just unknowingly given them three pieces of information. He had not tucked Buck in the night before, had not checked on him that morning, and he was a bad liar. Ezra especially was pleased as the last revelation. It would make things easier.
"So, what time this morning did you go to wake Buck up this morning? And why wait until so late in the day to come looking for him?"
"Well, it was about, uh, 11 or so when I went to wake him up. I thought that. . . he might have been, uh, tired. . . and sleeping in."
Realizing that his client was not helping his case Mr. Lowe spoke up. "He waited until now so that I could be present when he came here. I was unavailable earlier."
Chris eyes narrowed. He was sure Lowe was lying, just better at it than his client having had more experience. "You could have called. If you were really worried. Just to make sure that Buck really was here and that he was OK," noted Chris in a lethally flat tone.
"Will you allow us to look around the house now or shall we return with the police and a warrant?" Asked Mr. Lowe to prevent his client answering and digging himself in deeper.
"Fine. You can look around. But don't say anything and upset the other boys," replied Chris.
As they entered the family room where the boys and women where gathered they got a cold reception. Vin sent Haight a look that made him glad looks couldn't kill, he was surprised to see such a look from one so young. JD opened his mouth to speak but was quieted by Josiah, who was sitting beside him on the couch, leaning over and whispering something in his ear as he pulled him closer. JD gave his older brother an unhappy look but obeyed and stayed silent, contenting himself with a glare at the men. Josiah refused to look at the men, knowing the rage and hate he felt would show all to clearly. The arctic chill of the glances all three women directed at Haight made him wonder if he was going to suffer frostbite.
As they walked back to the living room the two had to admit that Buck was not in the house. Threatening to take legal action the coming week Lowe led his client away.
Vin had raced through his chores so he could go with Ezra to the stables and ride Red Star. Having had all night to think about things he was very worried for Buck. He quickly set Star to a gallop, but this time it was from worry, not for the joy of feeling the wind in his face and Stars smooth gate as he ran.
He got even more worried when Buck didnt come down to greet him. When he opened the door to "Bucks" room his fears were realized. Buck was very obviously doing worse. "Buck?"
"It hurts, Vin. Feels like Im burning up. And it hurts all over."
Vin was at his side before Buck finished speaking. "Im gonna call Doc Jackson."
"No. Please. . . I cant let him find me."
"He already came by the house yesterday, Buck. You need a Doctor. Im sorry. Ill be back in a minute."
He hurried down to the kitchen where he knew the phone had been left connected in case anything happened while someone was over at the ranch. All the boys had been taught to memorize Nathan Jacksons number long ago. After three rings there was an answer.
"Sorry to bother you on Sunday Ms. Raine, but can I talk to Dr. Jackson?"
"Sure, Vin. Just a second."
"Vin?" asked the familiar, and concerned, voice.
"Yeah. Im at Uncle Chris old Ranch. Can you come out here? We need you."
"What happened? Whos with you? Chris?"
"Buck. Hes. . . hurt and sick."
"Ill be right there." Nathan was worried enough that he decided to save the many questions he had until he got there and had taken care of Buck.
After hanging up Vin reluctantly picked up the phone again to make another call. He was relieved when Josiah answered.
"Its Vin. Bucks worse, a lot worse. I called Doc Jackson. Hes on his way. Youd better . . ."
"Ill tell em. Well be there soon."
As Vin went back up to be with Buck, Josiah went back to the family room where everyone was watching a video.
"I. . . have some news about Buck."
Mary clicked off the TV and everyone looked at Josiah.
"Hes at your old ranch Uncle Chris. Hes hurt and hes sick. Vins there and hes called Doc Jackson. He says we should get over there."
"How do you know all this Josiah? Was that Vin on the phone?" asked Ezra
"Yes, it was. When he went there yesterday he thought Buck was there. Thats why he asked me to go back with him later. Buck was there. His father had given him a few bruises and locked him in his room. He also had a fever. Buck snuck out of that place and came back. He was afraid to come to the house cause he knew thats where theyd look. He made us promise not to tell. He said Haight had told him that hed just take him away from us again like he had before."
Everyone was silent for a moment trying to process what theyd just been told. JD reacted first.
"You knew where he was? You knew he was sick? You left him?! Why didnt you tell me?! You knew where Buck was! Why didnt you tell me?!"
