A True Friend

by Sammy Girl

AU Family Matters

Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.

Note: The Family Matters AU was created by Stan Lee. In this AU Vin is 16 and JD 14.

The rest of the guys are ATF agents as in normal ATF fic. Vin and JD were found by the team eight years ago, clinging to the body of Vin's mother. Buck took a great interest in them while they were in the care of the state, building a relationship with the two traumatised boys. Eventually he persuaded Chris to become involved as well. The boys have been living at the ranch for more than seven years. They treat both men as joint fathers and attend the local high school.

In the fic there are passing reference to events in 'In The Beginning' by Charlotte Hill.

Thanks to Stan, Charlotte and LT for the Beta work, editing, and suggestions - oh yes and special thanks to Stan for listening to my rants so patiently.

This is a gen version of an adult fic.

Warnings: You may need a hanky or two.

"Here, drink that." Buck handed a large scotch to Chris, who was lounging in his recliner.

Buck flopped down on the couch.

"Thanks.” he said, as he took a long drink from the glass. “Maybe I can forget this week ever happened."

"If only." Buck took a long pull on his own drink. "If only."

One Week Earlier

Sunday was meant to be the day Buck and Chris - all things being equal, which with their jobs and two teenage sons was rare - got to stay in bed long past their normal five thirty alarm call. Today was such a day, spring was full and lush, the pasture was thick and green, insect life filled the air with a reassuring hum and the sun had finally managed to get high enough to make the mornings warm and the days hot. Vin and JD, despite normal teenage attachment to their beds, had been itching to take their horses out on an all day ride.

All schoolwork was finished on Friday night, even though it meant giving up the Friday movie. JD was finished in no time, as always, but he was showing solidarity with his brother by working on a project of his own, while Vin worked diligently at his books. Occasionally Vin would yell out a word and somebody, usually Chris or JD, yelled back the correct spelling. On Saturday the boys did all their chores, planned where they were going to go and more importantly to them, what they were going to eat. Come Sunday they were up early, with strict orders not to disturb their fathers until they were ready to leave.

"Chris, Buck!" JD yelled as he came running into the house.

Banging on his bedroom door woke Chris with a start.

"Something's wrong." Buck bellowed.

"What?" Chris was still half asleep.

"How the hell do I know? Just get something on!" With that and dressed only in his jeans, Buck went to the top of the stairs.

JD's flushed face appeared below him. "Something's wrong with Peso," he explained, "Vin thinks it's real bad, he said he needed you, fast!"

Buck's stomach gave a little jump of alarm. Vin was an experienced horseman these days, and he wouldn't panic over something like a simple stone bruise.

"Okay, okay, we're coming, just hold on," Buck assured.

Less than five minutes later both men were sprinting across the yard. The horses were pastured to enjoy the spring grass, but were still stabled at night. As Buck, closely followed by Chris, ran into the barn, they could see JD standing just outside Peso's stall, the door wide open. When they got there, Vin was stroking his beloved horse and speaking softly to him. The big black head with its familiar blaze hung down, eyes that were usually alive with devilment, white invariably showing, were half closed. Chris took a moment to calm his breathing as he moved in slowly and quietly.

"He won't move," Vin explained softly, his fear all too clear in his voice.

"Okay, you just stay there and do what you're doing. Hold on to him." Sick or not, Peso was an ill-tempered ornery cuss of a horse and not above kicking and/or biting the hand that both fed and cared for him.

"Left hind," Buck said softly.

Chris didn't question his friend’s judgement; Buck had an exceptional eye for conformation; if he saw something wrong in the way the horse was standing Chris trusted his eye implicitly. Checking that Vin really did have a hold of the horse's head, he made his way to the far side and ran his hand very gently down the front of the left hind leg. The first thing he noticed was the heat, the whole lower part of the leg was hot to the touch. Normally Peso would lift his hoof when he felt a hand run down his leg like that, but not today. Chris repeated the move and gave a little tug. Instantly Peso whinnied and threw his head.

"Easy boy, easy," Vin soothed. "What did you do?" he asked his father harshly.

"Vin, trust Chris, he knows what he's doing - okay?" Buck counselled.

Sky blue eyes darted from one man to the other finally locking onto Buck's, whose hands now rested on JD's shoulders.

"Besides you go getting all riled up, it ain't gonna help keep ol' Peso calm, is it?

