by LT and Niteowl

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7


Monday morning found Buck still sleeping when Chris left to take the boys to school. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he should wake him up and explain why Jason wasn't coming, but he just didn't have time to deal with it. He knew Gloria would be there soon and trusted her to find the right words.

By the time Buck was finally up and around with the help of his walker, Gloria had already fixed his breakfast. He sat down and started to eat, glancing up at the clock every few minutes. Finally Buck signed 'Jason' to the housekeeper and offered her a questioning look.

"Jason isn't coming today," Gloria explained, gently reaching out and touching Buck's shoulder. "He's been called back on active duty and he only has two days before he has to leave. He came over to say goodbye last night, but you were still groggy from the medication they gave you in the ER."

Buck looked up at her, his expression a mixture of confusion and disappointment. He vaguely remembered hearing voices and Chris opening the door, but he hadn't wanted to face anyone yet, still dwelling on the things he'd heard Chris say in the ER. 'About the time I start to think it's going to be okay... I don't know how much more of this I can handle... I have to figure something out before he ends up being the death of me.' The words came back to him as his mind tried to adjust to the sudden change in the routine he had grown accustomed to. He finally swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded at Gloria, then stood and turned his walker back toward his room.

"Oh no you don't, young man," Gloria chided, moving to block his retreat. "I know you're supposed to take it easy, but Jason left me a list of a few exercises you need to do. So you just sit yourself down and give me a minute to clean up in here, then we'll see about that bath you have every morning."

Buck started to shake his head in refusal when her words finally registered. He looked up at her sharply, his face turning a bright crimson.

"Don't you give me that look, Buck Wilmington," Gloria teased. "You forget, I used to be married and I have raised a son. You don't have anything I haven't seen before."

Buck raised a hand to his mouth to hide the smile that threatened to appear. He raised the other hand in surrender.

All morning long, something was nagging at the back of Chris's mind - he knew he was forgetting something, but just couldn't think of what it was. While he was eating lunch, he called home to see how things were going. "How's he doing?" Chris asked.

"Not real well," Gloria replied. "Especially after I told him about Jason leaving. He was really upset he didn't get to say goodbye. I did get him to eat some breakfast, then did the best I could to help him with his bath - with my eyes closed, of course. After that, he said he was too sore to do his exercises and went back to his room. He's been in there all morning."

He shook his head in frustration. "I'll take him over to Jason's when I get home from work tonight."

"You can't," Gloria said suddenly. "Or did you forget about Parent/Teacher night at the boys' school?"

"Dammit!" Chris exclaimed. "I knew there was something I was forgetting to do tonight!"

Gloria sighed. "I don't suppose you remembered to ask one of the guys to stay with him? I know I told you I had a dentist appointment this afternoon and couldn't stay late this evening."

"I know, I know," Chris answered quickly. "Don't worry, one of the guys will be there."

"Are you sure?" Gloria asked skeptically. "I could postpone it if you need me to."

"No," Chris assured her. "I'm pretty sure I can get Ezra to come stay with him. We'll be there before you have to leave."

"If you're sure," Gloria said. "I really don't think Buck needs to be left alone just yet."

"Positive," Chris promised.

Buck finally came out of his room and was waiting in the den about the time the boys were supposed to be home from school. To his surprise, the door flew open and a flurry of activity suddenly swirled around him. After a quick hug from each boy, they ran past him and up the stairs. As they went upstairs to change clothes, they were chattering happily about the activity at school and the promise Chris had made to take them to Chuckie Cheese for dinner. Then Chris followed them inside, barely having time to speak to Buck before he bounded up the stairs after them.

'School?' Buck signed to Gloria.

"You don't you remember, do you?" Gloria asked.

Buck shook his head, then frowned when he noticed she was gathering her things like she always did before going home.

"Chris asked you last week if you wanted to go with them to Parent/Teacher Night, and you said you'd rather not," Gloria reminded him kindheartedly.

Buck finally nodded as the memory of that conversation returned to him. 'You not stay?' he signed.

"No," she answered. "I have an appointment I've already postponed twice. If I don't go today, my dentist is going to think I don't like him."

Buck nodded, offering her a small smile and a shrug.

"Don't worry, dear," Gloria said. "Chris said Ezra will be here shortly to stay with you while they're gone." Picking up her bag and walking toward the stairs, she missed the expression of embarrassment that crossed Buck's handsome face. "Chris - boys - I'm leaving."

"Good night, Mrs. Potter," came the twin chorus.

"Good night, Gloria," Chris added. "Thanks again."

"I'll see you all tomorrow," she called over her shoulder to Buck as she walked out the door.

Ezra came in as she went out. Before he could do more than nod a greeting at Buck, the boys came charging at the Southerner, both of them talking at once, telling 'Uncle Ezra' all about their day at school.

In the rush to get to the school on time, no one seemed to notice that Buck had quietly withdrawn to his room before the rest of his family left.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra pulled the Jag into the parking lot and got out, leadenly making his way inside. There were only a handful of patrons in the bar at the time, most already on their way home. The bartender nodded and Ezra cordially smiled at the man. The undercover agent made his way to the back of the bar, to the table where he and his friends had spent many an evening. He sat down, his mind still back at the ranch.

