Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Ratings/Warnings: Some bad language.
This was a birthday fic for Robijean and Andy
The place was deserted. JD Dunne looked around the empty ranch house and checked his watch. It was a little after ten, hardly late, yet there was no one around. A noise from outside alerted him and he moved to investigate. As he stood on the porch, he scanned the area, his head jerking back to the stables on hearing a sound. As JD made his way over, he noted all the horses were in the paddock next to the stables, even the brood mares. Calling, he entered the building.
JD grinned at the sound of Vin's voice. He walked up to him.
"Mornin', where is everyone?"
Vin smiled up at his youngest brother from his kneeling position on the floor. "Buck and Chris raced off to an early auction in town, kinda last minute, I reckon. Ezra and Josiah went to town on business, together...but for separate matters and Nathan's at the hospital."
Vin stood. "Don't be disappointed, Buck and Chris left at five. They didn't want to wake you at that time of morning."
"But how am I ever gonna raise my own horses if I don't gain experience?"
"Ya got plenty of time, JD, `sides, you got Clementine to bring on."
JD's face dropped. "Shit...I never thought about that. I'm gonna have to let her go one day."
Tanner watched his kid brother's face fall, he couldn't help but smile. "Kid, ya can't keep all of `em. You'll probably raise and sell on hundreds over the years."
"But...Clementine... she's...special. "
The Texan squeezed JD's shoulder. "That she is, and I reckon Chris and Buck think so, too."
JD brightened, "So...what are you doing?"
"Some of these stall doors need re-paneling."
He picked up a hefty piece of equipment, "Got me this heavy duty nail gun, though...should make short work of it. Could use a hand."
Dunne nodded, "Okay, let me get some coffee first. Do you want some?"
Vin nodded as he checked to see if the nail gun was loaded. "Sure, thanks."
Leaving the stables, JD noticed Delilah and Clementine trotting toward the corral fence. He walked over, clucking to the mother and foal.
"Hey, ladies, how are my two favorite girls this morning?" He chuckled as both horses nuzzled his hands. "Aaah, sorry, I don't have anything for you yet, but I will. Hey Samson!" Nathan's gelding trotted over, causing the easterner to frown.
"Are you limping?" JD climbed through the fence and instructed the chestnut to lift his foot.
Vin donned his safety glasses and gloves and lined up a new piece of paneling. Holding the gun to the wood, he fired. An almighty bang ensued followed by a loud whirr from the gun as it completed a cycle. Vin was impressed.
"Wow...this shouldn't take long at all." He continued, wondering if it might have been a good idea to wear mufflers to protect his ears.
JD was examining Samson's hoof, his back to the chestnut, as he held the animal's leg between his own knees. "Ahhh...see, here it is, you got a little stone caught in there."
He was just thinking about where he'd find a tool to remove it when a loud bang echoed around him. All the horses startled. Samson jerked forward then kicked back both his back legs before running off, catching JD on the hip and lower back and sending him flying forward. Crashing through the corral fencing, JD's head impacted hard against the fence railing as he went through, landing face down, unconscious and bleeding, on the ground.
Three quarters of an hour or so later, Vin was almost done and now realized he hadn't had his coffee. Removing his gloves, he lifted his goggles to rest on top of his head, glancing toward the stable doors as if expecting to see JD walking through them, two mugs of coffee in hand. Instead, he frowned as he noticed Delilah wandering past.
"What the hell...? How'd she get out?"
Removing his safety gear and switching off the compressor, Vin walked outside.
"Aw hell!" He gaped at the several horses that were milling around outside the corral, noticing Milagro and Clementine seemed interested in something near the broken fencing. Vin's brow furrowed as he moved forward, trying to work out how the fencing could be broken, when he froze in his tracks.
Within seconds, Vin was at his injured brother's side, hands shaking, as he took in the bleeding and unconscious form. Finally, his senses returned.
"JD...kid...oh Jesus, please be okay." He checked for breathing and a pulse, relieved to find both, then checked around for anything that might be causing the youth harm. Realizing JD was in a safe position, he laid a hand on his brother's face.
"I'll be right back." He raced to the house to call for an ambulance. By the time the paramedics arrived, Vin had stabled the horses and secured the house. He was sitting next to a blanket-covered JD when they arrived, distraught at what had happened and at the fact he couldn't explain how it had happened. They were soon on their way to Four Corners Memorial hospital.
Nathan Jackson stretched. His shift was halfway through and it had been reasonably quiet in the ER. He wasn't sorry; he'd wanted to catch up on some reading and was enjoying a peaceful half-hour in the Doctors' lounge. He looked up as a nurse popped her head around the door.
"We have a head injury, ETA five minutes."
Nathan put down his papers and smiled. "Thanks, Roberta, I'll be right there." `Ah well', he thought, `it was nice while it lasted'.
Ezra and Josiah chatted as an ambulance went screaming past Rosie's. Their business concluded, they were meeting up with Buck and Chris, smiling as the two men entered the bar.
"Gentlemen," Ezra greeted, nodding as Inez brought over more coffees.
The two men raised their hands in a wave as they walked through the bar to take their seats. Buck whispered something to Inez, getting swatted for his trouble. The pretty Mexican walked away shaking her head, but wearing a huge grin.
"Boys," Buck greeted, sitting and taking a sip of his coffee. "Vin and JD not with you?"
"JD was still asleep when we left at nine-thirty, Vin was preparing to repair the stall doors," Josiah informed them.
Chris nodded, approvingly.
"However," Ezra took up the story, "I have called home, and their cells, several times to inform them we would be meeting up, but as yet have had no luck getting in contact with them."
Buck frowned, Chris waved it off, "Nail gun's pretty noisy."
Buck nodded, but couldn't shake the feeling of apprehension that now crept through his subconscious.
Vin hadn't realized he was holding JD's hand but was still reluctant to let go. He had been shocked to see so much blood from the head wound, but it was something else the paramedics had said that had him even more worried.
`Stomach's hard and distended.'
What did that mean? He looked at his brother through watery eyes...Vin was choked seeing him like this, and felt...responsible. How could this have happened? He had been right there. He was pulled from his thoughts as they arrived at the hospital. As the ambulance rocked to a stop, it dawned on him...Nathan was on duty. `Thank God, I don't have to do this alone.'
Nathan prepared the ER room while he waited for his trauma to arrive. On hearing noise from the corridor outside the room, he moved to greet them but froze, shocked at seeing a familiar face come through the emergency bay doors.
"Oh thank God...NATHAN!" The normally calm Texan grasped his brother's arms in relief. "It's JD."
"What? Oh God." He signaled to the nurse, "Roberta..." he looked down at the gurney as JD was wheeled past him. "...this is my brother."
The nurse put her hand to her mouth. "Oh my, I'm so sorry. I'll go get Doctor Clarke."
Turning back to his brother, Nathan asked, "What happened?
"I ain't sure, Nathan. He was by the corral...the fence was broken...I don't know....I don't know what happened," Vin stammered.
"It's okay, don't worry, we'll take good care of him." Nathan looked at Vin, "I have to go in and find out what's wrong. Can you get hold of the others?"
Vin nodded, then paled. "I forgot my cell."
Nathan fished out a key, "This is to my locker, my name is on it, my cell's in there."
With a nod of understanding, Vin left. Nathan turned, took a deep breath and entered the emergency room.
The four brothers were enjoying their time in the Saloon. As Buck was telling Josiah and Ezra about their trip to the auction that morning, Chris answered his cell, noting the ID.
"Nathan? I thought you were work...Vin?"
The three men stopped talking, curious as to how Vin had been mistaken for Nathan.
"Slow down...okay...he what?" Larabee stood. "Shit...okay...okay, Vin, calm down, we're about ten minutes away. Hang in there, bro...we're coming."
Chris' face had paled. Buck knew, as soon as Chris looked at him.
"There's been an accident. I don't know all the details, but I do know we have to get to the hospital...now. "
The four men left, their happy mood now dissipated.
