A True Friend

by Sammy Girl

AU Family Matters

"Oh, oh, oh," JD stammered out, gazing out of the open truck window. "Lookit Vin!" the six year old squealed.

"I know JD, I know," Vin tried to sound calm, but inside he was overflowing with excitement, an excitement tinged with fear. What if it wasn't real? What if was just a horrible joke? What if Buck was just pretending? No! No Buck wouldn't do that. What if he was just dreaming? What if he woke up in the dorm, listening to Jamal snoring, listening to the sounds of other boys moving in bed, murmuring and muttering, sometimes calling out in their sleep? What if he woke up to that smell; the smell of urine, and the dampness that said JD had wet himself again? But despite his fears, the truck rolled on.

Finally it rolled to a stop in front of the house, where Chris was waiting. He'd been to see the boys with Buck twice since his first visit. They were still a little wary of him, it was going to be some time before they accepted him the way they did Buck, but he was winning them over - slowly. Vin sat still in the cab; JD beside him, fidgeted nervously, and neither made a move to get out.

"Come on guys, we got lots to do," Chris said breezily as he opened the door.

JD had already undone the straps, so Chris held his arms out, a clear invitation to help the small boy down from the high cab. JD hadn't let Chris hold him yet, so far only Buck would do. But he was so excited about seeing the horses that he reached out for the tall blond without a second thought. Once out of the truck he wiggled to get down, reaching the ground just as Vin was jumping down. It was clear the boys were itching to run over to the fence and get a better look at the horses but didn't have the confidence to just run off.

Buck squatted down in front of them. "Now guys, horses are big animals and even though they are tame, there are rules about handling them, so you don't get hurt and they don't get hurt or scared - okay?"

Both boys nodded solemnly.

"Rule one, if you want to pet the horses one of us has to be there as well. Rule two, you do as we say. And for now, those are the only rules you need to remember. Come on."

He held his hand out to JD, who grabbed it and together they walked over to the gate, Vin keeping close to Buck. The horses were still some way off but right by the gate was a bucket of carrots, roughly chopped into one-inch chunks. This time it was Chris who squatted down.

"How would you like them to come a bit closer?" he asked. Both boys smiled, somewhat overawed and still a little shy around Chris. "Here," he picked up the bucket and handed it to Vin. "You shake that and they'll come over." Vin looked sceptical but accepted the bucket, giving it a small shake. "Bit harder, really make a noise." Vin's little jaw took on a determined set and he shook the bucket violently, making the carrot chunks rattle.

Almost instantly the three horses picked up their heads and began to amble over.

"They're coming!" JD squealed, jumping up and down beside Buck but not letting go of his hand.

"Now, JD, you gotta try to be quiet, horses don't like loud noises," Buck explained.

Instantly JD clamped his hand over his mouth, his eyes, if it were possible, growing even bigger.

Beau came first; he was a people horse. His huge grey head came over the gate looking for the carrots he could now smell as well as hear. Chris gently took the bucket from Vin and showed him how to safely feed a horse. Vin watched Chris, gauging how safe it was, working out if he was telling the truth. Finally he looked up at Buck for confirmation that it was all right. With an affirming nod from Buck, Vin held his hand out flat with the chunk of carrot on it. Beau bent down and gently lipped it up, his velvet soft lips tickled. Vin giggled and a grin, such as Buck had never seen, split the eight-year-old's face.

"Metoometoometoomtoo!" JD begged, pulling on Buck's hand.

Buck was intending to pick the small boy up, but he was determinedly pulling him toward the gate, where Pony and Rosy were now pushing their heads through the bars, looking for food. To his credit, JD followed instructions, feeding Rosy carrot after carrot. The mare took each piece gently; it was as if she knew this small human, so much like the one who used to feed her, needed extra care. Buck fed Pony, keeping him away as much as possible. It wasn't that he was dangerous at all, just a bit on the pushy side. The boys fed, patted and stroked the horses for a full hour, yet it felt like no more than a few minutes.

"Come on boys, time for lunch," Buck finally announced.

"Please can't we stay a bit longer?" JD asked, turning huge, pleading eyes on Buck.

Vin turned as well; he had been stroking Beau between the cheekbones, the way he loved it, and the big horse was all but dozing.

"Well it's someone's birthday after all, maybe there are presents in the house?"

"Presents for me?" JD asked.

Buck hated to hear the amazement in his voice, and he wondered when JD had last received a birthday present, or if he ever had. Glancing up he could see that Chris was thinking the same thing.

+ + + + + + +

The kitchen table was covered with a bright party tablecloth with cowboys on it, there were no less than five presents on the table, plus cards. There were party plates and cups and napkins, all with a western theme. After washing up, the boys now stood and stared on in open-mouthed wonder at the goodies before them.