"Im sorry JD. Buck wanted it to be a secret."
"NO! Buck wouldnt do that to me! He wouldnt!"
Inez quickly folded JD into a loose hug. "Calm down JD. Buck was scared. He wasnt thinking like normal. Dont be mad at Josiah. Lets go see Buck. Im sure hed like to see you now. But first you have to calm down."
After a moment JD nodded and looked back over at his brother. "Im sorry, Josiah."
"It OK, JD. I didnt like not telling you. Neither did Buck. He asked about you first thing. Inez is right, he was just scared and trying to protect you. Like he always does."
Chris stood and held out a hand to Mary to help her up. "Lets get over there. And Josiah, we need to talk later."
"Yes, Uncle Chris." Josiah was suddenly worried. He knew Chris would never hurt him, or any of the boys, but he was worried that hed disappointed his Uncle.
"Im not mad at you. We just need to talk. OK?"
Minutes later they were all in the car.
Having stopped only to get the bag of medical supplies he kept at the house Nathan was at the ranch before the others. Vin had heard the car and came down to meet him at the door before leading him upstairs.
One look at the young boy convinced him that it was a good thing Haight would be no where around when Chris, or Ezra for that matter, saw their nephew. He really hated doing autopsies, and the two would kill the man for what hed done to Buck.
Bucks temperature was 102. Seeing the bruises, he asked Vin if there was a camera kept at the house. Vin nodded and went to get it. Nathan wanted to have proof of the treatment Buck had received at his "fathers" hands. That would guarantee Buck would be removed from his custody and returned to his true family. Soon after hed taken the photos he heard cars pull up and went to the bedroom door.
The family stopped in front of him. "Hes OK. For now. The fever worries me. I need to get him to my clinic, or a hospital, to find out whats causing it, and I dont have what I need here."
"I think the clinic would be better," said Mary. The others nodded.
"You know. . . about the bruises?"
Ezra answered,"Somewhat. How severe are they?"
"Not too bad. Im sure they hurt but certainly no permanent damage. I took a few photos. Im sure Orrin Travis will know what to do with them."
"Yes, Im most certain he will," agreed Ezra with a pleased smile, glad they would have the proof needed to get Buck away from Haight.
"Can we see him? I want to see him."
"Sure, JD. You can see him. But remember, hes sick. So be careful."
"We will," promised JD before slipping past him and into the room.
The others followed closely behind.
Buck looked over at JD as he joined Vin at the bedside.
"JD. Youre here."
"Course I am. Where else would I be? Why didnt you tell me you were back? Are you mad at me?"
"No, JD. Im not mad at ya. I just. . . Im sorry."
"Its OK. Im just glad youre home."
"Buck, lets get you to the clinic so Nathan can help you."
At Bucks tired nod Chris leaned over and carefully lifted the young boy into his strong arms. Buck reached up and held around his Uncle's neck. He felt truly safe for the first time in a week.
Once at the clinic Chris again carried Buck in and placed him on one of the beds. Buck only reluctantly let go of his Uncle. Raine was there waiting for them. Nathan immediately went to the locked cabinet where he kept the medicines. "Would you hook him up to an IV, Raine? The fever has him dehydrated." He thought about asking the family to go out into the waiting room, then thought better of it, knowing they wouldnt leave Buck if they could avoid it. Looking over at JD he considered that a herd of wild horses might have been able to drag him from his brothers side, but theyd be in for a fight.
Raine came to stand beside him. "What kind of man would treat his own child this way?"
"A dead man," was the softly voiced answer as Ezra walked by her to again join JD at Buck's bedside. Inez followed behind him and shared a look with Raine before continuing to JD. Raine got the IV and hurried back to the bed to hook it up.
That night a cot was brought in for JD to sleep on. The three men had brought in a large easy chair Nathan kept in his office for Ezra to rest in. Chris and the women took Josiah and Vin home. Chris returned at 1 am to send Ezra home for some sleep and took the easy chair.
The entire family returned in the morning. Buck was more than happy to once again be surrounded by his family. Once theyd spent time with Buck, Chris and Ezra left to go see Orin Travis. Ezra had taken the film from the camera to the 1 hour photo on his way to the clinic and they stopped to pick the pictures up to take to Orin Travis as evidence.