"I guess," the older boy finally admitted.

Despite the horse's protests, Chris lifted Peso's foot. "Oh shit!" he hissed, when he saw and even smelled what was wrong.

"Is it?" Buck asked.


"I'll call Doc Stroud."

"What?" Vin asked urgently, even as Buck was turning back toward the house.

"I think Peso's got laminitis and it's fairly advanced. I'm sorry son." Chris put the foot down very gently and stood up.

"But he can't have, he was okay last night," Vin pleaded desperately. "It can't be that bad."

Chris was now standing beside the scared teen; he put his arm around his son and was pleased to feel no resistance to his hug. JD just stood and stared, then he suddenly bolted across the barn to his own horse, Maverick. Quickly he checked all four feet, relieved to find no sign of inflammation. Then he moved to the next stall, to his old pony Stubby. He'd outgrown the Welsh Mountain - Arab cross more than two years ago, but by then the pony was seventeen and too old to be sold. Though even if he'd been younger, there was no chance JD would have agreed to let him go. Stubby now lived in retirement, and once or twice a week JD lunged him or took him out on a lead rein when he rode out on Maverick. Occasionally Stubby did service at a local children's home, giving pony rides. It was JD's own way of remembering were he came from and how lucky he was. A quick check showed that the elderly equine appeared to be sound, so JD returned to his distressed brother.

"They okay?" Vin asked without looking up.

"Think so," JD responded.

"Don't worry, Buck 'll check all the others as soon as he gets back," Chris assured. "In the meantime, can you go and get me some more wood chips?"

JD wanted to ask why, but knew now was not the time. So he just headed off to the back of the barn were the bags of chips were stacked up, picking up his working gloves as he went. He was there when he heard Buck run back in to report.

"Okay, she's on her way over, said if we can get him down that would be best, don't give him anything to eat."

"Thanks," Chris acknowledged.

"Kid getting more bedding?"

"Yup, can you check the others? JD took a look at Stubby and Maverick, but I'd feel better if you checked all of them."

"Sure thing pal. Vin?"


"You remember, that old cuss is a fighter - right?"

Vin managed a weak smile. "I know."

+ + + + + + +

Laura Stroud was a tall angular woman, with almost hawkish features and a sometimes abrasive manner, but she was a first class vet and a horse specialist. What most people didn't know was that she charged her clients in accordance with their ability to pay. The Larabee/Wilmington stock was all insured these days and money wasn't an issue. It took her little more than half and hour to reach the small ranch just on the western outskirts of the city, but to the waiting family it seemed like hours

She'd been treating the horses here since before Buck moved in and had watched the family change and grow over the years. She'd known Sarah and Adam, seen Chris blind drunk and abusive after their deaths, seen Buck struggling to keep the ranch going and his friend alive, she'd seen the change come over the blond when the boys became part of his life.

Laminitis was always an emergency, and in a horse of Peso's age it was even worse.

Laura confirmed the diagnosis and set about immediate aggressive treatment, nerve blockers to ease poor Peso's pain and a large dose of antibiotic, as well as anti-toxins. JD and Buck had spread out the extra chips so a deep bed now surrounded the sick horse.

"When the nerve block kicks in we should be able to get him to lie down," she commented as she stood back after administering the drugs.

"He don't like lying down," Vin reminded morosely.

"I know, the ornery ones never do, but he's in pain, and heavily sedated, so let's hope, it will be best for him." She turned to Chris. "Tiny Brooks is your farrier - right?"

Chris nodded.

"I'll give him a call, we need to get a therapeutic shoe on Peso as soon as possible." She checked her watch. "Ok, Vin why don't you give it a go, see if you can get him to lie down."

It took some doing, but in the end Peso went down. Vin never left his side, speaking to him, stroking, supporting his head. He had said very little to the vet, letting Chris ask all the questions.

"It's my fault," he finally stated once Peso was down and calm.

"What?" asked Chris, spinning around to face his son.

"What makes you think that?" Buck asked him.

"Well he's my horse, I'm responsible for him, he must have been sick for a while, and I didn't notice."

The vet had explained all about the inflammation, and rotation and infection. He hadn't really understood it all, but the description of how the bone could rotate so far out of position it could punch right through the bottom of his horse's foot had sickened him.