"So food or presents first?" Buck asked.

He could see JD was practically levitating with excitement, looking at the brightly wrapped parcels on the table.

"Now not all the presents are for you," Chris warned. "Some are for Vin."

If they were expecting JD to resent Vin getting presents on his birthday, they were wrong.

"Yay! Vin you gots presents too!" he exclaimed turning to this brother.

JD got a card from Chris and a card from Buck, each one with a promissory note inside it.

"What's it say?" JD asked.

"It says," Buck explained, "that you now have four dollars, two from me and two from Chris."

JD gulped. "Four whole dollars for me?" he asked.

"Yup, but don't go thinking you can spend it all on candy," Buck warned.

Each boy received a Bronco's tee shirt with his name across the shoulders, instantly 'Tanner' and 'Dunne' donned their new attire. Both boys received a book. JD's was an Eye Witness book about horses and Vin's was about cowboys. Lastly JD got 3 Breyer Paddock Pals horses one grey, one bay and one black, along with the carry case barn with fences and bales. The look on both boys' faces as they carefully unwrapped each gift was something that would live in both men's hearts for the rest of their lives. More then anything, it was that look of wonder, joy, surprise and genuine gratitude, that finally won Chris over. From then on, he was going to be as much a part of the boys lives as Buck was.

Lunch was hotdogs with all the trimmings, followed by ice cream - chocolate fudge ripple with marshmallow sprinkles and extra chocolate sauce, the kind that goes hard when it hits the ice cream. After the meal, ketchup, mustard, relish, ice cream, and chocolate sauce were removed from two small faces and the table cleared. Then the boys played with JD's new toys and looked at their new books with Buck. Chris was meant to be doing the washing up, in reality he had slipped out to get the horses tacked up. Buck was happily sitting on the floor, 'acting' the part of 'Rosy' - all the horses had immediately been named after the three horses outside - making the little bay toy pony jump out of her corral.

"No 'Rosy' don't run away, you might get hurt." JD made his grey pony follow Buck's bay.

"Don't worry 'Beau', I'll help you find her, 'cause we're brothers and we both love her." Vin made 'Pony' stand beside JD's horse. "I'll go round her up and make her come back to you."

"No 'Pony' don't leave me alone, I don't like it, we have to go together."

Chris came back in from the yard. He watched the boys in silence, sensing that he was seeing so much more than a game. Buck glanced up and as their eyes met, Chris could see that his friend understood all too well what they were witnessing.

When it was time to go home, JD was clutching his precious red barn with the horses inside to his little chest, while he gazed up at Buck

"Buck?" he asked.

"What is it Kiddo?" Buck squatted down to his level.

"Willed you take care of my horses for me?" he asked.

Buck frowned. "Don't you want to take them back with you?"

JD shook his head, but - confusingly - clutched them even more tightly.

"They'll get spoiled," Vin explained sadly.

"Spoiled?" Both boys nodded. "You mean the other children will play with them?"

"Uh-huh. I don't wanna share, 'cept with you and Vin and," he looked up and smiled. "…Chris. Can you looked after them for me?"

+ + + + + + +

The barn wasn't dark, but the night lighting was dim, and Buck could only just pick out the large form of his own horse as he passed. In response to the sound and smell of his master, the horse was roused from his sleep. He flicked his head and moved to the door, seeking a treat or a stroke. Giving him a quick pat, Buck moved on. The light in Peso's stall was a little brighter; Buck could make out the unmistakable sound of Vin's CD player. The teen was sitting against one of the bales of straw his fathers had insisted were placed in the stall. That Peso loved Vin was a given, but he was a large horse and he was sick, in the night anything could happen, including Vin getting kicked or rolled on. So three bales of straw placed three feet from the wall made a safe zone for Vin to sleep in. His head moved in time to the music, as he read his history textbook. Occasionally he'd write something down on a note pad then go back to tapping his pen against the book. Peso was dozing, his head hung low, just with in Vin's reach. Every now and again Vin would place the pen in his mouth and use his now free hand to pat the horse beside him.

"Hey." There was no response. "Hey Vin!" Buck tried a little louder. Still no response, so he walked in sufficiently for his boots to come into Vin's eye line. The tousled head looked up; a ghost of a smile played on his lips, as he pulled off the headphones. Instantly the music blared out and Buck frowned.

"Vin," he warned. The CD player was silenced. "If I can hear it…"

"I'm going deaf, yeah I know, sorry."

Buck didn't press the old argument, as he had long accepted that he was never going to win. Sliding down the wall he sat down opposite his son.

"How you doing?"