Nathan stood, unmoving, as he watched the medical team work on his youngest brother. His stomach was knotted as the medical jargon flew around `blood in the urine, slight stomach distension`, focusing on one word, 'surgery'. Once they began to prep JD, Nathan went out to talk to Vin.
Tanner sat in the waiting room, his hands covering his face as he tried and tried to work out how this could have happened. A noise and familiar voices caused him to look up, standing to greet his brothers.
Chris took Vin's elbow. "From the top, Vin," Chris instructed, "What happened?"
The Texan shook his head. "I...I don't know, JD came out to the stables to ask where everyone was, he went back to the house to get us some coffee. A while later, I was almost finished fixing the stall doors when I realized I hadn't seen JD for a while. Then I noticed the horses wandering around the yard. When I stepped outside..." His face crumpled in misery. "Oh, God...I'm so sorry...I don't know how it happened, or how long he'd been lying there."
Buck was trying not to focus on Vin's bloody clothes and hands. "What did you find?"
Vin tried to hold Buck's gaze, but couldn't. "He...he was lying on the ground, he'd gone through the fence... hit his head." Chris guided Vin to a chair before he collapsed. Buck paced, Ezra and Josiah sat either side of Vin, struggling to process the information, all five men now silent as each was lost in his own thoughts. Nathan joined them, Buck rushed forward.
Jackson sighed. "Chris, you need to sign a consent form...JD's about to go to surgery." He handed the blond a clipboard.
"For a head injury?" Buck's panicky words came out as a squeak.
"That, yes, but they're more concerned with his kidneys."
Vin was on his feet, "The Paramedics were talkin'...somethin' 'bout... distended."
Nathan nodded. "Looks like JD took a blow to his back and stomach, he's bleeding internally."
"Easy Buck," Nathan soothed, "It may not be too bad, they'll know more soon. Looking at the injuries, I'd say he was kicked by a horse. There are bruises on his hip and back that look like hoof prints. Also, there is heavy bruising to his abdomen area, maybe from hitting the fence, but definitely caused by blunt trauma."
Vin shuddered as he stood, "I guess that would make sense, but why was he in the corral?" If it were possible, Vin paled even more. "Oh God...he might've been laying there from when he went to get coffee, Oh shit...oh shit...lying there all that time."
Josiah sat the Texan down. "Easy, son, this isn't going to change anything. Let's stay calm and focus on the here and now."
Tanner nodded, but he wasn't really listening. Chris handed over the clipboard. "Nathan?"
"He's in good hands, Chris, they seem optimistic, his portable head CT looks good, just needs some stitches."
They all turned as a bed rolled out of the ER. Buck moved to it and latched onto his brother's wrist. "Jesus, kid, what are you tryin' to do to us?" He leaned in close to JD's ear.
"Everything' s gonna be fine, JD...just you hang in there."
Each brother watched as the pale, still bloody youth trundled past, then they sat down...to wait.
Less than three hours later, the brothers entered the recovery room to find a nurse making an unconscious JD comfortable, pushing back his hair gently before leaving him. She smiled at the men as they entered. "He'll be moving to a room in an hour or so." She moved past them, squeezing Nathan's arm.
"Thanks, Roberta," he whispered.
"You're welcome," she smiled, and left them alone with their brother, comforted by the fact that surgery had gone well. Buck and Vin went to the bedside, the former taking JD's hand and massaging it gently. Chris stood behind them and placed a hand supportively on each man's shoulder, now, once again, they would wait.
His head felt heavy, he couldn't move it...or open his eyes. And his hand too? Buck...help me...Buck...
It was barely a whisper, but Buck was right with him, holding onto the hand with the IV to prevent him from hurting himself as JD waved it around.
"Easy, squirt...nice 'n easy."
"I know...try and rest."
The brothers looked at each other, relief evident in their faces. JD had come through surgery well; waking up had been his last hurdle to complete recovery, and he'd cleared it. Things were looking up.
A little while later and JD was trying to think. There was something he needed to say...what was it? Horses in his head...Delilah? NO!
Chris leaned in. "What about him, son?"
Chris frowned at Buck. 'Dreaming?' he mouthed. "Thanks kid...I'll check it out.
"No problem, kid...thanks anyway." The Texan's reply belied the sheer anguish he was feeling over what had happened. He was so relieved his brother was okay, but desperate to know what had occurred. JD's words had him thinking more about that day and what could have transpired between JD leaving him and finding the youth face down on the ground.
"That's what he was doing."
They all looked at Ezra.
"He must have been checking Samson's foot; that is why he was in the corral."
Nathan's head was shaking, "But Samson wouldn't hurt anyone."
They all looked at JD, cursing themselves for not considering he could hear them.
"What about a 'big bang', kid?" Buck asked, absently stroking his thumb across the back of the hand he was holding.
"A big bang...spooked the horses...Samson kicked me. He didn't mean to... just scared."
All color drained from Vin's face. "Oh ,God!" He looked at his brothers, then standing to move closer to the head of the bed, leaned in toward JD.
"I'm so sorry, kid. I didn't know you'd stopped at the corral...God...I'm so sorry...I'm such an idiot...I'm so sorry."
JD was frowning as he sleepily looked up at his brother. "Vin...it's not your fault...I was the one that stopped. You couldn't have known."
Buck was almost bursting. "Will someone tell me what the hell you're talking about?"
"Nail gun," Vin whispered.
Chris nodded, suddenly clued in. "You fired the nail gun...and JD was in the corral looking at the business end of a horse."
Buck swallowed. He wanted to say, 'aw hell...freak accident' but all he could focus on was JD lying unconscious. Vin acknowledged the others as they brushed it off, but Vin noticed Buck's silence, and it hurt, compounding his guilt further. JD smiled at Tanner.
"One of those things, Vin. It was out of our hands."
Vin tried to draw comfort from his kid brother's words, but failed, vowing he'd make it up to JD somehow.
JD inhaled, wincing slightly as the movement pulled on his incision. A week later, and it felt good to be out of bed and walking around. He stood on the porch and watched his brothers at work. He loved ranch life, finding that the only thing he missed about Boston was his mom. A pair of arms enveloped him gently, from behind, causing him to chuckle.
"What are you doing wandering around, John Daniel? Didn't Nathan tell you to take it easy?"
"But I am, Josiah, I'm just standing here."
"How about sitting, instead? A lacerated kidney is no inconsequential injury. I know it would make Buck less agitated." Josiah guided JD to the rocker and draped a blanket over him, warmed by the smile from the younger man. God he loved that smile, it could melt ice.
JD couldn't help smiling. Gone were the days when he tried to fight having six older brothers. Now he enjoyed their attention; it made him feel secure and loved, something he had sorely needed in his life. "Thanks Josiah, I'll stay here, I promise."
The big man patted his face affectionately and walked away. JD's grin widened as Buck approached. "Hey."
Wilmington sat on the porch swing next to him, his grin matching his brother's. "Hey, yourself. You okay? You taken your meds?"
"I'm good, thanks and yes, both the antibiotics and the painkillers. "
The brunet nodded his approval and relaxed, rocking the swing slightly with his leg. JD fiddled with his blanket for a moment, then looked at Buck.
"Say...is Vin okay? He hardly spoke to me again at breakfast. I know I've only been home two days, but every time I try and talk to him he seems to have to dash off to do something. I hope he's not mad at me..."
Buck's face grew dark. "He'd better not be; this was not your fault."
"Wasn't his either, Buck...I really think he and I -- need to talk."
"Maybe so." The brunet stood and touched his brother's head. "I gotta go do some work...promise me you'll go indoors if ya get cold."
JD nodded, "I promise." He smiled to himself as he watched Buck walk away...it was ninety in the shade. He glanced across at Vin, both men giving a quick wave but as JD smiled, Vin's head dropped down. The youth sighed heavily. He and Vin had rarely had a cross word so this near-silence between them was taking its toll. One thing Vin always did was give eye contact when he spoke to a person, but recently it had been absent when JD addressed him, accompanied by brief conversations. The last time JD recalled he and Vin saying more than two sentences together was...in the hospital.
