Alternate Universe Lost Lambs
For Phyllis. Thanks to KT for letting me play in her sandbox and for her fixing my mistakes. For those of you who read the shortened version of this earlier, this will answer some of your questions.
Max nickered a greeting to his barn-mates as soon as he came within sight of the ranch. Buck smiled at the sudden appearance of the dark-headed child on the corral fence, waving enthusiastically. JD always made coming home something to look forward to. The air was cold and crisp with a hint of winter that made everyone on the mountain cautious. Buck's ear picked up the repetitive sound of logs being split and knew that Chris was ranking the wedges on the porch under the overhang to keep them dry.
"Hey Buck! Did ya see any turkeys on the way home?" JD asked as Max stopped at the corral gate. Wilmington swung down from the saddle, sweeping his brother off his feet and depositing him on the horse's back. JD gripped the horn with both hands, his short little legs tightening on the fenders.
"I didn't see any but I heard them. They're still hanging out by the pond where we dropped the grain. I'm sure we'll get one in time for Thanksgiving," Buck answered as he led the gelding across the corral and into the barn. Chris had already cleaned out the stall and tossed in a flake of hay so Buck moved JD to a nearby grain barrel while he removed the saddle and blanket. JD continued to chatter, hardly noticing that his brother was in the tack room. "Where are Ezra and Vin?" Buck asked when JD paused for air.
"They's working on their fall harvest project for school," JD answered. "They want to get a good grade on it."
Vin and Ezra were among the handful of children who attended the one-room school in Four Corners. While Vin struggled to catch up on the education he had missed, Ezra was easily the best educated child in the valley and for some distance in any direction. Shuttled off to boarding schools, he had gotten the very best teachers. JD couldn't wait until the next term when he could also attend school.
Buck finished brushing Max and turned him into his stall, then swept JD up and tossed him over his shoulder. The small boy gripped his brother's belt and squealed joyfully at the familiar routine. When he reached the back side of the house, where Chris was chopping wood, he paused.
"Have you seen JD? I can't find him around anywhere," Buck teased.
"Well, now that you mention it, I haven't seen him since breakfast. Have you looked under the porch?" Chris asked, his eyes twinkling with merriment at teasing the young boy.
"I'm here, Buck! You picked me up! Buck!" JD called out.
"Did you hear that? It sounded like JD!" Buck said, turning in a tight circle, which caused JD to laugh hysterically.
"I'm here! I'm here!" JD called.
"Where are you, JD? Come on out!" Buck yelled, swinging the child carefully as he turned right and left pretending to look for him. Finally, JD unhooked one of his hands from Buck's belt and whacked him soundly on the seat of his pants. Buck spun around, advancing on Chris, who had set the axe down to watch the fun. "Did you hit me?" Buck asked.
"Nope, wasn't me," Chris defended.
"It was me! Buck, it was me!" JD yelled.
Finally, Buck pretended to notice his brother. "I thought that was my saddle bags slung over my shoulder! Why didn't you say something?" he teased. JD's cheeks were flushed with the exertion, his mouth dropping open at the outrageous comment. Buck laughed as he turned JD toward the house and gave him a gentle swat on the behind. "Get in there and get warm, Little'n."
After the door swung closed, the men spent a few minutes catching up before Chris hefted the axe and began splitting logs again. Buck went into the little house to grab a cup of hot coffee and see what had been left for him to eat. He glanced into the sitting room to see Vin and Ezra showing off their project to JD. Since he was too little and too young for school, Ezra had been using an old slate to teach JD his letters. Buck had to smile as he considered how well the three boys, from such different backgrounds, got along. Of course there had been some bumps as the two men went from being bachelors to family men, but the scene before him made it all worthwhile.
"Hey Buck, how was work?" Vin asked as he noticed the man watching from the kitchen doorway.
"Quiet, just the way I like it," Buck replied.
"Buck, do you think we could go into town tomorrow and pick up a few things for our project?" Ezra asked. "Mrs. Potter had some scraps of cloth and such that she said we could have and Tiny had a small, wind-up motor he said we could borrow."
"I don't think that'd be a problem as long as you have your chores done," Buck answered.
"Thank you," Ezra said before returning his attention to the carefully constructed box.
Saturday morning dawned cold and clear. All three boys rushed out to the barn to help clean the stalls and put down flakes of hay for the horses. While Vin and Ezra filled the wood boxes, JD gathered the eggs from the chicken coop after scattering a soup can of cracked corn on the ground to coax the hens out of the laying boxes. By the time Chris and Buck had cleaned up and shaved, all three of the boys were freshly washed and waiting expectantly in the kitchen. Chris started a skillet of bacon while Buck stirred up the eggs for scrambled eggs, adding the small bits of ham and a few green onions to make them go farther. Chris had commented that they were going to have to pick up another three or four laying chickens to feed the growing boys. After breakfast, and the inherent cleanup, the five of them bundled up to go into town.
The battered old pickup truck was crowded but it helped to conserve body heat until the engine warmed enough to turn on the vents. JD sat on Buck's lap with his brother's coat buttoned around his tummy to keep him warm. Vin was pressed tightly to Chris, both of his hands tucked into his guardian's coat pocket. Ezra was content to have Buck's free arm draped around his shoulder. The truck rocked from side to side in the rutted road. Finally, they made the blacktop that led into town. It was still several minutes' drive but they were too amused at listening to JD's nonstop chatter to really notice.
As soon as the vehicle was parked, the boys wiggled, eager to get out and make their way along the sidewalk. Ezra and Vin each grabbed one of JD's hands to hurry the smaller boy along. Chris just chuckled as he scanned the familiar cars that were parked here and there. Buck quickly crossed the street, seeing Inez struggling to push a box along the sidewalk.
No one noticed the man staring out of the restaurant window. Ryan McDonald smiled as he watched the trio of boys across the street. Pulling his money clip from his pocket, he peeled off a few bills and dropped them on the table before finishing the last of the tepid coffee in his cup. He paused at the door to collect his coat from the hook on the wall, nodding and smiling pleasantly at the waitress as he left.
Ezra carefully tucked the broken buttons into his pocket along with the scraps of cloth Mrs. Potter had given him. All three boys eagerly agreed to taste-test her oatmeal cookies, warm from the oven with raisins in them. JD's eyes drifted closed as he savored the tender, chewy treat. Vin picked the raisins out of his cookie, preferring to eat them separately. Ezra paid the cookies the highest compliment he could think of, watching as the widow's smile widened.
At the far end of the block, Tiny showed the boys the small motor that he had removed from a broken music box that he found in the trunk of an abandoned car. The small metal bar that had turned the drum with the raised notes was still straight and he thought they might be able to use it to power the small wooden tractor that Chris had whittled for them.
JD quickly grew bored with looking at the small motor. He slid off of the chair he had been sitting on and began to explore the gas station/livery. Situated in the shade of several large trees was the corral where Tiny kept a few horses for people to use while he shoed their mounts. A small buckskin gelding stuck its head over the railing, hopeful of getting a treat from the boy as he approached. JD shyly took the bit of carrot from his pocket. He had broken off the tip when he gave Tsar his treat that morning. The buckskin lipped the carrot from the small, flat hand and stood crunching it while JD stroked his jaw.
"Is that your horse, son?" a voice asked, causing JD to snatch his hand back and look around in fear. "Whoa! I didn't mean to startle you," the man said. "I just wondered because he seems to trust you."
The man was about average height but thinly built. JD's eyes took in the plain tan coat and sturdy pants, figuring the man worked at the logging camp from the look of him. The man stepped closer and JD glanced over his shoulder to see where the other boys were. Vin and Ezra were still engrossed in their discussion with Tiny but he could see them so he felt safe. "I'm too little to have my own horse," JD explained, "But Buck said I could have one when I'm growed up."
"Well, I'm sure you'll get along famously with whatever horse you get," the man said, smiling.
"I get along with Tsar, that's our stallion, and with Max and Shadow, they're Chris and Buck's horses, and with Special Day and Misty," JD said, hurriedly naming a handful of the horses on the ranch.
"Wow, you have a lot of horses!" the man said.
"Buck and Chris raise them and then we sell them when they're old enough," JD explained.
"Listen, do you think you could help me with something? Y'see, my car is just over there and I saw a little cat go under it and I can't get it to come out. I don't want to hurt it. Would you be willing to help me coax it out?" the man asked.
"A little kitty?" JD asked.
"Yeah, it was gray and white. I think it musta got away from its momma and it's all scared. I'd bet it would come out for you, seeing the way you handle that horse."
Chewing on his lip, JD glanced back at the other boys. The brown car was only across the street, they'd still be able to see him while he helped the man get the kitty out from under it. Maybe if they couldn't find the momma kitty, he could keep it. "Okay," JD said cheerfully.
Bending down beside the car, JD looked for the gray and white kitty. The man said that it was on the other side of the car, near the back tire. JD crept along the side of the vehicle, still peering underneath. When he reached the bumper, he paused to look across the street to where Tiny was still talking to Ezra.
Ryan slipped the rag from his pocket and quickly unscrewed the top of the small brown bottle. He put only a few drops on the cloth, he didn't want to kill the boy, just put him to sleep for a while. As soon as the boy was around the rear quarter panel, he stepped closer.
"I don't see the kitty. Maybe it run back to its momma," JD said, standing up and turning toward the man. Suddenly, a brownish cloth was pressed against his face and an arm wrapped around his waist. He drew a breath to scream for help and his nose and throat burned at an acrid odor. His vision blurred and he began to feel dizzy. JD struggled for a few more seconds before going limp in the man's arms.