"I'm okay." He gave his horse an affectionate pat. "He don't know what's going on." He looked back at his father. "I was thinking, well remembering, 'bout the first time we rode."

"On Peso?"

"Nope, first time ever, on JD's birthday - I rode behind you and JD was in front of Chris, remember?" Buck nodded but didn't speak. "We had lunch, hotdogs and chocolate cake, and presents."

Buck knew that Vin's Bronco's tee shirt, the one with 'Tanner' across the shoulders, was up in his room, kept safe in the back of a drawer. Every gift he had ever received from his fathers was still in his room somewhere, books, toys, clothing - no matter how small - not one thing had been discarded.

"He wanted to ride with you too…"

"What?" Buck had monetarily lost the thread.

"JD, he wanted to ride with you, remember?"

"Oh yeah."

"But he was okay with Chris, guess I was a mite more skittish?"

"Just a bit, but that was okay, you were just protecting yourself and JD the best way you knew how."

"Don't reckon I'd ever seen anything more beautiful than Beau the way he looked to me that day, Pony too, but Beau was yours so he was the best. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chris just as much as you, now, but not then, he was still…" He looked up, looking for help, searching for the right word.

"Still not one of us?" Buck offered.

"Yeah, not one of us, so I thought everything that was yours was the best. You remember where we went that day?" Buck shook his head. "We went up through the back paddock, past the Dawson place and down into the canyon. We walked through the river; Pony played up, JD thought he was doing it just for him. 'Do it again, do it again' he said."

"What did Chris do?"

"He just pushed ol' Pony on so he stopped stamping in the water. You said Pony was just a naughty schoolboy, who'd never grown up, an' I asked if that was why he was called 'Pony'. You said 'maybe'. We came back by the bottom pasture, that’s where we galloped. Guess it was just a canter really, but it felt like we was - were - flying, faster than anything."

Buck shook his head. "How do you remember all this?"

"It's like I told you, JD made me tell him, almost every single night."

"For how long?"

"Not sure, I was still doing it when we came to live here, for a while at least. He could repeat the whole thing word for word, but he'd just start to cry if I didn't do it, he was scared."

"Of what?"

"That he'd forget, that it wasn't real? I'm not sure." He looked back down at his sick horse. "I didn't mind, 'cause I didn't want to forget either," he admitted in a soft voice.

When it was like this, it was easy to put all the hard times into the background, those terrifying days when Vin would take off. Days he'd be missing, returning to the life he had known before, searching for the certainties he had clung to when his mother was alive. Yet, when he couldn't find whatever it was he was looking for, he returned. Then there were the tantrums, screaming destructive tantrums; if it was JD who was having the tantrum, Vin defended him, if it was Vin, JD joined in. More than once the boys' room had to be totally re-decorated and re-fitted because they'd trashed it so badly. There were fights, at school, little league, and at least one nine year old's birthday party had descended into a brawl. There were even times when Vin refused to eat, and if Vin didn't eat, JD didn't eat. Times when one or both didn't speak. But all that was in the past, they had ridden the hard times, the therapy, the social workers, the conferences with school principals and counsellors, and come out on the other side with their love and commitment as a family unshaken.

+ + + + + + +

Vin did eventually sleep. His fathers knew this, because Buck checked on him every two hours - since he wasn't going to work in the morning he'd persuaded Chris that it made sense for him to be the one to loose sleep. The first time he looked over the door a muffled voice said, "'M alright ya know, don't have t' keep checking." But after that there was nothing, just steady even breathing. It had been Buck who was against the idea of him sleeping out, but he had to admit the sixteen-year-old was probably getting more sleep here, than inside where he would just worry. Come the morning however, the argument about school returned.

"Buck there ain't no point me going you know," Vin argued.

"Isn't, not ain't," Buck corrected automatically.

Vin ignored him. "I ain't gonna be able to concentrate, I can stay here and you can go into work."

Buck sympathised, but he wasn't going to give in. "I have reports to write, I can do it just as easily here as I can in the office, thanks to the miracle of e-mail. You on the other hand, actually have to attend lessons to learn anything, so scram. Me and the mule will still be here when you get back." He put an arm over his son's shoulder. "I know it'll be hard, but this thing isn't going to go away overnight, you can't be absent for all of it, might as well start as you mean to go on. Just do your best - okay, it's all we've ever asked of you."

"I guess," Vin finally relented. He looked back at Peso, he was looking a little sorry for himself, but some of that, as Buck had reminded him, was the pain medication.

"Damn horse is stoned!" Buck had declared after he got at look at the animal's eyes.

Vin pulled away from Buck to stand next to his horse. "Now you be good and don't go biting anyone, especially the vet, she's tryin' to help, you know?"