"Now, young man you, listen to me. First off, this condition can come on without warning, secondly horses, as you of all people know, all have different personalities, some are real weeners, they start limping at the first twinge, some are very stoical," Laura Stroud admonished firmly. "When did you last ride him?"

"Last weekend," Vin admitted.

He mostly rode his colt Jake on school mornings, putting in a good half hour of schooling on the four-year-old. Jake was a good hand and a half bigger than Peso, but his colouring was very similar. Jake had been Vin's horse even before he was born. Chris and Buck had been careful to involve him at every stage, from conception to birth.

"And he's been out in the field during the day?" the vet asked.


"You check his feet each night?"

"Yeah, course."

"See, what else could you have done? This can happen very fast. It's just bad luck, he's clearly the stoic type."

"Must take after his owner," Buck commented.

Vin looked down at his horse. "Stupid, stubborn, mule, why didn't ya just give in and limp a bit?"

All Peso's hooves were x-rayed and the vet took blood samples as well as giving the horse a full check up. He was put on a restricted diet and, because his temperature was a little high, a drip. Vin refused to leave him, even to eat.

JD, unsure what to say or do, took it upon himself to do all the chores he could find, taking care of all the other horses. He washed up the breakfast things and dried the dishes instead of just leaving them to air dry as he usually did. He was just starting to put the things away when Chris came in.

"How you doing son?" he asked.

The fourteen-year-old just shrugged.

"If you want to ask any questions, anything, just ask."

JD still didn't look up. "Is Peso gonna be okay?" he finally enquired.

Chris took a deep breath, and then pulled out a chair and sat down. "Sit down," he invited. But his son didn't move. "Come on." Finally JD gave in and pulled out another chair and sat.

"It is a very serious condition and he's gonna have to fight. We have to remember Peso's nearly eighteen now, he's a bit of a veteran. I'm not gonna lie to you son, he might have to be put down."

"Oh God, Vin couldn't bear that," JD whispered.

"Well let's not cross any bridges okay? He might be okay, or he might be permanently lame, then he can retire with Stubby and live a life of leisure."

JD let a little smile escape. "Peso 'd get bored."

"Yeah I guess he would, get up to all kinds of trouble no doubt and grow old disgracefully."

"Like Buck."

"Buck is almost the same age as me and I ain't old!" Now it was Chris' turn to smile.

+ + + + + + +

Buck had persuaded Vin to relinquish Peso's head when Vin had finally admitted that he needed to stretch his legs and get some feeling back into them. All they could do now was wait for the farrier.

"Here." Buck held out a candy bar to his son. "You need to keep your energy up."

Vin wasn't hungry, but he knew Buck was making sense, so he took it and started to chew even without thinking. Pulling out another bar from the packed but now useless saddlebags, Buck slid down the wall to sit on the wood chips and wait. Once he had finished eating, Vin returned to his horse, stroking, talking, trying to communicate to the horse that he needed to trust the humans and let them help him. Buck watched, listening to the gentle litany of unconditional love. As he watched he remembered two small boys, who still had a lot to learn about trust, arriving at the ranch for the very first time.

+ + + + + + +

The day before Buck was to bring the boys out to the ranch for JD's birthday, there had been some frantic preparations. Food was purchased - hot dogs, Minute Maid and 7UP, Buck had learned the hard way not to let JD drink Coke, the boy was hyperactive enough as it was. There was a big chocolate cake, and six candles, an presents to buy, as well as cards and paper. Then there was the house, whisky moved out of sight, beer moved out of the refrigerator, Chris' thin little cigars - that Buck hated anyway - stuffed in a dresser drawer, along with the ashtrays and finally air freshener sprayed around.

While Chris still had reservations, he knew what these kids meant to his oldest friend, so he kept them to himself. He'd made his views clear, but Buck was Buck, he didn't give up when his heart told him what to do; if he had Chris would still be alone and drunk. The very first time he met the boys, Chris could see why his friend was so committed and whatever his fears, he would support Buck as best he could.

They hadn't told the boys what they had planned for JD's birthday, because if something happened and they couldn't take the boys, not only would the kids be heart broken, but their trust, so hard won, would be badly damaged. So on the Saturday JD turned six, Buck pulled up at the gates of the home almost as excited as he hoped JD was. A week earlier he'd had a long talk with the boys. He explained that he wanted to come and celebrate the great day but warned them, if they broke the rules or got into fights Bill might not let him stay very long.