Opening the car door, McDonald carefully tucked the boy into the floorboard. He dragged the coat from the seat to cover the body and closed the door. Looking around to see if anyone had noticed, he saw that the older boys were just coming out of the gas station, heading toward the corral in the back. Forcing himself to stay calm, he rounded the front of the car and got behind the wheel. The Chevy started right up and he stepped on the clutch as he shifted the transmission into reverse. Backing onto the blacktop, he noticed in the mirror that the boys were now starting to panic. With a grin on his face, Ryan put the car in first gear and drove away.
"JD! JD, where are you?" Vin yelled.
"JD! Come on, don't play games!" Ezra called.
Down the block, Buck's head snapped up at the panicked voices calling his brother's name. "Excuse me, Inez," he said as he turned and began to hurry down the sidewalk. He spotted Vin, standing behind the corral, looking around carefully. A second later, he saw Ezra, bending over to look under a parked car. With his heart beating in his throat, Buck crossed the street. "Ezra? Vin? Where's JD?" The stricken look on both boys' faces told him all he needed to know, JD was gone!
+ + + + + + +
Several miles from the town, Ryan McDonald pulled off of the blacktop and rolled to a stop in front of a small hunting cabin three hundred yards from the road. Racing around the car, he pulled the door open and looked at the boy. He had reached back and uncovered the round, pale face when he got away from Four Corners but the child had yet to waken. He scooped the small body up, settling him comfortably against his shoulder for the quick trip into the cabin. It was cold and dark in the small, one room shack when he gently lowered the sleeping boy to the bed. Ryan moved to the pot-bellied stove and built a fire, glad that he'd had the forethought to lay in supplies ahead of time.
Ryan's father, Terrence McDonald, was dying. It was only by accident that Ryan had discovered the codicil the older man had added to his will. The bulk of the estate would be held in trust for which ever of his sons was the first to provide a son and heir. Only a small portion of the money would pass on to the other two brothers. Michael was married and his wife was due in a couple of months, while Daniel was only recently engaged. Ryan needed that money and he was determined to have it, no matter who he had to hurt to get it. He had spent his share of time in the mansion where the 'fallen women' lived. He knew Francine de Lesquan had died, leaving behind a son. He had never lain with the woman, she was too old for his tastes, but his father didn't have to know.
As soon as he had a good fire burning, Ryan went out to move the car into the bushes. He was going to lay low for a few days, then head into the mountains. He planned to take a week to get home. And in that time, he had to convince the small, dark-haired child that he was his father.
+ + + + + + +
In just five minutes, everyone in the small town was searching for JD. Ezra and Vin followed Buck, adding their voices to his every time he called out for his brother. Chris was searching behind the buildings, knowing how JD liked the dogs and cats that the townspeople allowed to run loose around their houses. Josiah had joined the search, his loud voice calling out every couple of minutes.
With his chest aching, Buck turned around, his eyes scanning every space he had just passed. His eyes fell on Vin and Ezra and something inside him overflowed. "Why weren't you watching him?" he shouted. "He's just a little boy! How could you let this happen?"
The tears Vin had been fighting to control spilled down his cheeks in the face of Buck's anger. He shuddered, fearful of what Buck would do if he laid hands on him. "We were just talking to Tiny," Vin defended timidly.
"Instead of watching JD?" Buck shouted, taking a step toward the boys. Vin stumbled as he tried to back away. Buck was much too upset to notice the terror he was instilling in the fair-haired child. "As long as you got what you wanted, you didn't really care about JD, did you?" Buck ranted.
"We're sorry!" Ezra said, trying to draw Buck's attention away from the younger boy.
"You're sorry?" Buck yelled. "And that's supposed to make me feel better?"
"Buck!" Chris shouted. "That's enough!" He had been coming down the gangway between the buildings and heard the emotionally charged dialogue. Stopping behind the boys, he put a hand gently on each of their shoulders. Vin immediately leaned into the soothing touch, nuzzling against Chris' coat to wipe the tears from his face. Ezra glanced at the hand, losing the tenuous hold on his own emotions. Chris saw the anguish in the green eyes and moved his hand to the back of Ezra's head, turning him from Buck and pulling him closer.
Seeing the boys so distraught deflated Buck's rage and he exhaled deeply. Letting go of his anger, Buck staggered back to drop heavily on a packing crate, his eyes filling with tears.
"You boys go down to the restaurant and get warm. I'll be along in a few minutes," Chris said softly. He cradled the back of Vin's head, staring deeply into the pale blue eyes before nodding. Ezra had already pulled away and Chris gave his shoulder a firm squeeze. Very slowly, the boys turned toward the restaurant, glancing back at Buck before taking their first steps. Chris nodded to them again, silently encouraging them to go on. Once the boys were on the way, he sighed heavily and moved closer to Buck. "It isn't their fault," he said gently.
Tear filled eyes stared up at him. "I know," Buck replied, "I'm sorry. He's just a little boy!"
"We'll find him," Chris stated as he rested his hand on Buck's shoulder. "We'll find him."
+ + + + + + +
Opening his eyes, JD looked around in confusion. He felt sick to his stomach and his mouth had a funny taste in it. Rolling on his side, he stared around the small room.
"Well, hello there," Ryan said with a smile. "Have a good nap?"
"Who are you?" JD asked.
"My name is Ryan and I'm your father."
"My father? Really?" JD asked as he sat up and pushed the blankets away.
"That's right. Are you hungry?" Ryan asked.
"He said to tell you that he'd see you in a few days. I'm taking you to meet your grandfather and your uncles. What do you think of that?"
JD's eyes welled up with tears as he stuck out a trembling lip. "I want to go back to Buck," he said tremulously. "I wanna go home!"
"Well, you're not going back there. Now, get over here and eat this before I throw it out," Ryan said angrily as he dropped the tin plate of stew on the table. He glared at the unmoving child. After a minute, he crossed the room and grabbed JD by the arm, jerking him off of the bed and shoving him toward the table.
Never in his life had JD been handled so roughly and he burst into tears. The man pointed to the bench and he shuffled his feet getting there. Once seated, he ignored the plate of food, sobbing loudly. "I want my Buck! I wanna go home! I want Chris!" he repeated over and over until the man drew back his hand as if to strike him, then he sat crying silently.
+ + + + + + +
Seated in the jail house, Buck stared at the cup of coffee in his hand. They had been searching for hours and still no sign of JD. Chris had ordered him to sit down and get warm before he collapsed. Looking out the window, he saw his friend consoling the boys. Vin wept openly, sitting astraddle of one of Chris' legs with his face buried in the blond man's shoulder. Ezra stood close but not touching, remorse radiating from every muscle in his sleight frame. Shame washed over Buck in waves as he recalled the heated words he had flung at them earlier. "Oh Little'n, where are you?" he whispered as warm tears bathed his face.
+ + + + + + +
For two days, Ryan McDonald remained holed up in the hunting shack with JD. He was beginning to question the wisdom of taking an older child. It would have been easier to kidnap a toddler who wouldn't be so vocal in his desire to go home. JD cried most of the time, even in his sleep. He barely ate anything and refused to allow his 'father' to touch him. Once, on the way to the outhouse, JD had tried to run off, forcing Ryan to run him down. In his anger, he'd tied the boy's hands and feet together with a pair of pillowslips. JD kicked the wall next to the bed and screamed until he was hoarse before falling into an exhausted sleep.
The snow began to fall and Ryan decided to make a break for it. He piled blankets in the passenger front floorboard and settled JD there, his hands and feet still bound. He kept a coat in the seat to throw over the child if he should have to stop. By the time he reached the mountains, the snow was covering his tracks. He passed through Eagle Bend, not daring to stop. By the time it was too dark to go on, he was several hundred miles away.
When JD wakened, he looked out of the car windows anxiously. The landscape was softened by a blanket of white, fluffy snow. Whimpering in fear, he sank back into the warm nest of blankets. A few minutes later, Ryan got back into the car and JD looked up at him.
"I got you something to eat," Ryan said gently. "You think you could be good and sit up here like a big boy to eat it?" JD nodded. "That's better. I don't like it that my son keeps trying to run away." Ryan loosened and removed the pillowslips from the boy's hands and feet. For the rest of the day, JD sat in the front seat, staring out of the window and crying.
Once they got across the mountains, Ryan made better time. He tried talking to JD, telling him about his new room at his grandfather's house and about all the new toys he would have. His words only served to remind the boy of Pony, the wooden horse he'd left under his pillow at the Circle T Ranch. That night, they stopped at a flophouse where Ryan rented a room. He managed to convince the boy to take a bath, allowing his clothes to be washed and hung up to dry.
+ + + + + + +
Buck looked up as Chris brought the boys into the jail. Both of them regarded him with fear in their eyes. Buck rose slowly from the chair and crossed the small room, dropping to his knees just short of the boys. "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to blame you!" he said before he was overcome by his own tears. He was nearly knocked over when Vin and Ezra darted into his open arms.
The tension in the air was thick when the foursome finally stopped searching for the night. Sitting around a table in the corner of the restaurant, they pushed the food around on their plates, very little making its way into their mouths. Frank Turnbough offered to bring his bloodhounds around in the morning to see if they could pick up JD's scent. Buck announced that he was staying the night in town, in case JD turned up. Chris agreed without argument, knowing that someone needed to be at the ranch to take care of the stock. When they got ready to leave, Ezra hung back. He wanted to stay, to try to comfort Buck but he wasn't at all certain of his welcome.
"Buck? Would you mind if I stayed with you?" the teen asked timidly.
Looking into the agonized green eyes, Buck shook his head. "You go on home and take care of Max for me," he replied gently. Ezra took a step closer and Buck enveloped him in his arms. "Keep an eye on Chris and Vin for me, will you?" he asked softly. Feeling Ezra nod, he let go, brushing tears from his eyes.