+ + + + + + +

Two days later, the test results came back. In the intervening time JD had got his first ever 'C' and Vin no less than three 'F's. The news wasn't good; tests and X-rays showed a mass in the stomach. Peso was going to have to have exploratory surgery. Laura had pulled Chris aside after she broke the news, Vin was hugging Peso and JD was hugging Buck.

"The exploratory surgery is covered by your insurance, but cancer treatment isn't. If that’s what we find and you want it treated," she began.

"If there is any chance to save him we'll do it," he assured.

"Right, well just so you know, it's going to cost you - a lot."

Chris understood. Somehow, they would find the money somehow, sell the Ram, take out a mortgage on the ranch, whatever it took. The operation was booked for Friday at the local large animal medical centre, and that meant a ten-mile drive. Buck would travel with Vin, while Chris and JD tried to carry on as normal.

Situated on the northern outskirts of the city, the large veterinary hospital was part of the University. Even with his corrective shoe Peso was reluctant to move. It took a full hour to load him onto the trailer. They had set out very early, so Buck could drive slowly, avoiding as many potholes as possible. On arrival a young woman in green scrubs met them.

"Is this Peso? The Larabee/Wilmington Ranch?" she asked Buck as Vin backed Peso out of the trailer.

"Yes ma'am."

"You're lucky, the surgery before you was cancelled so we can take him right in."

Vin looked over at his father; he was having second thoughts about the whole thing. But then he looked back at his beloved horse, standing on three legs, just resting the very tip of his sore hoof on the ground, head hanging low, none of his usual devilment in his eyes. His resolve renewed he looked back to the lady in the scrubs.

"Just show us the way ma'am."

They let Vin stay with Peso until the anaesthetic took effect, then he and Buck waited. It didn't take as long as they had been expecting. An older man in surgical green overalls came into the waiting area to find them. He had a round face and a definite middle age spread, but he had an air of gravitas and authority about him.

"How do you do. I'm Professor Hardy, I'm operating on Peso."

Buck and Vin stood to meet him.

"Buck Wilmington." Buck held out his hand and they shook. "This is my son Vin."

"Ah yes, Peso is your horse, correct?" the professor asked as he shook Vin's hand.

"Yes sir," Vin confirmed.

"Laura Stroud has told me a lot about him, she was once a student of mine you know. Peso has come through the surgery very well so far." Buck let out a sigh of relief that matched Vin's. The doctor watched as both man and boy nodded. "So let's sit down and talk." Once they were all seated he began to explain. "As expected, we did find cancer and I'm sorry to tell you the biopsy came back positive." Buck could see the look of uncertainty on the teenager's face. "That means it's malignant, it's growing. I found evidence that there is more then one tumour, the one that showed up on the x-ray was by far the biggest, but there are others, lots of them."

"Have you cut them out?" Vin asked.

"No, not yet."

"Why not?" Vin demanded

"It isn't just a case of cutting it out, he would need chemotherapy as well."

"Would?" Buck asked.

"If you want to go down that route."

"Is there another?"


"But you said…" Vin didn't understand why the vet hadn't done anything while he had Peso unconscious.

"Peso is an old horse, he's also got laminits, that alone in a horse his age has a very high mortality rate. If we treat the cancer with surgery and chemotherapy it will weaken him and destroy his immune system, and…"

"Then the laminits will never heal," Buck realised, not even noticing he had spoken out loud.

"That's right. The infection in his foot can be treated, but with the cancer will still be there, there's little or no chance of it being effective, even without the cancer his chances of a full recovery, at his age, were only a slim at best. He turned his attention to Vin. "I am so sorry son, I know he's a very special horse, but this a no win situation, whatever I treat the other will kill him - eventually. As it stands now the medication his keeping him reasonably comfortable, but he is very lame. Even with treatment, he's going to get worse and there is nothing anyone can do to change the outcome. He's still unconscious at the moment, I need to know what you want me to do."

"I'm sorry doc, I'm not following this very well," Buck admitted.

"I can continue and try to cut out as many of the tumours as possible or I can just stitch him up so you can take him home - and … say good bye. As I remember Laura told me you have another son?"

Buck nodded.

"Or I can just give him some more anaesthetic, until he just…"

Vin just stared at the man blankly. This wasn't how it was meant to be, this wasn't how it was meant to end. He had convinced himself that the vets would find a benign cyst, cut it out and then his foot would get better and he would be fine - because he had to be, Peso just had to be okay, he couldn't leave him, he just couldn’t. Suddenly he started yelling at the vet.

"No, you're lying! Make him better, you have to make him better!"

"I'm sorry son, I can't," he said softly.

"But you have to!" Vin implored.

"I'm sorry."