With those thoughts he dozed off in the warm sunshine.
Vin was checking the repairs to the corral fence. It didn't need checking, but he found himself drawn to the spot where his little brother had lain, bleeding and hurt. He closed his eyes to fight the rising bile that seemed to insist on surfacing every time he saw the small shaved patch at the front right of JD's head, or looked at the corral. At least the corral fence didn't talk back to him. Didn't make him wonder why he could be spoken to so sweetly by someone he had found injured because of something he believed he had done.
Most everyone had said he wasn't to blame, especially JD, but it didn't stop the images that haunted his dreams and caused him to fight sleep to keep the nightmares at bay. He waved quickly to the young easterner, dropping his gaze instantly, he didn't want JD to come over...not today.
He watched the boy doze off and his heart ached to see the vibrant younger man so debilitated. And there was the bile again. A squeeze on the shoulder from Chris as he passed brought first a jerk, then a smile, albeit a tight one. When Chris returned from the house to the porch with drinks for himself and JD, Vin could feel the older man's eyes on him for a moment and he knew instinctively what message the man was trying to convey. Vin sighed heavily. 'Soon, Chris...I promise...soon' , he thought to himself.
Chris was next to sit with JD. The older man sipped on coffee, bringing the younger man a glass of milk.
"When can I ride again?" JD asked. Chris cocked an eyebrow.
"Y'know...no matter how often you ask, the answer's the same...no sooner than six weeks after your op date, sorry, kid."
JD sighed, "Yeah, I know...serves me right, huh..."
"Don't say that...don't ever say that." Chris snapped, his jaw tight.
Chris' anger shocked the easterner. "I...I'm sorry, Chris...it was..." He dropped his head, "...sorry."
The blond drew in a deep breath, releasing it slowly. He clasped the back of the younger man's neck and drew him forward until their foreheads touched.
"I'm so sorry JD...I didn't mean..." Chris pulled back to look into his brother's eyes. "Sorry, kid."
JD blinked. "Me too...I...that was kinda my fault..."
Chris shrugged, "Let's forget it..." he sighed, "...no...I can't. JD don't put yourself down like that, you invite people to walk all over you. You scared us, kid, but you didn't deserve it, no more than Vin deserves to be carrying around all this guilt, but I'm working on him... he'll come around."
JD's smile returned. "Good, 'cause I can't get him to talk about it at all, every time I try to start a conversation he has something to do."
Chris sipped his coffee. "He will, when he's ready."
One week on saw the family sitting around their dining table for dinner. Just as every other evening, JD had tried to engage Vin in conversation, only to be rewarded with forced smiles and one word answers. The easterner's mood had changed over the week as he became more and more despondent over his brother's silence. Buck was becoming increasingly angry at how Vin's lack of response was bringing the younger man down.
"Hey, Vin, could you take a look at my bike sometime? I think she's running a little rough, sounds a bit throaty." JD asked, desperate to find some common ground.
Vin nodded, "If there's time, sure." He neither looked up nor stopped eating as he answered, missing JD's sigh and the concerned looks of the others.
"Okay junior, how long you gonna keep this up?"
Heads snapped up at Buck's words. Alarm bells began to ring in Chris' head as he saw JD's expression and heard Vin's unfazed reply.
"You got a problem, Buck?"
"You're the problem, Tanner. How long are you gonna punish the kid for something he had no control over?"
"You saying I did?" Vin's ice blue stare was frosty.
"No... no, he's not..."
Buck raised his hand, "I can talk for myself, thank you, Josiah. What's all this 'martyr' stuff? You made a mistake, get over it."
"I made a mistake...I see." Vin's face was hard, his blue eyes piercing Buck's soul.
"We...we both did." JD's tone was soft. "Vin...could we go somewhere and talk?"
"Got nothing ta say right now." Vin stood, as did JD.
"Well I do, I need to get this off my chest."
Tanner looked at the younger man, "Well...I don't." His eyes followed the youth as JD walked around to stand in front of him.
"So that's it...we just go on like this...one word answers and avoiding me?"
Vin swallowed. "I'm not avoiding you, JD."
"Name one time in the last two weeks that we've had a conversation, just me and you."
"Not one, Vin. Is it because you're feeling guilty, or just hating me for making you feel bad?"
"I...I don't hate you."
"Really? I was not getting that."
Chris stood, he could see all of JD's frustrations and hurt rising to the surface.
"Well, tough, I don't get up every morning just to find ways to upset you kid."
"Just getting a reaction would be good," JD countered, his rage building. "Do you want me to say it was my fault? Okay...it was my fault, I shoulda just gone for coffee, but I didn't...is that what you want?"
"Get a grip, JD," Tanner was now trembling slightly, the feelings he had been trying to suppress surging through him. "Yeah, maybe it was down to bad timing, on both our parts, but it's too late now. Now I just want to forget it."
"How convenient," JD took a step closer as his anger spurred him on. "Shame on me, huh? Too damn bad I didn't die on you and save you the trouble of ignoring me!"
Everyone gasped...both at JD's words and Vin's raised, clenched fist.
Chris' voice halted everything, he and Buck now both on their feet. JD stared at Vin's fist, his own self-indulgent words playing in his head. Feeling emotional control slipping away, the youth pushed through Chris and Buck to head outside.
Buck's eyes followed him out and he started to move. Chris held firm.
"Wait." He looked at Tanner, gesturing toward the door. "Vin...go."
Vin's trembling had increased, his eyes wide as he stared in shock, first at his now open hand, then up at Chris. "I...I would never have..."
"We know," Chris affirmed, touching his arm lightly. "Go."
As the front door closed behind Vin, everyone exhaled together.
Chris looked at Buck. "Damnit, Buck, you can't keep fighting JD's battles for him."
The brunet looked at Larabee. "I had to do somethin'," he defended, "He was hurtin', Chris."
"I know," came the reply, the blond's face reflecting the strain, "And so is Vin."
Buck's head dropped, his answer soft. "I know."
Chris squeezed his arm. "Let's just see if they can work it out, huh?"
They all nodded at Chris. Everyone was missing the normally relaxed atmosphere of the house and was distraught to see the two youngest in so much pain. They gave them ten minutes, then quietly made their way outside to find them.
JD hit the nightlight on the wall of the stables and walked over to Milagro's stall. He promised himself he wouldn't give in to his emotions, but as his horse bobbed his head over the stall door and nuzzled him affectionately, JD knew he was doomed; he just wasn't made that way. The youth buried his face in the horse's neck, sobbing hard as the pain, grief and frustration of the last few weeks poured out of him. He hadn't even realized anyone was with him until he felt gentle hands on each of his shoulders.
Vin drew in a deep breath and then blew it out sharply as he reached the fresh air. He had never been very good at expressing himself, but he always prided himself on knowing the people he loved knew that he loved them. He loved his brothers, he knew that without a shadow of a doubt, and although he had never said so, he had no doubt they knew too.
He found Nathan challenging; Josiah a comfort and a good confidante; Ezra was sharp and witty, Buck loving, fun and protective.
Chris? Chris was his brother of the soul. When he was with Chris he was at peace. The man understood him like no other person ever had. In such a large family, their time alone was rare and precious and he cherished those moments.
JD. He couldn't help smiling. The kid screamed innocence. At first, Vin was a little wary, no one could be that naïve, that trusting, that...sweet.
But he was...all of those things. No wonder all six of them felt a need to look out for him. Not that the kid asked for it, but JD had even come to realize himself that having his back watched was a precious gift. And he gave back that love ten-fold. This once group of strangers had come a long way in their short time together. Vin couldn't imagine his life without them now, and he needed to let his kid brother know how much he meant to him
And with that thought, he made his way to the stables, determined to put things right between them. Time to really start the healing process. Seeing JD in the stables prompted the Texan to go to him and before he had realized, he was resting his hands on the youth's shoulders.