"It's late, Senor, that usually means you have something weighing on your mind."

Ezra looked up to see the beautiful Hispanic owner of The Saloon standing at his side. He shook his head slightly and smiled at her. Rarely did anyone sneak up on him. "Good evening, Miss Rocillos. Did you have a pleasant night?"

"Better than yours, I'd say. What's wrong and don't tell me 'nothing'?" She sat down opposite him and placed her cleaning towel on the table. She motioned for the bartender to come over and when he did, she ordered two glasses of brandy.

Ezra waited until the drinks were in front of them and he had sipped the warm liquid before speaking. "It's that obvious, is it?"

Inez simply nodded. She swirled the liquor in the glass, waiting. She enjoyed the company of the Southern gentleman. He often came in late at night, usually for some conversation and a snifter of the brandy. Inez secretly thought it was because he was lonely.

"I thought as time went by, the situation would begin to improve but I was wrong, delusional perhaps. It appears that Mr. Wilmington is simply withdrawing from all those who love him in an attempt to protect them, or himself, I am not certain which. I spent the evening with our beloved scoundrel while Mr. Larabee took the two young ones out for a brief respite from the lamentable situation. Alas, none of them had a good time and Buck, well, he didn't want to come out of his room. I am afraid I was of little aid to the family."

"But you tried. It's more than the rest of us have done. He's getting worse?" She felt guilty as she listened to her friend lament. She hadn't been back out to see Buck since he came home. She just didn't know if her showing up would make the situation better or worse.

"I am loathe to say yes, but it appears that he is sinking further and further into depression. Part of the problem is that Chris is so overwhelmed that he cannot see the true problem. With trying to maintain his position with the ATF and raise Masters Tanner and Dunne, he doesn't have the time to see what is truly happening to our beloved scoundrel."

Taking a deep breath, Inez proposed a plan. "How about I go see him, try to lift his spirits? I won't mention that you came in tonight, I'll simply show up for a visit. Do you think that might help?"

A slow smile spread across Ezra's face. "My dear, I think that would brighten anyone's day, but Mr. Wilmington will be delighted to see you make an effort to visit him."

"Then I will go and visit him tomorrow. Now, Ezra, go home and sleep. Not only is Chris running himself ragged, I believe you are also."

"Alas, it is true. We have been searching for the perpetrator of the attempted murder since it happened. We have found no sign of the miscreant and it is becoming very frustrating, as you can imagine." Ezra finished the brandy and handed the snifter to his hostess. "I think I will bid you adieu, Inez. Please, let me know how your visit with Mr. Wilmington goes."

"I'll let you know. Sweet dreams, Senor."

+ + + + + + +

Inez pulled to a complete stop as she got to the drive that led up to the large two-story ranch house. Suddenly, she wasn't so sure about her visit with the infamous ladies man. Part of it was self-preservation. She didn't want to lead the man on. She had no intention of dating a man that seemed to have a new lady friend every time she saw him. Part of the delay stemmed from guilt. Buck was a friend; she should have made time to visit with him before this. Mostly though, she found she loved the big handsome agent with his well-muscled arms and chest and the best butt she had ever seen. She loved his laugh and his corny attempts at romancing her. Plus, she didn't want him to see pity or pathos, only compassion and caring. She hoped with all her heart she could pull it off. She stepped cautiously on the accelerator and made her way up the long gravel drive, pulled up in front and turned the car off.

As she got out and reached back inside for a basket of her famous tamales and burritos, she noticed Gloria come out on the front porch. "Good afternoon, Gloria. I thought I'd bring some supper for all of you." She held up the basket, smiling at the older woman.

"That's very kind of you, Inez. Come on up." Gloria wiped her hands on her apron and waited for the beautiful woman. Gloria had liked the bar owner from the first time she had met her. She had always hoped Buck and Inez would get together, but so far that hadn't happened.

As Inez reached the porch where Gloria was waiting for her, she inquired, "How is he doing?"

Gloria, shaking her head, held the door as the two women entered the quiet house. "The depression is getting worse. I see it. Jason could see it, but Chris? Well, I think he's just refusing to acknowledge the problem. Buck pretty much sits in his room, ignoring everyone and everything the last couple of days."

"Do you think he would like to visit with me?" Inez asked hopefully. Now that she was there, she was anxious to see the handsome man.

"If anyone can perk him up, I think it would be you. Wait in the kitchen and I'll see if he's decent. Pour yourself some coffee, it's fresh." She left the room.

Inez took the food out of the basket and placed it in the refrigerator. She paced quietly, awaiting the return of the housekeeper. She was antsy, not knowing just how to go about cheering the sullen man. She decided to just be herself and treat him like she always had. Her mind occupied, she didn't hear the older woman return.

"Inez, dear, I think a visit with you would do him a world of good, but I really couldn't tell what Buck thought of your coming out to see him." She came close to the younger woman and placed her hand on the woman's forearm. "Dear, just talk to him like always. I'll make sure he has his tablet and marker, but he hasn't done much writing recently. Try to draw him out with that sass of yours." Gloria winked and smiled. "Thank you for coming."

Inez blew out the breath she hadn't realized she had been holding. She nodded numbly and followed Mrs. Potter into the den. Buck didn't look up and Inez turned in panic to the housekeeper.

