Alternate Universe "Brothers Larabee"
Disclaimer: Just playing. We know we can't keep `em...damnit!
Main Characters: JD, Vin
Summary: Misunderstandings and learning to trust, plus all work and no play makes for an emotional and traumatic encounter for the boys, especially the two youngest.
Thanks to Phyllis for her yummy additions, for brainstorming, her clever ideas, her awesome technical knowledge and for betaing this. And helping me bring to life a dream I had, in this delicious AU of hers :o)
And thanks to Blackraptor for giving our story a home.
Sam Bush glanced in the rear view mirror once again. He knew that no one was tailing him but it was never smart to get lax. He knew many a man that was in the penal system now because they thought they were home free. He didn't intend for that to happen to him.
He needed a place to hole up for a while. Shooting that state trooper had not been a good idea but the officer had left him no choice. Bush had not planned to steal a car, but had been left no alternative when his heap gave it up. He had to get out of the area after the robbery...a robbery that netted him a lousy two hundred dollars. Instead of shooting the cop, he should have shot the owner of the convenience store. The sign on the front claimed they cashed payroll checks. How the hell did they do that with only two hundred dollars in the till? Bush slammed a beefy hand against the wheel of the stolen pickup.
Glancing around, he realized he had moved into familiar territory. The Rocky Mountains were his old stomping grounds, making them a good place to hide out until the heat was off. Recognizing he was approaching a remembered road, he headed toward the ranch where he had worked five years back. It was well off the beaten path and secluded enough that no one would think to look for him there.
Chris sat alone at the kitchen table, enjoying the quiet that so seldom accompanied meals these days. Two years back, it would have been a time for discussing ranch business with his father. Buck was often sleeping in, much as now, after a long night at Rosie's Bar. Nathan often pulled night shifts at the hospital and was not home for many morning meals. That was where the physician was at the moment, doing a double shift at his `second' home.
Josiah and JD had left a few minutes earlier, headed to the lower pasture to repair some damaged fences. There were not many fences on the Double L since much of the land was bordered by high mountains. The only fences on the property bordered the frontage area, near the road. The pastures were separated by stretches of thick forest and rocky terrain, making natural corrals for the herd. With winter approaching though, it would soon be necessary to eventually bring the horses down from the mountains before the winter storms trapped them in the high pastures with no food or water for the season.
Vin had been at the table when Chris came out of his room just as the sun peeked over the mountains. While Larabee had always been an early riser, Tanner made it appear as if he slept in each day by rising and heading out to the barn before the sun had even tinged the horizon with its first splash of color. By the time Chris and the others arrived at the table, Tanner had already checked on the barn and riding stock, issued the day's assignments to the few hands that the ranch maintained all year round, and returned to the house to eat breakfast with the family.
This morning had found the younger of the two Larabee brothers cooking breakfast for the others, with coffee already brewed and waiting. Chris was appreciative of Vin's efforts, but his mind searched for a way to avoid the coffee, knowing Tanner's preference for a brew strong enough to walk itself to the table. It was times such as these that Chris realized just how much he depended on Nettie's skills in the kitchen. He swore to himself to never allow the woman another day off after returning from visiting her niece and to also raise her salary to reflect the value of her work.
Vin had finished up and headed back to the barn, accompanied by Josiah and JD where they would mount up and head out. Chris planned to join Tanner at the barn. First he needed to clean up the kitchen and finish his last cup of coffee. It was the second pot and luckily, Josiah had offered to make that one.
Larabee was just washing out his cup when a knock at the back door drew his attention. Assuming it was one of the hands, since they were the only ones that used the back...and knocked, the blond put the cup away and moved to the door. He pulled it open and paused at the unfamiliar face that looked back at him.
Frowning, a tense Larabee asked, "Can I help you?"
Adapting a meek posture, Sam smiled. "Mr. Larabee? Name's Sam...Sam Bush. I worked for you about five years back."
Chris studied the man carefully. After a few moments, he nodded. "Sure, Sam. I remember you. Seasonal worker, right?"
"Yes, sir." Pointing at the stolen vehicle, Bush offered, "I was in the area and hoped you might have some work for me. I'm a little down on my luck...about out of everything."
Seeing the doubt in the man's green eyes, Sam pushed on. "Don't have to be much. I just need a little money to get me down the road. I'll do anything you need done."
Chris remembered the man from before. He had been a good worker; and had gotten along with the other men and not caused any trouble. Linc had liked the man and the two had shared stories over a few campfires. The two men were close in age and experience. Linc had just made better decisions than Sam.
Smiling, Chris nodded. "I think we can find something. Always plenty of work getting ready for winter."
"Thanks, Mr. Larabee. I appreciate it."
"Give me a minute and I'll take you down to the barn...introduce you to the foreman."
Chris stepped back into the house and grabbed his jacket and hat. Pulling the door closed with a snap of the lock, he shrugged into the jacket. "Leave the truck there and you can move it down to the bunkhouse later."
They walked briskly toward the barn. The big building was nestled in a large open area behind the house. It was close enough to see but far enough away to keep sounds and smells out of the family areas.
"Is your daddy around? Old man was a hoot to talk to."
Chris' face softened at the words. "Dad passed two years ago."
"Sorry to hear that. Old man was nice to me." Bush's words were sincere. He had enjoyed the elder Larabee's stories and honest way of dealing with his men. Sam sometimes wished he had stayed on at the Double L; seemed like his troubles and his downward slide had all started after leaving the ranch.
He shook his head at the morose thoughts. Bush figured that in all likelihood, he was destined to be on the wrong side of the law. Working at the Double L ranch had only postponed the inevitable. Once he crossed the line, he found that he enjoyed it. The younger man's voice drew his attention back to the present.
"Yeah, Linc was a good man...one of a kind." They approached the barn just as Vin stepped out, head down, studying something on a clipboard.
Tanner looked up at the call, smiling. The smile faded slightly at the sight of a man walking next to the blond. Vin tensed as they approached. Something about the stranger had alarms going off with the ex-bounty hunter.
"Vin, I want to introduce Sam Bush. Sam, Vin Tanner. He's our foreman." Turning back to Tanner, Larabee continued, "Sam worked here a few years back."
"Pleasure to meet ya, Vin." Bush extended a hand.
Tanner stood rigidly, appraising the newcomer. Bush was a big man, barrel-chested like Josiah, but as tall as Buck. He had gray hair, thinning on top and scraggly in the back. His skin was ruddy in complexion with a broad flat nose over thin lips. But it was the eyes that had the Texan on edge. They were gray in color and small in size. The man's mouth was smiling but his eyes were dead, reminding Vin of the sharks from the nature shows that JD loved to watch.
He clutched the clipboard and held up a gloved hand as he responded, "Morning. Sorry, hate to get you dirty." His hand dropped back to his side.
Bush's eyes narrowed at the smaller man. This was someone he would have to keep an eye on he decided.
Chris watched the exchange, not missing the implied slight at Tanner's refusal to shake hands with the man, but missing the reaction from Bush. The blond chalked the reaction up to Vin's natural reserved personality.
"I told him that we would be able to use him for the winter season. I figure that will free some of the others up to help with moving the herds to the lower pasture."
Blue eyes turned toward him at the words. "I thought I was supposed to do the hirin' around here."
This statement was delivered in monotones and Chris' green eyes flared. "Sam's worked here before. I trust him. And I have final say on the hiring and firing around here."
Tanner shifted all his weight to one leg and seemed to relax. To anyone that did not know the man, he gave the appearance of bowing the `boss's' word, but Chris knew that Vin was coiled tight, ready to strike.
Attempting to avoid a confrontation in front of the new hire, Chris offered a compromise. "Just give him a couple of days, Vin. I think you'll find him to be a good worker."
Sam couldn't help but wonder why Larabee was cowing down to the foreman. Last time he had been on the ranch, the oldest son of Linc had been a fire-breathing bastard, tempered only by the dark haired beauty that he was married to. Best fight he had seen in years was the blond going at it with the middle brother, Buck, over something to do with the bar the tall man owned. Figuring he could earn points with the boss, Sam spoke up.
"I don't want to cause any trouble, Mr. Larabee. I'll just move on. I'm sure I can get work down the road."
Vin's blue eyes snapped over to the man even as Chris said, "No trouble, Sam. My brother and I don't always see eye to eye, but he's a fair man...right, Vin?"
Tanner raised one eyebrow as he was put on the spot. He really had no reason to not trust the man. Gut feelings, while useful, were not always accurate. Vin decided that he needed to pick his battles and this was one he did not need to fight at the moment.
"Actually, we could use a couple of extra hands. The horses soon need to be brought down, checked out. There is plenty to do around here for the next couple of months."
Chris nodded at his brother before turning to face Sam and saw the confusion on the man's face. "Things have changed since you were last here, Sam. There are seven brothers now. You'll answer directly to Vin on everything, but if one of the others need any help, you need to listen to them. They can explain it to Vin."
"Geez...seven." Now there was a story he would have to get out of one of the regular hands when he got the chance. For now, he could bide his time. "No problem, Mr. Larabee. I'll be glad to help out where I'm needed. How will I know who to take orders from, though?"
"You'll meet the others in the next few days. Nathan and Buck you probably remember. Ezra doesn't get out here much. That just leaves Josiah and JD. They'll be back this evening."
Vin slapped the clipboard against his leg, drawing the attention of the two men. "Why don't you put your stuff in the bunkhouse? Bunks on the right side of the door are open. After that, head back over here. I'll have a list of things for you to do."
"Sure thing. Do we park in the same place? South of the bunkhouse?"
"Yeah. Just pull up next to the rest of the vehicles," Chris stated.
With a tip of his head, Sam turned back to the house and his stolen truck. If he managed to hold onto the job, he was thankful that the ranch had several vehicles available for the hands to use around the ranch and for getting into town. He would just disable the truck and claim that it would not start.
As the man moved off, Tanner lost his relaxed stance. Before he could question Chris' decision, the blond fired first.
"What the hell was that all about, Vin?"
Tanner bristled at the words and drawing himself up, he snarled back. "You made me foreman. I take care of the hirin'. I don't appreciate him goin' around me to get a job just `cause he worked here before."
"Like I said before, I have final say in..."
"Apparently, you have the only say in it, cowboy."
"I told you...he's worked here before. Linc liked him...trusted him. What's the real reason, Vin?"
The two glared at each other for several moments. Finally, Vin sighed and stepped back. Bringing his hand up to rub the back of his neck, the lanky man shrugged. "I can't put my finger on it, Chris. He just don't set well in my gut."
The blond frowned. "Anything specific you can put your finger on?"
Tanner shook his head. "No, just a gut feelin'. But I learned a long time ago to trust those feelings...kept me alive more than once."
Chris looked toward the battered pickup as it rolled toward the bunkhouse, while trying not to focus on the latter part of that statement. "Well, I trust your gut, Vin, you know that. If you think we should pass on him, I'll send him on his way."
Tanner studied the older man's face for a moment and then made a cuffing sound in his throat. "Hell, it ain't like them feelings weren't ever wrong. Linc trusted him...you trust him...let's just let it go for now. "
Vin nodded. "Yeah." He glanced to his left and saw the big man was returning. Turning back to the blond, he added, "But I plan to keep a close eye on him."
Dropping a hand on the slender shoulder, Chris squeezed lightly. "I wouldn't want it any other way."