"I'll be good," JD had solemnly promised.

"Even if someone does something mean to Vin?" Buck prompted.

JD glanced at his brother and chewed his bottom lip.

"We talked about this didn't we kiddo, fighting is never the right thing, even if someone is being mean - right?" JD shrugged. "What are yer gonna do if someone says something mean?"

There was no response, so he looked over at Vin.

"We don't do nothing," Vin dutifully recited.

"Right, you just ignore them. Why?"

Still JD didn't answer, but Vin spoke up. "'Cause it hurts them more if we ignore them, and if we get into trouble, they win."

"Good, you listening to Vin here?" Buck asked, lifting JD's little chin with his finger.

"Yeah," came the reluctant answer.

"What do you do if someone hits you?"

Vin was about to answer, but Buck stopped him. "JD?"

"We tell a grownup," the small boy finally answered.

"Good boy, you remember all that, okay?" Buck gave the little dark haired boy a hug; relieved when he got a giggle and a smile in return. "And Vin?"


"I know you know the answers, but now you have to remember to actually do the right thing." He pulled Vin against his side. "We, me and Chris, we want to help JD celebrate his birthday, so you two be the best boys you can be, okay?"

+ + + + + + +

As he parked the truck he just hoped the boys had managed to stay out of trouble this week. Work had been very arduous and he hadn't been able to visit them, mainly because he and Chris were trying to clear their caseload so the weekend would be totally free. As he stepped out of the truck he heard the gates clang shut. Since the children were educated in the orphanage and the place was underfunded, the children hardly ever left the drab compound. Older children, who had earned the privilege, were permitted to go to the local neighbourhood shops on a Saturday afternoon, but it would be years before Vin and JD were old enough for that. Trips out, even to the local park, were rare. Buck really felt that was part of their behaviour problems. He knew if he was cooped up behind a fence for most of the time, he'd probably start acting out.

"Please God," he said out loud. "Let them have been good this week."

On weekends the children were allowed to sleep in and breakfast wasn't served until nine. Since it was only five past now, Buck knew that Vin and JD would still be eating. Once he'd signed in and picked up his visitor's badge, he made his way to the dining hall.

From the window in the door he watched the two boys collect their food. As they pushed their trays along the counter, he could tell that while JD was chatting to the member of staff handing out the hot food, bacon and hash browns, Vin didn't talk at all, he just pointed to what he wanted. He watched fondly as Vin helped JD by putting things on his tray that he couldn't reach: peanut butter, toast, a carton of juice and a bowl of Frosties. Then, with trays loaded, they made their way over to the far end of one of the long tables. JD collected the big jug of milk from the centre of the table but handed it to Vin to pour over the cereal and fill two plastic mugs.

"You can go in you know?"

Buck jumped at the unexpected voice.

"Don't scare a guy like that!" Buck exclaimed with a grin, as Bill came up behind him.

"Sorry, go on in, they're very exited."

"How have they been?"

"Really good, not one fight."



"And they still don't know they're going out today?"

"I have to admit it's been hard to keep it a secret, but no - they don't know. I hope you won't mind if I watch while you tell them."

Buck didn't mind. Bill was overworked and underpaid, yet he tried to give the children in his care the best he could. He didn't have the resources he needed, and he was working with some very disturbed children, but he really did care. The two men watched the boys eat for a while until most of the food was gone.

"Hello Mister Buck," one of the other boys in Vin and JD's dorm greeted as he walked in.

"Hi Leo," Buck acknowledged with a smile, but even as he did he was watching 'his boys'. At the sound of his voice two heads shot up, dual grins appeared, and JD waved his spoon enthusiastically.

"Howdy pards," he greeted as he sat down beside them.

"Buck!" JD leaned over and gave him a hug, without letting go of the spoon.

"Happy Birthday JD."

JD grinned.

"Hi," Vin greeted.

"Good food?"

Vin nodded as he pushed some more toast in.

"Well you better eat up, we have a lot to do today, and you're gonna need all the energy you can get."

"Wh'a swe gonna d'?" JD asked around a mouthful of cereal and milk.

"Well as a big boy of six, you," he looked over at Vin. "…both of you, are now old enough to ride on a horse." Buck waited to see how long it would take for the boys to work out what he had just said.