"Buck, I'm going outside and see how many weeds I can pull out of that garden. Miss Inez, if you need anything, I'll just be out back." Looking back on her way out, Gloria nodded in encouragement to the fiery brunette.

"Hello Buck," Inez began. "I brought the tamales you like, some beef burritos too. Since you haven't been in for a while, I thought you might be craving my food." She hesitated, waiting for the mustached man to look up. Suddenly she wasn't worried at all about what to say. Irritated by his lack of response, she queried, "Are you ignoring me, Senor? Is this a new tactic to get me to go out with you?"

Buck's head snapped up and he blinked as he stared at the exquisite woman. She was really standing there, acting like nothing was wrong with him. God, he loved this lady with the fiery temper and the quick wit. He couldn't help but smile at her.

"That's better. Now, handsome, there is a wonderful porch swing outside and a nice breeze blowing. How about we go outside and visit for awhile before supper?" She didn't wait for him to refuse as she moved behind the wheelchair and released the brakes. "So, should I be jealous because you've found a new girlfriend? You haven't been in the Saloon for a long time. Have you forgotten all about me?" She saw him shake his head and she smiled. Maybe she could do him some good.

He waved away the wheelchair and grabbed for the walker that sat beside him. He made his way to his feet as gracefully as he could and walked beside Inez to the front door. They got outside and he shifted his body around to sit down in the swing. He hadn't been out here since the assault. It was a beautiful day, sunny with a light breeze that cooled the skin. He sighed and looked up at Inez. Smiling, he patted the seat beside him.

She sat close by his side. "Where's your tablet and marker?"

He shook his head and slipped an arm around her delicate shoulders.

"Oh, you plan on romancing me as the tall, dark and silent man? I guess I can deal with that. It's so nice out here. I grew up on a ranch, did you know that?" She turned her body so that she could look into his dark blue eyes.

He shook his head.

"I used to love to ride. I loved the feeling of the wind on my face and the feeling of power in the horse I was riding. I had my own mare, I named her Rosita. She was a pretty bay with a sweet disposition, similar to your gray."

He took a deep cleansing breath and nodded. He moved his hand toward her, urging her to continue. He had never had the opportunity to learn about her childhood. He found he was enjoying himself and it was a gorgeous day to be outside.

"I had two sisters but they were so girlie, always playing dress up. I loved being out with the caballeros. I enjoyed their chatter a lot more than learning how to fix my hair or what boy was interested in me. However, I did enjoy cooking. I always loved to cook."

Buck rubbed his tummy and winked at her. On impulse, he leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

She smiled up at him and took hold of his cast engulfed hand. "You never give up, do you? At least I don't have to listen to your corny comments today. You know, the first time all of you came in, I had my eye on Ezra. There was something about him and his refined, cultured gentleman ways that appealed to me." She saw the frown on Buck's face and she laughed. "Would I be here if I still felt the same way?"

He studied her face and knew she was here to see him, not to pity him or because someone put her up to it. A full Wilmington smile grew to cover his whole face.

"Now, don't go getting so confident. You have a long way to go to prove you are worthy of me. But I am willing to give you the opportunity. You are endearing and a lot smarter than I first gave you credit for. How about we just sit for a while, all right?" She leaned in and kissed him lightly on the lips. Buck felt his body respond, and for the first time in a long time, he was content.

They were still sitting in the swing, Buck's arm around Inez's shoulders, his head resting next to hers, his eyes closed, when Chris and the boys arrived home. Chris was amazed to see the lovely brunette sitting comfortably with his best friend. He smiled as he passed by the two, taking the curious Vin and JD inside with him.

Quietly, he said, "No, boys, leave them alone. He looks happy and that's what we want, right?" Both JD and Vin grinned and ran upstairs to change clothes. Chris looked out the window and felt a tear well up in his eye. "That a girl, Inez."

+ + + + + + +

After Inez's visit, everything seemed to return to normal. Buck went along with whatever routine Gloria set out for him, always pushing himself a little harder or going just a little further. He was there waiting for the boys every afternoon when they came home from school, spending the afternoon trading notes or sign language, comparing their day to his. He even had Vin help him write a short letter to Jason, working on it a little bit every day.

The week came and went without any major crisis and Chris began to relax, even though he hadn't had any luck finding another physical therapist he liked as much as Jason. Jason's mother Terri had promised to keep an ear out for a speech therapist as well.

But, every once in a while Chris would catch the furtive glances coming from Buck, almost as though the now-silent ladies man was gauging his actions by Chris' approval or reaction. It unsettled him a little that Buck seemed to be concentrating on being on his best behavior whenever Chris was in the room. And he couldn't help but notice that Buck was almost always all ready in his room by the time Chris came down from tucking the boys in. He began putting two and two together and decided to mention it to Buck's doctor at his next visit the following week. Chris knew Buck was barely containing his patience, since the casts on his arms were supposed to come off. Barring any surprises on the next set of x-rays, the doctors expected the left arm to be completely healed and the cast on the right are was to be replaced with just a plastic brace and ace bandage.