Washing up before the evening meal, Sam noticed two riders dismount before leading their horses into the barn. Several of the hands closer than him called out a greeting, the banter light and pleasant between the men and the ranch hands. Sam wondered if these might be two of the brothers Mr. Larabee was referring to. Continuing to observe, his stomach clenched slightly at Vin's appearance and he watched the foreman make his way toward the newly arrived pair.
JD stretched, smiling as he noticed Josiah was doing the same. They'd had a full day out on the range and were both tired...but content. JD loved everything about his new life, particularly the ranching side...riding out to herd horses and fix fences...just like in the old west. He glanced around, almost as if he feared his thoughts had been overheard, his brothers would tease the life out of him for that analogy. He noticed Vin approaching and grinned broadly as he and Josiah left the barn.
Tanner's face lit up on hearing JD's call. Closing in, he extended his hand as if to shake JD's, clasping his youngest brother's outstretched hand, only to pull him close and wrestle playfully.
"Gerroff...Josiah... help!" JD yelled, laughing even as he spoke.
Josiah chuckled, continuing on toward the house. "I'm way too tired, JD...you're on your own, son."
The laughter carried into the house, bringing Buck and Ezra out onto the porch, the men laughing at their youngest brothers' antics.
"Good Lord, kid...you can get outta that!" Buck hollered.
"Little help!" JD begged, surprised at how his weariness was hindering his reactions. Seeing JD's tired response, Vin relented, ruffling the kid's dark hair in compensation.
"Good day, guys?"
While JD tucked his shirt back in, Josiah answered as they continued walking toward the porch.
"All done, brother...it was indeed a good day." He glanced fondly at JD, the pair had enjoyed working and talking together, they always did.
"Great...one more thing to tick off the 'to do' list." Vin laughed as Buck stepped off the porch to slap Josiah on the shoulder and give JD a playful bear hug, much to JD's 'mock' disgust.
"Gerroff...what is this...pummel JD day?"
"Aaah...we just missed ya, squirt. I gotta get going to Rosie's, soon. Glad you got to see me before I head out."
JD rolled his eyes at the comment, the words 'head out' sinking in.
"You eaten already?" JD looked disappointed. He nodded 'hi' to Ezra as he followed his family onto the deck.
"Are you kidding?" Buck glanced toward Chris, who was leaning against the doorframe. "Chris cooked...so I had sandwiches."
"Chris cooked? Aww hell..." Vin groaned.
The blond just glared at the five laughing men as they passed him to enter the house.
"Is Nathan here?" JD asked, just before disappearing inside.
"Would this be another reference to Christopher' s cooking proficiency? " Ezra joked, causing more laughter just as the door closed.
Bush had watched the exchanges with fascination. Things certainly were very different from five years ago. He had made particular note of the foreman's interaction with the youth, who appeared to be the youngest brother. The intense Texan had softened considerably around him, as had the others. That, he considered, could prove very useful in his determination to 'fit in' and keep Tanner off his back.
Having been too tired to stay up, JD'd had an early night and so was up bright and early next morning. The air was bracing, but not cold. Fall was definitely edging nearer. Having grabbed a glass of milk and some cookies for breakfast, greeted Vin and told Chris of his plans, JD saddled up Milagro for an early morning ride. He was going to Rosie's later that day and so intended to enjoy a few hours on horseback before joining his brothers and heading there.
Turning sharply, JD smiled at the new hire. "Yeah," he grinned, softly rubbing the bay's nose.
JD shook the man's hand. "JD. Chris was telling us over dinner last night that you worked here before...with Linc?"
Sam nodded. "Yeah...he was a good man."
JD's gaze softened. "I heard that...wish I could have met him."
"You never knew your father?"
The youth shook his head. "No...but Chris, Buck and Nathan have told us lots about him. Did you know him well?"
Sam nodded. "Sure, we were similar ages...got along better'n most. He was a real hoot out on the trail...we shared many a good night 'round the campfire, swapping stories."
"Really?" JD's hazel eyes shone at the idea of hearing about Linc from the viewpoint of one of the ranch hands.
Spotting Vin heading their way, Sam smiled. "I'd best get along, but, if you'd like, I'll share some tales with you when we have some spare time."
"Cool, yeah, I'd like that." JD looked as Vin entered the stables, surprised when he turned back to where Sam had been standing and realized the man had gone.
"Where you headin'?" Vin asked, watching JD swing up into the saddle.
"Not sure...not too far, maybe just beyond the lower pastures. I just need a run."
JD grinned. "You're getting to sound more like Buck every day, Tanner."
"Hey...what'd I do to deserve that?" Vin joked.
Laughing, JD touched his heels to Milagro's flanks and moved out.
When JD got back, the place was all but deserted. He stabled his horse, jerking slightly at a voice from just outside. He laughed, a little embarrassed.
"Sorry, Sam, I thought I was alone."
"Pretty much," Sam answered. "Your brothers said something about meeting at Rosie's."
Checking his watch, JD pulled a face at how late it was, wondering why no one had called him. "Jeeze, I had no idea I'd been out so long." He sighed. "It's so beautiful here...I get kinda...lost in it all, y'know?"
Sam smiled. "Yeah, I know." He tilted his head, slightly. "The guys on the ranch filled me in as to how you boys got together, just so's I didn't go putting my size 12's in it."
Nodding, JD answered. "Sure, it's not like we're ashamed or anything. I was raised in Boston. My mom's name was Rachel. She was their housekeeper for a while."
"Rachel?" Sam echoed.
JD looked at him. "Yeah, did you know her?"
"No," Bush leaned against one of the posts. "But your pa often spoke of her."
JD leaned in. "Really, what did he say?"
Looking upward for a moment, Sam decided this was too good an opportunity to waste. "How 'bout I buy you a cup of coffee and I'll tell you?"
With a nod, the pair made their way to the bunkhouse where JD called Rosie's, before sitting on one of the beds. Thanking him for the coffee, JD watched Sam take a sip as the ranch hand pulled up a chair.
"We were out wrangling one day...fine day...not a cloud in the sky. Anyway, we stopped for food and coffee and he started talking about making his will. I asked him if he was sick...he said not, but there were people in his life he needed to care for and felt the time was right to start putting things in order. He was a good businessman, your pa...always planned well ahead."
JD sat quietly, smiling as he listened intently to every word.
"I asked him why he was still a single man. He said he was done with romance...it hadn't been an easy path for him and he'd decided to concentrate on the ranch and his boys...that'd be Chris, Buck and Nathan."
"He showed me his wallet. In it he carried photos of seven beautiful women. He told me their names, and why they'd parted. All except for the last one. He said, to that day he didn't really know why she left. His face lit up as he talked about her." Sam smiled inwardly at his attentive audience.
"He said she had the palest, softest skin and brown eyes you could just drown in. Her smile could light up a room and she had the sweetest, most caring nature. There was no doubt the man loved her...even then. She must've been one hell of a woman to tame the likes of Linc Larabee."
"She was..." JD coughed, his voice thick with emotion. "...She was...not fiery, just...strong, in a real sweet, gentle kinda way. He didn't know about me for a real long time. She wrote him...told him about me, but by the time he got the letter, we'd moved to a place where the rent was cheaper. Not that the letter had a return address, so it took him a while to trace me." JD smiled. "And he did...and here I am. Mom always said my father loved her...Chris said it was so, too...but the way you tell it...not even mom ever told it like that."
Sam shrugged. "Just telling it like it is. Now...you'd best be heading into town before I get another phone call."
JD frowned. "The guys called here? They never said. I'd wondered why I hadn't heard from them." He checked his cell, cursing and holding up his cell phone. "Battery died. Yeah, I'd better get going...thing is, I'll have to take my bike, the Blazer's in the shop."
Sam put down his cup and stood. "I was going to pick something up from town tomorrow; I could do it today and drop you off."
JD beamed, also standing. "Cool...I'll go wash up."
The man watched the young man leave. JD seemed a pretty nice kid. Sam could see why the others were so protective of him...he was as easy to read as an open book, and that air of innocence. Sam decided it had to be real...no one could act that good all the time, this was gonna be easier than he'd thought. By the time Sam had reached one of the ranch trucks, JD was in the yard and waiting.
"I called ahead...they're expecting us." JD smiled, explaining himself. "I asked if it was okay for you to join us for a drink...is that okay with you?"
"Aww, there's no need for that, Mr. Larabee."
"It's Dunne...JD Dunne, but everyone calls me JD."
"JD...well, okay, JD...if the boss says it's okay...why not...maybe one, huh?"
Smiling, the pair pulled off. JD was positively glowing with all that Sam had told him, the man had made what his mom and dad felt for each other seem so...real. Sam was non too keen to be meeting up with Tanner, but the fact he was considered worthy enough to be asked to join the family for a drink was a good sign things were going to plan.
"Well...lookee what the cat dragged in!"
Raising his hand to flip Buck the bird, only to run his fingers through his hair instead, JD grinned and joined his brothers at their booth, sitting between Josiah and Vin.
"I thought Sam was with you," Chris stated.
JD nodded. "He is, he'll be along shortly; he's picking up the special feed mix you ordered."
Chris flicked a glance toward Vin, To everyone else, the Texan hadn't moved, but Chris had caught the tiny twitch that told him Vin was still having problems accepting Sam. He turned back to JD as the boy spoke.
"Does the phone at the bar have caller ID?"
Chris shook his head.
"Can I borrow your cell, Vin?"
Glancing at the others, Vin grinned and handed it over. JD was chuckling.
"I saw this on TV the other day." JD waited until Buck was where he needed him to be, dialed and the bar phone rang.
"Rosie's Bar...how can I help you?" Buck answered.
In his best child-like voice, JD spoke. "I need to speak to my daddy...can you get him for me, mister?"
"Well, sure I can, son...what's his name?"
"Does he have a first name, little man?"
Almost unable to control his laughter, JD's eyes glistened with mischief as Buck rang the bell.
"Hugh Jass...Do I have a Hugh Jass here?"
Unable to control his silent laughter any longer, JD hugged his ribs and snorted. The bar erupted into laughter and Buck glanced across at his family, his expression one of confusion...but they were laughing, too. He mouthed 'What?'
And then the penny dropped. Staring at JD, Buck replaced the handset. He laughed. "You...you think that's funny, huh?" Buck watched JD swipe at his eyes and he gestured to his amused clientele. "My kid brother thinks that's funny." He turned his gaze back to JD who barely heard Vin's whispered 'run'.
"I'll show you 'funny', boy!" With that, Buck vaulted over the bar.
JD leapt to his feet. "Shit!" he squeaked, and took off for the back rooms.
"You'd better run!" Buck yelled, chasing after him.
Sam came in just as JD took off with Buck yelling after him. He noted the whole room was laughing about something, including the brothers. He approached Chris, pointing after JD.
"He gonna succeed in killing the kid?"
Chris turned toward the man. "Aah, don't you worry about JD...he's tougher than he looks." He gestured for Sam to take a seat while nodding to Inez for another glass. When it arrived, Chris picked up the pitcher of beer and poured a glass, topping the others up as he did so.
"Where do you hail from, Mr. Bush?" Ezra asked.
Bush removed his hat. "Name's Sam, sir...and I guess you could say I'm originally from Texas...got kin there. Haven't been there in a while, though."
"I understand you knew Linc well," Josiah said softly. Sam nodded.