JD went rigid as hands gently clasped his shoulders.
Startled by the soft Texan drawl, JD spun to face Vin, surprised, yet elated he had come after him.
In one move, the Texan pulled the younger man toward him, an unfamiliar action to him, but he found great comfort in it. JD had always been very tactile, something Tanner had always admired, so this felt so right.
With a huge sob, JD returned the embrace, fisting the back of the Texan's shirt as he buried his face in Vin's shoulder, grateful for the comfort and physical support. They didn't speak, just clung together for some time.
The others, on arriving at the stables, were visibly moved by the display and oddly thankful to see Vin able to extend the comfort both men needed. JD was a given.
After a minute, four men were surprised to see Buck walk toward the two. On approaching, he embraced both men and eventually the two youngest snaked an arm around him in a three-way clinch. It was a sight to see.
"Go Vin! Go Vin! Go...YES!"
Sitting astride the corral fence, JD raised his arms in triumph as Vin successfully completed breaking their newest purchase, a feisty bay stallion, hopefully a partner for Delilah, herself a bay. Collectively, the brothers had recently decided to 'buy' JD's foal Clementine, giving the kid his first sale, while allowing him to keep the filly. They all knew JD would have had trouble parting with her, due to the foal's history.
Dunne jumped down from the fence to greet his brother as he exited the corral.
"Awesome, Vin. What a ride."
Tanner chuckled, pulling the younger man close. "Next project, squirt... teaching you to bronco bust!"
The five brothers laughed to see the two so relaxed. Two weeks on and The Double L was back to normal, and it felt damned good. Spotting Buck sitting with the others on the porch, the youth called out,
"Hey, Buck...Vin's gonna teach me to bronco bust!"
Buck shook his head as he rose and made his way toward the younger man. "Aww no...no...no...we haven't enough insurance to cover that one."
JD mock pouted, "You don't mean that...do you? I thought you wanted me to learn everything?"
Chris laughed and, as Buck glanced in his direction, imitated playing a fiddle. Buck playfully flipped his middle finger at his older brother, then reached out and grabbed his youngest brother, knuckling his head.
"Don't give me those damned puppy dog eyes...I said no."
JD chuckled as he tried to wriggle free. "Aww, Buck..."
Looking slightly disheveled, the younger man broke free, staring at the brunet. Buck sighed.
"We'll see." He turned before JD's broad grin flashed, to point at a laughing Larabee. "Don't say a word...ah!...not one word." He bobbed his eyebrows and without turning, called back to JD.
"Actually squirt, you should really ask Chris."
As they all laughed and watched JD about to ask the question, Chris rose hastily to his feet.
"Err...I'm just gonna ask Nettie how far off dinner is."
The laughter grew louder as they watched the blond duck into the house. JD watched his brother disappear, folding his arms across his chest as he narrowed his eyes
"He can't seriously think I won't just go in after him to ask, could he?"
Buck placed his arm affectionately across the youth's shoulders, "Oh I was so hoping you'd say that...go get him, kid!"
Tanner chuckled as he watched JD disappear into the house. "I guess I shoulda told him we're changing methods soon, but somehow windin' him up about 'horse whisperin' ain't half as much fun."
That evening as the boys enjoyed their meal and Nettie bustled around preparing to leave for home, the phone rang. Chris went to stand to answer it.
"Sit yourself down, Christopher. I'll answer it," Nettie ordered, walking toward the study. A few minutes later, she returned with a message.
"Dan says to call him back on this number when you've finished your meal."
Chris nodded but a few minutes later decided to call him back then and there.
"Trouble?" Vin asked.
Buck shrugged, "Dan has some horses for sale; we were thinking of going down this weekend to take a look."
The easterner looked at Ezra.
"I need to set up a video conference call for the day after tomorrow. Could you assist me?"
"Sure, Ezra," the youth grinned, "I just installed Vista on my laptop, you can use that if you like."
"That would be most acceptable. Thank you. Would the dining area be a suitable location?"
JD shook his head, "Study's better, that's where the broadband link is."
"Of course, thank you."
Josiah groaned slightly.
"You okay, Josiah?" JD asked, causing Nathan to look.
Sanchez smiled as he pinched his nose, "This cold I've picked up has affected my sinuses; I may need to steam tonight."
"I have some oil of eucalyptus in my room," Ezra offered.
"Thank you, brother, most grateful."
Chris returned to the table, his lips pursed as he appeared deep in thought.
The blond turned to Buck, then looked across at Vin. "Dan's grandmother passed away and he needs to leave for Canada day after tomorrow. He said he needs to sell the horses before he leaves. He has three buyers interested, including us, but he's given us first refusal. I can't leave the ranch to go to Tucson in the next few days. Can you two go?" He looked at Vin and Buck.
Vin nodded, but Buck shook his head. "Can't, stud... got the auditors in at Rosie's. I can't leave that and running the bar to Inez."
JD's head turned toward the conversation. He would go...he would really love to go.
"Guys?" Chris asked.
Nathan shook his head. "Got back to back shifts at the hospital; sorry Chris, and by the look of that cold, I wouldn't advise Josiah to be going anywhere, anytime soon."
"I'm fine to travel, Chris," Josiah assured, but even as he said it, it was clear to everyone he was struggling.
"I have pressing business, I'm afraid, not that I would be of much use I fear, horse flesh is not my field of expertise, unless we're talking sport."
The brothers chuckled, also amused at the increasing fidgeting by their youngest as he hoped Chris would consider him for the trip.
"Ah well, just you then Vin..."
JD's shoulders slumped.
The easterner's fork clattered to his plate as he tried to look nonchalantly toward Chris. He wasn't fooling anyone but himself.
"I guess you're up to traveling by now. Would you help me out and go with Vin to Tucson?" the blond continued.
Despite all efforts to stay composed, the youth cracked a huge smile. "Sure...how are we traveling?"
"I'll charter a plane. You need to get in and out quickly on this one. Can you be ready to leave in the morning, guys?"
Vin nodded, JD leapt to his feet. "Hell, yeah." In seconds, he was heading to his room to pack.
Buck chuckled. "You are evil, Larabee. He is fit to travel though Nate, isn't he?"
Nathan nodded. "He's fitter than me, and I haven't recently been operated on. He's one of the most resilient people I've ever encountered. "
"I'm sure I could go, Chris, it's just a head cold," Josiah offered.
"Vin?" Chris asked.
"Nah, you rest up, Josiah, we'll be okay."
Ezra was impressed; the study had been converted into a miniature boardroom.
"You're all set, Ezra. The link's in your bookmarks, the passwords you already know." JD pointed, "The webcam is here, just remember to sign out when you're done."
Standish smiled at JD. "I truly appreciate this, son; I know you have other plans. I sincerely hope you enjoy your trip."
The youth grinned. "Aww, we will. I've never been to Tucson, hell, I'd never been outside Boston until I came here."
"Perhaps one day you will accompany me to Las Vegas again."
JD nodded, "Yeah, I'd really like that, Ezra, thanks."
Buck's head popped around the study door. "All set, squirt?"
"Yup." He turned to Ezra and embraced him. "See ya in a couple of days, Ezra."
No longer surprised at his youngest brother's displays of affection, the southerner patted JD's back, "You take care, young man."
Ezra watched, smiling, as JD waved and left. It was usually the other way around, Ezra often commuting to Vegas for his business there. JD had suggested video conferencing as an occasional alternative, to cut down on traveling, choosing video over audio, as they all knew Ezra liked to see a person's eyes when he conducted business.
"Safe journey, boys," the southerner whispered.
Chris and Buck drove them to a private airstrip, twenty miles east of the Nevadan ranch. As they approached the plane, both younger men stopped.
"Guys, everything okay?" Buck asked.
Tanner swallowed. "Not real fond of flying," he admitted.