After spending most of Friday afternoon on the computer, tying up loose ends for Monday morning at the office, Chris wandered into the kitchen to start dinner. He heard the kitchen doors swing open and knew one of the boys had come to join him.

"Dad," the small voice was full of sadness.

Chris turned from where he stood by the sink, rinsing lettuce for the salad he was preparing. He crossed the floor quickly and pulled the child of his heart into an embrace. Feeling the tears on his shoulder, he rubbed the thin back and asked, "What's wrong, Cowboy?"

Not moving his head from the comforting shoulder, Vin whispered in his father's ear, "I think Buck's crying, Dad. He didn't want JD and me to see but ... He's so sad, he won't even look at us."

Taking a deep breath, Chris kissed the child on the cheek and said, "I think he's just really sad because he can't do all the things he wants to do, like hold JD or wrestle with you. He gets discouraged when things don't happen as fast as he wants them to. It's very upsetting to him but it'll get better."

Vin pulled away from his father and nodded. "I hope he gets better soon. He used to smile all the time and I liked that, it made me feel all warm inside."

"I know what y' mean, pal. It always makes me feel better too. We just have to be patient and keep loving him, for however long it takes. Right?"

"Yeah," the child sighed.

Chris ruffled his hair and smiled softly. "Good. Now, I'm going to go see what I can do for Buck. Why don't you take JD and go outside for a while. I bet Ringo and Elvis would love to play with the two of you."

"Sure Dad," he said and kissed his father's cheek. "Dad, I love you."

"Love you too, Cowboy." Chris stood and watched Vin retrieve JD from the living room. When the boys were outside, he slowly made his way into the den where Buck was sitting in his wheelchair. Taking a deep breath, he knelt in front of his oldest friend, the man he loved like a brother. "Vin was worried about you. He said you wouldn't even look at him or JD, that true?"

Buck was staring at his right arm, deliberately avoiding Chris's eyes.

"What can I do to help, pard? You know I'll do whatever I can."

Hopelessness was evident as Buck finally lifted his head and met Chris's gaze. The blue eyes were full of despair as he pointed to the tablet that lay on the desk.

Chris retrieved it and quickly anchored the magic marker into Buck's left hand.

Painstakingly, Buck moved the marker across the paper. SEND ME AWAY

Gulping back his shock, Chris raised stunned eyes to the despondent man. Determination was etched on Buck's face, decisiveness that Chris hadn't seen on his friend's face since the attack. "You stubborn sonofabitch, NO! What in the hell put this cockamamie idea into your head?"

Buck glared at his old friend, a snarl curling up his lip. In a fit of anger, he hurled the tablet across the room and pointed to the computer monitor.

Chris reluctantly turned his head away from Buck and saw what had Buck so upset. The e-mail screen was on and there, for Buck to see, was a message from Josiah to Chris. 'Everything set for Monday's meeting. Jim Pemberton will be joining us. Seems to be a good man, had some good ideas for the bust. Even Ezra seemed impressed. Josiah'

"Shit!" He turned back to see Buck glaring at him. "It's not what you think, Buck! He's not replacing you, I swear! He's an agent from San Francisco that's here to help us out until you return. Dammit, Buck, the rest of us still have a job to do, and we can't do it with just the four of us. Travis brought him in to alleviate some of the workload. The Judge knows that Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan are all working their fannies off, trying to do our assigned work plus find Johnny Cuevas. He wants to help us out, not toss you aside like an old shoe that's of no use to anyone."

Buck shook his head, tears forming in the corners of his eyes. It was evident that he didn't believe Chris. He was aware that the guys had gone back to their regular assignments. Hell, he had been surprised that the Judge had given them so much time away from ATF functions while he was in the hospital. It just hadn't hit him before that he was being ousted from the team. Not until he had accidentally pulled up the e-mail. Not only was he upset with the revelation, but he was angry that Chris hadn't informed him of the replacement. They didn't need him anymore, not at work and not at home.

"Buck Wilmington, you look at me right now! NOBODY is replacing you, not at work and not here at home," Chris said, almost as if he could read Buck's mind. "Nobody could take your place! You're the best agent I've ever worked with. And I sure don't want to end up raising those two boys without you! We all depend on you, you stupid sonofabitch. All of us! Listen to me carefully! We will get through this - I guarantee it. Next week, the casts come off. You're already getting back on your feet. Things are getting better, if you'll only get your head out of your ass and believe."

The stubborn glare in the blue eyes slowly melted and Buck stared at his arm again.

"Now what is it? Look, I've got supper to fix and two hungry little boys to feed. I don't have time for your pity party." Chris placed a gentle hand on Buck's good knee. "Are you gonna forgive me for not telling you about Pemberton or do I have to grovel some more?"

At that, Buck grinned. He shook his head and took a deep breath. He lightly punched his best friend on the shoulder, letting him know that the ladies man was trying to put everything in the proper perspective.

"Good, no more nonsense then. Let's get supper ready." He stood and grabbed the wheelchair, spinning it around and pushing Buck into the kitchen and away from the computer. Chris went back to the sink and finished cleaning the vegetables that he was going to cut up for the salad. Gloria had fixed fried chicken and had cleaned some potatoes so all Chris had to do was place them in the microwave and cut up the items for the salad.