Buck was about to pull Vin away when the teenager lauched himself at the startled vet. For a second it looked like he was going to hit the man before Buck could prevent it, but at the last minute he stopped himself and spun away to slam his open palm into the wall.

"I'm sorry," Buck hastily apologised, as he wrapped his arms around his distraught son.

"It's okay …I'm, that is …I understand." The professor stood up and took some deep breaths. "I'll leave you two alone for a bit - but not too long, I need an answer very soon - okay?"

Buck just nodded; he didn't even hear the door close. Vin was still struggling, fighting with all his strength to get free. Afraid he'd hurt himself even more, his father held on tightly; it had been awhile since he's had to control Vin like this and he was surprised how strong his son was, but strong or not, he was no match for his father's greater height and bulk. Buck found himself slipping back into the familiar routine. He didn't say anything; he just concentrated on stopping Vin hurting himself or anyone else, waiting for the rage to pass.

Eventually Buck felt him stop trying to pull free and gently released his hold so he could gently turn Vin around to face him. Arms snaked around him, and a tousled head lay against his shoulder.

"It's not fair."

Buck rested his cheek on the top of Vin's head. "No son, it isn't."

Buck held him for a little longer, then he pulled back so he could look Vin in the eyes.

"What do you want him to do?" he asked.


"The vet, what do you want to do?"


"Peso's your horse, I can't do this for you, not now, you're old enough now to make the decisions. What ever you choose, I'll back you."

Vin continued to stare into his father's kind eyes. Seeking guidance, seeking a miracle. Buck had done it once, he had been their miracle, his and JD's, but there was no miracle now. He knew what he had to do, he knew what he wanted to do. Choosing what had to be done over what he wanted was the harderst choice he had ever had to make.

"I want to take him home, so …so we can all…" And there his voice failed him.

"I know." Buck lay his cheek back on top of Vin's head and let his fingers run through his shaggy hair a few times before he peeled himself away and turned for the door to give the waiting vet their decision.

+ + + + + + +

The drive back to the ranch was all but silent. Buck concentrated on driving; Vin sat silently beside him, gazing vacantly out of the window, his head resting on the glass. They were only a few minutes from home when he suddenly spoke.

"I want it done today."

"What?" Buck wasn't sure what Vin meant.

"Peso, I don't want to wait, do you…" he pulled his head off the glass and looked at his father. "think it can be today? When the others have said goodbye."

"Well, I don't know, are you sure?"

"Yeah, I don't want him to suffer anymore and I don't think I can…"

"It's okay I understand. Call Chris, if you don’t want to talk to him yourself,. put him on speaker."

Vin didn't get far into the conversation before he had to let Buck take over. It wasn't that easy for him either. "Look I don't think I can go into all the details now, we need Laura this evening, and Jerry with his Cat."

"Okay, I get the picture."

"Might be best if one of us picked up JD."

"I'll do it. See you at home later."

+ + + + + + +

When they got home Jerry Mitchell, a neighbour with a small earthmover, had arrived and already unloaded it.

"Why's he here?" Vin asked as the truck rolled to a stop.

"Where do you want him buried?" Buck asked by way of an answer.

Vin, if it were possible, grew paler. "Oh, well." He climbed out and looked around, as if seeing the ranch for the first time. "Behind the barn?"

Buck nodded, and crossed to speak to the sad looking Jerry. They decided to leave Peso in the trailer. He didn't like moving and it just seemed unfair to make him move from the trailer to the barn and then walk to his own death. The back was let down and the central divider was removed to give him more room.

The grave was excavated and Jerry had gone when JD arrived with Chris. He'd been crying and ran straight to his brother, as Vin exited the trailer. The boys embraced for a long time.

"You better explain it to me again," Chris requested.

Buck went through it all again. It was a Catch 22 situation, Peso was doomed if they did treat him and doomed if they didn't.

"This sucks," Chris commented.

"Yeah. When can Laura get here?"

"Don't know, all I could do was leave a message." Chris looked over to his sons, still holding on to each other but now talking earnestly. "How is he taking it?"

Buck followed his gaze. "He lost it at the animal hospital, since then he's been in control, very quiet. How about JD?"

"Distraught, cried most of the way home, even though he was trying to hide it. Come on."

They started to walk back to the boys, but before they got half way Chris' cell rang.

"Larabee," he answered. "Hi, thanks for returning my call, the thing is …Oh I see …Yes… what?" He had stopped walking, a frown creased his forehead and he turned away from his sons, who were now watching him intently. "Hang on." With that he deliberately walked away from Buck and the boys. As they watched Chris' body language spoke volumes. He looked at the sky, ran a hand through his hair, and while his actually words weren't audible, his exclamation was. Finally he closed the phone and came back toward them, patting Buck on the arm as he walked past, and they both continued on to meet Vin.