"I did, he was a good man. Had many a fine trail ride with him. Been telling your youngest about him just earlier."
"JD's gullible about some things, don't be fillin' his head with stories you can't back up."
Bush looked at Vin. "I wouldn't do that. He's a nice kid."
"That he is," Vin agreed, sipping on his beer.
"You know...he is old enough to make up his own mind..." Sam began, suddenly backing down before he lost his temper. This Tanner guy certainly knew how to push his buttons.
Before any more could be said, Buck and JD returned, laughing, the bigger man's arm draped affectionately over the younger man's shoulders. Buck pushed JD's head gently before returning to the bar. JD sat down.
"What's he got you doing?" Chris asked, knowingly.
"Have to wash his truck," JD grinned taking a sip of Chris' beer and getting a glare for his trouble. JD just chuckled and turned to Sam.
"You made it."
Sam nodded, standing. "I did, but I'd best get back. Need to do a few more things before it gets too dark." He looked around the table and replaced his hat. "Gents."
JD watched him leave. "Was it something I said?"
Chris cast a glance toward Vin. "Nah, like he said, he just had to get back."
"Oh," JD looked at his brothers. "Are we eating?"
"Inez made Chili fries," Vin grinned.
JD grinned back. "Awesome."
A few days later and around mid-morning saw Hank Braivels pull up in one of the ranch trucks. He approached Vin and Chris in the corral, touching his hat in greeting.
"Chris...Vin. Chad just called in to say there's no water coming through to the lower pasture from Cutter's Creek. I'm guessing we got us a blockage further upstream. You want for me to send him up to take a look?"
Vin glanced at Chris and shook his head. "If it's a blockage, it's more likely from where the stream passes the edges of the wood just before it drops down to lower ground. It'll be quicker to get to it from this end."
Chris nodded his agreement. "Sam!"
Bush looked up from the fence post he was fixing, put down his tools and walked toward the two brothers.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee?"
"It's Chris, Sam...Mr. Larabee was my father. You know the ranch..." He watched the man nod. "...Take one of the ATVs and check out the creek up at Palomino Point. There's a good chance some branches have created a log jam."
"Sure, will do Mr....Chris." With that he took off toward the garage.
"Call JD, maybe he's closer," Vin suggested.
"He's on his way back. He called Buck about a half hour ago," Chris informed, continuing on with his work as he picked up a hammer.
Nodding, Vin let it go, but not before watching Sam disappear into the distance.
JD got up from the moist grass underneath a large tree, cursing his now damp jeans. He'd come across the small clearing and had rested for a while to take a drink and just enjoy the peace after his long ride. His conversations with Sam over the last few days had opened JD's eyes even more to the land he had grown to love and his rides out were getting longer and longer. He used to ride out with Vin occasionally, but the Texan's duties rarely allowed for such things these days. JD missed that.
From the quiet meadow, he'd called Buck to tell him he was on his way back; the pair was heading into town on his return. Milagro had wandered over to the stream to take a drink, but the horse's fussing caused JD to get up and move toward him. He quickly realized the horse had been sinking a little in the soft ground. He frowned to himself, they hadn't had rain recently, why was the ground so sodden?
In seconds he had located the problem. Several branches had gotten caught in the boulders bordering the overhang that sent the small stream downward toward the lower pasture via a pretty little waterfall. Their presence had created a barrier. Treading carefully, he made his way through the water and began tugging at the driftwood, smiling to himself when the brushwood shifted and broke away as the force of the dammed water pushed through. Satisfied his job was done; he pivoted and made the return journey. Almost at the bank, the waterlogged, fresh silt on the creek bed gave way and he wobbled violently before crashing face down into the shallow frigid water.
The cold water shocked him and JD pushed shakily up onto his elbows, quickly recognizing his head hurt like hell. Dizzy, he just managed to climb halfway out onto a grassy bank and flip onto his side before he passed out, oblivious to the blood flowing steadily from a wound somewhere on his forehead or the sound of a frightened horse galloping away.
Sam Bush was enjoying his little excursion. He had forgotten how beautiful this land was and enjoyed the sightseeing as much as the fun ride on the ATV. He knew where he was heading and wasted no time in locating the small clearing where the water cascaded down to lower ground. Due to the slight slope to the stream, he didn't see JD until he got off the quad bike and walked closer.
Reaching the prone form in moments, he dropped do his knees and checked for a pulse...alive...thank God. Then he noticed the blood. Pulling the youth fully out of the water, a small groan told him the boy was coming around. His first instinct was to run...get away...have nothing to do with it, and he stood to return to the ATV. Another moan stopped him in his tracks and his next move had him wondering if he was acting out of compassion or the fact that he'd been sent up there to do a job and it was only a matter of time before the brothers found the kid...and they'd know Bush hadn't been the one that unclogged the blockage. He cursed his bad luck, he'd already gotten far closer to this kid than he'd intended to.
But if Chris Larabee found out he'd left the boy like this...he'd kill him...then fire his ass. So he stripped off his jacket and went back to JD's side, laying the coat over the trembling youth.
"Kid...hey, kid...d'ya hear me?" He jumped up and reached into the ATV for the first-aid kit, and in minutes had successfully bandaged JD's head. He smiled at the tiniest hint of hazel peeking at him. "Hey."
JD felt like someone was poking an ice pick into his forehead, and moaned, though he wasn't sure if it was aloud or not. The violent shivering didn't help the pain, either. A voice penetrated his agony as a hint of warmth covered his shuddering body and something was wrapped around his aching head. He attempted to open his eyes, deciding on just a tiny bit as the light caused added discomfort. Unable to speak for the chattering of his teeth, JD moaned again before being quickly turned as his breakfast reappeared.
Sam just shifted JD in time before the kid hurled. When he was sure JD was done, the ranch hand talked a groggy youth through getting up, grateful the boy made some effort in helping him.
"I...'m fine." JD gasped out.
"Yeah, kid...I can see that. C'mon...let's get you home."
"'kay..." JD liked the sound of that.
Sam knew enough about head wounds to realize he had to try and keep JD awake as he half carried, half dragged the kid to the ATV. "Y'know...there was this time me an' ol' Linc were camping out during one trail ride. It was real hot so we decided to cool off before bedding down for the night," He paused, grunting as he settled JD into the passenger seat, buckling him in.
"Anyway...we were skinny dipping, when Linc started yelling and flopping around like he was being eaten by a shark. I grabbed him and we hauled ass outta that water."
JD tried to look at him. "Wh...what was it?"
Trying to ignore how weak the kid sounded, Sam continued. "It seems a big ol' bass took a liking to a certain part of Linc's anatomy and started nibbling at it." He chuckled at the memory.
JD tried to laugh. "No...way...you're teasing me..."
"I swear, son...as God is my witness...Linc Larabee was fish bait...'course...it kinda put him off skinny dipping for a while. Damn..."
JD was out, so Sam jumped into the vehicle, started it up and, turning, headed for home, mumbling to himself. "I did not sign up for this shit..."
Noting the house was quiet, Vin went into the study and closed the door. Dialing, he waited as the person on the other end picked up.
"Terry? Hi...Vin, Vin Tanner." The Texan laughed. "I'm good...you? What...another one? Hell, you aimin' to start your own football team?" He waited for Terry to finish talking.
"Yeah...you're right, I do need a favor. I'm gonna give you a name and description of a guy I just came across. Could you let me know if he flags up? No...I'm outta the business, but I just need...thanks, 'preciate it." With that, Vin relayed the information, along with his email address. He could have looked all this up himself, but Terry was still bounty hunting, and would be faster...plus, he didn't want to alert the family over his concerns...not yet, anyway...not until he had solid evidence. Once finished, he proceeded to return to the yard, not missing a beat, despite Buck startling him as the brunet exited the kitchen.
"Bucklin...finally with us?" They made their way to the back door and out onto the deck.
Sipping his warmed up coffee, Buck winced at the lukewarm brew. "Har har...you know I already talked to JD. I reckon I heard Ezra stirring, too. Is Nathan here?"
Vin nodded. "Hit the hay 'bout two hours ago...got another shift tonight. What time are you an' JD headin' into town?"
"I told Inez we'd cover the early shift, so around 2:00. We'll be back by 8:00 for supper."
"Thought I might come along," Vin added as they stepped out onto the porch. "Haven't seen much of JD in the past few days, he seems to have been around Sam a lot, lately. D'ya mind?"
Buck grinned clapping him on the back. "You kidding me? Be happy to have you with us, pard."
A noise drew their attention toward the rear of the corral, Buck not realizing he'd dropped his mug until he heard the crash as JD's bay raced around the fencing and into the yard, only slowing when Chris caught the reins and calmed the lathered horse down.
Vin and Buck were with Chris in an instant, suddenly joined by Josiah and several ranch hands. Ezra appeared on the porch just as Chris was checking the horse over. The blond shrugged.
"He seems fine...mud on his fetlock's but no injuries." He looked at his brothers knowing all too well what they were thinking, because he was thinking it too...'where the hell was JD?' Handing off the bay to a ranch hand, they were just talking through what to do next when all hell broke loose.
The noise of someone yelling over a four-stroke engine drew everyone's attention.
They all set off at a sprint to meet the approaching vehicle.
Sam started yelling as soon as he figured it would do some good, relieved to see most of the family was in the yard and now heading his way. JD was secure and hunkered down in the seat, but his head was lolling dangerously backward, threatening to choke him if his tongue dropped back. Sam cut the engine as five of the brothers converged on him at once, Nathan emerging from the house to lean on the porch rail as he checked out what all the noise was about. He was instantly returning for his medical bag.
Buck and Josiah eased JD out of the seat and carried him a little way from the ATV, laying him gently on the grass.
"What the hell happened?" Chris demanded, dividing his attention between JD's inert form and Sam's shocked one.
"Don't rightly know. Found him half out of the stream at the Point. His head's been bleeding and he's real cold...been sick, too."
Noting Sam shivering, his clothes soiled with JD's blood, Chris squeezed his shoulder. "Thanks...go wash up, we'll talk later."
Nodding, Bush returned the vehicle and headed off to do just that.
Buck chewed on his thumbnail as Nathan examined JD. "Nathan?"
Before the doctor could answer, JD moaned and ebony lashes fluttered to eventually open. Nathan leaned in.
"Easy, JD...we're gonna take you to the hospital...you' ve had a nasty bump."
The kid tried getting up, batting hands off him. "No...'m fine...sofa's good..."
"It's not up for debate," Chris cut in, looking at the others. "Get him in the Ram...let's go.
"What am I gonna do with you?" Buck whispered to his little brother as he and Josiah got him upright and Ezra wrapped him in a fresh, warm blanket.
"Crash...helmet? " came the reply before JD's knees gave out.
Buck stared at the blanket-wrapped sleeping form, lying sideways across the brunet's favorite recliner. If Buck was home, he always got that seat...only JD had ever been 'allowed' in it while Buck was around, and usually only when he was sick or injured. Chris and Vin sat on the sofa next to Buck.
"He should be in bed," Chris stated.
"Aww...he just wanted to be close...I think he had a bit of a shock," Buck answered. "We were lucky they let him come home."
"Didn't we all," Vin added, biting into a sandwich, "have a shock," he explained. He swallowed hard as Ezra returned from the kitchen followed by Sam Bush.