Buck sat next to the table. He longed to be able to help Chris, to just do the simple things again. He glanced over at the table and noticed that Vin had left his schoolwork there. On top of his books there was a flyer for an exhibition of life-size dinosaurs at the mall over the weekend. Buck was well aware of how much the boys loved dinosaurs, having bought them rubber models of several of their favorites shortly before the beating. Buck looked as best he could at the flyer but he couldn't read the whole thing. He looked up at Chris but the blond was busy washing lettuce.

Buck reached out with his encumbered left arm and with his fingertips, he pulled the sheet of paper toward him. Fifteen eight-foot dinosaurs would be displayed at the mall just ten minutes from their home. 'The boys would love to see them,' he thought. He hadn't had any desire to leave the comfort of his home since he had been released from the hospital. He didn't want people staring at him, asking questions he couldn't answer. 'The boys need to get on with life.' With a determined face, he knocked the books onto the floor.

Chris turned quickly and saw Buck looking at him, a smile on his face and a piece of paper in his hand. "What've you got there, Pard?" He dried his hands and reached for the paper that Buck was holding out to him. He quickly read it over and looked at Buck, a quizzical expression on his face. "You want me to take the boys to this?"

Buck used his left hand and tapped himself on the chest. Then he pointed to Chris, hoping the man would understand. He saw the slow smile spread across Chris's face and he knew that his friend did indeed understand. He smiled broadly back.

"They'll love it, Buck. Are you sure?" A nodding head assured Chris that a trip to the mall was just what his best friend wanted to do. "Tomorrow, right after chores then. Why don't you tell them when they come in, just like you told me, okay?" He handed the flyer back to Buck and then went back to fixing supper. He knew Buck would be sitting there, waiting for JD and Vin to come in from outside, wondering if he could make his decision known to the youngsters. Chris was sure he would find a way.

The sounds of the boys out in the mud room, taking off their coats and boots, drew both men's attention. A cold snap had come in from the north, bringing with it the threat of another few days of cool weather.

Chris was just placing the salad and baked potatoes on the table when they appeared in the kitchen, their cheeks rosy from the cool wind that was blowing outside. They smiled at the sight of food.

"Boys, before you get cleaned up for supper, I think Buck has something he wants to ask you." He grinned at the stunned expressions on both boys' faces.

JD turned toward his dad. Buck had a piece of paper in his hand. He held it out to the little boy and JD hesitantly took it from his father's hand. It was the flyer about the dinosaurs at the mall. He had so wanted to go when Mrs. Roquette had told the class about the exhibit but then he remembered Buck. They hadn't gone anywhere since the day out in the barn. Uncle Ezra had invited them to a circus and Uncle Josiah had wanted to take them out riding, but JD always refused and then Vin did too. Nothing was fun without Buck. However, now Buck was offering the chance to go out and have fun again. "You want us to go see the dinosaurs?"

Buck grinned and then moved his hand in a circle, encompassing all four people in the room. He pointed at the flyer.

"You want to go, too?!" The small boy's face lit up and he flew into Buck's arms, hugging him tight.

Vin looked shocked and then he turned to his Dad. "We can go, all of us, Buck too?"

"It was his idea. How about tomorrow, after chores are done? Sound good?"

"Oh yeah, Dad, it sounds great!"

+ + + + + + +

Chris shoveled manure into a wheelbarrow and when it was full, he took a minute to wipe his sleeve across his sweaty face. Both JD and Vin were beside themselves with joy and anticipation of seeing the full-sized dinosaurs at the mall, but even more at getting out of the house with Buck. They could hardly wait for all of the family to load into the Ram and leave the ranch, but chores had to be done.

Vin and JD were taking care of the dogs and Vin would join Chris down at the barn when they had finished. JD had been assigned the bedroom he shared with the seven-year-old. He simply had to pick up and throw the dirty clothes in the hamper. By keeping JD in the house, the small boy could entertain Buck.

Buck had been washed, dressed and fed before being ensconced in his wheelchair by the dining room window. From there, he could see the boys down by the kennel. He had his cordless phone in his lap and all he had to do was hit one button and the other handset clipped to Chris's belt would ring. Chris had bought the new phone with dual cordless handsets after Buck's earlier mishap with the old phone. It was something they had worked out after Jason had left; it had worked on several occasions, allowing Chris some freedom about the ranch.

Twenty minutes after Vin had joined Chris in the barn, young JD came rushing in. "Got the room done, Chris. Is it time to go yet?" All four of them had been cooped up at the ranch since Buck had gotten home from the hospital and both of the children were eager for an adventure.

Patiently, Chris replied, "Not quite yet, JD. Maybe if you help Vin spread the hay in the last three stalls, we'll get done a lot sooner. I know it's been tough on you two; I need a day out too. So, let's get down to work and get going to town, okay?"

"Yeah!" Two small voices rang out and the three of them worked diligently for about five minutes.

As they were finishing up, Chris's phone beeped. Chris knew Buck was probably getting antsy and had hit the 'page' button. "Vin, JD, I'll finish up here. Would you go see what Buck needs? Tell him I'll be there in less than ten minutes, okay?" Both nodded enthusiastically and headed for the house.