"Is she coming soon?" Vin asked.

Chris shook his head. "She's all the way up in the hills, a mare with twins, complicated caesarean birth, she's going to be there for hours. I told her we could wait, but…" he took a deep breath. "She doesn’t have enough anaesthetic left, not to do it right.

Vin was fighting to hold it together, and his voice was thin with an audible quiver. "She's gonna shoot him?"

Chris nodded. "But probably not until tomorrow, she doesn’t want to do it in the dark."

It was clear that Vin had been psyching himself up to say goodbye there and then, and if they had to wait anther night, that resolve would almost certainly fail.

"There is another option." Chris said softly.

Vin's blue eyes latched on to him with an intensity that was quite frightening.

"I could do it."

"Chris," Buck's one word held a clear warning.

"Really?" Vin asked.

"Only if you agree, this is your call buddy."

Vin stared at his father and then back at Peso. There really was no comparison with the fiery, obstinate, eccentric horse they all knew with this old horse, his head hung low, his coat dull and lifeless standing in the trailer, balancing on three hoofs. Finally he looked back.

"I can't ask you to do that, ain't fair on you."

Chris reached out and put an arm on his shoulder. "It wouldn't be fair to ask Buck, we all know he's a big softy."

"Hey!" Buck protested automatically.

JD smiled, then realised what he was doing and it vanished. He needn't have worried because the small joke had elicited a tiny smile from Vin as well.

"But," Chris continued, "I'd be prepared to do it, for you and for the mule."

Vin chewed on his lip and looked over at JD, seeking help. For his part JD just shrugged, it wasn't his horse, he couldn't decide for his brother. Finally Vin dropped his head and scuffed the dusty ground under his foot.

"Can ya do it now?" he asked softly.

"If you want, you sure?"

Vin nodded. "Y'all need t' say goodbye t' him."

+ + + + + + +

JD went first; with reluctance he pulled away from Vin and walked not to the trailer but to the house. When he returned just a minute later he had an apple, a carrot and a packet of 'Life Savers'. He quietly gave the apple to Buck and the carrot to Chris, then he took a few mints for himself before he gave the rest of the pack to Vin. His brother nodded his thanks; he was right, Peso deserved a last meal.

"Well then," JD whispered to the horse as he fed him a mint. "Time's almost caught you hasn't it?" The horse nuzzled him for another treat. "Ok, you can have more." It was hard to talk, there was a lump in his throat and tears blurred his vision. "You bit me once, when I was little and Buck wanted to get rid of you - did you know that? I heard him telling Chris you were dangerous and they would have to get rid of you. But you know what …yes here's another one don't take my hand off … I wouldn't let them. I ran up to Buck and hit his leg. 'Don’t you hurt Peso!' I shouted. 'But he bit you,' Buck said. 'Vin loves Peso and he loves Vin, don't you hurt him!' Chris had to pull me off. What? Oh here, it's the last one. So you see you're only here because of me." He patted the horse, who was still crunching the mint. "Bye Peso."

Exiting the trailer the fourteen-year-old stopped in front of his brother, and the two boys looked at each other for a long time, then with just a head nod, JD walked past him to stand beside Chris.

"You okay?" his father asked.

No longer able to hold back the tears JD just leaned into Chris' broad shoulder and cried. Even as he was moving a powerful arm pulled him in closer and held him tight.

Buck walked up the ramp, ramming the apple against the edge of the trailer as he went, to break it in two.

"Well, here we are then, you old mule you. I've come to say thank you. Thank you for being his friend, thank you for making him feel special, for giving him something no one else had - your trust. Thank you for helping us to turn that boy into a very fine young man. Through you he learned patience and responsibility and self-control. Thank you for always being here to listen to him." As he spoke he fed the old horse the apple, and back handed his own tears away.

Buck exited the trailer un-caring that the others saw his tears. He crossed to Vin.

"You ready?" he asked.

"No," Vin admitted, but he walked on past and into the trailer anyway.

Buck walked over to the other two. Chris called the vet back and told her they didn't need her and get some advise, so when the time came he'd do it right. Buck held on to JD while keeping an eye on Vin.

"Got you something." Vin held out a few mints, which Peso lipped off his outstretched hand. The horse shifted on his three good feet and snorted. "Hurts does it? I'm sorry buddy, I really am. I wish there was a way to make it better, I tried I really, really did." He sniffed back his tears. "I know Chris and Buck would have paid, what ever it cost, but it wouldn’t do no good boy. I can't watch you suffer an' get sicker and sicker just so I don't have to say goodbye - ain't right. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." He buried his head in the shaggy mane, rubbing his cheek against Peso's neck, inhaling his familiar mucky odour. He loved that smell. When he first got Peso, he would hide his work clothes so they didn't get washed and lose their Peso smell. Some times he took them out and pushed them under his pillow, so he could smell his beloved Peso all through the night. "I don't want you to leave me, I don’t, but I can't stop it." Vin wrapped his arms around his horse's neck and hung on for dear life, as if his very presence could reverse the diseases that were killing his old friend from the inside.