The next morning, Buck was waiting on the sidewalk when Frank pulled up in his wheezing old truck. Two of the biggest bloodhounds in the territory moved anxiously in the bed but they didn't get down until their owner told them it was alright. Chris arrived a few minutes later with JD's nightshirt. Both dogs burrowed their snouts in the material when Turnbough offered it to them.
"Find him," Frank said, unclipping the chains from their collars. Immediately, both of the dogs scoured the ground before taking off toward the end of the street, baying loudly. A small group had gathered to watch and surged after the hounds. The dogs paused at a car parked in front of the hardware store. They circled the vehicle, noses to the ground. A man came out of the store, looking uneasily at the two men he knew to be the law in town.
"Chris? Buck? What's going on?" Hank Tomlinson asked.
"You mind if we have a look in your car, Hank?" Chris asked.
"My car? Why?" Tomlinson asked.
"You know my brother went missing yesterday?" Buck said. "The dogs are saying that his trail ends right here, at your car."
"I wasn't even in town yesterday!" Hank defended, looking wildly at the faces of the crowd, some decidedly unfriendly in their expressions. "Here, look for yourself. I ain't seen that kid in a month of Sundays!"
When the door was opened, the dogs sniffed but went right back to circling the car again. Chris opened the trunk, finding only a dry-rotted spare tire and a rusted jack. One of the dogs put its paws on the bumper and sniffed but quickly returned to scouring the ground around the car.
"There was a car parked there yesterday," Ezra said.
"What kind of car?" Buck asked.
Ezra turned his eyes to the few specimens parked along the street. "Kind of like that one but it was brown," he said, indicating the Chevy at the gas pumps. "It was leaving when we started looking for JD," he added sadly.
It took a couple of hours to discover that the car had belonged to the stranger who had rented a room from Mazie Tucker. The kindly woman was mortified that one of her boarders might have taken the little boy. "He said he was getting ready to head out on his way to Vancouver," she said. Chris and Buck got a description of the man. At least it was a start.
+ + + + + + +
By the time they reached North Platte, JD stopped begging to see Buck. Ryan told him over and over that he could see his brother in a few more days so he resolved himself to wait. They stopped at a store and Ryan bought him some new clothes and new shoes. JD had never had so many brand-new things in his life. When he asked if he could have one of the carved horses in the display case, Ryan stared at him for a long time before making his offer, "If I buy that for you, will you call me Daddy?" JD looked at the horse and back up at the man he had spent the last few days with. The horse looked a lot like his Pony and he desperately needed something to hold on to, something to keep the aching fears away.
"Will you buy that horse for me ... Daddy?" JD finally whispered.
Ryan had finally found a subject that would get JD talking ... horses. The McDonald mansion was on a sizeable parcel of land south of Wichita. As they turned onto the long driveway, he pointed out the large barns that housed the horses his father kept. He had promised JD that he could have a pony, if he behaved himself with his grandfather. When the car came to a stop in front of the massive wooden columns that ran across the width of the porch, JD stared in awe. Ryan opened the car door and took his hand, gently coaxing him to the ground. A tall, stately-looking black man with gray temples opened the door at their approach.
"Master Ryan, it is good to have you back. And who is this?" the butler inquired.
"This is John, my son. John, this is Tomas, our butler. Tomas, is my father awake?" Ryan asked. He didn't want to waste any time introducing the boy.
"Yes, he is on the west veranda," the Negro replied.
"Good, I'm going up to see him. Will you set up the room next to mine for John? He has only a few things in the bag in the trunk," Ryan said as he prepared to climb the wide staircase that divided the east and west wings of the house.
JD had little choice but to follow, as Ryan had a solid grip on his wrist. He stared at the oil paintings that lined the upstairs hall, each one depicting a scary looking man with a trio of boys. At the end of the hall, a pair of French doors opened onto a large, porch. Near the railing was a large chair with wheels on the back of it. JD could see that a quilt hung over the sides but he couldn't see who sat in the chair. Ryan had stopped dragging him and now stood, staring at the chair. Finally, he cleared his throat.
"Good afternoon, Father," Ryan said, his voice carrying in the slight breeze. After a minute, he tugged JD toward the chair. When he reached the rail, Ryan could see the rheumy eyes held a hint of recognition. "Father, I want you to meet someone. This is my son, his name is John."
The man in the chair stared at his eldest son for a long time before turning his gaze to the child at his side. Drawing his hand from beneath the quilt, he motioned the boy closer. Ryan had to nudge the child to get him to take a step forward. With his trembling hand, he brushed his fingers over the long, dark hair. "He needs a haircut," Terrence McDonald said, letting his hand fall back to his lap.
"Yes sir, I'll see that he gets one, right away," Ryan agreed.
"See to it," the elderly man said. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed his son and the boy from his presence. As Ryan reached the doors, he heard his father's words, "He looks like Esther."
Esther Healy McDonald had come to the new world with her family to escape poverty in Ireland. Her parents worked from sun up to sun down to make and sell shoes until they turned the business over to her brothers and retired. Esther was presented at a debutante ball when she was just 15. One of the young men at the ball was a dashing Terrence McDonald. The two had hit it off immediately. Over the course of the entire debutant season, they had gone on many chaperoned dates. They were married and moved to the McDonald estate in Wichita, Kansas. Esther had died giving birth along with the little girl she so desperately wanted after three boys, leaving her devastated husband to raise them all alone.
JD sobbed as the butler cut his hair. His mother had always kept his hair long, saying that it reminded her of her father. When the haircut was over, he was rewarded with a piece of pie and a tall glass of tea. Afterwards, Ryan took him out to the barn to show him the horses. JD stared up in rapture at the magnificent stallion in the corner box. He approached the gate, expecting the animal to sniff and lip at him the way Tsar did at home. When the massive yellow teeth closed on the shoulder of his jacket, pinching his skin, JD burst into tears. Ryan gathered the boy into his arms and carried him back to the house. By the time they reached the room Tomas had prepared for JD, he was asleep.
The eldest McDonald son, Ryan had a wild streak, often bearing the brunt of his father's drunken rages until he ran away from home at twenty. Having grown up in the lap of wealth, he had developed expensive tastes. It didn't take long for him to learn that if he wanted to live in the style to which he had become accustomed, he needed money. To that end, he turned to gambling. Prohibition fed right into his hands, as he used a remote corner of his father's land to set up a still. His father owned the local police and wouldn't allow anything to happen to his wayward progeny so Ryan soon accumulated his own loyal following. It was only by accident that the assistant to the elder McDonald's lawyer had let slip about the codicil to his father's will. The idea came to him when he visited the brothel run by Francine de Lesquan. He was told of her untimely death and of the poor, orphaned boy she left behind. If his younger brother's wife had not become pregnant so soon after their marriage, he wouldn't have given any thought to the child.
+ + + + + + +
Leaving Chris and the boys, Buck borrowed an old truck and set out for Vancouver. He promised to call or wire whenever he could. Chris pleaded with him to wait until the storms passed but Buck was determined to find his brother come hell or high water. Josiah and Nathan, who had moved into town when the logging camps broke up for the winter, agreed to help out with the peacekeeping in Four Corners while Buck was gone. Chris hoped that having Nathan see how much he was needed would encourage him to stay on as the town doctor.
The long drive through the snowy valley gave Buck lots of time to think and to mourn the loss of his brother. Although he had only had the boy for a little over six months, he had come to love him in a way that was almost frightening. He was beginning to realize what Chris went through when he lost Adam.
"He's not dead, damn it!" Buck said aloud to jar his mind out of the depressing track it had fallen into. "He's alive and I'm going to find him!" he told himself.
Staring into the fireplace in the small room he'd taken for the night, Buck ran his fingertips over the small wooden horse. He had brought it along so he could give it to JD when he found him. Closing his hand around the cool wood, he gave it a squeeze. 'You have to hold him tight when something hurts,' JD had told Vin the first time he offered his other beloved wooden horse to comfort the boy when he was in pain.
"I'm sure hurtin' here, Little'n," Buck said softly.
The next morning, Buck ate breakfast at the boarding house and headed out to continue his search. For comfort, he sang softly, his deep voice accentuated by the snow and the trees.
+ + + + + + +
Over the next few days, JD learned what was expected of him. Ryan ate breakfast and supper with him in the big dining room on the main floor, along with his grandfather and occasionally, one or both of his uncles. He was only to speak when spoken to, something that was inordinately difficult for the outgoing little boy. Around mid morning, his tutor arrived. While JD had been excited at the prospect of going to school with Ezra and Vin, he hated being all alone in the classroom with the stern Mr. Davis. It seemed that nothing JD did was good enough for the man, who criticized JD's poor writing.
"Ezra said I write real good!" JD protested one morning.
"Compared to a rooster jumping up and down on the paper," Mr. Davis commented.
The one bright spot was his first riding lesson. The elder McDonald insisted that all of his boys be able to ride and jump like proper gentlemen. To that end, JD was given a pony and an English saddle to use. His excitement had quickly given way to frustration when the instructor scolded him for every little thing. By the fourth or fifth lesson, he no longer cared about riding; he just wanted the lesson to be over.
+ + + + + + +
Coming down from the mountains, Buck was able to make good time toward Vancouver. He stopped in every town, asking if anyone had seen a small boy traveling with a man in a brown car. Most of the time, he just got blank stares. He checked at every boarding house along the way, looking for the man's name.
Vancouver was a bustling city for those headed for the mining towns in the vicinity. Buck drove in, tired, cold, dirty and achingly depressed. After paying to room at the boarding house for a fortnight, he had only a few dollars to his name. He stopped at a saloon for a meal. The food, while hot, was unappealing and he soon found himself watching the people in the room with him. A comely-looking woman sat down beside him and he gave her a weary smile.
"I'm too broke to even pay proper attention, darlin,'" he told her. She shrugged and remained at his side for a while, just watching people.