"Ride?" Vin asked, his eyes growing wide.

"Yup ride."

JD was busy scooping up and drinking the sweet milk at the bottom of the bowl

"JD did ya hear what Buck said?" Vin shook his brother's shoulder.

"What?" The little boy looked up.

"Buck said we can ride a horse."

Hazel eyes grew wide. "A real horse?"


"Like a cowboy?"

"Just like a cowboy."

"Yay!" JD dropped the spoon and shot up, launching himself at Buck. "Where, Buck? Where's the horse, can I see him now? Please Buck, please now?"

"Well," Buck began, reaching out his arm to pull Vin into a hug.

+ + + + + + +

Buck shook himself, smiling softly at the memory. "You remember coming to the ranch, the first time?" Buck asked softly.

Vin nodded. "Not something I'm ever gonna forget, best day of my life." He looked up and smiled. "Did you know JD used to make me describe the day over and over, like it was a story. Night after night I had to tell the story."

"I never knew that."

"'S true. He used to say 'I'm only little Vin, what if I forget? Tell me again.' I didn't want to forget either, that day …that day was the beginning of my life. I remember the smell of your truck, leather and horses and you and Chris all mixed up together. JD was so excited he couldn't hardly sit still, good job you got him that booster seat with the straps."

"He undid the straps."

"Yeah I know but it took him a while - see I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember you going with us to the dorm and getting our stuff, JD was talking so fast he could hardly breathe, then you made us go to the bathroom, before we went out to the truck."

"I'll bet I did, learned that lesson the hard way."

"But ya never got mad, not all them times JD peed all over you."

"Hey, it didn't happen that often."

"I know, but still, lots of people would have gotten mad."

"It wasn't his fault, he was so little and scared."

"We were both scared, to begin with. But not when you came, not that day. I can't tell you what it felt like. Just to get out of there, just to drive and see the world out there. If all you did was take us out for a drive, that would have been enough, that would have been wonderful, but coming here, to this place, that was…" his voice hitched, and tears - tears he had kept at bay all morning - threatened to overflow. "…it was heaven."

Sometimes it was easy to forget just where these boys came from, what kind of life they had left behind. It was humbling for a man whose own childhood was less than ideal, to see what effect he had had on two children, on two lives, two futures saved. Buck never, ever, thought of himself as someone special or as a hero. On some level he understood that his sons saw their fathers as heroes - all sons do, perhaps less than they had when they were younger, but there was still a degree of hero worship, but he still didn't believe what he had done was exceptional.

As Buck watched, Vin pulled himself back together, reterning his attention to Peso, though in truth the horse was now dozing. Finally the teen looked up.

"He used to draw pictures, JD, he drew all these pictures of horses."

"I remember."

"And a house, he kept them hidden, some times he drew it and then scribbled over it. He drew a house and a tree and a fence and a mom and a dad and me and him and horses, always the same," he looked up at his father. "This was before mom died, but he kept drawing them, even after we met you. I remember that after a while - it must have been after we came here first, he started to put two dads in the picture. You gave him what he wanted most, what we both wanted."

"Couldn't give you a mother."

Vin smiled. "Didn't need one, had one, no one could replace her. I guess I didn't have much to compare her to. I can see now that she wasn't much of a mom, but I remember her, she was … well she was my mom, and I loved her." He backhanded fresh tears away.

"She did her best, and she loved you, both of you I reckon. She took JD in, she didn't have to do that, but she did, she was a good person in a bad place," Buck assured.

"Like your mom."

It hadn't been that long since Buck had admitted to the boys that, he too, was the son of a prostitute. Apart from their 'profession', Ann-Marie and his own mother didn't have much in common. There wasn't much of a comparison between his childhood and theirs. Nevertheless, Buck knew that he had probably been only one bad choice on his mother's part away from that life, he'd been lucky, and he knew it.


"When we got here that first time," Vin continued to remember that very first trip to the ranch that would become his home. "…the horses were in the front paddock, one white, one brown, one black, the sun was shining, their coats were gleaming, it was as if they were carved from wood and polished, perfection captured, a vision of paradise. Then we saw the house. I think I remember it was a bit rundown then, needed painting an' all but to us it was like a house from a story book."