"Now you tell us?" Chris criticized
"You never asked," the Texan countered.
"It's not very big, is it?" JD commented, pointing at the plane.
"You're not afraid of flying too, are you, kid?" Buck asked.
"Oh no..." JD shook his head.
"...never flown before."
Chris and Buck looked at each other, their expressions ones of astonishment. They had never even considered either issue.
"Well, you're gonna love it." Buck smiled, trying to convey confidence.
The pilot and co-pilot introduced themselves, informing an inquisitive JD that their plane was a Dassault Falcon 10, four to five seater. JD was impressed; he especially liked having two pilots.
"Like back-up," he had whispered to Buck.
"Yeah, squirt," Buck laughed, "Like back-up."
The two older men watched the two younger men get settled. Buck and Chris shook their hands and then patted Vin on the shoulder. Reacting in pure JD fashion, the blond pulled his youngest brother in for a quick embrace. Buck was less subtle, hugging the boy for longer than he should. As they went to exit the plane, the two men turned once more to face the two now seated men.
"Be good." Buck warned JD. The youth rolled his eyes. The look Buck gave to Tanner was returned, the brunet instantly knowing Vin would look out for the younger man. One last glance at JD showed the same look; JD was no less determined to watch out for Vin, also.
Retreating to the designated visitor area, they watched the small jet taxi then take off. Satisfied, they headed for home.
JD and Vin buckled up as they sat side by side, their single seats separated by a narrow aisle. They looked across at each other, smiling, the smiles fading a little as the plane prepared to take off. Seeing JD nervously clutching his armrest, Vin placed his hand on top of the younger man's, patting it in encouragement and receiving a grin in return. By the time they landed in Tucson, they were behaving like veterans. ~~~
JD watched in fascination as Vin examined the horses, running his hand down each leg with a slow expertise. Dan was a really nice guy, clearly fond of Chris, Buck and Nathan and had been fascinated with their 'potted' version of how the Larabee brothers had found each other. Vin excused them and consulted with JD.
"You took a look?"
JD nodded, "Uh huh."
"Front legs were good and straight, good bone structure, back legs were straight too, skeletal structure felt right, leg set looked correct. Well muscled hindquarters, lean flat shoulders, neck long and smooth to the withers...loved the colors," he grinned.
Vin grinned widely back. JD had learned so much.
"A yes then?"
Vin dialed Chris. "Hey cowboy, Dan's as good as you say, these horses are superb... Yeah?... I'll do that." He looked at JD as he snapped his cell closed. "Let's do it."
That night, the brothers stayed with Dan and his wife Amy on their insistence. The next morning they shook hands as everyone prepared to head off, one family to Canada, the other to Nevada.
"It was great meeting you both," Dan smiled, "Come back soon, y'hear?"
With a nod and a wave, the Larabee brothers left. An hour later, they were in the air and well on their way home.
JD jerked awake as the plane shuddered. He looked sleepily out of the small window to see heavy rain and black clouds. "Wh...when did it start raining?"
"...'bout twenty minutes ago. I saw lightening in the distance."
JD swallowed. "Planes can fly in electrical storms...can't they?"
Vin shrugged, "Well, either way...we are."
The two sat in silence as the rain pounded against the windows, both secretly nervous as the plane dipped and shook as it hit pockets of turbulence. They had already buckled up long before the warning light went on, and each man clung to the armrests, as the movements became more and more erratic. A sudden flash from outside, close to the plane, caused JD to look at his pale-faced brother, as the aircraft shuddered.
"Vin...I...I think we've been hit." As he spoke, oxygen masks dropped from overhead to dance in front of them in time with the plane's erratic movements.
Vin didn't have time to reply. With the cockpit just behind them, the pilot could be clearly heard.
"Mayday...mayday... flight 197 to Hawthorne, Nevada confirms catastrophic engine failure...we're going down."
As the co-pilot called out grid references, the two brothers looked at each other. It was as if, for a moment, all sound ceased as JD focused on a face that had become so important to him. Hazel and blue eyes locked, conveying a message that meant the world to each of them. JD reached for Vin's hand. As sound returned, they were surrounded by the noise of wind screaming past, as the large object continued freefalling through the sky They interlocked their fingers and prepared to meet their maker. The last thing either of them heard was JD's raspy, 'oh God' and branches whipping against the skin of the plane as they crashed through trees and undergrowth...then silence.
While sitting patiently in the small airport lounge, Chris smiled to himself. All five brothers had decided to meet the two youngest Larabees, despite it being unnecessary. He found it heartwarming and couldn't help reflecting on how his life had changed over the last year. He missed his father deeply, but the man had left him, Buck and Nathan an amazing legacy, four new brothers and even though he would love for his father to be here, he also knew he never again wanted to be without these men in his life. He checked his watch as the rain started to patter against the windows. `When had those storm clouds rolled over?'
"What time are they due in, Buck?"
Wilmington looked at the digital clock above the solitary check- in desk. "They're running a little late."
Josiah stood and walked over to the window. Curious, Ezra joined him.
"Everything alright, Josiah?"
There was no answer, clearly the man was deep in thought.
Sanchez turned, a little startled. "I'm sorry, Ezra, did you want me?"
"You look...troubled, my friend."
The man was now in a dilemma. Something was indeed troubling him, but there was no way he wanted to share what it was. It was just a feeling, but it was so strong it had overwhelmed him.
"Just looking to see if I could spot them," he lied.
Unconvinced, Standish stayed by his side, both men turning as one of the staff of the tiny airport walked over to the other three. Instinctively, they both walked across to join them.
"Are you the Larabee family?" the man asked.
Chris stood, "Yes, I'm, Christopher, these are my brothers."
With no one else around to overhear, the man got straight to the point.
"I'm afraid we have had some bad news. About ten minutes ago, flight 197 called a 'mayday' and that they were losing altitude." He paused as he saw all five now standing, their expressions suggesting they had already guessed his next words.
"They have since disappeared from our radar and we have had no further communication from them. We have an outline of their last location, but the current storm front has taken the possibility of a ground and aerial search temporarily out of our hands. As soon as it's possible..."
Chris took a step forward. "Wait...wait a minute...you're saying they may have crashed and no one's out there looking for them?"
"Sir, as soon as there's an all-clear..."
"Where did they disappear? TELL ME! We'll go look for them ourselves."
Chris looked at his brothers, they were all in deep shock. Buck suddenly sank into a chair, his legs unable to hold him, his pallor was gray. A noise from the lobby caused them all to look up to see eight men walking in, dressed in all-weather clothing. Chris approached.
"Are you the rescue team?"
The leader of the group nodded, "Yes sir, my name's Captain Todd Fuller of the CAP. I assume you're the family of the passengers?"
"We're co-coordinating with the SAR team who has already set off from Tonopah. As the weather front seems to be traveling this way, it puts them behind it. We're starting a ground rescue here, but we can't get aerial assistance for at least another two hours as we will be moving into the storm. Don't worry sir, we'll find them." No one doubted they would, but whether they would be alive...that was something else entirely.
"We're coming with you."
Fuller shook his head at the blond. "No sir, it may be best..."
"That wasn't a request...," Chris interrupted, "...we're coming, or we'll just follow you, you're choice."
Fuller sighed, "All five?"
Chris nodded, "All five, and one of us is a doctor. Sir, we have to do this."
"Alright, we'll get you outfitted, but you do as you're told..."
"Spare the speech, you won't get any trouble from us, we just want our brothers back."
A half hour later, four all-terrain vehicles were on their way.
The rain pattered heavily as a small piece of metal spun in the wind to finally drop to the floor. The broken plane lay on its belly in a clearing, gaping holes exposing the light interior. Vin's head was throbbing in time with his heart, which was way too fast for his liking. He tried to move but an intense pain caused him to black out.