Having gotten Marys call from the Clinic, Orrin was expecting the two men and waiting for them. "Ezra, Chris. How is Buck?"
"They say a picture is worth a thousand words," quipped Ezra with almost gallows humor as he held the packet of photos out.
The former Judge took them and frowned as he saw the bruises and the feverish look in Bucks eyes and face. "Hes at the clinic under the care of Dr. Jackson?"
"Yes," answered both men at once.
"Good. I take it Mr. Haight does not know where Buck is?
"No," replied Chris.
"Lets keep it that way. Its risky legal ground, since he is still legally Bucks guardian, but Buck being under a doctors care and these photos should cover us. I found out that Haight does know the Judge and Lowe is in on things. I was waiting to tell you until I had proof, but with this we wont need it. Ill get us a hearing with another Judge as soon as possible. We can worry about getting the Judge and Mr. Lowe after Buck is safely back with you."
Chris response was a simple, "Thank you."
"Your help is greatly appreciated, Mr. Travis."
"Im sure youre anxious to get back to Buck. Ill call when I find out about our hearing. Just to warn you, Buck may have to testify about how Haight treated him. If so Ill try to get it as an informal talk in the judges chambers. I hate to say this, but it might, in that way, be best if Buck didnt recover for a few days so that he cant be brought into the court at all. Ill do my best and let you know. Oh, one last thing. As your lawyer, and your friend, Im advising you to stay away from Haight. Do not look for him. Do not find him. Do not lay a hand on him. It will hurt your case. Lowe would use it to say that Buck is no safer with you than with Haight; then Buck, and the other boys, might be taken from you. So. Leave. Haight. Alone." Orrin paused for a moment. His gaze dropped to the top photo, causing him to add, "at least until after all this is settled."
After giving reluctant agreement to avoid Haight, the two men left. Orrin didnt miss the dangerous intent in both mens eyes. He figured Ezra would find some way to hurt Haight in a financial or social way, whereas the danger from Chris was much more likely to be physical. For two such different men they did compliment each other well, each acting as a balance to the other. He knew they had once been friends and hoped that they might be again. . . someday. Considering how stubborn the two men where he thought it might be on the day Hell froze over.
On the way back Chris drove and Ezra called his Stable Master and Chris Foreman to ensure things were going well.
Josiah had been allowed to miss school and stayed with Vin and JD by Buck's side. The younger two had promised to work very hard on Mary's lessons when Buck was well. When Chris and Ezra returned everyone was anxious to hear their news.
When Chris sat in the chair Vin climbed onto his lap. Ezra moved another chair to sit beside Inez. Once everyone was settled they began explaining.
"We must remember to thank Dr. Jackson for thinking to get photos. Mr. Travis believes they will ensure Buck is returned to us. He learned that Haight did know the Judge and will make sure the photos and any further actions are brought before another judge."
Chris looked over to Buck. "Bucklin' the new judge may want to talk to you. Ask how Mr. Haight treated you. Orrin will try to get it so it's just you talking to the judge in his office, not in a Courtroom. Think you can do that? 'Cause if not we'll find another way."
"I can do it. I'll do anything to come back home." Buck answered with conviction.
"I know, Pard. I know. We just want to make things as easy on you as we can. It shouldn't take long. And as long as you're still here sick they can't make you come into the court, even to see the judge. Not until Nathan says you're better." As Chris finished he saw the relief in his young nephews eyes.
"I think its about lunch time. What would you boys like?" Asked Inez.
"Pizza!" came the unanimous answer. Only Buck remained silent.
"I dont know if I want pizza."
"Well have to ask Dr. Jackson what you can have."
"Not pizza Im afraid," said Nathan as he entered the room. "How are you feeling, Buck?"
"A little better."
"Good. Thats what we want."
Nathan took Buck's temperature again and was pleased to see it had gone down a couple degrees to a much safer level.
After eating lunch Chris and Ezra took over reading the story Mary and Inez had started reading to the boys that morning and the afternoon passed quickly. Just before dinner Orrin Travis called.
"I've got some good news. I have a hearing scheduled with Judge Lee tomorrow. He's a fair man and believes strongly in children being treated well. I talked to him and as long as things go well at the hearing he doesn't think Buck needs to be brought into Court. Why don't you guys meet me at my office about 1:30 tomorrow so we can go over a few things. The hearing's at 2:30."