After the second sleepless night, Buck was beginning to feel the hopelessness of the situation. He had approached the lawmen in the town, only to be told that they didn't have time to be looking for a lost little boy. The dirty looks he drew when he stared at the few children he had seen were enough to make him realize that his attention wasn't going unnoticed.
+ + + + + + +
JD sat at the table and tried to be good. His daddy had promised him a trip into town if he was a good boy. Mr. Davis had given a report on his reading and writing skills and Grandfather McDonald was not at all pleased. He threatened to double the length of time JD spent in the classroom if he did not begin to show improvement. Finally, the meal was over and he was dismissed from the table.
"John, change your clothes and meet me on the porch in ten minutes," Ryan said as the boy slid his chair under the table.
"Yes Daddy," JD replied, trying not to let the excitement show in his voice.
Once in town, Ryan took him to a pool hall. It was there that he met with his men to arrange for the sale and delivery of the bootleg moonshine they made. He ordered a sarsaparilla for JD and parked him at a table in the corner near the window.
Jenny laughed as she clung to her client's arm. He was a pool sharp, new to the area, and looking for a good game. Her hips swung, accenting her slim waist and large breasts as she drew him along the sidewalk. He had already proven himself to be generous, a trait that encouraged the young prostitute to see that he got whatever he wanted. While Dennis was scoping out the competition around the tables, she got a glass of lemonade and scooted up on a tall stool near the bar.
When his cup was empty, JD began to scan the room for his daddy. He needed to use the toilet and didn't know where it was located. His eyes took in the rowdy-looking men around the pool tables before moving to the people at the bar. At first, he skipped over the pretty lady since he was looking for a man but his eyes snapped back and a smile lit his face.
"Miss Jenny! Miss Jenny, you're here!" JD said as he stared up at the familiar face.
"JD? Sweetheart, what are you doing here? I thought you were with your brother in Washington or someplace out west," Jenny said as she slid off of the stool in front of the boy. "Did something happen to your brother?"
At the mention of Buck's name, JD's eyes filled with tears and he began to sob. "My daddy said I could see him in a few days but it's been forever and I haven't got to see him. I want my Buck! I wanna go home!" JD wailed. Jenny looked around in a panic, not at all certain what to do about the crying child. Suddenly, another familiar face pushed through the crowd.
"What are you doing to my boy?" Ryan McDonald demanded to know. "Shut the hell up!" he yelled, grabbing JD by the arm and giving him a shake.
"I didn't do anything to him," Jenny protested. "I just asked him what happened to his brother."
The color drained from Ryan's face as he realized that the girl remembered the boy, he hadn't even thought about anything like that! Clenching his fist on his pool cue, he grabbed JD by his coat and dragged him out of the hall. He flung the sobbing child against the side of the car as he ripped the door open. JD scrambled into the seat, dodging the open-handed slap aimed at his head. Ryan stomped around the car, drawing his fingers through his hair as he tried to calm himself. He tossed the cue stick in the back seat and slammed the driver's side door.
"You never, ever speak to a whore like that in public!" Ryan yelled as he drove toward home. "Do you hear me, boy? Never speak to a whore like that!"
"M-M-Miss Jenny was a friend of my momma," JD replied. "I want my momma!"
"Your momma's dead! I'm your daddy and you belong to me! Get that through your head!" Ryan yelled, the car swerving as he turned toward JD.
"I want my Buck! I wanna go home! You said I could see Buck! You promised!" JD wailed, heedless of the rage his words were stirring.
The tires locked and the car slid several feet along the shoulder before it came to a stop. Ryan shot out of the car and rounded the hood at a jog. He jerked the passenger door open and planted his hand solidly in the middle of JD's chest. Dragging the boy from the car, he slapped him in the head with his other hand. Slamming the struggling body against the side of the car, he began to scream at him.
"I'll kill you! You little bastard! I'll kill you and leave you for the coyotes to eat! Shut your mouth or I'll give you something to cry about! Shut up!" Ryan screamed, holding JD against the side of the car. When his enraged mind realized that the boy had gone limp, he paused. "Kid?" he said, suddenly fearful of losing his claim ticket to his father's estate. "Kid? Are you all right?" When he lifted his hand, JD drew a breath and moaned softly. Relieved, Ryan put the boy back into the car and drove on home.
As much as she hated to, Jenny begged off of her evening with Dennis, running all the way home to tell the others what she had seen at the pool hall. Miss Sadie, who had taken over only a month before, gasped in shock at the news. It took them several hours to find the name of the town where Francine's older boy lived.
+ + + + + + +
The ringing phone wakened Chris from a much-needed nap. A fire had broken out in a small cabin and he, Josiah and Nathan had worked well into the night making sure it was thoroughly and completely out. He had arrived home that morning to find that the boys had cleaned the stalls and fed the horses before going on to school. Chris had warmed up the breakfast Ezra had made before falling across his bed and dropping into a deep sleep.
"H'lo?" he said when his sleep-befuddled brain allowed his hand to pick up the receiver.
"I'm looking for Francine's son Buck, is he there?"
"Who's calling?" Chris asked, suddenly wide awake.
"My name is Jenny. I need to speak to Buck."
"Buck is out of town right now. Is there something I can do for you or a message I can give him if he calls?"
"Well ... we were just wondering ... we thought something happened to him. When I saw JD this afternoon," Jenny started.
"You saw JD?" Chris asked, cutting her off. "Where? Who was he with?"
"Here in Wichita this afternoon, with Ryan McDonald," Jenny answered automatically. "We just wondered why Buck gave JD to Ryan."
"He didn't give JD to anybody; JD was kidnapped from here almost a month ago. Are you sure it was JD? Is he all right?"
"It was JD. I used to sit with him while his mother ... worked."
"Oh my God! Thank you for calling, Jenny. Buck's been going out of his mind trying to find JD. I can't wait to tell him that he's been found. Thank you!" Chris repeated before hanging up the phone. He righted his clothes as he went out the door. The old truck roared to life under his hands and he raced into town to inform the others. Now, all he had to do was find Buck.
+ + + + + + +
Staring through the bars of the cell, Buck's head throbbed. The sheriff jingled the keys, adding to his discomfort. The clanging of the door against the bars was very nearly his undoing. Groaning softly, Buck stood up, his hand automatically grasping the bars to steady the swaying room.
"Bartender confirmed your story, you didn't start the fight," the sheriff said. "I suggest that you find some other place to look for your boy before someone here kills you."
"Yeah, I was thinkin' of movin' on," Buck replied. Heartbroken and hung over, he shuffled out of the jail. The cold air jarred him, causing his aching head to throb viciously. When he could walk without falling, he headed for the boarding house to find his truck. Passing the saloon, the smell of alcohol and unwashed bodies nearly made him gag. "He's not here," Buck told himself, certain that he would have found JD after nearly two weeks of searching.
"Mr. Wilmington?" a heavily accented voice called after him. "Mr. Wilmington, there was a call for you."
Buck stopped and turned slowly to face the young man who worked at one of the better whore houses in the town. He had gone there a few times seeking familiar surroundings and sympathetic arms to comfort him. Besides, those women were the only ones willing to listen to him and offer to help him look for his brother.
"When?" Buck asked.
"Last evening. The man said for you to call home as soon as possible," LeClaire said.
"Let's go!" Buck said, feeling the flame of hope in his chest burning brighter.
" ... and she said she used to sit with JD so she was sure it was him," Chris said.
"Wichita?" Buck repeated. He had spent a month searching in the wrong place! "It'll take better than two week for me to get back and one more to get there this time of year. Why would he take JD?"
"Jenny didn't know. I called Orin Travis, he has some connections in that area. He can't do anything until you get there," Chris explained.
"Tell him I'm on my way," Buck said. "How are things there?"
"The boys miss you. It's just not the same without the two of you," Chris said, his throat tightening with emotion. "You be careful."
"I will," Buck replied before lowering the receiver to the cradle.
Less than an hour later, Buck was on his way home. He pushed the truck as hard as he dared. Not having to stop and ask after JD at every little town would save him time.
+ + + + + + +
Ryan carried JD in from the car and put the child to bed. He told the staff that the boy was exhausted and to let him sleep. He also knew that he had to find that girl and shut her up before she blew the whole plan. Turning the key in the door, he slid it into his pocket. JD would have to stay in his room until he got back.
Tomas and Eloise were whispering urgently in the foyer when Ryan reached the bottom of the stairs. As soon as they saw him, the young scullery maid averted her eyes and rushed away. The tall butler straightened to his full height, waiting for Ryan to tell him what to do.
"What's happening, Tomas?" Ryan asked.
"Your brother has sent for the doctor. Your father is not doing well, Master Ryan."
Chewing on his lip for a moment, Ryan turned and went back up the stairs. Daniel was perched on the side of their father's bed, holding a handkerchief for the man as he coughed up strings of phlegm. Once the coughing spell ended, he eased the older man back against the pillows and righted the blankets. Ryan moved to pour a glass of water and handed it to Daniel to give to their father.
"I sent for the doctor," Daniel said after Terrence had taken a few sips of water.
"I know. He sounds much worse today," Ryan replied.
"I hoped he would live long enough to see his grandson," Daniel said, staring through teary eyes at his father as he struggled for breath.
"He has seen his grandson. John is his grandson," Ryan said.
"I meant Lilia's baby," his brother replied, ignoring the insistent words.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking about Lilia. How is she doing?"
"She's ready for the baby to come. Her parents are staying through the holiday and she wants to christen the baby before they return to Atlanta. Was John christened in the church?" Daniel asked.
"What does that matter?" Ryan countered angrily.
"I just wondered," Daniel answered. Any further discussion between them was stalled by the arrival of the doctor and his nurse. Both McDonald sons were sent from the room to pace in the hall.