+ + + + + + +

Buck heard the door open but thought nothing of it. He knew JD had just left to see if Chris and Vin were almost finished and would soon be returning to inform him of their progress. He waited for the pounding of small feet approaching the dining room. When he didn't hear them, he turned as much of his body toward the kitchen door as he could, trying to see what JD was up to. He caught sight of the stranger just before the man came into the dining room. The left hand reached for the phone and hit the number just before it was knocked out of his hand.

"You fucking son of a bitch, I couldn't believe you lived through that beating I gave ya. Well, ya ain't gonna live through a bullet in your brain. And when I'm through with you, I think I just might finish Larabee, too." The dark haired man who looked familiar was waving a .44 magnum at Buck.

The injured ATF agent sat silently, his eyes expressing his fear. "You don't know who I am, do you, Fed? My name is Johnny Cueves. You murdered my only brother and you have to pay."

"Buck!" The back door slammed and rapid footsteps were heard coming toward them.

Johnny couldn't believe his bad luck. First, Larabee had woke up before he had time to finish off the louse that killed his brother, now the two brats were barging in on him. He swung the gun at Buck's face, catching him on the left cheek, splitting open a nasty cut in the tender skin. He turned but didn't see anyone coming into the room.

Vin held out his arm. His street instincts had kicked in when he smelled the faint odor of cigarettes in the kitchen. JD stopped behind him. He smelled the tobacco too. Vin had kept them alive on the streets many a time with his keen senses and intuition. They silently tiptoed to the door leading from the kitchen into the dining room. Vin peeked around the corner and saw the short heavy-set man with the yellow teeth. Instantly, he drew back, pulling JD with him.

Once out on the mud porch, he whispered, "Go tell Chris there's a bad man in the house with Buck and he has a gun."

Shaken, JD stuttered, "What you gonna do?"

"I've gotta take care of Buck. GO! Get Chris, JD!" Vin gave his young friend his own version of the Larabee glare, along with a firm shove.

Overcoming his fear, JD ran for the barn.

Vin silently re-entered the kitchen and crawled across the room to the dining room door. He could hear the stranger taunting Buck, saying things to make Buck mad. Before his eyes, he saw the stranger stretch out his arm and aim the massive gun at Buck's head. Without hesitation, he jumped up and launched himself at the man's arm, knocking the barrel askew as the finger squeezed the trigger. The shot went buzzing by Buck's head, embedding itself in the wood of the window frame.

"You little bastard!" Johnny grabbed the thin arm of the little blond and flung him to the corner of the room, instantly ignoring the whimpering youngster.

Buck scowled and instinctively pushed himself out of the chair. He stood on shaky legs, taking one step before Cueves turned back on him. Swinging the gun again at Buck's head, the killer hit Buck on his left ear, cutting it also. Blood flowed unabated down the side of the big man's face. The ladies man fell to his hands and knees. Cueves kicked hard into Buck's still tender ribs, forcing him up and over into a protective ball. The next kick never came. Buck looked up in time to see a black tornado hit Cueves high in the chest.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stood in the middle of the barn, staring sullenly at the dark stain on the dirt floor. Buck's blood! He hadn't been able to bring himself to destroy the stain. It would be easy to get rid of the dark dirt with a shovel and rake but Chris wanted to preserve the spot where his friend, his 'brother', had been attacked by a bastard they still couldn't find. He knew deep down that Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan had been doing their best to find Johnny Cueves but he couldn't stop the nagging feeling that they were missing something. And, every day the man was on the loose, the gut notion that he would try again, amplified. Each day that he stared at the bloodstain, his determination to find the man that had ruined Buck's life grew. He moved deliberately to the large door and went outside, into the bright sunshine of a beautiful day. He turned to lock the door, a habit he had gotten into since the assault.


He responded immediately to the piercing scream of the five-year-old. He saw the child running toward him and his blood ran cold. It had to be Buck! He raced to meet the child and fell to his knees beside the panicked JD. He took hold of the boy's arms, the terror evident in his eyes. "What is it, JD? What's wrong with Buck?" He wanted to know what he was headed for, not that it would change anything.

"A man... with a... gun! He's in there with Buck!" The child could barely get the words out past the terror he felt gripping his throat. He needed Chris to understand. "Vin!"

"Vin's in there, too?! The man has Vin and Buck?" He received a shake of the head.

"Vin's gonna help Buck!" The sobbing started.

Chris didn't have time to comfort JD, as much as he wanted to. Thrusting his phone at the boy, he ordered, "Go to the shed out back and STAY THERE! Call 9-1-1 and tell them a man has a gun and he's in the house with your dad. Go JD, and stay there 'til one of us comes to get you!"

The sound of a gunshot shattered the tension in the air. Both turned their heads in the direction of the house. Fear was palpable and it grabbed both of them around the heart. Chris fought it off like a bucking bull. "NOW JD!!!" He shoved the boy in the direction of the shed and raced toward the house. He didn't stop as he reached the rear door. Banging his way in, he sped through the kitchen and into the dining room. He witnessed a brutal kick to Buck's ribs, his friend flying up and over with the velocity of the foot thrust. As the perpetrator reared back his foot to strike again, Larabee launched himself at Cueves.