"That sound like a good plan. We will see you then. Thank you Mr. Travis."
"My pleasure, Ezra. See you then."
Ezra gave Inez hand a reassuring squeeze then looked at the rest of the family. "Mr. Travis has arranged a hearing with a different Judge tomorrow at 2:30. He wants us to meet at his office an hour earlier to go over things. Buck, you will not need to come and go through that, or see Mr. Haight again."
They all saw the relief in Bucks eyes and saw his body relax.
"That is good news."
As Nathan checked on Buck Chris motioned Josiah to follow him outside.
"Yes, Uncle Chris."
"Josiah, Im not mad at you. You were in a hard spot. I know that. You gave Buck your promise and its important to keep promises. But it also could have but Bucks life in danger. What if he had been more sick than he was? I just want to make sure you understand what could have happened and that there are times you may have to break a promise."
"Good. Lets go join the others," said Chris, draping an arm around Josiahs shoulders. The gesture was intended to remind the teenager that Chris still loved him and Josiah understood the meaning.
The next day at 1:30 Ezra, Inez, Chris and Mary were shown into the office of Orrin Travis. Nathan was with them, since as the doctor whod examined Buck his testimony would be needed.
45 minutes later they were on the way to the Court House. Travis first move was to introduce the photos as evidence. Even Haight paled a bit at the expression that formed on Judge Lees face as he looked through the photos. Then the Judge looked directly at Haight, and he knew hed already lost the case, and Buck. Travis had Nathan testify about Bucks physical condition when he found him and his current recovery. If possible the look on the Judges face darkened even more. But he kept his focus on Nathan. Ezra was then called to testify as to how the other boys had been when Buck was gone, and the lack of communication, namely phone calls, from Buck. He also asked Ezra if Rachel had ever mentioned Haight, or tried to locate him.
Travis was wise enough not to call the others up simply to repeat what Ezra had already said. The Judge was on there side and he felt no need to waste time so entered into evidence the adoption papers and Rachels Will. The later of which stated she wanted Buck to be raised by Cody and Eileen, but had no mention of Haight. Cody and Eileens Will leaving the boys in the custody of their brothers was also shown.
It was then Lowes turn. He tried to paint Buck as an unmanageable child and said the bruises where simply Haight trying to restrain the boy from hurting him. Chris smirked at the skeptical expression on the Judges face. Mary and Inez where now more relaxed and sure they would get Buck home.
Finally it was done. "I dont even need time to deliberate and consider this case. Custody is hereby jointly awarded to Chris and Mary Larabee and Ezra and Inez Standish. Mr. Haight, dont plan any trips out of this jurisdiction. Mr. Lowe, the same goes for you. I am also issuing a restraining order against you Mr. Haight. You are forbidden to come within 500 feet of Buck, and your paternal rights are hereby nullified. Now get out of my Court room!"
The six happy adults hugged each other and Mary insisted, with Inez agreement, that Orrin come with them to tell Buck the good news in person. Orrin was more than happy to agree.
Before leaving Haight looked over and met the eyes of Chris Larabee. Had Chris taken out a gun and shot him through the head right then and there, Haight figured he would have to consider it justifiable homicide. Or, more accurately, a mercy killing. The look in Chris eyes told him he was in for a much more painful ordeal. He hurried to follow his lawyer out of the room but felt the eyes burning into his back and freezing his spine, forcing him to suppress a shiver.
As they drove up to the clinic they saw Vin's head disappear from the window where he'd been keeping watch. Raine was waiting in the outer office and exchanged hugs with Mary and Inez then showed them into the back room where Nathan and the boys waited.
The adults' happy smiles told the boys all they needed to know. JD and Buck hugged each other tightly. Josiah lifted Vin and swung him around, being careful that the boy wouldnt hit anything. Vin laughed happily and wrapped his arms around his big brothers neck. After a moment they all focused on Orrin Travis.
"Mr. Haights parental rights were nullified. That means he no longer has ANY claim on you, Buck. The Judge also gave an order that says hes not allowed to come anywhere near you or hell be in jail."
Only the fact that he still wasnt feeling well kept Buck in the bed. He suddenly looked better, more at ease, than he had since Haight had first appeared. The adults were all happy to see the change. But Nathan knew it did not mean Buck was well.