Some time later, the Texan once more became aware of his surroundings. Remembering the pain and its location, he looked down at his left leg, alarmed to see a piece of metal protruding from it. A touch to his head revealed an ugly gash and a stickiness that, at least, for now, appeared not to be increasing. Slowly, he moved his head to look around, thankful he still had movement in his neck without pain. A sharp intake of breath followed his first sight of his youngest brother.
Bright red blood spattered the cream leather seat in front of the youth, where it appeared JD had been rocked backwards as his seat was propelled on impact, then hurled toward and into the chair ahead, his own seat apparently ripping loose on collision, only to fall back to almost its original position. The youth was bent forward at an angle, unconscious and leaning against the small window as his seat belt held him in place. His face was streaked in blood from his hairline to his jaw.
The only thing Vin could draw comfort from, was the lack of anything puncturing the young body. Whether he was alive...that remained to be seen.
His voice was raspy and he couldn't project it due to the ache when he drew in air. Swallowing hard to prevent a sob, Vin closed his eyes and gave in to the darkness.
Rain lashed at the windows of the vehicles, wiper blades fighting to disperse the water hitting the windscreens as they moved through the forestry surrounding the airstrip. The plane's last logged location didn't suggest it had reached the dense woods, but there could be no guarantees. The search area was vast and as yet they had received no signal from the plane's locator.
Chris looked at Buck. His brother's complexion was deathly pale, lines of deep sorrow furrowing the man's eyes and mouth. The blond turned away, consumed with guilt. If he had not been tied up with ranch business, he would have been on that plane, but then, so would have Vin. He smiled inwardly, yeah...probably JD, too. He wanted the youngest to learn all he could; it was important to Chris...to honor his father's wishes and integrate his new family into the business left to them all.
It had been a relatively smooth transition, Ezra being the only one of the newest brothers to still have an outside interest, but even he had become more and more involved as the months had rolled by, setting up accounts with JD, and both men investing family money with excellent results. Each of the new family members had brought an individual quality to the family unit; a quality that would now have a devastating effect on the remaining brothers were any of them taken away from them.
Chris was vaguely aware of location calls in the background as he recalled his own recovery after his and JD's accident, just after the brothers had met. Despite the trauma and pain of it, it had been this that had halted Vin and Ezra's decision to leave, as the seven had come to realize how important they had all become to each other.
His connection with Tanner had been instantaneous, and inexplicable, and something Chris did not want to lose. His instant affection and protectiveness of JD had been another surprise to him, going so far as to even putting the youngest in his son's former room. He didn't want to analyze it; Chris had made his peace with his new feelings and grown comfortable with every relationship. For want of a better word, he had felt the love, and he thrived on it. Chris looked over at Buck as a noise from the man drew his attention.
Buck was terrified. It was hard to find plane crash victims, especially alive. The thought of his two brothers in any kind of pain tore at his heart, and it was all he could do to keep himself from breaking down.
When Ezra and Vin had indicated a desire to leave, he had quickly realized he couldn't let that happen, but before he could act on it, he was faced with possible loss of another kind, the divided family rallying to locate and save Chris and JD. A tragedy averted, and the two wayward sons deciding to stay, the family soon settled down as they rallied to take care of their injured brothers. Chris had carried so much guilt over the accident, and all JD could keep saying was that it had been out of their hands. Buck warmed at the memory of how Vin and JD had bonded during that time, the two sharing stories of their lives and fast realizing neither of them had had any kind of luxuries while they were growing up...not even a vacation.
Vin was smart and wise for his age while JD was a pint-sized genius, but totally lacking in street smarts. Where Vin was wary, JD was an open book and it was that quality that had everyone looking out for him, not least of all, Tanner. And they were repaid with total adoration...hero worship...loyalty... and that word...love. The kid was brimming with it and Chris' observation of how like a young Buck he was, had caused the brunet to realize why he was so drawn to the youngest. Tactile, open, affectionate... naïve, the last being a quality not totally alien to Buck, but he knew he had never been that bad.
Buck released a shuddering breath, they still had so much to do together, and as the search party traveled on, he fought to keep the fear at bay and his mind occupied... with memories of a lawyer's office, a laid-back, softly spoken, often quiet, but watchful Texan, and a tardy, noisy, bouncing, smiling, skinned kneed, easterner...and silently wept.
It hurt to breathe, but even as JD slowly became aware of the pain, he knew when he opened his eyes it was going to get much worse. He wasn't disappointed, as he screwed up his face and eyes to attempt to control the nausea and sharp pains the light sent to the back of his head. His hands were shaking as he unclipped his belt. His right arm was difficult to move and his shoulder ached unbearably. A touch to his nose left no doubt it was broken as he gagged on the blood now slipping down his throat, another touch to a sore spot on his head revealed a small gash.
Frowning for a moment, JD tried to put his thoughts together, looking up to see gray skies peeking through breaks in the roof of the plane.
Shifting slightly in his seat, he could now see the unconscious Texan and...what was that in his leg...?
"Vin...VIN! Wake up! Please...WAKE UP!"
JD gasped at the pain in his chest his call had produced, screwing up his eyes again as he waited for it to subside. Gingerly, he wiggled his feet, then flexed his knees, finally lifting each thigh. No breaks. Shakily, the youth pushed himself out of his seat, almost collapsing back and passing out with the pain, but he breathed through it and eventually continued. Standing in front of his bloodied brother, he checked for a pulse, unable to stop the tears when he felt a fast, but strong, steady beat.
"Vin...come on, bro...VIN!" With his one good hand, he pinched the top of Vin's ear, hard, between his thumb and finger and the Texan jerked awake with a snort, opening glazed blue eyes, to look into watery hazel ones.
"JD...oh, thank God..."
Whether it was exhaustion, pain, relief or a combination of all three, the tears flowed as their foreheads touched and they clasped each other's wrists. There would be time to be brave; this was a moment for quiet celebration.
After a minute, JD spoke. "Need a first-aid kit..." He indicated Vin's leg. "I'll go to the cockpit...see how the pilots are."
Vin carefully nodded his agreement, not missing the condition his younger brother was in, and realizing how helpless he was as he watched JD wobble away.
The youth gulped on reaching the cockpit, or what was left of it, turning to retch as his stomach lurched and the bile hit the back of his throat. The pilot was dead, of that he had no doubt and despite the debilitating effect the retching had on his body, he pulled himself together and turned to the seriously injured co-pilot, grateful his brother had his back to him.
"S...signal..." the man whispered, pointing. The easterner looked to a small box that had a tiny red light flashing on it. He nodded.
"Yes. What can I do?"
"Oh, God...please...no...no, please." JD's whole body shook as he watched the man take his last breath. "Vi...VIN!"
He scrambled back to his brother. "Gotta get out...gotta get out of here now."
He hurriedly unbuckled his brother, then went to the door. It refused to budge, but the kid was on a mission and with a strength he didn't know he possessed, he forced it open, collapsing unconscious from the effort.
Fuller halted his team and turned to Chris and Buck.
"It's faint, but we've picked up the beacon from the plane. A helicopter is being dispatched but I'm not sure how far they'll get with evening drawing in."
"Does that mean you'll have to stop?" Chris asked.
Todd shook his head, "No...we can keep going, and hopefully we'll have a location to aim for rather than a search area, soon."
Buck let out a groan and Chris squeezed his arm as he nodded his understanding.
In the second of the four vehicles, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra were quietly taking in the news as it reached them. The strain of not knowing their siblings' fates was wearing them down.
Ezra had been thinking about some of the ranch work he had undertaken in the last year, the rides out on horseback, and the family meals. It had been something he had never experienced before and now knew he never wanted to lose. They had to be alright...fate surely could not be so unkind to take these young men from them at such an early juncture.
Nathan was pondering injuries, sick to his stomach as each possible scenario played through his mind. He was home the least amount of time, yet had become equally comfortable with the new arrangements. He had loved Linc dearly for taking care of him and bringing him up alongside Chris and Buck. If ever their father could have chosen a legacy...this had to be the best one of all. Money was a wonderful thing, the financial security that it offered was comforting, but the limitless love and happiness the seven brothers now had...was immeasurable.