Catching the man about the waist, he drove him like a pile driver into the wall. It was then that he noticed Vin, crumpled in a ball just three feet away from where they struggled. His attention momentarily averted, Cueves got a hand free and punched the slighter man in the gut. The wind gushed out of the blond and he stumbled backwards, only to attack immediately once again. He reached for the hand that still held the large gun, thrusting it backward into the wall. The gun went flying, landing near Buck's now over-turned wheelchair.

The two men fought for dominance, Chris with the fury of revenge, Cueves with fear for his life. Their attention was exclusively on each other. Neither one noticed the weakened, dark-haired man crawling slowly toward the unclaimed gun.

The fight turned into a wrestling match, neither man able to pin his opponent. They rolled over and then again as they fought on the carpet. First Chris was on top, his arms locked as he attempted to control the intruder. Suddenly, Cuevas swung a leg over the top of the blond's slim body. He got purchase on the lighter man and gained momentum. Cueves rolled on top and was attempting to gouge Chris's eyes.

Buck reached for the gun but couldn't pick it up with both arms surrounded by plaster. Enduring excruciating pain, he slammed his right hand down on the wheel of his chair, breaking the cast. Using the exposed fingers of his left hand he peeled away the plaster, revealing his shriveled hand. Grabbing the gun, he trembled as he raised it. The barrel swung wildly as he tried to control the wobbling in his arm and hand. He added his left hand to control the right and brought the gun to bear on his target. Praying to God, he pulled the trigger. The shot rang out and slowly, a body fell.

+ + + + + + +

JD ran as fast as he could to the shed. He threw open the door and then slammed it shut behind him. Fear allowed him the energy to quickly climb over the stacked couch and over-stuffed chair to the very back of the shed. Trembling, he knelt on the floor with the phone that Chris had given him. Looking at the lighted dial, he hit the 9, then the 1, and then another 1. He pushed the send button. He closed his eyes, praying someone would answer quickly.

"9-1-1 emergency. What is the nature of your call?" A female's voice sounded clear and strong.

"Hurry, the man has a gun!" JD whispered breathily into the phone.

"Son, what man? Where are you?" Laura's voice remained calm but she quickly waved her hand at her partner, letting her know a true emergency was on the line.

"I'm in the shed. Please hurry, he's going to hurt my Da!" JD's voice rose as he continued. "Vin's in there too!"

"Okay, son, my partner has your address and we're sending officers to help, okay? But I need a little more information. Who is the man and why does he have a gun on your dad?" Laura needed as much information as the distraught boy could give her, or her officers might walk into an ambush.

"I don't know. Chris went to find out. My Da is real sick, he can't fight the bad man!"

"What's your name, son?" Trying to calm the boy down, Laura switched to her motherly voice.

The boy responded to it. Gulping air, JD stammered, "JD."

"Good, JD. Now, who are Vin and Chris?"

"Vin's my brother now, we's live here with our dads. Chris is Vin's dad and Buck is mine. We all live here at the ranch and our dads work catching the bad guys. Could you call Unca' Ezra for me? He'll know what to do!" JD pleaded with the woman. Didn't she understand that his beloved family was in serious trouble? And then, the little brunette heard the sound of another gunshot. "NOOOOO, he killed him! He killed my Da!"

JD dropped the phone and huddled in the corner. He hadn't been this afraid since before Buck and Chris found him and a critically injured Vin in a warehouse they were raiding. He rocked back and forth, knowing in his heart that his world had just ended.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pushed the dead weight off. The ATF agent quickly checked the body and found Cueves still breathing but unconscious. He then hurried to his son. He pulled Vin to him and felt the thin arms work their way around his neck. He sent a silent thank you to the Heavens. Chris held the boy tight, grateful that his son was okay and in one piece. His total attention was on the seven-year-old.

"He... okay?" The two in the corner of the room didn't move. Chris had his back to Buck, hiding the thin body and any signs of life from him. "Is... he... okay?"

"Dad, Buck's talking!" Vin managed to say, though his head was pressed tightly to his father's chest. The hold on him eased and then it was gone.

Chris shifted and his eyes caught his old friend's. The man was sitting, bleeding profusely, but alert. Chris crawled over to him and grabbed his face between his two hands. "Yes, he's all right. He hurt you again, didn't he?" He felt the nod and he pulled Buck into a Wilmington bear hug.

"Dad, is he... is he dead?"

The question got Chris to moving. He bent over Johnny Cuevas and noticed the man was beginning to come around. "No, son, he's not dead." He got up and looked around for something to tie the man with. The closest thing was the cord of the lamp that sat on the sideboard. He jerked the cord free and quickly but securely tied the man's hands behind his back. Cuevas opened his eyes and jerked his head around to stare up as Chris stood. "You move, scumbag, and I'll send you straight to hell. You understand me, Cuevas?"

Johnny's eyes narrowed but he soon capitulated and nodded.

"Buck, shoot him again if he twitches." He saw Buck nod. Chris turned and made his way to Vin's side. "How ya doin', cowboy?" A smile answered him. He picked up his son and carried him into the living room, placing him on the couch. "Stay still, I want you checked out by a doctor, okay?" The boy nodded. Chris then went to grab towels from the kitchen, which he gave to Buck, showing him where to hold them on his face to stop the bleeding. He stood and was about to go and retrieve JD when he heard the door open. Signaling Buck to watch Cuevas, he scrambled for the gun that lay on the floor beside Buck.