Finally he released Peso and fed him some more mints as he untied the halter. Slowly he encouraged the lame horse to turn around and limp down the ramp. As ever, where Vin went Peso followed.

"I'm ready," he said softly.

Chris gave him a nod. "You want to come?"

Vin shook his head and handed over the halter rope.

+ + + + + + +

Chris would later wonder how he did it, but he did. Using the carrot as bait he got the reluctant horse to leave his master and follow him. When Chris led him past the barn entrance, Peso whinnied to announce his presence and Pony and Jake answered him. Slowly, he coaxed the horse around the barn to the newly excavated grave. For a moment he hesitated; it seemed so cold to kill him right next to his own grave. But then he reminded himself, that to Peso, it was just a new feature in the field.

"Okay then, guess this is it horse, it's been an adventure, never knowing where you would strike next. You almost took Buck's finger off once; I've shot men for less than that - hope you know that. Damn, bad time to bring that up I guess. I don't want to do this, I'd give anything not to be here, but that’s the thing isn't it - we taught those boys not to turn away from the difficult decisions in life, so I have to do this. Not Buck, me. Buck could do it, but it would tear him up, he empathises too much, no matter what Vin told him, he would always feel guilty and see himself as the guy who killed his son's horse. So it's me."

+ + + + + + +

Waiting was torture. JD, held safe in Buck's strong embrace, had turned his face into his father's flannel shirt and hid. Vin stood beside Buck, not shrugging off the hand on his shoulder, but not leaning into the offered embrace. Buck could feel him trembling. It seemed to take forever.

Come on, Chris, just do it. Buck silently pleaded.

The shot, when it came, was like a physical blow. Vin started, for a second. Buck felt him move forward, as if he was going to bolt. But he didn't. Like many a wild animal tamed, Vin's fight/flight instinct had always been strong. In the beginning it was a constant struggle to help him deal with things in some way that didn't involve violence or running away, but they made it, and except for his father's acquiring a few extra grey hairs, in one piece. Then the moment passed and he felt the fight go out of Vin, after that all it took was a gentle tug and the sixteen year old turned away from the barn and embraced his father. That was how Chris found his family when he walked back. Both boys wrapped around Buck, their arms inter lacing and Buck's arms around both of them.

He stood there, wanting to be part of that hug, but he wasn't sure he was welcome. Prompted by a little squeeze from Buck, Vin looked up, his face streaked by tears and his eyes red rimmed with crying, all pretence at teenage cool abandoned. He peeled himself away from Buck and stood squarely in front of Chris.

"Thanks," he said, his voice so tight with emotion it was barely recognisable. "You didn't kill him, you helped him."

That was what Chris so desperately wanted to hear. Vin didn't blame him. They hugged, both suddenly so very, very tired, they almost needed to hold on to each other to stay upright. When Vin did pull back, however, there was a determined set to his jaw.

"I'm gonna bury him."

With that he set off across the yard. Chris was about to stop him, call after him that they still had the digger, but he stopped when he caught sight of Buck out of the corner of his eye. There was not even a shake of the head but Chris understood the look. Leave him.

The three of them stood and watched as Vin disappeared into the barn. When he came out again, as well as a shovel, he was carrying Peso's saddle and bridle, the black tooled leather was unmistakable even at a distance. The tack had been a gift for his first Christmas after they got the ponies.

"Come on guys, let's go inside." Buck turned away from the barn and, pulling JD with him, headed into the house.

+ + + + + + +

It was an odd time, no one wanted to talk, no one wanted to eat. Chris headed upstairs, desperate to shower and shed himself of a perceived stench of death. Logically he knew there was no such smell on him, but he couldn't help the feeling that he was some how unclean. After sitting around silently for a while, JD pulled out his books and spread them on the coffee table, sliding down onto the floor beside Buck to do his homework. Buck just sat there, allowing himself to enjoy having JD close, remembering all the happy times Peso had been part off.

The light faded, slowly colouring the room gold. No one turned on a light. Chris remained upstairs, but if Buck listened heedfully, he could still hear the shower water running. He debated what to do, go up to Chris, tell him he wasn't the villain, he wasn't unclean, Vin still loved him? Or stay with JD? The light was now so bad JD had given up his half hearted attempts to do his school work and was leaning against Buck, chin and arms resting on his knee, gazing listlessly across the room toward the window. Or go out and see if Vin was ready to let someone close enough to help him? The golden light of evening gave way to darkness and still nobody moved. The water shut off. Soft footfalls came from above. Time stopped, and Buck all but held his breath until the footfalls began to descend the stairs.