Josiah needed to hold them, to put strong, loving arms around them both and tell the two missing brothers that they were loved and needed and he would forever celebrate the decision to answer the letter Linc's lawyer mailed to him. It had given him a gift he would cherish until his dying day...family. Not fully understanding why, the idea they were dead was not acceptable to him and he clung to that thought.
The search party pressed on, heartened by the news that aerial help was with them.
'Stop shouting, please...I've got a headache.' JD thought. He blinked and frowned, he didn't want to get up yet...
"JD, damnit...get up!"
Suddenly, Vin's raspy voice jolted the easterner back to reality, but his hasty movement to sit up had him moaning with the pain.
As JD finally struggled to his feet, he looked back at Vin. He was shocked at the Texan's gray pallor. "Gonna...have to get you out like that," the youth said, almost apologetically as he pointed to the metal protruding from his brother's leg.
Tanner nodded and gritted his teeth, not realizing the easterner was doing the same, due to his shoulder and ribs violently protesting any movement. Mindful of the metal in Vin's leg, JD somehow maneuvered them both outside, both men sinking to the soaking wet ground and passing out from exertion and pain.
Driven now, the next time JD came to, he set about making them comfortable. He found tarp in the hold, pillows, blankets and water in the cabin and had located their switched off cells. Vin's was damaged but JD's worked, but his excitement was shattered by the words 'no service' on the display.
He took in some water, but unable to remain conscious any longer, he rested; too weary to even pull up his blanket as he shivered from the shock and his damp clothing.
The next time Vin awoke, he was lying on a tarpaulin, his head on a small pillow from the cabin and all but his leg covered with a blanket, also from the cabin. JD was next to him, seemingly asleep. Spotting the bottled water just to one side, Vin reached for one and took a few long pulls, recapping it, and drifting back to sleep.
Night was drawing in, and the helicopter continued on as long as it could with its powerful searchlight, eventually returning to base to refuel, and then resume just an hour later. The SAR and CAP teams were fast approaching each other and were undeterred by the darkness, thermal imagers ready to assist them.
Buck and Chris, and Josiah, Ezra and Nathan had talked over cells intermittently, drawing comfort in each others' voices, the strain was clearly taking its toll on the five men. But now, their breath was in their throats, fighting for space with their hearts...the plane had been located and as early morning light broke through, renewed hope surged through them.
As morning was dawning, Vin could see JD had packed a towel around the wound in his leg, carefully wrapping it around the protruding metal. It didn't seem to be bleeding much now though.
Tanner was burning up, drifting in and out of consciousness as he fought exhaustion and pain. He turned toward the plane and blinked hard. He could see Chris leaning against it, grinning, Peso and Pony saddled and at his side.
"C...Chris?" He reached out to the older man, but as quick as he had come...he was gone.
"No...no...Chris...please, don't leave me."
He looked across at his sleeping brother. God, what a mess...blood everywhere, his dark hair matted from a gash Vin hadn't noticed until now. JD's mouth was open slightly, clearly struggling to breathe through his broken nose as he lay on his stomach, his face toward Vin. Tanner reached up and touched the youth's cheek... he was icy cold.
Long dark lashes fluttered half-open, unfocused eyes peeping out through heavy lids.
Vin couldn't help a little smile, despite his violent shivering. "You... you did g...good, kid."
"I know...hang in there, 'k? They're comin', I...I know it, kid...they're coming."
Again the pair drifted into unconsciousness.
A little later, JD's breathing had gone from raspy and noisy to soft and barely audible and Vin thought his skin felt even colder than before.
"Yeah, kid?" Vin was on the brink of finally giving in to the pain, his mind unable to maintain clarity much longer.
Tanner grew alarmed. "Wh...what...no...come on, kid..." He winced in agony, "S...stay with me now..."
Frantically, the Texan sought out the blanket only to find it pooled around JD's feet, then quickly pulled it up to the youth's shoulders. He heard JD exhale, then go quiet.
"JD...JD! NO...NO...don't go...oh God...please...please, help us...JD please... please..." his voice dropping to a whisper.
The youth remained still. Tanner covered his own face with a shaking hand and howled...he didn't care, he couldn't bear it.
Sobbing, he turned back to stare at the still, cold face for the longest time, images of the same face, smiling, laughing and constantly animated, touching the edges of his consciousness, snapping back to reality as he reached out to once more touch the icy skin of his youngest brother. Despite his own fever and pain, Vin leaned across and placed a soft kiss on his brother's forehead; a minute later, he pulled the blanket over JD's head.
"I...I'm so sorry..." he wept.
Unable to take any more...Vin gave in to welcome oblivion.
"Thermal imagers show one warm body, one cooling."
Chris grabbed Fuller's shoulder. "What does that mean?"
Todd looked at the two men. "Hard to say." He knew an informed guess would be one maybe alive and one cold, dying...or dead.
By the time the lead vehicle had arrived at the site, Larabee and Wilmington were out and running, their brothers close behind. They stopped abruptly as they stared ahead of them. Chris sank to his knees. "No..." he whispered.
Buck kept going, dropping to his knees as he reached the tarp, his body quaking as his eyes moved from an unconscious Vin to the prone, blanketed form next to him. Terrified of what he would find, Buck was openly crying as he delicately pulled back the blanket. He groaned.
"Oh, God...kid..." He reached out to touch the youth's face, pulling back at the last second as he tried to deal with his shattering heart.
Chris couldn't breathe, moving forward only when Josiah's strong arms lifted him from the ground.
Nathan and the four paramedics were there with Buck, but not in time to stop the weeping man from lifting his youngest brother and cradling him to his chest, rocking the icy, limp, bloody form as if to soothe him to sleep. Desperate to check JD's vitals, Nathan somehow managed to get his fingers to JD's neck, silently timing himself as he watched the paramedics working on Vin and listening to calls for the chopper to get in and get the men to hospital.
Buck was lost in a world of pain, images of a vibrant, smiling, dark- haired young man heavy on his mind as he rocked gently. 'Not like this...please not like this. Not even time to say goodbye'. He rested his head on JD's and sobbed.
Chris was clinging to Josiah, his strength sapped as he watched the scene unfold, desperate to comfort Buck, but unable to stop his eyes darting between Vin and JD.
The paramedics looked up. Buck was oblivious. Ezra flew to Buck's side, instantly grasping the situation as he saw the elation in Nathan's face.
The southerner spoke softly but urgently. "Buck...Buck, put him down."
"Go away," came the growl, as Wilmington lifted his head for a moment. Nathan capitalized on the man's return to the present.
"Wh...what?" The brunet could barely focus on Nathan.
"He's really cold, Buck, but he's alive, let me have him."
Buck released his prize and scrambled to his feet to stand with Chris, Ezra remaining at his side the whole time. All four shaking brothers clung to each other as the fifth worked with the paramedics on their youngest, instantly starting him on warm IV fluids and a Res- Q-Air warm water saturated oxygen system.
Vin had been intubated and his leg secured. Now on a backboard and in a neck brace, he, too, was hooked up to a Res-Q-Air and ready to go. A soft moan drew the four men to his side. Chris took his hand.
"Gonna be okay, Vin...everything' s gonna be okay."
Tanner was agitated and seemed to be looking for something. Chris figured he knew who.
"JD's fine, too...ya hear? Vin?"
But the Texan was out of it again. Soon after, both men were on their way to Carson City Memorial Hospital and the brothers were speeding to join them, oblivious to the recovery operation now underway and the two bodies still on site.
Five exhausted men sat in the surgical waiting room, listening to the doctor.
"Vin's leg will be fine. There was some internal bleeding around the entry point and he has lost some blood, but there's no major ligament damage." He paused as relief washed over the brothers' faces as they rocked back in their seats. The doctor continued.