Buck was amazed at the clarity of Vin's recollection after eight years. Vin had never been the talker JD was, and his English teacher wasn't too impressed with his abilities. Yet here he was speaking freely and with such eloquence.

Peso lifted his head a fraction and flicked his ears, alerting the humans to the return of Chris and JD.

“He being good?” Chris asked, looking down at the stricken horse.

“Pretty much,” Vin confirmed, but the fear and distress in his voice and body language was so clear to the others it was almost physically painful.

“Me and JD are gonna check the paddocks, make sure there’s nothing obviously wrong, maybe take a few samples for the doc,” Chris explained.

“Good thinking. What time is it?” Buck asked, since he hadn’t bothered to put his watch on in his hurry to get out to the barn.

“Only ten thirty.”

Vin looked up at Chris. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Chris confirmed. “Feels like it should be much later, don’t it?”

“Here.” JD handed Buck a large thermos, two mugs and the cookie jar. “Coffee.” Buck looked up at the younger boy and smiled his gratitude. JD edged into the stall nervously, he was unnaturally quiet. Normally he was the talkative one, talking a mile a minute, but now, there just seemed to be no words. He was sorry Peso was sick, but Vin knew that. He was glad his horses weren’t sick, Vin knew that too. Even so he felt selfish for feeling that way.

“Vin, I…” he started but it was no good, the words just wouldn’t come.

“I know,” Vin answered, because, when it really mattered, they didn’t need words.

+ + + + + + +

The check of the field didn't reveal any obvious cause for the laminitis; nevertheless they collected some samples. The day wore on with what seemed like cruel slowness. Chris insisted that Vin at least come out of the barn to wash and eat a sandwich at lunchtime but it was a struggle. Buck and Chris had by now swapped places, with Buck now keeping JD company. Even with Peso sick, the other horses needed exercising, but for the first time ever, JD didn’t want to ride, so they placed them on the walker, then sat on the fence to watch as they slowly strolled in circles.

Laura Stroud returned a little after three. Even as she climbed out of her mud splattered Explorer she looked worried.

“Stay here,” Buck instructed softly as he slipped off the fence.

As JD watched, feeling useless, the two of them walked toward the barn.

“I’d like to speak to you and Chris alone first,” Laura told Buck as they crossed from the bright spring sunlight into the darkness of the barn.

Buck just nodded as she hung back and he walked on. A few moments later he returned with Chris.

“I wanted to tell you what I've found out and I want to tell you the possible implications first, then you can decided what to tell the boys,” she began ominously.

“We don’t lie to them,” Chris stated firmly.

“I know, and I appreciate that, but I think you should have the opportunity to decide how you tell them.”

“Fair enough,” Buck agreed. “Tell us the worst.”

She took a calming breath. “Ok the X-rays were not good. There is some rotation already, hopefully we can prevent too much more, but there is – or appears to be a lot of fluid in there, which combined with his elevated temperature is not good. I’ll drain the hoof while I’m here. As you know, laminitis is a problem of the metabolism. We don’t fully understand what causes it or why some horses are affected and not others. Peso is an older horse but not geriatric. I checked him over only two months ago and he was fine.” She took a long calming breath. “I took a look at his blood work and there's something there I don’t like the look of, but until it’s been properly analysed in the lab we won’t know more. I know Peso is special, so I’m gonna send the samples by courier first thing in the morning. There are also some more tests I want to do.”

“Like?” Buck asked.

“I need to give him something to drink and then x-ray his gut and stomach, as I said laminitis is a metabolic problem, and if the cause is not outside – did you get me those field samples by the way?”

“Yeah, they're on the porch. JD!” Chris turned to call to the dark haired boy watching them from the fence.


“Go fetch the grass and other stuff we collected.”


He watched JD jump down from the fence and run towards the house, before turning back to the vet.

“Just what are you looking for?”

“The blood sample… it looked to me…well I think there may be a possibility that he has a tumour someplace. Possibly his stomach or somewhere that is inhibiting his digestion.”

“Ah shit!.” Chris swore.

Buck pulled a hand over his face, as he looked skyward, trying to control his emotions. Just then JD ran up with the bags of grass and weeds.

“What’s wrong?” he asked bluntly.

Being honest with the boys was the cornerstone of the bond of trust that had turned to love when the two orphans first moved in. But never before had the principle been so hard to keep. Once they coaxed Vin out of the barn, they told them together, with Laura there to answer questions, but it was still torture for both men to see the distress the news brought with it.