Bush stopped at the doorway as Standish moved into the room, a coffee pot in hand.
"Sorry for the intrusion...was just wondering how the kid was." He was surprised as Buck was next to him in seconds, pumping his hand and ushering him in.
"Man, we can't thank you enough...if you hadn't found him..."
"Just right place, right time, Mister Wilmington," Sam smiled.
"Buck...my name's Buck, and it don't matter...you did a good thing...thank you."
"Buck's right, Sam...we owe you one," Chris confirmed, joining them.
While Sam basked in the praise, realizing he'd done the right thing in the family's eyes by checking on the kid, Vin was in turmoil. He too was deeply grateful to Bush, but alarm bells ringing in his head now accompanied this nagging gut feeling of his. He hadn't received an email from Terry...yet...maybe there wasn't even anything to find...but until he knew that to be so...Vin simply couldn't let it go.
A week later saw JD almost fully recovered and, out of choice, doing light chores. Without planning it, Sam had been around the kid a lot, and, despite trying to resist and stick to the plan, found himself growing close to the youth.
The kid was spunky.
Not once did he use his injury to get out of work, and he would attempt anything the other men would do, though Chris had laid down the law with a firm hand about JD's limitations during his recuperation.
Sam had laughed a lot these last few weeks, almost forgetting why he was actually at the Double L. And JD had contributed toward a large part of that feeling, encouraging Bush to talk about his past employment at the ranch at every opportunity. Sam had quickly realized they had been very good times.
This particular morning saw the pair in the barn. A delivery of hay had arrived and the two were getting them under cover, using a winch to move a third of them up to the loft. His finger on the button, JD watched the bales rise, only to hear an odd whirring noise, followed by a pop. The device stopped mid operation; Sam who was about to climb up to take off the bales, moved to look up at it, glancing back at JD. Before Sam could speak, JD had crossed the stable floor and scrambled up the loft ladder to check out the fuse box. He called down to the older man.
"It's blown a fuse. I'll need to tell Vin."
"We can change that," Sam called back.
"I know," JD agreed, "but Vin has strict rules about reporting any equipment malfunctions. "He was about to climb down when the man in question walked in.
Vin had been looking for his kid brother, hoping to take a break with him and catch up. His breath caught in his throat as the kid who only a week ago was suffering with a bleeding head wound, concussion and three stitches, half climbed half slid down the loft ladder. As JD's feet hit the floor, Vin spoke.
"What the hell are you doin'?"
Sam looked toward Tanner. JD turned his head, smiling at his older brother.
"Don't 'hey Vin' me...what the hell were you thinkin'...climbin' up there like that?" He glared at Sam. "The kid's had a head injury, why are you lettin' him climb? You broke your leg or somethin'?"
Sam glared back. JD had simply been too quick for him. "Nothing wrong with me, Mister Tanner."
"So, I'll ask again, why are you lettin' JD climb, knowin'...?"
"...Vin," JD cut in, a little surprised at the outburst. "Sam had nothing to do with it, I went up there before it even got to the point of discussion; if it's anyone's fault, it's mine."
"Oh, don't worry, I'm gettin' to you," Vin snapped back.
Bush took a step forward, seeing a perfect opportunity to keep on JD's good side and make Tanner the bad guy. "Boss, you got no right going off on the kid. We were just doing our job..."
Vin matched the step. "Mister Larabee left strict instructions. JD was to stay on the ground, no drivin' and only do light work..."
"I have been," JD protested, still with one hand on the ladder.
"What? 'Have been' as in what I just caught you doin'?"
"Caught me? What's that supposed to mean?" JD was getting angry, now.
"You got this all wrong, boss,"
"I don't think so, Bush," Vin argued, "an' butt out of family business. I was addressin' my brother."
"I got the feeling you were ragging on both of us, Mister Tanner, and I can tell you, it don't sit too good from where I'm standing...you come in here all spit'n vinegar, never even gave us a chance to explain..."
"In case you haven't noticed Mister Bush...I'm in charge here and..."
"Vin," JD cut in, "what the hell's crawled up your ass an' died?"
"WHAT'S GOING ON?"
The three turned to see Chris standing in the barn doorway, glaring at them. Behind him, outside, the other brothers and some ranch hands had gathered, wondering what the shouting from the barn was all about.
Vin half-turned. "I'm handlin' it, Chris."
"So I see," the blond snapped back. "Well? Anyone going to clue me in?"
JD glanced at Vin and Sam. "The winch blew a fuse."
"And this is cause for an argument?" Chris asked.
Vin scribbled down the fault onto his clipboard. "No." With that, he turned and left, just brushing Chris' shoulder in his haste to get out.
Chris looked at JD and Sam. "Get the hay under cover, for now; we'll worry about the winch later." Acknowledging the two nods, Chris left, intending to catch up with Vin, walking through his brothers as he spotted the Texan going toward the back door of the house.
JD looked at Sam. "I'm sorry...I just wasn't thinking when..."
"Forget it, kid...things just got a little heated. Your brother loves you and he just worries about you. Fear for a loved one can do that to a man."
JD smiled. "Yeah, maybe. Vin's really a cool guy...just a bit intense when he doesn't know a person too well."
"Intense?" Sam grinned. "He hides it well."
JD chuckled. "Look, we're all going into town later...to Rosie's. Why don't you come?"
Sam shook his head. "Nah...thanks but...best I don't."
Staring at the intense look JD threw him, Sam shuddered. 'Lord, where'd he learn to do that?' He nodded. "Okay...for you...thanks. Now...let's get this here hay in before we get chewed out again."
Buck, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah stood between the house and the barn, unsure of what to do next as Chris hurried past them and into the house. Buck tapped Nathan's arm.
"C'mon, let's go see what's going on." With a look to Josiah he hoped would be interpreted as 'keep an eye on the kid', Buck and Nathan followed after Chris and Vin.
Spotting Vin entering the study, Chris took a breath and followed the younger man in. He found Tanner sitting behind the desk, his clipboard on the top, to one side and Vin hunched over, his elbows resting on the desk and his head propped up by one hand.
"You wanna tell me what that was all about?" Chris asked. He was surprised at the anguish in his brother's face. "Is this about Sam?"
Vin sighed, eventually nodding. "I need to tell you somethin'."
Taking a seat in one of the leather armchairs, Chris nodded for him to go ahead.
Vin straightened. "About Sam...this gut feelin' of mine, it went into overdrive, so...I called a friend who's still in the business..."
"He found something?"
Vin shook his head. "No...not yet. I'm sorry Chris, I can't explain it, I just...don't like the guy. And him and JD are gettin' real friendly..."
"So, there's no hard evidence?"
"No." He sighed again. "Look, Chris, if I'm wrong, I'll apologize to the guy...to JD, do whatever it takes to put this right, but until I get word..."
Larabee pondered Tanner's words for a few moments, eventually agreeing. "Alright, I'm happy to go along with that...but I want this thing between you and JD sorted."
Vin smiled. "I'll buy him dessert at Rosie's tonight...maybe whup his ass at pool."
Before Chris could answer, Buck and Nathan entered the room. It was clear they had heard some, if not all, of the conversation. Buck spoke, addressing Vin.
"So, when were you gonna share all this with the rest of us, huh? You think this guy's trouble and you're letting us, our men, JD, all get friendly with him?"
"Now wait, Buck." Chris cut in, standing as he spoke. "It's not like that. I'm happy with Sam's work, but I also respect Vin's instincts...we' re just playing it by ear, for now."
"You still should have told us," Nathan replied.
Vin stood, nodding. "You're right, I should have, but, none of this is for certain, so I just wanted to keep it low profile until my friend gets back to me. Please, guys."
Buck and Nathan glanced at each other, then back toward Vin and Chris.
Okay," Buck agreed, "though I'm not comfortable about not telling everyone. If this turns out to be a false trail..."
"I'll eat crow...I promise," Vin assured. "When we go to Rosie's later, I'll tell everyone then, is that okay?"
All three nodded. It would certainly be easier to tell them all together.
"Alright," Chris said, "Let's get to it, or we'll be eating leftovers at Rosie's tonight." He really would be glad to see Nettie back.
Vin glanced over as laughter drifted across from the pool table. Josiah and Ezra, with Buck dutifully `cheering' them on, had challenged JD and Sam to a game or two. Normally able to control his feelings to a degree, the Texan wondered how well he'd hidden them when JD had walked in with Sam. All he'd wanted was a family night out, maybe a chance to mend some fences...not to mention explain his hostility toward Bush. Instead he found himself glancing across at the five at the pool table and checking his watch. Getting up, he approached Buck.
"Do you mind if I go to the office and check my emails?"
Buck fished out a key from his pocket, handing it over, smiling. "Knock yourself out...just lock up when you're done."
Tanner looked across at JD.
"You up for a game?"
Vin grinned, widely. "Sure thing...give me ten minutes."
Seeing JD smile and nod, Tanner went on to the office while the five from the pool table re-joined Chris and Nathan.
Once the computer had booted up, Vin tapped in his password and clicked on mail. His heart almost leapt into his throat as Terry's electronic address stared back at him. Surprised at the slight shake of his hand, Vin moved the mouse over the inbox and opened the message.
Chris was laughing at the banter as the five who had just returned to the table squabbled playfully about their skills at the pool table. Feeling his phone vibrate in his pocket, Chris answered it, frowning at the familiar ID. Without speaking, he listened then stood, closing his phone.
"Won't be a minute." He left as Nathan's voice entered the debate. Walking into the office, Chris walked around the desk and read the screen that Vin had directed him to. He was shocked.
"He shot a patrolman?"
Vin nodded, still a little shocked himself, despite knowing his gut instincts had been correct. "I've called the cops."
Chris acknowledged him. "We need to bring this in here; Buck's clients don't need to see this."
"Agreed, let's go get the others," Vin said as he moved toward the office door.
JD excused himself to use the bathroom, slapping at Buck's hand as the brunet hung on to the youth's belt at the back of his jeans, stopping him from leaving. Finally JD broke away. Sam laughed.
"He's a real nice kid," he said, to no one in particular.
"Eh...he has his moments," Buck answered. Everyone laughed, all looking up as Chris and Vin approached.
"We need you all in the office, now," Chris ordered, noting all his brothers stood instantly. "Where's JD?"
"Bathroom," Josiah offered.
Buck glanced at his barman. "Matt tell JD we're in the office." As Matt nodded, Buck tutted to himself, looking down at Bush. "Sorry Sam...you can tell him..."
"No," Vin cut in, "Sam, you need to come, too." In seconds, the puzzled group followed Chris and Vin out of the bar. Once in the large room, Sam half-turned as Chris closed the door, quickly realizing, whatever it was, he was involved.
"You shot a patrolman?" Chris fired back.
Four men glanced in shock between Vin, Chris and Sam. The latter sighed, his time was up.
"Yes...but it didn't happen the way you think..."
"Just how many ways can there be to hold up a store and shoot a man?" Vin asked, his voice low and menacing.
Chris stepped forward to hiss in Sam's face. "I let you into our home...be around our friends...my family...I trusted you."
"For what it's worth," Sam pleaded, "I have no gun. All I wanted was to lay low...that's it...nothing more. I didn't mean to get close to anyone except the kid."