"He will have to stay off it for at least six weeks. His ribs took a pounding but are just bruised. We've glued his head wound and his CT scan was clear. Apart from being a little hypothermic, and needing antibiotics for a small infection, he is in reasonably good health. I fear both he and JD will suffer more mentally than physically in the long-term."
"And JD?" Buck asked.
The doctor nodded. "As you know, he was dangerously hypothermic. Allow me to explain. Core re-warming is a very effective treatment for all levels of hypothermia; paramedics and first responders can successfully thermally stabilize the critical core temperature with re-warming. Inhalation donates heat directly to the head, neck, and thoracic core, the critical core, through inhalation of warm water- saturated air or oxygen."
He watched the men nod as they seemed to recall the introduction of the Res-Q-Air at the crash site.
"This method also warms the hypothalamus... the temperature regulation center, the respiratory center, and the cardiac center at the base of the brainstem, this re-warming of the central nervous system at the brainstem, reverses the cold-induced depression of the respiratory centers and improves the level of consciousness. The paramedics further set up an intravenous fluid warmer. To summarize, the treatments started in the field undoubtedly saved JD's life."
Chris stood and pulled Nathan up and toward him in a tight embrace. He had seen his brother setting up the IV, not comprehending at the time how critical it was.
"They would have done it anyway, Chris," Nathan tried to explain, but the blond was too consumed with gratitude to consider that fact, eventually releasing the medic with a tight smile.
The doctor continued. "We currently have him under an electric blanket to continue warming his head, neck, chest and groin. We've glued his head wound and his CT scan was clear. He has a dislocated shoulder which we'll re-position as soon as his temperature is stabilized. We've also managed to re-set and tape his broken nose. His ribs are bruised, but no breaks."
"Is that it?" Buck wondered out loud.
The doctor smiled. "Pretty much... they will remain sedated for the next twenty four hours, so you should go get some rest."
"May we see them?" Chris asked.
The doctor stood. "Of course, follow me."
As they all stood, Josiah pulled his brothers in to embrace them and all four of them accepted gratefully. Josiah's deep, emotional voice rumbled from within the huddle with a soft and emotional prayer of thanks.
"God has truly blessed us this day."
As they stood in ICU, the five men marveled at their miracle, comforted by the soft rise and fall of their injured brothers' chests. Unable to take JD's hand from under the electric blanket, Buck laid his hand on the youth's forehead.
"He's so much warmer now," Buck smiled through his tears. They all nodded, their eyes moving between the two men as they touched each one in turn to reassure themselves that Vin and JD were really there. Eventually, they were persuaded to get some rest and checked into a nearby hotel. Chris called Nettie to tell her how things were and to thank her for taking care of the house, while Buck called Rosie's to give Inez an update. Nathan contacted Four Corners General to cancel his shifts and to arrange for the two youngest to be transferred there in two days, the time their doctor felt it would be safe to move them. All five stayed awake until the early hours of the morning, eventually drifting into an exhausted sleep.
Now in a private room, the two brothers were expected to wake at any time. Vin stirred and all five were instantly there, waiting patiently for the Texan to open his eyes.Vin blinked, struggling at first to focus. Chris moved into his sightline and smiled.
Vin looked at the face and for a moment was comforted, a small smile breaking out. Then, just as suddenly, his face contorted and he began to get distressed, his hand reaching out to fist the front of Chris' shirt.
"Chris...oh God...he's dead, Chris...JD's dead...oh God...I'm so sorry...so sorry..."
"No..." Chris tried to reassure his brother as he clasped the hand entangled in his shirt, "...no, Vin...he's okay...I swear to you, he's right here and he's fine."
Tanner shook his head. "No...I saw him...I..."
Buck stepped in. "I know what you think you saw, Vin, but the medical team helped him...he's really gonna be okay, and so are you." The two men moved slightly for Vin to look at the bed next to him, tears flowing as he saw the youth lying there, asleep. Chris thumbed the tears away and leaned in.
"Sleep, now, Vin...rest easy."
Allowing himself enough time to acknowledge Ezra, Josiah and Nathan, Vin eventually drifted off.
A pair of deep blue eyes told JD he was definitely awake. He attempted a smile but his face felt odd. Buck smiled down at him. "You broke your nose, squirt; it's a mite swollen, but don't worry, you're still as ugly as you were before."
The soft snort from the easterner warmed the brunet to his soul.
JD's eyes stared deep into his brother's. "I dreamt I died," he whispered.
Buck rested his head against JD's. "I did, too," he breathed back.
"The pilots died..." JD sobbed softly.
"Ssshh...little brother...I know."
For a few moments the two stayed together, their eyes closed as they relished in the comfort. Suddenly hazel eyes snapped open.
"All good, kid."
JD turned slightly to see Chris, Josiah, Ezra and Nathan right next to him. The blond spoke again as he took up his youngest brother's hand.
"Vin's doing real good, kid, and so are you."
The range of emotions that crossed the boy's face were heart- wrenching, but the half-sob, half-laugh he let out when his eyes locked with Vin's was almost musical to the family's ears. Now they could really begin to move on.
From their positions on the porch, the two youngest watched the horses that had arrived from Tucson, as the beautiful animals moved around the paddock, investigating their new home.
Ezra had contacted a friend who put him in touch with a counselor to help the two injured men through their ordeal. Despite initial protests, the sessions had helped and five weeks on, the two were acting more like their old selves every day. Despite protests, and on JD's insistence, all the brothers had attended memorial services for the pilots, recognizing the youth's need to put the memories of what he had seen the day they had crashed, to rest. After consulting with the pilots' families, the brothers set up a foundation in the pilots' names for the families of crew, aviation staff and victims, lost under such circumstances, appointing Ezra to oversee the account and future donations toward it and claims from it.
Seeing JD and Vin taking their seats on the porch, Vin's crutches resting against the back of his chair, Buck, Chris, Ezra and Josiah joined them. Nettie brought them all a drink, making sure the two recuperating, had plenty of chocolate cookies.
"Vincent, put that leg up," she scolded, "JD...where's your blanket?" They instantly obeyed... no one messed with Nettie.
"Dinner's in a half hour." As she went to leave, she turned back and kissed the two youngest on their heads, causing them to chuckle.
"Y'know, I could get used ta all this attention," Vin drawled. JD swiped his cookie. "I could certainly get used to all these cookies," he grinned. Buck poked JD's stomach, laughing as the youth slapped his hand away.
"I'd say y'already have, squirt," Buck's playful remark hiding the relief that both men had finally regained their appetites.
"The horses are magnificent, " Chris commented as he looked from the paddock and back to Vin and JD. "I'll have to send you two again." As soon as he said the words, he choked. Everyone went quiet as JD and Vin looked at each other. Tanner cocked an eyebrow.
"If it's all the same ta you, we'll drive next time."
JD choked on his cookie. "Not in that battered old jeep of yours... we'll go in my Blazer, then I can drive."
"You two on the road? Together?" Buck squeaked, "I don't think so." Chris relaxed as he realized the crisis was averted.
"We could all go," Josiah suggested.
"Indeed, a road trip, I can almost taste the dust in my throat as we speak," Ezra teased.
"We could rent a Winnebago!" JD yelled. They all groaned, then laughed.
"Well, could ya'll do it after dinner?" Nettie insisted as she came out to usher them inside.
As they all got up to go indoors, Ezra handing Vin his crutches as Josiah assisted JD, Chris turned to look back at the horses, smiling as a familiar hand rested on his shoulder.
"If it's all the same to you, I'd kinda like to keep these horses, maybe give one each to Vin and JD. I feel we paid a whole lot more than money for them; be a shame not to have 'em around to remind us."
Chris sighed as he locked eyes with his brother. "God, Buck...do you really think a reminder's a good thing?"
The brunet nodded. "Yeah, yeah I do. I never want to forget that feeling when we knew we were still seven."
"Good thinking." Chris agreed. He waved to Nathan as the doctor pulled into the garage, then smiled at Buck.
"C'mon, let's all seven of us have dinner."