+ + + + + + +
Chris wired money ahead for Buck so he could catch the train. He was lucky to get one with an empty stock car so he didn't have to leave the truck behind. Every mile that passed by the window brought him closer to JD but Buck couldn't shake the fear that his brother was in danger.
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate this, Nathan," Chris said as he stood at the train depot with the doctor. "I just can't let him go alone. Buck loves JD so much, he'll act without thinking."
"I'm glad to help, Chris. Josiah will be there if I run into any problems. You just bring that boy back here where he belongs."
The five of them stood on the porch of the train depot, waiting for Buck's train to arrive. Chris had already purchased tickets for himself and the boys. They would all go to Wichita with Buck to get JD. Ezra was excited, he thoroughly enjoyed traveling by rail. Vin was apprehensive, still having a strong dislike for being cooped up for any length of time. The very thought of spending the better part of two days shut up on the train left him vaguely nauseous. What Vin didn't know was that Nathan had pressed a bag of peppermint into Chris' hand to help in case he should get motion sickness.
In the frigid air, the train whistle sounded like a lone wolf's baying cry. When the smoke from the engine became visible, the passengers began to gather along the edge of the platform. Josiah gave Vin's shoulders a gentle squeeze, trying to drive the tension from his taut frame. Ezra's eyes shone with excitement as the very ground beneath their feet trembled at the approach of the engine.
"There he is! There's Buck!" Vin cried out as soon as he spotted the familiar face in the window of the second passenger car. Several passengers left the train before Buck was able to step down and greet his family. The instant that his feet touched the platform, Chris stepped forward and clapped his friend in a crushing embrace.
"What are you all doing here?" Buck asked as he noticed Josiah and Nathan standing behind the boys.
"We're here to see all of you off and take the truck home," Josiah answered, moving to sweep the younger man into his arms. He gave Buck several hearty thumps on his back before setting him free.
"See us off?" Buck asked, thinking he misunderstood.
"We're going with you ... to get JD back," Ezra explained, edging in to give Buck a hug.
Arguing was pointless and Buck was too tired to even consider it. After claiming the truck, Buck accepted his ticket and re-boarded the train. The four of them found seats together and sat down just as the engineer blew the whistle and announced that they were pulling away.
Vin's eyes widened as the car jerked a couple of times before settling into a regular rhythm. Ezra, seeing his rapid breathing and clenched fists, distracted him by pointing out the scenery outside of the window. Buck, exhausted from the long trip and worry, tucked his chin against his shoulder and drifted off to sleep.
+ + + + + + +
Terrence Ewin McDonald passed into the hereafter just after sunset. His three sons and pregnant daughter-in-law were gathered around the bed as he drew his final, rattling breath. Lilia buried her face in Michael's chest, sobbing softly. Daniel shuddered at the gentle touch of the doctor's hand on his shoulder. Ryan let his head drop, concealing the smile that spread across his face. In a few days, after the wake and funeral, they would have the reading of the will. In just a few short days, he would have control of his father's estate. After the paperwork was completed, he would be able to dump the troublesome brat in an orphanage where he belonged.
JD spent most of the next few days alone, shut in his room. His aunt and uncles had come to him in the morning to tell him that his grandfather had passed away. They attributed his vacant look to grief and tucked him into bed. As soon as the door closed, JD wiggled out from under the tightly tucked blankets and went to the drawer that held his small collection of toys.
Tomas huffed in irritation as he tried to turn up the hem in the little boy's pants. Master Ryan had instructed him to get the boy suitable clothing for the funeral. He had gotten the smallest mourning outfit he could find, left from when Mrs. McDonald had passed away. It was taking an inordinately long time to alter the clothing due to John's wiggling and squirming.
Sitting on Ryan's lap, JD stared up at the church spires. He and his mother had passed the church many times on their walks when she was alive. The car stopped and the driver hurriedly opened the door, offering his hand to each adult as they got out. JD jumped down, then smiled broadly at the chauffer. "See that? I didn't even need any help," he chirped happily.
"Hush, John," Lilia scolded gently. Instantly, the smile disappeared from the boy's face.
Inside of the church, JD clung to Ryan's hand as they walked down the long, long aisle. JD stared around in fascination at all of the people in their finest black clothing. Several of the ladies had lace handkerchiefs in their hands, dabbing at their eyes. "Why's everyone crying, Daddy?" he asked.
"Hush," Ryan scolded, giving JD's hand a squeeze.
The wooden pew was hard and uncomfortable, causing JD to fidget. A tall, stern-looking man stood behind the pretty box at the front and began to speak. He talked about how Terrence McDonald had come to the world with nothing and would return with nothing. He spoke in hushed tones about something called a serpent that tempted a woman, causing all men to fall into sin and death. All around him, JD could hear people sniffling and a few sobbing outright. Knowing that his daddy would be cross with him for asking questions, he turned to his Uncle Daniel. "What's wrong with all them folks? Why are they crying?"
"Shh, not now, John," Daniel whispered.
When the tall man finished speaking, everyone stood up and sang a song. JD liked to sing but the only church song he knew was 'mazing Grace. When he drew a deep breath and began to sing, his daddy's hand gripped hard where his neck met his shoulder and JD winced. He immediately understood that he was not allowed to sing. After the song, everyone filed out of the pew and moved toward the pretty box at the front. JD peered around his uncle, trying to see what was in the box but his view was blocked by other people in line in front of him. Finally, they were at the front of the line. To his right, Uncle Daniel and Uncle Michael comforted Aunt Lilia, as she sobbed. JD looked up at his daddy, wanting more than anything to be picked up and held because he was getting scared. When they passed the box, JD was dragged along the aisle again to the doors. Several minutes later, eight men came out of the church, carrying the pretty box on their shoulders. They gently placed the box on a wagon that was all covered in black cloth. JD was again dragged along, this time to walk behind the wagon. He would rather have rode up on the bench with the driver but he dared not ask.
There were clumps of grass growing here and there among the grave stones where the wagon stopped. JD watched as the box was lifted and carried over to a big hole in the ground. Six men took hold of the ropes and lowered the box into the hole. The tall man spoke again, 'ashes to ashes and dust to dust,' as he dropped a handful of dirt in on top of the box. Each person, including JD, repeated his actions in turn.
Tessa, an older, heavy-set black woman, helped JD to change out of his clothes when they returned to the house. She had been kind to him and JD felt comfortable asking her questions. As she was lacing up his shoes, he tapped her arm.
"Miss Tessa, what was in the box that they put in the hole today?"
Startled, the Negro woman looked at the boy. "Didn't your daddy or your uncles explain it to you?" she asked. Seeing the boy shake his head, she sighed. "Well, inside of that box was the mortal remains of your Grandfather."
"My grandfather?" JD repeated.
"He died the other night," she explained.
"You mean he went to God?" JD asked.
"Yes, his soul went to God."
"Then what was in the box?"
Tessa sighed, she would have thought that the boy's relations would have explained this to him. "It was your grandfather's body in the box," she said gently.
"But you said he went to God," JD questioned, the beginnings of fear curling in his tummy.
"His eternal soul went to God but his body was in that box they put in the ground."
An unexpected tightness gripped JD's chest as he stared at the woman. His momma had gone to God and they said he couldn't see her anymore. Josiah had told him that she was looking down on him from Heaven. Without realizing it, JD began to tremble. He felt hot and then cold. An ache started in his ribs and began to spread. His hands closed on the bedspread as tears welled up in his eyes.
"NO-O-O-O! I want my Momma!" JD screamed.
+ + + + + + +
The train lumbered to a stop. Ezra closed the book he had been reading and looked out of the window. They had been incredibly lucky in that they hadn't run into any problems along the tracks because of the snow. Vin had been sick the first few hours, the motion of the train upsetting his stomach. Now that he was doing better, he was asleep, leaning against Chris. Buck, knowing they were getting close to Wichita, had taken to pacing the aisle. In a moment, he was there, shaking Chris and Vin awake and pulling their bags from under the seats.
"The porter said we should be able to get a cab if we hurry," he said.
"Where are we going first?" Chris asked.
"I figured we'd get a room at the boarding house down the block from where Francine lived, then find the sheriff and go get JD," Buck answered. Chris nodded in agreement and helped Vin on with his jacket.
It was crowded in the cab but it didn't matter, they were closer to JD. Buck flung the door open as soon as the vehicle rolled to a stop, eager to get checked in and find the sheriff. Chris paid the cabbie while the boys gathered their bags from the cavernous trunk. The boarding house was brightly painted and surrounded by a white, picket fence. A carefully lettered sign swung from the porch railing proclaiming 'boarders welcome.'
They took two adjoining rooms on the first floor. There weren't many people traveling so close to the holiday and the place was fairly deserted. The Fletcher's were a kindly couple, and glad to have paying customers. As soon as they were settled and had cleaned up, Buck set out for the sheriff's office.
+ + + + + + +
"Let me get this straight. Ryan McDonald kidnapped your brother and brought him back here? Why would he do that?" Sheriff Stone asked. He was none too eager to go up against the McDonald family, even if old Terrence had been laid to rest earlier in the week.
"My friend got a call from a woman named Jenny and she said JD was here with this Ryan McDonald fellow just a couple of weeks ago. I don't know why he took my brother, I only want to get him back," Buck said.
"All right, I'll tell you what, I'll go out and talk to Ryan and see what I can find out about the boy. You're staying at Fletcher's place, right?"
"I want to go with you. I need to see JD," Buck said.
"That wouldn't be a good idea. The McDonald's had a death in the family and they're still going through a rough time. I'll go out, it'll give me a chance to pass along my condolences and I can ask about the boy," the sheriff said.
"But he stole my brother from his home!" Buck cried.