"He's got cancer?" Vin finally managed to ask.

"Possibly, please remember, this is only one possible explanation and a tumour - if that's what it is - doesn’t necessarily mean a terminal condition. It could be benign," Laura reminded.

"You wouldn't have said it if'n you weren't pretty sure already," Vin countered with the worldly cynicism of a teen who'd already seen the bleak side of life up close and very personal.

"So what happens now?" Chris prompted.

"Nothing, until we see the x-rays other than getting the special shoe fitted and getting him up on his feet again. I spoke to Tiny; he'll be here this afternoon. I've got some special feed in the back of the truck, and I've written out the instructions. Vin?" He looked up at her, sky blue eyes searching for some crumb of comfort. "My job is to look after Peso the best way I know how, and that’s what I'm gonna do, alright?"

"Yea ma'am, and thanks, sorry I was …you know …back then, I'm just worried about him."

"I understand son, forget it." She turned to Chris. "I'll come back this evening for one last check and remove the drip, okay?"

"Fine, I can't tell you how much we appreciate everything you've done today."

"Special horses deserve special attention - right Vin?"

Vin smiled shyly and nodded.

+ + + + + + +

Tiny Brooks was actually a huge man. He was, in fact, the very epitome of what people imagined a blacksmith to be. He'd known Doctor Stroud for some years, they worked closely together, and she had introduced him to the latest techniques in therapeutic shoeing. Once he knew the problem he assured them he could be out there with a range of options as soon as possible.

Tiny arrived not long after three. Vin watched in awed fascination as the huge man completed the task of removing the old shoe and fitting a special corrective shoe all while Pony lay down. Once it was on, the huge farrier informed him Peso could safely stand. For a horse who hated to lie down he was remarkably difficult to get back on his feet, but they got there.

+ + + + + + +

"What are we gonna do?" Chris asked, once he and Buck were back in the house. "That horse means the world to that boy."

"We're gonna support him and do whatever it takes to save Peso, but we don't lie to him,. If Peso has to be destroyed, we help him make that decision," Buck stated confidently.

Chris knew it was the truth, he really didn't need Buck to tell him, but some small part of him wanted there to be another way out. Peso might survive, but the odds were increasingly against him.

There had been a 'discussion' about school. Both boys were adamant they weren't going to go. After a long and, at times, loud argument, both boys finally agreed to go, but only after it had been decided that Buck would stay at home to look after the sick horse. Then there was the 'discussion' about Vin spending the night with Peso.

"He needs me!" he stated for the umpteenth time.

"Son, you know what the vet said, now he's up on his feet and doesn’t have a drip he can be left. There is no reason to stay out there all night." Chris was trying to sound reasonable.

"I'm only going to school 'cause you're making me, it's so stupid, it ain't like I'm gonna learn nothing."

While noting that fear and distress worsened Vin's grammar Buck wasn't prepared to let Vin pull them back to an argument that was already settled.

"Vin that's enough! You are both going to school, and that’s an end to it, do I make myself clear?"

Vin stared at him for what seemed like an age, but finally he conceded. "Yes Buck. But he's scared and he doesn’t understand what's happening." Vin once more launched into his argument. He might have lost the battle over school but he wasn't going to give up on something he believed was so important. "Just for tonight, just till he settles down, so many people have been poking and prodding him today."

It was all too clear to both men that whatever they said, he was going to do this. If they said no and he snuck out - which he undoubtedly would, probably with JD's help - they would have to discipline them, and no one wanted that. So, finally and reluctantly, they agreed that Vin could spend the night with his horse, tucked up in his sleeping bag, supplied with a thermos of hot chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, CD player and homework. He insisted that he was all right on his own, no one needed to stay with him. Of course that wasn't going to stop his fathers' worrying or his brother fretting and whether he knew it or not, he was going to be getting a lot of visits.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was in the kitchen making himself a coffee. He was waiting for the water to boil when Chris came in. He smiled wirily at his friend.

"Want some?" he asked.


"You know me and Vin were reminiscing," Buck started. "You know that boy remembers their first day here like it was yesterday?"

"So do I," Chris pointed out.

"Yeah, you remember the carrots?"

The memories of that first day were still with him as he strode out into the night, headed for the barn to check on Vin.


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