Deputy Moran peeked around the corner and then came out into the open, his hands raised. "Looks like I'm a day late and a dollar short. You need an ambulance?" Phil moved to squat beside Buck. He pulled the towel away to glimpse the wounds for himself.

"Stay with him. I need to get JD." Chris ran out the door and straight to the shed behind the garage. He found the waif huddling in the back, darkest corner. He held out his arms and smiled. The littlest member of their eclectic family rushed into his embrace. "They're both fine, JD, just fine." Chris carried JD back into the house, but once inside JD squirmed to get down. Vin had left the couch and was sitting beside Buck on the floor. Moran was by Cuevas, radioing his station.

"Da, are you okay? You're bleeding! Did he shoot you?" Fear still had a grip on the little boy.

Buck reached out and clumsily wrapped his arms around the tyke. "I... fine... Lil' Bit." He smiled at the startled expression on his son's face.

"You talked!" JD held tightly to his father's neck, getting blood all over his clothes. Nobody cared. They were whole again, and fear left the household.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and JD spent the rest of the day in the emergency room of the hospital getting Vin and Buck checked out. Vin had a quick examination, a light in the eyes, some questions easily answered by the bright seven-year-old, and a gentle probing by the young female intern. It was determined he had a bump on the head, nothing to worry about.

Buck, on the other hand, had a much more intensive examination. First, Dr. Donaldson was paged. While they waited for him, Dr. Asrah was found and he began his work on the two broken arms. He did x-rays and, finding that the surgical corrections were mending as they should, he cut off the old damaged casts and wrapped the still weaker right arm in a bright green brace. To Buck's delight, he decided that the left arm could be simply wrapped in an Ace bandage. He then checked out the new rib injury and found two new cracked ribs on the opposite side of where the broken ribs had been. Giving the big Federal agent a look of exasperation, the orthopedist taped the injury and then left Buck to await the neurosurgeon.

Dr. Donaldson arrived an hour later. Buck had been resting in one of the exam rooms with JD snuggled up to his side. When the doctor walked in, JD clung to his Da's side. He feared this man would put Buck back in the hospital. Now that Buck was talking, JD didn't want him out of his sight.

"I's okay. No hos'it'l time." Buck pleaded with his eyes for the boy to understand.

JD smiled thinly. He understood every word and he trusted his dad. He moved hesitantly away from Buck's side and let the doctor examine the tall brunette. Chris took JD's hand and together they reluctantly left the examination room.

Dr. Donaldson took his time, and when he finally opened the curtain, he found three very agitated people just outside. He smiled broadly and saw relief flood all three faces. "I'm ordering a CAT scan but I don't expect any problems. He was aware and communicative. You told me he would do it, I'm sorry I didn't believe you, Chris. As soon as the scan is complete, you can take him home. He still needs a lot of therapy, but he's well on his way." He knelt down in front of the two boys. "Why don't you two go in and wait with him? He's going to be just fine, boys."

The two one-time orphans ran in and jumped on the bed beside a smiling Buck Wilmington.

"Thank you, Dr. Donaldson. We'll gladly set up any therapy he needs." Chris shook hands with the neurologist and then walked in to join his family.

An hour later, all four loaded into the Ram and went home. Arriving at the ranch, they were surprised to see the house lit up like a party was in progress. Chris got the boys out first as their pent-up energy was bubbling over. As he was getting Buck out and into his wheelchair, the door opened and their friends spilled out into the yard. Josiah immediately took over Buck's needs, with Inez holding the rogue's hand and smiling down at him.

That left Chris to walk behind with Ezra, Nathan, Raine, and Gloria all laughing and clapping him on the back like he was the one who had saved the day. JD and Vin ran around everyone with Ringo and Elvis, who were barking at the top of their lungs. It was party time!


The Baliff stepped out in the corridor and announced, "The State of Colorado versus John Cuevas - Court will resume in ten minutes."

Chris couldn't help but think they had waited almost a year for this moment as he straightened the tie on the other man. "Are you sure you're ready for this?" A grin and a quick nod were his only answer as his hand was batted away.

A few minutes later, his name was called. He made his way down the aisle with just the slightest limp and up the steps into the witness stand. He looked over at the defendant's table, clenching his jaw at the self-satisfied smirk on Cuevas's face as the low-life whispered to his attorney, gesturing toward him.

"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

"I do," came the quiet but firm reply.

"State your name and occupation," said the Baliff.

"My name is Buck Wilmington, and I'm an agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms," he replied. He met Cuevas's eyes and smiled to himself at the look of surprise and frustration on his attacker's face. Then he tossed an ear-splitting grin at the row where his oldest friend sat, along with the rest of his Team. Chris nodded in acknowledgment, then Buck turned his attention back to the prosecutor. One by one, he answered every question clearly and with conviction. Every once in a while he would look over at the Defendant, but as often as he could his gaze would meet that of his Team Leader and friend.

Watching the members of the jury listening to every word of his best friend's testimony, Chris had no doubt Johnny Cuevas would be going to prison for a very long time.


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