Sam swallowed at the sudden change in mood as simmering anger seemed to fill the air. He raised his hands in a subconscious, defensive stance. "It was to keep Tanner off my back...and keep in with you guys but, I gotta say this, JD's a real nice kid...he laughed at my jokes...listened to my stories, made me feel like I was a part of what you have here." He dropped his head momentarily, then looked around at them all. "Tell him I'm sorry...but I needed this place and I originally saw him as my meal ticket."
A knock on the door drew their attention. Chris opened the door and three male cops walked in, moving toward Bush on Chris' nod. Sam was instantly read his rights before being bent over the desk for searching and cuffing.
JD returned to the family's table to find it empty. He turned full circle in an effort to spot them. Matt called over.
"They're in the office...three cops just went in, too."
JD frowned. "Why...something happen?"
Matt shrugged. "Not that I noticed."
Acknowledging him, JD walked toward the back room. A breath hitched in his throat at the sight that greeted him when he reached the office and opened the door. As one of the cops cuffed Sam, JD pushed in.
"What...what's going on? Hey...stop...what are you doing?"
Still standing close to the door, Chris wrapped his arms around JD and pulled him back against him. He could see JD was about to grab at one of the officers, the last thing Chris needed was any of his brothers arrested, too. JD fought against him.
"Damnit, Chris...let go of me...what are they doing...why are they arresting him? Sam? SAM!"
Buck had maneuvered around to stand with Chris. He squeezed JD's shoulder, the youth's arms still pinned by Chris' grip. "Calm down...we'll explain everything in a minute."
"Explain what?" JD struggled harder until the officers moved and Sam was marched toward him.
Bush dug in his heels to stop just in front of JD, glancing around at the brothers. "I'm sorry." He looked at JD. "I'm real sorry, kid. For what it's worth...I like you a whole lot. Your daddy woulda been real proud of you if he'd ever gotten the chance to meet you."
JD watched, confused and distressed as Bush was escorted out by two of the lawmen, vaguely aware of Chris' grip loosening and Buck mumbling something in his ear. He was just about to speak when the third officer smiled, his hand extended toward Vin.
"Thanks for your help, Mr. Tanner...great job. We'll be in touch."
Vin shook his hand, automatically returning the smile. "No problem."
Time seemed to move in slow motion for JD as he watched the exchange, his focus now on Vin's smile as he shook the officer's hand. Something odd happened to the kid as a feeling started from his toes, working up his body to the roots of his hair. No sooner had the officer left; JD launched himself at Vin, taking the Texan off his feet and to the floor.
"What the hell...?"
"Knock it off!"
Ignoring the calls from around him, JD sat on top of Vin, pinning him down. "I can't believe you did that...I knew you hated him but this...?" he growled.
It was all Vin could do to contain the thrashing fists, his anger finally winning over as he punched JD in the face just split seconds before Buck, Josiah, Chris and Nathan pulled the wrestling pair apart. Buck and Josiah, despite their bulk and strength were barely containing JD as he struggled to get back in there. Chris and Nathan were having no less of a hard time as Vin was just as keen to retaliate now he was on his feet.
"He got what he deserved," Vin howled out, "I knew he was trouble from day one but no...not you. Sometimes I wonder just how the hell you made it to your twenties without us, the way you carry on!"
"Well at least I didn't end up mean, bitter and twisted like you," JD countered. "And yeah...I survived long enough without you, so don't flatter yourself!"
At Chris' order, JD shrugged off Buck and Josiah, straightening his clothes and dabbing at his bloodied nose with the back of his hand, his glare toward Vin never wavering. Suddenly something occurred to JD and he glanced around at the shocked faces of the others.
"Did you all know?" The silence that greeted him caused JD's heart to plummet to his stomach, unaware that, despite not knowing what Vin had been planning, Ezra and Josiah felt uncomfortable answering either way.
JD straightened. "I see."
Anger had been replaced by an emotion none of the others recognized. JD turned to leave, glancing back at Vin. "I hope you sleep well tonight."
Vin huffed. "Go to hell!"
JD swallowed. "I just did." Opening the door, he walked through, slamming it behind him.
For a few moments, no one moved, unable to take in the events of the last fifteen to twenty minutes. They were startled back to reality when Vin howled, clearing Buck's desk in one swipe, just stopping short before the computer.
Buck suddenly jumped to life. "Shit!" He raced out the door after JD. By the time he reached the bar, JD was gone.
Early next morning saw six morose, silent brothers picking at their breakfasts, each man mulling over the events of the previous night. Buck had mumbled his apologies to Inez and Matt and took off after JD, only to find on his return home, a locked bedroom door and a totally unresponsive occupant. Buck had gone from begging to reasoning to mild threats to coax his youngest brother out to talk, even resorting to sitting on the floor, against JD's door until the youth did so. But one hour and two numb ass cheeks later, Buck called it a night and headed for his own bed.
Footsteps on the stairs raised their hopes, and their heads as they watched JD approach the table, snatch up an apple from the fruit bowl and walk toward the main door as he munched it.
"Kid...you not eating?" Buck called.
Turning momentarily, JD raised the apple in the air, expecting it to be explanation enough.
"Got a lot to do today, JD." Chris added.
"Tell the foreman to leave me a list," JD called back; "I'll be about an hour. I'll leave you all to talk amongst yourselves, now."
"Kind of immature behavior, don't you think?" Chris continued, instantly annoyed with himself for using the wrong word, and wincing at the expression on JD's face.
"Probably," JD responded. "I think last night proved that you don't consider me capable of a mature judgment or trustworthy enough to include in family decisions. Setting aside the fact that I have taken care of myself for twenty years...put myself through college, not to mention being responsible for the care of my dying mother for four years as well." He stared at them. "I honestly believed that I had brought something to this family." He swallowed. "Obviously, I was wrong."
JD's eyes swept from one man to the next to include each of them in the accusation. "Hey, I'm just `the kid', right? Naïve, incapable of making mature decisions or good choices for friends." He gave them all a look that positively shook them to the core, a mix of disappointment, resentment and...hurt. "All you had to was talk to me...tell me about your suspicions." Hazel eyes locked with blue as JD fixed his gaze on Vin. "I trust your instincts...those gut feelings you're always talking about." Tanner's blue eyes looked away first. JD concluded, his voice low. "I would have listened."
Looking again at the others and stopping on Chris, JD finished with "But no, I was left out...made to look stupid. First for trusting this man because he knew our father in a way none of you could. Second for jumping to his defense." JD fought the tremble in his voice. "I called the station last night and found out what Sam did."
He paused and looked down, seemingly studying the apple in his hand. "I guess I was pretty gullible to take the man at his word. It was just nice, hearing all those stories..."
JD abruptly turned and headed to the kitchen, the words "I'll get my list of chores when I get back," floating behind him. The sound of the mudroom door closing echoed around the silent house like a gunshot.
Buck went to stand but Chris gestured for him to sit. "Give him some time. He's hurt and angry and not thinking straight."
"Actually," Ezra cut in, "I must voice my own displeasure at how this affair was handled. I was unaware of these events until Bush was arrested and yet felt beholden to remain silent about that fact when JD threw the accusation of our collective knowledge back at us. I fear I may come to regret that decision."
"I didn't know, either," Josiah added, "I think it would be a good idea to tell JD he wasn't the only one who was out of the loop. And, for what it's worth, and in hindsight, I agree with Ezra...it could have been handled better."
Vin threw down his napkin. "Well, that was down to me, so get over it. I asked for what I was doin' to be kept low profile until I was sure I was right. I wasn't expectin' to find out about what Bush had done when I went to Rosie's last night, but I did, an' I don't regret a thing. The guy robbed a store at gunpoint an' shot a patrolman durin' his escape. In my book, there's no reprieve for that...and my family's safety comes first, so I called the cops."
Chris looked at them all. "Dad would have done nothing less."
"That's not the issue," Josiah reminded. "The point raised, was if some of you knew, we should all have known."
"If JD's gonna get all bent out of shape 'cause his new friend turned out to be a..."
"Vin," Ezra countered, "JD's unhappiness is, I believe, more to do with his lack of consultation on events. Yes, Sam and he were close, but, I have no doubt, had you brought him into your confidence, he would have understood...and supported you. Until last night, he trusted you..." Ezra looked around at each of them. "...he trusted all of us. Now, all he can focus on is the awful realization that we did not extend the same courtesy to him."
Nathan, Buck and Chris looked at each other, sighing with the recognition that Ezra's comments about JD's treatment could easily be directed at the southerner and Josiah, also.
"I could have been wrong," Vin defended.
"And that would have been okay," Josiah answered. "Because family pull together in times of trouble, we support, we understand...and we move on." He stood. "Excuse me."
They watched Josiah walk upstairs, the closing of his bedroom door soon following. Vin had picked up his fork and was stabbing idly at his food.
"Go talk to JD, Vin."
Tanner looked up at Chris. He sighed.
"I'm more than willin' to stand by my actions...but I didn't deserve bein' set on an' wrestled to the floor. No one seems to be too concerned over JD's behavior..." he stood, "...so to hell with it. Until he apologizes, I'm damned if I'm gonna go after him an' kiss butt." Pushing back his chair, Vin turned and walked out of the house.
Chris ran a hand down his face, a deep sigh causing his shoulders to tense, then slump. He also stood. "I'll be in the barn."
Buck started gathering up the dishes. "I think I'll head on out to Rosie's...reckon I should make up for running out on them last night." He walked toward the kitchen. Ezra stood next, nodded to Nathan and went to the study, closing the door. Nathan pursed his lips.
"Great, I finally get a few days off...and no one's talking to each other."
JD had saddled his horse and ridden off in a very different direction to his usual route. Stopping at the low fence surrounding the cemetery, he ground tied Milagro. Moving through the gate, he crossed the grounds until he reached the quiet corner where the family plots lay and stopped at his father's headstone, staring for a moment before speaking.
"Sam seemed like such a nice guy, Linc. How could I have been so wrong? The stories he told me about you...and mom...made me feel so close to you." He swiped at a single tear. "All I ever wanted was to belong...to have a family...and until last night, I thought I did. Now I feel like when I first came here, like I don't know 'em any more. I...I don't know what to do." With a shuddering breath, JD wandered over to his mother's headstone.
"Sorry I haven't been out lately, mom. I never meant to ignore you." He plopped down on the grass, just close enough to touch the hands of the weeping angel draped over the headstone.
"Tell me what to do. For the first time in a long time...I'm lost. How can I live with men who don't trust me enough to share their concerns with me? I tell them everything...what is it about me that makes them turn away like that? What do I do wrong?" JD fought the thickness in his throat and the ache in his chest as a soft breeze ruffled his dark hair. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, enjoying the soft motion. A minute or so later, he opened his eyes and looked at the headstone, nodding.
"I need to get away...think things through." JD stood up and brushed off his jeans. "I'll go tomorrow."
Buck stretched as he sat on the edge of his bed. He had stayed at Rosie's until late, secretly hoping all would be resolved when he returned home. But he found, if anything, it was worse. Chris was alone and reading in the study, Vin was watching TV in the front room. Ezra was playing solitaire at the dining table, while Josiah reclined in Chris' usual spot, reading and Nathan was cleaning the kitchen. Buck guessed JD was in his room, but on passing it, the door was locked and no sound could be heard. With a sigh, Buck went on to bed.
Having slept fitfully, the brunet decided on rising, today would be the day for fixing things. He was startled by a knock on his door and Chris' head peering around it.