"I don't know that for a fact, Mr. Wilmington. Who did you say was the boy's mother?"
"Francine de Lesquan was his mother and mine!" Buck replied, his voice turning angry.
"Why do I recognize that name? Wasn't she the ..." the sheriff began.
"She was my mother. I got a telegram from one of the other ladies when she died. When I got here, they told me about JD. I took the boy home with me," Buck said.
"I would suggest that you get yourself some lunch and I'll get back to you as soon as I've had a chance to talk with Ryan McDonald," Sheriff Stone said.
"I'm going with you!" Buck insisted.
"Buck," Chris said, from where he had been standing in the corner. He had tried to let his friend handle the situation, since it was his brother, but Buck was losing control. "Let the man do his job," Chris urged. Buck's shoulders slumped as he turned to Chris. Without another word, he left the jail.
+ + + + + + +
Jonathan Barkley, Esquire, stared around the room at the three young men. "I have been your father's attorney for a long time. I watched you boys grow up," he began, looking at the two younger men with a smile. It was hard to control the urge to frown as his eyes fell upon the oldest son. "Your father made specific bequests to each of you. The property here will be divided between you, according to the tenets of the will. Recently, your father added a codicil to his will, to provide for his grandchildren," he looked pointedly at Ryan and then at Michael. "Your father provided that, whichever of you produced the first son and heir, would receive the house and central grounds. The others will receive additional cash to build their own homes on their property."
"What?" Ryan asked, rising from his chair. "That isn't the way I heard it!"
"What do you mean? The codicil was made privately and the terms were not to be made known until his death," Barkley said.
Before the discussion could deteriorate into an all-out screaming match, the doors to the study were opened and Tomas stepped in. "Sheriff Stone is here to see Master Ryan," he said calmly. Ryan glared at the attorney before turning on his heel and sweeping from the room.
"Sheriff, what brings you out here?" Ryan asked as he crossed to the bar and poured himself a drink. In the back of his mind, he was planning to hunt down the lawyer's assistant and grind him to a pulp.
"Allow me to extend my condolences on your father's death," the sheriff began. "I wouldn't have intruded on your mourning except that there's a situation I need to discuss with you. There's a man in town who's claiming to be your son's brother and saying that you kidnapped the boy from him."
"He's here?" Ryan asked.
"They came in on the train. The fellow says that the boy is his brother. He says their mother was-"
"I know who his mother was," Ryan snapped angrily. Even as he drew breath to admit that he was wrong about the boy being his, his brothers and the attorney appeared in the foyer. "I don't know what game that man is playing but John is my son. You tell him that if he bothers us, I'll have him arrested so fast his head will spin."
Sheriff Stone stared at the floor, clearly nervous in the face of Ryan's anger. After a moment, he lifted his head and moved toward the door. "I'll tell him. I'm really sorry to have bothered all of you," he said, meeting Daniel and Michael's eyes before he fled the house.
"What was that all about?" Daniel asked when the door closed. "Is someone trying to take John away from you?"
Rather than answer, Ryan slammed his empty glass on the bar and swept out of the room. He paused in the study to collect the will from the desk, so he could read the codicil with his own eyes.
+ + + + + + +
Buck felt as if he'd been sucker punched when the sheriff delivered the news. Vin and Ezra, who had been so thrilled at the prospect of being reunited with JD, were also stricken. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Buck's hands slowly clenched on the spread as he shook with impotent rage. Chris thanked the sheriff for his time and let the man out of the room, hoping that Buck would hold his temper and not do something foolish.
"I'm going to try to reach Orin Travis," Chris said. "We'll get him back," he reassured the devastated trio.
Later in the afternoon, Lester Woerner arrived at the boarding house. Orin had contacted him and asked him to look into the situation. After gathering all the pertinent information, he promised to get back to them as soon as he had news.
+ + + + + + +
Ryan stared at the paper as his rage simmered. The damned man had lied to him! If he didn't have the brat, he would get more money; instead, he was being saddled with the house and barns. He flung the sheaf of papers away, rolling off of his bed and storming across the room.
JD looked up, startled, as his daddy entered his room by the door that connected their rooms instead of from the hall. Ever since the maid had told him what happened to a person when they went to God, JD had been inconsolable. He also had not forgotten the rough way he had been treated after speaking to Miss Jenny at the pool hall.
Staring at the dark-haired child on the floor, Ryan clenched his hands. All of his worldly problems rested solidly on the boy's shoulders. On top of the fact that he had been duped by the legal assistant, the brat's brother was here to make trouble for him. Without even realizing it, he had closed the distance between the two of them so that he was standing over the child. "It's all your fault, you little son of a bitch!" he growled as he reached down for the boy.
There was no warning, other than the hatred radiating off of the man, to prepare JD for what was to come. Ryan wound his fist in the front of JD's clothing, lifting him from the floor. The first open-handed slap dashed his lip against his teeth and JD tasted blood. Immediately, he began to wail in pain and distress.
Michael passed the rooms his brother and nephew shared and paused. He heard what sounded like someone hitting another person. Suddenly, he heard John's screams. When he tried the door, he found it locked. Fumbling on the brass plate, he realized that the key was not in its place. As John's cries grew louder, punctuated with pleas for his daddy to stop, Michael took a step back and gave the door a good, solid kick.
Ryan looked up when the door splintered, letting the screaming child slip from his hands. He turned just in time to be on the receiving end of a hard-flung fist to his chin. His head snapped back, causing him to stumble. Before he could focus on his attacker, another blow to his jaw sent him down.
Lilia moved along the hall as quickly as her ponderous figure would allow. She paused at the shattered door, gasping in shock at the battered boy in Michael's arms. She glanced past him to see Ryan's crumpled body on the floor. "Take him to my room, quickly!" she urged.
+ + + + + + +
A soft gasp from the other bed wakened Buck. He lay still, trying to figure out who had made the sound. Just as he was relaxing enough to go back to sleep, he heard the restless tossing begin. Pushing the blankets back, he set his feet on the floor and stood, looking toward the bed where Ezra slept. The teen normally slept fairly still, rarely disturbing his blankets. Now, he was thrashing in the bed, his legs and arms moving as if he was doing battle with someone or something.
"No ... take me ... no," Ezra mumbled as he tossed his head from side to side. "Sorry ... so sorry ... my fault," he said, rolling on his side and burrowing into the pillow.
"Ezra? It's okay. Settle down," Buck soothed, reaching out to gently touch the boy's shoulder.
"Don't hate me ... sorry," Ezra continued to murmur.
Buck swallowed the lump in his throat as he rubbed more firmly, trying to rouse Ezra from the dream. Finally, he felt the teen tense under his hand and knew that he was awake. "I don't blame you, Ezra," Buck whispered. "And I could never hate you."
A wash of cold dread had flooded Ezra's heart as he awoke. It was the same dream, the one that had tormented him ever since JD was taken. When he realized that his restless mumbling had wakened Buck, he felt sick. He had only planned to stay until they got JD back, then he was going to find another place to live until his mother sent for him. Buck's softly spoken words of absolution loosed the knot of anguish he'd been holding tightly in his heart.
The soft sniffle told Buck that more was needed. He knew Ezra felt guilty about letting JD out of his sight the day he was kidnapped. The hateful, hurtful words he had flung at the boys rang loudly in his mind, making him cringe. "It could just as easily have happened if I'd been watching him," Buck admitted. "I was so busy flirting with Miss Inez that I might not have noticed McDonald taking him."
Ezra gasped at Buck's confession. Rolling over to face the man, he began to deny Buck's words, "You would never have let it happen. You wouldn't have ignored him. He's your brother! You love him!"
"It still could have happened. If McDonald was determined to get JD, he could have followed us to the ranch and grabbed him from there. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't Vin's fault. The only person we have to blame is the man who took him. All right?"
Without even realizing it, Ezra sat up and threw his arms around Buck's neck, hugging him with everything he had inside. The guilt had been eating him slowly, like a cancer. If he had not felt bound by Buck's request that he look after Vin and Chris, he would have run away a long time ago. He felt Buck's arms tighten around him, felt the tremors of the man's sobs, as they clung to each other.
+ + + + + + +
By morning, Ryan McDonald was gone. He left a note saying that he wanted Daniel and Lilia to have the house for their baby. He also admitted that John wasn't his son and asked that his brothers give the boy to his rightful family. Tomas brought the letter to them at the breakfast table.
"Tomas, go into town and find Sheriff Stone. Have him go to John's brother and bring him here as soon as possible," Daniel told the butler. The Negro nodded, turning to do as he was told.
In the upstairs bedroom, Lilia sat on the side of the small bed where her nephew lay. John's lip was swollen and purple from where it had been dashed against his teeth. One of his eyes was swollen and discoloring. She reached out to gently caress his cheek, her heart swelling as he nuzzled into her touch, mumbling softly, 'Momma.'
+ + + + + + +
Chris shook his head at the sight that greeted him when he went to wake Buck and Ezra for breakfast. Buck was on one side of the bed, sitting up part-way with the blankets draped over his long legs. Ezra lay snuggled to Buck's side, his arm thrown possessively across Buck's chest with his head resting over Buck's heart. He knew that Vin had been having a hard time sleeping but he wasn't sure about Ezra.
+ + + + + + +
Sheriff Stone approached the table with his hat in his hand and Tomas standing behind him. He could almost feel the profound sadness radiating from the two men and two boys. "Excuse me, Mr. Wilmington, if I might have a word with you?"
Buck jumped up so quickly that his chair toppled over as soon as he heard the news. "We can go and get him? Now?" he asked, heedless of the napkin tucked into the front of his shirt.
"Right now. This is Tomas, he will drive you out to the house whenever you're ready to go."