"Why are ya still sitting in the dark?" Chris' voice came from the darkness.

"D'no, couldn't be bothered t' get up I guess," Buck admitted.

Chris grunted, after which the lights came on, temporally blinding man and boy in the living room.

"You two eat?"

Buck shook his head. Chris turned away and went into the kitchen, returning with a pack of cookies.

"He still out there?"


JD finally looked up. "We should go get him now," he stated softly. He sat back so that Buck could stand up. "It's time."

"You sure?" Buck asked.

"Yeah, he needs you now." JD looked over at Chris. "Both of you."

+ + + + + + +

There was a good deal of moon light outside, but even so the light over the barn door shone out like a beacon. The barn cast a deep shadow and when they rounded the corner Vin was totally invisible. But they could hear him. The sound of shovel full after shovel full hitting the ground and heavy breathing. Buck switched on the flash light he'd brought and stepped forward, not shining it on Vin but lighting his own footsteps. He did shine it into the grave, noting that it was less than one third full, not unsurprising, the hole was six feet square by six deep, there was no way one distraught boy could fill it on his own.

He edged closer. "Vin son, time to stop now."

The shovelling didn't stop. Somewhere behind him, Buck heard Chris whisper to JD to let him handle it.

"Come on, come in, we'll all help you finish this in the morning."

"No." The simple response came from the darkness.

Buck edged closer, Vin's mud encrusted boots appeared in the flashlights beam.

"Please son."

"I have t' do it, for him."

Buck swung the light up, careful not to blind Vin. He reached out with his other hand and took hold of the shovel.

"You've done enough," Buck instructed softly but firmly.

"No…no please." Vin pleaded as he tried to pull the shovel back.

When Buck didn't let go he hissed in pain. Instantly the flashlight was on his hand. "Oh Vin," Buck breathed when he caught sight of the bloody blisters on the hands that still clung to the shovel handle.

"Let go, let me finish," Vin pleaded.

"No, it's enough, leave it now, come back with us, let us take care of you." Buck held firm, he wanted to take his son in his arms and hold him, to somehow make his pain go away, but he knew that he couldn't let go yet, the tension in Vin was all too evident. "No one could have done more, it's too dark to carry on.

"Please." But the fight was going out of him and Buck knew it.

"Let go son, let it go." Cool water, tears, fell on to the hand as his son's bloody and abused hands finally released their hold on the shovel and the grieving teen sank to his knees.

Buck followed him down, resting the flashlight on the ground so that he could envelop Vin in both arms and hold him safe.

"I have to, don't you see, I have to b…b…ury him." Vin managed to say past his tears, as he melted into the strong loving embrace.

"And you will, tomorrow."

"It's not …not …fair,"

"No it's not."

"Why? W…hy?"

"I don't know."

"I was meant t' take care of him, … should'er ….stopped it."

Buck's heart was breaking and his own voice all but broke as he tried to reassure Vin that he wasn't to blame. “Vin, you took real good care of that ornery cuss for a long time and he loved you for it.”

"I didn't want her t' go." Buck didn't think Vin was aware he was no longer talking about Peso, but he was. "I never got t' …t' … bury her. I never got t' tell her … that I … love …love …loved her."

Then Vin just cried and cried. Eight long years had passed since his mother's passing. Years in which there had been tears, tantrums, arguments, fights, and therapy, but never once had he cried for Ann-Marie Tanner, until today. This final, long overdue release, was Peso's last and most precious gift to his best friend.


It took sometime for Vin to cry himself out that night. Once he had, they helped him back to the house, into a shower, and then bed. Despite his grief he was so tired that he fell asleep while Chris was still dressing the injuries to his hand. JD insisted on sleeping in his brother's room, and would continue to do so for some days to come.

The two adults sat back and drank their Scotch.

"This is gonna happen again isn't it?" Chris asked as the reality dawned.

"Stubby is old, hell Pony is no spring chicken, yeah it's gonna happen again," Buck confirmed. "It won't be the same, that mule headed horse was definitely unique. But we'll deal with it, like we did this time."

"I don't want them to have to deal, I want to protect them from it, shield them, wrap them up and never let anything else cause them that much pain again."

"Can't do that, Stud, no one can."

"I know, damn it! But I can wish it - can't I?"

"Yeah, you can."

+ + + + + + +

Peso's head stone was set up over his grave, up against the barn wall. It read, PESO - A TRUE FRIEND.


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