"Move your butt...JD's leaving."
Chris' words hit Buck like a sledgehammer and he was into his jeans in seconds, pulling on his shirt as he raced down the stairs in his stockinged feet. Joining the others on the deck, Buck paled as he saw JD's Blazer in the yard, one rear door and the driver's door open. Chris was talking to him.
"This is crazy, kid. Come on in and we'll all talk about this."
JD shook his head as he closed the rear door. "It won't help. I'm going up to the lake for a few days."
JD shrugged. "I need to think...I...I'm not sure." He looked back at his family, his gaze falling on Vin only to quickly look disappointedly away from the hard blue stare that greeted him. "I...I just need some time...to get away and think. I'm just in your way here right now."
Before Buck realized, he'd moved and was pulling JD to him, ignoring the tension that radiated from the smaller man as he held on tight. "Stay," he whispered, "we can fix this."
JD relaxed into the embrace for a few seconds, then pulled back. "Don't..." he breathed back, desperate not to bral down. "...just...don't." He jumped into the cab, looking out of the open window.
"I just can't do this right now," he explained. "I need to be alone...I want to be alone, just like I was before...when..."
Turning away to hide his tears and the hurt in his eyes, JD turned the key in the ignition and floored the gas, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel. No one moved, uncertain as to what to do next. Suddenly, Buck turned to hurry into the house. Chris caught his arm.
"I'm going after him. This is crazy...what the hell provoked him into leaving like that?"
Eyes moved to look at the ground, each man having ideas on the subject, but each unwilling to voice them. Buck tried pulling away from his older brother, but Chris held firm.
The brunet tugged to free himself. "Chris, let go. What if he's not going up to the lake? What if he's..." Buck swallowed, "leaving?"
"We know he has a key to the cabin, just as we all do," Chris reminded. "Tomorrow, we'll take a run out there and check on him...okay?" He held Buck's gaze. Finally Buck dropped his, nodding.
"Okay...maybe we can persuade him to come back..."
"Buck," Chris warned, "if it's time JD needs...we'll let him have it." Chris glanced at Vin, the Texan's face was a picture of misery. "It may be just what we all need...to properly put this right."
JD sat on the floor of the lodge's wrap-around deck as he gazed out at the still lake in front of him. Its tranquil water mirrored the surrounding trees and mountains, occasionally rippling when a fish ventured to the surface or a hawk swooped down in search of a meal. He loved it here; it brought him such peace.
For three days JD had sat quietly, going over and over recent events...analyzing everything, until he was done in. He simply couldn't think about it any longer. He didn't know if this could ever be put right; all he did know was he missed his family, realizing that, even if they were unable to talk like they used to, being around them was ultimately better than being without them. His only fear now was...would they welcome him back?
That said...JD touched his laptop, fondly...Buck had emailed him every day, so had Ezra and JD regretted not emailing them back, or returning Buck's text messages, but, he simply had not known what to tell them.
But now he did...he was ready to go home.
JD had thought about Vin...a lot. He missed their easy banter and playfulness. Since Vin had become foreman of the Double L, the pair had been unable to take as many rides together as they had been used to. Vin, Buck and Chris talking business, while interesting, often dominated mealtimes, there seemed less time for the 'fun' chats anymore.
JD had lost count of the times Vin had canceled plans due to last minute hitches. He wondered if he had ever let Vin down that much...or at all. Then JD reflected on whether Vin actually looked to find excuses. Maybe JD had fooled himself into thinking the Texan enjoyed his company, when, in fact, he was simply a convenient substitute for the ever-industrious Chris.
The youth sighed and shook his head. Surely not. They had fun...didn't they? Hell, Buck had only commented a few months ago that JD 'brought out' Vin's softer, caring and protective traits.
Maybe that hadn't been such a good thing, after all.
But that night in Rosie's...JD had never felt so betrayed and angry. All his brothers standing there, practically admitting they hadn't had enough faith in him to tell him about Sam...and then Vin...smiling back at that cop...proud as a peacock to have instigated the events that night. Events that rocked JD's confidence to zero level, and hurt him physically, in a way he could never describe...and was why he had attacked Vin so fiercely...lashing out at the hurt and disloyalty and at the person he saw content with that betrayal.
A person JD loved and trusted.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a few moments. He knew his perspective was one sided, he was at fault too, big time. He sighed, heavily, how on earth could they ever make this right?
Sitting straighter, JD looked down at the two letters lying next to him, picking up one...the one from Linc. He read it again, just as he had done two days before. It had helped a lot. Putting it down, JD picked up the second letter. This one was from his mother. He smiled as he read the opening words.
"My darling baby boy,
"I'm laughing as I write, imagining your expression as you read that. But I'm unrepentant my darling, for that is exactly what you are to me, and what you always will be, my precious baby boy.
"Reading this is hard I know, but please, try, for me.
"Let me first say, I love you so much and am so very proud of you. I know about all the things you've done to keep us together and to achieve so much against so many odds. No one could have been more tenacious and brave, and I want you to hold on to that. In times of doubt, or hard decisions, these words, I hope, will guide you into doing what you have always done. The right thing.
"I want you to know how happy you've made me. Every laugh, tear, pain and success together has been a journey that I never wanted to end. You have a pure heart and quick mind. Never be afraid to trust and use them. Stay true to yourself and you will never go wrong. You may have hard times ahead, but I have no doubt you will come through it all, and be the man I see shaping up before my eyes...honest, true, clever, kind, loving and caring. A rarity these days and why you are so special.
"My heart breaks to know I have to leave you so soon. I pray my love for you will carry you through the darkest of times and that, God willing, I can always be close enough to give you strength when you need it most...just like you have for me.
"I wish you health, happiness and love. You will always have mine. Hold onto that. Be strong and be lucky, wisdom comes with experience, so experience everything your heart desires. Read my letters in times of trouble, they will hopefully help see you through the difficult times.
"You have made my life complete.
"My love to you, always and forever,
Mama xxx "
JD swiped at his eyes with his shirt-sleeve. His mother's words always affected him deeply. But they also gave him strength, just like she promised they would. As the glow of sunset hit the crystal water, JD got up and headed in for bed. The Blazer was packed...not that he'd brought a whole lot. Tomorrow was 'make or break' day...but, at least now, he was ready to face it.
Vin had gone about his business like any other day, but anyone who knew him was more than aware of the simmering inner turmoil, thinly disguised by a forced air of indifference to recent events. Not even Chris had been able to break through the barriers Tanner had set in place the moment JD's truck had rolled down the drive and onto the highway.
No one missed the way Vin hovered when Buck and Chris returned from their 'scouting trip' to the lake, clearly absorbing and analyzing their news with a deep concern that showed in the set of his jaw and the affection in his eyes. But Vin simply wouldn't let anyone help him, so his brooding disposition just kept getting worse.
Ezra had gone to Las Vegas...seemed more than eager to leave, a rarity these days. Nathan had cut short his days off and gone back to work while Josiah seemed hell-bent on going up to the little cabin in the hills every day. Only he and the Lord knew what he did up there.
Buck and Chris were like caged animals, clearly suppressing all manner of emotions, while throwing themselves into the mounting ranch work to keep their minds occupied. Their frustration had increased daily, as JD refused to acknowledge calls, emails or texts. It was fast becoming clear, their patience was running thin and JD's days alone...were numbered.
Nathan had brought home news of the hospital wanting to raise funds to build a new wing. It seemed to bring the group of men closer as they discussed their plans to help and attend the first fundraiser meeting the next night. Ezra had assured them he would be home in time. Vin, however, while agreeing with their plans, opted to remain home and continue with the backlog of work. He had never been one for meetings and plans, especially of the scope of a fundraiser. He gave his blessings on any decisions that the brothers agreed on.
Vin constantly reflected back on the night Bush had been arrested. The Texan had been shocked when JD jumped on him. Until that moment, despite knowing the kid could more than hold his own with any of them, Vin had never seen JD lash out in anger, not intentionally, anyway. But, in truth, and hindsight, Vin wasn't really surprised. If he could take back the decision not to share his concerns with the whole family, he would, in an instant. He loved JD...all his brothers...hurting them was the last thing Vin would ever want to do.
But that was what he had done, and so easily. Being on his own for so long, he was used to making decisions without having to consider other people or their reactions. When his gut feelings kicked in about Bush, he had reverted to those old instincts and acted on them, only confiding in people when forced to. He realized now that he was no longer the lone wolf and he had people...family... to consider...to confide in. How could he make this right? Should he go to the lake and talk to JD? He sighed. JD had made it clear he wanted time alone. Vin could respect that...it was something he loved, too. So...he should wait? Talk to JD when he came home?
But what if JD never came home?
Vin shook the thought off. Of course he would...six brothers would make damn sure of it.
With that happier thought, Vin felt easier. One way or another, he and JD would put this right. All he had to work out...was how and when.
Day four of JD's self-imposed isolation saw Nettie arrive at the Double L and beginning to wish she had called ahead. It was close to dusk, but the place seemed deserted. The woman had only dropped in to let them know she was back from vacation early and...yes...check they hadn't trashed the place. She smiled, who was she kidding? Nettie simply couldn't wait to see them all. Only a few vehicles were in the garage so, entering the house, she called out.
Vin, hearing the familiar voice, came from the kitchen, a big grin adorning his handsome face, "Welcome back," he greeted.
"Good to be back," Nettie smiled. "Where is everyone?"
"In town, the hospital is tryin' to raise money for a new wing so they called a meetin'."
"You didn't go with them?"
"Nah...had a lot to do here today...still have to fit a new winch in the barn. `Sides, we're a little short handed right now."
"I see...so all six went? That's a mighty fine turn out; I'm guessing you boys intend to donate some money."
Vin nodded. "Yeah, I reckon so. We just have to get JD's vote on it."
Nettie frowned slightly. "He's at the meeting but hasn't agreed to donate? Did he want more information? "
"He isn't at the meetin'...actually... JD hasn't been around for the last few days." Vin blushed a little at his words, garnering a questioning look from the woman.
He sighed. "Long story."
Sensing something deep in that statement, Nettie led Vin into the kitchen and sat him down at the table. After switching on the kettle, she joined him. "I got time."
Coffee consumed and the tale told, Nettie sat back in her chair, an intense gaze focused on the slumped Texan, "So, JD's been at the lake for four days?"
"And you haven't been up there once to see him?"
"Why me?" Vin argued, suddenly going defensive. "He's the one that took off, turned his back on his family."
"Gone to think, more like," Nettie countered. "I take it he is actually at the cabin?"
"Yeah. Chris an' Buck drove up there. They didn't go in or anythin', just wanted to be sure he was definitely there...and okay."
Nettie shook her head. "They drove all that way, just to look, but not talk?"
"You don't know how he was when he left, Nettie; he made it real clear he wanted some space."
"Hmm...if life's taught me anything, it's to read between the words, Vin." She got up. "Well, I'd best be going. Tell Chris I'll be here in the morning...don't want the business end of a shotgun pointing my way when I let myself in."
Vin stood, nodding. "I'll walk you to the garage."
"Much obliged, son...much obliged."
Getting into her car, Nettie patted Vin's arm. "I'll see you boys in the morning."
After watching her pull away, Vin headed for the barn to fix the winch. He wanted to get the horses in and settled before the rest of the family returned and he couldn't do that until this job was out of the way. He sighed.