Like a stampeding herd of buffalo, the foursome thundered out of the dining room. Quickly returning to their rooms to gather their coats, they were soon out the door and piling into the elegant car that was parked just outside of the picket fence.
+ + + + + + +
Lilia took it hard when her husband told her that they were returning John to his brother but she understood that it was for the best. She coaxed the weary child from the bed and got him dressed, combing his coal black hair and giving him a gentle kiss on the top of his head. The cook brought out John's favorite foods, as a celebratory meal, apple pancakes and scrambled eggs with ham and green onion.
His jaw and head hurt as JD sat at the big table trying to eat his breakfast. He noticed that his daddy wasn't around and felt relieved at his absence. Aunt Lilia spread the strawberry jam on his toast, encouraging him to eat. She kept touching him and he picked up on her anxiety. Just as he was finishing his milk, he heard the front door open. Frightened that it was his daddy, he began to tremble. When the door opened, he remained frozen in disbelief. Tomas had barely gotten out of the way before Buck came across the room. JD looked up at Lilia and she nodded, her eyes filling with tears. Suddenly, JD scooted off of the chair and took a running leap at his brother. "Buck! You're here!" he said as he was scooped up in a crushing embrace.
"Oh JD! Oh my Little'n, I missed you!" Buck mumbled as he buried his face in JD's shoulder.
Daniel slid his arm around his wife as they watched the happy reunion. Any doubt that they were doing the right thing was instantly erased. After Buck had a few minutes by himself with John, the other man and the boys crowded in. Tears and touches abounded as the family renewed their acquaintance with the small boy. Finally, the knot of bodies loosened enough to allow Daniel to speak to the adults.
"We can only apologize and say that we didn't know what our brother had done. If there is anything we can do to make it up to you ..." Daniel said.
"We're just grateful to have him back," Chris replied.
"Would you join us for breakfast? John just finished his but you are welcome to stay," Lilia offered. She wasn't in any hurry to see the child go.
"Thank you, Ma'am, we'd like that," Chris answered, after getting a nod from Buck that it was alright to stay. The butler came to collect their coats. Vin, Ezra and Chris easily handed over the outer clothing but Buck was somewhat encumbered by JD's arms and legs. Finally, Chris was able to tug the sleeve off of his friend's arm to hand it to the smiling Negro. Daniel pulled out a chair and Chris steered Buck to it, knowing he wasn't about to let go of JD any time soon. The boys hesitantly moved around the table to sit across from the adults.
The cook slid plates of steaming food in front each of the guests without interrupting their conversation. Chris was explaining what they had been doing to find the boy nestled in Buck's arms. Ezra and Vin dug in, not wanting to have to talk to the people who had kept JD from them. Daniel and Lilia, seated at the other end of the table, returned the favor by telling them what John had been doing while he had been with them. Chris cut into the thick slab of ham, having abandoned his breakfast at the boarding house earlier. Buck only reached for the cup of coffee sitting beyond his plate. He was a little worried that JD hadn't spoken at all since calling his name. Finally, he took hold of the child and pushed him back so he could see him properly. His hands had already discovered the haircut but he thought JD's face had looked bruised when he first saw him.
"What in the hell?" Buck said as he got his first real look at his brother's little face. JD's eyes filled with tears and he began to shudder. Buck scanned JD's face before he registered the tears rolling down his cheeks. The sight shattered his resolve to hold back and Buck pulled JD back to his chest, burying his face as he cried.
The silence in the room grew until it was almost unbearable before Daniel found his voice. "Ryan did that last night. We don't know why. I'm sorry we weren't able to stop him," he said softly.
Very little was said from then until the butler began clearing the dishes from the table. Tessa had gone and packed all of the boy's clothes and toys into a valise. She slipped quietly into the room and announced that she had put it with their coats in the foyer.
Daniel offered again that he would do anything he could to make it up to them. Buck only glared at the younger man as he rose from the table with JD held tightly to his chest. Chris helped him on with his coat. Lilia disappeared and returned with a brightly-colored quilt in her hands. She shyly approached Buck. "Cover him with this," she offered. Buck's scowl loosened and he took the blanket from her, holding it against JD with one hand while he moved his arm to the outside of the cover under JD's little bottom. "Can I at least tell him goodbye?" Lilia asked. Buck considered for several seconds before he let the blanket down so she could see JD's head. "Goodbye Little One, we'll miss you," she whispered, placing a kiss on the dark hair. Daniel wrapped an arm around his wife as Tomas escorted Buck and his family out of the house. Only after the door closed did she bury her face in his chest and cry.
It was awkward getting into the car with JD wrapped around him like a limpet but Buck managed. As they were turning out of the driveway, he remembered something that he had in his pocket. Digging it out, he called to JD, "Look what I've got for you, Little'n." JD turned his head to see and his eyes widened at the familiar toy.
"Pony," he breathed as his hand unclenched from Buck's shirt. An instant later, the wooden horse was safely tucked in between them.
At the boarding house, Buck hurried inside with the three boys while Chris collected the valise and exchanged words with the butler. He was still concerned at the silence from the little boy.
"Master Ryan was very cruel to the boy," Tomas said as he handed off the bag.
"I still don't understand why he took him in the first place," Chris replied.
"I think it had something to do with the codicil his father made to his will regarding the firstborn grandson. You should also know that John has been very sad since Master Terrence passed away. He has been crying out in the night. My wife tried to explain to him about the funeral and it seemed to make it worse."
"Thank you, I appreciate you telling me. JD's been through a lot in his life," Chris said, offering his hand to the man to shake. Tomas smiled as his dark hand closed on the pale one.
"Good day to you, Sir," he said as he turned to get back in the car.
Buck had managed to get out of his coat but could not get JD to move, not that he was in any hurry for him to let go. He hoped to get JD talking by striking up conversation with the other boys. He encouraged them to tell his brother what they had been doing since he'd been gone. Ezra and Vin were puzzled at first, but then they caught on and began telling JD all about what had been happening. Little Red, one of the new laying hens, had hatched a small clutch of eggs. Ezra told JD how cute the chicks were and how hard they had worked to catch them when they got out of the pen one time. Vin told about how Special Day had gotten out of the corral and pulled down a line of clothes that Chris had just hung out to dry. Gradually, JD relaxed, his little fingers losing their death grip on Buck's clothes. Slowly, timidly, JD told of the pony his grandfather had given him and of learning to ride.
Chris hurried up the stairs and into the room. As soon as he stepped across the threshold, JD stopped talking and burrowed into Buck's chest again.
They decided to take things slowly, not to press JD. Right now, the most important thing was that they had him back. They had supper in the dining room of the boarding house. Mrs. Fletcher fussed over the little boy, bringing him more chicken and dumplings when she noticed that he liked them. It about broke Buck's heart to see JD flinch whenever either he or Chris reached across the table for something. Mr. Fletcher brought up a tub so that the boys could bathe before bed and Buck used that as an excuse to see if JD had any other bruises that he hadn't seen. The only other injuries he found were on the boy's arms, where someone had grabbed him roughly. In the valise, he found several flannel nightshirts and clean underclothes. He dried JD and dressed him before carrying him into the other room to tuck into bed. To his surprise, JD climbed right into bed, curling up on his side with the pillow wrapped tightly in his arms.
"Good night, JD, I love you," Buck whispered as he kissed JD's head gently.
Ezra and Vin begged to be allowed to sleep in the room with JD and Buck reluctantly agreed. He realized that the boys needed to reassure themselves that JD was still there and to protect him. The best way to do that was to stay right there close by. Chris brought up a tray with a pot of coffee and cups from the dining room. He poured two cups and offered one to Buck, who stood near the window glaring at the town beyond.
"He's been through a lot," Chris said.
"It's like a little stranger in his body," Buck replied.
"The butler said he's been having a real rough time since the older Mr. McDonald passed."
Buck's head came up at that. JD had been slowly adjusting to his mother's death when he was taken. Exhaling in irritation that the little boy had been made to relive another painful moment in his short life, Buck turned from the window.
Not long after they had settled into bed, JD woke them, screaming. Buck tumbled out of bed, his long legs tangled in the blankets and night clothes. By the time he found the light switch near the door, the screams had softened to terrified whimpers.
"Don't let him get me. Hide me!" JD begged as he clung to Ezra.
"We won't let no one hurt you," Vin assured the little one as he rubbed his shoulders soothingly.
"Don't let my daddy hurt me anymore," JD whined.
Buck's eyes narrowed as he heard JD's words. Taking a deep breath, he willed himself to be calm as he moved to sit on the bed next to Vin. He reached out, adding his hand to Vin's as they tried to soothe JD. Chris stopped in the door between the rooms and watched.
The next morning, after a very brief visit to thank Miss Jenny and Miss Sadie for their help, the family boarded the train for home. If they were lucky, they would make it back in time for Christmas. Buck didn't care as long as they got JD away from the McDonald's. On the train, Ezra read to JD and Vin as they played on the floor with the small toys from JD's bag. None of them questioned the ever-present Pony clutched in JD's hand. The boy was content to play there as long as Buck stayed in his seat. Every so often, his hand would drift out to touch Buck's leg as if to insure that he was still there. Any time Buck had to leave the car, for any reason, he had to take JD with him. At night, JD slept curled securely in his brother's arms.
By the time they reached the mountains, the old JD was beginning to emerge. Little by little, he talked and even smiled as he played with Vin and Ezra. Gradually, as he grew more secure, he began to ask questions.
"Why don't my daddy love me, Ezra?" JD asked.
The words were like spikes in the little southerner's heart. Ezra's hand shook slightly as he reached for the wooden horse that had come from JD's valise. Buck, having overheard the question and seen the older boy's reaction, intervened. "I don't think he was your father, JD," Buck said as he leaned closer to the boys.
"But he said he was," JD protested softly.