"Thank you, Mr. Travis," said Buck, remembering his manners.
The former Judge smiled indulgently. "Youre welcome, Buck. Now you just worry about getting better. And if you really want to thank me you can invite me to your welcome home party, when youre better."
"Aunt Inez promised to make enchiladas," Buck informed him.
"I wouldnt want to miss those," Travis told him with a smile.
Inez couldnt help her grin. Trust Buck to remember that shed promised to make his favorite meal of enchiladas when he got home.
Nathan knew it was time for him to take charge. "Now youve all had the good news my patient needs his rest, and so do the rest of you. Everyone out."
Feeling more his usual mischievous self, Buck acted like he was going to get out of bed and leave.
"Not you Buck! Dont even think about getting out of that bed." Nathan instructed in a stern tone that belied the amusement in his dark eyes.
Buck settled back into the bed, now the tension was gone the exhaustion was once again taking hold.
Five days later the family had gathered for Buck's welcome home dinner. He'd been home for three days, but still recovering and not ready for a celebration. Besides the family, Nathan, Raine, Orrin Travis and his wife were present.
As the ladies finished preparing the food Orrin pulled Chris off to one side. "Did you hear that Mr. Haight got mugged the other night? He was beaten so badly they had to take him to the emergency room. He should be released from the hospital in a few days. His hearing was postponed."
"No. I hadn't heard that. But I can't say I'll be crying over it," replied Chris in a tone so bland it almost disintegrated.
"The interesting part is that he wasn't able, or perhaps it's willing, to give the police any description of his attacker. But it gets even better. His money wasn't taken. Rather strange for a mugging."
"It's a strange world," dead-panned Chris.
The older man looked down at Larabee's hands and saw the lightly bandaged knuckles. "What happened to you hands?"
"Banged 'em up working on some machinery."
Orrin raised a skeptical eyebrow.
"You can ask my foremen, or any of my men. They'll tell you, or anyone else who asks, the same," responded Chris.
"I'm sure they would," answered the former Judge with a knowing look. He knew the men all loved Buck, Eileen had mentioned it, as had Cody. He also knew their loyalty to Chris Larabee. He had no doubt any and all of them would vouch for Larabee's story and whereabouts at the time of the mugging, or rather the beating.
When Chris excused himself to answer Mary's call for him Orrin went over to Ezra who was watching the boys play.
"I hear Mr. Haight had some rather substantial debts. That were all called in at once. There is now no way he'll make bail after his arraignment."
"That is not terribly distressing news. I'm sure Buck will rest easier knowing the man is safely behind bars. Which, incidentally is where he belongs," drawled Ezra in a tone that was perhaps a bit to casual.
"I couldn't agree more. But it is rather interesting. Someone must have pulled a great many strings, and have an impressive array of contacts in the financial world," noted Orrin as he also watched the boys happily playing together.
"Surely you are not inferring that I, a horse breeder, would have the ability to pull such strings and have such contacts. Though the idea is most amusing," admitted Ezra with a Cheshire Cat grin.
Knowing that he had no better chance of proving that Ezra was behind Haight's money problems than he did that Chris had been behind the beating Orrin let the subject drop. He's only asked to see their reactions and satisfy his curiosity anyway. He completely understood the men's actions, and felt it was no more than a man who would treat his own son the way Haight had treated Buck deserved. In truth he thought the man had gotten off lucky. He was still alive. But he supposed that Haight might not soon consider that a blessing. As a known child abuser, of his own son no less, the other inmates would not make his life in jail an easy one. Following the others into dinner he decided simply to be grateful Buck had not been hurt worse and was back with his family.
Dinner was a noisy, cheerful affair. Everyone praised Inez delicious enchiladas, and Mrs. Travis asked for the recipe. Nettie had baked peach cobbler, Buck's favorite, and they all enjoyed it for desert. Since the next day was a school day the guests left soon after the meal and the boys were sent to get ready for bed.
JD and Buck stayed home and took lessons from Mary for another two weeks then returned to school. Buck had a few nightmares, but they quickly passed as he was surrounded by his loving and protective family.
They all rejoiced when the Judge threw the book at Haight and assigned him the maximum amount of jail time allowed. Soon life returned to normal.