The rest of the family. Vin reflected on Nettie's words.
"Come home, kid...we miss you...I miss you."
JD smiled to himself as he recognized more familiar landmarks. He was only a little way from home now. He knew there were a lot of fences to mend with his brothers...on both sides, and he was nervous as hell about going home, but now he was ready to deal with it all. He wasn't sure if things could ever be the same after all that had happened, but he knew one thing...he didn't want to be alone any more.
Just outside the barn and the fuse changed, Vin pressed the button of the raised winch to lower it to ground level when it jarred to a stop, accompanied by a fierce bang. Looking up, the Texan frowned as several sparks spat from the fuse box to land in the hay in the loft. The floor of the loft was coated with hay bales, dry hay and hay dust and the sparks ignited with a 'whumpf', freezing Vin in place for a split second before rallying and charging fully into the barn. Grabbing one of the fire extinguishers, he raced up the ladder to douse the flames as quickly as possible.
Vin cursed as more sparks shot out from the box, hitting more dry hay. Now Vin was standing in the loft fighting two fires, chillingly aware flames had run behind him and were dangerously close to surrounding him. He tried to ignore the intense heat as he relentlessly sprayed the flames, though with little result. Reaching for his cell he dialed 9-1-1 but the call was costing him precious moments. Just as his call connected, Vin heard an ominous cracking sound. Seconds later, the loft floor collapsed and he disappeared in a flurry of flaming hay and smoldering wood.
As JD's Blazer turned onto the long driveway, he frowned at the faint orange glow in the distance. Continuing on, his first thought was maybe Chris had installed a new light; yet even as that thought crossed his mind, a sinking feeling was reaching the pit of his stomach. When he saw the nervous horses in the corral he already knew what he would see, the sight of the barn roof a split-second later confirming his fears.
Sliding to a halt, JD threw open the truck door and ran hell bent for leather to the barn as he yelled for help at the top of his voice. Grabbing the hose, he turned on the valve before heading in. The heat was overwhelming as roaring orange and yellow flames crackled and thick black smoke billowed along the underside of the roof. Just about to direct the water, JD glanced across to the heap that was once the loft and its contents. His heart in his throat, he tossed down the hose and ran toward the rubble.
He could just see his brother amidst the debris and smoke and without a second thought for his own safety, reached through the flames to help him.
Struggling with consciousness, Tanner heard something over the roaring in his ears, just spotting a familiar form closing in. Ignoring his pain, Vin reached out his hand, his eyes closing with relief as a hand clasped his and he began to move.
JD grabbed at his brother's outstretched hand and pulled...there was no time to consider if moving him was the right thing to do. Once Vin was closer, JD snaked his arm around the Texan's waist and hauled him upright out of the splintered, smoldering wood, bringing Vin's other arm around his own neck as he did so.
"I got you, Vin'..." he coughed out, dragging the taller man with all his might. "Come on, bro...work with me here!" he encouraged.
Hearing JD's raspy order, Vin found purchase and began limping toward the doors, the struggling pair ignoring their coughing and that their sweat-slicked bodies were not wanting to co operate as they forged on determinedly. Finally they were in the yard and JD lay Vin down as gently as he could, almost dropping to the ground with him.
Pulling off his jacket, JD slipped it under Tanner's head, not missing the blood running down his brother's face from a head wound. "Vin...Fire Department?" JD yelled over the sound of falling timber.
Eyes half-closed, Tanner nodded, once, his hand grabbing hold of JD's wrist.
JD gave a tight grin and unhooked the rigid fingers holding him. "I'll be right back."
Vin wanted to call out, but he couldn't, his head and leg competing for attention as they throbbed mercilessly, watching in alarm as JD once again, snatched up the hose and ran back toward the burning building.
The fire was terrifying him. The heat and noise was unlike anything he had ever experienced or imagined as JD directed the water jet up at the roof, more than aware at how quickly the swirling, orange flames were greedily lapping at the beams directly overhead. He knew the water would never reach that height or do much good if it did. Knowing he was fighting a losing battle, JD ran back out the door and prayed that he would be able to prevent the fire from spreading to the nearby pasture and eventually the house.
Glancing at Vin as he exited the building, JD moved around to the side of the barn where most of the flames were breaking through. He was just about to start spraying that wall when he realized it was on the side with the corral and the panicked cries of the horses could be heard over the roar of the flames.
He dropped the hose just inside the corral and ran to the pasture gate, throwing it open for the animals to escape through only to find that in their panic, the terrified animals continued to mill around the corral. Grabbing the hose, he showered the horses with cold water and yelled and whistled, encouraging them toward the open gate and safety. Moments later, the corral was empty and he turned back to the flames as the wall of the barn collapsed into the corral. Swiping at his sweaty, sooty face, he pointed the hose at the pile of burning rubble.
The emergency generator was on this side of the barn and set, ready for use, under a protective awning. JD realized that the machine was always kept fueled and ready to go in case of an emergency. That fact registered a split second before the heat caused the fuel to expand and explode, raining the entire area with hot pieces of metal and burning embers. JD had just enough time to throw his arms up in front of his face and turn slightly before the shockwave propelled him backwards to slam into the corral railing. He caught a blow from the post with his side as his head impacted the top rail of the corral, feeling nothing as he slid to a stop in a boneless heap, twenty feet outside the enclosure, embers dropping and smoldering all around him.
Vin was fighting to stay conscious as his pain-ravaged body lay on the grass, his eyes searching around the blazing, disintegrating barn in the hope of spotting his brother but...nothing. Cursing his agony, Vin flipped over onto his stomach and started crawling along the ground toward the barn. While he still had breath in his body, there was no way he was leaving his kid brother to face this alone.
His face bathed in blood and sweat, Tanner dragged his body and now useless injured leg along, ignoring the other aches and pains, in his determined drive to reach JD, only to look up and wail out in anguish as a thunderous noise sounded and a hail of burning projectiles filled the area.
It was at that point his body took control and Vin blacked out.
The drive back to the ranch by the remaining brothers was relatively quiet. While they had no doubt JD would approve of their desired donation to the hospital, their youngest had not returned a single call, email or text message. The silence was broken by Chris.
"Enough with respecting his privacy...I don't give a fuck; tomorrow I'm going up to the cabin and hauling JD's ass back here!"
Buck beamed his first genuine smile in four days.
"Count me in, stud." He sighed. "I've really missed the little guy."
"Actually, Chris..." Ezra chimed in, mindful that when JD left, he had been under the impression all his family but him knew about Bush. "...I have no doubt we all would be willing to accompany you. I have another trip to Las Vegas in two days and would personally be more content to travel knowing this disastrous situation has been resolved."
His words were met with murmurs of approval from Nathan and Josiah.
Chris glanced at Buck, next to him, and slowly nodded. "Right. Let me make a few calls to the ranch hands tonight, and we'll all go...whether we have to drag Tanner along or he comes willingly...we' re gonna sort this." Glancing in the rear-view mirror, Chris frowned, moving aside to allow two fire trucks and an ambulance to race past. A wave of anxiety washed over him and Chris pushed down on the gas pedal, pre-empting any forthcoming questions.
"I got a bad feeling about this."
Wails of despair filled the truck as Chris pulled onto the drive, ten minutes later. Skidding to a halt, the five men piled out and ran full tilt toward the mayhem in their yard, briefly glancing at JD's abandoned Blazer, its headlights still on, but not fully registering the implications of it being there at that moment. They stopped, staring at the scene outside their home, the area littered with hoses, people and emergency vehicles, the brothers only moving when Chris' anguished cry and run forward drew their attention to a sooty, bloody Vin, lying on a gurney with an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth and two paramedics working on him.
"VIN! Jesus Christ...Vin..." Chris placed a shaking hand on his brother's blanketed, unconscious form. He looked at one of the medics.
Just hearing him over the din, the man yelled back. "Broken leg...head wound...minor burns...took in some smoke...we need to get him out of here, now!"
Nathan ran appraising hands and eyes over the Texan, nodding his concurrence to the others.
As Nathan attempted to assist and Chris spoke to the paramedic, the other brothers stared in shock at the unfolding drama. Something was bothering Buck...something he couldn't quite get his terrified mind around as his eyes scanned the burning debris and jets of water.
His head suddenly snapped to the side. JD's Blazer...JD was here...JD WAS HERE!
Josiah and Ezra looked in alarm as Buck suddenly went charging toward the barn, stopped only by the strong arms of the pair as they chased after him.
"Buck, no...stay back!"
"NO!" Buck howled out, fighting against them as he called out to some firefighters. "JD...our little brother might be in there...JD!"
Realization of what Buck was saying struck the brothers hard as they heard one of the firefighters using his radio to report the possibility of someone being in the burning building. Shouts went out and now men with breathing apparatus in their hands were preparing to get kitted out and enter the barn.
Chris froze as he clung to Vin's arm and watched Nathan race away. His heartbeat doubled and he went as cold as ice as the words penetrated his brain, propelling him back in time to Sarah and Adam's deaths.
'No...no...not again...please God...not another person I love'.
Almost dream-like, Chris moved forward, easily taking out the firefighter that attempted to stop him as he walked toward the flames and smoke, glancing briefly at his four brothers as he moved to pass them. Buck was now on his knees from his distress and from being unable to help.
Chris snapped back to reality as Buck's pleas to be released broke through. He stopped, turning glistening green eyes to his brothers. "Oh God..." Waving off any attempts at comfort, Chris stood stock still as he fought to keep his emotions under control.
Breaking away from the distraught group, Josiah walked toward the corral gate. He figured it was time he and the good Lord had a talk. God had to be told...they needed him this night. Stopping, he began his hushed prayer as his eyes roamed the debris around the damaged corral. Josiah's heart almost leapt out of his chest as he yelled out, running forward as he did so.
For a split second, stares were directed at Josiah as those responding to his frantic calls tried to comprehend what was happening, instantly moving when they realized what the big man had found.
Josiah dropped to his knees, his large, trembling hands hovering over the unconscious, broken, bloody form of Linc's youngest. Before he could do any more, EMTs and firefighters were there and urging him and the now present brothers, so desperate to assist, to get back.
The five huddled close while debris was carefully removed from around JD and medical jargon flowed fast and furious.
They turned to see the first of now two ambulances ready to transport Vin to the hospital. Chris' expression showed a man in torment as he glanced between the frenetic activity around the corral and the ambulance doors closing.
"Go...we've got it," Ezra reassured.
Chris shook his head slowly. He wanted to be with Vin, but...he didn't even know if JD was alive.
"Go...Vin needs you, now."
Nodding at Ezra, he raced after the paramedics about to pull off, emotion catching in his throat as he just caught a voice call out.
"I got a pulse!"
At least, for now, all his family was still alive.
The agonizingly long wait for the brothers in the ER anteroom was taking its toll. Having been there the longest, Chris was going stir crazy. Nathan had left them to get some updates, but still hadn't returned ten minutes on. Buck was trembling and Josiah drew close to comfort his brother.
"He came back..."
They all turned to the brunet. Buck looked at them, his eyes sunken and bloodshot. "JD came back. Why didn't he tell us he was thinking on it?"
"It may have been a `spur of the moment' decision," Ezra suggested.
"Thank God he did...or Vin might be..." Chris was unable to finish the sentence.
"What?" Buck asked, hoarsely.