"I'll bet he just wanted a little boy to run a con on his father and that's why he took you," Ezra offered, looking to Buck for confirmation. "Your real father would never have hurt you like that," he continued.
"But you're my real brother, aren't you, Buck?" JD asked, his insecurities blazing brightly in his hazel eyes. Buck reached down and drew the boy into his arms, holding him tightly to his heart. After JD was asleep, Buck settled him in Chris' arms and drew Ezra aside for a private talk.
"I appreciate what you said to JD earlier," Buck said.
"It was the truth," Ezra replied, doing his best to maintain his casual façade.
"I'm sure your mother has a good reason for doing what she did," Buck said. He couldn't bear the thought of the boy thinking his own mother didn't want him, he just couldn't imagine it.
"Mother always has a reason," Ezra agreed.
"As long as you know that you'll always have a home with us," Buck said as he put an arm around the teenager and pulled him close. Ezra always strenuously avoided physical contact between them, even though they knew he desperately craved it. "Anybody would be proud to have you for a son," he said before allowing Ezra to pull away.
Josiah and Nathan were waiting at the train depot when the others arrived home. After being crowded on the train together, four of the five were looking forward to having some wide open spaces. JD, on the other hand, became clingy at the prospect of getting off of the train. Buck was more than willing to carry him, settling the slight boy on his hip as they left the passenger car. Chris greeted Nathan and Josiah warmly, thanking them for all the time they had spent taking care of the ranch. The older boys greeted the men too, glad to be home again. JD lifted his head to say hello to the men, but immediately buried it in Buck's neck afterward. Both of them smiled in understanding.
Once they got back to the ranch, things settled into a routine. Nathan and Josiah continued to help out with the peacekeeping duties to give Buck time with JD, who was now having nightmares almost every night. Buck had taken to having the boy sleep with him, hoping to waken him before he got to the full-blown screaming fits. Another unpleasant new occurrence was that JD wet the bed when he was frightened, which further upset the sensitive little spirit.
Christmas was a pleasant spot of light in their dark time. JD was the recipient of several gifts from well-meaning townspeople as well as getting several presents from his family. Chris had spent his time while Buck was gone whittling. Now JD had a small herd of horses to play with, each one lovingly sanded and colored with oil to protect the wood. Buck had decided that the clothes that JD had brought from the McDonald's forced his brother to keep remembering the traumatic event, so he gave them to Josiah, knowing that he would find someone who needed them.
Gradually, over the next few weeks, JD had settled enough for Buck to return to work as long as one of the older boys would sleep with him. They took turns sharing JD's bed, happy that the boy didn't appear to hold any grudge against them for what had happened. JD's nightmares and bedwetting struck only rarely, usually if he was overtired or stressed.
Ezra brought out the slate and attempted to revive JD's interest in schooling, only to discover that it made JD upset. It took a lot of coaxing for him to learn that the tutor had told JD that his handwriting looked like a chicken had jumped on his paper. Ezra assured JD that the man was mistaken and proceeded to drag the smaller boy outside to show him how he knew. A light snow had fallen during the night. The chickens were staying in their coop where it was warmer.
"See how the snow looks like a fresh sheet of paper?" Ezra asked. When JD nodded, Ezra smiled, "Just watch." He opened the gate and tapped the side of the soup can that they used to measure the cracked grain. Immediately, the hens rushed out, scratching at the snow. After several seconds, JD began to giggle. The chicks had grown out of their downy, newborn feathers but still remained small and undeniably cute. They were running around in the pen, chasing each other and squawking. Ezra smiled, seeing that JD looked happy. "See, you write much better than that," he said.
Another thing they noticed was that JD no longer clamored to ride the horses. Buck tried to set his brother in the saddle one afternoon, thinking it would brighten his spirits. Instead, JD burst into tears the moment Buck took his hands off of him. JD hadn't once mentioned getting a horse of his own, even after one of the brood mares dropped her foal. He was content to feed and brush the animals; he just didn't want to ride them ... at all.
By the time spring reached the higher elevations, JD had all but forgotten the kidnapping except in the vaguest sense of unease whenever they went to town. Buck had decided that school could wait until the summer term, because JD needed more time before being made to go into town everyday.
The phone rang at the ranch one afternoon and Chris answered it, as Buck was out at the barn with the boys. It was the man at the train depot, saying that a delivery had arrived for Buck and JD that needed to be collected immediately. The cantankerous man wouldn't tell Chris what the delivery was, only that they needed to get it before nightfall.
"Buck, come on, we have to go into town," Chris called as he reached the barn door.
"Why? Something happen?" Buck asked.
Giving JD a significant look, Chris replied, "There's a shipment at the train depot that we have to pick up right away."
Frowning and puzzled, Buck nodded. "Alright, give me a few minutes to get cleaned up. Come on boys, we're going to town."
On the drive to town, JD chattered about every little thing, oblivious to the curiosity in his brother and Chris. When they reached the depot, Vin and Ezra jumped out of the bed of the truck and stood waiting for the others to get out of the cab. Mr. Timmons came out of the depot and handed Buck a thick envelope.
"That's it?" Chris asked, irritated that they had driven all the way in for an envelope that could have been left at the jail until one of them picked it up.
"Nope, the rest of it's over yonder," the older man said, turning to spit a stream of tobacco juice. All five of them looked in the direction he had pointed.
"Ohh!" Vin said.
"My sentiments exactly," Ezra agreed.
"You're kidding," Chris said, peering over Buck's shoulder at the letter that now hung from his fingertips as he stared across the way.
"That's Justin," JD said without emotion.
As a group, they moved toward the bay pony that was tied to the hitching post. JD hung back, seeming to want nothing to do with the little gelding. Chris circled the animal, noting the clean lines and sturdy musculature. Buck glanced back down at the letter. It was from Daniel and Lilia McDonald. They wanted JD to have the pony, since it had been given to him by the formidable Terrence McDonald. There was also a crate with all of the tack and blankets for the horse. They also wanted to let Buck know that they had named their baby John Daniel, after the little boy who had stolen their hearts. Attached to the letter were the ownership papers and pedigree for the horse.
After they got Justin home, Buck noticed that JD ignored the animal completely. Ezra and Vin were the ones who turned him into the corral and groomed him while JD sulked. When Buck put the saddle and bridle on the horse and tried to get his brother to show him how well he could ride, JD ran into the house and hid.
A couple of weeks later, Buck approached Chris about the possibility of selling the horse, since it seemed that JD didn't really want it, but Vin and Ezra begged them to keep it. Ezra had a plan for getting JD to ride again.
The pony looked back as the teenager slung the small English saddle onto his back. Ezra had deliberately put it on wrong, hoping to draw JD in. Sure enough, as he reached under to grab the cinch, JD called out to him, "That isn't the way it goes."
"What do you mean? It looks right to me. Doesn't it look right to you, Vin?" Ezra asked.
"Looks right to me," Vin agreed. Ezra brought the cinch up and began to try to attach it to the saddle. Justin began to sidestep, causing the saddle to slip and nearly fall to the ground.
"You're doing it wrong! He doesn't like it!" JD cried as he moved to prevent Ezra from buckling the cinch. No matter how much he had come to hate the riding lessons, JD had loved having his own horse and he really loved Justin. JD grunted as he pulled the saddle off and turned it around. Ezra stepped back, giving Vin a wink. In no time at all, JD had the horse all tacked up. He dug in the chest that the tack had come in until he found the special riding boots Ryan had bought for him. Sitting on a hay bale, he pulled them on and moved to lead Justin to the corral.
Vin slipped away to tell Buck that they had gotten JD to ride the pony. Buck abandoned the laundry he had been folding and ran to the corral. He couldn't believe it when he saw Ezra boosting JD onto Justin's back. JD sat as tall as possible in the saddle and collected the reins. Buck forced himself to smile; he didn't want JD to know how worried he was about letting him ride the new pony. JD clucked and the pony moved off smoothly, his neck proudly arched. JD lifted his bottom off of the saddle every time the pony's outside front foot touched the ground. After a few minutes, JD reversed directions, bouncing lightly in the saddle so that he was posting on the correct diagonal.
"Look at me, Buck! Look at me!" JD called as he came closer to his brother. "I'm riding!"
"You sure are, Little'n," Buck agreed, "You sure are."
Later, after they had removed the saddle and Vin was helping to brush the pony, JD looked up at his brother. "Buck, you said that Ryan wasn't my daddy, right?"
Not knowing where the questioning was going, Buck nodded as he and Vin continued to run the soft brush over the horse's back.
"If he's not my daddy, why did he send me the pony?"
Buck swallowed hard; he didn't know how to answer his brother's question. "Well, I think it was more from Daniel and Lilia than from Ryan. I think maybe that the pony missed you," he offered. The reason sounded weak to his ears but he hoped that JD would buy it.
"But you said I couldn't have a horse until I was growed up some more," JD continued as he jumped down from the packing crate he had been standing on and handed the fancy bridle and reins to Ezra to hang on the peg.
"He can't very well send the pony back," Ezra said, "That would be very poor manners, to return a gift like that."
"That means I can keep him, can't I?" JD asked, looking from Ezra to Buck.
Holding Ezra's gaze, Buck smiled his gratitude to the teenager. He had provided a way for JD to keep the pony and allowed Buck to avoid having to get into a detailed explanation of the kidnapping. As he stepped from the stall and closed the gate, Buck lifted JD and set the boy on his hip, reaching out to pull Ezra in with his other arm.
"Well, you heard Ezra; we can't very well return a gift. That would be bad manners," Buck said as the trio walked toward the house.
"Hey, look! Chris is home!" JD said, pointing to the truck sitting on the driveway. When he struggled to get down, Buck set him on his feet and watched him run to the house where Chris swept him up and carried him inside. It was good to be home.