"In the ambulance," Chris explained, "Vin got restless. Told me, just before he passed out again, JD had pulled him out of the fire. He'd heard the explosion and was desperate to know if JD was okay." Chris looked at them all, regretfully.
"I lied to him. Told him JD was fine. I just didn't want him going under thinking JD might be..."
"You did the right thing," Josiah soothed. "Vin needs to stay positive. There'll be plenty of time to explain when he's recovering."
They all looked up and stood as Nathan exited the ER and joined them.
"Ryan...Doctor Patterson, has allowed me to fill you in," Nathan began. "Vin has a broken left leg, a small gash to his head and minor burns. Ryan assures me the burns are minimal and won't cause any problems. They've irrigated his eyes to rid them of soot and as he's inhaled smoke and it's impaired his breathing a little, they're keeping him on oxygen for a day or two. The break was straightforward and has already been set and will have a temporary cast on it in the next hour.
"Vin's conscious but on an IV for fluids, antibiotics and pain relief, so he's a little in and out."
"When can we see him?" Chris rasped out.
Nathan smiled. "Soon, but only for a few minutes. Once his leg has its cast, he'll be put into a room and then we can visit him for longer."
"JD?" Buck's question was heartrending, despite its concision. There was no missing the sorrow in the doctor's eyes.
"JD's being prepared for surgery. He's sustained a broken collarbone, dislocated the same shoulder...the assumption being it was the side he impacted after the explosion. Some minor burns from some of the fragments and scorching on his hands...it's assumed from pulling Vin out, also several entry wounds from flying debris. He'll also be on oxygen for a while, due to the heat and smoke he inhaled.
"The injury they're most concerned with is a knock to the head. Judging by where he was found, it seems likely he hit the fencing when he was thrown." Nathan paused as his family absorbed the barrage of information.
"Everything else is fixable, guys...the head injury will be a wait and see. A CAT scan will tell us more."
"I wanna see him," Buck pleaded.
"He's being prepped for surgery, Buck..."
Gone was the big man's normal bluster when his family was under threat. Instead, here was a man on the brink of despair and desperately in need of physical contact with his two injured siblings. Nathan nodded.
"Give me a minute."
Tanner looked like hell. Pale features were partially obscured by a large plastic mask over most of his face and a large dressing around his head. His left leg elevated, Vin was deeply asleep.
"Best thing for him," the nurse at his bedside assured as she checked his drip and catheter.
Each man nodded as they laid a gentle hand on their brother in the hope of conveying their presence. Chris reached out and took hold of the Texan's hand, turning as a nurse approached them.
"John's about to go up to surgery. The doctor said he can allow you a minute."
Thanking her and giving Vin a quick pat or squeeze, they moved together to visit with JD, visibly shocked at their youngest's appearance as he lay there, tubed up, unconscious, dressings on his head, hands and several places over his body, while an oxygen mask hissed gently over JD's nose and mouth.
Catching a shudder, Buck leaned in, stroking JD's bare, uninjured shoulder as he spoke.
"Hang in there, squirt. Vin's doing great, thanks to you...but he'll be a whole lot better when he knows you're okay...and so will the rest of us."
With heavy hearts, the five watched as JD was wheeled away, each man whispering a silent prayer...for both their injured boys.
Three days on and JD had not so much as twitched. Vin was finally up and learning to get along with high crutches, his permanent cast and elbow crutches earmarked for five days time.
The brothers had rotated their visits to their youngest, Buck never leaving for very long, and now Vin wanted to stay, despite Chris and Nathan's insistence he should be at home, resting. The Texan had made it clear, there was little he could do at home that he couldn't do at JD's bedside.
The breakthrough came just as four of the six were about to head home one evening. Buck was talking softly to JD when he suddenly stopped. The others looked to see sleepy hazel eyes trying desperately to focus on the man leaning over him.
"Don't try to talk," Buck urged, "You need to rest your lungs as much as possible, that's why you got that big ol' mask over your face, you understand?"
JD gave the tiniest of nods, but even as he did so, he was desperately trying to express something, finally managing to breathe out a name.
"V...Vin?" JD could see Buck's eyes misting over, turning at the touch to his strapped arm. His eyes momentarily closed with relief before opening again, JD squeezing out a tear on seeing Vin's bruised, but smiling face. Satisfied, he relaxed into a healing sleep, his good hand now clutching the Texan's.
Still hoarse from the smoke inhalation, Vin smiled at his brothers then leaned in toward JD. "I'm stayin' right here, kid. Me an' you are gonna have us a little talk."
It was at least twenty-four hours before JD was anywhere near lucid enough to hold a conversation. While JD slept, Buck had gone to Rosie's to check on the establishment. Ezra had gone on his postponed business trip to Vegas, returning the next day, Josiah was overseeing the ranch and insurance dealings over the fire, Nathan was somewhere around, on duty and Chris had stepped out to get coffee. Vin was reading a magazine when a soft voice drew his attention.
"I...I'm sorry I walked out on you...all..." JD whispered.
Vin leaned in, his own hand covering his brother's. "Stop right there, kid." He took a deep breath as his crystal blue eyes focused on sleepy hazel orbs.
"It `bout broke my heart to see you go off like that, and I can't begin to tell you what it means to me to know you came back. I need to tell you somethin', so just let me talk, okay?"
JD nodded, his eyes filling as Vin spoke.
"I got it wrong, JD. I don't regret protectin' my family, but I went about it all wrong." He shifted into a slightly better position.
"See...most of my life I've been makin' my own decisions...doin' things my way, especially when I was a bounty hunter. A delay over a decision could cost me my bounty...or worse, my life, so I was used to takin' the initiative. I forgot somethin' important when dealin' with Sam...I forgot my family. I figured I knew best and did everythin' the way I always used to.
"And that was wrong. I didn't want to take in anyone else's opinions..." he squeezed JD's hand. "...or feelin's, so I didn't consult, I reacted...just went for it and, for that, I'm truly sorry." He smiled, shyly. "Truth be told...I was kinda jealous of how you and Sam were gettin' along, while all I could do was let you down. I love spendin' time with you, kid...and I regret I let work get in the way of that."
"Got to get that...sorted..." JD said, softly.
"We will," Vin promised. "Soon as I'm back on the job, I'm gonna quit..."
"No!" JD coughed as he reacted to Vin's words, grateful to have a warm palm rest on his burning chest until he stopped. "No, Vin...there has to be another way."
"Maybe...I'll think on it some more," Vin smiled, slowly becoming serious again. "Kid...when you left, things were so bad between us, yet, all I've thought about since the fire is that, despite everythin' you risked your life to save me, and when you ran back to the barn, all I could think about was tryin' to get up and help you." He dropped his head for a moment before looking into JD's eyes. "And prayin' you wouldn't die. It made me realize that, no matter what happens, we're a family, and we love each other and that means, no matter what shit happens...we can work through it."
Tears rolling down his face, JD nodded. Vin leaned in further.
"I need you to know...you're my brother, and I love you. I'll understand if you can't forgive me."
JD sniffed. "Wasn't just you, Vin. I can't believe I let Sam come between us like that. Can you forgive me?"
Vin blinked hard. "He played you, kid...played us all. How about we just put this behind us and start again?"
"I'd like that," JD whispered, emotion finally overtaking him as Vin happily gave in to unfamiliar feelings and rested his forehead against JD's.
Chris closed his eyes as he leaned against the doorframe of the hospital room, clutching two coffees. He was so relieved, and so proud of his two youngest brothers. Giving them a moment, Chris felt able to start looking forward to JD's release from the hospital without worrying what would happen when all seven were under one roof again.
It was time to be a family once more.
Ten days on and Sam had been refused bail and was awaiting trial for armed robbery and attempted murder. JD stared across the yard from his seat on the porch as he watched huge machines scooping up what was left of their barn. He grinned as Toby brayed noisily, the little donkey standing close to JD's own bay, Milagro as the pair leaned over the temporary corral, clearly hoping their master was going to pay them a visit. He started to rise.
"Where d'you think you're going?"
JD turned to grin at an approaching Buck. "I can walk, you know."
"And I can throw you over my shoulder and put you to bed if you don't follow the doc's orders," Buck warned.
JD's grin widened. God, he'd missed all this. As Buck plopped down into a chair, the other brothers gathered one by one, Vin bringing up the rear as he hobbled along on his crutches. Chris spoke.
"Vin's appointed Jake as assistant foreman. Based on the discussions we all had while JD was still in hospital, there's no doubt, on occasion, the ranch was coming between us being a family. Nothing much will change, but Jake's appointment will free Vin up occasionally. "
JD and Vin exchanged looks, the pair grinning as each of the brothers smiled, too.
"Rebuilding the barn will begin next week," Chris continued. "I would have loved for us all to get together to do the job, but with Vin and JD still recovering, and us needing a stables ASAP, I figured that's one luxury we couldn't afford."
"Oh," Ezra groaned. "I can't begin to tell you how disappointed I am."
They all laughed.
"Once it's done," Buck cut in, "we thought it might be fun to go up to the lodge for a while."
They all nodded, JD's eyes widened.
"Uh...I may not have cleaned up too good before I left," he blushed.
Chris grinned. "Why does that not surprise me?"
Noting a gesture from Vin, JD excused himself and the pair slowly made their way over to the corral, the brothers watching them go.
"It's heartening to see them happy again," Josiah beamed.
"Yeah, it is," Chris agreed.
Stopping at the fence, JD fished into his pockets with his free hand and handed treats out to the horses gathered there.
"That was a great idea about Jake," JD said, adjusting the sling on his injured arm.
Vin nodded. "Yeah, I thought so, too. Thought we might take a trip up to Cutter's Creek when we're back on our feet."
"Yeah, I'd like that." The pair looked over at what was once their barn. Sensing JD's thoughts, Vin closed in, held both crutches in one hand and pulled the younger man back against him.
"Don't dwell on it, kid...we're still here."
"No buts," Vin insisted. "Fresh start, remember?"
JD nodded, leaning back. "I really missed you, Vin. When I was alone at the cabin, it really brought it home to me how much I've grown to love you all and how each relationship has become as special to me as the whole `family' thing, too, y'know?." He sighed. "Being alone sucks."
Tanner squeezed JD's good shoulder. "Ain't that the truth. I missed you too, kid. Hey, with Jake in place, you'll soon be sick of me."
Turning to face his brother, JD looked him in the eyes and shook his head. "No chance." They both glanced back at the porch to see Buck leaning against a timber support staring back at them anxiously, his attempt to look unconcerned fooling no one.
"God help me, but I missed that, too," JD grinned, unable and unwilling to disguise just how much he had.
Laughing softly, the pair took one last look at the charred remains of the barn and returned to the rest of their family. The look exchanged between Chris and Vin set the blond's mind at ease instantly, smiling as Vin hobbled to sit next to him and happily accept a beer.
Buck stepped off the porch and just in front of JD, his eyes searching the younger man's to ensure everything was okay. JD gazed up at the big man, grinned and leaned in to give a one-armed hug, the tall brunet chuckling as he happily reciprocated.
For the rest of the day, the brothers sat chatting together, intent on moving forward as they discussed their upcoming trip and impending donation to the hospital fund, simply enjoying each other's company, while happy to put the last few weeks firmly behind them.
Each man had come to appreciate that family life, while good, was a learning curve, and sometimes the lessons were hard, but with seven of them working on the answers...nothing was impossible.